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“Escalation Dominance”

The George W. Bush administration recently concluded that the increase in rocket attacks on coalition targets by Shiite forces over the summer was a deliberate move by Iran to escalate the war in order to put pressure on the United States to accept Iranian influence in Iraq, according to one senior U.S. government official.

The reported conclusions reached by administration officials suggest that the advocates of war with Iran, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, have won at least one phase of the policy battle within the administration.

The official, who spoke to the Inter Press Service on the understanding that there would be no identification other than "senior government official," said the increased attacks represent "not just some new kinds of weapons but a new dynamic" in the conflict with Iran over Iraq.

The official said the attacks had a "very specific strategic purpose," which was "at a minimum to push the United States to accept certain Iranian desiderata"—apparently referring to Iranian negotiating aims.

The official did not specify what the administration believed those aims to be. But it seems likely that the new conclusion refers to a long-established Iranian desire to have the United States recognize its legitimate geopolitical and religious interests in Iraq.

The Iranian ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, was quite explicit in his May 28 meeting with U.S. Amb. Ryan Crocker that Iran wanted Washington to accept that Iraq is Iran’s "backyard," according to a report on the Iranian Baztab news website in June. Iran’s secret negotiating proposal to the Bush administration in May 2003 included a similar demand for "respect for Iranian national interests in Iraq and religious links to Najaf/Karbal."

The Bush administration now believes Iran’s "larger strategic aim" in allegedly providing modern weapons like 240-mm rockets to Shiite militias targeting U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq is "to attempt to establish escalation dominance in Iraq and strategic dominance outside," according to the official.

The official said: "Escalation dominance means you can control the pace of escalation." That term has always been used in the past to refer to the ability of the United States to threaten another state with overwhelming retaliation in order to deter it from responding to U.S. force.

The official defined "strategic dominance" as meaning that "you are perceived as the dominant center in the region."

The Bush administration has never used the term "strategic dominance" in any public statement on Iran. According to a concept of regional "dominance" defined by perceptions—which would mean the perceptions of Sunni Arab states that are opposed to any Shiite influence in the region—Iran could be seen as already having "strategic dominance" in the region.

The reported conclusion that the increased attacks by Shiite forces represent an effort to achieve such dominance could be the basis for a new argument that only by reducing Iranian influence in Iraq through U.S. military action can the United States avert Iranian "strategic dominance" in the region. This implies that destroying what is perceived to be the political-military bases of Iranian influence in Iraq has become the key U.S. war aim.

The conclusion that the Shiite militias’ rocket attacks on coalition targets represent a bid to "control the pace of escalation" could be interpreted as expressing a concern that the United States lacks the military capacity to suppress those forces. That raises the question of whether the advocates of war against Iran have introduced the concept of "escalation dominance" as a way of supporting their favorite option—attacking targets inside Iran.

Further evidence that the administration has taken a step closer to geographic escalation of the war came in a September 10 interview by Brit Hume of Fox News with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. Hume, who appeared to have been tipped off to ask about the option of broadening the war into Iran, asked Petraeus whether the "rules of engagement" allowed him to "do what you think you need to do to suppress this activity on the part of Iran, or perhaps do you need assistance from military not under your command to do this?"

Pressed by Hume, Petraeus said, "When I have concerns about something beyond [the border], I take them to my boss … and in fact, we have shared our concerns with him and with the chain of command, and there is a pretty hard look ongoing at that particular situation."

Joe Cirincione, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank, said if the report of the administration’s conclusions about Iranian aims is true, "it is a disturbing sign that the hardliners have regained the preeminent policymaking position."

The use of the term "escalation dominance" in the Iraq context—suggesting that Iran is responsible for the conflict—is "wildly inappropriate," Cirincione observed. He said the reported conclusions sound like the viewpoint of a "group of people inside the administration who view Iran as Nazi Germany" and who are "constantly exaggerating" the threat from Iran.

The view that Iraq has become a U.S.-Iranian "proxy war," with Iran pulling the strings in the Shiite camp outside the government, was apparently rejected by the U.S. intelligence community in its National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq issued last February. The brief summary released to the public stated: "Iraq’s neighbors influence, and are influenced by, events within Iraq, but the involvement of these outside actors is not likely to be a major driver of violence or the prospects of stability because of the self-sustaining character of Iraq’s internal sectarian dynamics."

Gareth Porter, a writer for the Inter Press Service, is a historian and national security policy analyst. His latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in June 2005.

Citations

Gareth Porter, "Escalation Dominance," Right Web Analysis (Somerville, MA: International Relations Center, September 28, 2007).

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