Rejecting the notion that the United States was
planning to attack Iran and Syria, White House Spokesman Tony Snow called it
a myth or an "urban legend." "I want to address [a] kind of a
rumor, an urban legend that's going around," Snow told reporters at a White
House briefing two days after President George W. Bush vowed to go after Iranian
terrorist networks involved in Iraq violence. "What the president talked
about in his speech on Iraq strategy is defending American forces within Iraq,"
In his January 11 televised speech on US policy in Iraq, Bush had accused Tehran
and Damascus of fueling the insurgency in Iraq and expressed disagreement with
proposals, including from the Iraq Study Group (ISG), to negotiate with both
countries as part of an effort to reach peace and stability in Iraq. He said:
"We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We'll interrupt the flow of
support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing
advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq." Bush also announced
that he would dispatch another aircraft carrier battle group and deploy Patriot
antimissile batteries in the Persian Gulf.
Generally speaking, an urban legend is a widely circulated, folklorish story – often
based on exaggerated or distorted fact – that is believed to be true by many who
So, let's see. Many reports circulated in Washington and elsewhere in 2002
and early 2003 that, notwithstanding Bush's stated commitment to deal with Iraq's
alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) through diplomatic means, the White
House was already considering plans to militarily oust Saddam Hussein. It seems
that Bush et al. would characterize such "pre-invasion preparation" speculation
as urban legend. After all, Bush and his advisers denied the reports – much in
the same way they are challenging the current reports on the possibility of
US preparations to attack Iran.
I suppose that when it comes to Washington, DC, something that is urban legend-esque
ceases to be a legend only after we read one of Bob Woodward's postmortems in
which we end up discovering that those who had been accused of "spreading
rumors" were actually telling the truth. We might then learn that the press
secretary who had dismissed these facts as nothing more than "rumors"
was probably just out of the loop. ("Out of the loop" is what "insiders"
call a government official who doesn't have access to information about what
the Decider and his Vice are really planning.)
As a journalist who covered Washington in the months leading up to the US invasion
of Iraq in March 2003, I recall the many "urban legends" that were
circulating at that time. These included rumors about how Vice President Dick
Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld were pushing for a war with Iraq; about how their aides were pressuring
the intelligence agencies to come up with "estimates" to help exaggerate
the Iraqi WMD threat and Baghdad's alleged ties to al-Qaeda; about how the Americans
and the British were secretly drawing up a strategy for a military confrontation
with Iraq while pledging to continue to pursue diplomacy; and about how some
of the leading Iraqi exiles lobbying for the "liberation" of Iraq,
like Ahmed Chalabi,
were untrustworthy characters.
I read some of these reports in the press; others reached me through the grapevine.
They were all immediately denied by the White House press officer. Yet after
the war had been raging, most of these "rumors" proved to be based on fact.
In a way, any political analyst familiar with the way Washington works and the
way decisions are made here – who could read between the lines of media reports
and official statements, and who would deconstruct the modus operandi and body
language of Bush and his aides – had no choice but to conclude that war with Iraq
was inevitable. In that case, the conventional wisdom got it right.
So it's not surprising that journalists and pundits who continue to follow
their professional instincts are experiencing a certain sense of déjà
vu all over again as they begin to wonder these days whether Bush and his aides
are planning to expand the current war in Iraq to Iran (and Syria). The initial
source of this "urban legend" was Bush's infamous "Axis of Evil" speech, in
which he lumped Iran together with Iraq and North Korea as deserving US punishment.
The speech was followed by various pledges, including public statements, press
leaks, and even the commitment of US financial resources to "export" democracy
to Iran. And in the aftermath of ousting Saddam from power in Baghdad, there
were even a few hints here and there about "regime change" in Tehran. Interestingly,
the administration denied press reports about Iranian attempts to negotiate
a diplomatic deal with Washington over Iraq, Lebanon, and Israel/Palestine.
Finally, at the center of the US anti-Iran campaign was the effort to end
Iranian plans to develop nuclear weapons – allegations based on questionable intelligence
estimates from Washington and Jerusalem – either through diplomatic means or,
the efforts implied, otherwise.
For a while, the conventional wisdom in Washington was that against the backdrop
of the ensuing mess in Iraq, the neocons were losing influence, the "realists"
were gaining power, and that the Bush administration was going to move toward
some sort of diplomatic "engagement" with the Iranians along the lines proposed
by the ISG, other respected foreign policy experts, and leading Democrats.
But after Bush and Cheney politely rejected the ISG recommendations, and after
signs that Bush and Cheney were getting ready to "do something" about Iran,
the conventional wisdom concluded that the White House has now embraced further
military escalation in the Persian Gulf.
The Israelis, led by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, have been playing
to the hands of US warriors by suggesting that an Iranian nuclear bomb would
pose an "existential" threat akin to the European Holocaust and that if US
diplomatic and/or military power failed, Israel would have no choice but to
"take care of the problem." The warnings were buttressed through a series of
public statements, including a visit by Olmert to Washington, and leaks to the
press, including a recent British newspaper report that Israel could use tactical
nuclear weapons to destroy Iran's nuclear military sites.
At the same time, the Saudis have been warning that a nuclear Iran would help
transform Tehran into a hegemonic power in the Persian Gulf and provide it with
an opportunity to lead an alliance of Shi'ite Mideast factions, from Iran to
Israel/Palestine through Lebanon, in a way that would threaten Saudi Arabia
and other pro-US Arab-Sunni regimes. The sense of alarm perpetuated by the
Saudis was reinforced through press leaks suggesting that the members of the
hawkish wing of the Saudi royal family, led by former Saudi Ambassador to Washington
Prince Bandar bin Sultan, were gaining strength, and that the Israelis and the
Saudis, backed by Washington, have been conducting secret talks to coordinate
the anti-Iran strategy.
Indeed, according to Israeli press reports, Olmert and Prince Sultan have met
to discuss Iran and related issues. The meeting and other signs of coordination
on Iran between Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh have raised the possibility
that the Bush administration was trying to draw the outlines of a new strategic
consensus involving it, Israel, and the pro-US Arab-Sunni regimes (Saudi Arabia
and the other Arab Gulf states, and Egypt and Jordan). These reports recalled
a similar "strategic consensus" that evolved in the 1980s during the
Reagan administration, when the Americans, Israelis, and Saudis – and,
yes, then-US partner, Saddam Hussein's Iraq – were cooperating in dealing
with both the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and with the challenge from revolutionary
Iran. And anyone who knows how to assess the balance of power in Washington
will tell you that when the Americans are joined by the Saudis and the Israelis
and their powerful supporters in Washington in a coordinated effort to harm
you, run fast for cover. Both the Soviets fighting against Osama bin Laden and
his mujahedeen allies (assisted by Washington) in Afghanistan and the Iranians
attacked by Saddam's Iraqi military (assisted by Washington) learned that lesson
in the 1980s.
In addition to the pressure exerted by the Saudis and Israelis on Washington,
President Bush in his January 11 speech blamed the Iranians for targeting US
troops in Iraq and threatened to use US military power to disrupt such actions.
The next day Bush announced that he was sending an aircraft carrier to visit
Iran's neighborhood, and the military ordered US troops to raid an Iranian consulate
in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Irbil. Such actions could lead even a low-level
intelligence analyst to see "signals" coming out of the White House
aimed at Iran.
Moreover, the decision by the Bush administration to appoint Adm. William Fallon
to oversee US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has raised many red
flags among observers in Washington. Why choose a navy admiral to lead two ground
wars in the Middle East and South Asia, unless you regard that as a preparatory
step for a strike on Iran's nuclear military sites? If that happened, Iran would
retaliate by attacking oil platforms and tankers, closing the Strait of Hormuz,
and perhaps hitting oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia; the US Navy would probably
play a key role in protecting the oil flowing from the Persian Gulf.
Many members of Congress have also been reading the signals, and they are worried
that the Bush administration may be making the conditions for another war in
the Middle East. During testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,
Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice insisted that the administration had no plans to cross Iraq's borders
into Iran to attack supporters of the Iraqi insurgency and militias. But Sen.
Chuck Hagel (R-NE) compared Bush's strategy to former President Richard Nixon's
escalation of the Vietnam War. "You cannot sit here today, not because
you are dishonest or don't understand – once you get to hot pursuit, no
one can say we won't engage across the border," he said. "Some of
us remember 1970 and Cambodia, and our government lied to us and said we didn't
cross the border. When you set in motion the kind of policy the president is
talking about here, it is very, very dangerous."
Other Democratic and Republican lawmakers expressed similar concerns that the
rising tensions with Iran could ignite a full-blown war and demanded that the
White House consult Congress before going to war with Iran. But Bush-Cheney
and their neocon advisers may have found a way to overcome the threat of congressional
and Democratic opposition, and it has to do with the potential Israeli role
in a crisis with Iran. If Israel decides to attack Iran's nuclear sites, many
of the same lawmakers would probably applaud the move, a reflection of their
pro-Israeli disposition. After all, can anyone imagine presidential candidate
Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) bashing the Israelis on the eve of the primaries
or the general election? But any retaliation from an Israeli attack on Iran
would probably necessitate a US response, which Congress would have no choice
to support. It is quite likely that if Iran also decided to unleash its Hezbollah
allies in Lebanon and encouraged them to attack Israel, the Israelis would respond
by invading Syria and forcing out Bashar al-Assad – another "regime
change" that might benefit the interests of US allies in Lebanon. And of
course, the Bush administration would then dismiss the notion that the strike
by a client state received a green (or at least a yellow) light from the White
House as another "urban legend." (We'd probably have to wait for Bob
Woodward's next volume to learn that while US lawmakers were whining, the green
light was flashing as the Americans, Israelis, and Saudis were readying for
a war with Iran.)
But it's also possible that such a book would not conclude with a neoconservative-scripted,
happy ending in which the Bush administration celebrates the triumph of Pax
Americana. Bush, Cheney, and their neoconservative aides have already tried
to use Israel's strategic services, when they gave Olmert a green light to attack
Hezbollah infrastructure in Lebanon in summer 2006, hoping that devastating
the partner of Iran and Syria would serve as a blow to Tehran.
But the best-laid plans of mice and neocons often go awry. Hezbollah resisted
the Israeli invasion of South Lebanon and emerged with a political victory in
the aftermath of war, providing Iran and Syria with a win. Similarly, an Israeli
strike against Iran could fail and/or result in thousands of civilian casualties.
The Shi'ite-led government in Iraq could be forced to ally with the Iranians
and demand the withdrawal of US troops from the country, while anti-US sentiments
in the Middle East and the Muslim world would skyrocket. Other possible consequences
could include a dramatic increase in energy prices, especially if Venezuela
decides to join an oil embargo; demonstrations by outraged citizens in major
European (not to mention US) cities; and most importantly, growing pressure
from the European Union, Russia, and China on Washington to convene an international
conference on the Middle East.
While the United States and Israel could emerge victorious from the military
campaign (not unlike the British, French, and Israelis after the 1956 Suez Campaign
against Egypt), they could also find themselves totally isolated in the international
community, facing enormous diplomatic and economic pressure to reverse their
policies. That is what happens when history transforms an urban legend into
Originally published on Right Web.