(AP) -- Reported concerns among some U.S. officials that Iran may have essentially freed a group of al Qaeda militants held for almost a decade under house arrest in the Islamic Republic are adding Friday morning to the escalating war-rhetoric pouring out of Washington and Israel.
According to The Wall Street Journal, some government officials believe Iran's move to allow the men greater freedom - which may include permission to leave the country - suggests the nation's hardline rulers are trying to bolster a link between themselves and the radical Muslim terror group as Western pressure mounts on both entities.
The report is particularly disconcerting as it follows closely on the heels of America's intelligence chief James Clapper warning U.S. lawmakers that Iran is, "more willing to conduct an attack in the United States" as sanctions hit its economy and talk of Israel attacking its military and nuclear installations gains volume.
Clapper offered no specific evidence in public to suggest Iran is looking to plan further attacks on the U.S. after its highly flawed and failed plot to kill a Saudi official in Texas last year.
But the war rhetoric is getting louder. U.S. defense chief Leon Panetta believes, says CBS News national security correspondent David Martin, there's a strong likelihood Israel could strike Iran as early as April if diplomatic pressure fails to convince the Iranians to reveal - and dramatically reign-in - their controversial and secretive nuclear work.
Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, makes it clear in his Friday prayers address that the West's dual-approach of pushing diplomacy through the United Nations and sanctions while forcing the regime into a tighter corner with mounting military pressure - albeit verbal military pressure, at this stage - is not bringing the two sides closer together.
"Threatening Iran and attacking Iran will harm America," Khamenei told his audience of worshipers in the televised speech, according to the Reuters news agency. "Sanctions will not have any impact on our determination to continue our nuclear course... In response to threats of oil embargo and war, we have our own threats to impose at the right time."
He did not clarify what "threats" Iran might impose, or how an attack on Iran - presumably by Israel - would "harm America".
As the word war creeps into more headlines and analysis of the West's standoff with Iran, it is important to note The Wall Street Journal's own mitigation of the claim by some officials that Iran might be trying to partner with al Qaeda - in the form of quotes from other U.S. officials, past and present, who suggest such an alliance is highly unlikely.
Iran is a predominantly Shiite Muslim nation. Al Qaeda is comprised of, run by and funded almost entirely by Sunni Muslims. The two primary branches of Islam rarely work together in geopolitical terms in the Arab and wider Muslim world, and as the Journal report notes: "The regional aims of Iran and al Qaeda remain sharply divergent."
The most telling quote in the Journal's story, however, may belong to Hillary Mann Leverett, a national security adviser to Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, who notes Iran's cooperation with the global community on the repatriation of many al Qaeda suspects in the past.
"I think [there] is a war-fevered hysteria that is going on now," she told the newspaper. "A lot of this stuff is really flimsy and is really questionable."
While she was speaking specifically about the alleged al Qaeda-Iran link, her remark about "war-fevered hysteria" succinctly summarizes the rhetoric of the past week.
Many believe an eventual military conflict between Iran and Israel, which even Panetta says would almost certainly draw U.S. involvement at some level, is now inevitable.
Many will hope, in the meantime, that the "hysteria" is actually a carefully managed, genuine effort by America's leaders to pressure Iran into taking the first step back from the brink of war. If it is, there are certainly scant signs yet that the dire rhetoric is yielding positive results.
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