Three US reasons to attack Iran
By Michael T Klare
Some time this spring or summer, barring an unexpected turnaround by Tehran, US
President George W Bush is likely to go on national television and announce
that he has ordered US ships and aircraft to strike at military targets inside
We must still sit through several months of soap opera at the United Nations in
New York and assorted foreign capitals before this comes to pass, and it is
always possible that a diplomatic breakthrough will occur - let it be so! - but
I am convinced that
Bush has already decided an attack is his only option and the rest is a charade
he must go through to satisfy his European allies.
The proof of this, I believe, lies half-hidden in recent public statements of
his, which, if pieced together, provide a casus belli, or formal list of
justifications, for going to war.
Three of his statements, in particular, contained the essence of this
justification: his January 10 televised speech on his plan for a troop "surge"
in Iraq, his State of the Union address of January 23, and his first televised
press conference of the year on February 14. None of these was primarily
focused on Iran, but Bush used each of them to warn of the extraordinary
dangers that country poses to the United States and to hint at severe US
reprisals if the Iranians did not desist from "harming US troops".
In each, moreover, he laid out various parts of the overall argument he will
certainly use to justify an attack on Iran. String these together in one place
and you can almost anticipate what Bush's speechwriters will concoct before he
addresses the American people from the Oval Office some time this year. Think
of them as talking points for the next war.
The first of these revealing statements was Bush's January 10 televised address
on Iraq. This speech was supposedly intended to rally public and congressional
support behind his plan to send 21,500 additional US troops into the Iraqi
capital and al-Anbar province, the heartland of the Sunni insurgency.
But his presentation that night was so uninspired, so lacking in conviction,
that - according to media commentary and polling data - few, if any, Americans
were persuaded by his arguments. Only once that evening did Bush visibly come
alive: when he spoke about the threat to Iraq supposedly posed by Iran.
"Succeeding in Iraq also requires defending its territorial integrity and
stabilizing the region in the face of extremist challenges," he declared, which
meant, he assured his audience, addressing the problem of Iran. That country,
he asserted, "is providing material support for attacks on American troops".
(This support was later identified as advanced improvised explosive devices -
IEDs or roadside bombs - given to anti-American Shi'ite militias.)
Then followed an unambiguous warning: "We will disrupt the attacks on our
forces ... And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced
weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq."
Consider this Item 1 in his casus belli: because Iran is aiding and
abetting the United States' enemies in Iraq, the US is justified in attacking
Iran as a matter of self-defense.
Bush put it this way in an interview with Juan Williams of National Public
Radio on January 29: "If Iran escalates its military action in Iraq to the
detriment of our troops and/or innocent Iraqi people, we will respond firmly
... It makes common sense for the commander-in-chief to say to our troops and
the Iraqi people - and the Iraqi government - that we will help you defend
yourself from people that want to sow discord and harm."
In his January 10 address, Bush went on to fill in a second item in any future casus
belli: Iran is seeking nuclear weapons to dominate the Middle East to
the detriment of the United States' friends in the region - a goal that it
simply cannot be allowed to achieve.
In response to such a possibility, Bush declared, "We're also taking other
steps to bolster the security of Iraq and protect American interests in the
Middle East." These include deploying a second US aircraft-carrier battle group
to the Persian Gulf region, consisting of the USS John C Stennis and a flotilla
of cruisers, destroyers and submarines (presumably to provide additional air
and missile assets for strikes on Iran), along with additional Patriot
anti-missile batteries (presumably to shoot down any Iranian missiles that
might be fired in retaliation for an air attack on the country and its nuclear
facilities). "And," Bush added, "we will work with others to prevent Iran from
gaining nuclear weapons and dominating the region."
Bush added a third item to the casus belli in his State of the Union
address on January 23. After years of describing Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda as
the greatest threats to US interests in the Middle East, he now introduced a
new menace: the resurgent Shi'ite branch of Islam led by Iran.
Aside from al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremists, he explained, "It has also
become clear that we face an escalating danger from Shi'ite extremists who are
just as hostile to America, and are also determined to dominate the Middle
East." Many of these extremists, he noted, "are known to take direction from
the regime in Iran", including the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon.
As if to nail down this point, he offered some hair-raising imagery right out
of the Left Behind best-selling book series so beloved of Christian
evangelicals and their neo-conservative allies: "If American forces step back
[from Iraq] before Baghdad is secure, the Iraqi government would be overrun by
extremists on all sides. We could expect an epic battle between Shi'ite
extremists backed by Iran, and Sunni extremists backed by al-Qaeda and
supporters of the old regime. A contagion of violence could spill across the
country, and in time the entire region could be drawn into the conflict. For
America, this is a nightmare scenario. For the enemy, this is the objective."
As refined by Bush speechwriters, this, then, is the third item in his casus
belli for attacking Iran: to prevent a "nightmare scenario" in which
the Shi'ite leaders of Iran might emerge as the grandmasters of regional
instability, using such proxies as Hezbollah to imperil Israel and pro-American
regimes in Jordan, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia - with potentially catastrophic
consequences for the safety of Middle Eastern oil supplies. You can be sure of
what Bush will say to this in his future address: no US president would ever
allow such a scenario to come to pass.
Many of these themes were reiterated in Bush's White House Valentine's Day
(February 14) press conference. Once again, Iraq was meant to be the main
story, but Iran captured all the headlines.
Bush's most widely cited comments on Iran focused on claims of Iranian
involvement in the delivery of sophisticated versions of the roadside IEDs that
have been responsible for many of the US casualties in recent months. Just a
few days earlier, unidentified US military officials in Baghdad had declared
that elements of the Iranian military - specifically, the Quds Force of the
Iranian Revolutionary Guards - were supplying the deadly devices to Shi'ite
militias in Iraq, and that high-ranking Iranian government officials were aware
of the deliveries.
These claims were contested by other US officials and members of Congress who
expressed doubt about the reliability of the evidence and the intelligence work
behind it, but Bush evinced no such uncertainty: "What we do know is that the
Quds Force was instrumental in providing these deadly IEDs to networks inside
of Iraq. We know that. And we also know that the Quds Force is a part of the
Iranian government. That's a known."
What is not known, he continued, is just how high up in the Iranian government
went the decision-making that led such IEDs to be delivered to the Shi'ite
militias in Iraq. But that doesn't matter, he explained. "What matters is, is
that they're there ... We know they're there, and we're going to protect our
troops." As commander-in-chief, he insisted, he would "do what is necessary to
protect our soldiers in harm's way".
He then went on to indicate that "the biggest problem I see is the Iranians'
desire to have a nuclear weapon". He expressed his wish that this problem can
be "dealt with" in a peaceful way - by the Iranians voluntarily agreeing to
cease their program to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels. But he also made
it clear that the onus was purely on Tehran to take the necessary action to
avoid unspecified harm: "I would like to be at the ... have been given a chance
for us to explain that we have no desire to harm the Iranian people."
No reporters at the press conference asked him to explain this odd twist of
phrase, delivered in the past tense, about his regret that he was unable to
explain to the Iranian people why he had meant them no harm - presumably after
the fact. However, if you view this as the Bush version of a Freudian slip, one
obvious conclusion can be drawn: that Bush has already made the decision to
begin the countdown for an attack on Iran, and only total capitulation by the
Iranians could possibly bring the process to a halt.
Further evidence for this conclusion is provided by Bush's repeated reference
to Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter. On three separate occasions during
the press conference he praised Russia, China and the "EU3" - the United
Kingdom, France and Germany - for framing the December 23 UN Security Council
resolution condemning Iran's nuclear activities and imposing economic sanctions
on Iran in the context of Chapter 7 - that is, of "Action with Respect to
Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace and Acts of Aggression".
This sets the stage for the international community, under UN leadership, to
take such steps as may be deemed necessary "to maintain or restore
international peace and stability", ranging from mild economic sanctions to
full-scale war (steps that are described in Articles 39-51). But the December
23 resolution was specifically framed under Article 41, which entails "measures
not involving the use of armed force", a stipulation demanded by China and
Russia, which have categorically ruled out the use of military force to resolve
the nuclear dispute with Iran.
One suspects that Bush has Chapter 7 on the brain, because he now intends to
ask for a new resolution under Article 42, which allows the use of military
force to restore international peace and stability. But it is nearly
inconceivable that Russia and China will approve such a resolution. Such
approval would also be tantamount to acknowledging US hegemony worldwide, and
this is something they are simply unwilling to do.
So we can expect several months of fruitless diplomacy at the United Nations in
which the United States may achieve slightly more severe economic sanctions
under Chapter 41 but not approval for military action under Chapter 42. Bush
knows that this is the inevitable outcome, and so I am convinced that, in his
various speeches and meetings with reporters, he is already preparing the way
for a future address to the nation.
In it, he will speak somberly of a tireless US effort to secure a meaningful
resolution from the United Nations on Iran with real teeth in it and his deep
disappointment that no such resolution has been not forthcoming. He will also
point out that, despite the heroic efforts of American diplomats as well as
military commanders in Iraq, Iran continues to pose a vital and unchecked
threat to US security in Iraq, in the region, and even - via its nuclear
program - in the wider world.
Further diplomacy, he will insist, appears futile and yet Iran must be stopped.
Hence, he will say, "I have made the unavoidable decision to eliminate this
vital threat through direct military action," and will announce - in language
eerily reminiscent of his address to the nation on March 19, 2003, that a
massive air offensive against Iran has already been under way for several
Michael T Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at
Hampshire College and the defense correspondent of The Nation magazine. He is
the author, most recently, of Blood and Oil: The Dangers and
Consequences of America's Growing Dependence on Imported Petroleum (Owl Books).