An extremely important item appears in Steve Clemons’s The Washington Note today concerning the internal maneuverings inside the administration over a possible military confrontation in Iran. ABC News previously recounted that President Bush, overruling the advice of Vice President Cheney, had opted to go with a series of covert operations against Iran. The fact of the covert operations, of course, is nothing new–I’d say it’s a commonplace, in fact, widely reported in the press in Europe and the Middle East for sometime, and routinely recited without a denial in discussions with Washington intelligence pros. The news was Cheney’s advocacy of more military measures, and even more significantly that it was rebuffed by Bush.
Cheney has had a virtually pathological obsession with laying the path for a war against Iran. But what we’re seeing now is the first really serious foreign policy consequence of the realignment following the demission of Donald Rumsfeld and what is widely suggested to be a more cautious attitude towards Cheney after the conviction of Scooter Libby. But the point to worry about is this: will Cheney accept his commander-in-chief’s decision, or will he plot behind the scenes to achieve his passion–another war, far more dangerous still, in the Middle East? Clemons writes:
The person in the Bush Administration who most wants a hot conflict with Iran is Vice President Cheney. The person in Iran who most wants a conflict is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Quds Force would be big winners in a conflict as well–as the political support that both have inside Iran has been flagging. Multiple sources have reported that a senior aide on Vice President Cheney’s national security team has been meeting with policy hands of the American Enterprise Institute, one other think tank, and more than one national security consulting house and explicitly stating that Vice President Cheney does not support President Bush’s tack towards Condoleezza Rice’s diplomatic efforts and fears that the President is taking diplomacy with Iran too seriously. This White House official has stated to several Washington insiders that Cheney is planning to deploy an “end run strategy” around the President if he and his team lose the policy argument.
The thinking on Cheney’s team is to collude with Israel, nudging Israel at some key moment in the ongoing standoff between Iran’s nuclear activities and international frustration over this to mount a small-scale conventional strike against Natanz using cruise missiles (i.e., not ballistic missiles).
I don’t have Clemons sources on this, but what I have heard stacks up closely with his account. And I just noted that Joe Klein at Time magazine, hardly an hysterical critic of the administration, is now seconding the Clemons report. Klein writes:
Last December, as Rumsfeld was leaving, President Bush met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in ‘The Tank,’ the secure room in the Pentagon where the Joint Chiefs discuss classified matters of national security. Bush asked the Chiefs about the wisdom of a troop ‘surge’ in Iraq. They were unanimously opposed.
Then Bush asked about the possibility of a successful attack on Iran’s nuclear capability. He was told that the U.S. could launch a devastating air attack on Iran’s government and military, wiping out the Iranian air force, the command and control structure and some of the more obvious nuclear facilities. But the Chiefs were–once again–unanimously opposed to taking that course of action. Why? Because our intelligence inside Iran is very sketchy. There was no way to be sure that we could take out all of Iran’s nuclear facilities. Furthermore, the Chiefs warned, the Iranian response in Iraq and, quite possibly, in terrorist attacks on the U.S. could be devastating.
Bush apparently took this advice to heart and went to Plan B–a covert destabilization campaign reported earlier this week by ABC News. If Clemons is right, and I’m pretty sure he is, Cheney is still pushing Plan A.