Taunting Iran

Joseph Cirincione examines the possible reasons behind the Bush administration’s recent confrontations with Iran.

The Baker-Hamilton study group advised President Bush to talk directly to Iran. Senior members of Congress from both parties urged the president to talk to Iran. Three-quarters of the American public, says a recent poll, also want the president to talk to Iran (including 72 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of Democrats). Even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates—when he was the co-chair of a 2004 Council of Foreign Relations task force—urged the president to talk to Iran.

Perhaps President Bush is a little hard of hearing. He is now taunting Iran instead.

But this is no joke. His administration’s recent actions and statements, taken together, paint a disturbing picture of an administration itching for a war with Iran. Like the similar campaign for war with Iraq, this effort seems to be designed to find a causi belli, perhaps by provoking Iran into some action that could justify a military assault. Iran, whose actions in Iraq are already cause for legitimate concern, may do just that.

In recent weeks, the Bush administration has:

  • Announced the movement of Patriot missile units into Iraq.
  • Order the deployment of a second carrier battle group into the Persian Gulf.
  • Cut off one of Iran’s largest banks from the U.S. financial system.
  • Declared the war in Iraq part of “a broad struggle going on in the Middle East between the forced of freedom and democracy and the forces of terror and tyranny—and Iran is behind a lot of that,” as National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley said on Meet the Press this past weekend.
  • Appointed a naval aviator, Admiral William Fallon, as the commander-in-chief of the Central Command.
  • Arrested several Iranian diplomats in Iraq in December and in January, and arrested six other Iranians associated with the Revolutionary Guards at an office opened in Kurdistan in 1992 that has been functioning as an Iranian consulate.
  • Did not criticize press reports that Israel was practicing air strikes on Iranian facilities, including the possible use of Israeli nuclear weapons.
  • Announced in the president’s January 10 speech to the nation: “We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.”

Each of these may be a justifiable move. Adm. Fallon, for example, may well have been appointed for his considerable diplomatic skills, not to plan air strikes on Iran. Sanctions on Iran’s banks are useful pressure to help resolve the nuclear crisis with Iran. And Iran is indeed meddling in Iraq, most likely supplying arms and funds to Shia militia. But some moves have no other explanation. Patriot missiles, for instance, are only useful against Scud-range missiles. Iraqi insurgents do not have these; only Iran and Syria in the region do.

The exaggerated rhetoric also seems to signal a more sweeping intent. Official statements parrot claims prominent for the past year in the neoconservatives press linking Iran to September 11 and the president’s declared “war on terror.” The goal may be to blame Iran for the problems in Iraq and the death of American soldiers, stir up the American public, and, simultaneously, to build up US military forces for possible air strikes against Iran once an adequate triggering event can be created.

The right-wing media and pundits have their talking points well honed. al-Qaeda has disappeared in their world, replaced by Iran. Afghanistan is a diversion for them as they focus on a new target. I have experienced this first hand in debates, such as one on January 11 with Jed Babin, former deputy undersecretary of defense for President Bush, on the CNBC show Kudlow & Company. Babin argued, “We need to take significant action against Iran…They’re killing Americans; we have to return the favor…Iran is the central enemy in the war on terror.”

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) repeated the threat-conflation mantra on Meet the Press on January 14, trying to rally support for an escalation of the war in Iraq by appealing to “the American people, who have been attacked on 9/11 by the same enemy that we’re fighting in Iraq today, supported by a rising Islamist radical super-powered government in Iran.” There are numerous other examples.

Wiser heads seem to be on the alert in Congress. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE) has warned the administration that it would require congressional approval for military action against Iran. Sen. Bill Nelson (D- FL) told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at a January 11 Senate hearing, “I have supported you and the administration on the war, but I cannot continue to support the administration’s position…I have not been told the truth over and over again.”

Then there’s Congressman Walter Jones (R-NC), who has introduced a bill requiring specific congressional authorization prior to the use of military force against Iran. “One of the many lessons from our involvement in Iraq is that Congress needs to ask the right questions prior to exercising its Constitutional authority to approve the use of military force,” Jones said. Congressman John Murtha (D-Pa.) told Congressional Quarterly that such a resolution is “certain.”

These members of Congress are not naïve. They know Iran is contesting with America for strategic influence in the region and beyond. Indeed, the more extreme elements in Iran’s leadership may welcome conflict with the United States. The question is how best to counter them.

Both chambers of Congress should hold hearings on all the evidence of Iran’s involvement in Iraq, and on all foreign aid to the combatants in this civil war. These hearings should be used to uncover the truth and then to develop sound containment policies. With those policies in hand, the United States could begin to pressure all the states in the region (including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran), to use their influence to mediate the Iraq civil war, not fan its flames.

There is little reason to trust the advice of those who misled us into Iraq. Congress must prevent them from luring America into deeper entrapment or, worse, a regional conflagration.

Joseph Cirincione, Senior Vice President for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress, will soon publish a comprehensive research paper on Iran with CAP Senior National Security Analyst Andrew Grotto. His latest book, Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons, will be published next month by Columbia University Press.

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