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September 19, 2007

Iran: Looking beyond the Bush Administration
Posted by Moira Whelan

I can’t say I agree with what Steve Clemons wrote in his excellent piece today in Salon-- that Bush doesn’t have plans to go to war with Iran. I think he and plenty of his team believes it should be done; the only argument is whether it happens in the next 15 months, or after that.

First on intent: Clemons quotes a meeting with military leaders in which Bush asks about “the possibility of a successful attack on Iran's nuclear capability.” Reportedly, Bush turns away from the Cheney approach that bombing Iran should be on the table. To me, this sounded reminiscent of Bush asking about Iraq in the days that followed 9/11. In that first meeting at Camp David, Bush turned his attention away from the Iraq argument and back to terrorism, but we’re all familiar with the rest of the story.

Second, I don’t think you can make the case that Gates, Rice are AGAINST conflict with Iran. Their reported arguments are ones of capability, and the need to exhaust diplomacy, rather than believing that a showdown with Iran is contrary to US strategic interests.

I don’t think we need to assume that intent for action against Iran necessarily means “in the next 15 months.” As we know, Iraq became the battle cry of neocons throughout the Clinton administration. They believed that not taking out Saddam Hussein was the greatest foreign policy failing of the Clinton years. Why wouldn’t the same thing happen here? I think we benefit ourselves to at least explore the idea that neocons are trying to construct this debate in such a way that boxes in the next Administration.

Case in point is what is being made of the relationship between the Taliban and Iran. “Iran has been against the Talibanization of Afghanistan, but the presence of U.S. troops at its doorsteps has changed the direction of its foreign policy,” says the Jamestown Foundation. David Rhode addressed the issue in a recent piece that highlighted, among other developments “the recruitment of a network of pro-Iranian operatives who could attack American targets in Afghanistan.” The up tick in tempo seems to be there internationally, so how does this play out in the US?

Steve takes the position that “Bush also knows that Iran controls "the temperature" of the terror networks it runs. Bombing Iran would blow the control gauge off, and Iran's terror networks could mobilize throughout the Middle East, Afghanistan and even the United States.” I don’t disagree that this is what would likely happen, but I’m not so sure that this is enough to convince him. Steve also states that Bush knows the military is overstretched and that he believes in his moral obligation to take action---if Iraq is any indication, Bush is capable of selective knowledge. 

What Bush probably is hearing from Rice and Gates is that politically and tactically, they simply cannot work another war right now. What all of them can do, however, is build a case that can’t be ignored by the next President. Then from the comfortable perches of think tanks, former Bushies like Rumsfeld, Rice and others start a campaign on January 20, 2009 that asks “what about Iran?”

Let’s assume for a second that the next President is a Democrat.

Bushies know Democrats want to look tough on terrorism—so if Iran is helping the Taliban, why are they being allowed to get away with supporting it? They know the progressive commitment to non-proliferation, so why is Iran escaping scrutiny? Then, of course, there’s their drum beat on Iran’s involvement in Iraq.

All of these arguments will be part of the neocons attempt to tie the hands of the next President. This benefits them in two ways. First, they use it as a domestic political issue to attempt to make Democrats look weak on critical national security issues if there is no action. Second, they attempt to get what they want--an attack on Iran—without the resulting mess on their hands. Either way, they spend some time driving the debate and acting as “deciders” of handling Iran being right or wrong (newsflash: it will be wrong). In the meantime, the Democratic administration will say things like “its complicated” and “we’re working it diplomatically”—a position that may be right, but is always a tough sell.

It should be noted, a good number of progressives are nervous about Iran. It is the combination of lack of capability, belief in diplomacy, and war fatigue that makes the idea of a conflict with Iran unworkable. Progressives also do not start with the assumption that strategic interests of the US necessarily mean working AGAINST Iran. Space exists to work with them. I think we underestimate neocons if we think they’re not trying to take those barriers off the table, and are patient enough for a long campaign to get it done.

Bottom line, if we’re talking about what the Bushies think about a war with Iran, I think we have to think more in terms of when, rather than if, and need to extend the calendar beyond the Bush Administration.


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This post speaks of neoconservatives in the same way the Bush administration tends to speak of terrorists: they're among us, they're implacable, and they can't be stopped. Unless, maybe, we spend the rest of our lives in a defensive crouch.

Liberals who have abandoned that label for "progressive" might take a lesson from the orignal Progressives, the ones led by Theodore Roosevelt, about not being so easily frightened.

Moira, I agree with you, and with the sixteen dinner party people. Clemons's view is one-sided. His view centers entirely on what Bush thinks. Where is the proof that Bush thinks? The US is a democracy and the desire to whack Iran is deeply evidenced in the Congress. The Dems are tied tightly to Israel, who wants to do Iran, and the Repubs need a distraction from the disaster in Iraq. A new war will do it. It's the American way. Going back to the Carter Doctrine the US has seen a need to assert its hegemony in the Middle East, and Bush has said that the US can't accept any rivals, which Iran certainly is. Rice has obtained a promise from Bush that he will consult with congressional leaders first, who will concur, and then it's a done deal. The recent Israeli air strike on Syria was a warm-up to (1) impress Iran, (2) test air defenses (no problem) and (3) test air capability. It was successful, and there was no reaction in the world or even in the ME.

To date, however, nothing suggests Bush is really going to do it. If he were, he wouldn't be playing good cop/bad cop with Iran and proposing engagement. If the bombs were at the ready, Bush would be doing a lot more to prepare the nation and the military for a war far more consequential than the invasion of Iraq.

There is little evidence of engagement. On the contrary, the man most responsible for diplomacy with Iran, Undersecretary Nicholas Burns, has been ranting noisily with all kinds of scare stories about Iran in Iraq, Iran in Afghanistan and Iran with nuclear weapons. Bush attacks Iran verbally every chance he gets, and loyal Petraeus is saying that "there's no question" that Iran is causing the US problems in Iraq. (If it weren't for lazy Iraqis and the aggressive Iranians we'd have victory by now.) Admiral Fallon is now making the rounds of the Gulf States cementing Iran opposition, and the Air Force and Navy are itching for a chance finally to show what they can do. What good are all those planes and ships if they're not used to advance US interests?

We know Bush rebuffed Cheney's view and is seeking other alternatives. That is the most clear evidence that Bush is not committed to bombing Iran.

Because Joe Klein says so? We know no such thing.

We should also worry about . . . an engineered provocation. An "accidental war" would escalate quickly and "end run," as Wurmser put it, the president's diplomatic, intelligence and military decision-making apparatus.

Trigger-happy sailors on the USS Vincennes shot down an Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988. A similar mistake (planned or unplanned) could happen again.

The main issue for the next administration will be the politcal instability in Pakistan and whether or not Islamic fundamentalists will aquire nuclear weapons and not Iran. To deal with this upcoming crisis the United States will need the help of the Iranians as well as the Indians. As an interesting side note, according to Ali Ansari, it was the Pakistani expansion of its nuclear weapons program that led the Iranians on the quest to aquire the atomic bomb. Plus the American people will be too tired with the war in Iraq and will not want another conflict with Iran.

Democrats have to hammer the neocons. The first thing the new president does is to crank up investigations into the way they have influenced policy. This will have to include published reports of their views as communicated to lower-ranking officials, and be accompanied by scathing denunciations of the support they offered for their war-mongering. There need to be investigations into everything that went on in Iraq, and publications of their stupid mistakes. They need to be called out publicly by name. If there is a crime, they need to be prosecuted. If we have something we could sue them for, we need to sue them.

No bygones are going to be bygones. Otherwise, you will be right.

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I wish Bush Administration is not only Iran.

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