WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The State Department's Iraq coordinator said on Thursday that Washington is studying how to push back against Iran over its atomic program and its actions in Iraq, but dismissed talk of military action as nonsense.
Washington accuses Tehran of providing funds, arms and training to Iraqi Shi'ite militants, of trying to develop atomic weapons under the cover of a nuclear energy program and of supporting terrorism across the Middle East.
"We are examining how best to push back on these behaviors," said David Satterfield, the Iraq coordinator who recently became one of top U.S. diplomats on Iran policy.
The Bush administration is considering a range of unilateral actions against Iran, including imposing sanctions on the Quds force, a unit of its Revolutionary Guards Corps, senior U.S. officials have told Reuters.
Satterfield declined to provide details on future U.S. actions but said in an interview that U.S. President George W. Bush had "broad authorities in this regard."
Iran, for its part, blames the United States for the violence that rages in Iraq more than four years after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein. It also says its nuclear program is for civilian power and not to build a bomb.
U.S.-Iranian relations have been poor since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. The United States cut ties with Iran in 1980 after Iranian students occupied its embassy in Tehran and ultimately held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.
Satterfield dismissed speculation the Bush administration was taking a more serious look at military action against Iran. With 169,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, U.S. military options are somewhat limited but published reports said plans involving Iran were being scrutinized.
"I think this is nonsense, this talk of saber-ratting, war drums beating," said Satterfield. "Those who argue we are deliberately escalating a confrontation with Iran are quite mistaken."
In what were widely seen as signals to Iran, the United States this year temporarily sent a second aircraft carrier to the Gulf and announced plans to provide multibillion dollar arms sales to Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations.
While it has refused to take any option -- including armed intervention -- off the table, the United States has repeatedly said it is pursuing a diplomatic strategy to change Iranian behavior.
Washington is leading a drive for a third U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution to punish Iran for failing to suspend its uranium enrichment, a process that can provide fuel for atomic bombs.
Senior officials from the major powers are set to meet in Washington on Sept. 21 to discuss a new resolution. China, Russia, and possibly Germany, are reluctant to take further punitive action for now.
Diplomatic contacts between Iran and the United States over Iraq, however, have so far not showed any gains.
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker has met his Iranian counterpart several times this year to urge Iran to stop fueling violence in Iraq but Satterfield said these meetings had not yielded tangible results and there were no plans for more talks at the moment.
There has also been heightened tension over the detention of four Iranian-Americans in Iran.
Asked why Iran released scholar Haleh Esfandiari last week, Satterfield said: "Iran has long experience with hostage-taking and hostage-releasing when they deem it serves their purposes. It is another mark of the character of this regime."