Iran Clock Is Ticking
    By Robert Parry
    Consortium News

    http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/020107C.shtml

    While congressional Democrats test how far they should go in challenging
George W. Bush's war powers, the time may be running out to stop Bush from
ordering a major escalation of the Middle East conflict by attacking Iran.

    Military and intelligence sources continue to tell me that preparations
are advancing for a war with Iran starting possibly as early as mid-to-late
February. The sources offer some differences of opinion over whether Bush
might cite a provocation from Iran or whether Israel will take the lead in
launching air strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities.

    But there is growing alarm among military and intelligence experts that
Bush already has decided to attack and simply is waiting for a second
aircraft carrier strike force to arrive in the region - and for a propaganda
blitz to stir up some pro-war sentiment at home.

    One well-informed U.S. military source called me in a fury after
consulting with Pentagon associates and discovering how far along the war
preparations are. He said the plans call for extensive aerial attacks on
Iran, including use of powerful bunker-busting ordnance.

    Another source with a pipeline into Israeli thinking said the Iran war
plan has expanded over the past several weeks. Earlier thinking had been
that Israeli warplanes would hit Iranian nuclear targets with U.S. forces in
reserve in case of Iranian retaliation, but now the strategy anticipates a
major U.S. military follow-up to an Israeli attack, the source said.

    Both sources used the same word "crazy" in describing the plan to expand
the war to Iran. The two sources, like others I have interviewed, said that
attacking Iran could touch off a regional - and possibly global -
conflagration.

    "It will be like the TV show '24'," the American military source said,
citing the likelihood of Islamic retaliation reaching directly into the
United States.

    Though Bush insists that no decision has been made on attacking Iran, he
offered similar assurances of his commitment to peace in the months before
invading Iraq in 2003. Yet leaked documents from London made clear that he
had set a course for war nine months to a year before the Iraq invasion.

    In other words, Bush's statements that he has no plans to "invade" Iran
and that he's still committed to settle differences with Iran over its
nuclear program diplomatically should be taken with a grain of salt.

    There is, of course, the possibility that the war preparations are a
game of chicken to pressure Iran to accept outside controls on its nuclear
program and to trim back its regional ambitions. But sometimes such
high-stakes gambles lead to miscalculations or set in motion dynamics that
can't be controlled.

    "You Will Die"

    The rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq is seen as another factor
pressing on Bush to act quickly against Iran.

    Other sources with first-hand knowledge of conditions in Iraq have told
me that the U.S. position is even more precarious than generally understood.
Westerners can't even move around Baghdad and many other Iraqi cities except
in armed convoys.

    "In some countries, if you want to get out of the car and go to the
market, they'll tell you that it might be dangerous," one experienced
American cameraman told me. "In Iraq, you will be killed. Not that you might
be killed, but you will be killed. The first Iraqi with a gun will shoot
you, and if no one has a gun, they'll stone you."

    While U.S. war correspondents in most countries travel around in taxis
with "TV" taped to their windows, Western journalists in Iraq move only in
armed convoys to and from specific destinations. They operate from heavily
guarded Baghdad hotels sometimes with single families responsible for
security since outsiders can't be trusted.

    The American cameraman said one European journalist rebelled at the
confinement, took off on her own in a cab - and was never seen again.

    Depression also is spreading among U.S. intelligence officials who
monitor covert operations in Iraq from listening stations sometimes
thousands of miles away. The results of these Special Forces operations have
been so horrendous that morale in the intelligence community has suffered.

    The futility of the Iraq War also is contributing to professional
cynicism. Some intelligence support personnel are volunteering for Iraq duty
not because they think they can help win the war but because the hazard pay
is high and life in the protected Green Zone is relatively safe and easy.

    Once getting past the risks of the Baghdad airport and the dangerous
road into the city, U.S. civilian government personnel ensconce themselves
in the Green Zone, which amounts to a bubble of U.S. creature comforts -
from hamburgers to lounging by the pool - separate from the world of average
Iraqis who are mostly barred.

    Cooks are brought in from other countries out of the unstated concern
that Iraqis might poison the food.

    That American officials have come to view a posting in Iraq as a
pleasant career enhancer - rather than a vital national security mission for
the United States - is another sign that the war is almost certainly beyond
recovery.

    Another experienced observer of conflicts around the world told me that
Bush's new idea of putting small numbers of U.S. troops among Iraqi
government forces inside police stations represents an act of idiocy that is
sure to get Americans killed.

    Conditions in Iraq have so deteriorated - and animosity toward Americans
has so metastasized - that traditional counterinsurgency strategies are hard
to envision, too.

    Normally, winning the hearts and minds of a target population requires a
commitment to move among the people and work on public action projects, from
building roads to improving the judicial system. But all that requires some
measure of political goodwill and personal trust.

    Given the nearly four years of U.S. occupation and the devastation that
Iraq has suffered, not even the most talented American counterinsurgency
specialists can expect to overcome the hatred swelling among large segments
of Iraqi society.

    Bush's "surge" strategy of conducting more military sweeps through more
Iraqi neighborhoods - knocking down doors, gunning down hostile Iraqis and
dragging off others to detention camps - is not likely to assuage hard
feelings.

    Wider War

    So, facing slim odds in Iraq, Bush is tempted by the allure of
escalation, a chance to blame the Iranians for his Iraq failure and to
punish them with air strikes. He might see that as a way to buy time, a
chance to rally his pro-war supporters and a strategy for enhancing his
presidential legacy.

    But the consequences both internationally and domestically - from
possible disruption of oil supplies to potential retaliation from Islamic
terrorists - could be devastating.

    Yet, there is a sense of futility among many in Washington who doubt
they can do anything to stop Bush. So far, the Democratic-controlled
Congress has lagged behind the curve, debating how to phrase a non-binding
resolution of disapproval about Bush's "surge" of 21,500 troops in Iraq,
while Bush may be opening an entirely new front in Iran.

    According to intelligence sources, Bush's Iran strategy is expected to
let the Israelis take a lead role in attacking Iran's nuclear facilities in
order to defuse Democratic opposition and let the U.S. intervention be sold
as defensive, a case of a vulnerable ally protecting itself from a future
nuclear threat.

    Once American air and naval forces are committed to a new conflict, the
Democrats will find it politically difficult to interfere at least in the
near future, the thinking goes. A violent reaction from the Islamic world
would further polarize the American population and let Bush paint war
critics as cowardly, disloyal or pro-terrorist.

    As risky as a wider war might be, Bush's end game would dominate the
final two years of his presidency as he forces both Republican and
Democratic candidates to address issues of war and peace on his terms.

    On Jan. 10, the night of Bush's national address on the Iraq War, NBC
Washington bureau chief Tim Russert made a striking observation about a
pre-speech briefing that Bush and other senior administration officials gave
to news executives.

    "There's a strong sense in the upper echelons of the White House that
Iran is going to surface relatively quickly as a major issue in the country
and the world in a very acute way - and a prediction that in 2008 candidates
of both parties will have as a fundamental campaign promise or premise a
policy to deal with Iran and not let it go nuclear," Russert said. "That's
how significant Iran was today."

    So, Bush and his top advisers not only signaled their expectation of a
"very acute" development with Iran but that the Iranian issue would come to
dominate Campaign 2008 with candidates forced to spell out plans for
containing this enemy state.

    What to Do?

    The immediate question, however, is what, if anything, can Congress and
the American people do to head off Bush's expanded war strategy.

    Some in Congress have called on Bush to seek prior congressional
approval before entering a war with Iran. Others, such as Sen. Arlen
Specter, R-Pennsylvania, have asked Bush to spell out how expansive he
thinks his war powers are.

    "I would suggest respectfully to the President that he is not the sole
decider," Specter said during a Senate hearing on war powers on Jan. 30.
"The decider is a shared and joint responsibility."

    But Bush and his neoconservative legal advisers have made clear that
they see virtually no limits to Bush's "plenary" powers as Commander in
Chief at a time of war. In their view, Bush is free to take military actions
abroad and to waive legal and constitutional constraints at home because the
United States has been deemed part of the "battlefield."

    Nothing short of a direct congressional prohibition on war with Iran and
a serious threat of impeachment would seem likely to give Bush more than a
moment's pause. But congressional Republicans would surely obstruct such
measures and Bush might well veto any law that was passed.

    Still, unless Congress escalates the confrontation with the President -
and does so quickly - it may be too late to stop what could become a very
dangerous escalation.

    ---------

    Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the
Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of
the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at
secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999
book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

    [For more on this topic, see Consortiumnews.com's "Logic of a Wider
Mideast War."]