Showdown over Iran: Neoconservatives vs. Republican realists
I don’t believe a word of this tall tale from Ynet – the online version of Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s most popular daily newspaper – claiming that Hezbollah is planning a terrorist attack on the upcoming World Cup tournament to be held in Germany:
“The terror plot is aimed at proving to the international community that Tehran is capable of retaliation if attacked. Sources in Washington said a joint U.S.-European operations room has been set up to deal with such a scenario; to this end, two American aircraft carriers, along with a French ship, are making their way to the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf.”
The Ynet piece attributes this scoop – one completely missed by all the big media organizations in the U.S. and Europe – to al-Watan, a Saudi daily newspaper. The only other references to this report are a UPI dispatch published in the Washington Times and a similar report published here that goes into a bit more detail about the al-Watan article:
“Israel’s secret intelligence service informed European and U.S. intelligence services that Hizbullah units will attempt to carry out deadly terror attacks during the upcoming World Cup, Saudi newspaper al-Watan said.”
So we have Ynet citing al-Watan, which attributes the story to the Mossad. All of which makes a certain amount of sense: after all, in whose interest is it to spread the rumor of an upcoming Iranian-sponsored terrorist act in U.S.-allied Germany – where even the “Green” former foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, is threatening Tehran with “regime change”?
On the other hand, I’m not sure how seriously to take a blog that describes itself as “The Private Diary of a Secret Agent in the Dynamic Middle-East.” The anonymous author avers:
“I am currently on a top secret mission, therefore I need my own special place in which to express myself; a place to write about my personal life, feelings and experiences. Alongside notes on my private life, I also write about key and influential Middle-East developments as they unfold.”
Whatever this person – who claims to be a female – is smoking, I would certainly like to know how to get my own supply: of course, I would only break it out for special occasions, and only with a designated driver in attendance. I could not find the al-Watan article in question, in English, and, in any case, both versions of this yarn are equally unbelievable, interesting only as an indication of just how hot the Iran crisis is blowing. For a more, um, realistic view of where we are headed on that front, I would turn to two recent pieces by foreign policy and intelligence maven Laura Rozen, both published in the Los Angeles Times, which give a good indication of where we are at in the run-up to war with Iran: taken together, they map out two roads to two very different future scenarios.
According to the first Rozen article, published on May 19, one wing of the Bush administration is moving aggressively from a policy aimed at neutralizing Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions to one of regime change. David Denehy, of the International Republican Institute, has been put in charge of a new Office of Iranian Affairs [.pdf] set up within the State Department. Rozen says he “will report to Elizabeth Cheney, assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs.” Exile groups are reportedly disappointed that the cash isn’t being handed out fast enough, but one fears they haven’t got long to wait. What the future holds is laid out in pretty stark terms by Rozen, who writes:
“As much as $50 million of the funds requested will go to the Voice of America for Persian-language broadcasts. The State Department also is planning to send 15 foreign service officers to countries neighboring Iran and to capitals with large Iranian exile populations to serve as ‘Iran watchers.’
“At the Pentagon, the new Iranian directorate has been set up inside its policy shop, which previously housed the Office of Special Plans. The controversial intelligence analysis unit, established before the Iraq war, championed some of the claims of Ahmad Chalabi. A number of assertions made by the former Iraqi exile and onetime Pentagon favorite were later discredited.
“Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Venable declined to name the acting director of the new Iran office and would say only that the appointee was a ‘career civil servant.’ Among those staffing or advising the Iranian directorate are three veterans of the Office of Special Plans: Abram N. Shulsky, its former director; John Trigilio, a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst; and Ladan Archin, an Iran specialist.”
Our old friends at the Office of Special Plans – who channeled so much of the phony “intelligence” that ginned up the war with Iraq – are planning a little reunion, it seems. Whether these old dogs have learned some new tricks, or are just content to re-run some of the old ones, be warned: they’re back on the loose…
I should point out that Patricia Kushlis, University of New Mexico adjunct professor of political science and formerly a career Foreign Service officer, has corrected the Rozen piece on one important point: the vice president’s daughter is not the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, but rather the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. The current assistant secretary is C. David Welch, a career senior Foreign Service officer. If you think this is nitpicking, think again: as Kushlis points out, Cheney the Younger is reportedly leaving to have her fifth child, and is to be replaced by
“Jim Jeffrey, a career senior Foreign Service officer, who is currently senior advisor to the secretary and coordinator for Iraq. Jeffrey was previously the number two, or deputy chief of mission, in the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. This is important, because Jeffrey – as capable as he undoubtedly is – is unlikely to have the intimate access to Cheney of daughter Liz. I hope, however, Jeffrey retains excellent relations with John Negroponte, who was Zalmay Khalilzad’s predecessor since, if I remember correctly, Jeffrey was Negroponte’s deputy in Iraq when Negroponte was ambassador there. This could make a difference.”
Make a difference to what? To the struggle to control the rudder of the ship of state as it either lumbers toward war with Iran, or else is steered – by the “realist” wing of the foreign policy establishment – away from that disastrous course. Which brings us to Rozen’s second Los Angeles Times piece, published May 27, headlined: “GOP Heavy Hitters Pressuring White House to Talk With Iran.”
Yes, that’s right: while Hillary Clinton is whooping it up for war with Iran, excoriating the president for “appeasing” Tehran, the GOP wise men are telling him to cool it – and urging him to negotiate directly with the mullahs:
“In recent congressional hearings, think-tank conferences, op-ed essays and media appearances, Republican heavyweights – including former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) – have publicly urged the administration to leave the current path of escalation and join European allies in direct talks with Tehran.”
Rozen avers that these public comments parallel a private campaign to influence the thinking of U.S. officials, particularly Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Council Adviser Elliott Abrams. She cites one “central figure” in all this maneuvering, who says:
“I think the administration is gradually and with some reluctance moving in the right direction, but I don’t think they are taking initiatives now. I think they are being dragged.”
Dragged by the polls, that is, which show – except for the Fox News poll – a majority of Americans oppose a military strike against the Iranians. And dragged, also, by Republican lawmakers and activists, who are tired of having to defend the indefensible war in Iraq, and are made ill by the thought of another – potentially far worse – strategic disaster unfolding in Iran. A war-weary – and increasingly Bush-weary – GOP is wary of new “conquests” by those little Napoleons in the Pentagon, and prominent Republicans are trying to get the White House to put on the brakes before our collision course with Tehran reaches a tragic denouement.
The tragedy is compounded by the news, reported by Gareth Porter of Inter Press Service, that Iran had offered to negotiate three years ago on all the outstanding issues between Tehran and Washington:
“Iran offered in 2003 to accept peace with Israel and cut off material assistance to Palestinian armed groups and to pressure them to halt terrorist attacks within Israel’s 1967 borders, according to the secret Iranian proposal to the United States.”
The proposal included an offer “to accept much tighter controls by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in exchange for ‘full access to peaceful nuclear technology.’ It offered full cooperation with IAEA based on Iranian adoption of all relevant instruments (93+2 and all further IAEA protocols).'” This means that any Iranian facility could be the target of surprise inspections by IAEA personnel.
But that wasn’t good enough for the Americans. They rejected the offer, and the road to war was cleared: but before the neocons force march us down it, a number of factors prevent the administration from going along for the ride.
First of all, the political costs, and secondly real fear of the consequences. Oil at $200 a barrel would bring the U.S. economy – nay, the world economy – to a screeching halt. In the face of these obstacles, a tall tale such as the one dished out by Ynet and UPI seems almost like the neocons’ wish-fulfillment dream: a catalytic attack, a kind of mini-9/11 on foreign soil, that would galvanize the Europeans, as well as the Americans, to retaliate militarily.
But why attack Iran if Hezbollah is the actual culprit? Everyone knows Iran provides its Shi’ite brothers in Lebanon with material as well as political support, but that doesn’t mean the Iranians can be credibly accused of plotting to blow up the World Cup event. The real target of a U.S.-European retaliatory attack would be Lebanon – where Hezbollah dominates the southern region of the country – rather than Iran. If our “secret agent” is right, and the source of this story is Israeli intelligence rather than just some al-Watan reporter with an overactive imagination, then it was almost certainly planted with this in mind.
War with Iran will probably not begin with a frontal assault by the U.S. and/or Israel on Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons facilities, or even a skirmish along the Iraq-Iran border. Look to Lebanon and Syria for the first battlegrounds of this developing regional war. The Israelis know perfectly well that Iran’s nuclear ambitions, if they ever materialize, are not an immediate threat: their real concern is their volatile northern border, where their deadly enemies – Hezbollah – are an effective obstacle to Israeli influence. The Israelis are also looking to exploit growing opportunities to make trouble in Syria, where the restive Kurds are their reliable allies, and the brittleness of the Ba’athist dictatorship is an invitation to regime change.
Israel is using the U.S. as a mighty lever to pry apart its hostile Arab neighbors, as per the “Clean Break” plan laid out by a team of advisers to the Israeli government in 1996 – including Pentagon bigwig Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, and others prominent in the ranks of the War Party. The atomization of Iraq into its constituent ethno-religious parts is just a prelude to similar developments already well advanced in Lebanon, and steadily eroding the standing and legitimacy of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.
The flames of a new world war are licking around the edges of the Middle Eastern map, but it won’t be long before the whole thing goes up in smoke and ashes – unless cooler heads prevail. These folks – Brent Scowcroft and an older generation of Republican diplomats and former government officials – didn’t win the last round. Let us hope they’ve learned to pack a better punch – because this is a match none of us can afford to lose.