I was never one of those who believed the Bush administration was getting ready to attack Iran in 2006 or early 2007. But it is now clear that at least Vice President Dick Cheney is conspiring to push through a specific plan for war with Iran. And Senator Joe Lieberman is an active part of that conspiracy.
We have known for a long time that Cheney wants a major air attack on Iranian nuclear sites and other military and economic targets. But an August 9 story published by McClatchy newspapers reveals that, instead of waiting for a decision to go ahead with such a strategic attack against Iran, Cheney now hopes to get Bush to approve an attack on camps in Iran where Iraqi Shiite militiamen have allegedly been trained in recent years.
The McClatchy story says Cheney proposed such a strike within the administration "several weeks ago," citing "two U.S. officials who are involved in Iran policy." The official sources say Cheney "argued for military action if hard new evidence emerges of Iran's complicity in supporting anti-American forces in Iraq." An example of such "hard new evidence," according to one of the official sources of the report, would be "catching a truckload of fighters or weapons crossing into Iraq from Iran."
The story also indicates that the same officials say Condoleezza Rice "opposes this idea" and suggest that Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates agrees with her position.
The Cheney proposal for an airstrike against three bases in Iran can have only one purpose -- to provoke an Iranian retaliation that would then make it possible to unleash a full-fledged strategic air attack against Iran. The provocation strategy would be an obvious way around the political obstacles in the way of an unprovoked attack.
This is not the first time that such a provocation strategy has been attributed to the Bush administration. In February 2007, Hillary Mann, the National Security Council director for Iran and Persian Gulf Affairs until 2004, told CNN that the Bush administration was "pushing a series of increasing provocations against the Iranians in, I think, anticipation that Iran will eventually retaliate, and that will give the United States the ability to launch limited strikes against Iran, to take out targets in Iran that we consider to be important."
The revelation of the Cheney attack proposal throws a new light on a series of developments relating to Iraq since early June. The first event that takes on new meaning is Joe Lieberman's public call on June 11 for exactly the same kind of attack on the alleged training bases in Iran as Cheney was advocating inside the administration.
Lieberman, appearing on CBS's Face the Nation, said, "I think we've got to be prepared to take aggressive military action against the Iranians to stop them from killing Americans in Iraq. And to me that would include a strike over the border into Iran, where we have good evidence that they have a base at which they are training these people coming back into Iraq to kill our soldiers."
Was that just a coincidence? Not a chance, says one Washington insider who is very familiar with Lieberman and the inner workings of the whole neoconservative demi-monde. "Lieberman is not the kind of guy who goes off on his own to make a proposal like this," says the observer. "He's very disciplined. He's a foot soldier, an integral part of the neoconservative movement.
In other words, Lieberman was acting as a stalking horse for Cheney's proposal, softening up public opinion for later war propaganda.
Then on July 2, the new spokesman for the U.S. command in Baghdad, Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, presented a briefing for the press that dovetailed perfectly with Cheney's strategy. One of his main themes was the suggestion of an Iranian role in planning a January Shiite militia attack in Karbala in which five Americans were killed. The other major point that Bergner pushed was that Iran was using what he called "Special Groups" of "rogue" Shiite militiamen to destabilize Iraq, in part by training them in camps in Iran.
I have debunked these arguments here and here. And in another analysis this week, I show that the rate of U.S. deaths in fighting with the Mahdi Army is largely a function of the U.S. military's targeting of those units and their leadership for military operations -- not of Iranian policy.
But the Bergner briefing appears to have been a key move in the war conspiracy, aimed at providing just the kind of "evidence" that could be used to push Cheney's proposal both within the administration and outside .
To translate the media impact of the Bergner briefing into political support for the Cheney proposal, Senator Lieberman was ready with a press release issued the same day as the briefing which cited it as evidence that Iran was training Shiites in Iran who were killing Americans. Lieberman used the occasion to repeat his call for a U.S. attack on the camps in Iran. Lieberman then introduced an amendment which stated, "The murder of members of the United States Armed Forces by a foreign government or its agents is an intolerable act of hostility against the United States."
That sounded like a declaration of war, even though language supporting military force against Iran was deleted from the amendment, which passed 97-0.
It is not clear whether Bush has explicitly authorized Cheney to prepare the ground for Cheney's new strategy of provocation. In the spring, Rice succeeded in getting Bush to go along with direct diplomatic contacts with Iran. Cheney then let it be known in Washington right-wing circles that he was concerned that Bush would fail to support the military option against Iran and that he, Cheney, was planning an "end-run strategy" to ensure that it would not prevail. But at a White House meeting of key policymakers on Iran in June, according to an article last month in the Guardian, Bush sided with Cheney in an argument over whether these diplomatic talks should be allowed to continue to January 2009.
Whether the Cheney's conspiring with Lieberman and the U.S. command is part of an "end-run strategy" or are sanctioned by Bush, Cheney's ability to manipulate Bush poses the chilling possibility that a hapless president will commit the ultimate blunder of war with Iran.