If you’re not concerned about the prospects for another war in the Middle East in the near future, consider that you may be a sleepwalker. There is every reason to be concerned. The prospects are numerous. In the Gaza Strip and the West Bank a brutal conflict has erupted between forces which reflect two different generations of Palestinian radicalism. In Lebanon, foreign intrigue and assassinations continue, sucking Syria, the United States and Israel into one of the region’s oldest communitarian conflicts. The prospects for another summer war in Lebanon, likely involving one or more foreign participants, have to be seen as excellent. Syria itself is in the crosshairs in Washington. Olmert’s Government in Israel, still licking its wounds from last summer’s expeditionary catastrophe, wants to take the temperature down a few degrees and start a dialogue with the Syrians – but this initiative has given the last diehard neocons in Washington a conniption. Then of course we have Iraq, where Washington’s “surge” operations continue without conclusive result as a September deadline draws closer.
And yet none of these conflicts is the coming war that I see looming on the horizon. The coming war pits the United States against Iran. For the dead-ender neoconservatives (and indeed, neoconservatives are by their psychology just the sort of people who make excellent dead-enders), the solution to the current dilemma – a catastrophic failure in Iraq, badly miscast plans in Lebanon, an increasingly angry American electorate – is simple: we need a new war. Nothing focuses the mind and silences the opposition quite like a good little war, they believe. And while times may be difficult for the neocons generally, not to worry – they still have the key man. One man is the “decider” on questions respecting Iran. His name is Dick Cheney. And Mr. Cheney has already reached some key conclusions:
Diplomacy rarely works, and certainly won’t work with a nation like Iran
Sanctions are worthless – why after all, when I ran Halliburton, we could always find ways to get around them and have profitable dealings with Iran
Iran is moving ahead with its plans to emerge as a nuclear weapons policy, is running far ahead of schedule, and will certainly achieve its objectives far ahead of the timeline that those numbskulls over at the National Intelligence Council have worked up
The only solution we can count on is a military solution
Because of the fickleness of the American electorate, the next government will not have the resolve and will to use military force that are the great strength of America under Bush, which counsels in favor of action now
The current hostage crisis (involving five Americans held by Tehran and five Iranians held by Washington) will furnish a perfectly decent causus bellum if managed properly, fed and fanned.
This is not, of course, the realist Cheney of the Bush 41 administration speaking. It’s the Cheney that Brent Scowcroft and numerous others no longer recognize. The post-heart attack, post-microstroke Dick Cheney. The Cheney who’s more than slightly crazy. The Cheney who will make any argument, no matter how absurd, to get where he wants to be. (Witness his claim revealed in the current news cycle, that the vice president is not a part of the Executive Branch – not, at least, for purposes of compliance with oversight about the maintenance and use of classified materials). And the Dick Cheney who is the trusted guide for George W. Bush in all those complicated foreign policy and national security issues that the dauphin-president never really could take the time away from mountain-biking to master.
So let us review how the stage is being set now for a war against Iran. We can say, of course, that war preparations are the essence of every sound military plan – that they should not be viewed as any sort of guaranty. A show of strength may avert war, as one of my Air Force friends correctly says. And to that I can only quote one of my best military analyst friends, who last night had one single word to cover all this: the word was “likely.” “I have come to the conclusion that a major military conflict between the United States and Iran is now likely,” he said. So what, exactly, does “likely” look like?
You might say that the soundest approach in feeling the path to any conflict is simple: “Watch what we do, and not what we say.” So what are the U.S. and the Iranians doing that makes a conflict seem “likely”?
Military Movements. The U.S. deployment of forces into striking range of Iran is now staggering, and largely unremarked upon. America has two carrier strike groups, the USS Nimitz and the USS Stennis, already in the Persian Gulf. Within a day, they will be joined by a third carrier strike group, the USS Enterprise. And next week a fourth strike group, the USS Truman will arrive in the Red Sea, bringing itself into range to support Iran-focal operations. So where does that put us? Four aircraft carriers, 12-16 destroyers, 4-8 submarines, 4-8 AEGIS cruisers, and over 200 strike aircraft. The world has not witnessed such a mustering of naval might since… the invasion of Iraq. And that’s just the naval side of things (though it does help explain the logic behind putting an admiral in charge of CENTCOM). The data on land force movements is harder to secure or track. But all around Iran, preparations have been put in place, including at the “lilypads” that Rumsfeld carefully secured and developed – on Azerbaijan’s Absheron peninsula; outside of Mary, Turkmenistan and in the Turkmen desert; in the Kyrgyz Republic; in Afghanistan; on islands in the Persian Gulf and in Pakistan. One of the distinctive tactical advantages that America will have in this conflict will be the ability to attack Iran from every direction.
Psychological Preparation. The American public must be prepared to support the war. It must understand the nature of the threat from Iran as existential. This will be pursued through a media psy-ops campaign along the same lines as used in the run up to the Iraq war. The stress will be on Iran’s nuclear program and the prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons being used against the United States. Delivery systems are of course a serious problem with this analysis, but don’t expect stories to focus on that. Expect the story to emerge first among the likely suspects. In fact, take the time to pick up and read the current issue of Commentary. I have. It contains a media roadmap. Or just click on this link to watch Norman Podhoretz make the essence of the case for bombing Iran that he states in more detail in Commentary. But stay tuned to Fox News, the Weekly Standard, and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal for the complete psy-ops feed.
The Hostage Crisis. Don’t expect either Washington or Tehran to take any meaningful steps to resolve this crisis. To the contrary: expect the war-parties in each capital to seize upon the five Iranians seized in Arbil and the Americans seized in Tehran as a basis to fan hatred and prepare the public for war. We know from Robin Wright’s reporting at the Washington Post that Condoleezza Rice attempted to defuse the situation by moving ahead on a release of the prisoners in U.S. custody, and that Cheney and Addington checked this move. “There can be no linkage,” they say – both the mullahs in Tehran and the Cheney clique in Washington. Of course not. They will demonize their respective hostages as spies and a threat to their national security. They will claim the hostages are part of a plot against them. Hostages form such a convenient casus belli – they’ve served that role for centuries.
Iran’s Nuclear Program. The suggestion that Iran’s nuclear program constitutes a menace is true. It needs to be grappled with carefully, and studied with detachment. I have a lot of confidence in the ability of American intelligence analysts to do that – if they are freed from the hysteria and persecution of Dick Cheney and his cabal. Yesterday, Iran’s Interior Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi claimed that his country has produced 100 kg of low enriched uranium (LEU) and has 3,000 centrifuges operational. If Pourmohammadi’s past conduct is any guide, these claims are consciously inflated, but not baseless. More likely Iran is on target to achieve what he had claimed sometime before the end of the summer, but isn’t there yet. What does this mean? In practical terms, you would need 800 kg of LEU for a single bomb. This would put Iran on track to have that bomb sometime in 2008, which is well ahead of prior U.S. intelligence estimates. Given the hyperbole surrounding this issue, however, a good measure of caution is appropriate. While it would be extremely foolish to dismiss the threat potential or its proximity, there is no basis to point to a meaningful threat in the current year – or even before the end of Bush’s term of office. Sober analysis will suggest this is something that requires an aggressive diplomatic approach, coordination with allies and earnest dialogue with Russia. All things that the Bush Administration has done so masterfully in the past.
The Regional Menace. The United States will portray Iran as a force for evil throughout the Middle East and beyond. The core will be claims that Iranian bombs and weapons are wounding and killing American soldiers in Iraq. This is a highly emotive and largely disingenuous argument (indeed, you could say that Russian bombs and weapons play a big role, for instance, and a large part of the explosives used were, as the New York Times documented, seized from stockpiles the U.S. left unguarded in the early months of the occupation). Iran will also be portrayed as the force behind Hizbollah in Lebanon and the Taliban in Afghanistan. There is certainly some basis for the first claim, but the second is a fraud. Analysts need to consider these accusations, of course, but in light of the clearly articulated objectives of the war-party, they need to be treated with skepticism. And, of course, inside of Iran and throughout the Middle East, Iran will portray the United States as the region’s greatest threat. Iran will point to U.S. military cooperation with Israel as the core of American intervention in the region, and it will point to the tens of thousands of civilian deaths that resulted from a U.S. invasion of Iraq on a now completely disproven pretext. Iran will use the fact of good relations between the U.S. and its Middle Eastern allies as a means of destabilizing those nations. And these tactics are all likely to be very effective. In fact, Iran is emerging as a regional hegemon, and it has been empowered in these aspirations by the grossly inept conduct of Dick Cheney and his helpers.
Diplomatic Process. Today, Iran’s head nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani will meet with the European Union’s foreign policy commissioner Javier Solana. No one at this point is pinning any hopes for progress on this meeting. Iran will not offer any meaningful concessions on its nuclear program, and that is, at this point, all that really matters. This will set the stage for a third U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution sometime in August. The third resolution could have considerably more “teeth” to it, asset freezes against Iranian banks, firms and individuals, a formal travel ban, and possibly a ban on government export guarantees. An increasingly tightening sanctions environment could have real consequences for Iran economically, and for its nuclear program. The problem for this approach is, quite frankly, Dick Cheney and his language. He has done more to undermine the diplomatic approach than any single person in world history. As a result of his imprudent rhetoric, the key powers that need to be enlisted in this effort – such as Russia – are intensely skeptical of America’s intentions with respect to Iran.
Still, this is not to say that war is certain. It could still be averted. President Ahmadinejad could decide to resign and pursue a life of quiet introspection. Dick Cheney could decide that pressing health concerns necessitate his retirement from politics and retreat to his plantation on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, for instance. But at the moment, these two men are driving the fate of tens of millions of human beings in the direction of a horrendous conflagration. In the world’s greatest democracy, there seems no resolve to put a stop to it. And who in Iran still hears the words of that greatest poet of the Farsi (or any other) language, Mawl?n? Jal?l-ad-D?n Muhammad R?m?:
If you pretend to be Hallaj,
And with that fake burning
Set fire to your friends,
Don’t think that you’re a lover.
You’re crazy and numb,
You’re drinking our blood,
And you have no experience
Of the nearness.