President George W. Bush's seemingly aggressive
Iran policy of taking direct action against alleged Iranian "networks"
involved in attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, combined with the deployment of
a second carrier group off Iran's coast, triggered speculation that it is related
to a plan for an attack.
But the revelation by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the campaign
against Iranian officials had already been in effect for several months before
Bush's speech last Wednesday indicates that the new rhetoric is aimed at serving
the desperate need of the White House to shift the blame for its failure in
Iraq to Iran, and to appear to be taking tough action.
Rice told the New York Times in an interview Friday that Bush had ordered
the U.S. military to target Iranian officials in Iraq allegedly linked to attacks
on U.S. forces some time last fall. Bush and Rice had previously created the
impression that the administration had launched a new initiative against Iran
in connection with its proposed increase in troop strength in Iraq.
The Bush speech coincided with an attack by an unidentified U.S. military unit
on the building used by Iranian consular officials in Irbil and the seizure
of six Iranian officials in the compound. But all indications are that the U.S.
military has no real intelligence on any Iranian direct involvement in supplying
lethal weapons to insurgents.
The statement issued by the U.S. military but clearly written in the White
House said the detainees, who were not identified as Iranians, were "suspected
of being closely tied to activities targeting Iraqi and coalition forces."
That statement shows that the seizure was not based on any prior evidence of
the officials' complicity in insurgent attacks. U.S. troops also seized documents
and computers, indicating that the attack was really nothing more than an intelligence
operation, launched in the hope of finding some evidence that could be used
The only other such U.S. military raid came in late December and targeted four
Iranian officials visiting Baghdad at the invitation of Iraqi President Jalal
Talabani. That operation bore similar evidence of being a fishing expedition
against Iranians, based on nothing more than the "suspicion" that
they were connected with the Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Contrary to the impression conveyed by the administration, therefore, it is
not targeting those who it knows to be involved in supplying insurgents with
weapons but is still trying to find some evidence to justify its tough rhetoric
The initial rhetoric from Bush suggesting a possible intention to expand the
Iraq war into Iran or Syria in response to alleged Iranian and Syrian support
for anti-coalition insurgents had been followed by clarifications and new details
that point to a very carefully calibrated propaganda offensive aimed at rallying
his own political base.
Bush's identification in his Jan. 10 speech of Iran and Syria as "allowing
terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq"
and the more specific reference to Iran as "providing material support
for attacks on American troops" seemed to hint at such a plan to expand
the war across the board into Iran.
Rice seemed to be dropping even more pointed hints of such a plan in television
interviews on Thursday. On the NBC Today show, Rice vowed, on behalf
of Bush, "[W]e are going to make certain that we disrupt activities that
are endangering and killing our troops and that are destabilizing Iraq."
And when asked if that meant "attacks inside Iran and Syria" were
"on the table," she responded that Bush "is not going to take
options off the table."
Rice went on to declare, "The Iranians need to know, and the Syrians need
to know, that the United States is not finding it acceptable and is not going
to simply tolerate their activities to try and harm our forces or to destabilize
Asked in an interview on Fox and Friends whether Bush's speech could
mean "going over the border to chase down those who are providing the technology
and possibly the training," Rice coyly replied, "Well, I don't want
to speculate on what kinds of operations the United States may be engaged in,"
as if to leave that possibility open. Then she added, "But I think you
will see that the United States is not going to simply stand idly by and let
these activities continue."
In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, Rice
refused to answer a question from Chairman Joe Biden on whether the president
has the authority to conduct military missions in Iran without congressional
approval. That provoked expressions of alarm from both Democratic and Republic
senators. Sen. Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, said this ambiguity reminded
him of the Richard Nixon administration's policy toward Cambodia in 1970 during
the Vietnam War.
Some analysts viewed Rice's rhetoric as evidence of an administration plan
to justify an air offensive against Iran on the basis of alleged Iranian complicity
in attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, rather than on the more abstract threat of
Iranian progress toward a possible nuclear weapons capability.
But the careful wording used and the explicit caveats issued by administration
officials belied the impression of menace against Iran that Bush and Rice had
clearly sought to convey. Bush's reference to the issue in his Wednesday night
speech avoided any actual threat to Iran. Instead he said, "We will seek
out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our
enemies in Iraq." That formulation was carefully chosen to limit the scope
of U.S. actions.
The next day, even though Rice was provoking congressional fears of a wider
war, the whole Bush team was qualifying that rhetoric in remarks to reporters
by specifying that U.S. actions to stop the alleged Iranian interference in
Iraq will be confined to Iraq itself.
Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is considered a
full member of the Bush administration team, limited the threatened aggressive
U.S. actions to "those who are physically present trying to do harm to
He concluded, "We can take care of the security of our troops by doing
the business we need to do inside of Iraq."
And spokesman for the National Security Council Gordon Johndroe, after repeating
the new line that the administration would "not tolerate outside interference
in Iraq," went on to say that the actions would be taken only inside Iraq,
not across the border. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates also said on Friday
the United States had no intention of going into Iranian territory.
The contrast between the general impression of steely resolve toward Iran conveyed
by Bush and the unusual clarity about the limited geographical scope of the
response points to a sophisticated two-level communications strategy prepared
by the White House. For those who get their news from television, the message
conveyed by Rice was one of effective action against the Iranians supposedly
causing harm to U.S. troops; for the Congress and the media, the message conveyed
to reporters was much more cautious.
The two-level communications strategy suggests, in turn, that the White House
was acutely aware that a single message of menace toward Iran could have triggered
a negative congressional response that would have defeated the purpose of the
tough rhetorical line.
Ironically, therefore, the net effect of the new tough line toward Iran may
actually have been to force the administration to admit, if only tacitly, that
it is not free under present circumstances even to threaten to go to war against
(Inter Press Service)