Dennis Bernstein: We focus on potential war by the United States and Israel against Iran. We’re watching that closely. The drums of war are beating again in the Middle East, as we say. And the war that may be brewing between Israel and the U.S. and Iran has the potential to dwarf the consequences of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, as deadly and horrific as that’s been. The latest warning sign came in the New York Times reported last Friday that in early June, Israel had carried out a major military exercise. U.S. officials called it “a rehearsal for a potential bombing attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.” The exercise involved more than a hundred Israeli F-16 and F-15 fighters. The same week, Germany’s Der Spiegel reported that Israel’s leadership has concluded that diplomacy has failed to stop Iran’s nuclear program and that military action is unavoidable, a warning that was earlier sounded by the German foreign minister. These ominous developments come after months of escalating threats and charges by the U.S. and Israel against Iran for its actions in Iraq and Lebanon and Gaza and for supposedly pursuing nuclear weapons despite repeated international atomic agency findings to the contrary. Top Bush officials have taken trips to the region, perhaps for military consultations. Andrew Cockburn reports that earlier this year, the Bush administration secretly authorized a sweeping covert action program against Iran, including assassinating officials. And there have been reports in The Asian Times, the Times of London, and by former CIA officer Philip Giraldi that a U.S. strike on Revolutionary Guard camps inside Iran has already been authorized. So is this all for show simply to pressure Iran or is a war really possible?
With us to examine these developments is Gareth Porter. He is the author of Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam. He is a contributor to InterPress News Service, The American Prospect, The Nation, and Salon.com…
Gareth Porter, it is good to have you in the studio… You’ve done some interesting investigations in terms of what has been leading up to this, and the role that the U.S. is playing with Israel in a potential attack on Iran. In particular, you found out and wrote about how Cheney and his allies actually tried to win approval for strikes against Iran’s Revolutionary Guard camps last August. Can you talk about this incident and why there was a little bit of restraint?
Gareth Porter: Right. This is, I think, very important for the simple reason that it does provide a kind of smoking gun evidence, if you will, that this whole unfolding threat to Iran has not been simply a psyops, simply an intimidation operation. We know now for a fact that Dick Cheney did, in fact, propose within the Administration that they attack Revolutionary Guard bases in Iran that were supposedly connected with supplying or training the Iraqi Shiite militiamen coming back to Iraq to fight U.S. occupation forces. And this would be done if and when they could get some kind of concrete evidence that would basically convict the Iranians of some direct involvement in the fight in Iraq.
What we now know is that the Pentagon responded to that proposal very quickly and very strongly by arguing that it’s not going to be on to simply go out and launch a so-called limited strike without considering what is going to be the consequence of that in terms of escalation on the Iranian side and then what are we going to do, assuming as they did assume, that the Iranians would in fact respond by targeting probably American bases, American personnel in the Middle East and probably in Iraq. And assuming that, then what would the United States do in response and how far are we going to go up the escalatory ladder?
That was the issue that they raised, according to a former State Department official who went on the record with me: Jay Scott Carpenter. This is the first time that a former Bush administration official had actually gone on the record and said yes, there was in fact not only a Cheney proposal officially within the Administration, but a very important and very high-level debate over that. And the result of it was, in effect, that the Pentagon — and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were supporting them on this, according to Jay Scott Carpenter. They supported the Pentagon officials who said, “No, we can’t do this without figuring out how far we’re going to go”, and the implication being that we’re not going to support an all-out war with Iran, which would — certainly, the obvious implication that was being drawn from the Cheney proposal, that that’s what he really wanted.
Dennis Bernstein: Any sense how close Cheney got to having his way?
Gareth Porter: No, you can’t really find out from a single source who was obviously getting this somewhat indirectly, because he was not personally involved in the meetings themselves, just how close we might have come to that. But the impression that I got was that the response was so negative and so strong, and that it was so unanimous within the Pentagon, including the military leadership, that Cheney was really put on the defensive, that he did not have the kind of arguments that he could come back with to basically counter this very strong argument by the Pentagon against his proposal. But what I did point out in my article is that this was the second time that Cheney had been, in a way, checkmated or stopped by the National Security bureaucracy in Washington – if you will, the permanent government – from making moves toward sort of setting up a war with Iran.
The first time was in early 2007. It was in February 2007 – or January/February 2007 – when Cheney essentially ordered the military in Baghdad to put out a briefing that would essentially take the position that Iran had been manufacturing these explosively formed projectiles which were armor-penetrating explosives, which were killing American troops in Iraq. And he was arguing that Iran is really fighting a proxy war by supplying these to the Iraqi Shiite militia. Well, the Defense Department, the State Department, and the NSC all said, “We can’t say that. There’s no evidence for it. And we’ve already been through this once with Iraq. And we’ll all have egg all over our faces and our credibility will be shot.” And so they said no to that. And so it looked like Cheney was checkmated because it went into the interagency process and essentially they sent the briefing back to the authors and said, “Do it again and do it right so that it’s consistent with the evidence.” Well, this time, in February 2007, Cheney did an end-run around the bureaucracy by getting Petraeus, who was going out to become the top commander in Baghdad of the U.S. forces, to agree that as soon as he arrived, they would, in fact, give that same military briefing that gave the Cheney line that the bureaucrats said no to. And that’s exactly what happened. Within 24 hours of Petraeus’s arrival in Baghdad and his taking over the command of U.S. forces, that briefing was given. The State Department, I guarantee you, did not know it was coming until two days beforehand.
Dennis Bernstein: Now you’re saying then, you are suggesting – or more – that General Petraeus was an active player, that he was a willing partner in what appears to be a Cheney operation or deception
Gareth Porter: Absolutely. There is no doubt in my mind.
Dennis Bernstein: Say a little more about that.
Gareth Porter: Clearly, what happened was that Petraeus, when he got his job, it was on the condition that he would support the Bush-Cheney policy, both in Iraq and with regard to Iran. And that’s exactly what happened. When he went out there, from the White House, from the Cheney wing of the White House, to have the military briefers give that briefing, which had been vetoed in Washington.
Now, that was just the first step in this. We later see Petraeus in September of 2007, after he’s been out there several months, give an interview with Brit Hume of Fox News Television in which he said – I won’t try to put forward the same words that he used – but he said, in effect, that we have been saying to the White House and to CENTCOM that we need to do something about the allegation or reality of Iranian interference in Iraq, implying very clearly that he was supporting the Cheney proposal to attach the Iranian bases, which are connected, supposedly, with that issue.
Dennis Bernstein: And, of course, given the short tenure that he had in Iraq, it gives one the impression that he was really an agent in this process. So he gets in, he does a few things, and then he’s kicked upstairs. That was very interesting. Everybody wondered if he was so successful, so effective, The Man, then why did they take him out so fast? But maybe he had a mission.
Gareth Porter: He is not an independent actor. Petraeus is a man who has been sent to Iraq to carry out the policy of the Bush White House, and he will do the same thing on Iran. And that is why his being named to replace, in effect, Admiral Fallon as commander of CENTCOM is so important and why it sets up a situation in which Cheney and Bush can do an end-run around the opponents of war with Iran in Washington.
Dennis Bernstein: And, of course, you take out the unwilling general and you put in the willing general.
Gareth Porter: Exactly. And he’s arriving – and this is very important – the timing of his arrival is late summer, early fall. It’s going to be August or September. So I think that we can say that the period of maximum danger about U.S. intentions — which I think that there is a serious possibility that they do intend to attach Iran – it will be after the arrival at CENTCOM in Tampa of General Petraeus in later summer or early fall.
Dennis Bernstein: …We did hear – and Reese Ehrlich did some significant reporting on what was happening at the border, and the fact that the United States, with Israeli intelligence such as Mossad, were already busy going back and forth over the border. There was a great deal of counterinsurgencies. There are connections between what was going on there and this.
Gareth Porter: If you mean the connection between the Israeli role in Iraq and Iran, of course they’re connected in the sense that Israel is very deeply involved in all of the Cheney –Bush policies in the Middle East. There’s a very, very close working collaboration across the board, whether it’s Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, or other parts of the Middle East. They are very, very closely working together on a common strategy. At least they discuss common strategies. That is not to say that everything Israel does has been planned ahead of time by the White House with the Israelis. In fact, the White House neocons, including Cheney, wanted Israel to go much farther in 2006 than they actually did. They wanted them to take down the Syrian regime instead of stopping in Lebanon. So there’s not a perfect correlation, by any means.
Dennis Bernstein: Now following up right on that, that brings us to these recent exercises. The United States reported them as if they were surprises. It’s like, oh, they’d better tell the New York Times that Israel did an exercise because they didn’t know it was happening. Let’s talk about what this exercise has to do with the relationship between the U.S. and their push toward war in Iran. What about this story?
Gareth Porter: First of all, I think we have to see that the purpose of this story — from both Israeli and Bush Administration point of view – was to implicate the United States more deeply in the Israeli policy, to give the appearance to the world and to the American people that the Bush Administration is speaking, not on behalf of Israel, but speaking with Israel, announcing that this is taking place and giving it their interpretation, in a way that was useful to Israel.
But there’s a second point here that I think you also need to keep in mind. That is that Israel is not likely to strike Iran without the direct involvement, militarily, of the United States. The United States will be involved in some way if Israel strikes Iran, whether it’s sending American bombers or simply providing the intelligence and other support for an Israel strike. They have to do it with the Americans; they can’t do it successfully without the Americans.