Sometime this spring or summer, barring an unexpected turnaround by Tehran, President Bush is likely to go on national television and announce that he has ordered American ships and aircraft to strike at military targets inside Iran. We must still sit through several months of soap opera at the United Nations in New York and assorted foreign capitals before this comes to pass, and it is always possible that a diplomatic breakthrough will occur — let it be so! — but I am convinced that Bush has already decided an attack is his only option and the rest is a charade he must go through to satisfy his European allies. The proof of this, I believe, lies half-hidden in recent public statements of his, which, if pieced together, provide a casus belli, or formal list of justifications, for going to war.
Three of his statements, in particular, contained the essence of this justification: his January 10 televised speech on his plan for a troop “surge” in Iraq, his State of the Union Address of January 23, and his first televised press conference of the year on February 14. None of these was primarily focused on Iran, but the President used each of them to warn of the extraordinary dangers that country poses to the United States and to hint at severe U.S. reprisals if the Iranians did not desist from “harming U.S. troops.” In each, moreover, he laid out various parts of the overall argument he will certainly use to justify an attack on Iran. String these together in one place and you can almost anticipate what Bush’s speechwriters will concoct before he addresses the American people from the Oval Office sometime later this year. Think of them as talking points for the next war.
The first of these revealing statements was Bush’s January 10th televised address on Iraq. This speech was supposedly intended to rally public and Congressional support behind his plan to send 21,500 additional U.S. troops into the Iraqi capital and al-Anbar Province, the heartland of the Sunni insurgency. But his presentation that night was so uninspired, so lacking in conviction, that — according to media commentary and polling data — few, if any, Americans were persuaded by his arguments. Only once that evening did Bush visibly come alive: When he spoke about the threat to Iraq supposedly posed by Iran.
“Succeeding in Iraq also requires defending its territorial integrity and stabilizing the region in the face of extremist challenges,” he declared, which meant, he assured his audience, addressing the problem of Iran. That country, he asserted, “is providing material support for attacks on American troops.” (This support was later identified as advanced improvised explosive devices — IEDs or roadside bombs — given to anti-American Shiite militias.) Then followed an unambiguous warning: “We will disrupt the attacks on our forces… And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.”
Consider this item one in his casus belli: Because Iran is aiding and abetting our enemies in Iraq, we are justified in attacking Iran as a matter of self-defense.
Bush put it this way in an interview with Juan Williams of National Public Radio on January 29: “If Iran escalates its military action in Iraq to the detriment of our troops and/or innocent Iraqi people, we will respond firmly… It makes common sense for the commander-in-chief to say to our troops and the Iraqi people — and the Iraqi government — that we will help you defend yourself from people that want to sow discord and harm.”
In his January 10 address, the President went on to fill in a second item in any future casus belli: Iran is seeking nuclear weapons in order to dominate the Middle East to the detriment of our friends in the region — a goal that it simply cannot be allowed to achieve.
In response to such a possibility, the President declared, “We’re also taking other steps to bolster the security of Iraq and protect American interests in the Middle East.” These included deploying a second U.S. aircraft carrier battle group to the Gulf region, consisting of the USS John C. Stennis and a flotilla of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines (presumably to provide additional air and missile assets for strikes on Iran), along with additional Patriot anti-missile batteries (presumably to shoot down any Iranian missiles that might be fired in retaliation for an air attack on the country and its nuclear facilities). “And,” Bush added, “we will work with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating the region.”
Bush added a third item to the casus belli in his State of the Union Address on January 23. After years of describing Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda as the greatest threats to U.S. interests in the Middle East, he now introduced a new menace: the resurgent Shia branch of Islam led by Iran.
Aside from al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremists, he explained, “it has also become clear that we face an escalating danger from Shia extremists who are just as hostile to America, and are also determined to dominate the Middle East.” Many of these extremists, he noted, “are known to take direction from the regime in Iran,” including the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon.
As if to nail down this point, he offered some hair-raising imagery right out of the Left Behind bestselling book series so beloved of Christian evangelicals and their neoconservative allies: “If American forces step back [from Iraq] before Baghdad is secure, the Iraqi government would be overrun by extremists on all sides. We could expect an epic battle between Shia extremists backed by Iran, and Sunni extremists backed by Al Qaeda and supporters of the old regime. A contagion of violence could spill across the country, and in time the entire region could be drawn into the conflict. For America, this is a nightmare scenario. For the enemy, this is the objective.”
As refined by Bush speechwriters, this, then, is the third item in his casus belli for attacking Iran: to prevent a “nightmare scenario” in which the Shia leaders of Iran might emerge as the grandmasters of regional instability, using proxies like Hezbollah to imperil Israel and pro-American regimes in Jordan, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia — with potentially catastrophic consequences for the safety of Middle Eastern oil supplies. You can be sure of what Bush will say to this in his future address: No American president would ever allow such a scenario to come to pass.
Many of these themes were reiterated in the president’s White House Valentine’s Day press conference. Once again, Iraq was meant to be the main story, but Iran captured all the headlines.
Bush’s most widely cited comments on Iran focused on claims of Iranian involvement in the delivery of sophisticated versions of the roadside IEDs that have been responsible for many of the U.S. casualties in recent months. Just a few days earlier, unidentified American military officials in Baghdad had declared that elements of the Iranian military — specifically, the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards — were supplying the deadly devices to Shiite militias in Iraq, and that high-ranking Iranian government officials were aware of the deliveries. These claims were contested by other U.S. officials and members of Congress who expressed doubt about the reliability of the evidence and the intelligence work behind it, but Bush evinced no such uncertainty:
“What we do know is that the Quds force was instrumental in providing these deadly IEDs to networks inside of Iraq. We know that. And we also know that the Quds force is a part of the Iranian government. That’s a known.”
What is not known, he continued, is just how high up in the Iranian government went the decision-making that led such IEDs to be delivered to the Shia militias in Iraq. But that doesn’t matter, he explained. “What matters is, is that they’re there… [W]e know they’re there, and we’re going to protect our troops.” As Commander-in-Chief, he insisted, he would “do what is necessary to protect our soldiers in harm’s way.”
He then went on to indicate that “the biggest problem I see is the Iranians’ desire to have a nuclear weapon.” He expressed his wish that this problem can be “dealt with” in a peaceful way — by the Iranians voluntarily agreeing to cease their program to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels. But he also made it clear that the onus was purely on Tehran to take the necessary action to avoid unspecified harm: “I would like to be at the — have been given a chance for us to explain that we have no desire to harm the Iranian people.”
No reporters at the press conference asked him to explain this odd twist of phrase, delivered in the past tense, about his regret that he was unable to explain to the Iranian people why he had meant them no harm — presumably after the fact. However, if you view this as the Bush version of a Freudian slip, one obvious conclusion can be drawn: that the President has already made the decision to begin the countdown for an attack on Iran, and only total capitulation by the Iranians could possibly bring the process to a halt.
Further evidence for this conclusion is provided by Bush’s repeated reference to Chapter 7 of the UN Charter. On three separate occasions during the press conference he praised Russia, China, and the “EU3″ — Britain, France, and Germany — for framing the December 23 Security Council resolution condemning Iran’s nuclear activities and imposing economic sanctions on Iran in the context of Chapter 7 — that is, of “Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression.”
This sets the stage for the international community, under UN leadership, to take such steps as may be deemed necessary “to maintain or restore international peace and stability,” ranging from mild economic sanctions to full-scale war (steps that are described in Articles 39 to 51). But the December 23 resolution was specifically framed under Article 41, which entails “measures not involving the use of armed force,” a stipulation demanded by China and Russia, which have categorically ruled out the use of military force to resolve the nuclear dispute with Iran.
One suspects that President Bush has Chapter 7 on the brain because he now intends to ask for a new resolution under Article 42, which allows the use of military force to restore international peace and stability. But it is nearly inconceivable that Russia and China would approve such a resolution. Such approval would also be tantamount to acknowledging American hegemony worldwide, and this is something they are simply unwilling to do.
So we can expect several months of fruitless diplomacy at the United Nations in which the United States may achieve slightly more severe economic sanctions under Chapter 41 but not approval for military action under Chapter 42. Bush knows that this is the inevitable outcome, and so I am convinced that, in his various speeches and meetings with reporters, he is already preparing the way for a future address to the nation. In it, he will speak somberly of a tireless American effort to secure a meaningful resolution from the United Nations on Iran with real teeth in it and his deep disappointment that no such resolution has been not forthcoming. He will also point out that, despite the heroic efforts of American diplomats as well as military commanders in Iraq, Iran continues to pose a vital and unchecked threat to American security in Iraq, in the region, and even — via its nuclear program — in the wider world.
Further diplomacy, he will insist, appears futile and yet Iran must be stopped. Hence, he will say, “I have made the unavoidable decision to eliminate this vital threat through direct military action,” and will announce — in language eerily reminiscent of his address to the nation on March 19, 2003 — that a massive air offensive against Iran has already been underway for several hours.
Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the defense correspondent of the Nation magazine. He is the author, most recently, of Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Dependence on Imported Petroleum (Owl Books).
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, and Mission Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.]