Neo-cons still preparing for Iran attack By Robert Dreyfuss
What, exactly, does president-elect Barack Obama's mild-mannered choice to head
the Department of Health and Human Services, former senator Tom Daschle, have
to do with neo-conservatives who want to bomb Iran?
A familiar coalition of hawks, hardliners and neo-cons expects Obama's proposed
talks with Iran to fail - and they're already proposing an escalating set of
measures instead. Some are meant to occur alongside any future talks. These
include steps to enhance coordination with Israel, tougher sanctions against
Iran, and a region-wide military buildup of US strike forces, including the
prepositioning of military supplies within striking distance of that country.
Once the future negotiations break down, as they are convinced
will happen, they propose that Washington quickly escalate to war-like
measures, including a US Navy-enforced embargo on Iranian fuel imports and a
blockade of that country's oil exports. Finally, of course, comes the strategic
military attack against the Islamic Republic of Iran that so many of them have
wanted for so long.
It's tempting to dismiss the hawks now as twice-removed from power: first,
figures like John Bolton, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith were purged from top
posts in the George W Bush administration after 2004; then the election of
Obama and the announcement on Monday of his centrist, realist-minded team of
establishment foreign policy gurus seemed to nail the doors to power shut for
the neo-cons, who have bitterly criticized the president-elect's plans to talk
with Iran, withdraw US forces from Iraq, and abandon the reckless "war on
terror" rhetoric of the Bush era.
'Kinetic action' against Iran
When it comes to Iran, however, it's far too early to dismiss the hawks. To be
sure, they are now plying their trade from outside the corridors of power, but
they have more friends inside the Obama camp than most people realize. Several
top advisers to Obama - including Tony Lake, United Nations
ambassador-designate Susan Rice, Tom Daschle and Dennis Ross, along with
leading Democratic hawks like Richard Holbrooke, close to vice president-elect
Joe Biden or secretary of state-designate Hillary Clinton - have made common
cause with war-minded think-tank hawks at the Washington Institute for Near
East Policy (WINEP), the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and other
Last spring, Tony Lake and Susan Rice, for example, took part in a WINEP "2008
Presidential Task Force" study which resulted in a report entitled,
"Strengthening the Partnership: How to Deepen US-Israel Cooperation on the
Iranian Nuclear Challenge". The Institute, part of the Washington-based Israel
lobby, was founded in coordination with the American-Israel Public Affairs
Committee (AIPAC), and has been vigorously supporting a confrontation with
Iran. The task force report, issued in June, was overseen by four WINEP
heavyweights: Robert Satloff, WINEP's executive director, Patrick Clawson, its
chief Iran analyst, David Makovsky, a senior fellow, and Dennis Ross, an
adviser to Obama who is also a WINEP fellow.
Endorsed by both Lake and Rice, the report opted for an alarmist view of Iran's
nuclear program and proposed that the next president set up a formal US-Israeli
mechanism for coordinating policy toward Iran (including any future need for
"preventive military action"). It drew attention to Israeli fears that "the
United States may be reconciling itself to the idea of 'living with an Iranian
nuclear bomb'," and it raised the spurious fear that Iran plans to arm
terrorist groups with nuclear weapons.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with consultations between the United States
and Israel. But the WINEP report is clearly predisposed to the idea that the US
ought to give undue weight to Israel's inflated concerns about Iran. And it
ignores or dismisses a number of facts: that Iran has no nuclear weapon, that
Iran has not enriched uranium to weapons grade, that Iran may not have the
know-how to actually construct a weapon even if, at some time in the future, it
does manage to acquire bomb-grade material, and that Iran has no known
mechanism for delivering such a weapon.
WINEP is correct that the US must communicate closely with Israel about Iran.
Practically speaking, however, a US-Israeli dialogue over Iran's "nuclear
challenge" will have to focus on matters entirely different from those in
WINEP's agenda. First, the US must make it crystal clear to Israel that under
no circumstances will it tolerate or support a unilateral Israeli attack
Second, Washington must make it clear that if Israel were indeed to carry out
such an attack, the US would condemn it, refuse to widen the war by coming to
Israel's aid, and suspend all military aid to the Jewish state. And third,
Israel must get the message that, even given the extreme and unlikely
possibility that the US deems it necessary to go to war with Iran, there would
be no role for Israel.
Just as in the wars against Iraq in 1990-1991 and 2003-2008, the US hardly
needs Israeli aid, which would be both superfluous and inflammatory. Dennis
Ross and others at WINEP, however, would strongly disagree that Israel is part
of the problem, not part of the solution.
Ross, who served as Middle East envoy for president George H W Bush and then
Bill Clinton, was also a key participant in a September 2008 task force chaired
by two former senators, Republican Daniel Coats and Democrat Chuck Robb, and
led by Michael Makovsky, brother of WINEP's David Makovsky, who served in the
Office of the Secretary of Defense in the heyday of the Pentagon neo-cons from
2002-2006. Robb, incidentally, had already served as the neo-cons' channel into
the 2006 Iraq Study Group, chaired by former secretary of state James Baker and
former Representative Lee Hamilton. According to Bob Woodward's latest book, The
War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008, it was Robb who
insisted that the Baker-Hamilton task force include an option for a "surge" in
The report of the Coats-Robb task force - "Meeting the Challenge: US Policy
Toward Iranian Nuclear Development" - went far beyond the WINEP task force
report that Lake and Rice signed off on. It concluded that any negotiations
with Iran were unlikely to succeed and should, in any case, be short-lived. As
the report put the matter, "It must be clear that any US-Iranian talks will not
be open-ended, but will be limited to a pre-determined time period so that
Tehran does not try to 'run out the clock'."
Anticipating the failure of the talks, the task force (including Ross) urged
"prepositioning military assets" coupled with a "show of force" in the region.
This would be followed almost immediately by a blockade of Iranian gasoline
imports and oil exports, meant to paralyze Iran's economy, followed by what
they call, vaguely, "kinetic action".
That "kinetic action" - a US assault on Iran - should, in fact, be massive,
suggested the Coats-Robb report. Besides hitting dozens of sites alleged to be
part of Iran's nuclear research program, the attacks would target Iranian air
defense and missile sites, communications systems, Iranian Revolutionary Guards
Corps facilities, key parts of Iran's military-industrial complex, munitions
storage facilities, airfields, aircraft facilities, and all of Iran's naval
facilities. Eventually, they say, the US would also have to attack Iran's
ground forces, electric power plants and electrical grids, bridges, and
"manufacturing plants, including steel, autos, buses, etc".
This is, of course, a hair-raising scenario. Such an attack on a country that
had committed no act of war against the United States or any of its allies
would cause countless casualties, virtually destroy Iran's economy and
infrastructure, and cause havoc throughout the region. That such a high-level
group of luminaries should even propose steps like these - and mean it - can
only be described as lunacy. That an important adviser to Obama would sign on
to such a report should be shocking, though it has received next to no
Palling around with the neo-cons
At a November 6 forum at WINEP, Patrick Clawson, the erudite, neo-conservative
strategist who serves as the organization's deputy director for research, laid
out the institute's view of how to talk to Iran in the Obama era. Doing so, he
said, is critically important, but only to show the rest of the world that the
US has taken the last step for peace - before, of course, attacking. Then, and
only then, will the US have the legitimacy it needs to launch military action
"What we've got to do is to show the world that we're making a big deal of
engaging the Iranians," he said, tossing a bone to the new administration. "I'd
throw everything, including the kitchen sink, into it." He advocates this
approach only because he believes it won't work. "The principal target with
these offers [to Iran] is not Iran," he adds. "The principal target of these
offers is American public opinion and world public opinion."
The Coats-Robb report, "Meeting the Challenge", was written by one of the
hardest of Washington's neo-conservative hardliners, Michael Rubin of the AEI.
Rubin, who spent most of the years since 9/11 either working for AEI or, before
and during the war in Iraq, for the Wolfowitz-Feith team at the Pentagon,
recently penned a report for the Institute entitled: "Can A Nuclear Iran Be
Deterred or Contained?" Not surprisingly, he believes the answer to be a
resounding "no", although he does suggest that any effort to contain a nuclear
Iran would certainly require permanent US bases spread widely in the region,
including in Iraq:
If US forces are to contain the Islamic Republic,
they will require basing not only in GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries,
but also in Afghanistan, Iraq, Central Asia and the Caucasus. Without a
sizeable regional presence, the Pentagon will not be able to maintain the
predeployed resources and equipment necessary to contain Iran, and Washington
will signal its lack of commitment to every ally in the region. Because
containment is as much psychological as physical, basing will be its backbone.
The Coats-Robb report was issued by a little-known group called the Bipartisan
Policy Center (BPC). That organization, too, turns out to be interwoven with
WINEP, not least because its foreign policy director is Michael Makovsky.
Perhaps the most troubling participant in the Bipartisan Policy Center is
Obama's eminence grise and one of his most important advisers during the
campaign, Tom Daschle, who is slated to be his secretary of health and human
services. So far, Daschle has not repudiated BPC's provocative report.
Ross, along with Richard Holbrooke, recently made appearances amid another
collection of superhawks who came together to found a new organization, United
Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), which is led by Mark Wallace, the husband of
Nicole Wallace, a key member of Senator John McCain's campaign team. Among
UANI's leadership team are Ross and Holbrooke, along with such hardliners as
Jim Woolsey, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Fouad
Ajami, the Arab-American scholar who is a principal theorist on Middle East
policy for the neo-conservative movement.
UANI is primarily a propaganda outfit. Its mission, it says, is to "inform the
public about the nature of the Iranian regime, including its desire and intent
to possess nuclear weapons, as well as Iran's role as a state sponsor of global
terrorism, and a major violator of human rights at home and abroad" and to
"heighten awareness nationally and internationally about the danger that a
nuclear-armed Iran poses to the region and the world".
Obama has, of course, repeatedly declared his intention to embark on a
different path by opening talks with Iran. He's insisted that diplomacy, not
military action, will be at the core of his approach to Tehran. During the
election campaign, however, he also stated no less repeatedly that he will not
take the threat of military action "off the table".
Organizations like WINEP, AIPAC, AEI, BPC, and UANI see it as their mission to
push the United States toward a showdown with Iran. Don't sell them short.
Those who believe that such a confrontation would be inconceivable under
president Obama ought to ask Tony Lake, Susan Rice, Dennis Ross, Tom Daschle
and Richard Holbrooke whether they agree - and, if so, why they're still
palling around with neo-conservative hardliners.
Robert Dreyfuss, an independent journalist in Alexandria, Virginia, is a
contributing editor at the Nation magazine, whose website hosts his The
Dreyfuss Report, and has written frequently for Rolling Stone, The American
Prospect, Mother Jones, and the Washington Monthly. He is the author of
Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam.