If only they could get their stories straight. We are told on Sunday by senior US military officials in Baghdad that deadly new “explosively formed penetrators”, which have killed 170 US soldiers in Iraq, are “coming from the highest levels of the Iranian government”. Fast-forward a day, cross the world to Australia, and we find General Peter Pace – chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who should know a thing or two about what is going on – telling us on a visit to Canberra that “what I would not say is that the Iranian government, per se, knows about this”.
Back in Washington, we hear Robert Gates, Donald Rumsfeld’s successor as defence secretary, insisting that “we are not planning for a war with Iran” – while George W Bush himself is saying that “if Iran escalates its military action in Iraq to the detriment of our troops and/or innocent Iraqi people, we will respond firmly”. My sources, meanwhile, were telling me last Monday that the US is preparing to send a third battleship carrier group to the Gulf.
Pentagon correspondents were simultaneously being briefed about how the Pentagon has contingency plans to use B-2 stealth bombers to launch 400 cruise missiles at 50 targets in Iran. And, in what some insist is a chilling reprise of the build-up to the Iraq war, we learned more about the secret “Iranian Directorate”, set up by Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld last year. It is in the Pentagon – where Rummy still has a desk – and is led by Abram Shulsky, a veteran neo-con who (just like Paul Wolfowitz) was a disciple of Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago and was in charge of Cheney’s Office of Special Plans, which brought us all that top-level intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s wea pons of mass destruction.
So what is going on? Even front-line Democrats – Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards – have been acting like rabbits caught in the headlights and keeping conspicuously quiet about Iran, leaving second-tier Democratic contenders such as Senator Christopher Dodd to say he is “worried” about the escalating rhetoric and actions of the Bush administration.
Flat-out lies, contradictions, the right hand not knowing what the left is doing: that, by far, is the most worrying aspect of the Iran crisis unfolding before us. Condoleezza Rice, for example, is to head summit talks on 19 February with Ehud Olmert (the Israeli prime minister) and Mahmoud Abbas (president of the Palestinian National Authority). But she told a House committee on 8 February: “I think I would have noticed if the Iranians had said, ‘We’re ready to recognise Israel’, Congressman” – either an extraordinary lapse of memory or a blatant fib, because Rice spoke publicly last year of Iran’s faxed proposal to the state department in 2003 in which it said it was ready to do exactly that in bilateral talks, an offer the US rejected.
But let us pause and take a deep breath. I have not spoken to anybody in Washington this week who actually thinks the Bush administration is planning imminent war against Iran, though I would be prepared to bet that Bush will launch some kind of military strike against Iran before he leaves office; I have, however, talked to insiders who think war with Iran could yet be the logical outcome of the muddle-headedness and incompetence of the Bush administration.
And yet, the new scare talk of how none other than Vladimir Putin is now providing Iran with nuclear fission materials notwithstanding, the whole issue of Iran becoming a nuclear power is actually receding here. Even Olmert, in a speech a few days ago which went virtually unnoticed outside Israel, suggested that Iran is bluffing about how close it is to becoming a nuclear power. John Negroponte, America’s outgoing intelligence tsar, said last year that Iran could not become a nuclear power until somewhere between 2010 and 2015. The likelihood of a pre-emptive strike against Iran by either Israel or the United States has, therefore, lessened.
Which brings us back, inevitably, to Iraq. Even the Bush administration is not stupid enough to think the Democrat-controlled Congress would authorise Bush to launch a war against Iran – or release funds to do so – but it has already authorised him to take all steps necessary to bring stability to Iraq. I am told that US intel ligence has known that Iran has been actively involved in US operations inside Iraq for at least two years, and that the “EFPs” so dramatically unveiled in Baghdad on 11 February have been known to have been in use in Iraq for at least a year.
So, why the dramatic flurry of “revelations” and ratcheting-up of hostility towards Iran? A serious theory – which could be a coherent military strategy in the hands of any but the Bush administration – is that the anti-Iran PR campaign is to assist Bush’s so-called military “surge” in Iraq. Wayne White, a former Middle East analyst with the state department’s bureau of intelligence and research, believes that the sudden tough-talk campaign (which has been so pliantly relayed by the US and UK media) is to intimidate Iran into scaling back its operations inside Iraq and thus help the “surge” succeed.
But if and when it fails, White says, the administration is also setting up Iran as a convenient scapegoat. Taking swingeing military action against Iranian elements inside Iraq therefore becomes much more politically acceptable to the American public if it is convinced that it is Iranians – rather than those vague, shadowy Iraqi “insurgents” – who are actually killing American boys in ever greater numbers in Iraq. If this theory is correct, the administration is thus providing itself with a handy excuse to go on the military offensive inside Iraq, and at the same time providing a reason for why its escalation fails.
To my friend Martin Indyk, Clinton’s London-born, Australian-raised US ambassador to Israel who is now director of the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, this strategy of pursuing Middle East diplomacy backed up by the threat of military force is dangerous “chicken talk” that could have deadly consequences. “If you’re trying to ensure that your surge strategy succeeds, why would you bait the Iranians when they can help to make sure that it fails?” he asked me rhetorically. “Why pick a fight with the Iranians now when we haven’t done it for the past three years?”
Indeed, Indyk paints a chilling possible scenario that could unfold, which he likens to a 1956 Suez-type stand-off. Iran, he says, knows that the US is most vulnerable inside Iraq.
“If the Iranians decide to respond by showing that they can be tough guys, too, we could easily get an escalation of a tit-for-tat nature,” he told me. “It would start in Iraq, where we start to do things and they respond. Then we [the US] believe they’re responsible for that, and so we decide to ratchet it up by hitting them somewhere else, and then they respond by hitting us in the Gulf. And then we are at war.”
More than 42 years ago, the USS Maddox and the USS Turner were allegedly attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin by North Vietnam, who claimed severe provocation. History is still vague as to what triggered a series of tit-for-tat incidents between the mighty US and little North Vietnam. But it is all too clear about the outcome. That, Mr President, is how wars start.
Articles from this issue on Iran
Ready to attack by Dan Plesch
America’s war plans against Iran are poised to go.
We are asking the wrong questions of Iran by Rageh Omaar
Rageh Omaar finds a country more complex than most in the west have ever realised