After the fall of Baghdad in April 2003 – after
only three weeks of fighting – the question posed by some Bush
administration officials was whether the U.S. military should go “left
or right,” to Syria or Iran. Some joked that “real men go to Tehran.”
According to the neocon strategy, “regime change”
in Syria and Iran, in turn, would undermine Hezbollah, the Shiite
militia that controls much of southern Lebanon, and would strengthen
Israel’s hand in dictating peace terms to the Palestinians.
But the emergence of a powerful insurgency in Iraq
– and a worsening situation for U.S. forces in Afghanistan – stilled the
neoconservative dream of making George W. Bush a modern-day Alexander
conquering the major cities of the Middle East, one after another.
Bush’s invasion of Iraq also unwittingly enhanced
the power of Iran’s Shiite government by eliminating its chief
counterweight, the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein. With Iran’s Shiite
allies in control of the Iraqi government and a Shiite-led government
also in Syria, the region’s balance between the two rival Islamic sects
was thrown out of whack.
The neocon dream of “regime change” in Syria and
Iran never died, however. It stirred when Bush accused Syria of
assisting Iraqi insurgents and when he insisted that Iran submit its
nuclear research to strict international controls. The border conflict
between Israel and Lebanon now has let Bush toughen his rhetoric again
against Syria and Iran.
In an unguarded moment during the G-8 summit in
Russia on July 17, Bush – speaking with his mouth full of food and
annoyed by suggestions about United Nations peacekeepers – told
British Prime Minister Tony Blair “what they need to do is get Syria to
get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit.”
Not realizing that a nearby microphone was turned
on, Bush also complained about suggestions for a cease-fire and an
international peacekeeping force. “We’re not blaming Israel and we’re
not blaming the Lebanese government,” Bush said, suggesting that the
blame should fall on others, presumably Hezbollah, Syria and Iran.
Meanwhile, John Bolton, Bush's ambassador to the
United Nations, suggested that the United States would only accept a
multilateral U.N. force if it had the capacity to take on Hezbollah's
backers in Syria and Iran.
“The real problem is Hezbollah,” Bolton said.
“Would it [a U.N. force] be empowered to deal with countries like Syria
and Iran that support Hezbollah?” [NYT, July 18, 2006]
Though the immediate conflict between Israel and
Hezbollah was touched off by a Hezbollah cross-border raid on July 12 that captured
two Israeli soldiers, the longer-term U.S.-Israeli strategy can be
traced back to the May 23, 2006, meetings between Olmert and Bush in
At those meetings, Olmert discussed with Bush
Israel’s plans for revising its timetable for setting final border
arrangements with the Palestinians, putting those plans on the back
burner while moving the Iranian nuclear program to the front burner.
In effect, Olmert informed Bush that 2006 would be
the year for stopping Iran’s progress toward a nuclear bomb and 2007
would be the year for redrawing Israel’s final borders. That schedule
fit well with Bush’s priorities, which may require some dramatic foreign
policy success before the November congressional elections.
At a joint press conference with Bush on May 23,
Olmert said “this is a moment of truth” for addressing Iran’s alleged
ambitions to build a nuclear bomb.
“The Iranian threat is not only a threat to Israel,
it is a threat to the stability of the Middle East and the entire
world,” Olmert said. “The international community cannot tolerate a
situation where a regime with a radical ideology and a long tradition of
irresponsible conduct becomes a nuclear weapons state.”
Olmert also said he was prepared to give the
Palestinians some time to accept Israel’s conditions for renewed
negotiations on West Bank borders, but – if Palestinian officials didn’t
comply – Israel was prepared to act unilaterally.
The prime minister said Israel would “remove most
of the [West Bank] settlements which are not part of the major Israeli
population centers in Judea and Samaria. The settlements within the
population centers would remain under Israeli control and become part of
the state of Israel, as part of the final status agreement.”
In other words, Israel would annex some of the most
desirable parts of the West Bank regardless of Palestinian objections.
That meant the Israelis would need to soften up Hamas, the Islamic
militants who won the last Palestinian elections, and their supporters
in the Islamic world – especially Hezbollah, Syria and Iran.
In a speech to a joint session of Congress, Olmert
added that the possibility of Iran building a nuclear weapon was “an
existential threat” to Israel, meaning that Israel believed its very
existence was in danger.
Even before the May 23 meetings, Bush was eyeing a
confrontation with Iran as part of his revised strategy for remaking the
Middle East. Bush was staring down Iran’s hard-line President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad over demands Iran back off its nuclear research.
By spring 2006, Bush was reportedly weighing
military options for bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities. But the
President encountered resistance from senior levels of the U.S.
military, which feared the consequences, including the harm that might
come to more than 130,000 U.S. troops bogged down in neighboring Iraq.
There was also alarm among U.S. generals over the
White House resistance to removing tactical nuclear weapons as an option
As investigative reporter Seymour Hersh wrote in
The New Yorker, a number of senior U.S. officers were troubled by
administration war planners who believed “bunker-busting” tactical
nuclear weapons, known as B61-11s, were the only way to destroy Iran’s
nuclear facilities buried deep underground.
“Every other option, in the view of the nuclear
weaponeers, would leave a gap,” a former senior intelligence official
told Hersh. “‘Decisive’ is the key word of the Air Force’s planning.
It’s a tough decision. But we made it in Japan.”
This former official said the White House refused
to remove the nuclear option from the plans despite objections from the
Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Whenever anybody tries to get it out, they’re
shouted down,” the ex-official said. [New
Yorker, April 17, 2006]
By late April, however, the Joint Chiefs finally
got the White House to agree that using nuclear weapons to destroy
Iran’s uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz, less than 200 miles south of
Tehran, was politically unacceptable, Hersh reported.
“Bush and Cheney were dead serious about the
nuclear planning,” one former senior intelligence official said.
But – even without the nuclear option – senior
military officials still worried about a massive bombing campaign
against Iran. Hersh wrote:
“Inside the Pentagon, senior commanders have increasingly challenged the
President’s plans, according to active-duty and retired officers and
officials. The generals and admirals have told the Administration that
the bombing campaign will probably not succeed in destroying Iran’s
nuclear program. They have also warned that an attack could lead to
serious economic, political, and military consequences for the United
quoted a retired four-star general as saying, “The system is starting to
sense the end of the road, and they don’t want to be condemned by
history. They want to be able to say, ‘We stood up.’ ” [New
Yorker, July 10, 2006]
most immediate concern of U.S. military leaders was that air strikes
against Iran could prompt retaliation against American troops in Iraq.
U.S. military trainers would be especially vulnerable since they work
within Iraqi military and police units dominated by Shiites who are
sympathetic to Iran.
also could respond to a bombing campaign by cutting off oil supplies,
sending world oil prices soaring and throwing the world economy into
the Joint Chiefs may have had success in getting the White House to
remove the use of nuclear weapons from its list of options on Iran, the
rising tensions between Israel and Iran may have put the nuclear option
back on the table – since Israel has the largest and most sophisticated
nuclear arsenal in the Middle East.
Hersh reported, “The Israelis have insisted for years that Iran has a
clandestine program to build a bomb, and will do so as soon as it can.
Israeli officials have emphasized that their ‘redline’ is the moment
Iran masters the nuclear fuel cycle, acquiring the technical ability to
produce weapons-grade uranium.”
spring 2006, Iran announced that it had enriched uranium to the 3.6
percent level sufficient for nuclear energy but well below the
90-percent level for making atomic bombs. The U.S. intelligence
community believes that Iran is still years and possibly a decade away
from the capability of building a nuclear bomb.
Still, Iran’s technological advance convinced some Israeli strategists
that it was imperative to destroy Iran’s program now. Yet to do so,
Israel faces the same need for devastating explosive power, thus raising
the specter again of using a nuclear bomb.
interpretation of the Lebanese-Israeli conflict is that Bush and Olmert
seized on the Hezbollah raid as a pretext for a pre-planned escalation
that will lead to bombing campaigns against Syria and Iran, justified by
their backing of Hezbollah.
that view, Bush found himself stymied by U.S. military objections to
targeting Iran’s nuclear facilities outside any larger conflict.
However, if the bombing of Iran develops as an outgrowth of a
tit-for-tat expansion of a war in which Israel’s existence is at stake,
strikes against Iranian targets would be more palatable to the American
The end game would be U.S.-Israeli aerial strikes
against Iran’s nuclear facilities with the goal of crippling its nuclear
program and humiliating Ahmadinejad.
Strangling an Axis
While U.S. officials have been careful not to link
the Lebanon conflict to any possible military action against Iran’s
nuclear facilities, they have spoken privately about using the current
conflict to counter growing Iranian influence.
Washington Post foreign policy analyst Robin Wright
wrote that U.S. officials told her that “for the United States, the
broader goal is to strangle the axis of Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and
Iran, which the Bush administration believes is pooling resources to
change the strategic playing field in the Middle East. …
“Whatever the outrage on the Arab streets,
Washington believes it has strong behind-the-scenes support among key
Arab leaders also nervous about the populist militants – with a tacit
agreement that the timing is right to strike.
“‘What is out there is concern among conservative
Arab allies that there is a hegemonic Persian threat [running] through
Damascus, through the southern suburbs of Beirut and to the Palestinians
in Hamas,’ said a senior U.S. official.” [Washington Post, July 16,
Another school of thought holds that Iran may have encouraged the
Hezbollah raid that sparked the Lebanese-Israeli conflict as a way to
demonstrate the “asymmetrical warfare” that could be set in motion if
the Bush administration attacks Iran.
But Hezbollah’s firing of rockets as far as the
port city of Haifa, deep inside Israel, has touched off new fears among
Israelis and their allies about the danger of more powerful missiles
carrying unconventional warheads, possibly hitting heavily populated
areas, such as Tel Aviv.
That fear of missile attacks by Islamic extremists
dedicated to Israel’s destruction has caused Israel to start “dusting
off it nukes,” one source told me.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from
Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at
secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine,
the Press & 'Project Truth.'