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January 22, 2005

Bush, Cheney Team Up to Soften Americans for War on Iran

by Jim Lobe

Two very different messages about the future of U.S. foreign policy were broadcast to the world on Inaugural Day Thursday, and listeners everywhere could be forgiven for feeling confused about their import.

On the one hand, George W. Bush's lofty rhetoric about his administration's commitment to bring democracy, liberty and freedom to every country where tyrants rule naturally grabbed the most attention; after all, he is the president.

Even as the speech was much criticized by normally friendly critics – probably more than the White House had anticipated – as being hopelessly ambitious and unrealistic, the idealism that it expressed was widely praised and unquestioned.

On the other hand, Vice Pres. Dick Cheney's dark words of warning against Iran on MSNBC's "Imus in the Morning" television show conveyed something altogether different, both in tone and substance, even if they were relegated to the inside pages.

"You look around the world at potential trouble spots, (and) Iran is right at the top of the list," the vice president intoned, noting that Washington's chief concern with Tehran had less to do with democracy or even terrorism but rather with its "fairly robust new nuclear program."

And while Cheney stressed that Washington still hoped Europe's efforts to persuade Tehran to abandon any ambitions to obtain a nuclear weapon would succeed, he grimly observed that Israel might well decide to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, presumably before the Bush administration, "and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards."

"We don't want a war in the Middle East, if we can avoid it," he concluded as cheerfully as he could – at least until he was caught up short by the cowboy-hatted Imus, who reminded him that the U.S. already has a war there.

To former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, Cheney's remarks sounded "like a justification or even an encouragement for the Israelis" to carry out an attack.

He noted that, coinciding with Bush's idealistic address, they underlined that the administration was "really very unclear regarding its genuine strategic doctrine."

For neoconservatives, who have long used the velvet glove of pro-democracy rhetoric to hide the steel fist of what has consistently been a U.S.- and Israel-centered Machtpolitik, Cheney's warning came as the perfect topper to Bush's inaugural speech, much of which was borrowed from right-wing Israeli leader Natan Sharansky's new book, The Case for Democracy.

After biting their tongue about making Iran the next target of U.S. military power after Iraq through most of 2004 so as not to jeopardize Bush's re-election, they have been noisily pushing Tehran as the chief candidate for Public Enemy Number One in Bush's second term.

Just the day before the inaugural, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, who doubles as chairman of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), had told an audience at the neoconservative Hudson Institute that the administration considered Iran to be a much bigger threat than North Korea.

"I don't think George W. Bush thinks he got re-elected to preside over the theocratic regime getting nuclear weapons," he confidently asserted, although he also admitted that there were "big practical questions" as to how to stop it.

Both Cheney's and Kristol's remarks followed the publication earlier in the week of a much-noted article in the New Yorker magazine by prize-winning investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, which maintained that Washington has been infiltrating Special Operations Forces (SOFs) into Iran from Iraq and Pakistan since last summer precisely to seek out Tehran's secret nuclear facilities and other weapons targets in preparation for possible combined air and ground strikes.

The article, which the Pentagon said was "riddled with errors" that it declined to further identify, also reported that Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, whose Middle East views accord closely with Israel's extreme right and whose office is widely blamed for corrupting the intelligence process leading up to the Iraq war, has been working with Israeli planners and consultants on a target list.

It asserted that he and other hard-liners in the Pentagon, Cheney's office and the White House fervently believe that a major military blow against Tehran will topple the regime.

"The minute the aura of invincibility which the mullahs enjoy is shattered, and with it the ability to hoodwink the West," one unnamed Pentagon consultant told Hersh, "the Iranian regime will collapse" like the regimes in Romania, East Germany and the Soviet Union because of popular hatred for the ruling theocracy.

Hersh's article was greeted with unrestrained joy by neoconservative publications, such as the New York Sun, the New York Post and the Jerusalem Post, as evidence that the administration, hopelessly split over Iran policy during the Bush's first term largely because of the State Department's and the CIA's desire to gain Tehran's cooperation on Afghanistan and Iraq, has finally opted for confrontation.

For regional specialists, such as Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University, however, both the Hersh article and Cheney's grim mutterings are "deja vu all over again."

"In Iraq, we listened to the exiles who said we'd be greeted with flowers and candies so it would be 'cakewalk,' but it turned out not to be quite that way," said Sick, who served on the National Security Council under former President Jimmy Carter and later wrote a book, All Fall Down, about U.S. policy in Iran.

"I can't believe there are people who want to repeat that process now," he added.

Sick and other regional specialists insist that the assumptions apparently being made by administration hawks about the nature of the government, its goals in Iraq, and how a U.S. or Israeli military strike would affect internal Iranian politics are all deeply flawed.

"The ramifications of a military strike are going to be all negative," according to Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst now at the Brookings Institution, who supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He said it would likely rally the population behind the regime and provoke serious retaliation both in Iraq and beyond.

Even the "big practical questions" acknowledged by Kristol represent formidable hurdles to ensuring the destruction of Iran's ability to build a bomb, according to Pollack. Anticipating Cheney, he asserted at a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) forum last week that "we would all like the Israelis to take care of this problem, (but) they can't."

Central and eastern Iran, where most of the facilities are believed to be situated, is beyond the range of their fighter jets. So in order to reach their targets, the bombers would have to fly over U.S.-occupied Iraq, thus making Washington complicit.

Worse, "(a)ny bombing raid that tries to take out so many sites will be of no value unless it's followed up on the ground," Sick told IPS. "My guess is that neither Cheney nor anyone around him really looks forward to putting boots on the ground in Iran."

Moreover, while there is "quite a lot of real respect for the United States and for Bush in Iran today, if there were an American attack, all of that would just vanish overnight," he said, pressing a more hopeful view of Cheney's and the administration's intentions.

"I think this is actually a campaign to intimidate Iran," he said. "It's holding out a palpable threat that if you don't cooperate this is what is going to happen to you."

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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