WASHINGTON - Amid growing speculation about prospects for US military action
against Iran, neo-conservatives and other hawks won a significant - if somewhat
incomplete - victory in rallying the Democratic-led Congress to its side.
In a 76-22 vote on Wednesday, senators approved a non-binding amendment to the
2008 defense authorization bill that called for the administration of President
George W Bush to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) "a foreign
Among those voting for the measure was the Democratic front-runner for the 2008
presidential election, Senator Hillary Clinton.
At the same time, the House of Representatives voted nearly unanimously - 408-6
- for another measure, the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act, which would force Bush
to impose sweeping sanctions against foreign companies that invest more than
US$20 million in Iran's energy sector.
That bill, which is opposed by the Bush administration itself because of strong
pressure from Washington's European and Asian allies and key US multinational
companies, is considered likely to stall in the Senate through the remainder of
But its huge margin of approval, which some observers said was boosted by this
week's controversial visit to New York by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad,
helped demonstrate once again how responsive members of both major parties are
to the so-called "Israel lobby", which has made the sanctions bill its top
legislative priority this year.
Both votes took place amid an intensifying struggle within the administration
over control of Iran policy, with hawks, led by Vice President Dick Cheney and
his neo-conservative advisers, pitted against the State Department and Pentagon
chief Robert Gates and his top military brass.
The State Department, while never ruling out military action, has consistently
argued for continuing diplomatic efforts to address both alleged Iranian
backing for anti-US Shi'ite militias in Iraq and Iran's rejection of United
Nations Security Council demands that it freeze its uranium-enrichment program.
For the past two months - since the last time the US and Iranian ambassadors
met in Baghdad - the struggle appears to have reached an impasse.
In late July, Bush agreed in principle to a proposal by Cheney for cross-border
military strikes against IRGC targets that have allegedly been involved in
training and supplying Iraqi Shi'ite militias, according to Philip Giraldi, a
former military intelligence and Central Intelligence Agency officer, writing
recently in The American Conservative.
But the Pentagon brass, which has become increasingly outspoken about the
overextension of US ground forces in Iraq and the uncertainty about how Iran
would react, countered with a more cautious strategy of building a new military
base and extending patrolling along suspected smuggling routes, according to
Similarly, the diplomatic dialogue between the US and Iranian ambassadors in
Baghdad over stabilizing Iraq - originally launched last May - has not resumed
since their second meeting in late July when Ambassador Ryan Crocker publicly
complained about Tehran's alleged increase in support, via the IRGC, for
Shi'ite militias that were attacking US troops.
In testimony here two weeks ago, Crocker said he "found no readiness on the
Iranians' side at all to engage seriously on these issues", while General David
Petraeus, Washington's top military commander in Iraq, charged that Tehran was
engaged in a "proxy war" against the US in Iraq.
Last month, the Washington Post reported that the Bush administration had
decided in principle to designate the IRGC, which, in addition to its military
role, controls a number of large businesses that could be subject to sanctions,
a terrorist group, but had yet to determine whether it would name the entire
organization or only its elite unit, the Quds Force. That no announcement has
yet been made is indicative of the continuing infighting around Bush.
That paralysis, however, appears to have favored the hawks, who have pressed
their campaign for cross-border military action against Iran in the opinion
pages of such neo-conservative publications as The Weekly Standard, The
National Review, and the Wall Street Journal.
Their calls for action became so intense that the commander of the US Central
Command and Petraeus's superior, Admiral William Fallon, who has been trying to
get authorization to negotiate an "incidents at sea" agreement with Iran,
complained publicly that "this constant drumbeat of conflict is ... not helpful
and not useful. It is not a good idea to be in a state of war. We ought to try
to do our utmost to create different conditions," he told Al-Jazeera.
In fact, the first call for cross-border attacks on Iranian targets was made by
the Senate's "independent" Democrat, Joseph Lieberman, who is regarded as
particularly close to the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee
Indeed, it was Lieberman and Republican Senator John Kyl - an honorary co-chair
of the pro-Likud Committee on the Present Danger - who co-sponsored the Senate
amendment naming the IRGC as a terrorist group in an effort clearly designed to
help tilt the internal balance within the administration.
As introduced, the amendment, which according to several Capitol Hill sources
was drafted by AIPAC, actually went considerably further, deploying language
that some senators argued could be interpreted as authorizing war against Iran.
Among other provisions, it called for the US to "combat, contain and roll back
the violent activities and destabilizing influence inside Iraq of the
government of the Islamic Republic of Iran ... and its indigenous Iraqi
proxies" and "the prudent and calibrated use of all instruments of United
States national power in Iraq, including ... military instruments, in support
of [that] policy".
But those paragraphs were deleted after Democratic Senator Jim Webb delivered a
passionate speech in which he charged that the amendment "is Dick Cheney's
fondest pipe dream" and "could be read as tantamount to a declaration of war".
In a further softening, the drafters changed one policy statement that claimed
it was a vital US national interest to prevent Iran from turning Shi'ite
militias in Iraq into its proxies to a "critical national interest". The
previous wording generally connotes an interest over which the US would be
prepared to go to war.
Still, the fact that the amendment was approved by a significant margin - and
with the support of key Democrats, including Clinton and Majority Leader Harry
Reid - is certain to be used by hawks within the administration as an
indication of bipartisan support for a more aggressive policy toward Iran.