The Logic of a Wider Mideast War
White House press secretary Tony Snow dismisses expectations of war with Iran as an “urban legend” and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Peter Pace says that “from a military standpoint” there’s “no need to cross the Iranian border.” But there are still strong reasons to suspect the Iraq War may soon spill over to Iran and possibly Syria.
Indeed, absent some blinking of eyes in Tehran over its nuclear program or a chilling of feet in Tel Aviv and Washington over military options, the logic of a wider war seems compelling – and would fit with both recent evidence and motives of key protagonists.
Take, for instance, George W. Bush’s announcement that he is deploying Patriot anti-missile missiles to the region, reportedly to protect key U.S. military installations in Kuwait and Qatar. That wouldn’t make much sense if Bush wasn’t anticipating some reason for Iran to fire missiles at American bases.
The logic would be that the Patriots are meant to guard against a retaliatory strike from Iran, presumably after an attack by the United States or Israel on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Bush’s decision to order two aircraft carrier strike groups into waters off Iran sends a similar message. It is a warning to Tehran that any military retaliation after an air strike could lead to an American escalation with even heavier aerial bombardments of Iran.
The flagship for a strike group is usually a Nimitz-class carrier that can launch up to 85 aircraft. Other ships include two guided missile cruisers, a frigate, two destroyers, two submarines and a supply vessel. The awesome firepower represented by two such strike groups amounts to a stern warning to Iran’s leaders that they must accept any attack on their nuclear facilities or risk far worse damage to their military and economic infrastructure.
This message is reinforced by Bush’s rejection of direct talks with Iran and Syria, as the bipartisan Iraq Study Group recommended. Some in Washington can’t fathom why Bush wouldn’t allow these contacts if for no other reason than to demonstrate the idea’s futility.
But Bush’s stubbornness makes sense if he needs to ratchet up tensions in the near term to create the political and psychological climate for war. If Bush agreed to direct talks, that likely would preclude a military confrontation for weeks if not months.
And if Israel or the United States decides to hit Iran’s nuclear facilities, some military analysts believe the attack should come sooner rather than later because Iran is strengthening its air defenses with surface-to-air missiles obtained from Russia.
Bush and his Israeli counterpart, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, also have powerful political motives for ordering air strikes against Iran’s nuclear sites. Both leaders have suffered military reversals – Bush in Iraq and Olmert in Lebanon – and their public approval ratings have plummeted.
Barring a reversal of fortune, the two leaders are slipping into political irrelevance and could go down in history as abject failures. Bush is often referred to as possibly the worst U.S. President ever, responsible for the biggest strategic blunder in American history.
On a more immediate level, Bush has lost control of Congress while Olmert is under mounting pressure from Likud and other rightist parties in the Knesset. Bush and Olmert are two desperate politicians looking for something to put themselves back on top.
A daring Israeli air strike against Iran could salvage Olmert’s reputation, much as earlier raids at Entebbe airport in Uganda (1976) and against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor (1981) bolstered other Israeli governments and helped define Israel’s national character.
Olmert also has left himself little maneuvering room since he has labeled Iran’s alleged development of a nuclear bomb an “existential threat” to Israel. Having defined the issue so starkly, Olmert can’t easily sit back and wait to see how international sanctions work.
It also is conventional wisdom among American neoconservatives – as well as many Israelis – that President Bush may be the only U.S. leader who would countenance a preemptive military strike against Iran.
So, if the bombing raid is going to happen, these neocons believe it must occur within the next two years, preferably as soon as possible. They want Bush to have the maximum remaining time in office to manage any consequences from the attack.
The neocons also have not given up on their goal of using military force and applying political pressure to remake the Middle East. A central idea behind the Iraq invasion was to achieve “regime change” not only in Baghdad but in Tehran and Damascus.
A neocon joke in those heady days was whether to follow the conquest of Iraq by going west to Damascus or east to Tehran. The punch line was that “real men go to Tehran.”
Once pro-American governments were installed in Baghdad, Tehran and Damascus, the theory went, Israel’s front-line adversaries – Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories – would have lost their principal benefactors and thus would have little choice but to accept peace terms favorable to Israel.
But this dream of a regional transformation foundered when the U.S. occupation of Iraq encountered violent resistance and the new Shiite-led government in Baghdad allied itself with Shiite-ruled Iran, creating a powerful Shiite crescent stretching from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to south Lebanon.
The intimidating U.S. message from the Iraq invasion also backfired since Iran – like North Korea – saw little advantage in disarming and complying with United Nations demands. After all, Saddam Hussein had abandoned his weapons of mass destruction and even allowed intrusive U.N. inspections, but that did him no good.
Not only did the United States proceed with an invasion that devastated Iraq, but American forces killed Hussein’s two sons and then handed the deposed Sunni dictator to his Shiite enemies for what looked like a sectarian lynching.
So, the lesson for American adversaries turned out to be the opposite of what Washington intended. Rather than proving the value of cooperation and the futility of resistance, Hussein's fate demonstrated the stupidity of compliance and the utility of defiance.
Bush may now feel he needs to punish Iran over its nuclear program to disabuse Tehran and other “rogue states” from taking to heart the “Saddam lesson,” that they are better off rejecting American demands than acquiescing to them.
Besides the logic of a wider war, there is also evidence that military planning is underway to attack Iran.
At a not-for-quotation briefing before his national televised speech on Jan. 10, Bush and his top national security aides stunned senior TV news executives with suggestions that a major confrontation with Iran is looming.
Commenting about the briefing on MSNBC after Bush’s nationwide address, NBC’s Washington bureau chief Tim Russert said “there’s a strong sense in the upper echelons of the White House that Iran is going to surface relatively quickly as a major issue – in the country and the world – in a very acute way.”
Russert and NBC anchor Brian Williams depicted this White House emphasis on Iran as the biggest surprise from the briefing as Bush stepped into the meeting to speak passionately about why he is determined to prevail in the Middle East.
“The President’s inference was this: that an entire region would blow up from the inside, the core being Iraq, from the inside out,” Williams said, paraphrasing Bush.
Russert said Bush defended his invasion of Iraq by arguing that he had headed off a hypothetical Iraqi-Iranian nuclear arms race.
“That’s the way he sees the world,” said Russert, looking slightly perplexed. “His rationale, he believes, for going into Iraq still was one that was sound.”
MSNBC’s Chris Matthews then interjected, “And it could be the rationale for going into Iran at some point.”
Russert paused for a few seconds before responding, “It’s going to be very interesting to watch that issue and we have to cover it very, very carefully and very exhaustively.”
In his prime-time speech, Bush injected other reasons to anticipate a wider war. He used language that suggested U.S. or allied forces might launch attacks inside Iran and Syria to “disrupt the attacks on our forces” in Iraq.
“We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria,” Bush said. “And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.”
After Bush’s speech, his surrogates sought to tamp down speculation that Bush was signaling cross-border raids into Iran and Syria.
Gen. Pace said the U.S. attacks would be limited to Iraqi territory, such as two recent raids in northern Iraq that rounded up some Iranian officials while provoking protests from Iraqi officials who insisted that the Iranians were invited diplomats.
Meanwhile, press secretary Snow insisted that the Bush administration remained committed to diplomatic efforts, not military force, to block Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
However, Bush’s announcement about the installation of Patriot missiles and the deployment of another aircraft carrier attack group suggested he was putting in place a military infrastructure for a regional war.
The Patriots and the aircraft carriers would be useful to deter – or defend against – retaliatory missile strikes from Iran if the Israelis or the United States were to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities or stage military raids inside Iran.
Iran has a relatively sophisticated arsenal of short- and medium-range missiles. Those short-range missiles could be fired at U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf. The medium-range missiles could conceivably hit Tel Aviv.
However, if Iran wanted to avoid an overt retaliation, it could unleash pro-Iranian Shiite militias in Iraq to exact revenge by killing U.S. troops. If that were to happen, Bush’s escalation of troop levels in Iraq by 21,500 could make sense as a way to protect the Green Zone and other crucial installations.
Other data points also are in line with a scenario for a wider regional war.
On Jan. 4, Bush ousted the top two commanders in the Middle East, Generals John Abizaid and George Casey, who had opposed a military escalation in Iraq. Bush also removed Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, who had stood by intelligence estimates downplaying the near-term threat from Iran’s nuclear program.
Bush appointed Admiral William Fallon as the new chief of Central Command for the Middle East despite the fact that Fallon, a Navy aviator and head of the Pacific Command, will oversee two ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The choice of Fallon makes more sense if Bush foresees a bigger role for the two aircraft carrier groups off Iran’s coast.
Though not considered a Middle East expert, Fallon has moved in neocon circles, for instance, attending a 2001 awards ceremony at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, a think tank dedicated to explaining “the link between American defense policy and the security of Israel.”
Bush also shifted Negroponte from his Cabinet-level position as DNI to a sub-Cabinet post as deputy to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. To replace Negroponte, Bush nominated retired Vice Admiral John “Mike” McConnell, who is viewed by intelligence professionals as a low-profile technocrat, not a strong independent figure.
McConnell is seen as more likely than Negroponte to give the administration an alarming assessment of Iran’s nuclear capabilities and intentions in an upcoming National Intelligence Estimate. Last year, to the consternation of neoconservatives, Negroponte splashed cold water on their heated rhetoric about the imminent threat from Iran.
“Our assessment is that the prospects of an Iranian weapon are still a number of years off, and probably into the next decade,” Negroponte said in an interview with NBC News in April 2006. Expressing a similarly tempered view in a speech at the National Press Club, Negroponte said, “I think it’s important that this issue be kept in perspective.”
Bush reportedly has been weighing his military options for bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities since early 2006. But he has encountered resistance from the top U.S. military brass.
As investigative reporter Seymour Hersh wrote in The New Yorker, a number of senior U.S. military 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.
A former senior intelligence official told Hersh that the White House refused to remove the nuclear option 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 2006, 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 [Vice President Dick] Cheney were dead serious about the nuclear planning,” one former senior intelligence official said. [New Yorker, July 10, 2006]
But one way to get around the opposition of the Joint Chiefs would be to delegate the bombing operation to the Israelis. Given Israel’s powerful lobbying operation in Washington and its strong ties to leading Democrats, an Israeli-led attack might be more politically palatable with Congress.
The American people also might be more sympathetic to Israel lashing out to protect its survival than to Bush entangling the United States in another Middle Eastern war. Since 2003 when the WMD justification for the Iraq invasion proved bogus, Bush has suffered from a credibility gap on similar statements about other countries.
While Bush would be viewed as the boy who cried wolf, Israel could present itself as David vs. Goliath, an isolated and embattled state going against the odds in a bid to eliminate a grave threat to its survival.
Though Israeli spokesmen say Israel has no plans to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, there appears to be growing public support in Israel for such an operation. Many Israelis fear that even the possibility of a future Iranian bomb could spark a mass emigration from Israel.
The Sunday Times of London reported on Jan. 7 that two Israeli air squadrons are training for the mission and “if things go according to plan, a pilot will first launch a conventional laser-guided bomb to blow a shaft down through the layers of hardened concrete [at Natanz]. Other pilots will then be ready to drop low-yield one kiloton nuclear weapons into the hole.”
The Sunday Times wrote that Israel also would hit two other facilities – at Isfahan and Arak – with conventional bombs. But the possible use of a nuclear bomb at Natanz would represent the first nuclear attack since the United States destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan at the end of World War II six decades ago.
While some observers believe Israel or the Bush administration may be leaking details of the plans as a way to frighten Iran into accepting international controls on its nuclear program, other sources indicate that the preparations for a wider Middle Eastern war are very serious and moving very quickly.
It also would not be hard to envision how an attack on Iran could spiral into a regional war, even if Iran chooses not to retaliate directly against Israel or the United States.
Iranian-backed Hezbollah, for instance, could resume short-range missile strikes at Israel from Lebanon. Rather than repeating last summer’s inconclusive attacks on Lebanon, Israeli forces might opt to go after Hezbollah’s other backers in the Syrian government, a move favored by some American neocons.
But hostility toward the United States and Israel might boil over in Muslim countries governed by pro-U.S. leaders, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia or even nuclear-armed Pakistan. Conceivably, oil supplies could be disrupted or countries with large reserves of U.S. dollars could start dumping them, inflicting damage to the U.S. economy.
Ultimately, the severity of these risks may lead cooler heads to prevail in Washington, Tel Aviv and Tehran. But there remains for now a powerful momentum – and a dangerous logic – for a wider war.
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.'
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