The George W. Bush administration's shift from
the military option of a massive strategic attack against Iran to a surgical
strike against selected targets associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard
Corps (IRGC), reported by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker earlier this
month, appears to have been prompted not by new alarm at Iran's role in Iraq
but by the explicit opposition of the nation's top military leaders to an unprovoked
attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.
The reorientation of the military threat was first signaled by passages on
Iran in Bush's Jan. 10 speech and followed by only a few weeks a decisive rejection
by the Joint Chiefs of Staff of a strategic attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.
Although scarcely mentioned in press reports of the speech, which was devoted
almost entirely to announcing the troop "surge" in Iraq, Bush accused
both Iran and Syria of "allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their
territory to move in and out of Iraq." Bush also alleged that Iran was
"providing material support for attacks on American troops."
Those passages were intended in part to put pressure on Iran, and were accompanied
by an intensification of a campaign begun the previous month to seize Iranian
officials inside Iraq. But according to Hillary Mann, who was director for Persian
Gulf and Afghanistan Affairs on the National Security Council staff in 2003,
they also provided a legal basis for a possible attack on Iran.
"I believe the president chose his words very carefully," says Mann,
"and laid down a legal predicate that could be used to justify later military
action against Iran."
Mann says her interpretation of the language is based on the claim by the White
House of a right to attack another country in "anticipatory self-defense"
based on Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. That had been the legal basis
cited by then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice had in September 2002
in making the case for the invasion of Iraq.
The introduction of a new reason for striking Iran, which also implied a much
more limited set of targets related to Iraq, followed a meeting between Bush
and the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Dec. 13, 2006 in which the uniformed military
leaders rejected a strike against Iran's nuclear program. Time magazine political
columnist Joe Klein, reported last May that military and intelligence sources
told him that Bush had asked the Joint Chiefs at the meeting about a possible
strike against the Iranian nuclear program., and that they had unanimously opposed
such an attack.
Mann says that she was also told by her own contacts in the Pentagon that the
Joint Chiefs had expressed opposition to a strike against Iran.
The Joint Chiefs were soon joined in opposition to a strike on Iran by Admiral
William Fallon, who was nominated to become CENTCOM commander in January. Mann
says Pentagon contacts have also told her that Fallon made his opposition to
war against Iran clear to the White House.
IPS reported last May that Fallon had indicated privately that he was determined
to prevent an attack on Iran and even prepared to resign to do so. A source
who met with Fallon at the time of his confirmation hearing quoted him as vowing
that there would be "no war with Iran" while he was CENTCOM commander
and as hinting very strongly that he would quit rather than go along with an
Although he did not specifically refer to the Joint Chiefs, Fallon also suggested
that other military leaders were opposing a strike against Iran, saying, "There
are several of us who are trying to put the crazies back in the box," according
to the same source.
Fallon's opposition to a strike against Iranian nuclear, military and economic
targets would make it very difficult, if not impossible for the White House
to carry out such an operation, according to military experts. As CENTCOM commander,
Fallon has complete control over all military access to the region, says retired
Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner, an expert on military strategy who has taught at
the National War College.
Douglas McGregor, a retired Army Lt. Col. who was a tank commander in the 1991
Gulf War and has taught at the National Defense University, agrees. "I
find it hard to imagine that anything can happen in the area without the involvement
of the Central Command," says McGregor.
The possibility that Fallon might object to an unprovoked attack on Iran or
even resign over the issue represents a significant deterrent to such an attack.
Former NSC adviser Mann believes the Iraq-focused strategy is now aimed at
averting any resignation threat by Fallon or other military leaders by carrying
out a very limited strike that would be presented as a response to a specific
incident in Iraq in which the deaths of US soldiers could be attributed to
Iranian policy. She says she doubts Fallon and other military leaders would
"fall on their swords" over such a strike.
Gardiner agrees that Fallon is unlikely to refuse to carry out such a limited
strike under those circumstances.
Mann believes the Bush-Cheney purpose in advancing the strategy is to provoke
Iranian retaliation. "The concern I have is that it would be just enough
so Iranians would retaliate against US allies," she says.
But the issue of what evidence of Iranian complicity would be adequate to justify
such a strike evidently remains a matter of debate within the administration.
A story published by McClatchy newspapers Aug. 9 reported that Vice President
Dick Cheney had argued some weeks earlier for a strike against camps in Iran
allegedly used to train Iraqi Shiite militiamen fighting US troops if "hard
new evidence" could be obtained of Iran's complicity in supporting anti-US
forces in Iraq.
But Cheney and his allies have been frustrated in the search for such evidence.
Mann notes that British forces in southern Iraq patrolled the border very aggressively
for six months last year to find evidence of Iranian involvement in supplying
weapons to Iraqi guerrillas but found nothing.
After several months of trying to establish specific links between Iraqis suspected
of trafficking in weapons to a specific Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard
contact, the US command has not claimed a single case of such a link. Maj.
Gen. Rick Lynch, the US commander for southern Iraq, where most of the Shiite
militias operate, admitted in a Jul. 6 briefing that his troops had not captured
"anybody that we can tie to Iran."
Sen. Joe Lieberman, who is known to be closely allied with Cheney on Iran policy,
has betrayed impatience with a policy that depends on obtaining proof of Iranian
complicity in attacks. On Jun. 11 he called for "strike over the border
into Iran, where we have good evidence that they have a base at which they are
training these people coming back into Iraq to kill our soldiers."
Lieberman repeated that position on Jul. 2, but thus far it has not prevailed.
(Inter Press Service)