Psy-War or Serious? Washington Mulls Iran Attack

Three years after the fall of Baghdad to U.S. forces, Washington is abuzz about new reports that the administration of President George W. Bush is preparing to attack Iran, possibly with nuclear weapons.

In just the past few days, lengthy articles detailing planning for aerial attacks on as many as 400 nuclear and military targets have appeared in the Washington Post; the London Sunday Times; The Forward, the main weekly of the U.S. Jewish community; and The New Yorker.

The New Yorker account, written by legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, who two years ago was the first to disclose U.S. abuses of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison, was the most spectacular, although it relied heavily on unnamed sources outside the administration.

Among other assertions, Hersh’s 6,300-word article, "The Iran Plans," alleged that U.S. combat forces have already entered Iran to collect target data and make contact with "anti-government ethnic-minority groups" – assertions that the Post said it was unable to confirm. It also claimed that efforts by senior military officials to get the administration to eliminate contingency plans for the use of nuclear weapons against specific hardened targets had been "shouted down" by the Pentagon’s civilian leadership.

Unlike other accounts that have argued that any U.S. attack was unlikely to take place until after the November mid-term elections at the earliest, Hersh also suggested that a U.S. attack could come at any time.

"The officials say that President Bush is determined to deny the Iranian regime the opportunity to begin a pilot program, planned for this spring, to enrich uranium," Hersh wrote, citing official sources. In an interview on CNN Monday morning, the journalist insisted that planning for an attack had moved into an "operational" phase, "beyond contingency planning."

Without denying any of Hersh’s assertions, Bush himself insisted Monday that the latest reports constituted "wild speculation" and that his administration remained committed to "diplomacy." At the same time, White House spokesman Scott McClellan insisted that military force remained an option.

The sudden spate of detailed stories has raised the question of whether the administration really intends such an attack – if not imminently, then before it leaves office, as contended by the Sunday Times – or if it is carrying out a psychological warfare campaign designed to persuade the Iranians and Washington’s less warlike friends, especially in Europe, that it will indeed take action unless Tehran agrees to U.S. demands to abandon its enrichment program

There is no consensus on this question.

To some experts, the potential costs of such an attack – from an Iranian-inspired Shi’ite uprising in Iraq to missile attacks on Saudi oil fields and skyrocketing energy prices (not to mention a rise in anti-U.S. sentiment in Europe and the Islamic world) – so clearly outweigh the possible benefits that Bush’s top political aides would recognize them as exorbitant.

"Although they may be reckless with the security of the United States, I think they are utterly cold-blooded realists when it comes to political power," noted Gary Sick, an Iran policy expert at Columbia University, who sees the latest reports and threats by senior administration officials as an effort to intimidate Tehran.

"[O]ne of their strongest negotiating tools is the widespread belief that they are irrational and capable of the most irresponsible actions. That is their record, so they have no need to invent it. If they can use that reputation to keep Iran – and everybody else – off balance, so much the better," he added, noting, however, that if that analysis is correct, "there is always the huge danger of miscalculation and accident."

Graham Fuller, a former CIA officer and Middle East specialist at the RAND Corporation, echoed this view. He told The Forward that the recent spate of articles "shows the fine hand of U.S. [maybe UK too] disinformation and psychological warfare against Iran … [that] may now be intensified, perhaps out of frustration that the ‘real thing’ is not, in fact, on the table any more."

Other analysts, however, do not see the administration as bluffing.

"For months, I have told interviewers that no senior political or military official was seriously considering a military attack on Iran," wrote Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear proliferation specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) last week.

"In the last few weeks, I have changed my view," he went on. "In part, this shift was triggered by colleagues with close ties to the Pentagon and the executive branch who have convinced me that some senior officials have already made up their minds: They want to hit Iran."

"In recent months, I have grown increasingly concerned that the administration has been giving thought to a heavy dose of air strikes against Iran’s nuclear sector without giving enough weight to the possible ramification of such action," Wayne White, the State Department’s top Middle East analyst until 2005, told The Forward.

Whether psychological warfare or serious premeditation, leading the charge are clearly the same aggressive nationalist and pro-Israel elements within and outside the administration that were behind the drive to war in Iraq.

Thus, the rhetoric of Vice President Dick Cheney and UN Ambassador John Bolton – two of the administration’s most hawkish figures – has been particularly threatening in recent weeks, with Cheney vowing "meaningful consequences" and Bolton "tangible and painful consequences" in speeches last month to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) if Iran did not freeze its nuclear program.

Similarly, neoconservatives closely associated with right-wing sectors in Israel have been most outspoken in arguing that the benefits of an attack strongly outweigh the possible costs.

Thus, while Hersh quoted Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert at the AIPAC-created Washington Institute for Near East Policy, as calling for war, if covert action, including "industrial accidents," is not sufficient to set back Iran’s nuclear program, the Sunday Times quoted former Defense Policy Board chairman, Richard Perle, as asserting that destroying the program would be much easier than many anticipate.

"The attack would be over before anybody knew what had happened," said Perle, who told the AIPAC conference last month that a dozen B-2 bombers could handle the problem overnight.

His colleague at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, Michael Rubin, has also stressed that "the administration is deadly serious … and while everyone recognizes the problems of any military action, there is a real belief that the consequences of Iran going nuclear would be worse."

Indeed, as in Iraq, hardliners in and outside the administration may be embarked on their own psy-war campaign against more moderate forces within the administration, either to counter European pressure on Washington to engage Iran in direct negotiations, to provoke Iran into an overreaction that would offer a pretext for an attack, or to rhetorically box the administration into a position where it would look unacceptably weak if it did not take action.

"A sudden unexplained explosion at a U.S. embassy, a clash with militias in Basra, or a thousand other things could call the administration’s bluff," according to Sick. "[T]here are certainly individuals in and around the administration who would not hesitate for a second to recommend a bombing attack on Iran."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.