Tuesday, January 16, 2007
WASHINGTON - US President George W Bush's seemingly aggressive
policy of taking direct action against alleged Iranian "networks"
involved in attacks on US troops in Iraq, combined with the deployment
of a second aircraft-carrier group off Iran's coast, has triggered
speculation that it is related to a plan for an attack.
But the revelation by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that
the campaign against Iranian officials had already been in effect
for several months before Bush's speech last Wednesday indicates
that the new rhetoric is aimed at serving the desperate need of
the White House to shift the blame for its failure in Iraq to
Iran, and to appear to be taking tough action.
Rice told the New York Times in an interview on Friday that Bush
had ordered the US military to target Iranian officials in Iraq
allegedly linked to attacks on US forces some time last autumn.
Bush and Rice had previously created the impression that the US
administration had launched a new initiative against Iran in connection
with its proposed increase in troop strength in Iraq.
The Bush speech coincided with an attack by an unidentified US
military unit on the building used by Iranian consular officials
in Irbil and the seizure of six Iranian officials in the compound.
But all indications are that the US military has no real intelligence
on any Iranian direct involvement in supplying lethal weapons
The statement issued by the US military but clearly written in
the White House said the detainees, who were not identified as
Iranians, were "suspected of being closely tied to activities
targeting Iraqi and coalition forces". That statement shows
that the seizure was not based on any prior evidence of the officials'
complicity in insurgent attacks. US troops also seized documents
and computers, indicating that the attack was really nothing more
than an intelligence operation, launched in the hope of finding
some evidence that could be used against Iran.
The only other such US military raid came late last month and
targeted four Iranian officials visiting Baghdad at the invitation
of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. That operation bore similar
evidence of being a fishing expedition against Iranians, based
on nothing more than the "suspicion" that they were
connected with the Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard
Contrary to the impression conveyed by the Bush administration,
therefore, it is not targeting those it knows to be involved in
supplying insurgents with weapons but is still trying to find
some evidence to justify its tough rhetoric against Iran.
The initial rhetoric from Bush suggesting a possible intention
to expand the Iraq war into Iran or Syria in response to alleged
Iranian and Syrian support for anti-coalition insurgents had been
followed by clarifications and new details that point to a very
carefully calibrated propaganda offensive aimed at rallying his
own political base.
Bush's identification in his January 10 speech of Iran and Syria
as "allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory
to move in and out of Iraq" and the more specific reference
to Iran as "providing material support for attacks on American
troops" seemed to hint at such a plan to expand the war into
Rice seemed to be dropping even more pointed hints of such a
plan in television interviews on Thursday. On the National Broadcasting
Co's Today show, Rice vowed, on behalf of Bush, "We are going
to make certain that we disrupt activities that are endangering
and killing our troops and that are destabilizing Iraq."
And when asked if that meant that "attacks inside Iran and
Syria" were "on the table", she responded that
Bush "is not going to take options off the table".
Rice went on to declare, "The Iranians need to know, and
the Syrians need to know, that the United States is not finding
it acceptable and is not going to simply tolerate their activities
to try and harm our forces or to destabilize Iraq."
Asked in an interview with Fox and Friends whether Bush's speech
could mean "going over the border to chase down those who
are providing the technology and possibly the training",
Rice coyly replied, "Well, I don't want to speculate on what
kinds of operations the United States may be engaged in,"
as if to leave that possibility open. Then she added, "But
I think you will see that the United States is not going to simply
stand idly by and let these activities continue."
In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last
week, Rice refused to answer a question from chairman Joe Biden
on whether the president has the authority to conduct military
missions in Iran without congressional approval. That provoked
expressions of alarm from both Democratic and Republic senators.
Republican Senator Chuck Hagel said this ambiguity reminded him
of the Richard Nixon administration's policy toward Cambodia in
1970 during the Vietnam War.
Some analysts viewed Rice's rhetoric as evidence of a Bush administration
plan to justify an air offensive against Iran on the basis of
alleged Iranian complicity in attacks on US forces in Iraq, rather
than on the more abstract threat of Iranian progress toward a
possible nuclear-weapons capability.
But the careful wording used and the explicit caveats issued
by administration officials belied the impression of menace against
Iran that Bush and Rice had clearly sought to convey. Bush's reference
to the issue in his Wednesday-night speech avoided any actual
threat to Iran. Instead, he said, "We will seek out and destroy
the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies
in Iraq." That formulation was carefully chosen to limit
the scope of US actions.
The next day, even though Rice was provoking congressional fears
of a wider war, the whole Bush team was qualifying that rhetoric
in remarks to reporters by specifying that US actions to stop
the alleged Iranian interference in Iraq will be confined to Iraq
General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who
is considered a full member of the Bush administration team, limited
the threatened aggressive US actions to "those who are physically
present trying to do harm to our troops".
He concluded, "We can take care of the security of our troops
by doing the business we need to do inside of Iraq."
And National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe, after
repeating the new line that the administration would "not
tolerate outside interference in Iraq", went on to say that
the actions would be taken only inside Iraq, not across the border.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates also said on Friday that the
US had no intention of going into Iranian territory.
The contrast between the general impression of steely resolve
toward Iran conveyed by Bush and the unusual clarity about the
limited geographical scope of the response points to a sophisticated
two-level communications strategy prepared by the White House.
For those who get their news from television, the message conveyed
by Rice was one of effective action against the Iranians supposedly
causing harm to US troops; for Congress and the media, the message
conveyed to reporters was much more cautious.
The two-level communications strategy suggests, in turn, that
the White House was acutely aware that a single message of menace
toward Iran could have triggered a negative congressional response
that would have defeated the purpose of the tough rhetorical line.
Ironically, therefore, the net effect of the new tough line toward
Iran may actually have been to force the Bush administration to
admit, if only tacitly, that it is not free under present circumstances
even to threaten to go to war against Iran.