Shifting Targets: The Administration's Plan for Iran
Shifting Targets: The Administration's Plan for Iran
In a series of public statements in recent months, President Bush and members of his Administration have redefined the war in Iraq, to an increasing degree, as a strategic battle between the United States and Iran. "Shia extremists, backed by
The President's position, and its corollary-that, if many of America's problems in Iraq are the responsibility of Tehran, then the solution to them is to confront the Iranians-have taken firm hold in the Administration. This summer, the White House, pushed by the office of Vice-President Dick Cheney, requested that the Joint Chiefs of Staff redraw long-standing plans for a possible attack on
The shift in targeting reflects three developments. First, the President and his senior advisers have concluded that their campaign to convince the American public that
During a secure videoconference that took place early this summer, the President told Ryan Crocker, the U.S. Ambassador to
At a White House meeting with Cheney this summer, according to a former senior intelligence official, it was agreed that, if limited strikes on Iran were carried out, the Administration could fend off criticism by arguing that they were a defensive action to save soldiers in Iraq. If Democrats objected, the Administration could say, "Bill Clinton did the same thing; he conducted limited strikes in
Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said, "The President has made it clear that the United States government remains committed to a diplomatic solution with respect to Iran. The State Department is working diligently along with the international community to address our broad range of concerns." (The White House declined to comment.)
I was repeatedly cautioned, in interviews, that the President has yet to issue the "execute order" that would be required for a military operation inside
"They're moving everybody to the
That theme was echoed by Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national-security adviser, who said that he had heard discussions of the White House's more limited bombing plans for
In a speech at the United Nations last week,
"A lot depends on how stupid the Iranians will be," Brzezinski told me. "Will they cool off Ahmadinejad and tone down their language?" The Bush Administration, by charging that
General David Petraeus, the commander of the multinational forces in
Vali Nasr, a professor of international politics at
In the Shiite view, the White House "only looks at
Many of those who support the President's policy argue that
In early August, Army Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, the second-ranking
Questions remain, however, about the provenance of weapons in
"I thought Petraeus went way beyond what
Another element of the Administration's case against
Patrick Clawson, an expert on
"If you want to attack, you have to prepare the groundwork, and you have to be prepared to show the evidence," Clawson said. Adding to the complexity, he said, is a question that seems almost counterintuitive: "What is the attitude of Iraq going to be if we hit Iran? Such an attack could put a strain on the Iraqi government."
A senior European diplomat, who works closely with American intelligence, told me that there is evidence that Iran has been making extensive preparation for an American bombing attack. "We know that the Iranians are strengthening their air-defense capabilities," he said, "and we believe they will react asymmetrically-hitting targets in Europe and in Latin America." There is also specific intelligence suggesting that Iran will be aided in these attacks by Hezbollah. "Hezbollah is capable, and they can do it," the diplomat said.
In interviews with current and former officials, there were repeated complaints about the paucity of reliable information. A former high-level C.I.A. official said that the intelligence about who is doing what inside Iran "is so thin that nobody even wants his name on it. This is the problem."
The difficulty of determining who is responsible for the chaos in Iraq can be seen in Basra, in the Shiite south, where British forces had earlier presided over a relatively secure area. Over the course of this year, however, the region became increasingly ungovernable, and by fall the British had retreated to fixed bases. A European official who has access to current intelligence told me that "there is a firm belief inside the American and U.K. intelligence community that Iran is supporting many of the groups in southern Iraq that are responsible for the deaths of British and American soldiers. Weapons and money are getting in from Iran. They have been able to penetrate many groups"-primarily the Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias.
A June, 2007, report by the International Crisis Group found, however, that Basra's renewed instability was mainly the result of "the systematic abuse of official institutions, political assassinations, tribal vendettas, neighborhood vigilantism and enforcement of social mores, together with the rise of criminal mafias." The report added that leading Iraqi politicians and officials "routinely invoke the threat of outside interference"-from bordering Iran-"to justify their behavior or evade responsibility for their failures."
Earlier this year, before the surge in U.S. troops, the American command in Baghdad changed what had been a confrontational policy in western Iraq, the Sunni heartland (and the base of the Baathist regime), and began working with the Sunni tribes, including some tied to the insurgency. Tribal leaders are now getting combat support as well as money, intelligence, and arms, ostensibly to fight Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Empowering Sunni forces may undermine efforts toward national reconciliation, however. Already, tens of thousands of Shiites have fled Anbar Province, many to Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad, while Sunnis have been forced from their homes in Shiite communities. Vali Nasr, of Tufts, called the internal displacement of communities in Iraq a form of "ethnic cleansing."
"The American policy of supporting the Sunnis in western Iraq is making the Shia leadership very nervous," Nasr said. "The White House makes it seem as if the Shia were afraid only of Al Qaeda-but they are afraid of the Sunni tribesmen we are arming. The Shia attitude is 'So what if you're getting rid of Al Qaeda?' The problem of Sunni resistance is still there. The Americans believe they can distinguish between good and bad insurgents, but the Shia don't share that distinction. For the Shia, they are all one adversary."
Nasr went on, "The United States is trying to fight on all sides-Sunni and Shia-and be friends with all sides." In the Shiite view, "It's clear that the United States cannot bring security to Iraq, because it is not doing everything necessary to bring stability. If they did, they would talk to anybody to achieve it-even Iran and Syria," Nasr said. (Such engagement was a major recommendation of the Iraq Study Group.) "America cannot bring stability in Iraq by fighting Iran in Iraq."
The revised bombing plan for a possible attack, with its tightened focus on counterterrorism, is gathering support among generals and admirals in the Pentagon. The strategy calls for the use of sea-launched cruise missiles and more precisely targeted ground attacks and bombing strikes, including plans to destroy the most important Revolutionary Guard training camps, supply depots, and command and control facilities.
"Cheney's option is now for a fast in and out-for surgical strikes," the former senior American intelligence official told me. The Joint Chiefs have turned to the Navy, he said, which had been chafing over its role in the Air Force-dominated air war in Iraq. "The Navy's planes, ships, and cruise missiles are in place in the Gulf and operating daily. They've got everything they need-even AWACS are in place and the targets in Iran have been programmed. The Navy is flying FA-18 missions every day in the Gulf." There are also plans to hit Iran's anti-aircraft surface-to-air missile sites. "We've got to get a path in and a path out," the former official said.
A Pentagon consultant on counterterrorism told me that, if the bombing campaign took place, it would be accompanied by a series of what he called "short, sharp incursions" by American Special Forces units into suspected Iranian training sites. He said, "Cheney is devoted to this, no question."
A limited bombing attack of this sort "only makes sense if the intelligence is good," the consultant said. If the targets are not clearly defined, the bombing "will start as limited, but then there will be an 'escalation special.' Planners will say that we have to deal with Hezbollah here and Syria there. The goal will be to hit the cue ball one time and have all the balls go in the pocket. But add-ons are always there in strike planning."
The surgical-strike plan has been shared with some of America's allies, who have had mixed reactions to it. Israel's military and political leaders were alarmed, believing, the consultant said, that it didn't sufficiently target Iran's nuclear facilities. The White House has been reassuring the Israeli government, the former senior official told me, that the more limited target list would still serve the goal of counter-proliferation by decapitating the leadership of the Revolutionary Guards, who are believed to have direct control over the nuclear-research program. "Our theory is that if we do the attacks as planned it will accomplish two things," the former senior official said.
An Israeli official said, "Our main focus has been the Iranian nuclear facilities, not because other things aren't important. We've worked on missile technology and terrorism, but we see the Iranian nuclear issue as one that cuts across everything." Iran, he added, does not need to develop an actual warhead to be a threat. "Our problems begin when they learn and master the nuclear fuel cycle and when they have the nuclear materials," he said. There was, for example, the possibility of a "dirty bomb," or of Iran's passing materials to terrorist groups. "There is still time for diplomacy to have an impact, but not a lot," the Israeli official said. "We believe the technological timetable is moving faster than the diplomatic timetable. And if diplomacy doesn't work, as they say, all options are on the table."
The bombing plan has had its most positive reception from the newly elected government of Britain's Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. A senior European official told me, "The British perception is that the Iranians are not making the progress they want to see in their nuclear-enrichment processing. All the intelligence community agree that Iran is providing critical assistance, training, and technology to a surprising number of terrorist groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, through Hezbollah, in Lebanon, and Israel/Palestine, too."
There were four possible responses to this Iranian activity, the European official said: to do nothing ("There would be no retaliation to the Iranians for their attacks; this would be sending the wrong signal"); to publicize the Iranian actions ("There is one great difficulty with this option-the widespread lack of faith in American intelligence assessments"); to attack the Iranians operating inside Iraq ("We've been taking action since last December, and it does have an effect"); or, finally, to attack inside Iran.
The European official continued, "A major air strike against Iran could well lead to a rallying around the flag there, but a very careful targeting of terrorist training camps might not." His view, he said, was that "once the Iranians get a bloody nose they rethink things." For example, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani and Ali Larijani, two of Iran's most influential political figures, "might go to the Supreme Leader and say, 'The hard-line policies have got us into this mess. We must change our approach for the sake of the regime.'"
A retired American four-star general with close ties to the British military told me that there was another reason for Britain's interest-shame over the failure of the Royal Navy to protect the sailors and Royal Marines who were seized by Iran on March 23rd, in the Persian Gulf. "The professional guys are saying that British honor is at stake, and if there's another event like that in the water off Iran the British will hit back," he said.
The revised bombing plan "could work-if it's in response to an Iranian attack," the retired four-star general said. "The British may want to do it to get even, but the more reasonable people are saying, 'Let's do it if the Iranians stage a cross-border attack inside Iraq.' It's got to be ten dead American soldiers and four burned trucks." There is, he added, "a widespread belief in London that Tony Blair's government was sold a bill of goods by the White House in the buildup to the war against Iraq. So if somebody comes into Gordon Brown's office and says, 'We have this intelligence from America,' Brown will ask, 'Where did it come from? Have we verified it?' The burden of proof is high."
The French government shares the Administration's sense of urgency about Iran's nuclear program, and believes that Iran will be able to produce a warhead within two years. France's newly elected President, Nicolas Sarkozy, created a stir in late August when he warned that Iran could be attacked if it did not halt is nuclear program. Nonetheless, France has indicated to the White House that it has doubts about a limited strike, the former senior intelligence official told me. Many in the French government have concluded that the Bush Administration has exaggerated the extent of Iranian meddling inside Iraq; they believe, according to a European diplomat, that "the American problems in Iraq are due to their own mistakes, and now the Americans are trying to show some teeth. An American bombing will show only that the Bush Administration has its own agenda toward Iran."
A European intelligence official made a similar point. "If you attack Iran," he told me, "and do not label it as being against Iran's nuclear facilities, it will strengthen the regime, and help to make the Islamic air in the Middle East thicker."
Ahmadinejad, in his speech at the United Nations, said that Iran considered the dispute over its nuclear program "closed." Iran would deal with it only through the International Atomic Energy Agency, he said, and had decided to "disregard unlawful and political impositions of the arrogant powers." He added, in a press conference after the speech, "the decisions of the United States and France are not important."
The director general of the I.A.E.A., Mohamed ElBaradei, has for years been in an often bitter public dispute with the Bush Administration; the agency's most recent report found that Iran was far less proficient in enriching uranium than expected. A diplomat in Vienna, where the I.A.E.A. is based, said, "The Iranians are years away from making a bomb, as ElBaradei has said all along. Running three thousand centrifuges does not make a bomb." The diplomat added, referring to hawks in the Bush Administration, "They don't like ElBaradei, because they are in a state of denial. And now their negotiating policy has failed, and Iran is still enriching uranium and still making progress."
The diplomat expressed the bitterness that has marked the I.A.E.A.'s dealings with the Bush Administration since the buildup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. "The White House's claims were all a pack of lies, and Mohamed is dismissive of those lies," the diplomat said.
Hans Blix, a former head of the I.A.E.A., questioned the Bush Administration's commitment to diplomacy. "There are important cards that Washington could play; instead, they have three aircraft carriers sitting in the Persian Gulf," he said. Speaking of Iran's role in Iraq, Blix added, "My impression is that the United States has been trying to push up the accusations against Iran as a basis for a possible attack-as an excuse for jumping on them."
The Iranian leadership is feeling the pressure. In the press conference after his U.N. speech, Ahmadinejad was asked about a possible attack. "They want to hurt us," he said, "but, with the will of God, they won't be able to do it." According to a former State Department adviser on Iran, the Iranians complained, in diplomatic meetings in Baghdad with Ambassador Crocker, about a refusal by the Bush Administration to take advantage of their knowledge of the Iraqi political scene. The former adviser said, "They've been trying to convey to the United States that 'We can help you in Iraq. Nobody knows Iraq better than us.'" Instead, the Iranians are preparing for an American attack.
The adviser said that he had heard from a source in Iran that the Revolutionary Guards have been telling religious leaders that they can stand up to an American attack. "The Guards are claiming that they can infiltrate American security," the adviser said. "They are bragging that they have spray-painted an American warship-to signal the Americans that they can get close to them." (I was told by the former senior intelligence official that there was an unexplained incident, this spring, in which an American warship was spray-painted with a bull's-eye while docked in Qatar, which may have been the source of the boasts.)
"Do you think those crazies in Tehran are going to say, 'Uncle Sam is here! We'd better stand down'?" the former senior intelligence official said. "The reality is an attack will make things ten times warmer."
Another recent incident, in Afghanistan, reflects the tension over intelligence. In July, the London Telegraph reported that what appeared to be an SA-7 shoulder-launched missile was fired at an American C-130 Hercules aircraft. The missile missed its mark. Months earlier, British commandos had intercepted a few truckloads of weapons, including one containing a working SA-7 missile, coming across the Iranian border. But there was no way of determining whether the missile fired at the C-130 had come from Iran-especially since SA-7s are available through black-market arms dealers.
Vincent Cannistraro, a retired C.I.A. officer who has worked closely with his counterparts in Britain, added to the story: "The Brits told me that they were afraid at first to tell us about the incident-in fear that Cheney would use it as a reason to attack Iran." The intelligence subsequently was forwarded, he said.
The retired four-star general confirmed that British intelligence "was worried" about passing the information along. "The Brits don't trust the Iranians," the retired general said, "but they also don't trust Bush and Cheney."?