WASHINGTON – President George W. Bush's address
on Iraq Wednesday night was less about Iraq than about its eastern neighbor,
Iran. There was little new about the U.S.'s strategy in Iraq, but on Iran, the
president spelled out a plan that appears to be aimed at goading Iran into war
with the U.S.
While Washington speculated whether the president would accept or reject the
Iraq Study Group's recommendations, few
predicted that he would do the opposite of what James
Baker and Lee
Hamilton advised. Rather than withdrawing troops from Iraq, Bush ordered
an augmentation of troop levels. Rather than talking to Iran and Syria, Bush
virtually declared war on these states. And rather than pressuring Israel to
resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the administration is fuelling the
factional war in Gaza by arming and training Fatah against Hamas.
Several recent developments and statements indicate that the administration
is ever more seriously eyeing war with Iran. On Wednesday, Bush made the starkest
accusations yet against the rulers in Tehran, alleging that the clerics were
"providing material support for attacks on American troops."
While promising to "disrupt the attacks on our forces" and "seek out and destroy
the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq,"
he made no mention of the flow of arms and funds to Sunni insurgents and al
Qaeda from Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Instead, he revealed the deployment of an additional carrier strike group to
the Persian Gulf and of the Patriot anti-missile defense system to Gulf
Cooperation Council (GCC) states to protect U.S. allies. The usefulness
of this step for resolving the violence in Iraq remains a mystery. Neither the
Sunni insurgents nor the Shi’ite militias possess ballistic missiles. And if
they did, nothing indicates that they would target the GCC states – Bahrain,
Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The deployment of the Patriot missiles can be explained, however, in light
of a U.S. plan to attack Iran. Last year, Tehran signaled the GCC states in
unusually blunt language that it would retaliate against the Arab sheikhdoms
if the U.S. attacked Iran using bases in the GCC countries. Mindful of the weakness
of Iran's air force, Tehran's most likely weapon would be ballistic missiles
– the very same weapon that the Patriots are designed to provide a shield against.
A first step towards going to war with Iran would be to provide the GCC states
with protection against potential Iranian retaliation.
Perhaps the starkest indication of an impending war with Iran is Washington's
recent arrest of Iranian diplomats in Iraq. Around the time of President Bush's
speech, U.S. Special Forces – in blatant violation of diplomatic regulations
reminiscent of the hostage taking of U.S. diplomats in Tehran by Iranian students
in 1979 – stormed the Iranian consulate in Irbil in northern Iraq, arresting
five diplomats. Later that day, U.S. forces almost clashed with Kurdish peshmerga
militia forces when seeking to arrest more Iranians at Irbil's airport.
These operations incensed the Iraqi government, including its Kurdish components
that otherwise are staunchly pro-Washington. "What happened... was very annoying
because there has been an Iranian liaison office there for years and it provides
services to the citizens," Iraq's Minister of Foreign Affairs Hoshiyar Zebari,
who is himself a Kurd, told Al-Arabiya television.
The Bush administration has justified the raids – including the arrests of
several Iranian officials in December last year – on the grounds that evidence
is collected on Iranian involvement in destabilizing Iraq. But if the purpose
is intelligence gathering, it would make more sense to launch a simultaneous
mass raid of Iranian offices rather than the current incremental approach that
provides the Iranians forewarning and an opportunity to destroy whatever evidence
they may or may not have in their possession.
The incremental raids and arrests may instead be aimed at provoking the Iranians
to respond, which in turn would escalate the situation and provide the Bush
administration with the casus belli it needs to win Congressional support
for war with Iran. Rather than making the case for a pre-emptive war with Iran
over weapons of mass destruction – a strategy the U.S. pursued with Iraq that
is unlikely to succeed with Iran – the sequence of events in the provocation
and escalation strategy would make it appear as if war was forced on the U.S.
Prominent Republican and Democratic Senators seem to have picked up on the
president's war strategy. At Thursday's hearing in the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee, Senator
Chuck Hagel of Nebraska drew parallels with the Richard Nixon administration's
strategy of lying to the U.S. people and expanding the Vietnam war into Cambodia.
"[W]hen you set in motion the kind of policy that the president is talking about
here," he warned
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, "it's very, very dangerous."
Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware added
that war with Iran would require congressional authority. Still, Congress is
yet to pose a major challenge to Bush's war plan beyond holding hearings with
heated exchanges between frustrated Senators and defensive administration officials.
The next move may be Iran's. Tehran has likely sniffed the trap and will sit
idly by for now and deprive the Bush administration of a pretext for escalation.
But continued provocations from the U.S. through additional raids of Iranian
consulates and offices will likely lead to an intentional or unintentional response,
after which escalation and war may become reality. Iran has at times failed
to exhibit the discipline necessary to refrain from responding to aggressions.
While the administration's calculation may be that lethal pressure on Iran
will force Tehran to compromise, faith that offering concessions will prompt
a change in the U.S.'s Iran-policy is next to nonexistent in Iran due to the
Bush administration's past rejections of Iranian offers.
But Tehran may be able to change the political climate and escape Bush's war
trap by reinitiating talks with the European Union to address regional matters
as well as the nuclear impasse. Europe's patience and faith in Iran has largely
been depleted due to Tehran's failure to fully appreciate efforts by Javier
Solana, high representative for the European Union's Common Foreign and
Security Policy, to negotiate an agreement on enrichment suspension last fall.
Still, the EU understands that the tidal waves of a regional war in the Middle
East will reach Europe much sooner than they reach U.S. shores. Whether Europe
will stand up for its own values and security and against Bush's war plans,
however, remains to be seen. Here, Tehran's offers are likely not inconsequential.