(The following 3 paragraphs are by Tom Engelhardt, editor of Tom Dispatch, the inside, go-to publication for military affairs, edited for length. Go to email@example.com
It is possible that the next U.S. military disaster of the twenty-first century might be Iran. That country has, of course, had a significant spot on Washington’s war-making to-do list since the days of George W. Bush’s presidency. After all, the Washington catch-phrase of that moment when neocons like John Bolton helped take us so disastrously into Iraq was “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.” The “real men” didn’t make it then. The question is: Will they now?
On entering the Oval Office, Donald Trump turned to retired Marine Corps General James Mattis, revelling in his nickname, “Mad Dog”, as secretary of defense. As it happened, Mattis already had a reputation for being obsessed about Iran. As the head of U.S. Central Command in 2011, he reportedly responded to a query from President Obama about the top three threats across the Greater Middle East by saying, “Number one: Iran. Number two: Iran. Number three: Iran.” In the end, he was evidently removed from that command early because he hatched a scheme to take out an Iranian oil refinery or power plant to pay Iran back for supporting Iraqi Shia militias then fighting American troops.
In the Trump era, the media began reporting that the same James Mattis was acting as a crucial restraint — yes, restraint — on the president! Alongside him is National Security Advisor John Bolton (famous for a 2015 New York Times op-ed entitled “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran”), and that other notorious Iranophobe, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. (Bolton, a man who never saw a regime he didn’t want to change, has had similar urges when it comes to North Korea and may recently have been responsible for torpedoing the president’s summit with Kim Jong-un.) Now, of course, Mattis is gone, but the other two remain.
(The following is by Bob Drefuss, edited for length).
President Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, are all weakened at home and have few allies abroad. Are they reckless enough to set off a war with Iran? Could military actions designed to be limited — say, a heightening of the Israeli bombing of Iranian forces inside Syria, or possible U.S. cross-border attacks from Iraq, or a clash between American and Iranian naval ships in the Persian Gulf — trigger a wider war?
Worryingly, the answers are: yes and yes. Even though Western Europe has lined up in opposition to any future conflict with Iran, even though Russia and China would rail against it, even though most Washington foreign policy experts would be horrified by the outbreak of such a war, it could happen. Such a war could quickly spread across much of the Middle East, not just to Saudi Arabia and Israel, the region’s two major anti-Iranian powers, but Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and the various Persian Gulf states. It might indeed be, as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani suggested last year (unconsciously echoing Iran’s former enemy, Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein) the “mother of all wars.” And though the Democratic National Committee passed a resolution last month calling for the United States to return to the nuclear agreement that President Obama signed, there are still a significant number of congressional Democrats who believe that Iran is a major threat to U.S. interests in the region, a prime state sponsor of terrorism.
By openly calling for the toppling of the government in Tehran, by withdrawing from the Iran nuclear agreement and reimposing onerous sanctions to cripple that country’s economy, by encouraging Iranians to rise up in revolt, by overtly supporting various exile groups (and perhaps covertly even terrorists), and by joining with Israel and Saudi Arabia in an informal anti-Iranian alliance, the Administration is attempting to force the collapse of the Iranian regime, which just celebrated the 40th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution.
There are three potential flashpoints where limited skirmishes, were they to break out, could quickly escalate into a major shooting war.
The first is in Syria and Lebanon. Iran is deeply involved in defending Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and is closely allied with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite political party with a potent paramilitary arm. Weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu openly boasted that his country’s air force had successfully taken out Iranian targets in Syria. In fact, little noticed here, dozens of such strikes have taken place for more than a year, with mounting Iranian casualties.
Until now, the Iranian leadership has avoided a direct response that would heighten the confrontation with Israel, just as it has avoided unleashing Hezbollah, a well-armed, battle-tested proxy force. That could, however, change if the hardliners in Iran decided to retaliate. Should this simmering conflict explode, does anyone doubt that President Trump would soon join the fray on Israel’s side or that congressional Democrats would quickly succumb to the administration’s calls to back the Jewish state?
Next, consider Iraq as a possible flashpoint for conflict. In February, a blustery Trump told CBS’s Face the Nation that he intends to keep U.S. forces in Iraq “because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran because Iran is the real problem.” His comments did not exactly go over well with the Iraqi political class, since many of that country’s parties and militias are backed by Iran.
Trump’s declaration followed a Wall Street Journal report late last year that Bolton had asked the Pentagon — over the opposition of various generals and then-Secretary of Defense Mattis — to prepare options for “retaliatory strikes” against Iran. This roughly coincided with a couple of small rocket attacks against Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone and the airport in Basra, Iraq’s Persian Gulf port city, neither of which caused any casualties. Pompeo blamed Iran for the attacks, which he called “life-threatening,” adding, “Iran did not stop these attacks, which were carried out by proxies it has supported with funding, training, and weapons.” No “retaliatory strikes” were launched, but plans do undoubtedly now exist for them and it’s not hard to imagine Bolton and Pompeo persuading Trump to go ahead and use them — with incalculable consequences.
Finally, there’s the Persian Gulf itself. Ever since the George W. Bush years, the U.S. Navy has worried about possible clashes with Iran’s naval forces in those waters and there have been a number of incidents. The Obama administration tried, but failed, to arrange a hotline to the Iranians to try to defuse any such incident. Under Trump, however, such caution is disregarded. Trump himself reinforced the US naval presence in the Gulf and asked Mattis to prepare plans to blow up Iran’s “fast boats,” small gunboats there. In response, President Hassan Rouhani announced that his country had developed submarines capable of launching cruise missiles against naval targets. The Iranians also began a series of Persian Gulf war games and, in late February, test fired one of those sub-launched missiles.
Add in one more thing: in an eerie replay of a key argument George Bush and Dick Cheney used for going to war with Iraq in 2003. In mid-February the right-wing media outlet Washington Times ran an “exclusive” report , citing Trump administration sources, claiming that Iran is now aiding and abetting al-Qaeda with a “clandestine sanctuary to funnel fighters, money, and weapons across the Middle East.” It added that the administration is seeking to use this information to establish “a potential legal justification for military strikes against Iran or its proxies.” Needless to say, few are the terrorism experts or Iran specialists who would agree that Iran has anything like an active relationship with al-Qaeda.
Part of an edited (for length) version of an article by Bob Dreyfuss, an investigative journalist, published in TomDispatch . He is the founder of The Dreyfuss Report and a contributing editor at the Nation. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, the American Prospect, the New Republic, and many other magazines. He is the author of “Devils’ Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam” Original Copyright 2019 Bob Dreyfuss TheDreyfussReport.com https://thedreyfussreport.com
TOMORROW: PART 2