War with Iran Is Not A Done Deal
by Tony Karon
So, is the U.S. going to attack Iran? I’ve been in South Africa for much of the past month, and the question kept recurring among observers of the international scene. Nobody knows the answer, of course, for the simple reason that it’s unlikely that a decision has been taken. To be sure, as Michael Klare points out, President Bush’s rhetoric suggests that he’s already decided to bomb Iran. And the Administration, served as ever by a willfully naive media corps stoking misconceptions, is certainly preparing the public for a confrontation. And there’s no question that the folks who brought you the Iraq war would very much like to see a second front opened in Iran. At the same time, however, there are a number of powerful countervailing forces in play that will restrain President Bush’s more hawkish instincts — it’s clear, already, that the bomb-Iran crowd faces considerable hostility in the U.S. Congress, among the key U.S. Sunni-Arab allies in the region (on whose behalf Washington claims to be challenging Iran) and, very importantly, among the uniformed leadership of the U.S. military. And the leadership in Iran, aware of the danger, appears to be moving to calm tensions on a wide array of fronts (moves that allow the pragmatists in Washington to craft a narrative — for domestic consumption — arguing that pressure on Iran has strengthened the U.S. hand to negotiate with Iran, and that negotiations can now proceed).
The talks involving the U.S. and Iran and other Iraq stake-holders that begin in Baghdad on Saturday but are slated to continue in Cairo and Istanbul in the coming weeks could be an important indicator: If the U.S. simply uses those to hurl allegations at Iran of malfeasance in Iraq, I’d say the chances of an attack may be greater. Then again, an overly hostile stance would leave the U.S. isolated — just as it did in the six-party talks on North Korea, where Washington was eventually forced to accept China’s lead. If, instead, there’s a serious engagement on the basis of the two sides recognizing each other’s stake in Iraq, it might be a sign that more pragmatic voices are prevailing in Washington. It won’t, of course, be the decisive indicator: The Washington factional struggle will ebb and flow in the coming months, and with it will go the prospects for war with Iran. In short, I’d say this is not a done deal, and whether or not there is a war will be determined by the outcome of a number of factional battles in Washington and elsewhere in the world — and also on the readiness of the U.S. media and political leadership to challenge the misconceptions required to enable another war.
The Cheney element in the Bush administration is clearly leading the charge to bomb Iran, and as Seymour Hersh reports, it has already initiated an extensive covert war using al-Qaeda-allied Sunni Islamist groups as proxies against Iran and its allies. These people have no shame, nor sense of humor or history, it seems: After all, it was a similar strategy in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that created al-Qaeda in the first place. This time, it will be different, Hersh’s sources insist, no doubt with a straight face:
This time, the U.S. government consultant told me, Bandar and other Saudis have assured the White House that “they will keep a very close eye on the religious fundamentalists. Their message to us was ‘We’ve created this movement, and we can control it.’ It’s not that we don’t want the Salafis to throw bombs; it’s who they throw them at—Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr, Iran, and at the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran.”
The upsurge of terror attacks by separatists inside Iran suggest that the the Administration has already signed off on a massive expansion of covert operations against Tehran.
At the same time, the propaganda effort has been cranked up to proclaim Iran the source of all trouble in the Middle East — and much of the media is being naively helpful, as usual, by failing to question many of the fundamentals. For example, the idea that Iran is “meddling” in Iraq. What exactly is the U.S. doing there? Iran has far more legitimate interest in shaping the politics of its neighbor, whose last Sunni regime initiated a war that killed more than a million Iranians. Not only that, the overwhelming majority of Iraq’s democratically elected political leaders (both Shiites and Kurds) are on close terms with Iran and welcome its involvement in rebuilding their country. And the Iraqi government has not echoed the U.S. accusation about Iranian activity. Still, the trope that “Iran is meddling in Iraq” has now been embraced by much of the mainstream media. The distortion is clear in the language of this report from CNN on changes being considered in the Iraqi intelligence structure: Under the headline “Pro-Iran Agency May Take Over Iraq’s Intelligence,” it
notes that the current Iraqi intelligence structure was created entirely by the U.S. and that the Iraqi government wants to bring it under its own authority. “But now, the future of the U.S.-controlled agency appears to be in jeopardy. A document from Iraq’s National Security Council lays out a blueprint for Iraq’s new intelligence
community. Under that plan, all intelligence gathering would be consolidated under Iraq’s Iranian-friendly central government.” So, the democratically elected government of Iraq wants to exercise its sovereignty by putting its own intelligence service under its control (rather than that of a foreign power, i.e. the U.S.), and this is portrayed as some sort of Iranian power grab!
The second self-serving myth that has passed unchallenged is the idea that a looming Iranian threat — evident in Iraq, in Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories (where even the Israelis admit that the only reason Hamas is cozying up to Iran is that the U.S. has shut down every other channel of support) — has effected a realignment in Middle Eastern geopolitics, putting the key Sunni autocracies (Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan) into alliance with the U.S. and Israel to confront Iran. This notion is even more crudely rendered in some quarters as a kind of region-wide Sunni-Shiite throwdown. This may be what Cheney and the neocons and Israel would like, but it’s hardly what’s actually happening.
Of course there’s a long-running rivalry between the Iranians and Saudis in the region, and events in Iraq have certainly stirred up Sunni-Shiite tensions. But the Saudis aren’t so naive as to buy into Washington’s fantasy world in which rivals and enemies can simply be isolated and eliminated. And, unlike the purveyors of these fantasies in Washington, the Sunni regimes are intimately aware of their own political weakness — of their isolation from their own, Sunni citizenry. So while they have, indeed, ramped up their own engagement throughout the region, the Saudis’ approach has been substantially at odds with that of the Bush Administration. That much was abundantly clear when Riyadh pulled the rug out from under the Bush Administration’s efforts to destroy Hamas. Where Bush and Rice had been demanding that Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas dissolve the Hamas government and call new elections — and arming their chosen proxy, Mohammed Dahlan, to fight Hamas to the finish — the Saudis stepped in and brokered a unity deal to stave off a Palestinian civil war. Getting Abbas into a government alongside Hamas was precisely the opposite of what Washington wanted, yet the Saudis made clear that despite their own misgivings about Hamas, there was no other way — Hamas is more popular than Fatah, and isolating it only drives it into the arms of Iran.
An even sharper schism will be evident in the coming weeks as the Saudis, Egypt and Jordan look to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process via a reinvigoration of the Saudi proposals adopted by the Arab League in 2002: Full recognition for Israel on the basis of its withdrawal to its 1967 borders. While the Bush Administration is notionally committed to reviving the peace process, neither it or its Israeli ally has reckoned with the reality of what peace would demand of the Israelis — the Israeli government is not inclined to accept the 1967 borders (and, remember, while Olmert’s support stands at about 3% of the electorate, currently leading the field is the noxious expansionist Bibi Netanyahu, who has no intention of giving up any more land). Yet, as Jordan’s King Abdullah made clear in an impassioned speech to Congress this week, Israel’s withdrawal to its 1967 borders is essential to any progress in the region on a host of other issues. But President Bush has never shown any inclination to press the Israelis to make concessions, and it’s a safe bet that Condi Rice will be as frustrated as her predecessor, Colin Powell, in any efforts to persuade her boss that peace actually requires compelling the Israelis to take steps that they are unlikely to take unless they are given no option.
Nor is the Palestinian example the only one that shows the difference between the Saudi position and that of the U.S. While Washington has clamored for Iran’s isolation, the Saudis have been actively engaging with Tehran at the highest level, with a view to calming sectarian tensions in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region. The Saudis know the Iranians can’t be wished away; that containing their regional ambitions requires engagement and a recognition of the reality that they will retain considerable influence in a place such as Iraq. The fact that talks are to begin in Baghdad this weekend that will bring the U.S. face to face with Iran is an indication that the bellicose line in the Bush Administration has been pegged back. In this respect, the guilty verdict against Cheney aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby couldn’t have come at a better time, because anything that keeps the most dangerous man in the world on the back foot could help avert a war. Then again, the word in Washington is that Cheney has lost control of the process of shaping Bush’s decisions, which is why the U.S. is suddenly reversing course on both North Korea and Iran.
The other major factor militating against a U.S. military strike against Iran is that the uniformed leadership of the U.S. military is adamantly opposed to such a catastrophic course of action. Joint Chiefs of Staff chair General Peter Pace even took the unprecedented step of publicly questioning the White House claim that Iran was behind attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq. And the Times of London reports that some of America’s top military commanders have vowed to resign their posts if President Bush orders an attack on Iran.
So, in short, I don’t agree with Klare and others who argue that the bombing of Iran by President Bush before he leaves office is a done deal. It’ll only happen if it’s allowed to happen.