Ian Traynor and Jonathan Steele

50 American warships, two aircraft carriers expected in the Gulf in weeks

Ian Traynor and

Jonathan Steele

BRUSSELS/LONDON: Senior European policy-makers are increasingly worried that the U.S. administration will resort to air strikes against Iran to try to destroy its suspect nuclear programme.

As transatlantic friction over how to deal with the Iranian impasse intensifies, there are fears in European capitals that the nuclear crisis could come to a head this year because of U.S. frustration with Russian stalling tactics at the U.N. Security Council. ``The clock is ticking,'' said one European official. ``Military action has come back on to the table more seriously than before. The language in the U.S. has changed.''

As the Americans continue their biggest naval build-up in the Gulf since the start of the Iraq war four years ago, a transatlantic rift is opening up on several important aspects of the Iran dispute.

The Bush administration will shortly publish a dossier of charges of alleged Iranian subversion in Iraq. ``Iran has steadily ramped up its activity in Iraq in the last three to four months. This applies to the scope and pace of their operations. You could call these brazen activities,'' a senior U.S. official said in London on Wednesday.

Although the Iranians were primarily in Shia areas, they were not confined to them, the U.S. source said, implying that they had formed links with Sunni militants and were helping them with booby-trap bombs aimed at Iraqi and U.S. forces, new versions of the ``improvised explosive devices''.

Senior members of the U.S. Congress have raised concerns that the U.S. will attack Iran in retaliation for its alleged activities in Iraq. The Americans and Europeans have sought to maintain a common front on the nuclear issue for the past 30 months, with the European troika of Britain, France and Germany running failed negotiations with the Iranians and the Americans tacitly supporting them.

But diplomats in Brussels and those dealing with the dispute in Vienna say a fissure has opened up between the U.S. and western Europe on three crucial aspects the military option; how and how quickly to hit Iran with economic sanctions already decreed by the U.N. Security Council; and how to deal with Russian opposition to action against Iran through the Security Council. ``There's anxiety everywhere you turn,'' said a diplomat familiar with the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.

A U.S. navy battle group of seven vessels was steaming towards the Gulf on Wednesday from the Red Sea, part of a deployment of 50 U.S. ships, including two aircraft carriers, expected in the area in weeks. Despite recurring tensions on West Asia between the U.S. and France, the French are the most hawkish of the Europeans on Iran and are said to back a U.S. drive to tighten the noose on Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006