Will the US attack Iran?


“Frankly, I think the military would revolt and there would be no pilots to fly those missions. This is a little bit of hyperbole, but not much. Just look at what General Casey, the Army chief, said yesterday – that the tempo of operations in Iraq would make it very hard for the military to respond to a major crisis elsewhere. Beside, it’s not the ‘war’ or ‘bombing’ part that’s difficult; it’s the morning after and all the days after that. Haven’t we learned that (again) from Iraq?” [1]


Those are the words of Dana Priest, the National Security Correspondent for the Washington Post, on 27 September 2007, when she was asked if President Bush would order the bombing of Iran.  Dana Priest is an experienced and highly regarded investigative journalist (the author of, for example, the expose of the CIA’s secret prisons overseas [2], which contributed to her winning a Pulitzer Prize).


She may have overstated the US military’s reluctance to be party to the bombing of Iran and to having to cope with the “morning after”.  But her words are worth quoting as an antidote to the widespread media assumption that Bush will bomb Iran before leaving office in January 2009.


Here’s another quote on the matter:


“This constant drumbeat of conflict is what strikes me, which is not helpful and not useful.  …I expect that there will be no war and that is what we ought to be working for.  … It is not a good idea to be in a state of war. We ought to try and to do our utmost to create different conditions.” [3]


Those are the words of Admiral William Fallon speaking about Iran in an interview on al-Jezeera on 21 September 2007.  Fallon is the head of US Central Command (CENTCOM) and, as such, would be in overall command of any military operations against Iran in the near future, as he is of the ongoing US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  (CENTCOM covers 25 countries from the Horn of Africa through the Middle East to Kazakhstan in Central Asia).


More recently on 12 November 2007, Fallon was quoted in the Financial Times as saying that a strike against Iran was not “in the offing” [4].  He continued:


“None of this is helped by the continuing stories that just keep going around and around and around that any day now there will be another war which is just not where we want to go.


“Getting Iranian behaviour to change and finding ways to get them to come to their senses and do that is the real objective. Attacking them as a means to get to that spot strikes me as being not the first choice in my book.”


Fallon’s immediate predecessor was General John Abizaid, who retired in March 2007.  He told the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington on 17 September 2007:


“We need to understand that war in the state-to-state sense in that part of the region would be devastating for everybody, and we should avoid it, in my mind, to every extent that we can.” [5]


That recognises that attacking Iran isn’t a cost free option for the US.


Like March 2003?

At times during the past year, the noises coming out of Washington about Iran have sounded like those we heard in the run up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, with Iran being painted not just as a nuclear threat but also being accused of lending increasing assistance to Shia militias in Iran.  And you could be forgiven for thinking that the White House was about to use the latter as an excuse for a military strike inside Iran – and to use the Iranian response as an excuse for a major military strike against Iran.  This may still happen.


However, the political balance in Washington is very different today compared with what it was in  March 2003.  The neo-conservative cheerleaders for the invasion of Iraq, who are now crusading for military action against Iran, are no longer dominant in the US administration.  Vice-President Dick Cheney is the only major neo-conservative figure left in the administration.  Crucially, the Department of Defense, which up until November 2006 was headed by neo-conservative Donald Rumsfeld, with Paul Wolfowitz as his deputy, is now headed by Robert Gates, who has a very different view about how the US should pursue its interests in the Middle East, especially in respect of Iran.


Gates was the co-chair (with Zbigniew Brzezinski) of a Council on Foreign Relations task force on US policy towards Iran, which reported in July 2004. The recommendations for US policy from its report entitled Iran: Time for a new approach [6] advocated diplomatic engagement with Iran:


“The United States should offer Iran a direct dialogue on specific issues of regional stabilization. This should entail a resumption and expansion of the Geneva track discussions that were conducted with Tehran for eighteen months after the 9/11 attacks. The dialogue should be structured to encourage constructive Iranian involvement in the process of consolidating authority within the central governments of both Iraq and Afghanistan and in rebuilding their economies.”


This approach is reflected in the report of the Iraq Study Group, of which Gates was a member until his nomination as Defense Secretary.


Living with a nuclear-armed Iran

What is more, Gates doesn’t seem to regard Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons as catastrophic for US interests in the Middle East.  During his confirmation hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee on 5 December 2006 [7], Gates said he believed that Iran was seeking a nuclear weapons capability, but remarkably he went on to suggest that it was a defensive measure on the part of Iran.  Asked by Senator Lindsey Graham if he believed that Iran would consider using nuclear weapons against Israel, he replied:


“I don’t know that they would do that, Senator. ... And I think that, while they are certainly pressing, in my opinion, for nuclear capability, I think that they would see it in the first instance as a deterrent.  They are surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons: Pakistan to their east, the Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west and us in the Persian Gulf.”


This comes close to saying that the US could live with a nuclear-armed Iran, implying that Israel should be able to as well.


(General John Abizaid stated this overtly to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on 17 September 2007, saying:


“There are ways to live with a nuclear Iran. Let’s face it, we lived with a nuclear Soviet Union; we’ve lived with a nuclear China; we’re living with nuclear other powers as well. But I would tell you, I think it’s very, very important that we do what we can to prevent that from happening.” [5])


Not cost free

In March 2003, the invasion of Iraq was seen as a near cost free operation for the US.  It was assumed that the Iraqi Army would be speedily overwhelmed and that US forces would be welcomed with flowers.  Few people foresaw the extraordinary resilience and military skill of the Sunni resistance to the subsequent occupation.  Today, few people believe that attacking Iran would be cost free for the US, even if such an attack did not involve a ground invasion.


In his confirmation hearings a year ago, Robert Gates made it very clear that he believed there would be a great price to pay.  Asked by Senator Robert Byrd if he supported an attack on Iran, he replied:


“I think that military action against Iran would be an absolute last resort, that any problems that we have with Iran, our first option should be diplomacy and working with our allies to try and deal with the problems that Iran is posing to us.


“I think that we have seen, in Iraq, that once war is unleashed, it becomes unpredictable. And I think that the consequences of a military conflict with Iran could be quite dramatic.


“And therefore, I would counsel against military action except as a last resort and if we felt our vital interests were threatened.”


Asked by Senator John Warner to describe his “view of the likely consequences of a US attack on Iran”, Gates replied:


“... I think that while Iran cannot attack us directly, militarily, I think that their capacity to potentially close off the Persian Gulf to all exports of oil, their potential to unleash a significant wave of terror, in the Middle East and in Europe and even here in this country, is very real.


“They are certainly not being helpful in Iraq and are doing us -- I think, doing damage to our interests there.  But I think they could do a lot more to hurt our effort in Iraq. …


“So I think that while their ability to retaliate against us in a conventional military way is quite limited, they have the capacity to do all of the things, and perhaps more, that I just described.”


So, attacking Iran would be far from a cost free option for the US, according to the man now in charge of the US military machine.


Iranian retaliation

Iran possesses missiles capable of striking US military targets across the Middle East, of which there are many and not just in Iraq, for example, CENTCOM headquarters in Qatar and the headquarters of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain.   No doubt if the US did decide to attack Iran, it would not only target Iran’s nuclear facilities but it would also seek to reduce Iran’s ability to retaliate to a minimum by attacking every known military site in Iran.  However, it must be assumed that Iran has made some provision to prevent its missile capability being destroyed by a US first strike.


There is little doubt that US troops on the ground in Iraq would be subject to reprisals inspired from Iran (and British troops based in Basra airport, a few miles from the Iranian border, would be sitting ducks).  The US keeps asserting today that Iran is providing weapons and training to Shia militias that are killing Americans.  There is very little evidence to back this up and, in any event, the weapons supplied, according to the US, are only IEDs.


From time to time over the past year, US forces have taken a small number of Iranians into custody in Iraq for allegedly assisting Shia militias.  But, in many instances, they have had to release them immediately because they were in Iraq on officially approved business.  On 9 November 2007, nine Iranians were released from US custody, having been held without trial for some months [8].  In the past, these were said to be members of the Quds force of the Revolutionary Guard (which the US State Department designated a Foreign Terrorist Organisation on 25 October 2007).  Eleven other Iranians remain in US custody.  This is hardly evidence of extensive Iranian military support for Shia militias in Iraq – at the moment.


But the likelihood is that a US attack on Iran would change all that.  In his report to the US Congress on 10-11 September 2007, General David Petraeus said that Iran “seeks” to set up “a Hezbollah-like force to serve its interests and fight a proxy war against the Iraqi state and coalition forces in Iraq” [9].  Up to now, Iran has given limited, if any, support to Shia militias, presumably because it didn’t want to provoke US military retaliation.  It has not set up a force in Iraq, armed and trained like Hezbollah with rockets and anti-tank weapons.  But, if the US attacked Iran, the reason for Iranian restraint would disappear – with serious consequences for US ground forces in Iraq.


There will be serious military consequences for the US if it attacks Iran.  There will also be economic consequences.  It goes without saying that the price of oil will rise – and, if Iran manages to block the Straits of Hormuz, the sky’s the limit.


Congressional authority?

In March 2003, President Bush had unquestionable congressional authority for invading Iraq.  He was given that authority in October 2002 by Congress, which was then under Democratic control.  On 10 October 2002, the House of Representatives passed a resolution authorising the President to use US armed forces against Iraq to, in the words of the resolution, “defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq” and “enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq” [10].  The next day the Senate passed the same resolution by 77 votes to 23.


The President had clear, bipartisan, authority for invading Iraq.  He has no such authority today for attacking Iran and it is very unlikely that Congress would grant him such authority if he sought it, either on the grounds that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, or on the grounds that it is assisting in the killing of US troops in Iraq, or both.


It is true that on 26 September 2007 the Senate passed by 76 votes to 23 an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act stating that “the United States should designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a foreign terrorist organization” because of its alleged assistance to the Iraqi resistance.  This seemed at the time to be close a green light to the president to pursue a military course on the grounds that Iran was responsible for the deaths of American troops in Iraq.


However, in early November, a number of senators who voted for this amendment put their names to a letter to the president stating that he hadn’t got congressional authority for military action:


“We wish to emphasize that no congressional authority exists for unilateral military action against Iran. This includes the Senate vote on September 26, 2007 on an amendment to the FY 2008 National Defense Authorization Act. This amendment, expressing the sense of the Senate on Iran, and the recent designation of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, should in no way be interpreted as a predicate for the use of military force in Iran.”


This letter was signed by 30 senators, including Hillary Clinton.


If President Bush is going to take military action against Iran, he will have to manufacture an Iranian aggression to which he can legitimately respond without congressional authority.



David Morrison

Labour & Trade Union Review

12 November  2007





[1]  www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2007/09/26/


[2]  www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/11/01/


[3]  democrats.senate.gov/newsroom/record.cfm?id=286575&

[4]  www.ft.com/cms/s/0/38dd00ca-90a6-11dc-a6f2-0000779fd2ac.html

[5]  www.csis.org/media/csis/events/070917_smartpower_abizaid.pdf

[6]  www.cfr.org/content/publications/attachments/Iran_TF.pdf

[7]  media.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/documents/rgates_hearing_120506.html

[8]  www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/11/09/


[9]  www.defenselink.mil/pubs/pdfs/Petraeus-Testimony20070910.pdf

[10]  www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/middle_east/july-dec02/joint_resolution_10-11-02.html