Wednesday, January 16, 2008

War with Iran off the table? Don't bet on it.

Since Dec. 3, when the Intelligence Community delivered the bombshell in its latest NIE that Iran mothballed its nuclear weapons program in 2003, any discussion in the media of W. & Co. starting another war in the Middle East has pretty much dried up. The consensus of all the "experts" nowadays is that the same administration that brought us Saddam's WMD would find it politically impossible to launch an attack on Iran, not only because of the lack of nukes but because the US military is already stretched almost beyond the breaking point with its heavy commitments of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Starting another war now would be total lunacy, so the thinking goes. Surely, this administration with slightly more credibility than the boy who cried wolf with just a little more than a year to go in office wouldn't dare try to pull another pre-emptive adventure at this late date. Not only would such a move likely risk what little "progress" is being made in Iraq, but it would also enflame the entire region from Lebanon to Pakistan, dash W.'s dreams of securing his legacy as the great peace maker in the Arab/Israeli conflict and would surely doom any chance the Republicans have of holding on to the White House; even possibly keeping the GOP out of power in Washington for at least another generation.

Such reasoned thinking by the reality based community, however, presupposes that W. & Co. subscribe to Sanity Fair magazine. Proof that they do not comes in the current edition of NEWSWEEK in which Michael Hirsh reports that W., unsurprisingley, isn't buying what his own Intelligence Community is selling. Hirsh writes that during his private meetings with Israeli PM Ehud Olmert, W. "all but disowned the document [the NIE], said an administration official who accompanied Bush on his six-nation trip to the Mideast. 'He told Israeli officials that he can't control what the intelligence community says, but that the [NIE's] conclusions don't reflect his own views' about Iran's nuclear weapons program." (Don't confuse W. with the facts, he generally gets his Intel from the big guy upstairs when it comes to launching biblical conflagrations.)

In fact, when W. briefed Olmert on the NIE before the Annapolis meeting in November he "told Olmert he was uncomfortable with the findings and seemed almost apologetic." Hirsh writes that Bush has signaled our allies in the region that he still considers Iran a threat and thinks that the NIE is "a dead letter." So much for the theory that W. is done starting new wars.

How far will W. go to start a war?

W.'s big misadventure to the Middle East began with the story line that he was going to Israel and Palestine to "nudge" the two sides to bury the hatchet and settle all their outstanding issues. He made some not so pleasing noises to Israeli ears about Israel having to end its 40-year occupation (no doubt with his fingers crossed behind his back) and said he was optimistic he'd have the whole thing wrapped up by the time he leaves office next year.

After having solved the Arab/Israeli conflict in short order, something the Saudis in particular were anxious for him to do, it was on to the Gulf nations and the real reason for his trip, cutting Iran down to size. Even after he brought the Saudis a few billion dollars worth of weapons sales, though, he still couldn't get any of the Arabs to sign on the dotted line for, at least, their acquiescence for a US attack on Iran. Hannah Allam of the McClatchy newspapers writes today that he pretty much came away empty handed.

"Arab critics deemed Bush's peace efforts unrealistic, his ant-Iran remarks dangerous, and his praise of authoritarian governments disappointing, and his defense of civil liberties ironic." Ouch!

The main point W. seems to be missing about his Arab friends is that they have to live next door to Iran. They don't want to get caught in W.'s crossfire. Another factor, as Allam points out, is that, "Iranian investors play vital roles in the economies of Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Iraq."

With that in mind, it's probably not a big surprise that W.'s oft repeated remarks about keeping all options on the table regarding Iran -- though naturally he's prefer a diplomatic solution, that and a dime will buy him a cup of coffee -- spooked our oily allies. That, and the nonsense going on all week involving the US Navy the Iranians, which seems to have backfired on him.

In connection with this, I found the timing of the "confrontation" between three US Navy warships and five Iranian speed boats in the Strait of Hormuz just two days before he began his trip to the Mideast kind of interesting. What a fortunate coincidence Iran decided to pull something like this just as W. was about to visit all the important capitals in the Gulf trying to convince our Arab friends to hop aboard the war train before it leaves the station. The threat to their oil sales posed by a potentially violent confrontation in the Strait of Hormuz was just what the doctor ordered to help focus the Gulf state's attention on the "threat" of Iran to the entire world.

Monkey business in the Gulf?

Unfortunately for W. & Co., despite their best efforts to turn this into another Pearl Harbor, as the facts have begun to trickle out about what really happened in the Strait on Jan. 6th, it's become to appear more and more like the farce it really was. Not that this prevented the administration from keeping the story of Iran's "provocative act" alive the whole time he's been in the region.

The media, naturally, lapped it up. Numerous articles in the press whipped up the hysteria over this non-incident that featured Iranian speed boats "swarming" three US warships -- only one of which would have been needed to easily blast the Iranians to Allah without much effort -- and a mysterious radio message that supposedly threatened to blow someone up "in minutes." According to Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrel, "No one in the military has said the transmissions emanated from those boats," [WaPo] but you sure would have got that impression listening to anyone the Pentagon trotted out to talk about it.

Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, no less, said even if the threatening message didn't come from the boats their behavior was still "overt and very threatening." And, although, he couldn't prove where the message come from he decided to take a major leap and speculate -- just for laughs -- that it might have come from the shore which he said would show a new level of Iranian tactical sophistication. (Uh huh.)

Or not . . . It turns out now that the source of the message was probably one or more radio pranksters in the Gulf known collectively to those who ply the Gulf on a regular basis as the "Filipino Monkey." Ivan Watson reported on this a few days back on ATC and Robin Wright reports in the WaPo today that since 1982 navy ships traveling through the Gulf have been "taunted by mysterious radio transmissions that are alternately obscene, nonsensical, racist, infantile, misogynistic, and menacing. Some times they have threatened U.S. ships; other times they have simply babbled away, all night, in falsettos." (Clearly, a provocation worthy of "serious consequences" for Iran.)

Not that any of this talk about Filipino Monkey business is deterring the Pentagon from continuing to imply that the transmission came from the Iranians. The LA Times reported on Monday that the 5th Fleet held a press conference with the commanders of two of the three US ships involved, one of whom said that though the transmission "may have been a coincidence . . [it] was taken seriously because it came at the same time Iranian vessels swarmed the American fleet."

Yet another spokesperson for the 5th Fleet Cndr. Lydia Robertson quoted in Wright's article today says, "While we don't know where the transmissions came from, we do believe it is related to the aggregate of actions. It could be a coincidence, but it would be a pretty significant coincidence in the midst of five boats speeding rapidly." (That's why they call them coincidences Lydia!)

Imagine, the mighty US 5th Fleet getting cranked by a bunch of numbskulls with a CB radio! You tax payer dollars at work again America!

As I mentioned, the reporting on this story has been spotty at best. One AP story on Jan. 9 reported this was "an unusual flare-up of U.S.-Iranian tensions in the Persian Gulf." That was followed on the 12th by a Bloomberg story which revealed that this wasn't the first time after all that the US and Iran had mixed it up in the Strait. In fact, the Navy said that this latest round was actually the third time in the last month.


"The earlier incidents occurred Dec. 19 and Dec. 22, according to Navy Lt. Joe Holstead, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla. In the Dec. 19 incident, one U.S. warship, the Whidbey Island, fired warning shots at an Iranian vessel to turn it away, Holstead said."

It would seem to me the fact that a U.S. ship actually felt it was under enough of a threat to fire a few shots across the bow of an Iranian boat would constitute a much more serious situation. It's sort of odd that the Pentagon kept this little tidbit under its hat until W. was already well into his trip. Why weren't the Pentagon's army of spokespeople falling all over themselves to talk about this last month? Obviously, since they didn't find the Whidbey Island incident sufficiently important to mention until almost a month after the fact, one has to wonder about the motivations for bringing it up now.

This is not to say the Persian Gulf isn't dangerous to our ships, the Iranians did take British sailors and Marines hostage last year, no one is saying the US Navy shouldn't be vigilant as they transit the Strait, but really me thinks the lady doth protest too much in this case. The Navy shouldn't be enabling W.'s political shenanigans and should stay focused on the job at hand -- protecting the world's oil supply.

One thing in particular Admiral Mullen should be worrying a lot about is Iran's little fast boats. He said himself that the fast boat is "clearly strategically where the Iranian military has gone," and you can see why. There's no way they'd ever be able to challenge the US Navy with a conventional fleet, so they've gone for the tactic of mosquito bites. Enough mosquitos can bring down an elephant, or one Russian 3M82 Moskit anti-ship missile launched off one of these boats could turn one of our Aegis destroyers or aircraft carriers into one big burning hulk of a navigational hazard in the middle of Strait of Hormuz, very cheaply and without much real effort.

There's some food for thought the Brains-Trust at the Pentagon should consider before signing on to W.'s personal crusade to knock-off another one of Israel's regional foes. Sure, our Sheikhy allies in the region would love to see a $200 barrel of oil, but our Admirals might find themselves on the unemployment line without any ships to command.

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