The vice president gives a hostile assessment of Iran and the president links World War III to a nuclear Iran, while the secretary of defense tries to temper the two with a more restrained and robust interpretation of the Iranian threat. Long before it has figured out what to do with Iraq, the White House seems intent on more military action in the Middle East.
In the harshest speech against Iran given by a top George W. Bush administration official to date, on Sunday Vice President Dick Cheney warned the Islamic Republic of "serious consequences" if it did not freeze its nuclear program and accused it of "direct involvement in the killings of Americans."
"Given the nature of Iran’s rulers, the declarations of the Iranian president, and the trouble the regime is causing throughout the region—including the direct involvement in the killing of Americans—our country and the entire international community cannot stand by as a terror-supporting state fulfills its most aggressive ambitions," Cheney warned in a major policy address to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP).
"The Iranian regime needs to know that if it stays on its present course, the international community is prepared to impose serious consequences," he added. "The United States joins other nations in sending a clear message: We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon."
In his nearly 30-minute speech at WINEP, an uncompromising defense of the Bush administration’s record in the Middle East, Cheney also claimed that, with Washington’s "surge" strategy working well against al-Qaida in Iraq, the "greatest strategic threat that Iraq’s Shiites face today in consolidating their rightful role in Iraq’s new democracy is the subversive activities of the Iranian regime."
Cheney’s speech comes at a moment of rising tensions between the United States and Iran. Just last week, Cheney’s boss, President George W. Bush, warned during a brief press appearance that Tehran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon—or even the expertise needed to make one—could lead to a new world war.
"I’ve told people that if you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing [Iran] from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon," he told reporters, although the White House later insisted that the president was merely making a "rhetorical point" and still believed that the nuclear issue could be resolved diplomatically.
Two days later, Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, had resigned, replaced by the less prominent diplomat Saeed Jalili. Although the government later announced that both Larijani and Jalili would attend talks on October 23 in Rome with Javier Solana, European Union foreign affairs chief, the move was widely interpreted in Washington as a major victory for the hardline, anti-Western faction behind President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against the more pragmatic elements in the regime.
While Jalili lacks experience, noted Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii, "What Jalili does have is a very close relationship with Ahmadinejad. As such, the move, if it is confirmed, reflects yet another enhancement of Ahmadinejad’s fortunes in Iranian politics."
Like Ahmadinejad, Cheney has long been seen as the leader of hardline forces within the administration, and the mere fact that his speech—which must have been cleared at the highest levels—was as belligerent as it was, especially in accusing Iran of "direct involvement in the killings of Americans," suggests that the hawks are trying to take the offensive.
Neither Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice nor Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made such an unequivocal accusation; indeed, Gates has tried to downplay such charges when they have been voiced by military commanders in Iraq.
The forum chosen by Cheney to deliver his speech was in many ways as significant as its timing and context. WINEP, a generally hawkish think tank, was founded some 20 years ago by Martin Indyk, then the research director of the highly influential lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Many of the same donors fund WINEP and AIPAC.
AIPAC, in turn, has led a high-powered effort to persuade Congress to impose tough new sanctions against Iran and foreign companies that do business with it, and, more recently, to have Tehran’s Revolutionary Guard declared a "terrorist" organization.
As Cheney noted Sunday, his own national security adviser, John Hannah, once served as WINEP’s deputy director. While WINEP does not take specific positions on pending legislation or policies, it is generally regarded as at least sympathetic to AIPAC’s efforts and often provides the research AIPAC uses in its lobbying activities.
Cheney’s speech was remarkable on several counts, beginning with the fact that it came less than a week after Gates gave a much more restrained presentation on U.S. Middle East policy and the threat posed by Iran to an even more hawkish pro-Israel group, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA).
While Gates called Tehran’s government "an ambitious and fanatical theocracy," he also stressed the importance of diplomatic pressure and, in marked contrast to Cheney, dwelt much more heavily on the threats posed by al-Qaida and other Sunni "jihadist" movements.
Indeed, the rhetorical differences—including Gates’ effort to distinguish between Sunni jihadism and Iran and Cheney’s attempts to blur the two—could not be more pronounced.
Cheney’s speech was also notable for its aggressive and unapologetic defense of the Bush administration’s conduct of its war on terrorism; its insistence that the surge has turned the tide of the war in Iraq; and its repetition of neoconservative notions about the importance of reacting with "swift and dire" punishment against challenges to U.S. power in the region and the possibility that Tehran is deeply threatened by the emergence of "a strong, independent, Arab Shia [Shiite] community" in Iraq.
The vice president charged that Iran is a "growing obstacle to peace in the Middle East," and he recited a long litany of grievances against it. "This same regime that approved of hostage-taking in 1979, that attacked Saudi and Kuwaiti shipping in the 1980s, that incited suicide bombings and jihadism in the 1990s and beyond, is now the world’s most active state sponsor of terror," he declared, quoting the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, for the proposition that it is fighting a "proxy war against the Iraqi state and coalition forces in Iraq."
"[T]he Iranian regime also aims to keep Iraq in a state of weakness that prevents Baghdad from presenting a threat to Tehran," he added, blaming the Quds Force, an elite branch of the Revolutionary Guard, for providing "weapons, money, and training to terrorists and Islamic militant groups abroad, including Hamas; Palestinian Islamic Jihad; militants in the Balkans, the Taliban, and other anti-Afghanistan militants; and Hezbollah terrorists trying to destabilize Lebanon’s democratic government."
Cheney also strongly implied that Washington continues to seek regime change in Tehran, noting that "the irresponsible conduct of the ruling elite in Tehran is a tragedy for all Iranians" and insisting that "the spirit of freedom is stirring Iran. … America looks forward to the day when Iranians reclaim their destiny; the day that our two countries, as free and democratic nations, can be the closest of friends."
The topic of Iran dominated the full final third of the vice president’s WINEP speech. By contrast, he spent only two short paragraphs on Lebanon, accusing "Syria and its agents" of using "bribery and intimidation … to prevent the democratic majority in Lebanon from electing a truly independent president."
"Lebanon has the right to conduct the upcoming elections free of any foreign interference," he declared, adding, "the United States will work with Free Lebanon’s other friends and allies to preserve Lebanon’s hard-won independence, and to defeat the forces of extremism and terror that threaten not only that region, but U.S. countries [sic] across the wider region."
Perhaps most telling was Cheney’s near-dismissal of the overarching issue in the Middle East—the administration’s efforts to renew U.S.-Palestinian peace talks drew only the briefest of mentions from the vice president.
Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to Right Web (http://rightweb.irc-online.org/).