Iran: Thinking the Unthinkable

Is Israel, supported by the Bush Administration, preparing to launch an atomic war against Iran? On January 7, the London Sunday Times claimed that the Israeli government is planning to attack Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities with tactical nuclear weapons. While the Israeli government denies the story, recent statements by top Israeli officials and military figures — along with recent White House threats against Iran and Syria and a shuffling of American commanders in the Middle East — suggest that the possibility is real.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert calls Iran an “existential threat,” and Deputy Minister of Defense Ephraim Sneh recently said, “The time is approaching when Israel and the international community will have to decide whether to take military action against Iran.” An Israeli Defense Force (IDF) official told the Jerusalem Post that “only a military strike by the U.S. and it allies will stop Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.”

Brigadier General Oded Tira, former commander of the IDF’s artillery units, not only urges an attack on Iran, but because “President Bush lacks the political power to attack Iran,” Israel and its supporters “must lobby the Democratic Party and U.S. newspaper editors” to lay the groundwork for such an attack. Tira says that if the Americans don’t act, “we’ll do it ourselves.”

According to the Times, the attack will use a combination of conventional laser-guided bombs and one kiloton tactical nuclear “bunker busters.” The targets would be the centrifuges at Natanz, a uranium conversion plant near Isfahan, and the heavy water reactor at Arak.

One source told the Times, “As soon as the green light is given, it will be one mission, one strike and the Iranian nuclear project will be demolished.”

Bluster or Bunker Buster?

Bombast to scare the Iranians? Maybe, but a number of pieces have fallen into place over the past month that suggest that the Bush administration is also seeking to widen the Middle East conflict, and that time may be running out for Iran.

In his January 10 speech announcing an escalation in Iraq, the president singled out Iran and Syria as aiding “terrorists,” and warned, “We will seek out and destroy the networks” that are training and arming “our enemies in Iraq.” According to The New York Times, the president ordered several raids against diplomats and advisors in Iraq, accusing them of supplying advanced improvised explosive devices to Iraqi insurgents.

While the last election was a repudiation of the neo-conservative’s policies of aggressive militarism, many of those neo-conservatives are steering the current escalation in Iraq. President’s Bush’s “new way forward” is lifted directly from a policy paper by Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the neoconservative think tank that pushed so hard for the initial invasion of Iraq. Kagan — along with William Kristol, editor of the neoconservative Weekly Standard – designed the plan that will send more than 20,000 troops to Iraq.

But is the escalation just about Iraq? According to Robert Parry, author of Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, and former Associated Press and Newsweek reporter, “one source familiar with high-level thinking in Washington and Tel Aviv said an unstated reason for the Bush troop ‘surge’ is to bolster the defenses of Baghdad’s Green Zone if a possible Israeli attack on Iran prompts an uprising among Iraqi Shiites.”

The neoconservatives may well have engineered the ouster of John Negroponte, National Security Director, because he said that Iran could not produce a nuclear weapon until sometime in the next decade. The statement outraged neoconservatives and directly contradicted alarmist Israeli intelligence assessments that Tehran could have a warhead in less than two years.

If the United States does intend to hit Iran, or to support such an attack by Israel, then it just appointed the right man for the job. The new head of Central Command (CENTCOM) that oversees the Middle East, Admiral William Fallon, is the former head of U.S. Pacific Command and an expert on air war. Fallon commanded an A-6 tactical bomber wing in Vietnam, a carrier wing, and an aircraft carrier. As retired U.S. navy commander Jeff Huber writes in Pen and Sword, “If anybody knows how to run a maritime and air operation against Iran, it’s ‘Fox’ Fallon.”

Fallon is also close with the neoconservatives and attended the 2001 awards ceremony of the Jewish Institute for National Security (JINSA), a think tank that strongly pushed for the war in Iraq and currently lobbies for attacking Iran. Vice President Dick Cheney and ex-UN Ambassador John Bolton are both former members of JINSA. The organization sponsored a 2003 conference entitled: “Time to Focus on Iran — The Mother of Modern Terrorism.”

The White House has also secretly formed a policy unit called the Iran Syria Policy and Operations Group (ISOG) to influence U.S. media, funnel covert aid to Iranian dissidents, and collect information and intelligence. One former U.S. official told the Boston Globe that group’s goal in Iran was “regime change.” ISOG is headed up by two neoconservative hawks, James F. Jeffrey and Elliott Abrams.

Abrams formally worked for rightwing Israeli ex-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and helped write the policy paper, “A Clean Break,” which advocated attacking Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah and unilaterally imposing a “settlement” on the Palestinians. According the Inter-Press Service, during last summer’s war in Lebanon, Abrams carried a message from the Bush Administration encouraging the Olmert government to attack Syria.

Israel’s Role

Parry suggests that one explanation for recent meetings between Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Olmert is joint planning on how to widen the war in the Middle East to embrace Iran, and possibly Syria. Olmert’s government is deeply unpopular, Blair is leaving office this spring, and Bush can’t get much lower in the polls without hitting negative numbers. In a sense, Parry suggests, there is nothing to lose if all three “double-down” their gamble on the Iraq War.

If the Israelis do decide to go through with the attack, initially there would be little Iran could do about it. Given Israel’s hundreds of nuclear warheads, any direct retaliation by Tehran would be suicidal.

A similar attack on two U.S. carrier groups currently deployed in the Gulf of Iran would be equally self-destructive, as would any serious attempt to close off the Straits of Hormuz through which about 20% of the world’s oil moves. The White House just added a third carrier battle group.

But the long-term impact of a nuclear strike on Iran is likely to be catastrophic and not only because it would enrage Shiites in Iraq. Parry suggests that local U.S.-backed dictators might find themselves facing unrest as well. If Hezbollah rocketed Israel, Tel Aviv might decide to invade Syria, igniting a full-scale regional war. It is even possible that Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf might fall, says Parry, “conceivably giving Islamic terrorists control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.” In that event, India would almost certainly intervene, which could spark a nuclear war in South Asia. India and Pakistan came perilously close to such an exchange in 1999.

“For some U.S. foreign policy experts,” writes Parry, “this potential disaster for a U.S.-backed Israeli air strike on Iran is so terrifying that they ultimately don’t believe Bush and Olmert would dare implement such a plan.”

They may be right, but many Democrats are willing to join the Republicans in attacking Iran. New House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told the Jerusalem Post that a nuclear-armed Iran was unacceptable, and when asked if he would support a military strike, replied, “I have not ruled that out.” Add heavy lobbying by the AEI, JINSA, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, coupled with “cooked” intelligence that claims the Iranians are on the verge of producing a nuclear weapon, and they might indeed dare.

Conn Hallinan is a Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org) columnist.