On Sept. 23, the neo-conservative chiefs of the Washington Post's editorial page mourned, in a tone much like what one hears on the death of a close friend, that "a military strike by the United States or Israel [on Iran is not] likely in the coming months." One could almost hear a wistful sigh, as they complained that efforts to stop Iran's nuclear program has "slipped down Washington's list of priorities...as Iran races toward accumulating enough uranium for a bomb."
We are spared, this go-round, from "mushroom clouds." But racing to a bomb? Never mind that the 16 agencies of the U.S. intelligence community concluded in a formal National Intelligence Estimate last November that work on the nuclear weapons-related part of Iran's nuclear program was halted in mid-2003. And never mind that Thomas Fingar, National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell's deputy for national estimates, reiterated that judgment as recently as Sept. 4. Never mind that the Post's own Walter Pincus reported on Sept. 10 that Fingar added that Iran has not restarted its nuclear weapons work. Hey, the editorial fellows know best.
The good news is that the bottom line of the Sept. 23 editorial marks one of those rare occasions when the Post's opinion editors have managed to reach a correct conclusion on the Middle East. It is true that the likelihood of an Israeli or U.S.-Israeli attack on Iran has receded in recent months. The more interesting questions are (1) why? And (2) under what circumstances might such an attack become likely again?
The Post attributes the stepping back by Israel and the U.S. to "the financial crisis and the worsening violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan." These are two contributing factors but, in my judgment, not the most important ones. Not surprisingly, the Post and other charter members of the Fawning Corporate Media (FCM) omit or play down factors they would prefer not to address.
Russia and Deterrence
More important than the bear market is the Russian Bear that, after a 17-year hibernation, has awakened with loud growls commensurate with Russia's growing strength and assertiveness. The catalyst was the fiasco in Georgia, in which the Russians saw the hands of the neo-cons in Washington and their Doppelganger of the extreme right in Israel.
You would hardly know it from FCM coverage, but the fiasco began when Georgian President Mikhail Sakashvili ordered his American- and Israeli-trained Georgian armed forces to launch an attack on the city of Tskhinvali, capital of South Ossetia, on the night of August 6-7, killing not only many civilians but a number of Russian observers as well.
It may be true that our State Department officials had counseled Shakashvili against baiting the Russian Bear, but it is abundantly clear to anyone paying attention to such things, that State is regularly undercut/overruled by White House functionaries like arch-neo-con Elliott F. Abrams (F. for Fiasco). His encomia include those earned for his key role in other major fiascos like the one that brought about the unconscionable situation today in Gaza. (Would that the president's father had let Abrams sit in jail, rather than pardoning him after he was convicted for perjuring himself in testimony to Congress on the Iran-Contra fiasco.)
In any event, it is almost certainly true that Russian Premier Vladimir Putin saw folks like Abrams, Vice President Dick Cheney, and their Israeli counterparts as being behind the attack on South Ossetia. For centuries the Russians have been concerned-call it paranoid-over threats coming from their soft southern underbelly, and their reaction could have come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Russian history-or, by analogy, those familiar with American history and the Monroe Doctrine, for example.
Even neo-con Randy Scheunemann, foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain and former lobbyist for Georgia's Sakashvili, would have known that. And this lends credence to speculation that that is precisely why Scheunemann is said to have egged on the Georgian president. Russia's reaction was totally predictable, and enabled McCain to "stand up to Russia" with very strong rhetoric and not-so-subtle suggestions that his foreign policy experience provides an important advantage over his opponent in meeting the growing danger of a resurgent Russia.
Russia's leaders are likely to have seen in Sakashvili's provocation, in the attempt to get NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, in the deployment of antimissile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic, and in hasty U.S. recognition of an independent Kosovo, indignities that Russia should no longer tolerate.
I can visualize Russian generals telling Putin:
Enough! Look at the weakened Americans. They have destroyed what's left of their Army and Marine Corps, spreading them out and demoralizing them in two unwinnable wars. We know how bad it is with just one unwinnable war. It has not been that long since Afghanistan. But, Vladimir Vladimirovich, before we indulge ourselves with Schadenfreude, consider what such actions betoken-total recklessness of a kind we have seen only rarely in Washington.
Who can assure us that "the crazies"-the Cheney-Abrams-Bush cabal-will not encourage the Israelis to precipitate the kind of armed provocation vis-à-vis Iran that would "justify" America's springing to the defense of its "ally" to bomb and missile-attack Iran. You are aware of the importance of the Israel lobby, and how American politicians vie with one another to prove themselves the most passionately in love with Israel.
Periodic attempts by Congress to require President Bush to seek congressional approval before ordering a strike on Iran have failed miserably. So his hands are free for another "pre-emptive war" before he leaves office. After all, Bush has publicly promised the Israelis he will deal with the "Iranian threat" before then. Besides, our political analysts suggest that Bush and Cheney might think that wider war would help the Republicans in the November election
No big bear likes to have a nose tweaked. But the Russian reaction to Georgia was not merely one of pique. It became a well-planned strategic move to disabuse Israel and the United States of the notion that Russia would sit still for an attack on Iran, a very important country in Russia's general neighborhood. After Georgia, the Russians were bent on sweeping such plans "off the table," so to speak, and seem to have succeeded.
The signs of new Russian assertiveness are in the public domain, although the FCM has not given them much prominence. What is more telling is the effect on Israel and the United States. Since early August there has been a sharp decline in the formulaic rhetoric against Iran's "path toward nuclear weapons," especially among U.S. policy makers and in American media following the conflict in Georgia and the expiration of the latest "ultimatum" served on Iran to stop its nuclear program.
The change in official Israeli statements was the most pronounced. After a consistent hawkish stance toward Iran, Israel's president, Shimon Peres told London's Sunday Times in early September:
"There are two ways [to deal with Iran's nuclear threat]; a military and a civilian way. I don't believe in the military option-any kind of military option...an attack can trigger a bigger war."
And then came the bombshell from Ehud Olmert in his valedictory interview appearing in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot on September 29. Olmert argued that Israel had lost its "sense of proportion" in believing it could deal with Iran militarily.
Not Russia Alone
It is a curious twist, but to their great credit our senior military officers, Admiral William Fallon, who quit rather than let himself be on the receiving end of an order to attack Iran, and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, fought and continue to fight a rear-guard action against the dreams and plans of "the crazies" in the White House to attack Iran. Fallon famously declared that the U.S. military was not going to "do Iran on my watch" as commander of CENTCOM.
In addition to his outspoken opposition to opening a "third front" in the area of Iraq and Afghanistan, Mullen has done much behind the scenes to talk sense into the Israelis. From the Israeli press we know that Mullen went so far as to warn his Israeli counterparts not to even think about another incident like the one on June 8, 1967, when Israeli jets and torpedo boats deliberately did their utmost to sink the intelligence collector, USS Liberty, off the Sinai coast.
For Mullen a gutsy move. The Israelis know that Mullen knows that that attack was deliberate-not some sort of unfortunate mistake. Mullen could have raised no more neuralgic an issue in taking a shot across any Israeli bow that might be thinking of a provocation of some sort in the Persian Gulf.
Hats off to the new admirals...who outshine predecessor admirals who bowed to pressure from President Lyndon Johnson to portray the Israeli air and torpedo strikes on the USS Liberty, which took the lives of 34 U.S. sailors and wounded more than 170 others, as a mistake in the fog of war-despite unimpeachable evidence it was deliberate.
Hats off, too, to the grass roots movements that succeeded in quashing resolutions in both houses of Congress calling for the equivalent of a blockade of Iran. Several Members actually withdrew their earlier sponsorship of the resolution in the wake of public pressure. Many of them came to realize that facilitating a new war might make them vulnerable to charges of poor judgment-the kind of charges that sabotaged Sen. Hillary Clinton who, ironically, thought she had done the politically smart thing in voting to give the president authority to attack Iraq.
Not Completely Out of the Woods
There remain as many "crazies" among the Israeli leadership as there are here in Washington-crazies who continue to believe that Iran must be attacked while the going is good. And it will never be as good as it is with Bush and Cheney in the White House. If the Randy Scheunemanns of this world are capable of goading the likes of Sakashvili into irresponsible action, they can try to do the same with a wink and a nod to the crazies in Tel Aviv.
The fact that the McCain/Palin campaign seems to be in serious jeopardy provides still more incentive for recklessness. If, as all seem to agree, a terrorist event of some kind might give the edge to McCain, many could argue that the same result could be achieved by a wider war including Iran, requiring senior, seasoned leadership of one who has "worn the uniform."
And there is still more incentive for Bush and Cheney to look with favor on an attack on Iran...very personal incentive. It is a safe bet that if John McCain loses, Bush and Cheney and others will be plagued by various legal actions against them for the war crimes for which they are clearly responsible. Such would also be possible under a President McCain or Palin-but much less likely.
But attacking Iran would be crazy, you say. Not for nothing have many of the folks around Bush and Cheney been referred to as "the crazies" since the early Eighties. Some are still there; and they do things.
In April 2006, one of my Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) colleagues, in a conversation with Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, asked the general if he thought the U.S. or the U.S. cum Israel would attack Iran. Zinni shook his head vigorously, saying, "That would be crazy." Then he stopped and quickly added, but you are dealing with "the crazies."