WASHINGTON - The drumbeat for a preemptive
strike on Iran's nuclear facilities over the past
year has waxed and waned in Washington corridors,
but refuses to go away. The US administration's
selection of Admiral William J Fallon to lead
Central Command suggests that the latest naval
maneuvers in the Persian Gulf, missile shipments
to Sunni Arab allies, and charges that Iran in
using Iraq as a proxy may add up to a
A new US
intelligence estimate released last Friday
concluded that Iranian meddling is "not likely" a
major cause of violence in
Iraq. This has not stanched
the rhetoric of administration officials, who
contend they have a "mountain of evidence" to
prove Iran is providing arms and funding to
Shi'ite militias engaged in sectarian clashes,
though they have yet to disclose any.
ante was upped when US forces raided a diplomatic
compound in northern Iraq last month and detained
five alleged Iranian agents they accused of aiding
insurgents. President George W Bush has also
issued an "order to kill" Iranian operatives who
interfere with US objectives in Iraq.
the extent that anybody, including Iranians, are
smuggling weapons, bringing in fighters, killing
Americans, trying to destabilize the democracy in
Iraq, we will take appropriate measures to defend
our troops and also to defend the mission," White
House spokesman Tony Snow said last week.
Interestingly, the need to show America's
enduring commitment to Iraq was also cited by
Defense Secretary Robert Gates to justify a sudden
military escalation beyond its borders: a second
aircraft-carrier battle group is now en route to
the Gulf, while upgraded Patriot anti-missile
missiles have been deployed to Israel and other
Arab Gulf states threatened by Iran's emergence as
a regional power.
Fears that Iran would
retaliate to a US or Israeli attack on its nuclear
facilities by launching short-range missiles at
neighborhood rivals, according to one analyst,
indicate that the military buildup "has Iran
written all over it".
Asked whether an
offensive against the Islamic Republic is kicking
into gear, Gates said at a Pentagon news
conference on Friday, "We are not planning for a
war with Iran." He echoed the words of Under
Secretary of State Nicholas Burns, who told a
radio interviewer the night before: "We've been
very clear 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."
European diplomats insist all the
saber-rattling should be understood as an
aggressive US effort to deter Iran from proceeding
with uranium enrichment in accord with United
Nations demands, now enforced by stringent
Even the most ominous
estimates hold that the country is still years
away from developing a nuclear weapon. But Iran
has nevertheless begun installing 3,000
centrifuges at its Natanz facility, which could be
used to convert uranium into weapons-grade
material for bombs. Meanwhile, Russia says it will
uphold its pledge to send nuclear fuel to the
Bushehr nuclear power plant by next month. Some
analysts say that if the Bushehr shipment were
diverted to Natanz, enough highly enriched uranium
for a bomb could be produced quickly.
the Iranians drop [the Russian shipment] into
Natanz, within a couple of weeks they would have
enough highly enriched uranium for an atomic
bomb," John Pike, a defense expert at
GlobalSecurity.org, told Asia Times Online. "By
the end of this month, we will [either] have
bombed Iran or not."
If an attack is in
the offing, there could arguably be no better man
calling the shots than Admiral Fallon. In recent
years, Fallon, a former navy pilot, has headed
Pacific Command, a theater of operations largely
centered on air and maritime tactical strategies.
His specialty is maritime-based air power, and he
has been successful in conveying to China and
other nations in Northeast and Southeast Asia that
the United States was willing to enforce its
traditional security role in the region as an ally
Outside of an imminent strike
on Iranian nuclear facilities, or a possible
Iranian attack on US forces in Iraq or other
allies in the region, the appointment of a navy
admiral to head up CentCom is hard to square.
CentCom oversees US military operations in Iraq
and the rest of the Middle East, Afghanistan and
Pakistan, and has traditionally been commanded by
army or Marine Corps generals well versed in
ground warfare. Unlike outgoing CentCom chief army
General John Abizaid, Fallon has never commanded
US forces fighting a guerrilla insurgency such the
one being played out in cities across Iraq.
However, analysts say his experience with
carrier-borne air strikes makes him ideally suited
to coordinate a possible move on Iran.
"That's been the buzz since he was
announced," said Pike. "As the pot has begun to
bubble with missile and carrier deployments, [his
naval background] reinforces the theory" of a
strike against Iran. The net effect of Fallon's
appointment and recent military deployments around
the Gulf, he added, could also ensure that Tehran
remains "in a deterrence state of mind" as it
decides to move ahead with uranium enrichment.
On January 30, Fallon told the US Senate
Foreign Relations Committee that he
"philosophically" favors engagement with Iran.
"The extent that we can understand better the
thoughts and actions of others removes
substantially, in my experience, the danger of
miscalculation, and so I strong endorse that
approach," he said. "In the Iranian situation I've
got to get a better assessment of where we stand."
But the admiral went on to note that Iran
is maneuvering itself to prevent the United States
from gaining access to the Persian Gulf, while
"destabilizing" the region at large.
Jason Motlagh is deputy foreign
editor at United Press International in