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A number of significant developments with respect to the prospects of a new war with Iran. I expect, with the Petraeus Show off the front pages, we’ll start hearing the drums beat with regularity now—in any event, if you kept track of things in the last week, they weren’t silent.
Today The New York Times takes a good look at the dialogue within the Administration. The line-up has generally been portrayed as Cheney and Hadley as the leaders of the war-party, with intelligence leaders McConnell and Hayden fueling them as best they can while preserving a more neutral stance. Gates and the Joint Staff consistently articulate very strong reservations driven by both tactical and prudential considerations. But the key figure appears, in the portrait furnished by the Times to be Condoleezza Rice.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been arguing for a continuation of a diplomatic approach, while officials in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office have advocated a much tougher view. They seek to isolate and contain Iran, and to include greater consideration of a military strike…
The tensions between Ms. Rice and Mr. Cheney have existed for a long time; they began during the administration’s first term, when, as national security adviser, she had to mediate turf battles between a coalition of Mr. Cheney and Donald H. Rumsfeld, then the secretary of defense, and Colin L. Powell, then the secretary of state. Now, as secretary of state, Ms. Rice has increasingly come to reflect the more diplomatic view advocated by the State Department, which has pushed for a more restrained tone in America’s dealings with the world in general, and Iran in particular.
Still the recent Israeli airstrike in Syria, which failed to draw condemnation in the Arab world, and which is widely considered to have been launched with State Department and National Security Council consent, suggests that Rice is prepared to move off her position on diplomacy if the process fails to yield significant Iranian concessions. And very few observers expect such concessions. Moreover, Rice has a long track record of yielding to Cheney in tough national security policy struggles.
In London, the Sunday Telegraph, widely viewed as the unofficial voice of the British Ministry of Defence, portrays the same process in different terms—it sees the die as cast, and Condi Rice being prepared to side with Cheney for an attack:
Senior American intelligence and defence officials believe that President George W Bush and his inner circle are taking steps to place America on the path to war with Iran, The Sunday Telegraph has learnt. Pentagon planners have developed a list of up to 2,000 bombing targets in Iran, amid growing fears among serving officers that diplomatic efforts to slow Iran’s nuclear weapons programme are doomed to fail.
Pentagon and CIA officers say they believe that the White House has begun a carefully calibrated programme of escalation that could lead to a military showdown with Iran. Now it has emerged that Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, who has been pushing for a diplomatic solution, is prepared to settle her differences with Vice-President Dick Cheney and sanction military action.
In both the Times and Telegraph accounts, a policy struggle over how to deal with the Revolutionary Guard figures as a key element in preparations for war. A distinction is drawn between diplomats and the Cheney team over how sweeping this step should be. However, the fact that something will occur seems almost a foregone conclusion. And it is clearly keyed to a legal policy rationale for attacks.
The Telegraph continues:
Under the theory – which is gaining credence in Washington security circles – US action would provoke a major Iranian response, perhaps in the form of moves to cut off Gulf oil supplies, providing a trigger for air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities and even its armed forces.
Senior officials believe Mr Bush’s inner circle has decided he does not want to leave office without first ensuring that Iran is not capable of developing a nuclear weapon.
The intelligence source said: “No one outside that tight circle knows what is going to happen.” But he said that within the CIA “many if not most officials believe that diplomacy is failing” and that “top Pentagon brass believes the same”. He said: “A strike will probably follow a gradual escalation. Over the next few weeks and months the US will build tensions and evidence around Iranian activities in Iraq.”
The problem is that, as Edmund Burke would say, once a war is launched, its further development can rarely be charted with any precision or certainty. The United States may well plan a surgical strike on 2,000 or 10,000 targets, but Iranian counterattacks will follow, on aircraft in the Gulf, on American personnel and assets in Iraq, and perhaps by way of terrorist assaults on American personnel and assets in Europe and in other areas. And these steps may produce a spiraling effect, producing a broader and deeper war than initially contemplated. Military planners are fully aware of these potentialities, but they seem unreflected upon by policy makers at the highest level in the White House. In a like manner, the consequences for the United States of waging a war in which it would—in the eyes of the world—be branded an aggressor, are also not weighed in.
Bush Administration policy clearly entails keeping its deliberations under wraps so as to foreclose or limit any pre-war debate in the United States. But outside America, the view of prospects for war are increasingly consistent. A further sign of the assessment of the probability of war came when French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner stated that France must now reckon with the likelihood of a U.S. war against Iran. Reuters reports:
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said on Sunday his country must prepare for the possibility of war against Iran over its nuclear programme, but he did not believe any such action was imminent. Seeking to ratchet up the pressure on Iran, Kouchner also told RTL radio and LCI television that the world’s major powers should use further sanctions to show they were serious about stopping Tehran getting atom bombs, and said France had asked French firms not to bid for tenders in the Islamic Republic.
“We must prepare for the worst,” Kouchner said in an interview, adding: “The worst, sir, is war.” Asked about the preparations, he said it was normal to prepare for various eventualities. “We are preparing ourselves by trying to put together plans that are the chiefs of staff’s prerogative (but) that is not about to happen tomorrow,” he added.
It’s time to move the hands of the war alarm clock another minute closer to midnight.
More from Scott Horton:
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Notes on South Africa’s failed revolution
“I will never know what goes on in your mind, or what that shield of a smile behind which we try to advance should tell us.”