WASHINGTON - Admiral William Fallon, then President George W. Bush's nominee to head the Central Command (CENTCOM), expressed strong opposition in February to an administration plan to increase the number of carrier strike groups in the Persian Gulf from two to three and vowed privately there would be no war against Iran as long as he was chief of CENTCOM, according to sources with access to his thinking.Fallon's resistance to the proposed deployment of a third aircraft carrier was followed by a shift in the Bush administration's Iran policy in February and March away from increased military threats and toward diplomatic engagement with Iran. That shift, for which no credible explanation has been offered by administration officials, suggests that Fallon's resistance to a crucial deployment was a major factor in the intra-administration struggle over policy toward Iran.
The plan to add a third carrier strike group in the Gulf had been a key element in a broader strategy discussed at high levels to intimidate Iran by a series of military moves suggesting preparations for a military strike.
Admiral Fallon's resistance to a further buildup of naval striking power in the Gulf apparently took the Bush administration by surprise. Fallon, then Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, had been associated with naval aviation throughout his career, and last January, Secretary of Defence Robert Gates publicly encouraged the idea that the appointment presaged greater emphasis on the military option in regard to the U.S. conflict with Iran.
Explaining why he recommended Fallon, Gates said, "As you look at the range of options available to the United States, the use of naval and air power, potentially, it made sense to me for all those reasons for Fallon to have the job."
Bush administration officials had just leaked to CBS News and the New York Times in December that the USS John C. Stennis and its associated warships would be sent to the Gulf in January six weeks earlier than originally planned in order to overlap with the USS Eisenhower and to "send a message to Tehran".
But that was not the end of the signaling to Iran by naval deployment planned by administration officials. The plan was for the USS Nimitz and its associated vessels, scheduled to sail into the Gulf in early April, to overlap with the other two carrier strike groups for a period of months, so that all three would be in the Gulf simultaneously.
Two well-informed sources say they heard about such a plan being pushed at high levels of the administration, and Newsweek's Michael Hirsh and Maziar Bahari reported Feb. 19 that the deployment of a third carrier group to the Gulf was "likely".
That would have brought the U.S. naval presence up to the same level as during the U.S. air campaign against the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, when the Lincoln, Constellation and Kitty Hawk carrier groups were all present. Two other carrier groups helped coordinate bombing sorties from the Mediterranean.
The deployment of three carrier groups simultaneously was not part of a plan for an actual attack on Iran, but was meant to convince Iran that the Bush administration was preparing for possible war if Tehran continued its uranium enrichment programme.
At a mid-February meeting of top civilian officials over which Secretary of Defence Gates presided, there was an extensive discussion of a strategy of intimidating Tehran's leaders, according to an account by a Pentagon official who attended the meeting given to a source outside the Pentagon. The plan involved a series of steps that would appear to Tehran to be preparations for war, in a manner similar to the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
But Fallon, who was scheduled to become the CENTCOM chief Mar. 16, responded to the proposed plan by sending a strongly-worded message to the Defence Department in mid-February opposing any further U.S. naval buildup in the Persian Gulf as unwarranted.
"He asked why another aircraft carrier was needed in the Gulf and insisted there was no military requirement for it," says the source, who obtained the gist of Fallon's message from a Pentagon official who had read it.
Fallon's refusal to support a further naval buildup in the Gulf reflected his firm opposition to an attack on Iran and an apparent readiness to put his career on the line to prevent it. A source who met privately with Fallon around the time of his confirmation hearing and who insists on anonymity quoted Fallon as saying that an attack on Iran "will not happen on my watch".
Asked how he could be sure, the source says, Fallon replied, "You know what choices I have. I'm a professional." Fallon said that he was not alone, according to the source, adding, "There are several of us trying to put the crazies back in the box."
Fallon's opposition to adding a third carrier strike group to the two already in the Gulf represented a major obstacle to the plan. The decision to send a second carrier task group to the Gulf had been officially requested by Fallon's predecessor at CENTCOM, Gen. John Abizaid, according to a Dec. 20 report by the Washington Post's Peter Baker. But as Baker reported, the circumstances left little doubt that Abizaid was doing so because the White House wanted it as part of a strategy of sending "pointed messages" to Iran.
CENTCOM commander Fallon's refusal to request the deployment of a third carrier strike group meant that proceeding with that option would carry political risks. The administration chose not to go ahead with the plan. Two days before the Nimitz sailed out of San Diego for the Gulf on Apr. 1, a Navy spokesman confirmed that it would replace the Eisenhower, adding, "There is no plan to overlap them at all."
The defeat of the plan for a third carrier task group in the Gulf appears to have weakened the position of Cheney and other hawks in the administration who had succeeded in selling Bush on the idea of a strategy of coercive threat against Iran.
Within two weeks, the administration's stance had already begun to shift dramatically. On Jan. 12, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had dismissed direct talks with Iran in the absence of Tehran's suspension of its uranium enrichment programme as "extortion". But by the end of February, Rice had gotten authorisation for high level diplomatic contacts with Iran in the context of a regional meeting on Iraq in Baghdad.
The explanation for the shift offered by administration officials to the New York Times was that the administration now felt that it "had leverage" on Iran. But that now appears to have been a cover for a retreat from the more aggressive strategy previously planned.
Throughout March and April, the Bush administration avoided aggressive language and the State Department openly sought diplomatic engagement with Iran, culminating in the agreement confirmed by U.S. officials last weekend that bilateral talks will begin with Iran on Iraq.
Despite Vice President Dick Cheney's invocation of the military option from the deck of the USS John C. Stennis in the Persian Gulf last week, the strategy of escalating a threat of war to influence Iran has been put on the shelf, at least for now.
Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. His latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in June 2005.
Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service