Iran Fever (part 2)

This is the continuation of a previous post.

Until recently it was assumed that a U.S. attack on Iran, if it came, would be in response to Iran’s nuclear program, which the U.S. insists has military objectives. However, ever since the warning President Bush gave to Iran on January 10, there has been a second possibility. “We will disrupt the attacks on our forces…we will seek out and destroy the networks….” Iran is being blamed for the American failure to subdue Iraq, so an invasion of Iran could be triggered as U.S. forces pursue suspected Iranian operatives across the border into that country.

In the aftermath of the raid on Arbil in northern Iraq, in which U.S. forces seized six Iranians who were there at the invitation of Kurdish authorities, it was revealed that a decision had been made to begin targeting Iranian operatives months before. On January 13 the New York Times reported (subscription required):

    A recent series of American raids against Iranians in Iraq was authorized under an order that President Bush decided to issue several months ago to undertake a broad military offensive against Iranian operatives in the country, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday.
    “There has been a decision to go after these networks,” Ms. Rice said in an interview with The New York Times…. Ms. Rice said Mr. Bush had acted “after a period of time in which we saw increasing activity” among Iranians in Iraq, “and increasing lethality in what they were producing.” […]
    The administration has long accused Iran of meddling in Iraq, providing weapons and training to Shiite forces with the idea of keeping the United States bogged down in the war. Ms. Rice’s willingness to discuss the issue seemed to reflect a new hostility to Iran…. Administration officials now describe Iran as the single greatest threat the United States faces in the Middle East….

Meanwhile, policy experts began to analyze the implications of Bush’s plan from various angles. The same speech that announced the “surge” of 20,000 troops into Baghdad also announced the aggressive new posture toward Iran, so the two prongs of the strategy were often analyzed together. Flynt Leverett, a former top CIA official who has criticized the administration for not trying to negotiate with Iran, gave this analysis on January 12 in The Washington Note.

    According to the President, the Iranians are providing “material support” to attacks on U.S. forces. That…fits in with the administration’s escalating campaign…to blame Iran for a strategically significant part of the ongoing instability and violence in Iraq. […]
    I suspect that at least some of the additional U.S. soldiers going to Iraq will end up on the border with Iran. Moreover, the President strongly implied that the U.S. military would start going after targets in countries neighboring Iraq to disrupt supply networks for insurgents and militias.
    The deployment of a second carrier strike group to the theater…is clearly directed against Iran. […] Similarly, the President’s announcement that additional Patriot batteries would go to the Gulf is clearly directed against Iran. […]
    In sum, the administration is laying the rhetorical and operational foundations for implementing a presidential decision to initiate military operations against Iran.

Glen Greenwald, a constitutional lawyer whose blog Unclaimed Territory has helped make Americans aware of the “unitary executive” theory under which Bush claims unlimited power to spy on, arrest and torture suspected terrorists, asked if Bush believes he has the power to attack Iran without Congressional approval. We already know the answer.

    The radical theories of presidential power adopted by the administration (and applied to general lawbreaking, warrantless eavesdropping, torture, indefinite detentions of U.S. citizens)…absolutely mean that the President [thinks he] has the power to commence a war with Iran, and that not only would he not need Congressional approval to do so, but Congress would lack the power to stop him even if it tried.

Juan Cole, who writes daily about the Middle East in his blog Informed Comment, wrote an article for Salon on January 12 titled, Did the U.S. Just Provoke Iran?

    For months, rumors of war between the United States and Iran have been building. […] President Bush’s speech on Wednesday night only stoked such speculation. […] Then Thursday came a U.S. raid on an Iranian consulate in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Irbil. […] Was the raid a deliberate provocation and the preface to war?
    An eyewitness report briefly posted in Arabic to the Web site of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan reported that two U.S. helicopters hovered near the building for a quarter of an hour early Thursday morning, then dropped off several soldiers. They approached the consulate and used megaphones to demand that those within surrender. They then tossed stun grenades inside before attacking it and detaining five persons within, three of whom were Iranians. […]
    American forces did, indeed, raid an Iranian government installation. […] If Bush were to escalate the regional conflict and try to involve Iran, the assault on the Iranian consulate in Irbil suggests the ways in which he would justify his actions. He and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have begun speaking, without presenting any evidence, of Iranian aid to groups killing U.S. troops in Iraq…. The difficulties faced by the U.S. military occupation of Iraq [may itself] be made the pretext for aggressive action against Iran.

Cole added that, “In escalating a confrontation with Iran, Bush is placating his friends in Sunni-dominated states.” We will return to this aspect of the situation later.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was the National Security Adviser to President Jimmy Carter and is still one of the greatest theorists of American strategy, wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post on January 12 titled Five Flaws in the President’s Plan. He warns:

    The decision to escalate the level of the U.S. military involvement…leaves the administration with two options once it becomes clear—as it almost certainly will—that the benchmarks are not being met.

The first option, which he calls “blame and run,” is to pull out of Iraq while saying it is someone else’s fault.

    The other alternative, perhaps already lurking in the back of Bush’s mind, is to widen the conflict by taking military action against Syria or Iran. It is a safe bet that some of the neocons around the president and outside the White House will be pushing for that.

The neocons are of course the same people who promoted the invasion of Iraq in the first place, saying it would be a “cakewalk” and that the troops would be greeted with “music and flowers.” Brzezinski concludes with the following damning assessment.

    America is acting like a colonial power in Iraq. But the age of colonialism is over. Waging a colonial war in the post-colonial age is self-defeating. That is the fatal flaw of Bush’s policy.

Obviously, a “fatal flaw” in Iraq would be even more fatal if applied to Iran, a nation three or four times the size, with a far better military and a popularly elected government. But let’s return to Brzezinski’s comment that it will “almost certainly” become clear “that the benchmarks are not being met” in Iraq. Buried at the end of a New York Times story the same day, whose main thrust was that Iraqi officials were unhappy with the “surge” strategy, was this strange remark (subscription required).

    A Shiite political leader who has worked closely with the Americans in the past said the Bush benchmarks appeared to have been drawn up in the expectation that Mr. Maliki would not meet them. “He cannot deliver the disarming of the militias…. He cannot deliver a good program for the economy and reconstruction. He cannot deliver on services. This is a matter of fact. There is a common understanding on the American side and the Iraqi side.”
    Views such as these—increasingly common among the political class in Baghdad—are often accompanied by predictions that Mr. Maliki will be forced out as the crisis over the militias builds.

The article offers two possibilities for Maliki. Either he will “resign” or be forced out in “a parliamentary coup…with behind-the-scenes American support.” It isn’t clear what this might mean, or how it fits in with what passes for strategy in the Bush White House. But we know that the Bush administration is losing patience with Maliki for not taking a firm stand against Shiia militias that it believes are receiving weapons and training from Iran. Ironically, the main beneficiary of Iranian aid is the Badr Corps of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a Bush ally, although the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr, a Bush opponent, also gets some support.

Apparently, the U.S. is in the midst of a strategic realignment in Iraq, in which even its Shiia allies are now seen as an obstacle to regional stability, because they have become an extension of growing Iranian power. Bush wants the Iranians out of Iraq, even if they are helping the same players the U.S. supports. The “surge” is a way to turn the screws on Maliki, forcing him to break once and for all with Iran. If he makes the wrong choice, Bush will sweep him away, throwing his weight to Iraq’s Sunni neighbors in a regional confrontation with Iran.

In a move reminiscent of the propaganda campaign leading up to the invasion of Iraq, administration officials began in mid-January to make ever more aggressive claims about the alleged Iranian threat to U.S. troops. At this stage, the claims were made anonymously and with little evidence, as in this January 13 story in the New York Times (subscription required).

    In the view of American officials, Iran is engaged in a policy of “managed chaos” in Iraq. Its presumed goal, both policymakers and intelligence officials say, is to raise the cost to the United States for its intervention in Iraq….
    Toward this end, American officials charge, Iran has provided components, including explosives and infrared triggering devices, for sophisticated roadside bombs that are designed to penetrate armor. They have also provided training for several thousand Shiite militia fighters…. Officials say the training is carried out by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security….
    In addition, American officials say the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force is active in Iraq. A senior military official said last week that one of the Iranians seized in Baghdad late last month was the No. 3 Quds official.

The “No. 3 Quds official” referred to was seized in a late December raid (subscription required) that was strikingly similar to the January 10 raid in Arbil. In both cases, the Iranians detained were in Iraq at the direct invitation of Iraqi leaders. The December raid targeted the residential compound of Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, the head of Iraq’s largest Shiia political party, who had been a guest at the White House earlier that month. The U.S. ended up releasing everyone from that raid within a matter of days, but the Iranians seized in the Arbil raid are still being held.

On January 14, during an interview with Scott Pelley at Camp David, President Bush was asked directly for the first time if he believes that he can implement his new war policy without Congressional approval. The specific question was about Iraq, but given the linkage between the two, it can be taken as being about Iran as well.

    PELLEY: Do you believe that the House has the constitutional authority to prevent you from the troop build-up? Can they stop you?
    BUSH: By not funding the troops I suspect is what you’re referring to. I assume that’s one of their options. I will fight that, of course. […]
    PELLEY: Do you believe as commander-in-chief you have the authority to put the troops in there no matter what the Congress wants to do?
    BUSH: In this situation, I do, yeah. Now, I fully understand they could try to stop me from doing it. But I made my decision, and we’re going forward.

In a January 15 story titled Opening a New Front in the War (subscription required), the New York Times began to sketch the outlines of the shift in strategy. One question that must have been on their minds was “Why now?” Iran had been arming and training Iraqi Shiia militias since before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Through four years of occupation, these forces had coexisted with U.S. troops. Why were they only now starting to bother the Bush administration?

    In recent interviews and public statements, senior members of the Bush administration have made it clear that their agenda [is directed] toward foiling Iran’s dream of emerging as the greatest power in the Middle East. […]
    Mr. Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, said Sunday on the NBC News program “Meet the Press” that the United States was resisting an Iranian effort “to basically establish hegemony” throughout the region. […]
    Pressed on the ABC News program “This Week” on Sunday about excluding the option of going after Iranians inside Iran, Mr. Hadley said that for now, Iraq was “the best place” for the United States to take on the Iranians. […]
    On Sunday, Vice President Dick Cheney argued that America’s actions were intended to protect allies in the Persian Gulf…. “If you go and talk with the Gulf states or if you talk with the Saudis or if you talk about the Israelis or the Jordanians, the entire region is worried,” Mr. Cheney said on “Fox News Sunday.” He described how the Iranians “sit astride the Straits of Hormuz” and its oil-shipping channels, and how they support Hamas and Hezbollah.
    “So the threat that Iran represents is growing,” he said….

The Bush administration no longer sees the conflict as limited to Iraq, where it was allied with Iranian-trained Shiias against Sunni insurgents. Now it is a regional conflict, and the U.S. is attempting to unite its traditional Sunni allies, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, with Israel against the Shiia influence of Iran and Hezbollah. This reminds me of the Seymour Hersh article from August 2006, Watching Lebanon, in which Israel’s attempt to destroy Hezbollah was presented as a trial run for war with Iran.

In any event, the Iraqi Shiias are faced with a stark choice. They can either make peace with their historic oppressor the Sunnis to stay in the good graces of the U.S., or they can go into open rebellion against the American “liberator” and join forces with their coreligionists in Iran. A January 16 article in the Los Angeles Times gave a few hints as to how this might turn out.

    The Iraqi government is moving to solidify relations with Iran, even as the United States turns up the rhetorical heat and bolsters its military forces to confront Tehran’s influence in Iraq. […]
    “We, as Iraqis, have our own interest,” [Foreign Minister Hoshyar] Zebari said in an interview with The Times. “We are bound by geographic destiny to live with” Iran, adding that the Iraqi government wanted “to engage them constructively.” […]
    American officials oppose the presence in Iraq of Iranian officials and members of the Revolutionary Guard…. But to Iraq, Iran is its biggest trading partner…. Doing business with Iran also means doing business with the Revolutionary Guard, an institution that controls Iran’s borders. Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, is a former member of the guard. Any neighboring country that wants to do business with Iran has to deal with members of the force….

Blogger Mash reinforces these points in a post written the same day.

    Left to its own momentum…this Administration will almost certainly embark on a war with Iran. […] The United States has been outmaneuvered by Iran, both in Iraq and on the nuclear issue. Having lost the war on the geo-political battlefield, the Bush Administration’s only option left is to lob missiles and drop bombs. […]
    Mr. Bush’s plan to interdict Iranian agents inside Iraq is ill-conceived and naive. Iran’s power in Iraq does not come from supplying IEDs or other weapons to attack American troops. […] Most of Iran’s support structure in Iraq has been decades in the making. It is not limited to a few agents supplying arms to Shia militias. Iran has been, for decades, supporting Shia parties in Iraq. The most prominent of these are the SCIRI and the Dawa party—both of which hold the reigns of power in Iraq. They control many of the key ministries, including the Ministry of Interior. […] The SCIRI and the Dawa party were founded and trained by Iran in the 1980s. […] When the SCIRI and Dawa party leaders speak of foreign interference in Iraq’s internal affairs, they are not talking about Iran, they are talking about the United States and the Sunni Arab countries.

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

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