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Iran Fever (part 1)

“Anyone can go to Baghdad, real men go to Tehran.” Ever since a senior Bush administration official said this in May 2003, some of us have been wondering when it might happen. There have been a number of scares, for example last October, when there was speculation that Bush might attack Iran before the November elections. Yet despite warnings from Seymour Hersh in April 2006 that Bush is determined to “save Iran” before leaving office, and from retired Colonel Sam Gardiner in September 2006 that Bush has already begun covert operations inside Iran, the mainstream media have remained indifferent to the idea until recently. Perhaps with the military tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, starting a third war seemed so irrational that no sane person would take the idea seriously. Yet with each passing month, an attack on Iran comes closer and closer to reality.

The latest wave of concern has been the most sustained so far. This time, Senators and nationally known journalists have gotten involved. People are openly debating whether Congress has the power to prevent an attack before it is too late. Over the past few weeks, there has been so much Iran fever that each day seems to bring a new twist in the story. As a result, my summary of developments will require several posts. I apologize to those for whom this information is not new, but I think it is useful to gather it in one place. I will quote only a few lines from each story I cite, so I urge you to follow the links and read for yourself. I can sum up the conclusions in four short lines.

  • The danger of an American attack on Iran is real.
  • Such an attack would be a moral and strategic disaster many times worse than the war in Iraq.
  • Given everything we know, there is no need for such an attack.
  • Trusting our leaders to make the right choice is not wise.

Just before Bush’s “surge speech” on January 10, in which he announced that he would send an additional 20,000 combat troops to Iraq, there were a number of changes announced at the highest levels of military command. One was the appointment of Admiral William Fallon to take over Centcom, which has responsibility for both Iraq and Afghanistan. He was relieving General John Abizaid, who had previously gone on record against an increase in troops. Abizaid had told the Senate Armed Services Committee:

    I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility….

The big question in Fallon’s appointment was why Bush had chosen a Navy man to oversee the largest ground campaign since Vietnam. Judy Woodruff explored this question on the January 5 edition of the PBS News Hour with her guests, retired Colonel Pat Lang and Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.

    WOODRUFF: A specific question about bringing in Navy Admiral William Fallon to be the head of Central Command. This has been an Army position. What’s the thinking there?
    LANG: Well, it’s very odd to me. It seems very odd, because here you have a theater of war in which two major ground wars are taking place. […] And to bring in a Navy man to do this, it would seem to indicate to me, in fact, that they’re thinking down the line that they may have another sort of campaign in the future which will not essentially be a land campaign.
    WOODRUFF: Meaning, David Ignatius—you’re smiling?
    IGNATIUS: Well, I’m smiling, because I think Pat Lang is referring to Iran. I mean, one reason to have a Centcom commander who is a Navy pilot, who understands air power, who understands projection of power…is if you think that down the road the issue is not the two ground wars that we have in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the confrontation with Iran, where airpower would be decisive.

An op-ed piece the next day in the Rupert Murdoch–owned New York Post reached the same conclusion.

    Assigning a Navy aviator and combat veteran to oversee our military operations in the Persian Gulf makes perfect sense when seen as a preparatory step for striking Iran’s nuclear-weapons facilities—if that becomes necessary. […] Iran would seek to retaliate asymmetrically by attacking oil platforms and tankers, closing the Strait of Hormuz—and trying to hit oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Only the U.S. Navy…could keep the oil flowing to a thirsty world.

The best summary can probably be found in the article Ominous Signs of a Wider War that appeared in The Nation on January 10. It describes the replacement of General Abizaid as a sign that Bush has no intention of negotiating with Iran or Syria. The article concludes:

    Contrary to the advice given by the Iraq Study Group, Bush appears to be planning for a wider war—with much higher risk of catastrophic failure—not a gradual and dignified withdrawal from the region.

Around the same time, rumblings were coming from Israel that the Iranian regime is an “existential threat” and no “appeasement” can be tolerated. This was a move by the Israeli right wing to counter the Iraq Study Group, which had recommended negotiations with Iran and Syria. In an analysis for UPI, Arnaud de Borchgrave laid out the case.

    In today’s Israel, the overwhelming majority is now convinced Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is synonymous with a 2nd holocaust. […] In a New Year’s Day message, superhawk and former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu accused Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of the kind of appeasement that threatened Israel’s very existence. […]

    Netanyahu…said Israel “must immediately launch an intense, international, public relations front, first and foremost on the U.S. The goal being to encourage President Bush to live up to specific pledges he would not allow Iran to arm itself with nuclear weapons.”

As if on cue, this article appeared a few days later in the London Times.

    Israel has drawn up secret plans to destroy Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities with tactical nuclear weapons. Two Israeli air force squadrons are training to blow up an Iranian facility using low-yield nuclear “bunker-busters,” according to several Israeli military sources.

Skeptics quickly pointed out that the Times had run similar stories in the past, going back all the way to March 2005. There was nothing new in the story. Its real point was the not-so-veiled threat to America.

    Nuclear-tipped bunker-busters would be used only if a conventional attack was ruled out and if the United States declined to intervene…. Military analysts said the disclosure of the plans could be intended to put pressure on Tehran to halt enrichment, cajole America into action or soften up world opinion in advance of an Israeli attack.

Stories like this should not be read as a statement of Israeli intentions. Rather, they are an attempt to provoke America into acting first. They are coming from an extreme right-wing faction within Israel that is allied with Dick Cheney in the White House. Both want America to attack Iran.

On January 8, Steve Clemons pointed out in The Washington Note that if Israel were to launch a first strike on Iran’s nuclear program, they would also try to wipe out the knowledge base by targeting Iran’s nuclear scientists. There are 5,000 to 6,000 nuclear scientists scattered throughout the population, so eliminating them would mean killing large numbers of innocent people. The scientists themselves are protected under the Geneva Conventions.

    What…Israeli advocates of a strike against Iran are not discussing is that such a military strike is NOT against concrete and mortar facilities and warehouses storing centrifuges. The strike would attempt to kill 5,000 to 6,000 of Iran’s top tier nuclear engineer talent. To kill those approximately 6,000 people, many more will be injured and killed—and that human nightmare will agitate huge cross sections of Iranian society far beyond any of the limited groups that have thus far supported Ahmadinejad.

It is against this backgrop that President Bush gave his long-awaited address to the nation outlining his plan to escalate the war in Iraq by sending an additional 20,000 troops to Baghdad. Nearly everything in the speech was known in advance, and commentators were unanimous in their opinion that the only real news was in the handful of lines where Bush spoke about Iran.

    Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We’ll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq. […]

The response was immediate. Writing for the Washington Post the same night, William M. Arkin commented:

    If there’s anything in the President Bush’s remarks tonight that we didn’t already know…it is his evident willingness to go to war with Syria and Iran to seek peace. […]
    Can the president really be saying that we are willing to risk war with the two countries, and even attack elements inside them, to achieve peace in Iraq?

The next day in Salon, William Shapiro said the same thing:

    How humiliating for Bush to be forced to say with a stony face, “The situation in Iraq is unacceptable to the American people—and it is unacceptable to me.” […]
    This is what happens to a president who is losing a war—and who is reduced to begging for more time, another chance, to set things right. […]
    Few military experts…believe that Bush’s plan to deploy 21,000 more soldiers in Baghdad and Anbar province will do the job. Even Bush sounded tentative on this score when he began a sentence, “Even if our new strategy works exactly as planned…” […]
    It is worth wondering what Bush’s own secret exit plan might be. Is his latest speech—and the troop surge—a last show of muscular resolve before Bush bows to political reality…. Or will Bush’s last-desperation gambit be a wider war that touches Iran and Syria?

In The Washington Note, Steve Clemons added an insider twist:

    Washington intelligence, military and foreign policy circles are abuzz today with speculation that the President, yesterday or in recent days, sent a secret Executive Order to the Secretary of Defense and to the Director of the CIA to launch military operations against Syria and Iran.
    The President may have started a new secret, informal war against Syria and Iran without the consent of Congress or any broad discussion with the country. […]
    Adding fuel to the speculation is that U.S. forces today raided an Iranian Consulate in Arbil, Iraq and detained five Iranian staff members. […] Some are suggesting that the Consulate raid may have been designed to try and prompt a military response from Iran—to generate a casus belli for further American action.

Although the raid in Arbil took place in the hours immediately before Bush’s speech, reports did not filter out until the next day. This is the Iranian slant:

    U.S. forces in Iraq raided Iran’s consulate in the northern city of Arbil and detained five staff members, a state-run Iranian news service said. The U.S. soldiers disarmed guards and broke open the consulate’s gate before seizing documents and computers during the operation….

This is the official American version:

    In Washington, a U.S. official confirmed that six Iranian officials were detained for questioning. But he disputed accounts that troops broke open a consulate gate and conducted a raid. “No shots were fired. No altercation ensued,” said the official. “It was a knock on the door and, ‘Please come out.’ ”

Later it turned out that although the building was not officially a consulate, the Iranians were there at the invitation of the Kurdish authorities. The paperwork to designate the building as a consultate had been submitted. The raid was conducted “without local approval” and provoked a firefight as the Iranians were evacutated. This flagrant violation of Iraqi sovereignty makes the following protest by the Bush administration seem even more surreal.

    White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told CNN… “Surely the United States is not the one being threatening. We are not the ones being meddlesome and troublesome in Iraq.”

Bush administration actions in early January looked like clear preparations for a wider conflict with Iran. Some people even saw them as an attempt to provoke such a conflict. On January 11, the day after the “surge” speech, Congress had a chance to question Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice when she testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She was asked whether the President believes he has the authority to attack Iran without Congressional approval. Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, the committee chairman, told her:

    I just want to make it clear…that if the president concluded he had to invade Iran…in pursuit of these networks, I believe the present authorization granted the president to use force in Iraq does not cover that, and he does need congressional authority to do that.

He underlined the point again.

    I feel very strongly that the authorization of the use of force…explicitly denies you the authority to go into Iran. […] I just want the record to show—and I would like to have a legal response from the State Department that if they think they have authority to pursue networks or anything else across the border into Iran and
    Iraq—that will generate a constitutional confrontation here in the Senate, I predict to you.

Biden’s mention of “constitutional confrontation” got extensive play in the media, as did this exchange between Rice and newly elected Senator Jim Webb of Virginia:

    WEBB: And this is a question that can be answered either very briefly or through written testimony, but my question is: Is it the position of this administration that it possesses the authority to take unilateral action against Iran in the absence of a direct threat without congressional approval?
    RICE: Senator, I’m really loathe to get into questions of the president’s authorities without a rather more clear understanding of what we are actually talking about. So let me answer you, in fact, in writing. I think that would be the best thing to do.
    WEBB: I would appreciate that.

Despite their attempts to clarify administration policy, the senators got nowhere. The same was true for Chris Matthews of MSNBC when he interviewed White House Press Secretary Tony Snow later that day.

    MATTHEWS: Tony, will the president ask Congress’ approval before any attack on Iran?
    SNOW: You’re getting way ahead of yourself, Chris. Nobody here is talking about attacks on Iran. […]
    MATTHEWS: Well, he did say…we will interrupt the flow of support from Iran. Does that mean stopping at the Iranian border or going into Iran?
    SNOW: Well, again, I think what the president is talking about is the war in Iraq, Chris.
    MATTHEWS: So he will seek congressional approval before any action against Iran?
    SNOW: You’re talking about something we’re not even discussing. […]
    MATTHEWS: My concern is we’re going to see a ginning-up situation whereby we follow in hot pursuit any efforts by the Iranians to interfere with Iraq. We take a couple shots at them, they react. Then we bomb the hell out of them and hit their nuclear installations without any action by Congress. That’s the scenario I fear, an extra-constitutional war is what I’m worried about.

Summing up the situation in a January 11 article titled Bush Moves Beyond Diplomacy (subscription required), the New York Times laid out the Bush administration claims regarding Iran’s “meddling in Iraq.”

    Military officials in Baghdad say they have documented a gradual rise in the number of sophisticated roadside bombs using “shaped charges”—a type of weapon that commanders believe is imported from Iran. […]
    The American officials say that the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds force trains inside Iran and then dispatches operatives into Iraq, using contacts with Iraqi Shiite militias to attack American troops. “They’re training to kill coalition forces,” said one senior American counterterrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity. […]
    Gen. Michael V. Hayden, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told Congress late last year that while he was originally skeptical of reports of Iranian operations inside Iraq, he now had the “zeal of a convert” on the matter. […]
    American officials maintain that the latest moves should not be seen as preparations for a military strike against Iran. But they also said that Mr. Bush’s top deputies…had decided that…American moves to engage Iran had run their course.

The story continues in part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5 and part 6.

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