On March 5, 2007 a remarkable article appeared in the New Yorker, signed by Seymour Hersh, a well-known journalist. It published details of contingency plans for war with Iran. Pentagon officials hastened to deny Hersh’s allegations. But they contain the most astonishing revelations about the foreign policy being pursued by the White House. They are obviously true and confirm everything we have written on this subject.
In his article Hersh asks a very relevant question: Is the Administration’s new policy benefiting our enemies in the war on terrorism? As the situation in Iraq has deteriorated, says Hersh, the Bush Administration has significantly shifted its Middle East strategy. This shift is known as the "redirection" inside the White House. It threatens to bring the United States closer to an open confrontation with Iran and, in the process, to aggravate the sectarian conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
According to a former senior intelligence official, quoted in the New Yorker article, the current contingency plans allow for an attack order this spring. He added, however, that senior officers on the Joint Chiefs were counting on the White House’s not being "’foolish enough to do this in the face of Iraq, and the problems it would give the Republicans in 2008′."
There has been a wave of allegations from the Administration about Iranian involvement in the Iraq war. On February 11th, reporters were shown sophisticated explosive devices, captured in Iraq, that the Administration claimed had come from Iran. The Administration’s message was, in essence, that the bleak situation in Iraq was the result not of its own failures of planning and execution but of Iran’s interference.
"The US military also has arrested and interrogated hundreds of Iranians in Iraq. ‘The word went out last August for the military to snatch as many Iranians in Iraq as they can,’ a former senior intelligence official said. ‘They had five hundred locked up at one time. We’re working these guys and getting information from them. The White House goal is to build a case that the Iranians have been fomenting the insurgency and they’ve been doing it all along-that Iran is, in fact, supporting the killing of Americans.’ The Pentagon consultant confirmed that hundreds of Iranians have been captured by American forces in recent months. But he told me that that total includes many Iranian humanitarian and aid workers who ‘get scooped up and released in a short time,’ after they have been interrogated." (The New Yorker, March 5, 2007)
At the same time the Administration continues to issue indignant denials of any belligerent intent. "We are not planning for a war with Iran," Robert Gates, the new Defense Secretary, announced on February 2. No serious person believes these denials, which are contradicted by the facts. The New Yorker article continues:
"According to current and former American intelligence and military officials, secret operations in Lebanon have been accompanied by clandestine operations targeting Iran. American military and special-operations teams have escalated their activities in Iran to gather intelligence and, according to a Pentagon consultant on terrorism and the former senior intelligence official, have also crossed the border in pursuit of Iranian operatives from Iraq."
Iran and the United States
With defeat staring him in the face in Iraq, what does George Bush do? He proposes to intensify the US’s military involvement in Iraq and to open up a new front in Iran. In recent weeks the administration has been intensifying its belligerent attacks on Iran. Washington constantly repeats the accusation that the Iranians are arming and training Shia militias in Iraq. Bush has sent an extra aircraft-carrier group to the Gulf and given American forces orders to capture or kill Iranian agents in Iraq. This is no accident. It corresponds to a shift in US policy in the Middle East, which has been forced on them by the unforeseen consequences of Bush’s Iraq adventure.
The invasion of Iraq has had disastrous consequences for the US in the Middle East. It has completely upset the balance of forces and strengthened Iran. The only army that was capable of containing Iran was the Iraqi Army. But that has been destroyed by the United States. Iran, quite apart from its nuclear potential, has a standing army of four hundred and fifty thousand soldiers. Saudi Arabia has seventy-five thousand troops in its standing army. The Saudis are terrified of Iran and are urging the Americans to take action against Teheran. Israel, Saudi Arabia and the USA form a reactionary bloc, the main purpose of which is to undermine and weaken Iran by every means – including military actions.
The Americans are engaged in a campaign of blatant provocations against Iran. In a speech on January 10th, President Bush used the language of provocation: "These two regimes" – Iran and Syria – "are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq," he said. "Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We’ll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq."
This kind of language is normally used in diplomacy when one state is preparing the ground for military action against another. The purpose of these provocations is quite clear. US imperialism wants the Iranians to respond and then the Administration will have an excuse for attacking them. The logic of the whole situation is tending to military action against Iran. It is not a question of if, but only when and how.
In the past US imperialism backed the Shah of Iran, who was a close ally in the region. But after the Shah was overthrown by the revolution of 1979, the United States broke with Iran and became more dependent on Israel and Saudi Arabia. To this day, Washington cannot afford to offend these reactionary regimes, especially Israel, which is really the only firm base of support for US imperialism in this strategically vital region. This is why all the fine words about solving the Palestinian question always come to nothing. Tel Aviv has the final veto and its motto is "what we have we hold".
For his part, President Ahmadinejad continues to make defiant speeches about Iran’s right to pursue its nuclear program. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on state television that, "realities in the region show that the arrogant front, headed by the US and its allies, will be the principal loser in the region." The ruling circles in Teheran seem to be carried away by their own rhetoric. This is a dangerous game to play. In particular, the holding of a conference that denied the holocaust was a provocation that gave the hawks in Tel Aviv the perfect excuse to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran. The fuse is prepared. All that is needed is a spark to ignite it.
Iran’s nuclear program serves as a convenient excuse for the Administration. On Fox News on January 14th, Cheney warned of the possibility, in a few years, "of a nuclear-armed Iran, astride the world’s supply of oil, able to affect adversely the global economy, prepared to use terrorist organizations and/or their nuclear weapons to threaten their neighbors and others around the world." He added: "If you go and talk with the Gulf states or if you talk with the Saudis or if you talk with the Israelis or the Jordanians, the entire region is worried […]. The threat Iran represents is growing."
The Pentagon is continuing intensive planning for a possible bombing attack on Iran. These preparations began already last year, by order of the President. In other words, the decision has already been arrived at. All that Bush is waiting for is a suitable opportunity to put it into practice. A special planning group has been established in the offices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, charged with creating a contingency bombing plan for Iran that can be implemented, upon orders from the President, within twenty-four hours.
According to the recent article published in the New Yorker, the Iran planning group has been handed a new assignment: to identify targets in Iran that may be involved in supplying or aiding militants in Iraq. Previously, the focus had been on the destruction of Iran’s nuclear facilities and possible regime change.
The Administration is now examining new intelligence on Iran’s weapons programmes. This reminds one forcibly of the hysteria generated by Washington over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which served as a cover to prepare world public opinion for military aggression against Iraq. The source of this intelligence is Israeli agents operating in Iran, who claim that Iran has developed a three-stage solid-fuelled intercontinental missile capable of delivering several small warheads – each with limited accuracy – inside Europe. Since Israel has a vested interest in a military strike against Iran, the accuracy of this intelligence is highly questionable.
Two carrier strike groups – the Eisenhower and the Stennis – are now in the Arabian Sea. One plan is for them to be relieved early in the spring, but there is worry within the military that they may be ordered to stay in the area after the new carriers arrive, according to several sources. (Among other concerns, war games have shown that the carriers could be vulnerable to swarming tactics involving large numbers of small boats, a technique that the Iranians have practiced in the past; carriers have limited manoeuvrability in the narrow Strait of Hormuz, off Iran’s southern coast.)
New wars being prepared
An unnamed US government consultant with close ties to Israel was quoted in the New Yorker article as saying that the Sunni states "were petrified of a Shiite resurgence, and there was growing resentment with our gambling on the moderate Shiites in Iraq." He added, "We cannot reverse the Shiite gain in Iraq, but we can contain it."
" ‘It seems there has been a debate inside the government over what’s the biggest danger – Iran or Sunni radicals,’ Vali Nasr, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who has written widely on Shiites, Iran, and Iraq, told Seymour Hersh: ‘The Saudis and some in the Administration have been arguing that the biggest threat is Iran and the Sunni radicals are the lesser enemies. This is a victory for the Saudi line’."
But this new twist in US foreign policy in the Middle East is pregnant with new dangers and new wars and conflicts. Martin Indyk, a senior State Department official in the Clinton Administration who also served as Ambassador to Israel, said that, "the Middle East is heading into a serious Sunni-Shiite Cold War." Indyk, who is the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, added that, in his opinion, it was not clear whether the White House was fully aware of the strategic implications of its new policy. "The White House is not just doubling the bet in Iraq," he said. "It’s doubling the bet across the region. This could get very complicated. Everything is upside down." (My emphasis, AW)
In January Condoleezza Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that there is "a new strategic alignment in the Middle East," separating "reformers" and "extremists". The Secretary of State pointed to the Sunni states as centres of moderation, and said that Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah were "on the other side of that divide". These words constitute an explicit repudiation of the advice given to the Administration by Baker and the Iraq Study Group, which in effect recommended that the US should begin a phased withdrawal from Iraq and begin negotiations with Iran and Syria. Ms. Rice (who, for some reason, is regarded as a "moderate") told the Committee that Iran and Syria "have made their choice and their choice is to destabilize."
Saudi Arabia, Israel and Palestine
Washington’s key allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and Israel, both see Iran as a threat. They are secretly collaborating. The Saudis are desperately trying to get the Israelis to reach some kind of compromise with the Palestinians. That is why they have suddenly become more involved in Arab-Israeli negotiations.
Israel is being assured that its security was paramount and that Washington and Saudi Arabia shared its concern about Iran. The Saudis are pressurizing Hamas to moderate its anti-Israeli stance and have prodded it into reluctantly sharing power with Fatah. In February, the Saudis brokered a deal at Mecca between the two factions. However, Israel and the USA have expressed dissatisfaction with the terms, and the tension between the two factions remains. This shaky coalition is not likely to last long.
A key element in the equation, Saudi Arabia, is now very unstable. Despite its vast oil wealth, the living standards of the masses have fallen and discontent with the corrupt and degenerate ruling clique is growing. This is reflected in the increasing disaffection of the youth, which is attracted by religious extremism. It is no accident that most of the 9/11 suicide squad was made up of Saudis.
For decades the House of Saud maintained itself in power by striking a compromise with the Wahhabi religious establishment. The royal family could enjoy its obscene wealth and lavish life style, its fast cars, whisky, gambling and prostitutes, as long as it allowed the clergy, supporters of the narrow and fanatical Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam, to govern the religious life of the nation without interference from the state.
At the time of the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, the CIA organized and financed the Jihadi groups that waged war against the pro-Soviet government in Kabul. Bin Laden and the other leaders of Al Qaeda is Sunni, and many of its operatives came from extremist religious circles inside Saudi Arabia. As long as they confined their activities to killing Russians they were "freedom fighters", but when they started to kill Americans they miraculously became transformed into terrorists.
The Americans are working closely with Prince Bandar, the Saudi national-security adviser, who served as the Ambassador to the United States for twenty-two years, until 2005, and has close relations with Bush and Cheney. He continues to meet privately with them and senior White House officials have made several visits to Saudi Arabia recently, some of them shrouded in secrecy.
In the murky world of the Saudi royal family, Bandar has built a power base that relies largely on his close relationship with ruling circles in the US. Last November, Cheney flew to Saudi Arabia for a surprise meeting with King Abdullah and Bandar. The Times reported that the King warned Cheney that Saudi Arabia would back its fellow Sunnis in Iraq if the United States were to withdraw. A European intelligence official reported that the meeting also focused on more general Saudi fears about "the rise of the Shiites." In response, "The Saudis are starting to use their leverage – money."
Rafik Hariri, a billionaire Sunni and former President of Lebanon, closely associated with the Saudi regime and with Prince Bandar, was assassinated in Beirut in 2005. A United Nations inquiry pointed to Syrian involvement, but no direct evidence of this has ever been produced and the Syrians strongly deny it. The Americans used the assassination of Hariri to overthrow the pro-Syrian government and force the Syrians out of Lebanon. They thought themselves very smart, but the move quickly rebounded on them.
No matter what one thinks of Syria, there is no doubt that the Syrian presence enabled the country to attain a certain stability. Lebanon is really an artificial state, deeply fractured along national and religious lines. The removal of Syria was followed by the Israeli military incursion, which was repelled by Hezbollah, which gained enormous popularity. Hezbollah is backed by Iran and Syria. It has given the Israeli army a bloody nose in the Lebanon and has stepped up its campaign to overthrow the pro-US government there. Hezbollah has a powerful infrastructure and thousands of active members and fighters.
Now there are mass demonstrations against the government. The tensions are rising, placing the stability of the country under severe strain. The Bush Administration is alarmed at the turn of events in the Lebanon. It is co-operating with Saudi Arabia in clandestine operations aimed at weakening Hezbollah. The Saudi government, with Washington’s backing, is also providing funds and logistical aid to undermine the government of President Bashir Assad of Syria. The Israelis believe that pressurizing the Assad government will force it to make concessions, particularly to cut off the supply of arms to Hezbollah, its most formidable adversary in the region.
The USA and Saudis are desperate to prop up the Lebanese government of Fouad Siniora, which is struggling to stay in power in the teeth of the mass street demonstrations. Siniora relies on America’s support, but was unable to persuade President Bush to call for an end to the Israeli bombing of Lebanon.
The Bush Administration and the Saudis have publicly pledged the Siniora government billions of dollars in aid, though much of the American aid is intended for military purposes and internal security. It is an open secret that Siniora has allowed some of this aid to end up in the hands of Sunni radical groups in northern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and around Palestinian refugee camps in the south. He intends to build up these groups, which are still small, as a buffer to Hezbollah. The fact that the ideological ties of these organizations are with Al Qaeda does not deter him – or the Americans. Many of the militants have been trained in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.
By encouraging these elements, they are effectively preparing the ground for a new and bloody civil war in Lebanon, with Hezbollah fighting with Sunni forces. The consequences will be horrific.
Leslie H. Gelb, a past president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the Administration’s policy was not so much pro-democracy than "pro-American national security. The fact is that it would be terribly dangerous if Hezbollah ran Lebanon." The fall of the Siniora government would be seen, Gelb said, "as a signal in the Middle East of the decline of the United States and the ascendancy of the terrorism threat. And so any change in the distribution of political power in Lebanon has to be opposed by the United States – and we’re justified in helping any non-Shiite parties resist that change. We should say this publicly, instead of talking about democracy."
This is the authentic voice of US imperialism talking. The real aim of Washington is not to spread democracy throughout the Middle East but only to defend the interests of US imperialism. If this means the non-recognition of Hamas, though it has been democratically elected by the Palestinian people, so be it.
Walid Jumblatt, who is the leader of the Druze minority in Lebanon and a strong Siniora supporter and a virulent enemy of Syria, met with Vice-President Cheney in Washington last Autumn to discuss, among other issues, the possibility of undermining Assad. He and his colleagues advised Cheney that, if the United States does try to move against Syria, members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood would be "the ones to talk to." The Brotherhood is a declared enemy of the US and of Israel. Nevertheless, Jumblatt said, "We told Cheney that the basic link between Iran and Lebanon is Syria – and to weaken Iran you need to open the door to effective Syrian opposition."
There is evidence that the Americans are already financing the Brotherhood. A former high-ranking CIA officer was quoted by Hersh as saying: "The Americans have provided both political and financial support. The Saudis are taking the lead with financial support, but there is American involvement." The Saudis have also provided members of the Front with travel documents.
The USA backs Al Qaeda – again
Washington has belatedly woken up to the fact that the Iraq war has enormously strengthened the regional position of Iran. By smashing Iraq, US imperialism has destroyed the only power in the region capable of standing against Iran. This was certainly not intended! Here is sufficient proof, if proof were needed, that Bush and his cronies understood nothing and foresaw none of the consequences that would inevitably flow from their actions. Now they are desperately trying to correct one error, and in the process are making ten more.
The Americans, Saudis and Israelis are alarmed by the growing power and influence of Iran, which is intervening in Iraq and in the Lebanon. They are therefore anxiously looking around for potential allies against Iran. The US is participating in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and Syria. The new strategy is contradictory because in Iraq, most of the insurgent violence directed at the American military has come, not from Shiites, but from Sunni forces.
Logically, the Americans should continue to base themselves on the Shiites to combat the predominantly Sunni insurgency. But this is not a question of logic but of the interests of US imperialism in the Middle East. In order to combat the influence of Iran, America is now tilting towards the Sunnis in parts of Iraq (using the old policy of British imperialism, of bribing the tribal chiefs).
This also involves bolstering extremist Sunni groups, although these are hostile to America and close to Al Qaeda. The rationale behind this policy is "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." This is not new. Let us remember that it was precisely this rationale that led the USA to support Saddam Hussein against Iran and Bin Laden against the USSR in Afghanistan. Now, as then, these activities are being carried out in close collaboration with the Saudi regime.
The Americans and the House of Saud imagine that they will be able to control the Sunni fanatics. But they thought the same thing last time, and went on thinking it until Bin Laden declared war on his former paymasters and planes piloted by Saudis slammed into the World Trade Centre. Like Frankenstein they created a monster they could not control. They are about to make the same mistake.
The Saudis have considerable financial means, and maintain relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi sect, Sunni extremists who see the Shiites as apostates and heretics. But there is a problem with using people like this. As one of those interviewed by The New Yorker put it: "The last time Iran was a threat, the Saudis were able to mobilize the worst kinds of Islamic radicals. Once you get them out of the box, you can’t put them back."
The Saudi royal family is calculating that they will not be overthrown as long as they leave the clergy and Islamic extremists alone. The Bush Administration is calculating that this deal will work. It is a very risky gamble! The royal family was previously involved, along with the CIA, in backing Sunni extremist groups, including Al Qaeda. Bin Laden is the son of a Saudi multi-millionaire. These groups of religious fanatics object to the corruption and decadence of the royal family and to the influence of the West in general and America in particular. They will accept the aid so generously offered by Washington, but tomorrow they will not hesitate to bite the hand that feeds them.
In the nineteen-eighties and the early nineties, the CIA was waging a proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The Saudi government subsidized the terrorist activities of the Jihadis. Hundreds of young Saudis were sent into the border areas of Pakistan, where they set up religious schools, training bases, and recruiting facilities. This was the origin of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. They were organized by the CIA and the Pakistan ISI and lavishly funded with Saudi money. Many of them were Salafis, an extremist sect, including Osama bin Laden and his associates, who set up Al Qaeda in 1988.
Bandar and other Saudis have assured the White House that this time "they will keep a very close eye on the religious fundamentalists: "We’ve created this movement, and we can control it," they tell Washington reassuringly. Unfortunately, all previous experience tells us that it is not easy to control the mad dogs once they are off the leash.
The Saudi ruling circle is taking a big political risk by joining the USA in its fight against Iran: Bandar is already seen in the Arab world as being too close to the Bush Administration. "We have two nightmares," the former diplomat told Seymour Hersh: "For Iran to acquire the bomb and for the United States to attack Iran. I’d rather the Israelis bomb the Iranians, so we can blame them. If America does it, we will be blamed."
The USA is involved in clandestine operations, the execution and the funding of which is generally left to the Saudis. In this way the Administration has found a way to get around the normal congressional appropriations process. Thus, the USA is being dragged into new adventures in the Middle East without the knowledge or control of Congress. A senior member of the House Appropriations Committee was quoted in the New Yorker by Seymour Hersh that he had heard about the new strategy, but felt that he and his colleagues had not been adequately briefed. "We haven’t got any of this," he said. "We ask for anything going on, and they say there’s nothing. And when we ask specific questions they say, ‘We’re going to get back to you.’ It’s so frustrating."
According to Hersh, the key players behind the "redirection" are Vice-President Dick Cheney, the deputy national-security adviser Elliott Abrams, the departing Ambassador to Iraq (and nominee for United Nations Ambassador), Zalmay Khalilzad, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi national-security adviser. "While Rice has been deeply involved in shaping the public policy, former and current officials said that the clandestine side has been guided by Cheney. (Cheney’s office and the White House declined to comment for this story; the Pentagon did not respond to specific queries but said, ‘The United States is not planning to go to war with Iran.’)"
All this is strikingly reminiscent of the adventurist foreign policy pursued by Richard Nixon, who waged an undeclared war in Cambodia without the knowledge or consent of Congress. He also repeatedly denied any intention to go to war in Cambodia, at a time when that war was already taking place. The parallel is becoming uncomfortably clear to some on Capitol Hill. At the January meeting, Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, of Delaware, pointedly asked Ms. Rice whether the US planned to cross the Iranian or the Syrian border in the course of a pursuit. "Obviously, the President isn’t going to rule anything out to protect our troops, but the plan is to take down these networks in Iraq," Rice said, adding, "I do think that everyone will understand that – the American people and I assume the Congress expect the President to do what is necessary to protect our forces."
The ambiguity of this reply prompted a response from Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican, who has been critical of the Administration:
"Some of us remember 1970, Madam Secretary. And that was Cambodia. And when our government lied to the American people and said, ‘We didn’t cross the border going into Cambodia,’ in fact we did. I happen to know something about that, as do some on this committee. So, Madam Secretary, when you set in motion the kind of policy that the President is talking about here, it’s very, very dangerous."
- George Bush’s Middle East Adventure: The chickens come home to roost by Alan Woods (21 Mar. 2007)
- George W. Bush and the Art of War by Alan Woods (20 Mar. 2007)
- War drums in Washington, or, Bush’s Last Stand by Alan Woods (15 Feb. 2007)