WASHINGTON — President Bush's tough new stance on Iran and his military buildup in the Persian Gulf recall some of the drumbeats that preceded the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
As then, the Bush administration is making allegations about Iran without providing proof.
It is suggesting Iran is sending weapons to Iraq, yet offering no evidence the supplies can be traced to Tehran. There are whispers, too, that Iranian intelligence agents were behind the recent abduction and execution of five U.S. soldiers.
Iran is the "axis of evil" country whose nuclear ambitions must be stopped. Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is now Bush's primary Mideast nemesis, replacing the late Saddam Hussein.
Bush's efforts to rally public support behind his harder line on Iran have many lawmakers and some from the intelligence and defense world wondering if it is a prelude to military activity.
"We are not responsibly in the region if we don't deal with them," said Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va. "And the situation that we have right now where we continue to talk only about the military side — again, it's half a strategy," he told "Fox News Sunday."
Bush insists he has no plans to invade Iran, only to protect U.S. troops in Iraq.
But in recent days:
— Bush raised the U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf to its highest level since 2003 by ordering a second aircraft carrier strike group to the region.
— The administration confirmed that Bush has authorized the military to kill or capture Iranian agents who are plotting attacks on U.S. forces.
— The administration has armed Iran's Arab neighbors with Patriot missiles. The Pentagon halted sales of spare parts from the its recently retired F-14 fighter jet fleet because of concerns they could be transferred to Iran.
Administration critics suggest the White House is exaggerating Tehran's ties to attacks inside Iraq to justify a possible future military assault — just as it manipulated prewar intelligence to build its case for its 2003 invasion of Iraq, they claim.
"He again is convinced that he's on the side of right, fighting against the forces of evil, expressing this somewhat oversimplified view of the world he has," said Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign policy analyst for the Brookings Institution and an adviser to the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. "He's doing what he thinks is right to show resoluteness."
Bush's saber-rattling — rather than reaching out to Iran and Syria diplomatically as recommended by the Iraq Study group and many in Congress — is a risky strategy. Many national security professionals suggest this approach could lead to wider conflict.
If conditions continue to deteriorate in Iraq, "the final destination on this downhill track is likely to be a head-on conflict with Iran and with much of the world of Islam at large," Zbigniew Brezinski, President Carter's national security adviser, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Bush is betting he can help prop up the shaky government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and stop a supply line of weapons and fighters into Iraq.
It's a big bet.
Iran has denied accusations it is supplying weapons to Shiite militias in Iraq. But an official assessment of Iraq by U.S. intelligence agencies said Iran was providing lethal support to select Shiite groups.
Still, the National Intelligence Estimate released Friday said "outside actors" such as Iran and Syria are "not likely to be a major driver of violence or the prospects for stability" in Iraq.
Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, said the declassified public document "does not adequately reflect" the degree of concern in nearby Sunni nations about Shiite-run Iran's meddling in Iraq. He disputed suggestions that Bush has overemphasized Iran's role.
In his Iraq speech to the nation last month, Bush said the U.S. would "seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced training and weaponry to our enemies in Iraq," citing Iran and Syria.
Critics of Bush's harder line on Iran fall into two camps: those who worry his recent strong talk might lead to a military conflict and those who claim he should have gotten tough earlier.
Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards, for instance, has criticized what he suggests is previous indifference to the Iranian threat.
"In order to ensure Iran never gets nuclear weapons, all options must remain on the table," Edwards says in a hint at possible military action. The vice presidential nominee in 2004 has called for withdrawing troops from Iraq.
For now, time appears to favor Iran, says Anthony Cordesman, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Even if the United States and Iraq's Shiite-led government can bring stability, "Iran must now feel it can outwait the U.S., exploit U.S. unpopularity in many Shiite areas, and has every reason to be opportunistic.
"Iran wins to some degree even if it does not exploit the situation. A Shiite-dominated Iraq is going to need Iranian help and support for years to come."