In itself, this week contains so much content that it has been subdivided into multiple pages. Use the menu below to peruse the contents.
"A mistake could be made and you could end up in something that neither side ever really wanted, and suddenly it's August 1914 all over again." -- anonymous US government official on the US-Iran conflict, quoted by USA Today, February 1
NIE says Iraq in downward spiral; US lacks control over event
$3 trillion Bush budget to slash domestic programs, veteran spending
- February 2: Bush submits a staggering $3 trillion budget to Congress for the upcoming fiscal year, a budget that asks for vast increases in military spending while slashing domestic spending.
Bush's economic policies
Bush's budget will cost every man, woman, and child in the US $800 to keep troops in Iraq for the next 18 months. Bush asks for $100 billion more for military and diplomatic operations in Iraq and Afghanistan this year and seeks $145 billion in additional spending for 2008, with the caveat that even more may be requested in "emergency" supplemental requests. Those requests come on top of about $344 billion spent for Iraq since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. In toto, the request for military expenditures is beyond $700 billion. Bush also asks for huge cuts in Medicare and Medicaid spending, a cap on subsidy payments to farmers, a modest increase in Pell Grants for low-income college students, and a rise in the alternative minimum tax that will hammer middle-income taxpayers. Democrats in Congress are expected to repudiate Bush's budget, and a provision to make Bush's staggering tax cuts for the wealthy permanent. Democrats are sure to press for more money for domestic programs, and they've signaled they won't consider renewing Bush's tax cuts until closer to 2010, when they are to expire. Budget director Rob Portman says the budget will wipe out the US deficit by 2012, a conclusion that few economic experts share. And the prediction assumes spending on Iraq will drastically shrink by 2009, and drop to zero by 2010. Like Bush's earlier budgets, this budget skirts the issue of military spending for Iraq.
- Critics angrily point out that Bush's military increases include fat subsidies for an array of high-tech weapons systems that will never see action in either Iraq or Afghanistan, including the Joint Strike Fighters, the Cold-War designed Virginia attack submarine, the equally outdated DDG-1000 stealth destroyer, and the long-debated V-22 next-generation stealth fighter. The New York Times observes, "If the new Democratic-controlled Congress is serious about reducing budget deficits and finding the money to pay for acute domestic needs, it will have to pare back the most extravagant elements of this fantasy weapons wish list. Special responsibility falls on the Armed Services Committee chairmen in both houses. Addiction to military pork is the one area in which bipartisanship has flourished in Washington in the past six years. The United States can afford to pay for all of its legitimate military needs. What it cannot afford are costly jobs programs disguised as defense and the wasteful weapons projects promoted by an army of well- connected Washington lobbyists."
- Democrats have no intention of granting Bush's requests. "The president's budget is filled with debt and deception, disconnected from reality, and continues to move America in the wrong direction," says Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, a conservative Democrat. "This administration has the worst fiscal record in history and this budget does nothing to change that," Conrad adds. (AP/Truthout, Reuters/Truthout, New York Times/International Herald Tribune)
Bush escalation closer to 50,000 troops than 21,500 previously announced
- February 2: The Bush escalation plan will actually involved up to 50,000 troops being sent to Iraq, not the 21,500 as touted by Bush and his officials.
Iraq war and occupation
The reason: the 21,500 are combat troops; Bush has said nothing about the logistical and support troops needed to accompany the combat soldiers. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reports, "Over the past few years, DoD's practice has been to deploy a total of about 9,500 per combat brigade to the Iraq theater, including about 4,000 combat troops and about 5,500 supporting troops." "[This] puts the cost of the president's decision in even starker terms," says Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. "If the president proceeds with his plan, thousands more US troops will be at risk, billions more dollars will be required, and there will be a much more severe impact on our military's readiness." And John Spratt, House Budget Committee chairman, says, "These additional troop deployments will cost between $7 billion and $10 billion this year alone -- $4 billion to $7 billion more than the administration's estimate."
- John Spratt, the Democratic House Budget Committee chairman, reflects on how difficult it will be for the US military to send 50,000 more troops to Iraq: An average of 170,000 military personnel has been maintained in the Iraq theater of operations, and this high deployment level has taken a toll." Spratt notes that last year, the Defense Department cut troops' time at home between deployments from two years to one so it could have enough people to deploy. "The Pentagon will probably have to relax 'dwell-time' standards even more," he says, using the military phrase to describe time at home between deployments. House Armed Services committee chairman Ike Skelton says the CBO report "appears to conflict with the estimate given by the chief of staff of the Army in his testimony. We will want to carefully investigate just how big the president's troop increase really is. Is it 21,500 troops, or is it really closer to 33,000 or 43,000?" At a January 23 hearing, Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker said he believed the 21,500 increase included four support battalions: "Right now, we do not anticipate there will be increased combat service support requirements over what is now embedded inside of the brigade combat teams we have." But Skelton says, "While Schoomaker initially said it wouldn't take extra support troops, CBO doesn't believe that is possible." The report says the Pentagon "has identified only combat units for deployment" and has not yet indicated which support units will be deployed. "Army and DoD officials have indicated that it will be both possible and desirable to deploy fewer additional support units than historical practice would indicate," the report says. "Even if the additional brigades required fewer support units than historical practice suggests, those units would still represent a significant additional number of military personnel." Martin Meehan, chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on oversight and investigations that has launched a review of Iraq-related costs, said he also is concerned: "I am disturbed that the administration's figures may not be fully accounting for what a true force increase will entail; if combat troops are deployed, their support needs must not be shortchanged." (Army Times, AFP/Truthout)
- February 2: The US has unwittingly strengthened the Mahdi Army of radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr by working so hard to train and equip Iraqi security forces.
Iraq war and occupation
The Mahdi Army is fighting to take over much of Baghdad as US forces try to secure it. US Army commanders and enlisted men who are patrolling east Baghdad, which is home to more than half the city's population and the front line of al-Sadr's campaign to drive rival Sunni Muslims from their homes and neighborhoods, say al-Sadr's militias had heavily infiltrated the Iraqi police and army units that they've trained and armed. "Half of them are JAM. They'll wave at us during the day and shoot at us during the night," says platoon leader Lieutenant Dan Quinn. JAM is the acronym for the Arabic name of the Mahdi Army, Jaish al Mahdi. "People [in America] think it's bad, but that we control the city. That's not the way it is. They control it, and they let us drive around. It's hostile territory." The soldiers worry that Bush's "surge" of approximately 17,000 combat troops allocated for Baghdad will, like previous escalations, merely strengthen the Mahdi Army. The new US soldiers will work to improve Iraqi security units so that American forces can hand over control of the area and withdraw to the outskirts of the city.
- To make things more difficult for the Americans, al-Sadr is telling his militia leaders to stash their arms and, in some cases, leave their neighborhoods during the American push. US soldiers worry that the latest plan could end up handing over those areas to units that are close to al-Sadr's militant Shiite group. "All the Shi'ites have to do is tell everyone to lay low, wait for the Americans to leave, then when they leave you have a target list and within a day they'll kill every Sunni leader in the country. It'll be called the `Day of Death' or something like that," says Lieutenant Alain Etienne. "They say, 'Wait, and we will be victorious.' That's what they preach. And it will be their victory." Quinn agrees, saying, "Honestly, within six months of us leaving, the way Iranian clerics run the country behind the scenes, it'll be the same way here with Sadr. He already runs our side of the river."
- After al-Sadr suffered severe losses at the hands of US forces in August 2004, the cleric apparently decided that instead of facing American tanks, he'd use the Americans' plans to build Iraqi security forces to rebuild his own militia. So while Iraq's other main Shi'ite militia, the Badr Brigade, concentrated in 2005 on packing Iraqi intelligence bureaus with high-level officers who could coordinate sectarian assassinations, al-Sadr went after the rank and file. His recruits began flooding into the Iraqi army and police, receiving training, uniforms and equipment either directly from the US military or from the American-backed Iraqi Defense Ministry. The infiltration by al-Sadr's men, coupled with his strength in Iraq's parliament after US-backed elections, gave him leeway to operate death squads throughout the capital, according to many American soldiers stationed in Baghdad. Some US-trained units carried out sectarian killings themselves, while others, manning checkpoints, allowed militiamen to pass. When American commanders handed over many Baghdad neighborhoods to Iraqi units, al-Sadr's militia received another boost. "There's been a lot of push to transition to Iraqis so you can show progress, but have you secured the area?" says Captain Aaron Kaufman, a liason officer for US and Iraqi forces in the Shi'ite enclave of Kadhamiya, across the river from east Baghdad. "I think the political pressure has hurt. ...You're wishing away, you're assuming away enemy activity, and you hurt yourself doing that."
- Many US officers say that, in hindsight, it is obvious that too much pressure was brought to bear on giving Iraqi army units their own areas of operation, a process that left Iraqi soldiers outmanned, outgunned and easy targets for infiltration and coercion. "There was a decision...that was probably made prematurely," says Lieutenant Colonel Eric Schacht. "I think we jumped the gun a little bit." Iraqi soldiers were often pushed into the field by Iraqi commanders who didn't give them adequate food, clothing or shelter, says Etienne. He recalls being on patrol one day when he saw Iraqi soldiers eating fresh vegetables and meat. The afternoon before, the same soldiers had complained that they had only scraps of food left. Who'd brought them their meal? It had been provided by the forces of al-Sadr. "Who's feeding the Iraqi army? Nobody. So JAM will come around and give them food and water," he says. "We try to capture hearts and minds, well, JAM has done that. They're further along than us."
- American and Iraqi officials all claim that the death squads are merely a few loyal al-Sadr troops. That isn't the case. In one Baghdad neighborhood, an entire national police brigade was sent to be retrained last year, and much of its leadership was replaced, after its officers kidnapped 24 Sunnis, took them to a meat-processing plant and killed them. Last month, four members of a neighborhood council in Etienne's sector -- a mixed Sunni-Shiite area that abuts an al-Sadr stronghold -- were leaving a meeting when national police trucks pulled up and men in Iraqi military uniforms piled out. They grabbed the four men in broad daylight. One of the council members struggled. He was shot in the head and left to die on the street. The remaining three were blindfolded and driven to a house. One of the four, a Shi'ite, listened as his two Sunni colleagues begged for their lives between beatings. "They were pistol-whipping them and kicking them," Etienne recalls. "Finally, he heard the sound of a drill." When the man's blindfold was taken off, he found that he was covered with the blood of his two friends, who were slumped over dead with drill holes in their heads. "It was [al-Sadr's militia]," says Etienne. "They were trying to figure out who's who, and killing Sunnis. They borrowed the vehicles from their friends in the Iraqi army and police who are Mahdi-affiliated."
- One American intelligence soldier, who identifies himself only as Brady, last week asked Iraqis in a Sunni neighborhood in east Baghdad who had helped JAM militiamen fire mortar rounds into the neighborhood. A Sunni eyewitness responded, "I was behind a car at the checkpoint on the bridge. I saw an Iraqi army soldier open the trunk. There were two men in there. The driver showed the soldier his Mahdi Army ID, and the soldier saluted him and let him drive away." Brady said that next time, he will send in "Iraqi army units that we trust." The Iraqi says simply, "But if the Mahdi Army comes in here, they will come with the support of the Iraqi army." Brady couldn't argue the point. (McClatchy/CommonDreams)
- February 2: Congress is taking the same tack towards blocking Bush from unilaterally attacking Iran as it is taking towards blocking further escalations in Iraq -- working towards passing a sheaf of mostly non-binding resolutions asserting that Bush must seek Congressional approval before attacking Iran or anyone else.
War with Iran
One lobbyist wryly calls the tactic "resoliferation." The latest is a measure sponsored by five House Democrats declaring that it is the policy of the United States not to enter into a pre-emptive war with Iran and bans the expenditure of Congressionally appropriated funds for covert actions designed to achieve regime change or to carry out any military actions against tehran in the absence of an imminent threat. And several senators have asked the White House whether it believes it has the constitutional authority to carry out military action against Iran without Congress's approval. "Is it the position of this administration that it possesses the authority to take unilateral action against Iran, in the absence of a direct threat, without Congressional approval?" Democrat James Webb asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her January 11 Senate testimony. Rice dodged the question. Webb pressured her, saying in a letter sent to Rice in late January, "This is, basically, a 'yes' or 'no' question regarding an urgent matter affecting our nation's foreign policy." Rice has not yet responded. Many Congressmen on both sides of the aisle worry that Bush's answer will be "yes," and that an attack on Iran may be imminent.
- Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns said in a recent NPR interview, "We don't intend to cross the border into Iran, we don't intend to strike into Iran, in terms of what we are doing in Iraq," but left open the possibility that Bush might yet order an attack on Iran for other reasons, such as Bush's longstanding warning that "all options are on the table" regarding tehran's nuclear program. Some observers here have long believed that, in the absence of a diplomatic solution to US demands that Iran freeze its uranium-enrichment programme, Bush intends to attack Iran's nuclear facilities before the end of his term. However, Congressional concern rose sharply with the president's speech on Iraq strategy January 10. In that speech, Bush accused both Iran and Syria with granting safe passage in and out of Iraq to "terrorists and insurgents" and accused Iran, in particular, of "providing material support for attacks on American troops." In response, he announced the deployment of a second aircraft carrier strike group to the Gulf and pledged to "destroy the network providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq." Of course, neither Bush nor any of his officials have offered any proof of the charges.
- The response from Congress was quick. "When you set in motion the kind of policy that the president is talking about here, it's very, very dangerous," said Republican senator Chuck Hagel to Rice the following day, during the same hearing in which Webb asked her whether the administration thought it had the authority to attack Iraq. The Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph Biden, asked similar questions.
- On January 16, Democratic representative Peter DeFazio introduced a resolution with 18 Democratic co-sponsors, including the chairman of the House subcommittee for defense appropriations, John Murtha, declaring that Bush lacked the authority to take military action against Iran without Congressional approval. Biden has since said he will introduce a similar measure in the Senate. On January 18, another bipartisan group, including Murtha and Republican Walter Jones, submitted a second resolution demanding that the president seek congressional authorization before initiating the use of force against Iran absent a "demonstrably imminent attack by Iran" on the US or its armed forces. That was followed several days later by another, also signed by Murtha, as well as eight other congressmen, that expressed the sense of Congress that Bush should implement a recommendation -- explicitly rejected by Bush -- by the Iraq Study Group that Washington "engage directly with Iran and Syria" in trying to stabilize Iraq. And on January 24, Senator Robert Byrd introduced another "sense of the Senate" resolution on the need for Congressional approval for any offensive military action against another nation, a position that was explicitly endorsed in respect to Iran last week by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. None of these resolutions are binding on Bush. (Inter Press Service/CommonDreams)
Drive for war with Iran parallels that for Iraq
- February 2: Author Craig Unger, in an extensive article for the March issue of Vanity Fair, writes of Bush officials using the very same tactics they used to sell the invasion and occupation of Iraq to sell a military offensive against Iran.
War with Iran
Unger notes that the same neoconservative ideologues who drove the US into Iraq are now driving the country towards war with Iran.
- Unger writes that the first recent clues to Bush's plans for Iran were revealed when he roundly dismissed the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, chaired by Bush family friend and cohort James Baker. The ISG, Unger writes, "put together a bipartisan report that offered a face-saving strategy to exit Iraq. Who better than Baker, the Bush family's longtime friend and consigliere, to talk some sense into the president?" But Bush blew off the ISG report, announcing a 21,500-troop "surge" into Iraq that was in essence a nose-thumbing at the ISG. Worse, he almost immediately began escalating his rhetoric against Iran. In a January 10 speech, he talked extensively about the threat posed by Iran, not just to Iraq, but to US troops in Iraq and to peace in the Middle East in general. The rhetoric about Iran's supposed nuclear weapons program has also escalated. Since Bush told his listeners that the US would "seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies," American troops have stormed an Iranian liaison office in Erbil, a Kurdish-controlled city in northern Iraq, and arrested and detained five Iranians working there.
- The expenditure in blood, lives, and treasure in Iraq have been enormous. The US has spent hundreds of billions of dollars invading and occupying the country. Over 3,100 troops have been killed, with tens of thousands more coming home with physical and mental wounds and trauma, many crippling. Perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed. The number of refugees in Iraq is literally innumerable. While Iraq was, under Hussein, prostrate under the reign of a brutal dictator, it was no friend to Islamist terrorism. Now, though, Iraq has become a terrorist training ground. A Sunni-Shi'ite civil war rages throughout the central part of the country, fomenting tensions and violence throughout the Middle East. As Unger writes, "[F]ar from creating a secular democracy, the war has empowered Shi'ite fundamentalists aligned with Iran. The most powerful of these, Moqtada al-Sadr, commands both an anti-American sectarian militia and the largest voting bloc in the Iraqi parliament."
- Even hardline conservatives have grown disgusted with the occupation. "Everything the advocates of war said would happen hasn't happened," says the president of Americans for Tax Reform, Grover Norquist, an influential conservative who backed the Iraq invasion. "And all the things the critics said would happen have happened. [The president's neoconservative advisers] are effectively saying, 'Invade Iran. Then everyone will see how smart we are.' But after you've lost X number of times at the roulette wheel, do you double-down?" The answer, obviously, is yes.
- In the White House, neoconservatives such as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz, and others drove the US into toppling Hussein and occupying the country. Unger writes, "[N]eocons working out of the office of the vice president and the Department of Defense orchestrated a spectacular disinformation operation, asserting that Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction posed a grave and immediate threat to the US. Veteran analysts who disagreed were circumvented. Dubious information from known fabricators was hyped. Forged documents showing phony yellowcake-uranium sales to Iraq were promoted."
- The very same tactics are now working on promoting a war with Iran. "Once again, neocon ideologues have been flogging questionable intelligence about WMD," Unger writes. "Once again, dubious Middle East exile groups are making the rounds in Washington -- this time urging regime change in Syria and Iran. Once again, heroic new exile leaders are promising freedom." The US is amassing forces in the region, preparing for a massive air onslaught against Iran. A number of US Navy carrier groups are in the region. High-level personnel shifts in the Defense Department and the US's military command structure have refocused the US military leadership on naval and air operations, instead of the ground combat that predominates in Iraq and Afghanistan. And Patriot missile batteries are being deployed -- useless in Iraq or Afghanistan, but critical to defending American forces against Iran's air force. Bush's charge, presented with little real evidence, that Iran is "providing material support for attacks on American troops" can easily grow into a justification for war. "It is absolutely parallel," says former CIA counterterrorism specialist Philip Giraldi. "They're using the same dance steps -- demonize the bad guys, the pretext of diplomacy, keep out of negotiations, use proxies. It is Iraq redux."
- Iran has long been on the neoconservatives' radar. This site has extensively documented the July 1996 policy paper by the neocon-dominated Israeli-American think tank, the Institute for Advanced Strategic Political Studies. Written by Richard Perle and others, the paper, entitled "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," contained what Unger calls "the kernel of a breathtakingly radical vision for a new Middle East. By waging wars against Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, the paper asserted, Israel and the US could stabilize the region. Later, the neoconservatives argued that this policy could democratize the Middle East." Meyrav Wurmser, an Israeli-American policy expert who co-signed the paper with her husband, David Wurmser, now a top Middle East adviser to Dick Cheney, says the paper was "the seeds of a new vision." Perle, Wurmser, Douglas Feith, and other authors of the report eventually took high-level positions with the Bush administration, where they did their level best to make their vision a reality. But the paper's focus on Iran came from then-Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. While the paper's authors primarily wrote about Iraq and Syria, Netanyahu observed, "The most dangerous of these regimes is Iran." Unger writes, "Ten years later, 'A Clean Break' looks like nothing less than a playbook for US-Israeli foreign policy during the Bush-Cheney era. Many of the initiatives outlined in the paper have been implemented -- removing Saddam from power, setting aside the 'land for peace' formula to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, attacking Hezbollah in Lebanon -- all with disastrous results."
- Have the neoconservatives learned from their mistakes? Not hardly. Meyrav Wurmser, now the director of the Center for Middle East Policy, says the failures in Iraq stem from the failure of America to think big. "My argument has always been that this war is senseless if you don't give it a regional context," she says. Neocons have lined up to agree -- Iraq only works if it is the first step in America's own version of the "domino theory," lining up one Arab regime after another and knocking them down. The American Enterprise Institute's Reuel Marc Gerecht, one of the many neocon academics who have never seen combat and do all of their planning from inside a classroom or a think tank, says that American bombing of Iran's nuclear sites will not cause further Middle East chaos, but "actually accelerate internal debate" in a way that would be "painful for [Iran's] ruling clergy." As for imperiling the US mission in Iraq, Gerecht says dismissively that Iran "can't really hurt us there." He concludes, "[W]e may have to fight a war -- perhaps sooner rather than later -- to stop such evil men from obtaining the worst weapons we know."
- Netanyahu, who may return to power one day soon, said on CNN in November 2006, "Iran is Germany, and it's 1938. Except that this Nazi regime that is in Iran...wants to dominate the world, annihilate the Jews, but also annihilate America."
- The campaign to attack Iran, like the campaign to overthrow Hussein, hatched in the bowels of the White House in the aftermath of 9/11. In November 2001, Eliot Cohen, a member of the neoconservative Project for the New American Century declared in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, "The overthrow of the first theocratic revolutionary Muslim state [Iran] and its replacement by a moderate or secular government...would be no less important a victory in this war than the annihilation of bin Laden." Neoconservative Iran "specialist" Michael Ledeen, like Gerecht a fellow at the AEI, was put in charge of "unofficial" administration policy initiatives towards Iraq. Ledeen may be best known for his involvement in the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal; it was Ledeen who introduced Oliver North, to Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian arms dealer and con man. Ledeen again turned to Ghorbanifar, who helped set up the first meeting in Rome in December 2001. Two of the attendees were Harold Rhode, a protege of Ledeen's, and Larry Franklin, who worked with Douglas Feith at the Defense Department's secretive Office of Special Plans, the Pentagon bureau that manipulated pre-war intelligence on Iraq. (Franklin has since pleaded guilty to passing secrets to Israel and has been sentenced to 12 years in prison.) A second meeting, in June 2002 in Rome, was attended by a high-level US official and dissidents from Egypt and Iraq. Then, in June 2003, just three months after the invasion of Iraq, Franklin and Rhode met secretly with Ghorbanifar in Paris at yet another gathering that was not officially approved by the Pentagon.
- Ledeen says the meetings produced what he calls valuable information about Iranian plans for attacking US forces in Afghanistan -- plans that have never materialized. But Unger, like many others, believe that another critical topic of discussion was the destabilization of the Iranian government. The Washington Monthly reported that the meetings raised the possibility "that a rogue faction at the Pentagon was trying to work outside normal US foreign policy channels to advance a 'regime-change' agenda."
- Other participants in the meetings were representatives of Iran's Mujahideen e-Khalq, or MEK, an urban-guerrilla group that practices a brand of revolutionary Marxism heavily influenced by Mao Zedong and Che Guevara. MEK, though officially a Communist-sympathizing terrorist group, has long enjoyed US support because of its intent to overthrow the current Iranian theocracy. MEK's penchant for violence is well documented. The State Department wrote in 2003, "During the 1970s, the MEK killed US military personnel and US civilians working on defense projects in Tehran.... The MEK detonated bombs in the head office of the Islamic Republic Party and the Premier's office, killing some 70 high-ranking Iranian officials.... In 1991, it assisted the Government of Iraq in suppressing the Shia and Kurdish uprisings in southern Iraq and the Kurdish uprisings in the north." Unger writes, "In other words, the MEK was a terrorist group -- one that took its orders from Saddam Hussein." But to the neocons, MEK is not a terrorist group, but, Unger writes, "America's best hope in Iran." In January 2004, Richard Perle was the guest speaker at a fundraiser sponsored by the MEK, although he later claimed to have been unaware of the connection. And in a speech before the National Press Club in late 2005, Raymond Tanter, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, recommended that the Bush administration use the MEK and its political arm, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), as an insurgent militia against Iran. "The National Council of Resistance of Iran and the Mujahedeen-e Khalq are not only the best source for intelligence on Iran's potential violations of the nonproliferation regime," Tanter said. "The NCRI and MEK are also a possible ally of the West in bringing about regime change in tehran."
- Tanter also said that using tactical nuclear weapons against Iran is a fine idea, perhaps using US bombs sold to Israel to avoid conflicting with the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Israel has refused to sign.
- Iran's leaders knew that, after the occupation of Iraq was underway, they were next in the American crosshairs. Iranian officials such as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei offered an array of diplomatic initiatives to the US, which diplomats called the "grand bargain." Everything was on the table -- Iran's nuclear program, policy toward Israel, support of Hamas and Hezbollah, and control over al-Qaeda operatives captured since the US went to war in Afghanistan. The US sent neocon Zalmay Khalilzad, then a senior National Security Council official, to talk with Iran's UN ambassador, Javad Zarif. According to a report in the American Prospect, Zarif offered to take "decisive action against any terrorists (above all, al-Qaeda) in Iranian territory." In exchange, Iran wanted the US to pursue "anti-Iranian terrorists" -- i.e., the MEK. Specifically, Iran offered to share the names of senior al-Qaeda operatives in its custody in return for the names of MEK cadres captured by the US in Iraq. Zarif also offered to allow the IAEA to perform strict inspections of its nuclear capabilities. And it even offered to join in the 2002 Arab League declaration calling for peace with Israel in return for Israel's withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders. Zarif even included proposals to normalize Hezbollah into a peaceful Lebanese political organization, to stop supporting Palestinian opposition groups such as Hamas, and to pressure Hamas and other groups to stop perpetuating violence against Israeli citizens.
- Although there is good reason not to trust the Iranians, the proposal was a fruitful first step. But the US was having none of it. "We're not interested in any grand bargain," said Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton, who went on to become interim ambassador to the UN until his resignation last December.
- Iraq had exile Ahmad Chalabi as its darling of the American neocons. Iran, too, has its exiles being embraced by those very same neocons. Reza Pahlavi, the son of the late Shah, is being touted as a prospective leader of Iran. And Farid Ghadry, a Syrian exile in Virginia who founded the Reform Party of Syria, is the neocon favorite to rule Syria. Ghadry will probably not be popular in Syria because of his membership in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the right-wing pro-Israel lobbying group. Ghadry in particular has been compared, unfavorably, to the elegantly corrupt and thoroughly untrustworthy Chalabi. But Ghadry enjoys the support of some key Bush administration officials, including Elizabeth Cheney, the daughter of Dick Cheney who is the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and coordinator for broader Middle East and North Africa initiatives and plays an outsized role in the administration's policy in the region. In the spring of 2006, she supervised the State Department's Iran-Syria Operations Group, created to plot a strategy to democratize those two "rogue" states. One of her responsibilities was to oversee a projected $85 million program to produce anti-Iran propaganda and support dissidents.
- And like Chalabi's INC, MEK is providing questionable intelligence about Iran. MEK officials have given Bush officials information asserting that Iran has built a secret uranium-enrichment site. David Albright, a former IAEA weapons inspector in Iraq, says that the data provided by the MEK was better than that provided by the INC, but adds that it is possible Iran was enriching the uranium for energy purposes. Albright cautions that MEK is anything but a reliable source for information about Iran's putative WMDs. "We should be very suspicious about what our leaders or the exile groups say about Iran's nuclear capacity," Albright told the San Francisco Chronicle. "There's a drumbeat of allegations, but there's not a whole lot of solid information. It may be that Iran has not made the decision to build nuclear weapons."
- In July 2005, two House Republicans, Peter Hoekstra, then the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and his colleague Curt Weldon, met secretly in Paris with an Iranian exile known only as "Ali." Ali had been the primary source for Weldon's recent book Countdown to Terror, a treatise filled with error and wild speculation that alleged the CIA was ignoring intelligence about Iranian-sponsored terror plots against the US. Former CIA station chief Bill Murray later identified Ali as Fereidoun Mahdavi -- and a liar. "Mahdavi works for Ghorbanifar," Murray told Laura Rozen of the American Prospect. "The two are inseparable. Ghorbanifar put Mahdavi out to meet with Weldon."
- But misinformation and lies were good enough for Hoekstra and Weldon. In August 2006, Hoekstra released a House Intelligence Committee report titled "Recognizing Iran as a Strategic Threat: An Intelligence Challenge for the United States." Written by Frederick Fleitz, former special assistant to John Bolton, the report asserted that the CIA lacked "the ability to acquire essential information necessary to make judgments" on tehran's nuclear program. Like Weldon's book, the Hoekstra report was riddled with errors, and ignored key information, mostly from the IAEA, that disproved its claims about Iran's nuclear program. "This is like pre-war Iraq all over again," Albright said in the Washington Post. "You have an Iranian nuclear threat that is spun up, using bad information that's cherry-picked and a report that trashes the [IAEA] inspectors." Weeks after Weldon lost his seat in the November 2006 elections, the CIA reported that it could find no evidence to support the contention that Iran has a secret nuclear-weapons program.
- But both the American and Israeli warhawks could care less about documentation and fact. The Israelis were particularly worried -- for Iran to even have nuclear know-how is a legitimate threat to that country's existence. Israel told Bush officials shortly after the infamous 2002 "axis of evil" speech that of the three countries -- Iran, Iraq, and North Korea -- Iraq was a distant third on the list as far as posing a threat. But Bush officials, according to former Mossad director of intelligence Uzi Arad, who served as Netanyahu's foreign policy advisor, said, "Let's do first things first. Once we do Iraq, we'll have a military presence in Iraq, which would enable us to handle the Iranians from closer quarters, would give us more leverage."
- Things did not follow the neocons' plans. America became bogged down in the Iraq quagmire, and in 2005, Iran elected a president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is as hardline and extremist as his American and Israeli neocon opponents. Ahmadinejad has made outrageous statements about Israel and the Holocaust, and has aggressively, and openly, pursued nuclear technology, leading Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert to say that Iran threatened not just Israel but the entire world. US neocons responded with escalating calls for military action against Iran. Gerecht wrote in an article for the neocon Weekly Standard, "If the ruling clerical elite wants a head-on collision with a determined superpower, then that's their choice." Neocons like Gerecht don't seem to understand, or care, that Ahmadinejad's hold on power is increasingly fragile, and the majority of Iranians want neither a nuclear weapons program nor a confrontation with the US or Israel.
- Further monkeywrenching the neocons' plans for Iran was the increasing resistance to the Iraq occupation within America, with even some formerly reliable Republican lawmakers backing away from Bush's insistence on an open-ended occupation of Iraq. Thus, the stage was set for James Baker and the Iraq Study Group. The neocons have long been repelled by Baker, who is as conservative as they are but is far more practical in his realpolitik vision of the world than their academically-fueled lust for military domination. And Bush himself, according to Unger, is not a "dyed in the wool" neoconservative. "The president is a true believer in the policies the administration has been engaged in," says one former NSC staffer. "When it is applied to the policies regarding the Palestinians, Hamas, or Iran, there is a common thread. It is not pure neoconservatism, nor is it the pragmatic realism we saw under Bush One." Bush has already thwarted one element of the neocons' overarching plans by refusing to back a delay in the Palestinian elections of early 2006, which propelled Hamas into power. A Middle East expert tells Unger, "The president said no. He said elections will be good for Hamas. They would have to be responsible. They expected Hamas to do well, but not get a majority. Now they've become the government and it's a big mess." Bush's own lack of pragmatism won out over the neocons' differing, but equally unpragmatic, views.
- Another element in the Baker-Bush-ISG drama is Baker's close relations with Bush's father. Much ink has been expended on what Unger calls the "Oedipal element" of the relations between father and son. The elder Bush's coterie, including Baker and his NSC head Brent Scowcroft, have been, in Unger's description, "aghast at the radical direction the younger Bush was taking American foreign policy, and desperate to reverse it." Scowcroft wrote an influential op-ed in July 2006 for the Washington Post that argued the crisis in Lebanon, where Israeli mounted a disastrous attack against Hezbollah forces, gave the Bush administration what he called a "historic opportunity" to achieve a comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Resolving that conflict, Scowcroft argued, was crucial to stabilizing the region, including Iraq. Scowcroft apparently had the support of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, widely regarded as the younger Bush's closest advisor, as well as from the rulers of Egypt and Jordan. Scowcroft then asked Rice if she could persuade Bush to read the upcoming ISG report with an open mind.
- Unger writes, "As the November congressional elections approached, there were a number of indications that foreign-policy realists such as Scowcroft were gaining favor. Key neoconservative architects of the war in Iraq -- Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, and Richard Perle -- were no longer part of the Bush foreign-policy team, and the State Department, all but inoperative during the run-up to the Iraq war, was showing new signs of life." Iran special Karim Sadjadpour said before the November elections, "Secretary Rice and her deputies are more influential than the vice president and the secretary of defense. It's an about-face in US policy after two decades of not talking to Iran." And the ISG report's conclusions, leaked to the press, were receiving favorable comments, particularly in its calls for renewed diplomatic ties with Iran.
- The Democrats won both houses of Congress on November 7. On November 8, neocon stalwart Donald Rumsfeld resigned as Secretary of Defense, to be replaced by ISG member Robert Gates. Bush vowed to "find common ground" with the Democrats. The neocons' star seemed to be in abeyance. A month later, the ISG report was released. (See the December 2006 items on the ISG report.) It was grim in its assessment of the current situation in Iraq, asserting without directly stating that Bush's policies in Iraq were abject failures. The report gave a "new way forward" in Iraq and the Middle East -- a retreat from military aggression and a new reliance on diplomacy and negotiation.
- But Bush was having none of it. He called the ISG report "a flaming turd." Instead, he found a study, produced by the neocons of the AEI, that was more to his liking. Written by neocon Frederick Kagan, the report recommended, in contrast to the ISG report and to the recommendations of the two top military commanders in Iraq, General John Abizaid and General George Casey, that a massive "surge" of US troops could retake Baghdad from the Sunnis and Shi'a who were engaging in a chaotic civil war in the capital city. Kagan's report dismisses the military's new counterinsurgency manual's recommendation that to defeat an insurgency, the occupying force needs one soldier for every 40 to 50 civilians in the area -- which would require a staggering 150,000 troops in Baghdad alone. Kagan says, instead, that "it is neither necessary nor wise to try to clear and hold the entire city all at once." Focusing instead on certain areas of Baghdad, he concludes that the deployment of 20,000 additional troops would be enough to pacify significant sections of the city. Soon, Abizaid and Casey were out, and two commanders more amenable to the policy were in: Lieutenant General David Petraeus and Admiral William Fallon, respectively. The escalation was on.
- Kagan denies that his report was intended to be a counter to the ISG report, and denies that anyone in the Bush White House -- namely Dick Cheney -- commissioned or encouraged it. Its release, and its adoption by Bush, was, according to Kagan, are just "conspiracy theories" and rank coincidence.
- For experts outside the neocon orbit, the Iraq occupation is a calamity that actually increased the threat towards both Israel and the US. "[Bush's wars] have put Israel in the worst strategic and operational situation she's been in since 1948," says retired colonel Larry Wilkerson, who was Colin Powell's chief of staff in the State Department. "If you take down Iraq, you eliminate Iran's No. 1 enemy. And, oh, by the way, if you eliminate the Taliban, they might reasonably be assumed to be Iran's No. 2 enemy." The Brookings Institute's Martin Indyk adds, "Nobody thought going into this war that these guys would screw it up so badly, that Iraq would be taken out of the balance of power, that it would implode, and that Iran would become dominant." The Israeli hawks have decided that because of the disaster in Iraq, the only course left to protect itself against Iran is a military strike. "Attacking Iraq when it had no WMD may have been the wrong step," says Arad. "But then to ignore Iran would compound the disaster. Israel will be left alone, and American interests will be affected catastrophically."
- Unger notes, like many others have, that a strike at Iran could be even more disastrous. Iran would likely block the Strait of Hormuz, essentially cutting off 40% of the world's oil supply and possibly sending oil prices skyrocketing to $125 a barrel, thus sending the global economy into a tailspin. Unger says, "There could be vast international oil wars. Iran could act on its fierce rhetoric against Israel. America's 130,000 soldiers in Iraq would also become highly vulnerable in the event of an attack on Iran." But Bush still engages in his menacing rhetoric towards Iran, and continues to ignore the advice of ISG members and others, including Powell and even Gates, to open talks with Iran. And many in the military believe the decision to attack Iran has already been made. "Bush's 'redline' for going to war is Iran having the knowledge to produce nuclear weapons -- which is probably what they already have now," says Sam Gardiner, a retired Air Force colonel who specializes in staging war games on the Middle East. "The president first said [that was his redline] in December 2005, and he has repeated it four times since then."
- US troops are on the ground in Iran, negotiating with the Azerbaijanis in the north, the Kurds in the northeast, and the Baluchis in the southeast. Time has reported on a strategy to eliminate Iran's nuclear program by bombing up to 1,500 targets. And Paul Craig Roberts, a former assistant secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan, recently wrote that Bush "will attack Iran with tactical nuclear weapons, because it is the only way the neocons believe they can rescue their goal of US (and Israeli) hegemony in the Middle East." Former CIA officer Philip Giraldi adds, "I've heard from sources at the Pentagon that their impression is that the White House has made a decision that war is going to happen." Gardiner says the recent order to deploy US minesweepers in the Persian Gulf, presumably to counter an Iranian attempt to block the Strait of Hormuz, may be the most telling. And Bush has ordered the US STRATCOM, the Strategic Command that oversees nuclear weapons, missile defense, and protection against weapons of mass destruction, to draw up plans for a massive strike against Iran. CENTCOM, the US Central Command in the Middle East, is overwhelmed with handling the military offensives in Iraq and Afghanistan. Retired colonel W. Patrick Lang, formerly of the DIA, says, "Shifting to STRATCOM indicates that they are talking about a really punishing air-force and naval air attack [on Iran]."
- Lang says that Bush feels no need to consult Congress or secure authorization from the legislature, which will almost certainly balk at such a request. "If they write a plan like that and the president issues an execute order, the [military] will execute it," he says. "He's got the power to do that as commander-in-chief. We set that up during the Cold War. It may, after the fact, be considered illegal, or an impeachable offense, but if he orders them to do it, they will do it." Lang also notes that Fallon's appointment to head CENTCOM is another indication of Bush's intent to bomb Iran. "It makes very little sense that a person with [Fallon's naval] background should be appointed to be theater commander in a theater in which two essentially 'ground' wars are being fought, unless it is intended to conduct yet another war which will be different in character," he recently wrote. "The employment of Admiral Fallon suggests that they are thinking about something that is not a ground campaign."
- What may finally set Bush off, Lang believes, is the administration's realization that Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is not the democratic leader they want him to be. "They want him to be George Washington, to bind together the new country of Iraq," he says. "And he's not that. He is a Shi'a, a factional political leader, whose goal is to solidify the position of Shi'a Arabs in Iraq. That's his goal. So he won't let them do anything effective against [Moqtada al-Sadr's] Mahdi army." Iranian specialist Gary Sick, who worked at the NSC under presidents Ford, Reagan, and Carter, says Bush may be playing a form of brinksmanship, without a firm plan to attack Iran no matter what. "What has happened is that the United States, in installing a Shi'ite government in Iraq, has really upset the balance of power [in the Middle East]," Sick says. "Along with our Sunni allies -- Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt -- [the administration is] terribly concerned about Iran emerging as the new colossus. Having created this problem, the US is now in effect using it as a means of uniting forces who are sympathetic [to us]." Bush must reassure America's regional allies that they will be protected if the Iraqi conflict spreads throughout the region. "[T]his is a very broad strategy," he says. "It has a clear enemy and an appeal to Saudis, to Israelis, and has a potential of putting together a fairly significant coalition." But, Sick warns, the policy steers dangerously close to provoking a conflict with Iran. "Basically, this is a signal to Maliki that we are not going to tolerate Shi'ite cooperation with Iran. This could lead to the ultimate break with Maliki. But once you start sending these signals, you end up in a corner and you can't get out of it."
- Unger concludes with a single sentence: "The Bush White House has already built the fire. Whether it will light the match remains to be seen." (Vanity Fair)