Robert Dreyfuss is an Alexandria, Va.-based writer specializing in politics and national security issues. He is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books, 2005), a contributing editor at The Nation and a writer for Mother Jones, The American Prospect and Rolling Stone. He can be reached through his website, www.robertdreyfuss.com.
Since President Bush’s State of the Union address last Tuesday, the White House has manufactured a crisis that pits the United States against Iran. In what looks like the military and diplomatic equivalent of a full court press, Washington has unleashed a barrage of threats, maneuvers and limited military actions that seem calculated to set the United States on a collision course with Iran in Iraq and the Persian Gulf. All in all, it is an exceedingly risky and dangerous gambit.
Even if the intent is not to create a shooting war between the two countries, one false move by radicals on either side could ignite exactly that, whether by hardliners in Iran seeking to cement their influence as the rising, hegemonic power in the Gulf or by frustrated U.S. neoconservatives desperate to prevent the final collapse of their misadventure in Iraq by expanding that war to include Iran, and perhaps Syria.
By now, the elements of Washington’s brinkmanship in the Gulf are well known: Bush’s pledge to use U.S. military and intelligence capabilities against alleged Iranian activity in Iraq; the dispatch of a second U.S. aircraft carrier task force to the Gulf; the shipment of Patriot missile batteries to defend American-allied Arab Gulf sheikhdoms; the seizure of several teams of Iranian diplomats and personnel in Baghdad and Irbil; and the report that the White House had issued “kill or capture” orders to U.S. forces in Iraq who encounter Iranian operatives.
Meanwhile, the United States has stepped up pressure on U.S. allies and Western banks to stop doing business as usual with Iran’s economic institutions and pushed for sanctions against Iran over its alleged plan to acquire nuclear weapons. It has also dropped hints about orchestrating an oil war against Iran by colluding with Saudi Arabia to drive oil prices downward. At the same time, the administration has issued a series of wildly inflated charges that Iran is involved in masterminding the Iraqi insurgency, is providing weapons and IED explosive devices that are killing U.S. troops and, most recently, was behind a well-coordinated raid in Karbala, in which a fleet of SUVs disguised as carrying American forces kidnapped and executed four U.S. soldiers.
According to Robert Gates, the new secretary of defense, “We are trying to uproot these [Iranian] networks that are planting IEDs that are causing 70 percent of our casualties.”
The Bush administration’s charges against Iran are, for the most part, scare talk and nothing more. Iran has virtually nothing to do with the Iraqi resistance movement, which is commanded and staffed by Sunni Arab military officers and Baathists. They consider Iran to be a deadly foe and call Iraq’s Shiite leaders “Persians.” The vast majority of U.S. casualties in Iraq are victims of this well-organized, mass-based insurgency – but it is certain that none of their weapons, IEDs or training comes from Iran. Similarly, there is so far not a shred of credible intelligence to show that the Karbala raid was organized by Iran, and there is no record of Iranian involvement in any attacks on U.S. forces since the March, 2003 invasion.
That’s not to say that Iran does not have multiple, and powerful, ties to virtually all of Iraq’s Shiite political elite and to some Kurdish warlords. Iran provides cash, arms and assistance to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, whose Badr Brigade militia operates as a death squad on behalf of the U.S.-allied government of Iraq. It has a vast presence in Iraq’s Shiite south, building ties to private militias, tribes and urban political machines. It has massive economic ties to Iraq, and, in a recent New York Times interview, Iran’s ambassador in Iraq announced that his country would open a branch of Iran’s leading bank in downtown Baghdad and “offer Iraqi government forces training, equipment and advisers for ‘the security fight.’” Iran has hosted visits from Iraq’s president, prime minister, foreign minister and other top Iraqi officials. But, it must be stressed, it is richly ironic that nearly all of Iran’s ties in Iraq are with Iraqi political forces who are America’s nominal allies – not to the armed resistance fighting the U.S. occupation.
Were this not so deadly serious, it would be farcical. One goal, apparently, of U.S. threats and bluster against Iran in Iraq is an attempt to break ties between Iran and, say, SCIRI – even though SCIRI is organically tied to Tehran and even though it was created in 1982 by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. Though SCIRI is happy to receive U.S. support as well (its turbaned leader recently visited the Oval Office), there is no question that the Shiite leaders in Iraq know that one day the United States will leave, while Iran, Iraq’s giant neighbor to the east, will always be there. Those realities seem not to have registered with Ambassador Zal Khalilzad, who told The Washington Post that even though SCIRI and Iran had close ties in the 1980s, “Now it’s a different situation, so there is a need for adaptation of what’s appropriate in terms of a relationship.” Perhaps, by invading the compound of SCIRI’s leader and seizing several officers of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard there last month, Khalilzad thought he was sending the “appropriate” message that SCIRI needs to break its ties to Iran. Not likely.
For some in the Bush administration, the sum total of all this anti-Iranian agitation is to put pressure on Iran to negotiate over its nuclear program, to reassure America’s Sunni Arab allies (especially Saudi Arabia) that they are safe from Iran’s grand design in the Gulf and to compel Iran to de-escalate its involvement with Iraq’s Shiite establishment. That was the message from Admiral William Fallon, the newly appointed commander of the U.S. Central Command, at his confirmation hearing this week. Fallon suggested that a diplomatic solution to the impasse over Iran’s alleged nukes could only happen if it were backed by a tough U.S. military capability in the region. Gates, too, while blustering about a tough American defense posture in the Gulf, was not long ago an advocate of diplomatic engagement with Iran. And the U.S. military, which feels vulnerable and exposed in Iraq should Iran decide to support an insurgency of its own among Shiite Iraqis, doesn’t want a showdown with Tehran. Dismissing the concerns of Democrats such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that the White House is threatening to escalate the Iraq war to include Iran, Gates said blithely, “We think we can handle this within the borders of Iraq.”
Nevertheless, the hardliners and neoconservatives in the administration—led, as always, by Dick Cheney—have been pushing for five years for a confrontation with Iran, and from the beginning they saw the war in Iraq as only one step in that direction. Within the Bush administration, there is a sharp division – once again, in part, pitting the State Department against the National Security Council and the office of the Vice President – over how far to raise tensions with Iran. In that context, the neocons can only be crossing their fingers in the hope that Iran will respond provocatively, making what is now a low-grade cold war inexorably heat up.