Are we headed for a shooting war with Iran? These rumors have popped up over and over again (in fact, every time an aircraft carrier moves into the Arabian Gulf) but this speech from Bush at the American Legion’s 89th annual national convention last week caught my eye.
It’s worth quoting some sections in depth first, with my emphasis added:
The other strain of radicalism in the Middle East is Shia extremism, supported and embodied by the regime that sits in Tehran. Iran has long been a source of trouble in the region. It is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. Iran backs Hezbollah who are trying to undermine the democratic government of Lebanon. Iran funds terrorist groups like Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which murder the innocent, and target Israel, and destabilize the Palestinian territories. Iran is sending arms to the Taliban in Afghanistan, which could be used to attack American and NATO troops. Iran has arrested visiting American scholars who have committed no crimes and pose no threat to their regime. And Iran’s active pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust.
Iran’s actions threaten the security of nations everywhere. And that is why the United States is rallying friends and allies around the world to isolate the regime, to impose economic sanctions. We will confront this danger before it is too late.
Shia extremists, backed by Iran, are training Iraqis to carry out attacks on our forces and the Iraqi people. Members of the Qods Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are supplying extremist groups with funding and weapons, including sophisticated IEDs. And with the assistance of Hezbollah, they’ve provided training for these violent forces inside of Iraq. Recently, coalition forces seized 240-millimeter rockets that had been manufactured in Iran this year and that had been provided to Iraqi extremist groups by Iranian agents. The attacks on our bases and our troops by Iranian-supplied munitions have increased in the last few months — despite pledges by Iran to help stabilize the security situation in Iraq.
Some say Iran’s leaders are not aware of what members of their own regime are doing. Others say Iran’s leaders are actively seeking to provoke the West. Either way, they cannot escape responsibility for aiding attacks against coalition forces and the murder of innocent Iraqis. The Iranian regime must halt these actions. And until it does, I will take actions necessary to protect our troops. I have authorized our military commanders in Iraq to confront Tehran’s murderous activities.
This speech is worrying on many levels. For one, it’s eerily reminiscent of the early speeches given by Bush before the Iraq war in which he warned of an imminent threat from Iraq that must be confronted because of Saddam Hussein’s support for al Qaeda and the threat of WMD.
Admittedly, there does seem to be more evidence of Iranian malfeasance than there was of Iraq’s. I helped report a story in 2004 for TIME Magazine laying out Iranian involvement in Iraq, Iran has openly boasted of its nuclear program and its aid to Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad is no secret. But is another war in the Middle East the answer?
An attack on Iran before the end of Bush’s term in office would likely not involve ground troop — mainly because they’re just not available. The troops next door have their hands full there and you can’t just roll them across the border on a dime. So if it’s going to happen, it will be a blitz of cruise missiles and bombing runs from aircraft in the region. Indeed, the Times of London reported Sunday that the Pentagon has prepared a 1,200 target, “three-day blitz” designed not only to take out nuclear installations but “the entire Iranian military,” said Alexis Debat, director of terrorism and national security at the Nixon Center.
This would be disastrous. The shockwaves from such an attack would be wide-ranging and unpredictable, but some things can be estimated.
From a military standpoint, it might wreck devastation on Iran and its military, but Iran’s strength doesn’t lie in a conventional military response or deterrence but from an unconventional response. Furious Shi’ites, goosed by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps provocateurs in Iran would immediately place the 130,000 to 160,000 American troops in jeopardy from massive IED attacks and suicide bombings. Entire forward operating bases could be overrun. The surge would immediately become a defensive operation protecting troops rather than an offensive one providing security for Iraqis. The civil war there between Sunni and Shi’ites, and Shi’ites and Shi’ites, would likely escalate. And that’s just in Iraq.
The American 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain, which has an oppressed but sympathetic-to-Iran Shi’ite majority population that can make life difficult for the U.S. Navy. And in the Gulf, Iran has tested new torpedos and is perfecting techniques for swarming suicide speedboats that conceivably could take down a few naval vessels. (Remember the U.S.S Cole?)
In Saudi Arabia, Iran has another potential asset. The richest oil fields are underneath a Shi’ite population, which is also oppressed by the Saudi government and Wahabi clerical establishment. A few sabotage attacks to the oil production infrastructure there and say hello to skyrocketing oil prices on top of general market panic from a regional war in the Middle East.
Farther from home, Iran has already shown it can attack targets across the Atlantic Ocean, with its 1994 attack against the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association in Buenos Aires. And don’t forget about Lebanese Hezbollah, which has also shown it can stage impressive rocket attacks against Israel. Any such attack on Israel would provoke a response from the Jewish state, which might bring Syria — an Iranian ally — into the conflict. Just today as I wrote this column, Israel jets violated Syrian air space as a show of strength.
Then there’s the possibility of attacks in the United States itself. There are reportedly Hezbollah and Revolutionary Guard cells operating there that could stage suicide attacks.
In short, attacking Iran in such a way would be madness.
And that’s exactly what the Bush administration could be banking on. We already know the White House has taken its obsession with secrecy and expanding presidential power to Nixonian levels. What if it’s also taking a book from Nixon’s foreign policy manual and applying the “Madman Theory”?
“I want the North Vietnamese to believe,” Nixon told H.R. Haldeman, “that I’ve reached the point that I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry, and he has his hand on the nuclear button, and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”
Nixon was so crazy that at one point he put the whole U.S. military on global war readiness and flew nuclear-armed bombers near the Soviet Union’s borders for three days to freak them out — right at the time that war tensions were simmering between Beijing and Moscow. It was a dangerous, crazy gamble, and perhaps Bush is doing the same with Iran. After all, Henry Kissenger is an advisor to Bush, too.
Bush’s plan could be an attempt to get the Iranians to back off in Iraq, of course, but it could also be an attempt to scare Russia and China into backing strong sanctions against Iraq on the Security Council. No one wants to see a regional war in the Middle East involving a wounded, enraged superpower.
If this is the plan, it’s as dangerous as Nixon’s October 1969 gambit was. In the end, the Soviet Union didn’t take the bait and pressure North Vietnam to sue for peace. Will a similar plan work on the mullahs of Tehran? Can we trust the Bush administration to pull off such a subtle combination of bluster and diplomacy?
If this is the plan, Bush is playing poker and bluffing. But the Iranians aren’t playing the same game. They’re playing chess, and they invented that game.