Column: Dispatches From The Edge: Planning the Next War: White House Targets Iran By Conn Hallinan

Friday January 20, 2006

Iran has long been a target of the Bush administration’s rhetorical ire. The president called it “the world’s primary state sponsor of terrorism,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice characterized it as “something to be loathed.” But with the U.S. military under siege in Iraq, and polls running heavily against the Iraq war, it seemed just bluster and so much talk. 

But this past December, German newspapers reported that briefings by high-level officials indicate that the United States is seriously contemplating an air attack on Iranian nuclear facilities sometime this spring. And the general consensus among newspapers like Der Spiegel, Der Tagesspiegel, and DDP News Agency is that recent anti-Semitic tirades by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmandinejad gives the Bush administration an opening. 

“I would be very surprised if the Americans, in the mid-term, didn’t take advantage of the opportunity offered by Tehran,” one high placed German defense official told DDP. 

The European speculation is based less on any escalation of threats, than on who is making them. According to Der Tagesspeiegel, Central Intelligence Agency Director Porter Goss visited Turkey Dec. 12 and informed Turkish Prime Minister Redep Tayyip Erdogan that the United States was seriously considering striking Iran sometime in 2006. 

Rice and FBI Director Robert Mueller also made trips to Ankara.  

Goss reportedly told the Turks that if they cooperated, the United States would “green light” a Turkish cross border attack on the People’s Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). 

Turkey is deeply opposed to the establishment of an independent Kurdish state, having fought a long and bloody war with the PPK in the mid-1980s. Turkey fears Kurdish independence would send separatist ripples through Kurdish populations in Syria, Iran and Turkey’s eastern provinces. 

As recently as March 20, Rumsfeld denounced Turkey for refusing to let the U.S. Fourth Infantry Division invade Iraq from southern Turkey during the opening weeks of the Iraq War. He charged that Ankara was partly responsible for the United States’s current problems with the insurgency. 

But in mid-December, Yasar Buyukanit, head of the Turkish army and the likely future military chief of staff, flew to Washington for a round of talks with the Department of Defense, which he later described as “very friendly.” The question Europeans are asking is, did Washington and Ankara reach a quid pro quo? The United States whacks Iran with minimal protest from the Turks; Ankara smashes the PKK and derails the formation of a Kurdish state with a few mild “tut-tuts” from the Americans? 

And then there is Israel.  

According to the Sunday Times, Israeli Special Forces have been put on alert in anticipation of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s March report on whether Iran has been concealing a nuclear weapons program. The Israelis say they will not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran. 

Likud’s candidate for Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear what he will do if elected: “When I form the new Israeli government, we’ll do what we did in the past against Saddam’s reactor, which gave us 20 years of tranquility.”  

In 1981, Israeli fighter-bombers destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor. 

The American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) attacked the Bush administration for its decision not to refer Iran to the UN Security Council, (Washington did not have the votes to do so), and for endorsing a Russian proposal to enrich reactor fuel for the Iran’s civilian program. AIPAC called the decision a “disturbing shift” in administration policy that “poses a danger to the U.S. and our allies.”  

No one thinks Iran has nuclear weapons, and estimates of when they could produce them range from five years to a decade. 

The Iranians deny they intend to build a bomb, and the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, says nuclear weapons are incompatible with Islam. But then again, everyone denies building bombs. India and Pakistan disavowed they were constructing nuclear weapons up until the moment they tested them, and Israel even built a false wall at its Dimona Reactor to hide its weapons program from the Kennedy administration. 

Given that Iran is surrounded by nuclear powers in Russia, Pakistan, India and Israel, and that American troops occupy countries on its borders, one can hardly blame them. And it does not follow that a nuclear-armed Iran is a danger to countries in the region, even Israel. Given the number of nuclear weapons in their arsenals, any attack on Israel or the United States would be tantamount to national suicide. 

Most observers think Ahmandinejad’s anti-Israeli rants have more to do with domestic matters than foreign policy. “He wants to control the domestic situation through isolating Iran,” says Saeed Laylaz, an Iranian policy analyst. “Then he can suppress the voices inside the country and control the situation.” 

An Israeli attack on Iran would be logistically complex, because Israel’s air force would need to over fly Jordan and Iraq to strike targets in Iran. The planes would also have to be refueled in-flight. However, the Israelis recently purchased some 500 GBU-27 and GBU-28 “bunker buster” bombs that can penetrate 30 feet of concrete, so they could pull off an attack. 

But given the upheaval in Israel following Ariel Sharon’s stroke, and the regional political fallout from such an action, it seems more likely Washington would do the job. 

The United States, could do it easily, using either carried launched planes, B-2 “stealth” bombers armed with “bunker busters,” or Tomahawk cruise missiles. The U.S. might even invoke the 2002 “Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations” and use tactical nuclear weapons. 

If Iran is no immediate threat, why attack?  

First, the United States would love to put a crimp in the developing Asian Energy Security Grid, which in turn would hamper the development of India and China. An Iran in turmoil, maybe enchained by sanctions, might help derail or slow down the second great industrial revolution in Asia 

Foreign reaction would be severe, but it is not clear the White House much cares. In a Jan. 5 interview with the Financial Times, a “senior” State Department official told the newspaper that the administration will concentrate on “coalitions of the willing” in future conflicts, rather than turning to “existing but unreliable” institutional alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.  

Second, an attack on Iran rolls the 9/11 dice for the 2006 mid-term elections. Recent polls indicate that the Republicans may lose both houses of Congress, which would make U.S. Rep. John Conyers chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Conyers armed with subpoenas is the White House’s definition of a nightmare. If the country is in another war, might the voters again feel uncomfortable about shifting horses in mid-stream? 

Attacking Iran seems like madness, but the White House appears more desperate and out of touch these days than at any time in the past five years. What the administration does know is that if it cannot change the subject from domestic spying, Katrina, and the chaos of Iraq, it faces defeat in November, which would deeply damage Republican designs on the presidency in 2008. 

It will not be easy to stop this new drive toward war, particularly given that many Democrats in the Congress are almost as bellicose on Iran as the Republicans. But any attack on Iran will unleash regional and international consequences that will finally make Iraq look like the cakewalk the Bush administration originally predicted it to be.›