The recent escalation of the Pentagon’s rhetoric against Iran and its alleged “increasingly lethal and malign influence” in Iraq, as Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, put it, has created new concerns about a possible military conflict before the end of the Bush administration, concerns fanned, as well, by the president’s own assertion during his press conference Tuesday that this week’s briefing on the Syrian reactor destroyed by Israel last September was designed in part to “send a message to Iran and the world for that matter about just how destabilizing a nuclear proliferation would be in the Middle East.”
While the saber-rattling, particularly from Pentagon chief Robert Gates and Mullen, who until recently had consistently downplayed prospects for war with Iran, was indeed disturbing, less-noticed was a follow-up statement by the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, Geoff Morrell, on Wednesday. “I just want to be abundantly clear that there are no new directives, there are no new plans in the works, there is no new effort to prepare for a possible war with Iran,” he said. While that naturally has to be taken with a grain of salt, it’s also worth noting that ret. Adm. Bob Inman, a former deputy CIA director who is close to Gates, told reporters in a teleconference sponsored by Public Agenda this week that he was quite confident that Bush administration would maintain its second-term emphasis on diplomacy to its end, and that conflict with any country before then was very unlikely.
He did add this one caveat, however: “My only worry would be an [Iranian Revolutionary Guard attack] on a ship in the Gulf, and I think that could turn things upside down pretty quickly.” I believe that observation reflects Gates’ concerns as well and is another reminder of how he and ret. Adm. Fallon had pushed the White House unsuccessfully for authorization to pursue an “incidents-at-sea” agreement with Tehran precisely to prevent an incident from getting out of hand. In that connection, Christopher Dickey’s recent article in Newsweek about the dangers of such a conflict is particularly timely.
If that is the most likely scenario at this point for an eventual U.S.-Iranian conflict, you can imagine how easy it would be for a third party with an interest in such a war actually taking place precipitating an incident that could set off the desired escalation. A quite logical candidate is al-Qaeda which, according to Bruce Reidel, a former top CIA and NSC analyst on the Near East and South Asia, would be ecstatic over a U.S.-Iran war. He published an important article, “Al Qaeda Strikes Back,” on this theme a year ago in ‘Foreign Affairs’ in which he argued that Osama bin Laden and his cohorts were almost certainly trying to figure out to how to “[trigger] an all-out war between the United States and Iran,” and, of course, al-Qaeda itself has become increasingly shrill in its denunciations of Tehran of late. Nor is al-Qaeda the only player in the region with such an interest….