Will He or Won’t He?

Posted January 4, 2008

Categories: Articles

The debate has seesawed back and forth in the press, in blogs, on the street. Will George W. Bush, prodded by his pitchfork-wielding vice president, bomb Iran before the end of his term?

According to one camp, an attack on Iran is so last term. In fact, the whole “evil axis” thing is passé. The administration has already done a 180 on North Korea. And, along with sending a negotiator to the talks with Iran in Geneva last week, the administration is considering opening a U.S. interest section in Tehran. The Pentagon is dead set against an attack. Our allies would freak. The poll numbers suggest that even though Iran tops the list of “enemies,” few Americans support bombing the country or even threatening to do so. And don’t forget, Tom Engelhardt points out, the impact such a war, or even threat of war, would have on the price of oil, a steep hike that would enrich a few but sink the economy.

All that seems sensible. But since when was the Bush administration sensible? The attack on Iraq was a predictable disaster. The snubbing of North Korea in 2002 was a predictable disaster. The current signs of an easing of tensions might simply be the lull before the storm. Toppling the regime in Tehran has been on the top of the to-do list for the Bush administration since long before it was even an administration. And suicidal attacks, after all, are not the monopoly of jihadists.

So, let’s say that an attack is within the realm of possibility – since, after all, the Bush administration is capable of heartbreaking acts of staggering idiocy – but not likely.

Okay, what about the administration giving Israel the green light to knock out Iran’s nuclear facilities? Certainly Israel has given some indications of a desire to do so. Earlier this month, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that his country “has proved in the past it is not afraid to take action when its vital security interests are at stake.” But what do you expect Israel to say? I can just imagine Barak getting up in front of reporters and saying, “Well, we’ve been talking about a preemptive strike against Iran for years but frankly the current government is in the middle of a corruption scandal, the fallout from an attack on Iran would be devastating for my country, and I think we should just take this option off the table.” That kind of honesty from a high official is about as likely as Arnold Schwarzenegger deciding to do ads for Viagra.

The Hamlet-like focus on attacking Iran – to bomb or not to bomb, that is the question that obsesses the media – obscures some other critical issues. For instance, the warm-cold cycle of U.S.-Iranian relations deserves a closer look. Writes FPIF contributor William O. Beeman in Playing Games with Iran, “Every first move in a warming trend – such as Iranian support for the U.S. war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, U.S. aid to Iran during the Bam earthquake in 2003, and Iran’s formal offer to enter into comprehensive negotiations with the United States in 2003 – has been followed by sharp criticism from both inside and outside of the Bush administration.” So the recent one-two punch from hardliners John Bolton and Benny Morris, in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times respectively, are predictable responses to what they perceive as signs of weakness – i.e., a willingness to negotiate – on the part of the Bush administration.

The U.S. government’s own National Intelligence Estimate in 2007 cast doubts on the existence of a viable nuclear weapons program in Iran. We should also be careful not to accept Iran’s claims concerning its missiles either, particularly after the missiles tests last week. “Scientists and Iran experts equally doubt Tehran’s claims about the missiles range, carrying capacity, and accuracy,” FPIF columnist Frida Berrigan writes in Avoiding Brinksmanship with Iran. “David Wright, a physicist and co-director of UCS’s Global Security Program, who reviewed the test carefully, notes that ‘Iran frequently exaggerates the capability of its missiles, and it appears it is continuing that tradition.’”

So, it’s a complicated game of move and counter-move, deception and counter-deception. Beneath this game, though, it’s possible to see that the Bush administration’s overall approach to Iran – containment and isolation – is just not working.

Consider the example of the pipeline deal between India and Iran, with Pakistan as the middleman. Despite heavy U.S. pressure on countries that want Iranian oil, India is moving forward with the deal. “For the United States,” writes FPIF contributor Hannes Artens in Iran Isolation Attempts Backfire, “it deals a resounding blow to the fragile international sanctions front the Bush administration has crafted to contain Iran. What is more, with China keen on joining the project, a new geo-strategic axis – Tehran-Islamabad-New Delhi-Beijing – is about to emerge. This axis will radically reshuffle the power structure in Asia and, with it, the global balance of power.”

It’s not only India and Pakistan parting company with the United States. NATO ally Turkey has broken ranks, too. As FPIF contributor Avni Dogru writes in Why Are the Neocons Attacking Turkey?, “a significant Turkish-Iranian rapprochement has taken place, not only because of Iran’s policy against the Kurdish separatists (PKK), but also because of Turkey’s growing energy needs. Trade volume with Iran alone increased from $1 billion in 2000 to over $8 billion in 2007.”

Again, if geopolitics were a rational process, all of these factors would push the United States to the negotiating table with Iran and keep it there. Tehran’s nuclear and missile programs are not an immediate threat. And the current containment policy is a leaky vessel. But if trigger fingers get itchy in Washington, all bets are off.

Send in the Military?

Congress is finally starting to ask some hard questions about the Pentagon’s new Africa Command (AFRICOM). FPIF contributor Beth Tuckey describes a recent subcommittee hearing in the House of Representatives that got rather feisty in Congress Challenges AFRICOM. “If the goal is to help address Africa’s needs, we are wrong to send in the military,” she summarizes several of the more pointed congressional responses. “The people of Africa need education, health care, and good governance – diplomatic tasks, not military missions. The Pentagon may say it will help the African people, but as John Tierney (D-MA) remarked, ‘who’s going to buy that?’ To him, ‘it looks like [AFRICOM is] going over there to protect oil and fight terrorists, the same misguided way that we fought terrorists in other places.’ He speculated further about the U.S. reaction if China or Russia were to set up a military ‘outpost’ in Africa.”

While Congress is getting tougher on AFRICOM, the Democratic candidate for president is getting softer on trade issues. During the campaign, Obama went after the working-class vote with his pledge to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). After he secured the nomination, however, he has lived up to his campaign pledge – change – but not in a good way.

Writes FPIF senior analyst Mark Engler in Obama Should Stay Tough on Trade, a Des Moines Register op-ed, “In a June interview with Fortune magazine, Obama moved away from his earlier denunciations of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Queried about his comments characterizing the agreement as ‘devastating’ and ‘a big mistake,’ Obama said, ‘Sometimes during campaigns, the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified.’ The candidate then softened his past proposal to renegotiate NAFTA, saying he would merely favor ‘opening up a dialogue’ with Canada and Mexico.”

A firmer approach might also improve U.S. policy toward Turkey, where the Constitutional Court is mulling whether to ban the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). If the court takes that action, the move could ignite a major political crisis. “Compared to deadly and costly military occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, a show of solidarity for Turkey’s democratically elected AKP constitutes one of the simpler things the West can do to show its support and commitment to spreading democracy in the Middle East,” writes FPIF contributor Alex Jakubow in Turkey’s Troubles.


We hope that all of you who live in or near Washington, DC will consider joining us at Busboys & Poets on Thursday, July 31 at 5:30 p.m. for a free screening of Maquilápolis, a compelling film about factory workers on the U.S.-Mexico border and their struggle to be heard. There will be a discussion afterwards led by Sarah Anderson, director of the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, and Manuel Perez Rocha, an IPS associate fellow.

FPIF, July 28, 2008

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