On Saturday, the Guardian's Ewan MacAskill reported that "US preparations for an air strike against Iran are at an advanced stage," and predicted that the United States could be ready to attack before the cherry blossoms come out. But today, on the Guardian's comment site, MacAskill clarifies:

The US will have sufficient forces deployed in the Gulf by spring to attack Iran. But 'able' is not the same as 'will'.

My gut instinct is that George Bush will not give the order. Almost everyone in Washington is opposed: the Pentagon, the state department and Congress (or at least all the Democrats and about 99% of Republicans). Only the vice president, Dick Cheney, is in favour, along with some in the neoconservative thinktanks.

Indeed, lot of people have said something similar whenever I start talking about how I think a war with Iran is a very real possibility in the near future. "Bush isn't that crazy," etc., etc. An apparently "exasperated" Robert Gates made his own denials this weekend: "I don't know how many times the president, Secretary Rice and I have had to repeat that we have no intention of attacking Iran."

Maybe that's true and the administration doesn't intend to launch preventive air strikes, say, to take out Iran's nuclear facilities anytime soon. But that's not the only concern here. Lately, the administration has made a number of aggressive and fairly provocative moves to counter Iranian influence in the region: moving a third carrier group towards the Persian Gulf, for instance, and setting up a "special operations task force" to hunt down Iranian agents in Iraq. Iran, for its part, has responded in a predictably hostile manner, test-firing missiles into the Persian Gulf as a warning to the United States.

The chances are quite high that at some point, one side will do something inflammatory, the other side will retaliate, and things will spiral into a full-blown crisis. Hillary Mann, the administration's former National Security Council director for Iran and Persian Gulf Affairs, told Newsweek that some Bush advisers may even want this to happen: "They intend to be as provocative as possible and make the Iranians do something [America] would be forced to retaliate for." So yes, Gates may not intend to go to war, but unless someone does something to defuse the tensions between the two countries, an unintended war might be only a small incident away. No amount of denials from Gates and Rice will change that.

--Bradford Plumer