Vice President Dick Cheney and his neoconservative allies in the George W. Bush administration only began agitating for the use of military force against Iran once they had finally given up the illusion that regime change in Iran would happen without it.
And they did not give it up until late 2005, according to a former high-level Foreign Service officer who participated in the United States discussions with Iran from 2001 until late 2005.
Hillary Mann, who was the director for Persian Gulf and Afghanistan Affairs on the National Security Council staff in 2003 and later on the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, observes that the key to neoconservative policy views on Iran until 2006 was the firm belief that one of the consequences of a successful display of U.S. military force in Iraq would be to shake the foundations of the Iran regime.
That central belief was conveyed to conservative columnist Arnaud de Borchgrave of the Washington Times in April 2002 by prominent neocon figures who told him the Bush administration “had decided to redraw the geopolitical map of the Middle East.”
The Bush doctrine of preemption, they said, “had become the vehicle for driving axis of evil practitioners out of power.” The removal of Saddam Hussein, according to the neocon scenario, would bring a democratic Iraq that would then spread through the region, “bringing democracy from Syria to Egypt and to the sheikdoms, emirates, and monarchies of the Gulf.”
Under the influence of this central myth, after the 9/11 attacks, some of Cheney’s allies in the Pentagon conceived the objective of removing every regime in the Middle East that was hostile to the U.S. and Israel.
In November 2001, Gen. Wesley Clark, who had recently retired from his post as head of the U.S. Southern Command, learned from a general he knew in the Pentagon that a memo had just come down from the office of the secretary of defense outlining the objective of the “take down” of seven Middle Eastern regimes over five years.
The plan would start with the invasion of Iraq, and then go after Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan, according to an account in Clark’s 2003 book, Winning Modern Wars. The memo indicated the plan was to “come back and get Iran in five years.”
The neocons were very serious about going after Syria. In the weeks following the initial U.S. blow at Hussein, Paul Wolfowitz, the chief neoconservative architect of the Iraq invasion, argued unsuccessfully for taking advantage of the presumed military triumph there to overthrow the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad, according to the right-leaning Insight magazine.
But contrary to the popular notion that the neocons believed that “real men go to Tehran,” no one was yet proposing that Iran should be next military target.
In September 2003, Cheney brought in David Wurmser, a close friend and protégé of Richard Perle and one of the architects of the neoconservative plan for regime change in Iraq, as his adviser on the Middle East. Wurmser had previously articulated very specific ideas about how taking down Hussein by force would help destabilize the Iranian regime.
In a 1999 book, Wurmser had laid out a plan for using the Iraqi Shi’ite majority and their conservative clerics as U.S. allies in the “regional rollback of Shi’ite fundamentalism” meaning the Islamic regime in Iran.
But Wurmser also believed that the Ba’athist regime in Syria was an obstacle to regime change in Iran. Beginning with the “Clean Break” memo to incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which he had co-authored with Perle and Douglas Feith in 1996, he had argued that once Hussein was removed, the next step was to take down the Assad regime in Syria.
In a September 2007 interview with the Telegraph, after he had left Cheney’s office, Wurmser confirmed his belief that regime change in Syria by force, if necessary would directly affect the stability of the Tehran regime. If Iran were seen to be unable to do anything to prevent the overthrow of the regime in Syria, he suggested, it would seriously undermine the Islamic regime’s prestige at home.
From 2003 to 2005, Wurmser and the neocons were in denial about the increasingly obvious reality that the U.S. occupation of Iraq was actually boosting Iranian influence there rather than shaking the regime’s power at home, according to former NSC specialist Mann. She was well acquainted with the neoconservatives’ thinking from her associations with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in the 1990s, and she told IPS in a recent interview that she was “astounded” to hear neocons in the administration suggest as late as 2005 that the situation in Iraq was on track to help destabilize the Iranian regime.
The neocons had long viewed the Iranian reformists, led by President Mohammed Khatami, as the primary obstacle to the popular revolution against the mullahs for which they were working. As French Iran specialist Frédéric Tellier noted in an early 2006 essay, they believed the electoral defeats of the reformists in 2003 and 2004 would also help open the way to a revolutionary political upheaval in Tehran.
In an appearance on the Don Imus show on Jan. 20, 2005, Cheney said the Israelis might attack Iran’s nuclear sites if they became convinced the Iranians had a “significant nuclear capability.” That remark underlined the fact that he was not thinking seriously about a U.S. strike against Iran.
By the end of 2005, however, the neocons had finally accepted the reality of the failure of the Bush administration’s military intervention in Iraq, according to Mann. She also notes that the electoral victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, representing a new breed of nationalist conservative with a mass base of popular support, in the June 2005 presidential election, spelled the “death knell” to the neocon optimism about regime change in Iran.
Mann observes that the neocons had never forsworn the use of force against Iran, but they had argued that less force would be needed in Iran than had been used in Iraq. By early 2006, however, that assumption was being discarded by prominent neoconservatives.
Reuel Marc Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute had been more aggressive than anyone else in arguing that Iraq’s Shi’ites, liberated by U.S. military power, would help subvert the Iranian regime. But in April 2006, he called in a Weekly Standard article for continued bombing of Iran’s nuclear sites until the Iranians stopped rebuilding them.
Within the administration, meanwhile, Wurmser was looking for the opportunity to propose a military option against Iran. In his September 2007 interview with the Telegraph shortly after leaving Cheney’s office, he insisted that the United States must be willing to “escalate as far as we need to go to topple the [Iranian] regime if necessary.”
That opportunity seemed to present itself in the aftermath of Israel’s failed attempt to deal a major blow to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in the summer of 2006.
Neoconservatives aligned with Cheney argued that Iran was now threatening U.S. dominant power in the region, through its proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and the Palestinian territory and its nuclear program. They insisted the administration had to push back by targeting Iran’s Quds Force personnel in Iraq, increasing naval presence in the Gulf, and accusing Iran of supporting the killing of U.S. troops.
Although the ostensible rationale was to pressure Iran to back down on the nuclear issue, in light of the previous views, it appears that they were hoping to use military power against Iran to accomplish their original goal of regime change.
(Inter Press Service)