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Leveraging the Surge

Two weeks ago, Pentagon officials allegedly discussed a strategy to escalate U.S. pressure on Iran with the intention of creating the impression that...

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Two weeks ago, Pentagon officials allegedly discussed a strategy to escalate U.S. pressure on Iran with the intention of creating the impression that Washington is ready to go to war.

One of the alleged participants said the mid-February Pentagon meeting revolved around a plan to ratchet up U.S. rhetoric about an Iranian threat and make further military preparations for war in a way that would be reminiscent of what happened prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. (The account was described by a source outside the Pentagon who obtained it directly from the participant.)

If true, the description of Pentagon thinking suggests a strategy that is much more aggressive than the line represented by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who announced last Tuesday that the United States would participate in direct talks with Iran in the context of a conference to be convened by the Iraqi government.

Skeptics believe the administration’s recent decision to "surge" U.S. military strength in Iraq by at least 22,000 troops is related more to a strategy of increased pressure on Iran than to stabilizing the situation in Baghdad. The surge decision could be seen as putting the U.S. military in a better position to respond to Shiite attacks on U.S troops in retaliation to a possible U.S. strike against Iran.

That would be consistent with other indications that President George W. Bush’s "surge" decision was made primarily in the context of an Iran strategy. Immediately after Bush’s January 10, 2007 speech announcing the additional troops, NBC’s Tim Russert reported that Bush and his top advisers had told a small group of journalists that the United States would not sit down with Iran until the United States had gained "leverage." That was the most direct indication from administration officials that they believed the United States could negotiate successfully with Iran once the administration had altered the bargaining relationship.

In that same briefing for reporters, according to Russert, officials indicated that one administration objective was to achieve a situation in which Washington would not have to "go to Syria and Iran" to "ask for anything." That was probably an indirect reference to the bargaining leverage that Iran was believed to have derived from the widely shared belief that the United States would need Iran’s help to stabilize the situation in Iraq.

Bush was apparently convinced that the troop-level increase would convince Iran that the United States would not have to rely on Iranian influence in Iraq to deal with Shiite opposition to the occupation.

But the troop-surge decision was also linked to another aspect of the U.S.-Iran bargaining relationship. It was widely speculated that the vulnerability of the United States to retaliatory attacks in Iraq added to Iran’s leverage by restraining the Bush administration from waging a preemptive war against Iran.

The briefing before Bush’s January 10 speech also provided a key piece of evidence that the Bush strategy would involve increasing pressure on Iran by framing the issue of U.S. policy in terms of new military threats from Iran to U.S. and allied interests in the Middle East. Russert reported that administration officials had tipped off journalists that Iran would soon be raised as a major issue in what Russert called "a very acute way."

Bush’s January speech was followed by a carefully orchestrated campaign of administration statements and leaks alleging official Iranian involvement in providing armor-penetrating weapons to Shiite militias in Iraq. The administration admitted in a briefing in Baghdad aimed at bolstering that charge that it was based on "inference" rather than actual evidence.

To increase the sense of heightened tension with Iran and suggest momentum toward a military confrontation, the administration had already moved an additional carrier task force into the Persian Gulf.

Another move in the increased pressure on Iran, according to the same source outside the Pentagon, is that refueling assets are now being flown into the U.S. base complex at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. "You can’t launch air strikes against Iran without refueling assets being there," the source observed.

Senior administration officials have used carefully chosen words in recent weeks, yet Defense Secretary Robert Gates sounded quite straightforward on February 15, when he said, "We are not looking for an excuse to go to war with Iran … We are not planning a war with Iran." Meanwhile, however, the administration maintains the position that the option of a military strike against Iran remains as its last resort if Iran does not agree to U.S. terms for negotiations.

After the administration failed to produce evidence of Iranian government involvement in exporting weapons to the Shiites, the administration introduced a new line on an alleged Iranian threat during a Baghdad press conference on February 11.

Vice Adm. Patrick Walsh, who is leaving his position as commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, told reporters on February 19 that the Iranian military conducts exercises in the Strait of Hormuz, suggesting that they could use mines to close the strait. Walsh called mines "an offensive terrorist type of weapon."

Iranian officials have always placed their threats to close the Strait of Hormuz explicitly in the context of retaliation for a strike by the United States against Iran.

"The question is not what the Americans are planning," Walsh said, "but what the Iranians are planning." His statement indicates that the United States is designing a new campaign to portray Iran’s military posture as threatening to U.S. allies and security in the Middle East.

It is unknown whether the White House has a plan to launch air strikes against Iran. However, the moves now planned would increase the likelihood of war in the event that Washington’s escalatory moves fail to sway Iran’s leaders.

A former assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, Chas Freeman, who was also ambassador to Saudi Arabia, calls Bush’s escalation of military pressure "brinksmanship"—a term recalling the practice by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles of threatening war against China over Korea and the Taiwan Strait.

"By deploying forces to add credibility to the threat," Freeman told the Inter Press Service, "you increase the risk of military conflict, which is in fact what is intended."

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. national security policy. His latest book is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (2005).

Citations

Gareth Porter, "Leveraging the Surge," Right Web Analysis (Somerville, MA: International Relations Center, March 6, 2007).

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