If you're feeling increasingly confused about
whether the administration of President George W. Bush is determined to go to
war with Iran or whether it is instead truly committed to a diplomatic process
with its European allies to reach some kind of modus vivendi, you're
On the one hand, a growing number of informed voices are arguing that the administration
is simply going through the diplomatic motions in order to persuade domestic
and international opinion that it had acted in good faith before it pulls the
plug and launches attacks on Iran's suspected nuclear facilities and related
targets some time before the end of Bush's term.
Among other evidence, including an account of the advanced state of war planning
and actual preparations in this week's Time magazine, they point to a
statement by Bush himself during an interview with a group of right-wing journalists
last week as indicative of his real intentions.
"It's very important for the American people to see the president try
to solve problems diplomatically before resorting to military force," Bush
told the group in what neoconservative Washington Post columnist Charles
Krauthammer characterized as an "unmistakable" signal that "an
aerial attack on Iran's nuclear facilities lies just beyond the horizon of diplomacy."
On the other hand, a second group of analysts, also increasing in number, believes
that the administration has effectively discarded the military option on Iran
and has instead resigned itself to a protracted diplomatic process that will
likely end in Washington's adoption of a "containment" strategy designed
to curb Tehran's regional influence and delay as long as possible its acquisition
of a nuclear-weapons capacity.
That was the conclusion of the Post's Glenn Kessler in an analysis published
after Bush's speech to the UN General Assembly Tuesday.
"With the United States ensnared in an increasingly difficult campaign
in Iraq, war is no longer a viable option," he wrote, noting the administration's
apparent acquiescence in the passing of an end-of-August Security Council deadline
for Iran to freeze its uranium enrichment operations.
Kessler was in part echoing David Ignatius, a longtime Middle East specialist
at the Post, who, after a one-on-one interview with Bush last week, suggested
not only that Bush is committed to a diplomatic solution, but may also be prepared
to recognize Iran's regional security interests.
"[He] made clear that the administration wants a diplomatic solution to
the confrontation over Iran's nuclear program one that is premised on
an American recognition of Iran's role as an important nation in the Middle
East," Ignatius wrote.
While it would appear difficult to reconcile these apparently opposing views
of Bush's intentions, they can perhaps be best explained by the ongoing conflict
within the administration between a familiar group of hawks led by Vice President
Dick Cheney on the one hand, and a realist faction led by Secretary of State
"Faced with internecine conflicts of this sort, President Bush has a striking
tendency to avoid making a decision and to let the factions fight it out,"
according to Fred Kaplan, the national-security correspondent for Slate, the
"It's possible, in other words, that the administration is playing both
approaches mobilizing as a tool of diplomatic pressure and mobilizing
as an act of impending warfare not as a coordinated strategy but as parallel
actions, each of which will follow its inexorable course."
Indeed, some of the evidence marshaled by Ignatius and others in recent weeks
in support of their view that Bush is committed to a diplomatic solution suggests
that Bush has given Rice considerably more flexibility in dealing with Iran
even if indirectly through the Europeans than he ever considered giving
her predecessor, Colin Powell.
Thus, soon after taking office in early 2005, Rice offered official U.S. backing
to European efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran, something Powell
had tried and failed to obtain. One year later, Bush gave her authority to offer
direct talks with Iran if Tehran agreed to an indefinite suspension of its uranium-enrichment
activities, an offer denounced as "appeasement" by neoconservative
hawks close to Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld.
More recently, Bush, on Rice's recommendation, personally authorized the issuance
of a visa to former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami for a series of unprecedented
public appearances around the United States earlier this month another
action that drew howls of protest from the hawks. He also gave permission to
a congressionally appointed task force on Iraq chaired by former Secretary of
State James Baker to meet with a "high representative" of the Iranian
"I know that the more we can show the Iranian people the true intention
of the American government," Bush told Ignatius last week, "the more
likely it is that we will be able to reach a diplomatic solution to a difficult
While these signals, as well as Washington's continued backing for European
efforts to engage Iran despite the passage of last month's Security Council
deadline, suggest that Bush is committed to diplomacy, however, the hawks have
also been active.
According to Time, among other accounts, extensive planning and even
preparations for war are well underway. The news weekly cited "Prepare
to Deploy" orders that went to the Navy last week for warships, including
minesweepers that would be needed to prevent a blockade of the Strait of Hormuz,
to be ready to move from their bases as of Oct. 1.
Ret. Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner, a well-connected analyst who has been extensively
involved in government war-gaming on Iran, reported this week that war plans
have moved from the Pentagon to the White House, suggesting that preparations
for an attack on Iran are much more advanced than previously assumed.
Gardiner, who just completed a report, "Considering the U.S. Military
Option for Iran," for the New York-based Century Foundation, also told
CNN that the evidence that military operations confined mostly to intelligence
gathering have been underway inside Iran for "at least 18 months
At the same time, analysts who believe that the administration sees war as
inevitable cite the creation by the Pentagon last spring first reported
by the Los Angeles Times of a new office on Iran staffed by some
of the same individuals who worked for the Office of Special Plans (OSP), a
group of mainly political appointees that sent questionable and now discredited
intelligence regarding Baghdad's alleged weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) programs
and ties to al-Qaeda directly to Cheney's office and the White House in the
run-up to the Iraq invasion.
"It seems like Iran is becoming the new Iraq," one unnamed "U.S.
counter-terrorism official" told the same reporters from the McClatchy
Newspapers (formerly Knight-Ridder) who first uncovered OSP's operations last
week in an article entitled "In a Replay of Iraq, a Battle Is Brewing Over
Intelligence on Iran."
One difference between Iran now and the run-up to Iraq, however, is that the
hawks lack the same eagerness for war that they showed for in 2002 and 2003.
While they saw the invasion of Iraq as a no-lose proposition, they clearly recognize
that the costs of attacking Iran will be, in Krauthammer's words, "terrible"
yet slightly less than acquiescence to a nuclear-armed Tehran.
But, if Kaplan's thesis is indeed correct that the two administration factions
are pursuing parallel, rather than coordinated tracks then the chances of
a miscalculation by Tehran's leaders are likely to be enhanced.
They, after all, are likely to be at least as confused and divided by the maneuvering
and speculation in Washington as the experts are becoming here.
(Inter Press Service)