It's been on the minds of antiwar activists and
war critics since 2003. And little wonder. If you don't remember the pre-invasion
of Iraq neocon quip,
"Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran..." – then take
notice. Even before American troops entered Iraq, knocking off Iran was already
"Regime Change: The Sequel." It was always on the Bush agenda and, for a faction
of the administration led by Vice
President Cheney, it evidently still is.
Add to that a series of provocative statements by President Bush, the Vice
President, and other top U.S. officials and former officials. Take Cheney's
sent this verbal message to the Iranians: "[D]espite what you may be hearing
from Congress, despite what you may be hearing from others in the administration
who might be saying force isn't on the table... we're serious." Asked about
an Israeli strike on Iran, she said: "I certainly don't think that we should
do anything but support them." Similarly, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton
that the Bush administration might launch an Iranian air assault in its last,
post-election weeks in office.
Consider as well the evident relish with which the President and other top
administration officials regularly refuse to take "all
options" off that proverbial "table" (at which no one bothers to sit down
to talk). Throw into the mix semi-official threats, warnings, and hair-raising
leaks from Israeli officials and intelligence types about Iran's progress in
producing a nuclear weapon and what Israel might do about it. Then there were
those recent reports on a "major" Israeli "military
exercise" in the Mediterranean that seemed to prefigure a future air assault
on Iran. ("Several American officials said the Israeli exercise appeared to
be an effort to develop the military's capacity to carry out long-range strikes
and to demonstrate the seriousness with which Israel views Iran's nuclear program.")
From the other side of the American political aisle comes a language hardly
less hair-raising, including Hillary Clinton's infamous comment about how the
U.S. could "totally
obliterate" Iran (in response to a hypothetical Iranian nuclear attack on
Ron Paul recently reported that fellow representatives "have openly voiced
support for a pre-emptive nuclear strike" on Iran, while the resolution soon
before the House (H.J. Res. 362), supported by Democrats as well as Republicans,
urges the imposition of the kind of sanctions and a naval blockade on Iran that
would be tantamount to a declaration of war.
Stir in a string
of new military bases the U.S. has been building within miles of the Iranian
border, the repeated crescendos of U.S. military charges about Iranian-supplied
weapons killing American soldiers in Iraq, and the revelation by Seymour Hersh,
our premier investigative reporter, that, late last year, the Bush administration
launched – with the support of the Democratic leadership in Congress – a $400
million covert program "designed to destabilize [Iran's] religious leadership,"
including cross-border activities by U.S. Special Operations Forces and a low-level
war of terror through surrogates in regions where Baluchi and Ahwazi Arab minorities
are strongest. (Precedents for this terror campaign include previous CIA-run
campaigns in Afghanistan
in the 1980s, using car bombs and even camel bombs against the Russians, and
in Iraq in
the 1990s, using car bombs and other explosives in an attempt to destabilize
Saddam Hussein's regime.)
Add to this combustible mix the unwillingness
of the Iranians to suspend their nuclear enrichment activities, even for a matter
of weeks, while negotiating with the Europeans over their nuclear program. Throw
in as well various threats from Iranian officials in response to the possibility
of a U.S. or Israeli attack on their nuclear facilities, and any number of other
predictions ("A senior defense official told ABC News there is an 'increasing
likelihood' that Israel will carry out such an attack?"), reports, rumors, and
warnings – and it's hardly surprising that the political Internet has been filled
with alarming (as well as alarmist) pieces claiming that an assault on Iran
may be imminent.
Seymour Hersh, who certainly has his ear to the ground in Washington, has
that an Obama victory might be the signal for the Bush administration to launch
an air campaign against that country. As Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service has
pointed out, there have
been a number of "public warnings by U.S. hawks close to Cheney's office that
either the Israelis or the U.S. would attack Iran between the November elections
and the inaugural of a new president in January 2009."
Given the Bush administration's "preventive war" doctrine which has opened
the way for the launching of wars without significant notice or obvious provocation,
and the penchant of its officials to ignore reality, all of this should frighten
anyone. In fact, it's not only war critics who are increasingly edgy. In recent
months, jumpy (and greedy) commodity traders, betting on a future war, have
boosted these fears. (Every bit of potential bad news relating to Iran only
seems to push the price of a barrel of oil further into the stratosphere.) And
mainstream pundits and journalists
are increasingly joining them.
No wonder. It's a remarkably frightening scenario, and, if there's one lesson
this administration has taught us these last years, it's that nothing's "off
the table," not for officials who, only a few years ago, believed themselves
capable of creating their own reality and imposing it on the planet. An "unnamed
Administration official" – generally assumed to be Karl Rove – famously
put it this way to journalist Ron Suskind back in October 2004:
"[He] said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based
community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from
your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something
about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the
way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and
when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality
– judiciously, as you will – we'll act again, creating other new realities,
which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's
actors.... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'"
A Future Global Oil Shock
Nonetheless, sometimes – as in Iraq – reality has a way of biting back,
no matter how mad or how powerful the imperial dreamer. So, let's consider reality
for a moment. When it comes to Iran, reality means oil and natural gas. These
days, any twitch of trouble, or potential trouble, affecting the petroleum market,
no matter how minor – from Mexico to Nigeria – forces the price of oil another
Possessing the world's second
largest reserves of oil and natural gas, Iran is no speed bump on the energy
map. The National Security Network, a group of national security experts, estimates
that the Bush administration's policy of bluster, threat, and intermittent low-level
actions against Iran has already
added a premium of $30-$40 to every $140 barrel of oil. Then there was the one-day
$11 spike after Israeli
Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz suggested that an Israeli attack on Iranian
nuclear facilities was "unavoidable."
Given that, let's imagine, for a moment, what almost any version of an air
assault – Israeli, American, or a combination of the two – would be likely to
do to the price of oil. When asked recently by Brian Williams on NBC Nightly
News about the effects of an Israeli attack on Iran, correspondent Richard Engel
"I asked an oil analyst that very question. He said, 'The price of a barrel
of oil? Name your price: $300, $400 a barrel.'" Former CIA official Robert Baer
suggested in Time
Magazine that such an attack would translate into $12 gas at the pump. ("One
oil speculator told me that oil would hit $200 a barrel within minutes.")
Those kinds of price leaps could take place in the panic that preceded
any Iranian response. But, of course, the Iranians, no matter how badly hit,
would be certain to respond – by themselves and through proxies in the region
in a myriad of possible ways. Iranian officials have regularly been threatening
all sorts of hell should they be attacked, including "blitzkrieg
tactics" in the region. Oil Minister Gholam Hossein Nozari typically swore
that his country would "react fiercely, and nobody can imagine what would be
the reaction of Iran." The head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, Mohammed Jafari,
"Iran's response to any military action will make the invaders regret their
decision and action." ("Mr. Jafari had already warned that if attacked, Iran
would launch a barrage of missiles at Israel and close the Strait of Hormuz,
the outlet for oil tankers leaving the Persian Gulf.") Ali Shirazi, Iranian
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's representative to the Revolutionary
Guards, offered the
following: "The first bullet fired by America at Iran will be followed by
Iran burning down its vital interests around the globe."
Let's take a moment to imagine just what some of the responses to any air
assault might be. The list of possibilities is nearly endless and many of them
would be hard even for the planet's preeminent military power to prevent. They
might include, as a start, the mining
of the Strait of Hormuz, through which a significant portion of the world's
oil passes, as well as other disruptions of shipping in the region. (Don't even
think about what would happen to insurance rates for oil tankers!)
In addition, American troops on their mega-bases
in Iraq, rather than being a powerful force in any attack – Iraqi Prime Minister
Nouri al-Maliki has already cautioned
President Bush that Iraqi territory cannot be used to attack Iran – would instantly
become so many hostages
to Iranian actions, including the possible targeting of those bases by missiles.
Similarly, U.S. supply lines for those troops, running from Kuwait past the
southern oil port of Basra might well become hostages of a different sort, given
the outrage that, in Shiite regions of Iraq, would surely follow an attack.
Those lines would assumedly not be impossible to disrupt.
Imagine, as well, what possible disruptions of the modest Iraqi oil supply
might mean in the chaos of the moment, with Iranian oil already off the market.
Then consider what the targeting of even small numbers of Iranian missiles on
the Saudi and Kuwaiti oil fields could do to global oil markets. (It might not
even matter whether they actually hit anything.) And that, of course, just scratches
the surface of the range of retaliatory possibilities available to Iranian leaders.
Looked at another way, Iran is a weak regional power (which hasn't invaded
another country in living memory) that nonetheless retains a remarkable capacity
to inflict grievous harm locally, regionally, and globally.
Such a scenario would result in a global oil shock of almost inconceivable
proportions. For any American who believes that he or she is experiencing "pain
at the pump" right now, just wait until you experience what a true global oil
shock would involve.
And that's without even taking into consideration what spreading chaos in
the oil heartlands of the planet might mean, or what might happen if Hezbollah
or Hamas took action of any sort against Israel, and Israel responded. Mohamed
ElBaradei, the sober-minded head of the International Atomic Energy Agency,
the situation, said the following: "A military strike, in my opinion, would
be worse than anything possible. It would turn the region into a fireball..."
This, then, is the baseline for any discussion of an attack on Iran. This
is reality, and it has to be daunting for an administration that already finds
itself militarily stretched to the limit, unable even to find the reinforcements
it wants to send into Afghanistan.
Can Israel Attack Iran?
Let's leave to the experts the question of whether Israel could actually launch
an effective air strike against Iranian nuclear facilities on its own – about
which there are grave
doubts. And let's instead try to imagine what it would mean for Israel to
launch such an assault (egged on by the Vice President's faction in the U.S.
government) in the last months, or even weeks, of the second term of an especially
lame lame-duck President
and an historically unpopular
From Iran's foreign minister, we already know that the Iranians would treat
an Israeli attack as if it were an American one, whether or not American planes
were involved – and little wonder. For one thing, Israeli planes heading for
Iran would undoubtedly have to cross Iraqi air space, at present controlled
by the United States, not the nearly air-force-less Maliki government. (In fact,
in Status of Forces Agreement negotiations with the Iraqis, the Bush administration
has demanded that the U.S. retain control of that air space, up to 29,000 feet,
after December 31, 2008, when the U.N. mandate runs out.)
In other words, on the eve of the arrival of a new American administration,
Israel, a small, vulnerable Middle Eastern state deeply reliant on its American
alliance, would find itself responsible for starting an American war (associated
with a Vice President of unparalleled unpopularity) and for a global oil shock
of staggering proportions, if not a global great depression. It would also be
the proximate cause for a regional "fireball." (Oil-poor Israel would undoubtedly
also be economically wounded by its own strike.)
In addition, the latest
American National Intelligence Estimate on Iran concluded that the Iranians
stopped weaponizing parts of their nuclear program back in 2003, and American
intelligence reputedly doubts recent Israeli warnings that Iran is on the verge
of a bomb. Of course, Israel itself has an estimated – though unannounced –
nuclear force of about 200 such weapons.
Simply put, it is next to inconceivable that the present riven Israeli government
would be politically capable of launching such an attack on Iran on its own,
or even in combination with only a faction, no matter how important, in the
U.S. government. And such a point is more or less taken
for granted by many Israelis (and Iranians). Without a full-scale "green
light" from the Bush administration, launching such an attack could be tantamount
to long-term political suicide.
Only in conjunction with an American attack would an Israeli attack (rash
to the point of madness even then) be likely. So let's turn to the Bush administration
and consider what might be called the Hersh scenario.
Will the Bush administration Attack Iran If Obama Is Elected?
The first problem is a simple one. Oil, which was at $146 a barrel last week,
dropped to $136 (in part because of a statement by Iranian President Mahmoud
"the possibility that war with the United States and Israel was imminent"),
and, on Wednesday rose
a dollar to $137 in reaction to Iranian missile tests. But, whatever its immediate
zigs and zags, the overall pattern of the price of oil seems clear enough. Some
suggest that, by the time of any Obama victory, a barrel of crude oil will be
at $170. The chairman of the giant Russian oil monopoly Gazprom recently predicted
that it would hit $250 within 18 months – and that's without an attack on Iran.
For those eager to launch a reasonably no-pain campaign against Iran, the
moment is already long gone. Every leap in the price of oil only emphasizes
the pain to come. In turn, that means, with every passing day, it's madder –
and harder – to launch such an attack. There is already significant opposition
within the administration; the American people, feeling pain, are unprepared
for and, as polls indicate, massively
unwilling to sanction such an attack. There can be no question that the
Bush legacy, such as it is, would be secured in infamy forever and a day.
Now, consider recent administration actions on North Korea. Facing a "reality"
that first-term Bush officials would have abjured, the President and his advisors
not only negotiated with that nuclearized Axis of Evil nation, but are now removing
it from the Trading with the Enemy Act list and the State Sponsor of Terrorism
list. No matter what steps Kim Jong Il's regime has taken, including blowing
up the cooling tower at the Yongbyon reactor, this is nothing short of a stunning
reversal for this administration. An angry John Bolton, standing in for the
Cheney faction, compared
what happened to a "police truce with the Mafia." And Vice
President Cheney's anger over the decision – and the policy – was visible
and widely reported.
It's possible, of course, that Cheney and associates are simply holding their
fire for what they care most about, but here's another question that needs to
be considered: Does George W. Bush actually support his imperial Vice President
in the manner he once did? There's no way to know, but Bush has always been
a more important figure in the administration than many critics like to imagine.
The North Korean decision indicates that Cheney may not have a free hand from
the President on Iran policy either.
The Adults in the Room
And what about the opposition? I'm not talking about those of us out here
who would oppose such a strike. I mean within the world of Bush's Washington.
Forget the Democrats. They hardly count and, as Hersh has pointed out, their
leadership already signed off on that $400 million covert destabilization campaign.
I mean the adults in the room, who have been in short supply indeed these
last years in the Bush administration, specifically Secretary of Defense Robert
Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen. (Condoleezza Rice
evidently falls into this camp as well, although she's proven herself something
of a President-enabling nonentity over the years.)
With former Carter National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, Gates tellingly
co-chaired a task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations back in
2004 which called for negotiations with Iran. He arrived at the Pentagon early
in 2007 as an envoy from the world of George H.W. Bush and as a man on a mission.
He was there to staunch the madness and begin the clean up in the imperial Augean
In his Congressional confirmation hearings, he was absolutely clear: any attack
on Iran would be a "very last resort." Sometimes, in the bureaucratic world
of Washington, a single "very" can tell you what you need to know. Until then,
administration officials had been referring to an attack on Iran simply as a
"last resort." He also offered a bloodcurdling
scenario for what the aftermath of such an American attack might be like:
"It's always awkward to talk about hypotheticals in this case.
But I think that while Iran cannot attack us directly militarily, I think that
their capacity to potentially close off the Persian Gulf to all exports of oil,
their potential to unleash a significant wave of terror both in the – well,
in the Middle East and in Europe and even here in this country is very real?
Their ability to get Hezbollah to further destabilize Lebanon I think is very
real. So I think that while their ability to retaliate against us in a conventional
military way is quite limited, they have the capacity to do all of the things,
and perhaps more, that I just described."
And perhaps more? That puts it in a nutshell.
Hersh, in his most recent piece on the administration's covert program in
Iran, reports the following:
"A Democratic senator told me that, late last year, in an off-the-record
lunch meeting, Secretary of Defense Gates met with the Democratic caucus in
the Senate. (Such meetings are held regularly.) Gates warned of the consequences
if the Bush Administration staged a preemptive strike on Iran, saying, as the
senator recalled, 'We'll create generations of jihadists, and our grandchildren
will be battling our enemies here in America.' Gates's comments stunned the
Democrats at the lunch."
In other words, back in 2007, early and late, our new secretary of defense
managed to sound remarkably like one of those Iranian officials issuing warnings.
Gates, who has a long history as a skilled
Washington in-fighter, has once again proven that skill. So far, he seems
to have outmaneuvered the Cheney faction.
The March "resignation" of CENTCOM
commander Admiral William J. Fallon, outspokenly against an administration
strike on Iran, sent both a shiver of fear through war critics and a new set
of attack scenarios coursing through the political Internet, as well as into
the world of the mainstream media. As reporter Jim Lobe points out at his invaluable
Lobelog blog, however, Admiral
Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Gates's man in the Pentagon,
has proven nothing short of adamant when it comes to the inadvisabilty of attacking
His recent public statements have actually been stronger than Fallon's (and
the position he fills is obviously more crucial than CENTCOM commander). Lobe
at a July 2nd press
conference at the Pentagon, Mullen "repeatedly made clear that he opposes
an attack on Iran – whether by Israel or his own forces – and, moreover, favors
dialogue with Tehran, without the normal White House nuclear preconditions."
Mullen, being an adult, has noticed the obvious. As columnist Jay Bookman
of the Atlanta Constitution put
the matter recently: "A U.S. attack on Iran's nuclear installations would
create trouble that we aren't equipped to handle easily, not with ongoing wars
in Iraq and Afghanistan. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff, drove that point home in a press conference last week at the Pentagon."
The Weight of Reality
Here's the point: Yes, there is a powerful faction in this administration,
headed by the Vice President, which has, it seems, saved its last rounds of
ammunition for a strike against Iran. The question, of course, is: Are they
still capable of creating "their own reality" and imposing it, however briefly,
on the planet? Every tick upwards in the price of oil says no. Every day that
passes makes an attack on Iran harder to pull off.
On this subject, panic may be everywhere in the world of the political Internet,
and even in the mainstream, but it's important not to make the mistake of overestimating
these political actors or underestimating the forces arrayed against them. It's
a reasonable proposition today – as it wasn't perhaps a year ago – that, whatever
their desires, they will not, in the end, be able to launch an attack on Iran;
that, even where there's a will, there may not be a way.
They would have to act, after all, against the unfettered opposition of the
American people; against leading military commanders who, even if obliged to
follow a direct order from the President, have other ways to make their wills
known; against key figures in the administration; and, above all, against reality
which bears down on them with a weight that is already staggering – and still
And yet, of course, for the maddest gamblers and dystopian dreamers in our
history, never say never.
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt