They Wouldn't Really Attack Iran, Would They?
- They Wouldn't Really Attack Iran, Would They?
by Paul Street
Remember the old neoconservative half-joke that "sacking Baghdad is
fine but real men go to Teheran?" We are moving into the time when
many Washington watchers have thought it possible and even likely that
George W. Bush and Dick Cheney would order an attack on Iran (1).
They wouldn't really do it, would they?
God knows there are a large number of reasons for a rational White
House NOT to attack. United States and global public opinion is
opposed to a U.S. assault on Iran. So are European and other leading
and allied governments, the U.S. intelligence community and much of
the nation's military leadership. According to a February 25th London
Times report, "most senior [United States] commanders are prepared to
resign if the White House orders a strike against Iran" (1.5).
Key sections of the U.S. foreign policy establishment oppose attacking
Iran. The Baker-Hamilton Commission's Iraq Study Group advocated
engaging Iran diplomatically to help de-escalate the mess in Iraq and
the Middle East.
Expressing concerns that the administration will manufacture false
pretexts for attacking Iran, former National Security Advisor Zgbniew
Bzrezinski recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that
Bush's "imperial hubris" is "undermining America's global legitimacy,"
"intensifying regional instability" and putting the U.S on track for
a "quagmire lasting 20 years or more and eventually ranging across
Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan" (2).
United States troops are overstretched and have been badly bloodied in
Iraq. The American Empire's strung-out, battered and mostly
working-class soldiers are increasingly skeptical about Bush's
military adventurism (3).
As Samar Sepehri notes in the latest International Socialist Review,
"Iraq is a glaring example for the U.S. (as Hezbollah was for Israel)
that superior firepower and the best laid [military] plans are no
guarantee of imperial success" (4).
While "Iran cannot [militarily] defend itself against U.S. attack,"
Noam Chomsky recently noted, "it can respond in other ways, among them
by inciting ever more havoc in Iraq. "Some issue warnings that are
more grave," Chomsky adds, noting British military historian Corelli
Barnett's judgment that "an attack on Iran would effectively launch
world war three" (5).
According to ZNet writer Stephen Lendman, citing a CIA assessment, "if
the U.S. attacks Iran, South Shia Iraq will light up like a candle and
explode uncontrollably throughout the country...expanding the Iraq
conflict to a regional one with [unpredictable] consequences that
would not be good for U.S. interests. It will inflame the region,"
spark "a tsunami of Shia rage" and "unite the Muslim world in fierce
opposition to America," Lendman says (6).
Iran has signaled its readiness to strangle oil shipments through the
Strait of Hormuz the crucial and narrow passageway between the
Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean and thereby to damage the global
economy if the U.S. and/or Israel attack its nuclear facilities.
A military strike against Iran would be thoroughly illegal under
international law and the U.S. Constitution. It would evoke horror
and condemnation across the world, further tarnishing the United
States' fading "moral credentials" (Bzrezinski), especially if it
employs (as it likely would) "low yield" nuclear missiles that would
(as a senior U.S. intelligence official told Seymour Hersh) produce
"mushroom clouds, radiation, mass casualties and contamination over
The administration's key charges against Iran are without basis. There
is little evidence to support U.S. claims that predominantly Shiite
Iran has been sparking the Sunni-led Iraq "insurgency" and that Iran
poses a reasonably imminent "nuclear danger."
Also lacking credibility are U.S. claims that Iraq seeks to eliminate
Israel a charge that ignores Iran foreign policy chief Ayatollah Ali
Khameni's repeated statements of support Israel's continued existence
alongside a separate Palestinian state.
As John Pilger notes, "the `threat' from Iran is entirely
manufactured, aided and abetted by familiar, compliant media language
that refers to Iran's `nuclear ambitions' just as the vocabulary of
Saddam's non-existent WMD arsenal became common usage"(8).
Another public relations fiasco looms, perhaps, for those who would
launch yet another mass-murderous assault on a major Muslim state
without credible basis for threat claims concocted to justify the
brazen violation of international law and civilized norms.
A U.S. attack would likely unite the factions contesting for power
inside Iran, to the detriment of the Bush administration's declared
mission of causing regime change there. That mission could be pursued
without resort to massive air assault, through the intensified
application of methods already being employed: economic and financial
sanctions and the related promotion of ethnic, religious, factional
and regional strife inside Iran.
And yet, despite all this and more, we really can't rule out the
possibility of the feared U.S. attack sometime this or next year. Bush
has been preparing the ground for such an assault by making repeated,
high-profile references to the alleged Iran threat. As presented in
his January 23rd State of the Union Address (SOUA), the supposed
menace of Iran goes beyond alleged nuclear ambitions and support for
the Iraqi resistance. It includes the threat of a rising "Shia
crescent" led by Iran in alliance with Hezbollah, Hamas and the Syrian
state. Bush raised this specter "despite the fact," as Tom Englehardt
notes, "that the Bush administration is officially at war with Sunni
extremism in Iraq (and in the more general War on Terror)"(9).
As Seymour Hersh shows in a recent New Yorker article titled "The
Redirection," the Bush administration's Middle East policies has
undergone a "sea change" as the U.S. seeks to enlist the region's Arab
Sunni people and regimes against Persian Iran and the danger of Shia
The administration's 2006 National Military Strategy claimed that "we
may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran."
(11). The U.S. may have supported Israel's invasion of Lebanon last
July partly to destroy Iran-linked Hezbollah's capacity to deter a
U.S.-Israel assault on Iran.
The U.S. "Surge" in Iraq is specifically targeting forces allied with
Iran, seeking to reduce Iran's ability to respond to a U.S. attack by
sparking retaliation against the U.S in Iraq. As Sepehri notes,
"although the surge in U.S. troops will do little to really secure
Iraq (an idea which has been ridiculed even by the administration's
supporters), it is designed to pressure, fragment and break away parts
of the forces allied with Iran, pulling away forces which can be
acquiesced through military pressure, while isolating and destroying
those who will not submit. The aim of this is to remove many of
Iran's options to respond to an attack including retaliation against
the U.S. forces in Iraq" (12).
U.S. Air Force Planning Groups have been "drawing up lists of targets"
(Hersh) in Iran since at least early 2002. The Joint Chiefs of Staff
have recently completed contingency plans that will permit Bush to
bomb Iran on 24 hours notice.
U.S. Special Ops and CIA teams have been placed in Iran, marking
targets for future air assaults, studying the terrain, and fomenting
rebellion among ethnic and religious minorities.
The Pentagon has placed two full carrier groups in the Persian Gulf,
giving the U.S. the capacity to sustain a month-long bombing and
missile campaign against Iran. Even before the Stennis and Eisenhower
groups arrived, the U.S. and the United Kingdom possessed a giant
naval presence in the Gulf.
Last December, the Pentagon replaced General John Abizaid with Admiral
William Fallon as the head of Centcom, the command authority developed
by Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan to "guard oil flows" from the
Persian Gulf. Abizaid had supported the ISG's recommendation of
diplomatic engagement with Syria and Iraq. The new Centcom chief is
an expert coordinator of the sort of combined air and sea operations
that would be involved in a confrontation with Iran.
The U.S. has been illegally sending unmanned aerial surveillance
drones into Iranian air space. It recently invaded the Iranian
consulate in northern Iraq and seized six Iranian nationals.
The U.S. has been stockpiling oil reserves and has pressured its
arch-reactionary oil-rich client state Saudi Arabia to increase
petroleum production levels.
Thousands of U.S. troops have been moved to the Iraq-Iran border. In
February, the Los Angeles Times reported that U.S. Air Force and Navy
planes were going to be used more aggressively along that border the
point being to provoke an Iranian response that could be used (ala the
Gulf of Tonkin) as a pretext for a U.S. assault.
The U.S. has installed "defensive" Patriot Missiles in Israel, Saudi
Arabia, Kuwait, and the Arab Emirates. This is meant to defend these
states against intermediate range (Shihab-3) ballistic missiles that
Washington suspects Iran would launch in response to a U.S and/or
On February 11, the Washington Post reported that Dick Cheney's new
national security advisor John Hanna considers 2007 "the year of
Iran." A central player in the making of the Bush administration's
deceptive case for the invasion of Iraq, Hannah said that a U.S.
assault on Iran was "a real possibility" this year (13).
The Bush administration's recent willingness to accommodate China by
cutting a bargain with North Korea may in part reflect a desire to
stop China from opposing a U.S. assault on Iran. As David Whitehouse
notes, "the North Korea deal raises the stakes for Iran. China has
been a potential obstacle to U.S. action against Iran, but progress
over North Korea may make the Chinese more willing to accept a
military strike the favor the U.S. is extending to China over North
Korea could be returned with Chinese acquiescence to the U.S. police
role in the Middle East."
The Bush administration knows that neither of its two closest military
rivals Russia and China will back Iran in an armed conflict with
the superpower. While they will block a force resolution against Iran
at the UN, they will stand clear once U.S. attack becomes imminent (14).
Last December the Bush administration succeeded in persuading the
United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution imposing economic
sanctions on Iran for supposedly threatening international peace with
nuclear activities. This has set the stage for Bush to demand that
the Security Council sanction the use of force against Iran. When
Security Council members Russia and China (inevitably) reject that
demand, Bush may well (on the model of the 2002-2003 run to the
invasion of Iraq) cite earlier resolutions to justify direct U.S.
military action. "We've done all we can through the inadequate
channels of international law and the UN," Bush will claim (in
essence) "but now the time has come for us to act" against an Evil
State that the UN itself has identified as `a danger to world peace'"
The assault envisioned, it should be noted, is a "Shock and Awe" air
attack, not a ground invasion or prolonged occupation that will cause
mass U.S. casualties. The problem of GI burnout and casualties will
not deter Washington from undertaking a month-long high-tech air war
launched mainly from sea-born vessels. The White House is
contemplating the use of nuclear weaponry, something that would
involve an especially high ratio of "enemy" devastation to U.S. troop
loss. As Alenjandro Nadal notes in La Jornada:
"Many people think that an offensive by Washington would be foolish
because the Americans can hardly cope with Iraq. How are they going to
attack a country that is twice as big and has double the number of
inhabitants? But...Washington's objective is not to invade and occupy
Iran. The central purpose is to eliminate it as an obstacle to
controlling the resources of Central Asia and the Persian Gulf. And,
to achieve that, it is not necessary to invade the country. It is
enough to destroy its military capacity, aerial and naval, something
that the armed forces of the United States and its few allies can
achieve in some week of selective bombardment...In reply, Iran can
unleash a nightmare for the Americans in Iraq. But the sacrifice of
additional tens of soldiers in Baghdad is not something that is going
to stop the...the Bush-Cheney duo...[and] the American people...will
be faced with a fait accompli"(15).
The fact that the world economy could be damaged by the disruption of
oil flows from the Middle East is of little concern to Washington.
U.S. policymakers are concerned first and foremost that the United
States continues to bolster its world domination by controlling the
strategically hyper-significant energy resources of the Middle East,
not that not that they or the rest of the world enjoy unimpeded access
to Middle Eastern oil. Iraq's oil production has fallen from nearly 3
million barrels to about 1.5 billion barrels since the United States
invaded something that has led the major oil companies to jack up
their prices (helping them garner record profits) even as increased
Saudi production has helped make up the difference (16).
The White House has made its contempt for the relevance of world and
domestic opinion (and even much informed elite opinion) on numerous
occasions, including the occupation of Iraq. Indifference to public
opinion and law is hardly a "novel" stance on the part of U.S.
policymakers, "but the statist reactionaries at the helm in
Washington," Chomsky notes, "have set new records in flaunting their
credentials as international outlaws" (17).
Asked about the opposition of the Congress and the American people to
the U.S. "Surge" (escalation) in (and beyond) Iraq, Darth Cheney was
blunt in his response: "it won't stop us," he said, leading one
concerned U.S. citizen to write the following to the Editors of the
New York Times: "What I want to know is, Who is `us'? If it's not the
American electorate or the United States Congress, which was elected
to represent American citizens, who is it? Or maybe the question
should be, Who is this administration and what has it done with my
It doesn't help that the Democratic Party's leadership and leading
presidential candidates are hawkish on Iran reflecting deeply shared
doctrinal assumptions on the United States' right and "responsibility"
to exercise imperial "leadership" (global dominance) in and beyond
Middle East (18.5) even as they criticize the Bush administration's
sorry performance in Iraq. Or that dominant U.S. war and
entertainment media has been willing to play much the same role
regarding Iran that it played vis-à-vis Iraq in 2002 and 2003. It is
dutifully relaying administration propaganda about the mythical Iran
And then there's the vicious madness of boy-king George. Bush the
Second combines profound mental mediocrity with sloppy, dry-drunk
Protestant Fundamentalism, an advanced case of Narcissistic
Personality Disorder and a sneering authoritarianism born of an
especially vile and aristocratic upbringing. These toxic features and
his life history blind him to his own mistakes and crimes and make him
susceptible to the influence of powerful and deranged proto-fascists
like Dick Cheney. They push him to respond to his Iraq fiasco by
doubling down his bets on Iran - convinced that he can still "hit the
jackpot" if he just keeps rambling and gambling in the oil-rich Middle
East. They tell him he is endlessly free to transgress without
consequence and insulate from the counsel of more rational elites
within the imperial establishment. According to Bush's own brother
Jeb, as recounted in Ron Suskind's book The One Percent Doctrine,
"Dubya" appears to enjoy compelling other people to "knuckle under"
and doesn't really care about whether he's right or wrong. He may
actually find it more amusing to be wrong and still force everyone to
follows his command.
How much do rational warnings of possible or likely disaster matter to
George "The Decider" Bush and his dark overlord Cheney? As their
"untidy" (in the lovely description of Donald "Shit Happens" Rumsfeld)
fiasco deepened in Iraq, it is worth remembering, the White House
claimed that neither they nor anyone else had good reasons to
anticipate the chaos that lay ahead when they invaded that shattered
nation. This was completely false. Beyond technically irrelevant
predictions of turmoil from within the Middle East and from the U.S.
and global Left, numerous key establishment figures advanced serious
"elite" warnings about possibly disastrous consequences after a quick
military victory over a weak regime. The agents of advance warning (to
name just some of the more prominent voices) included George Bush
Senior's National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, retired Air Force
Col. John Warden, Marine Corps consultant Frank Hoffman, National
Defense University professor Daniel Kuehl, conservative Congressman
Ike Skelton (the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services
Committee), and the Committee on International Security Studies at the
American Academy of Arts and Sciences (19).
All of these and other voices within and beyond the foreign policy
establishment issued relevant notes of caution and alarm regarding the
difficulties inherent in illegally occupying Mesopotamia.
None of if it was worth a pile of West Texas horseshit. The warnings
went unheeded by an administration that clung to the notion of quick
and easy "victory" (20).
Four years later, to make things yet more dangerous, Bush, Cheney and
others in the White House may be caught up in the "wounded predator"
syndrome. Figuratively bloodied by an Iraqi quagmire so obvious and
humiliating that even Bush can't completely miss it, the injured
monsters in the White House may be driven to act recklessly out of
terrible desperation. As Gilbert Achcar noted in early 2006:
"They want to control the energy resources of the region. The problem
is what means can they use to achieve that goal? And...they are in
real disarray about what to do. When you follow closely what they do
on the ground, you have a sense of shifting policies; they are
pragmatically trying to react to adversity but the fact is they have
no general long-term strategy. The problem is that all this is truly
worrying. The Iraqi vox populi is certainly right to be worried about
U.S. plans, because the wounded beast could be truly dangerous" (21).
The Iranian "vox populi" also has reasons to worry. As Chomsky noted
last July, "Bush planners have created remarkable catastrophes for
themselves in the Middle East. And it is conceivable that they might
strike out in desperation, hitting the system with a sledgehammer to
see if somehow the results will come out in their favor" (22).
The administration's desperation could be furthered by its awareness
of the remarkable strategic stakes at play in the Middle East. Cheney
and Bush have sparked events that could end up significantly damaging
the United States' position in the world system. Their incompetent
and delusional actions have enabled a potential decisive separation of
largely Shiite-inhabited Middle East oil lands from U.S. control,
something that would cost the United States critical leverage over
world-capitalist rivals and significantly accelerate its demotion to
the position of a "second-rate world power." Seen from the perspective
of the American Empire Project, of course, there is nothing irrational
about U.S. policymakers' longstanding obsession with the control of
Middle Eastern oil (23).
Other depressing facts are that Bush and Cheney see the historical
window closing on their probably cherished desire to attack Iran and
could be motivated by their party's deepening domestic political
crisis to "Wag the Dog" (distract the enraged homeland populace with
military actions overseas) on a large scale, looking for a domestic
political twist on Chomsky's "sledgehammer."
If Bush and Cheney can be convinced that bearing their nuclear tipped
teeth is combining with other tactics the fanning of Sunni-Shiite
conflicts, external strangulation, and the cultivation of internal
Iranian rebellion, etc. to effectively show Iran and the Middle
East who's boss, then perhaps Washington will stand down from a
full-blown assault. The Godfather doesn't always have to actually
kill; sometimes he can be convinced that the demonstration of his
capacity for violence was sufficient to enforce proper obedience.
Will they attack Iran sometime this or next year? If I were a betting
man, I'd put my money on Washington standing down. It seems like too
crazy a proposition even for Bush and Chenet at this point. But who
knows? I didn't think they'd invade Iraq at first and I'm not into
prognostication. It's not about the crystal ball.
The facts that we have to work like Hell just to form educated guesses
about what "our" "leaders" might do in our name not to mention the
name of "democracy" and that the attack is a possibility are
indications show the building of a serious anti-imperialist movement
is long overdue inside the United States.
It shouldn't be like this. U.S. citizens should begin building a
serious Left and anti-imperial movement aiming to replace dominant
domestic structures of Empire and Inequality with egalitarian
institutions of justice, equality and peace. Such "radical
reconstruction of society" Martin Luther King Jr.'s declared
objective by 1966 (24) is required, among other reasons, to
eliminate the chance for demented war criminals and authoritarian
militarists like Bush and Cheney to become structurally
super-empowered predators in the first place.
Veteran radical historian, journalist, and speaker Paul Street
(paulstreet99@ yahoo.com) is a Left political commentator in Iowa
City, IA. Street is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and
the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004), Segregated
Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York,
NY: Routledge, 2005), and Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, and
Policy in Chicago (Chicago, 2005) and The Empire and Inequality
Report. Street's next book Racial Oppression in the Global
Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (New York, 2007) will be
released next June.
1 John Pilger, "Iran: the War Begins," ZNet Sustainer Commentary,
February 3, 2007, available online at
www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2007-02/03pilger.cfm; Michael T.
Klare, "Bush's Future Iran War Speech," Tomdispatch, reproduced on
ZNet, February 26, 2007, available online at http://www. zmag.org/
1.5 Michael Smith and Sarah Baxter, "U.S. Generals `Will Quit' if
Bush Orders Iran Attack," London Times, 25 February 2007, available
online at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/
2. Bzrezinski is quoted in Stephen Lendman, "George Bush's Sampson
Option," ZNet March 8, 2007, available online at
http://www.zmag.org/content/ showarticle.cfm? SectionID=67&ItemID=12284).
3. Paul Street, " ` Without Question?' On Growing Military Opposition
to the Invasion of Iraq," ZNet, January 11, 2007, available online at
4. Saman Sepehri, "The Pressure is On: The U.S. is Gearing Up for a
Fight With Iran," International Socialist Review, (March-April 2007),
5. Noam Chomsky, "A Predator Becomes More Dangerous When Wounded," The
Guardian, 9 March 2007, available online at
6. Lendman, "George Bush's Samson Option."
7. Seymour Hersh, "Annals of National Security: The Iran Plans," The
New Yorker, April 17, 2006, available online at
8. John Pilger, "Iran: the War Begins," ZNet Sustainer Commentary,
February 3, 2007, available online at
9. Tom Engelhardt, "The Seymour Hersh Mystery," TomDispatch, March 13,
2006, available online at
10. Seymour Hersh, "The Redirection," New Yorker, March 3, 2007,
available online at http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/022507Z.shtml.
11. Quotation in Lendman, "Bush's Samson Option."
12. Sepehri, "The Pressure is On," p.12.
13. Karen De Young, "U.S. Keeps Pressure on Iran," Washington Post, 11
February 2007, p. A18.
14. David Whitehouse, "Desperate for a Deal," International Socialist
Review (March-April 2007), p.10; Sepehri, "The Pressure is On." "The
Chinese know the U.S. is in a Middle East quagmire," Whitehouse adds,
"and they might not mind handing Bush a shovel to dig even deeper."
14.5 Klare, "Bush's Future Iran War Speech."
15. Alenjandro Nadal, "Blitzkrieg Against Iran: Bush and Cheney's
Twisted Logic," La Jornada, Mexico, April 4, 2007.
16. Noam Chomsky and Gilbert Achcar, Perilous Power: The Middle East
and U.S. Foreign Policy (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2006], p.58; Mathew
Wald, "War and Cheap Oil: A Second Look," New York Times, 7 January
2007, sec. 4, p. 2.
17. Chomsky and Achcar, Perilous Power, p. 232.
18. Stephanie Nicholas, Letter to the Editor of the New York Times,
January 27, 2007.
18.5 On shared doctrinal assumptions, see Tony Smith's candid
commentary, "It's Uphill for the Democrats: They Need a Global
Strategy, Not Just Tactics for Iraq," Washington Post Sunday, March
11, 2007, p. B1, available online at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-
19. Paul Street, Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since
9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004), pp. 57-66.
20. Thomas E. Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq
(New York, 2006), p. 59.
21. Chomsky and Achcar, Perilous Power, p. 114.
22. Chomsky and Achcar, Perilous Power, pp. 230-231. See also
Chomsky, "A Predator Becomes More Dangerous When Wounded." The
potential benefits of inflicting chaos through "sledgehammer" assault
are suggested by the ironic fact that, as Sepehri notes, "the
unfolding disaster in Iraq" has "provided the means for the U.S.,
Israel and the Arab regimes to combat Iran's political influence
through Sunni/Shiite divisions and sectarianism. While the sectarian
violence in Iraq has undermined the U.S. ability to bring security or
claim any control over the situation in Iraq," Sepehri observes, "it
has also provided the tool to break apart any united political
opposition to the U.S. (and Israel)." See Sepehri, "The Pressure is
On," p. 12.
23. Chomsky and Achcar, Perilous Power, pp. 25-26, 53-55, 57-58, 114, 231.
24. Paul Street, " ` Until We Get a New Social Order:' Reflections on
the Early Radicalism of Martin Luther King, Jr." ZNet (January 16,
2007), available online at
http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=11871; Paul Street,
"The Pale Reflection: Barack Obama, Martin Luther King Jr. and the
Meaning of the Black Revolution," Black Agenda Report (March 21,
2007), available online at
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