Last week brought heads of state and senior diplomats in number to New York for the opening of the General Assembly of the United Nations. It also brought President Bush and President Ahmadinejad to the podium. For the larger audience in the world community, however, one of the most important questions of the day remains whether the verbal blows traded between these two pugnacious leaders will turn in the fullness of time into bullets and bombs. And the sense of the best-informed was clear: yes.
I spoke with a number of European diplomats who are keeping track of the issue, and I found a near uniform analysis. These diplomats believe that the United States will launch an air war on Iran, and that it will occur within the next six to eight months. I am therefore moving the hands of the Next War clock another minute closer to midnight and putting the likelihood of conflict at 70%. It's still not certain, and it's still avertable, but at this point it has to be seen as conventional wisdom to say that America is headed for another war in the Islamic world-it's fourth since Bush became president, if we include the proxy war in Lebanon. And this time it will be a war against a nation with vastly greater military resources, as well as a demonstrated ability to wield terrorism as a tactic-Iran.
Let's take quick stock of the further indicators from the last week or so.
Shifting Targets On Sunday, Sy Hersh's latest piece appeared, offering a good take on the Bush Administration's changing plans for a war on Iran. The headline from the Hersh piece, called "Shifting Targets," makes clear that the Pentagon has been tasked to redraft its plans for a war against Iran. The new plans are very close to what was reported in the London quality press a few weeks ago: an aerial war with a somewhat narrower focus on specific units of the elite Republican Guard. Hersh's piece is full of color, and after reading it I immediately understood why the European diplomats were so convinced that the decision to bomb Iran was all-but-final. Here's a key passage reflecting a series of discussions which give some flavor of the war spirit in the White House:
the President told [Crocker] that he was thinking of hitting Iranian targets across the border and that the British "were on board." At that point, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice interjected that there was a need to proceed carefully, because of the ongoing diplomatic track. Bush ended by instructing Crocker to tell Iran to stop interfering in Iraq or it would face American retribution.
At a White House meeting with Cheney this summer, according to a former senior intelligence official, it was agreed that, if limited strikes on Iran were carried out, the Administration could fend off criticism by arguing that they were a defensive action to save soldiers in Iraq. If Democrats objected, the Administration could say, "Bill Clinton did the same thing; he conducted limited strikes in Afghanistan, the Sudan, and in Baghdad to protect American lives." The former intelligence official added, "There is a desperate effort by Cheney et al. to bring military action to Iran as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the politicians are saying, 'You can't do it, because every Republican is going to be defeated, and we're only one fact from going over the cliff in Iraq.' But Cheney doesn't give a rat's ass about the Republican worries, and neither does the President."
As we have noted before, the final order to proceed to hostilities has not issued. In all likelihood this would only happen in the immediate couple of days before bombing. However, the pace of preparations is quickening and the focus is becoming more and more apparent:
there has been a significant increase in the tempo of attack planning. In mid-August, senior officials told reporters that the Administration intended to declare Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terrorist organization. And two former senior officials of the C.I.A. told me that, by late summer, the agency had increased the size and the authority of the Iranian Operations Group. (A spokesman for the agency said, "The C.I.A. does not, as a rule, publicly discuss the relative size of its operational components.")
"They're moving everybody to the Iran desk," one recently retired C.I.A. official said. "They're dragging in a lot of analysts and ramping up everything. It's just like the fall of 2002"-the months before the invasion of Iraq, when the Iraqi Operations Group became the most important in the agency. He added, "The guys now running the Iranian program have limited direct experience with Iran. In the event of an attack, how will the Iranians react? They will react, and the Administration has not thought it all the way through."
Hersh also finds a White House busily engaged in identifying the best casus belli: what precipitating event will best serve the Administration's war effort? It's been reported for some time that the White House has slowly reached a realization that the approach taken in the lead-up to the Iraq War will not work again. A National Intelligence Assessment dealing with the Iranian nuclear program has been all-but-final for some time; it has been held up. It would be reasonable conjecture at this point to say that it does not serve the interests of the war party. The alternative approach is simple: it is to say that Iranian weaponry and Iranian-trained terrorists are battling American soldiers in Iraq today. The death of some Americans in an attack involving a bomb linked to the Iranians could easily be taken as a pretext for war with Iran.
The testimony provided by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker seems to have been laying further foundation for this effort. The same can be said for the resolution proposed by Senators Lieberman and Kyle which was a thinly veiled effort to authorize the use of military force against Iran. The Democratic leadership succeeded in watering down this measure to eliminate its use as legal authority for a new war against Iran.
A major question is whether Europeans will join America in a war against Iran? Comments from the Ãƒâ€°lysÃƒ©e Palace have suggested both that France expects the war, and that France is moving towards a position that if far more supportive of the Americans. That's still far from a promise that French bombers would join the Americans. The graver speculation now focuses on Britain, and indeed, some Bush Administration insiders are claiming that British forces will join in the effort, notwithstanding Gordon Brown's efforts to put some distance between himself and Bush on security issues. Hersh reports that the situation between the U.S. and U.K. remains testy, and he cites a very revealing incident:
Another recent incident, in Afghanistan, reflects the tension over intelligence. In July, the London Telegraph reported that what appeared to be an SA-7 shoulder-launched missile was fired at an American C-130 Hercules aircraft. The missile missed its mark. Months earlier, British commandos had intercepted a few truckloads of weapons, including one containing a working SA-7 missile, coming across the Iranian border. But there was no way of determining whether the missile fired at the C-130 had come from Iran-especially since SA-7s are available through black-market arms dealers.
Vincent Cannistraro, a retired C.I.A. officer who has worked closely with his counterparts in Britain, added to the story: "The Brits told me that they were afraid at first to tell us about the incident-in fear that Cheney would use it as a reason to attack Iran." The intelligence subsequently was forwarded, he said.
The retired four-star general confirmed that British intelligence "was worried" about passing the information along. "The Brits don't trust the Iranians," the retired general said, "but they also don't trust Bush and Cheney."
Of course that describes the attitude of most Americans as well these days.
"I Hate All Iranians" Two key Bush Administration figures are busy grabbing headlines in Britain this weekend. London's Mail on Sunday reports:
British MPs visiting the Pentagon to discuss America's stance on Iran and Iraq were shocked to be told by one of President Bush's senior women officials: "I hate all Iranians." And she also accused Britain of "dismantling" the Anglo-US-led coalition in Iraq by pulling troops out of Basra too soon. The all-party group of MPs say Debra Cagan, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Coalition Affairs to Defence Secretary Robert Gates, made the comments this month.
And the Guardian reports on remarks delivered by John Bolton, Bush's former ambassador to the United Nations, at a group meeting held in connection with the Tory conference:
"I don't think the use of military force is an attractive option, but I would tell you I don't know what the alternative is. Because life is about choices, I think we have to consider the use of military force. I think we have to look at a limited strike against their nuclear facilities."
He added that any strike should be followed by an attempt to remove the "source of the problem", Mr Ahmadinejad. "If we were to strike Iran it should be accompanied by an effort at regime change ... The US once had the capability to engineer the clandestine overthrow of governments. I wish we could get it back."
The fact that intelligence about Iran's nuclear activity was partial should not be used as an excuse not to act, Mr Bolton insisted. "Intelligence can be wrong in more than one direction." He asked how the British government would respond if terrorists exploded a nuclear device at home. "'It's only Manchester?' ... Responding after they're used is unacceptable."
This all reflects just the sort of mature and sober analysis that Britons have come to expect from the key advisors of President Bush in the course of the last few years.
NPod Strikes In the last week The Politico reported that Norman Podhoretz, a titan of the Neoconservative movement, had a secret, off-the-schedule meeting that he had with President Bush and Karl Rove at which he decried the ridiculousness of diplomatic negotiations with Iran. The idea of diplomatic talks with Iran, he said, brought Rove and Bush to laughter.
And today, Podhoretz announces that he thinks the decision has been made in concept to bomb Iran before Bush and Cheney exit Washington. In a CSPAN interview, Podhoretz states:
I believe President Bush is going to order airstrikes [on Iran] before he leaves office. Because he has several times said - at least twice to my knowledge - that if we allow Iranians to acquire nuclear capabilities, 50 years from now, people will look back at us the way we look back at Munich and say 'how could they have let this happen?'
Freedom Watch Gets New Marching Orders Millions of right-wing dollars have been pumped into a mysterious new overnight wonder organization called Freedom Watch. Former White House press secretary Ari Fleisher plays a key role running it, though when interviewed he didn't even seem to know who the people in its very slick advertising were. But today we learn that Freedom Watch's propaganda volleys are being retargeted. Previously they were concentrated to support the Bush Administration's arguments for an extension of the Surge in Iraq. Now, it seems they'll be advocating the Next War. The New York Times reports:
Although the group declined to identify the experts, several were invited from the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington research group with close ties to the White House. Some institute scholars have advocated a more confrontational policy to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, including keeping military action as an option. [...]
"If Hitler's warnings were heeded when he wrote 'Mein Kampf,' he could have been stopped," said Bradley Blakeman, 49, the president of Freedom's Watch and a former deputy assistant to Mr. Bush. "Ahmadinejad is giving all the same kind of warning signs to us, and the region - he wants the destruction of the United States and the destruction of Israel."
The New Rollout Back at the end of August, Barney Rubin told us of word he got from a source suggesting that a week after Labor Day, the office of Vice President Cheney would be pushing a new product roll-out. It would involve the usual suspects and it would be a test-marketing of an air war against Iran. We're two weeks and a bit into that process. If you go back and sift through your newspapers, you'll find that Rubin's unnamed source clearly knew exactly what he was talking about. Indeed, what I've summarized here is the tiniest fragment of the total rollout effort (I didn't even mention the ADL's program, and they actually even called it a "rollout"). Not only is it underway, Cheney's role as the coordinator has become increasingly transparent. As psy ops projects go, this one isn't terribly sophisticated. But no matter: the American media is just as easily suckered by this project as it was the last time. Just look at how the war party spun the broadcast media during the Ahmadinejad visit last week. The old adage is "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." America is well into the process of being fooled twice.
Scott Horton is a contributor to Harper's Magazine and writes No Comment for the website.
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