WASHINGTON - For several weeks now, Washington has been abuzz with rumors that
US President George W Bush is preparing to attack nuclear and other sites in
Iran this spring - rumors deemed sufficiently credible that lawmakers from both
parties are hastily preparing legislation precisely to prevent such an
The evidence cannot be ignored.
cited by former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer Philip Giraldi in
the most recent edition of American Conservative, Bush's charges that Iran is
supplying bombs to Shi'ite militias to kill US soldiers in Iraq; the seizure by
US forces of Iranian
diplomatic and intelligence officials there; the deployment of two aircraft-carrier
groups with a flotilla of minesweepers to the Persian Gulf; the supply of
Patriot anti-missile batteries to Washington's allies in the region; the
unprecedented appointment of a navy admiral and former combat pilot as the head
of Central Command; the "surge" of as many as 40,000 troops into Iraq;
persistent reports of US covert operations inside Iran. All these suggest that
Washington is preparing for a military confrontation, and soon.
No one doubts that the administration has developed detailed plans for
attacking Iran and is certainly putting in place a formidable armada that, if
ordered, has the means to carry out those plans without delay.
But if a decision has already been made, it appears that the faction that led
the pro-war propaganda offensive in the run-up to the Iraq invasion and that
has long favored "regime change" in Iraq - the neo-conservatives - has either
not been clued in, or more likely, believes that any such attack is still some
time off, if it takes place at all.
It is not that the neo-cons don't favor war with Iran if diplomatic and other
means fail to achieve either regime change or, at the very least, Tehran's
abandonment of its nuclear program.
The group, whose views on the Middle East generally span those of
Israel's Likud Party and the extreme right, has long warned that a nuclear-armed Iran
is, in Bush's words, "unacceptable" and that military means to prevent that
outcome must be used if all other means fail.
"The only way to forestall an Iranian nuke," wrote Joshua Muravchik, a leading
neo-con polemicist at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in this month's
Foreign Service Journal, "... is by military strikes to cripple the regime's
It is, rather, more the fact that the neo-cons, who, with help from their
confreres within the Bush administration, led the year-long propaganda campaign
to rally the country behind the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 with an
admirable single-mindedness and urgency, appear far less focused on Iran, at
least for the moment. If an attack on Iran is on the near-term agenda, the
neo-conservatives have been decidedly off-message.
The contrast with the run-up to the Iraq war is instructive.
For a full year or more before the March 2003 invasion, the neo-cons and their
major media outlets - notably, the Weekly Standard, the National Review Online,
the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the New York Post and Fox News - kept
up a virtually daily drumbeat of op-ed articles, television appearances,
selective leaks to the mainstream media by their confreres within the
administration with only one aim in mind - to persuade the public that Saddam
Hussein represented such a threat that he could only be dealt with by military
As the invasion drew near, the AEI, the movement's de facto headquarters, drew
scores of reporters to its weekly "black coffee briefings", where such neo-con
worthies as Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, then-Defense Policy Board
chairman Richard Perle, former CIA director James Woolsey and Iraq National
Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi, held forth on the evils of the Ba'athist regime
and the regional implications of the forthcoming "liberation" of the Iraq
The carefully orchestrated and coordinated drumbeat for war four years ago has
been nowhere in evidence with respect to Iran over the past month when, judging
by their writings and television experiences, they have appeared far more
concerned with the growing public and Congressional pressure to begin
withdrawing US troops from Iraq and prevent Bush from adding more forces there.
That has been the overriding pre-occupation of Kristol's Weekly Standard and
the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, as article after article has assailed
turncoat Republicans as well as "defeatist" Democrats, for opposing the surge.
This has also been the case for the AEI, which has held four briefings on Iraq
compared to only one on Iran in the past two months.
Despite the sharply rising tensions between Iran and the US over the past
month, for example, the lead editorials of the past four issues of the Standard
- always a reliable indication of neo-con priorities - were all devoted to
rallying lawmakers behind the surge. This is suggested by their titles: "All we
are saying .. is give [General David] Petraeus [the new Iraq commander] a
chance" (January 29); "Not this time: Don't give up when victory is at hand"
(February 5); "A terrible ignominy: How many Republicans will desert the
troops" (February 12); and "The GOP's [Republicans'] moment of truth: You get
no credit for timidity" (February 19).
That doesn't mean that Iran is not a major concern - and ultimate target for
the neo-cons. Indeed, the cover story of this week's Standard, titled "Iran's
obsession with the Jews: Denying the Holocaust, desiring another one", shows no
hesitation in building up the case for eventual war against Tehran.
But the same issue ran yet another story that illustrates the relative lack of
urgency for war: "Sanctions against Iran would work," it was entitled, although
its subtitle, "Too bad they won't be tried", hinted at the inevitability of
Nonetheless, to the extent that neo-cons - and their allies in the right-wing
"Israel Lobby" - are addressing themselves to Iran policy at the moment,
expanding and enforcing sanctions, rather than imminent war, appears to be the
Indeed, AEI fellows and fixtures in its "black coffee briefings" four years
ago, Reuel Marc Gerecht and Gary Schmitt, just published an article this week
on precisely this theme in the Financial Times: "How the West can avert war
Similarly, television ads by the neo-conservative American Foreign Policy
Council running on the major cable television networks in the Washington area
warn about Iran's nuclear program, its status as "the world's largest state
sponsor of terrorism", its president's alleged Holocaust denial and threats to
"wipe Israel off the map", but conclude with the relatively anodyne
exhortation: "Call the White House and tell them to enforce sanctions against
Iran today." Not exactly what one would expect on the eve of a military attack.
This tack may simply be a ruse to lull anti-war forces into complacency. Or it
may reflect a fear that, given their record on Iraq, beating the drums for war
with Iran may prove counter-productive (although the AEI has not hesitated to
take credit for the "surge" option). Or it may indicate that prominent neo-cons
have somehow lost touch with the hawks in the White House and Vice President
Dick Cheney's office who are now determined to attack Iran this spring.
But it may also reflect the neo-cons' assessment, based no doubt on inside
information, that Bush - who spoke about US policy on Afghanistan at the AEI on
Thursday - intends to let the diplomatic game play out a little longer -
perhaps as long as another year - before deciding to attack.