Adm. William Fallon, then President George W.
Bush's nominee to head the Central Command (CENTCOM), expressed strong opposition
in February to an administration plan to increase the number of carrier strike
groups in the Persian Gulf from two to three and vowed privately there would
be no war against Iran as long as he was chief of CENTCOM, according to sources
with access to his thinking.
Fallon's resistance to the proposed deployment of a third aircraft carrier
was followed by a shift in the Bush administration's Iran policy in February
and March away from increased military threats and toward diplomatic engagement
with Iran. That shift, for which no credible explanation has been offered by
administration officials, suggests that Fallon's resistance to a crucial deployment
was a major factor in the intra-administration struggle over policy toward Iran.
The plan to add a third carrier strike group in the Gulf had been a key element
in a broader strategy discussed at high levels to intimidate Iran by a series
of military moves suggesting preparations for a military strike.
Fallon's resistance to a further buildup of naval striking power in the Gulf
apparently took the Bush administration by surprise. Fallon, then commander
of the U.S. Pacific Command, had been associated with naval aviation throughout
his career, and last January, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates publicly encouraged
the idea that the appointment presaged greater emphasis on the military option
in regard to the U.S. conflict with Iran.
Explaining why he recommended Fallon, Gates said, "As you look at the
range of options available to the United States, the use of naval and air power,
potentially, it made sense to me for all those reasons for Fallon to have the
Bush administration officials had just leaked to CBS News and the New York
Times in December that the USS John C. Stennis and its associated
warships would be sent to the Gulf in January six weeks earlier than originally
planned in order to overlap with the USS Eisenhower and to "send
a message to Tehran."
But that was not the end of the signaling to Iran by naval deployment planned
by administration officials. The plan was for the USS Nimitz and its
associated vessels, scheduled to sail into the Gulf in early April, to overlap
with the other two carrier strike groups for a period of months, so that all
three would be in the Gulf simultaneously.
Two well-informed sources say they heard about such a plan being pushed at
high levels of the administration, and Newsweek's Michael Hirsh and Maziar
Bahari reported Feb. 19 that the deployment of a third carrier group to the
Gulf was "likely."
That would have brought the U.S. naval presence up to the same level as during
the U.S. air campaign against the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, when the Lincoln,
Constellation, and Kitty Hawk carrier groups were all present. Two other carrier
groups helped coordinate bombing sorties from the Mediterranean.
The deployment of three carrier groups simultaneously was not part of a plan
for an actual attack on Iran, but was meant to convince Iran that the Bush administration
was preparing for possible war if Tehran continued its uranium enrichment program.
At a mid-February meeting of top civilian officials over which Secretary of
Defense Gates presided, there was an extensive discussion of a strategy of intimidating
Tehran's leaders, according to an account by a Pentagon official who attended
the meeting given to a source outside the Pentagon. The plan involved a series
of steps that would appear to Tehran to be preparations for war, in a manner
similar to the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
But Fallon, who was scheduled to become the CENTCOM chief March 16, responded
to the proposed plan by sending a strongly-worded message to the Defense Department
in mid-February opposing any further U.S. naval buildup in the Persian Gulf
"He asked why another aircraft carrier was needed in the Gulf and insisted
there was no military requirement for it," says the source, who obtained
the gist of Fallon's message from a Pentagon official who had read it.
Fallon's refusal to support a further naval buildup in the Gulf reflected his
firm opposition to an attack on Iran and an apparent readiness to put his career
on the line to prevent it. A source who met privately with Fallon around the
time of his confirmation hearing and who insists on anonymity quoted Fallon
as saying that an attack on Iran "will not happen on my watch."
Asked how he could be sure, the source says, Fallon replied, "You know
what choices I have. I'm a professional." Fallon said that he was not alone,
according to the source, adding, "There are several of us trying to put
the crazies back in the box."
Fallon's opposition to adding a third carrier strike group to the two already
in the Gulf represented a major obstacle to the plan. The decision to send a
second carrier task group to the Gulf had been officially requested by Fallon's
predecessor at CENTCOM, Gen. John Abizaid, according to a Dec. 20 report by
the Washington Post's Peter Baker. But as Baker reported, the circumstances
left little doubt that Abizaid was doing so because the White House wanted it
as part of a strategy of sending "pointed messages" to Iran.
CENTCOM commander Fallon's refusal to request the deployment of a third carrier
strike group meant that proceeding with that option would carry political risks.
The administration chose not to go ahead with the plan. Two days before the
Nimitz sailed out of San Diego for the Gulf on April 1, a Navy spokesman
confirmed that it would replace the Eisenhower, adding, "There is
no plan to overlap them at all."
The defeat of the plan for a third carrier task group in the Gulf appears to
have weakened the position of Cheney and other hawks in the administration who
had succeeded in selling Bush on the idea of a strategy of coercive threat against
Within two weeks, the administration's stance had already begun to shift dramatically.
On Jan. 12, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had dismissed direct talks with
Iran in the absence of Tehran's suspension of its uranium enrichment program
as "extortion." But by the end of February, Rice had gotten authorization
for high-level diplomatic contacts with Iran in the context of a regional meeting
on Iraq in Baghdad.
The explanation for the shift offered by administration officials to the New
York Times was that the administration now felt that it "had leverage"
on Iran. But that now appears to have been a cover for a retreat from the more
aggressive strategy previously planned.
Throughout March and April, the Bush administration avoided aggressive language
and the State Department openly sought diplomatic engagement with Iran, culminating
in the agreement confirmed by U.S. officials last weekend that bilateral talks
will begin with Iran on Iraq.
Despite Vice President Dick Cheney's invocation of the military option from
the deck of the USS John C. Stennis in the Persian Gulf last week, the
strategy of escalating a threat of war to influence Iran has been put on the
shelf, at least for now.
(Inter Press Service)