There has been a noticeable shift in the rhetoric emanating from the proponents of war with Iran, almost certainly due to the perception that armed conflict with Tehran will not be as easy a sell as was Iraq. The shift is most marked within the Bush Administration itself, where daily attacks on Iran that started with the State of the Union message on January 10th have largely disappeared and where both civilian and military government spokesmen have even begun contradicting each other on the level of threat posed by Tehran. The neocons at The Weekly Standard and the “scholars” at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) have likewise lowered their voices and are now suggesting that the Iran conundrum can be solved through the resolute application of economic and political sanctions, and not necessarily through war. A February 14th piece in the Financial Times by AEI and Weekly Standard stalwarts Reuel Marc Gerecht and Gary Schmitt makes the curious case that Iran can be hobbled if only the Europeans get together and impose draconian economic sanctions. Otherwise, either Israel or the United States (or both) will be forced to take action against a “terrorist supporting state” that cannot be militarily deterred, two assertions that are at best questionable.
The same theme has been picked up by Frank Gaffney in the pages of The Washington Times. Gaffney, who has urged the Europeans (and everyone else) to tighten the economic vise on Iran, also seems to believe that Iran is unique among nations in that it cannot be dealt with except through coercion. The Gerecht-Schmitt and Gaffney articles are, as ever, all part of a curious point-the-finger game as the authors prefer to blame Europe for not acting with sufficient vigor while simultaneously failing to consider whether the United States or Israel has anything to do with the disastrous power vacuum in the Persian Gulf region that Iran has been able to exploit. In fact, to the manifest pleasure of the neocons, Old Europe can plausibly be blamed for nearly everything going wrong in the world. Europe did not wholeheartedly support the invasion and reconstruction of Iraq, causing that estimable project to fail. It has not provided enough soldiers or money to fix the shattered pieces of Afghanistan left behind by the US, leaving the door open to a Taliban resurgence, and it also consistently fails to support the Israelis unconditionally in their dealings with their neighbors, allowing terrorists to go forth and multiply throughout the Middle East. The neocon armchair warrior world view assumes that Israel and the United States possess a clarity of vision that the rest of the world apparently lacks. They bewail European short-sightedness while also denying the right of Iran and even of the Arab Gulf States to have national interests that in any way cause discomfort either to Tel Aviv or Washington. Gerecht and Schmitt assert piously and somewhat disingenuously, that “Washington and Jerusalem clearly have no desire to attack Iran,” a claim that is apparently more clear to them than it is to the rest of the world, which has been nervously watching the ominous military buildup taking place in the Persian Gulf.
Blaming Europe has become somewhat of a fashion both with the White House and the think tanks ever since Germany and France refused to line up and join the “coalition of the willing” prior to America’s ill-fated invasion of Iraq. While “freedom fries” can be seen as some kind of a pathetic joke, the neocon disdain for America’s traditional European allies as somehow lacking in the manly virtues is both palpable and more serious. The Europeans increasingly find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place, wishing to maintain the Atlantic Alliance while at the same time serving as intermediaries in a process where the United States and Israel have no desire to see an actual solution.
The European Union group of three consisting of Germany, Britain, and France has been negotiating directly with Iran since 2003. Negotiations with Tehran several times seemed to be on the verge of success, most particularly in the aftermath of the Paris Agreement of 2004 [.pdf]. The United States, disinclined to participate in talks with an “axis of evil” government, has left the negotiating to the Europeans but has, at the same time, refused to commit itself to working for a solution in spite of the fact that it is indispensible to arriving at an amicable settlement with Iran. Washington has consistently refused to provide any security guarantees to Tehran, a gesture that would almost certainly lead to an enormous improvement in relations, and has also rejected a number of Iranian offers to discuss all bilateral issues. It has also been reported that Washington, even though a non-participant, several times put pressure on the Europeans to avoid any agreement or understanding that did not include complete Iranian capitulation on the nuclear energy issue, virtually guaranteeing that talks would go nowhere. Without talks, war becomes the only option, something that the Bush Administration understands perfectly well in spite of its denials that it’s seeking a military solution.
Regarding Iran, the neocons and the Administration are now suggesting that everyone should relax, that war is not being planned and that a possible military strike against Tehran is a year away if not more and only then if the Iranians continue to be unreasonable and misbehave. This curious turnabout coming from pundits who only one month ago were predicting an imminent Iranian nuclear bomb and who were baying for blood does have an explanation, or rather several explanations. The abruptness of President George W. Bush’s turning up the pressure on Iran in January clearly scared a lot of people, not only in Iran but also in the United States, particularly when it was followed by a “shoot to kill” order against Iranians in Iraq. Evasion on the part of Administration officials when asked whether the White House believes it has the authority to start a war without Congressional approval also stoked the fire. The re-emergence of the pattern that began five years ago with a daily diet of threats and innuendo leading up to war with Iraq was all too obvious and could not be ignored. This alarm resulted in unanticipated pressure from normally unconnected groups that demanded some straight answers from the Administration on its Iran policy. Even the mainstream media, normally predisposed to embrace a belligerent policy against Iran because Tehran is an “existential threat” to Israel, questioned just what the Bush White House was up to. The generally acquiescent New York Times challenged the Iran policy in two leading editorials, though it also provided a platform for Michael Gordon to continue to write anonymously sourced articles denigrating Tehran that were little more than Pentagon propaganda.
In Congress, a number of Democrats as well as Republicans began to demand an explanation of the Administration’s intentions and openly questioned the presumed authority under which the US might again go to war. Several currently debated House and Senate resolutions are attempting to create conditions whereby the White House must go to Congress if it wishes to attack Iran, though it is widely believed that such legislative fixes will go nowhere because of opposition being organized by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Individual Congressmen also began to feel the heat as constituents began to write and call objecting to yet another “preemptive war of choice” and the media began to feature letters to the editor and op-ed pieces opposing the all-too-obvious preparations for hostilities. All of this made America’s elected officials very nervous indeed, and some Republicans were particularly concerned that a major misstep into Iran could doom the GOP’s electoral prospects for a long time to come.
Given the current lull, it might almost seem as if the war party has finally had a reality check and is backing down, but to assume that such is the case would be premature. This respite is in the nature of a smokescreen, a tactical shift intended to mask the strategic decision that has already been made to strike thousands of targets in Iran. Many elements can still come together to start a war sooner rather than later. It is now being widely reported that the United States is carrying out so-called “black operations” inside Iran by special forces as well as forays that have included bombings and assassinations by dissidents that the Pentagon supports. Iran has yet to respond to these operations aggressively, and if it does, there is potential for an armed clash in which the US will be likely to claim interference with the right of “hot pursuit” while chasing “terrorists.” Also, the Persian Gulf is becoming particularly crowded with US warships. There is potential for another Gulf of Tonkin-like incident with Administration figures presumably prepared to cite an incident involving Iranian warships or coastal defenses as a pretext for a massive counter-strike.
It also is pointless to hope for something from the new Democratic majority in Congress as the neocons also know that the domestic politics of the situation is on their side in spite of the fact that the American people do not want another war. Recently, many presidential aspirants, both Republicans and Democrats, have addressed Israeli audiences to pledge that Iran will not get a nuclear weapon. The majority and minority leaders in both the House and Senate have also spoken in the same vein, rattling their sabers at Iran. Congressman Gary Ackerman now heads the Middle East Sub Committee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee while Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. [Editor’s note: This article originally misidentified Rep. Ros-Lehtinen as the chair of the Middle East Sub Committee. Our regrets for the error.] Both are regarded as passionate supporters of Israel, so much so that when Ackerman recently held committee hearings on the Palestinians he pointedly refused to allow any Arabs to participate. All the speakers were either American Jews or Israelis.
The recent formation of the Congressional Israel Allies Caucus should also be noted as well as AIPAC’s highlighting of the threat from Iran at its 2006 convention in Washington, an event that featured Vice President Dick Cheney as keynote speaker. More recently, Senator Hillary Clinton addressed an AIPAC gathering in New York City. Neither was shy about threatening Iran. AIPAC’s formulation that the option of force “must remain on the table” when dealing with Iran has been repeated like a mantra by numerous politicians and government officials, not too surprisingly as AIPAC writes the briefings and position papers that many Congressmen unfortunately rely on. Knowing that to cross the Lobby is perilous, Congressmen from both parties squirm and become uneasy when pressured by AIPAC to “protect Israel,” even if it means yet another unwinnable war for the United States. The neocons know full well that if a war with Iran were to be started either inadvertently or by design, few within America’s political system would be brave enough to stand up in opposition.