Steve Clemons’ article this week in Salon, “Why Bush won’t attack Iran,” offers, I think, a helpful corrective to what has been the growing conviction that has gripped anti-war critics and others that the administration is consciously moving toward war with Iran, possibly imminently. I think Steve’s analysis, which should be read carefully and in full, is very sound, although I’m not quite as persuaded as he appears to be that Bush fully understands or absorbs some of the potential costs of a military attack.
I would add to his analysis some of my own recent observations and concerns.
First, I was very struck by a Brookings briefing paper by Peter Rodman released in June, “Countering Iran’s Revolutionary Challenge,” in which he took the hawks’ standard position on Iran – viewing it as an ideological, revolutionary regime that should be changed and whose acquisition of nuclear weapons is “not acceptable” – but concluded that a future administration will have to deal with it.
“Organizing a counter-strategy will be one of the most important tasks on the next Administration’s agenda. It will be able to build on the policies of its predecessors. Iran’s nuclear challenge may prove to be the forcing event; if Iran continues its defiance, then the international community will need to find ways to increase pressures. The time may soon come for us to play offense, not only defense, pressing harder against the regime’s internal vulnerabilities.”
Rodman, of course, was Rumsfeld’s assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, and, while not a hard-line neo-conservative by any means (indeed, he began his career as a protégé of Henry Kissinger), his ties to the neo-cons, — and other hawks within the administration, including the vice president’s office — have been close. (He was one of the charter signatories of the Project for the New American Century of its letter urging the ouster of Saddam Hussein back in 1998.)
It appears then that, at least as of last May-June – that is, just about the time that David Wurmser was shopping his “end run” scenario for forcing Bush into an attack on Iran (and voicing his boss’ conclusion that Bush opposed war), as described by Steve – Rodman had also concluded that an attack was unlikely before the end of Bush’s term.
2) Like Steve, I also believe that Gates, the Joint Chiefs (particularly the incoming chairman), and the CentCom commander, Adm. William Fallon, are quite strongly opposed to getting into a war with Iran, that, unlike some of their predecessors, they will not be shy about voicing that opposition to Bush himself, and that, ultimately, they will be more influential with respect to any such decision than Rice or other “engagers.” Much of that assessment is based not only on Gates’ past support for engaging Iran and his participation in the Iraq Study Group, as well as published reports and his efforts to tone down provocative charges against Iran by military officers in Iraq, but also on anecdotes about some of the key people from their friends and acquaintances one picks up here and there in Washington. Of course, Gates still suffers in the White House from being perceived as “Daddy’s boy” by Bush and certainly by Cheney, but, if he’s backed up by men with lots of ribbons on their chests, he becomes much harder to dismiss. At this point, I think the Pentagon brass poses the biggest challenge to those in the administration who want to attack Iran, and I think David Ignatius’ disclosure in an important column, “Cooling the Clash with Iran,” last weekend that U.S. military commanders in the Gulf are pushing for an “incidents at sea” agreement with Iran speaks volumes.
Even Gen. Petraeus, of whose integrity Adm. Fallon apparently does not think too highly, as my colleague, Gareth Porter, recently discovered, has had some interesting things to say about what Iran is doing or not doing in Iraq. While much media attention was focused on his charges that Tehran is conducting a “proxy war” there against the U.S., he also volunteered during his testimony the surprising observation that “the Quds Force itself – we believe, by (and) large, those individuals have been pulled out of the country, as have the Lebanese Hezbollah trainers that were being used to augment that activity.” Those remarks, if an accurate assessment, may, of course, reflect more the possibility that Iran itself is becoming more cautious in Iraq in hopes of easing tensions, but the fact that they he volunteered them – in answer to a question by Rep. Duncan Hunter, no less – struck me as significant and deserving of more attention and exploration. (I note that a suspected Quds officer was reportedly arrested by U.S. military forces today in Kurdistan, although two of his companions were immediately released and there is some question as to whether it was another case of mistaken identity.)
3) None of the above is meant to convey confidence that Bush will still not decide to go to war before the end of his term, particularly given the possibility, as Steve points out, of an “accidental war” or even an “end run” a la Wurmser (who, I heard earlier this month, is still working in Cheney’s office). I agree very much with Pat Lang’s analysis of Steve’s article in which acknowledges that Steve’s “discussion of the ongoing argument within policy circles …is reasonably accurate,” but that ‘’it is also irrelevant (because) (o)nly the decider will decide. He will decide with the help and advice of his pal, ‘just plain Dick,’ and after the ‘Italian letter’ crowd have done their worst.”
4) Indeed, while Cheney’s voice – much amplified by John Bolton in recent days – seems to have been resolutely ignored by Bush over North Korea where the State Department remains very much in control, the vice president clearly considers the Middle East a higher priority for whatever influence he still wields. Moreover, his neo-conservative backers, who have been pre-occupied for the past three months with ensuring that the Surge not be compromised by Congress, have yet to launch the kind of orchestrated campaign that led up to the Iraq war. With the Surge seemingly assured as a result of this week’s defeat of the Webb amendment and the White House’s success in keeping Republicans in line, the “war party” may feel that they can now focus to a much greater extent on building the case for attacking Iran. Obviously, some seeds have already been planted – although not yet systematically cultivated — over the last two months: notably, Iran’s alleged role in EFG and other attacks against U.S. forces in Iran and NATO in Afghanistan (I just received today an update from the somewhat lethargic Committee on the Present Danger entitled “Iran’s Other Proxy War Against the West: Tehran’s Troublemaking in Afghanistan”), not to mention its ongoing nuclear program. With the Surge debate out of the way, I expect that those seeds to be vigorously watered and fertilized. Note, for example, the conclusion of the lead editorial in this week’s ‘Weekly Standard’ about the Surge debate, “Men At Work, Children At Play,” by Fred Kagan and Bill Kristol: “We cannot allow Iraq’s neighbors a free hand at strengthening the forces of terror even as we work to subdue them. …Given the drawdown, and given the emphasis General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker put on the damage done by these outside actors, especially Iran, in fanning the violence in Iraq, we expect that the Bush administration will now turn its attention more directly to this critical problem.”
5) Finally, like the balance of power between hawks and realists here, much depends on the balance between similar forces in Tehran. Debate among Iran specialists continues to rage over the meaning of the recent shake-ups in the Revolutionary Guard and the election of former President Hashemi-Rafsanjani to the chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts and how they affect that balance. Partially in that connection, last week’s article by Farideh Farhi of the University of Hawaii on Juan Cole’s new Informed Comment Global Affairs is definitely worth a read.