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January 26, 2006

US Tries to Pressure Iran with Attack Stories

by Gareth Porter

Recent reports in the Turkish and German press of the U.S. asking the Turkish government to support a possible attack on Iran and alerting allied countries of preparations for such an attack appear to be part of a strategy to pressure the Iranian regime rather than the result of a new policy to strike Iran.

The stories appeared in Turkish and German newspapers after a Dec. 12 meeting between U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director Porter Goss and his Turkish counterpart. The Turkish center-left newspaper Cumhuryet reported that Goss had warned the Turkish government to be ready for possible U.S. use of air power against both Iran and Syria.

On Dec. 23, the German news agency DDP quoted "Western security sources" as saying that Goss had asked the Turkish prime minister to support a possible strike against Iranian nuclear and military facilities. And the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegal cited NATO intelligence sources as saying that the United States had informed NATO allies that it was studying the military option against Iran.

The reports, which have not been picked up in U.S. news media, seemed to suggest that the George W. Bush administration was now closer to war against Iran. But the circumstantial evidence points to strategic disinformation planted by the administration – perhaps with help from friendly officials in NATO – to ratchet up the pressure on Iran over its position on nuclear fuel enrichment.

The reports are unlikely to be effective in getting Iran to be more forthcoming, however. None of the stories suggested that the military option was anything more than a possibility. That would not represent anything new, because the administration's public posture since August 2005 had been that the "military option" was on the table.

The press reports do refer to possible air attacks on Iran, but since fall 2004, Bush administration planning for possible military action against Iranian nuclear facilities appears to have focused on commando operations to sabotage them rather than on air attacks.

Jushua Kurlantzick of The New Republic wrote in Gentleman's Quarterly last May that top officials had adopted a new strategy of "deterrence and disruption" toward Iran in the fall of 2004 that was aimed ultimately at covert operations by special forces to damage nuclear sites, according to a government official.

Kurlantzick's source confirmed, in effect, an earlier report by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker that the administration had approved conducting covert probes by reconnaissance missions in Iran to identify potential nuclear sites as targets for later military strikes. But it suggested any such strikes would be by commando teams rather than from the air.

"You'll start seeing reports of an 'accidental gas leak' at Natanz [an Iranian nuclear facility]," the official was quoted as saying.

The choice of covert operations instead of air strikes in administration planning reflected the serious downside associated with an overt attack on Iran. Administration policymakers were concerned about the likelihood of Iranian retaliation – in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere in the Middle East – for an open military air attack against Iranian targets.

Nor did they regard Israeli air strikes as any more likely to avoid Iranian retaliation against the United States, since they would require U.S. support. In a book recently published by the National Defense University's Institute of Strategic Studies, Thomas Donnelly, a stalwart defender of administration policy at the American Enterprise Institute, noted that if Israeli planes stuck Iranian nuclear targets, "The Iranians would surely hold us responsible and target U.S. interests in retaliation."

Administration policymakers apparently hoped that the United States and Israel could deny responsibility for a covert operation, thus reducing the likelihood or intensity of Iranian responses to the strikes, as well as opposition from allies around the world.

Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), which is close to both Bush administration and Israeli policymakers, suggested in an interview with Hersh in late 2004 that if military action was to be carried out against Iran, it would be "much more in Israel's interest – and Washington's – to take covert action."

The U.S. military option remained in the background as the second Bush administration began in January 2005. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a London news conference in early February that an attack on Iran over its nuclear program was "not on the agenda at this point."

But after Iran indicated its intention to go ahead with uranium enrichment in August 2005, the administration reversed that declaratory policy. On Aug. 11, Bush declared in a press conference that "all options are on the table."

From then on, the "military option" was an integral part of the U.S. strategy of diplomatic pressure on Iran. But that policy decision sharpened a conflict between the Bush administration and its three European allies – especially the British, French, and Germans – over the issue of the use of military force against Iran.

It took Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder only a few hours to respond to Bush's move to put the military option ostentatiously on the table by declaring that the alliance should "take the military option off the table."

In September, however, Schroeder's Social Democrats were defeated by the opposition Christian Democrats, as the administration had hoped, and by early October Angela Merkel was on her way to forming a new government. Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns was then dispatched to meet with representatives of Britain, France, and Germany to "begin discussing ways to ratchet up the pressure on Tehran," according to a report by the Wall Street Journal's Carla Anne Robbins on Oct. 6.

Burns' top priority was certainly to get the European allies to integrate the idea that the military option is "on the table" into its negotiating stance on Iran's nuclear policy. Subsequently, Britain's Tony Blair began to echo Bush's position on the military option, presumably at U.S. insistence, but Merkel and French President Jacques Chirac avoided any endorsement of that posture.

Having failed to get agreement by the European three to exploit the military option in the diplomatic maneuvering with Iran, the Bush administration apparently felt that it needed to take other steps to increase the pressure on Tehran, including arranging for sensational newspaper articles to appear in the Turkish and German press.

It would not have been the first time a U.S. administration had used such leaks about a possible military action as part of a campaign to put pressure on foes to make diplomatic concessions.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles feinted toward a military intervention in Indochina at the time of the 1954 Dien Bien Phu crisis and the start of the Geneva Conference on a settlement of the war.

Privately, however, both men opposed U.S. intervention in Indochina and hinted that the suggestions of intervention were a bluff to influence Soviet and Chinese diplomacy at Geneva.

The ruse worked in 1954, inducing the Soviets and Chinese to put pressure on their Vietnamese allies to make far-reaching concessions in negotiating the Geneva accords. It is far less likely that such tactics will succeed with Iran, which is being asked to sacrifice its own central security interests rather than those of an ally.

(Inter Press Service)


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  • Gareth Porter is a historian. His latest book is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (University of California Press).

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