The Bush Administration's
By Michael Schwartz
11 August, 2005
1998, neo-conservative theorist Robert Kagan enunciated what would become
a foundational belief of Bush Administration policy. He asserted that
"a successful intervention in Iraq would revolutionize the strategic
situation in the Middle East, in ways both tangible and intangible,
and all to the benefit of American interests."
Now, over two years
after Baghdad fell and the American occupation of Iraq began, Kagan's
prediction appears to have been fulfilled -- in reverse. The chief beneficiary
of the occupation and the chaos it produced has not been the Bush administration,
but Iran, the most populous and powerful member of the "Axis of
Evil," and the chief American competitor for dominance in the oil-rich
region. As diplomatic historian Gabriel Kolko commented: "By destroying
a united Iraq under [Saddam] Hussein
the U.S. removed the main
barrier to Iran's eventual triumph."
The Road to Tehran
At first, events
looked to be moving in quite a different direction. Lost in the obscure
pages of the early coverage of the Iraq War was a moment when, it seemed,
the clerical regime in Iran flinched. Soon after Saddam fled and Baghdad
became an American town, Iran suddenly entered into negotiations with
Great Britain, France, and Germany on ending its nuclear program, the
most public point of friction with the U.S. After all, it was Saddam's
supposed nuclear program that had been the casus belli for the American
invasion, and Bush administration neoconservatives had been hammering
away at the Iranian program in a similar fashion.
ended this brief moment of seeming triumph for Washington. As a start,
American officials, feeling their oats, balked at the tentative terms
negotiated by the Europeans because they did not involve regime change
in Iran. This hard-line American stance gave the Iranian leadership
no room to maneuver and stiffened their negotiating posture.
At the time, in
the wake of its successful three-week war in Iraq, the Bush Administration
seemed ready, even eager, to apply extreme military pressure to Iran.
According to Washington Post columnist William Arkin, the official U.S.
strategic plan (formally known as CONPLAN 8022-02) completed in November
2003 authorized "a preemptive and offensive strike capability against
Iran and North Korea." An administration pre-invasion quip (reported
by Newsweek on August 19, 2002) caught perfectly the post-invasion mood
ascendant in Washington: "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real
men want to go to Tehran."
A second key development
neutralized the American ability to turn its military might in an Iranian
direction: the rise of the Iraqi resistance. During the several months
after the fall of Baghdad, the Saddamist loyalists who had initially
resisted the U.S. occupation were augmented by a broader and more resilient
insurgency. As the character of the occupation made itself known, small
groups of guerrillas began defending their neighborhoods from U.S. military
patrols. These patrols were seeking out suspected "regime loyalists"
from the Baathist era by knocking down doors, shooting whomever resisted,
and arresting all men of "military age" in the household.
As the resistance spread, its various factions became more aggressive
and resourceful. Over the next year, it blossomed into a formidable
and complex enemy that the U.S. Army -- to the surprise of American
officials in Washington and Baghdad -- did not have the resources to
defeat. It was, then, the swiftly growing Iraqi resistance that, by
preventing the consolidation of an American Iraq, forced an Iranian
campaign off the table and back into the shadows where it has remained
to this day.
The Nuclear Conundrum
The rise of the
Iraqi resistance drastically changed the equation for the Iranian leadership.
The threat of an imminent U.S. assault had reduced the long- term Iranian
nuclear option to near pointlessness, which was why the Iranian leadership
was willing to negotiate it away in exchange for a guarantee of safety
from attack. Once the prospect of a protracted guerrilla war in neighboring
Iraq arose, however, the Iranian leadership suddenly found itself with
an extended time horizon for tactical and strategic planning. Becoming
(or at least continually threatening to become) a nuclear power again
became a promising path of deterrence against future American threats
-- at least if the North Korean experience was any guide. So the Iranians
began pushing ahead with their nuclear program; and while no one could
be sure whether their work was aimed at the development of peaceful
nuclear energy (their claim) or nuclear weapons (as the Bush administration
insisted), their moves made it conceivable that they might actually
be capable of building a bomb in the many years that it would take --
it now became clear -- for the U.S. to have any chance of pacifying
destructive, devolving American occupation in Iraq also deflected the
anger of an Iranian population that had been growing restless under
the harsh clerical hand of Iran's political leaders. At the time of
the invasion, opinion surveys in Iran indicated both "widespread
discontent within the Islamic Republic" and a generally positive
attitude toward the United States. ("[T]he average Iranian does
not bear ill will against America.") American officials interpreted
this to mean that "the clerics may have lost the upper hand"
in Iran. However, this widespread discontent quickly dissipated under
the pressure of regional events; and two years later, Iranians elected
as president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a fundamentalist militant and electoral
underdog, who eliminated the U.S. favored "moderate" in the
first round of voting and then, in a runoff round, soundly defeated
a less radical representative of the Iranian establishment. Moreover,
he ran on a platform that advocated making Iran's nuclear program --
then at a halt while negotiations were once again underway with the
Europeans -- a priority. Unlike his defeated opponent, who said he would
"work to improve relations" with the U.S., Ahmadinejad claimed
"he would not seek rapprochement."
In other words,
instead of deterring or ending the Iranian nuclear effort, the U.S.
invasion and botched occupation encouraged and accelerated it, lending
it national prestige and rallying Iranian public opinion to the cause.
The China Connection
Saudi Arabia, Iraq,
and Iran stand one-two-three in global estimated oil and natural gas
reserves. The Iraq invasion, which unsettled world energy politics in
unpredictable ways, set in motion portentous activities in China, an
undisputed future U.S. economic competitor. China's leaders, in search
of energy sources for their burgeoning economy long before the American
invasion of Iraq, had already in 1997 negotiated a $1.3 billion contract
with Saddam Hussein to develop the Al-Ahdab oil field in central Iraq.
By 2001, they were negotiating for rights to develop the much larger
Halfayah field. Between them, the two fields might have accounted for
almost 400,000 barrels per day, or 13% of China's oil consumption in
2003. However, like Iraq's other oil customers (including Russia, Germany,
and France), China was prevented from activating these deals by the
UN sanctions then in place, which prohibited all Iraqi oil exports except
for emergency sales authorized under the UN's Oil for Food program.
Ironically, therefore, China and other potential oil customers had a
great stake in the renewed UN inspections that were interrupted by the
American invasion. A finding of no WMDs might have allowed for sanctions
to be lifted and the lucrative oil deals activated.
change" in Iraq left the Bush administration in charge in Baghdad,
its newly implanted Coalition Provisional Authority declared all pre-existing
contracts and promises null and void, wiping out the Chinese stake in
that country's oil fields. As Peter S. Goodman reported in the Washington
Post, this prompted "Beijing to intensify its search for new sources"
of oil and natural gas elsewhere. That burst of activity led, in the
next two years, to new import agreements with 15 countries. One of the
most important of these was a $70 billion contract to import Iranian
oil, negotiated only after it became clear that a U.S. military threat
was no longer imminent.
This agreement (Iran's
largest since 1996) severely undermined, according to Goodman, "efforts
by the United States and Europe to isolate Teheran and force it to give
up plans for nuclear weapons." On this point, an adviser to the
Chinese government told Goodman: "Whether Iran would have nuclear
weapons or not is not our business. America cares, but Iran is not our
neighbor. Anyone who helps China with energy is a friend." This
suggested that China might be willing to use its UN veto to protect
its new ally from any attempt by the U.S. or the Europeans to impose
UN sanctions designed to frustrate its nuclear designs, an impression
reinforced in November of 2004, when Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing
told Iranian President Mohammed Khatami that "Beijing would indeed
consider vetoing any American effort to sanction Iran at the Security
The long-term oil
relationship between China and Iran, sparked in part by the American
occupation of neighboring Iraq, would soon be complemented by a host
of other economic ties, including an $836 million contract for China
to build the first stage of the Tehran subway system, an expanding Chinese
auto manufacturing presence in Iran, and negotiations around a host
of other transportation and energy projects. In 2004, China sought to
deepen political ties between the two countries by linking Iran to the
Shanghai Cooperative Organization (SCO), a political alliance composed
of China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
China and Russia soon began shipping Iran advanced missile systems,
a decision that generated angry protests from the Bush Administration.
According to Asia Times correspondent Jephraim P. Gundzik, these protests
made good sense, since the systems shipped were a direct threat to U.S.
military operations in the Middle East:
"Iran can target US troop positions throughout the Middle East
and strike US Navy ships. Iran can also use its weapons to blockade
the Straits of Hormuz through which one-third of the world's traded
oil is shipped. With the help of Beijing and Moscow, Teheran is becoming
an increasingly unappealing military target for the U.S."
At the June 2005 meeting of the SCO, after guest Iran was invited into
full membership, the group called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops
from member states, and particularly from the large base in Uzbekistan
that was a key staging area for American troops in the Afghanistan War.
The SCO thus became the first international body of any sort to call
for a rollback of U.S. bases anywhere in the world. A month later Uzbekistan
made the demand on its own behalf. The Associated Press noted: "The
alliance's move appeared to be an attempt to push the United States
out of a region that Moscow regards as historically part of its sphere
of influence and in which China seeks a dominant role because of its
extensive energy resources." Not long afterward, Iranian President
Mohammad Khatami ended his first summit conference with Chinese President
Jiang Zemin with a joint statement opposing "interference in the
internal affairs of other countries by any country under the pretext
of human rights," a declaration reported by the Iran Press Service
to be a "direct criticism of Washington."
In other words,
the war in Iraq -- and the resistance that it triggered -- played a
key role in creating a potentially powerful alliance between Iran and
The Rise of Pro-Iranian
Politics in Iraq
of a thoroughly incompetent American occupation and a growing guerrilla
war also set in motion a seemingly inexorable drift of Iraq's Shia leadership
-- many of whom had lived in exile in Iran or already had close ties
to Iran's Shia clerics -- toward an ever more multifaceted relationship
with the neighboring power.
The first (unintended)
American nurturing of these ties occurred just after the fall of the
Saddam Hussein regime, when U.S. military forces demobilized the Iraqi
army and police, and focused their military attention on tracking down
"regime remnants." The resulting absence of a police presence
produced a wave of looting and street crime that engulfed many cities.
The Coalition Provisional Authority found a remedy to the situation
by tacitly supporting the formation of local militias to deal with the
groups with strong ties to Iran quickly established their primacy in
the major Shia areas of Iraq. The Sadrists, centered largely in Baghdad's
enormous Shia slum, now known Sadr City, had historically been the most
visible leadership of internal Shia resistance to Saddam and were accused
by the Hussein government of accepting all manner of clandestine support
from the Iranian government. The Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution
in Iraq (SCIRI), and Da'wa, on the other hand, had organized military
and terrorist attacks inside Iraq, working from bases in Iran. Both
had long been openly associated with the Iranians and were committed
to an Iraqi version of Iranian-style Islamist governance. Once Saddam
fell, all three groups immediately sought leadership within Iraqi Shia
communities, and dramatically increased their standing by recruiting
large numbers of unemployed young men into their militias and assigning
them to maintain order in their local communities. The Sadrists, with
their Mahdi's army militia, also became the backbone of Shia resistance
to the occupation, leading two major revolts in Najaf in April and August
of 2004, and highly visible non-violent protests at other places and
times. SCIRI and Da'wa took a more moderate stance, following the lead
of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and working, however cautiously,
with the occupation authorities. At the same time, all three groups
provided much of the actual local governance in southern Iraq, including
establishing offices where citizens could ask for individual and collective
help, and adjudicate local disputes.
As the occupation's
military forces either withdrew to their bases in many cities in the
South or became completely occupied in countering an increasingly resourceful
and widespread armed revolt (mostly in the Sunni areas of central Iraq),
the militias became increasingly important parts of local life, only
adding to the ascendancy of the organizations they represented in Iraqi
civil society. Given their historical connections to Iran, this ascendancy
cemented a sort of fraternal relationship between the emerging Shia
leadership and Tehran's clerical government.
As the economic
situation in Iraq deteriorated under the weight of corrupt reconstruction
politics and the pressure of the resistance, Iran became an ever more
promising source of economic sustenance. Saddam Hussein had forbidden
Iranian pilgrimages to Iraqi Shia holy sites in the twin cities of Karbala
and Najaf, so the toppling of the Baathist regime opened the way for
a huge influx of pilgrims and cash. Iranian entrepreneurs began to negotiate
building projects for hotels and other tourist-oriented facilities in
the holy cities. Iranian financiers offered to support the construction
of a modern airport in Najaf to facilitate tourism.
From this foundation
other economic ties developed, though the hostility of the American-run
Coalition Provisional Authority and its appointed Iraqi-run successor
limited formal relationships. Nonetheless, a bustling cross-border trade
involved hundreds of trucks a day carrying a variety of goods in both
directions. These relatively unimpeded highways became even more crowded
as the escalating insurgency began to threaten, or actually close, routes
to Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Lebanon. When a combination of security
and infrastructural problems shut down the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr in
2004, Iraqi merchants began using the nearby Iranian port of Bandar
Khomeini to receive shipments of Australian wheat. In one ironic twist,
according to persistent rumors, regular shipments of Johnny Walker Red
and other imported American liquor brands were being smuggled across
the border into prohibitionist Iran to feed an illegal market at bargain
basement prices (as low as $10 per liter).
The Iraqi elections
in January 2005 and their aftermath made the growing symbiosis between
the two neighboring areas fully visible. Though the Sadrists officially
boycotted the election, the SCIRI and Da'wa parties, having asserted
leadership within Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani's Unified Iraqi Coalition,
won a majority of the seats in the new parliament. The prime minister
they selected, Da'wa leader Ibrahim al-Jaafari, had spent nine years
in exile in Iran.
More open and formal
relationships followed as soon as the new government took office. As
Juan Cole, perhaps the foremost academic observer of Middle Eastern
politics, put it: "The two governments went into a tizzy of wheeling
and dealing of a sort not seen since Texas oil millionaires found out
about Saudi Arabia." Beyond facilitating pilgrimages in both directions
across the border and formalizing plans for the Najaf airport, the new
government facilitated connections that affected almost every economic
realm in depressed Iraq. Among the many projects settled upon were substantial
improvements in Iraq's transportation system; agreements for the exchange
of products ranging from detergents to construction materials and carpets;
a shift of Iraqi imports of flour from the U.S. to Iran; the Iranian
refining of Iraqi crude oil pumped from its southern fields; and a billion
dollar credit line to be used for the Iraqi purchase of Iranian "technical
and engineering services."
Though the Bush
Administration, with its control over both the purse strings and the
armed forces of the new Iraqi government, undoubtedly had the power
to nullify these unwelcome agreements, circumstances on the ground made
it difficult for its officials to intervene. Any overt interventions
in matters that touched on Iraqi economic sovereignty would surely have
triggered loud (and perhaps violent) protests from at least the Sadrists,
who might well have been joined by the governing parties in the regime
the U.S. had just installed. The most spectacular agreement, a proposed
mutual defense pact between Iraq and Iran, was indeed abrogated under
apparent pressure from the Bush administration, but American officials
said nothing when "the Iraqi government did give Tehran assurances
that they would not allow Iraqi territory to be used in any attack on
Iran -- presumably a reference to the United States."
desperate circumstances that constrained Bush administration actions
when it came to the developing Iranian-Iraqi relationship were addressed
by Middle East scholar Ervand Abrahamian, who pointed to a similarly
precarious American situation in Afghanistan. He concluded that the
U.S. could not afford a military confrontation with Iran, since the
Iranians were in a position to trigger armed revolts in the Shia areas
of both countries: "If there's a confrontation, military confrontation,
there would be no reason for them to cooperate with United States. They
would do exactly what would be in their interests, which would be to
destroy the U.S. position in those two countries."
A "senior international
envoy" quoted by Christopher Dickey in NewsweekOnline, offered
an almost identical opinion: "Look at what they can do in Iraq,
in Afghanistan, in Lebanon. They can turn the whole Middle East into
a ball of fire, and [American officials] know that."
In light of all
these developments, Juan Cole commented: "In a historic irony,
Iran's most dangerous enemy of all, the United States, invaded Iran's
neighbor with an eye to eventually toppling the Tehran regime -- but
succeeded only in defeating itself."
The Ironies of Conquest
In a memorable insight,
Rebecca Solnit has suggested that the successes of social movements
should often be measured not by their accomplishments, but by the disasters
"What the larger movements have achieved is largely one of careers
undestroyed, ideas uncensored, violence and intimidation uncommitted,
injustices unperpetrated, rivers unpoisoned and undammed, bombs undropped,
radiation unleaked, poisons unsprayed, wildernesses unviolated, countryside
undeveloped, resources unextracted, species unexterminated."
The Iraqi resistance, one of the least expected and most powerful social
movements of recent times, can lay claim to few positive results. In
two years of excruciating (if escalating) fighting, the insurgents have
seen their country progressively reduced to an ungovernable jungle of
violence, disease, and hunger. But maybe, as Solnit suggests, their
real achievement lies in what didn't happen. Despite the deepest desires
of the Bush administration, to this day Iran remains uninvaded -- the
horrors of devolving Iraq have, so far, prevented the unleashing of
the plagues of war on its neighbor.
Not only will that
"success" be small consolation for most Iraqis, but such a
negative victory might in itself only be temporary. Reading the geopolitical
tea leaves is always a perilous task, especially in the case of Bush
administration intentions (and capabilities) toward Iran. While there
are signs that some American officials in Washington and Baghdad may
be accepting the defeat of administration plans for "regime change"
in Iran; other signs remind us that a number of top officials remain
as committed as ever to a military confrontation of some sort -- and
that frustration with a roiling defeat in Iraq, which has, until now,
constrained war plans, could well set them off in the end.
Among signs that
a major military strike against Iran may not be in the offing are increasingly
visible fault lines within the Bush administration itself. This can
be seen most politely in various calls for accommodation with Iran from
high-profile former Bush Administration officials like Richard Haass.
The Director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff from 2001
to 2003, Haass published his appeal in Foreign Affairs, a magazine sponsored
by the influential Council for Foreign Relations. More tangible signs
of a surfacing accomodationist streak can be found in modest gestures
made by the administration, including the withdrawal of a longstanding
U.S. veto of Iran's petition for membership in the World Trade Organization.
Beyond this, one would have to note the rather pointed leaking of crucial
secret documents, including the Military Quadrennial Report, in which
top commanders gave a negative assessment of U.S. readiness to fight
two wars simultaneously, and a National Intelligence Estimate -- the
first comprehensive review of intelligence about Iran since 2001 --
which evidently declared Iran about than ten years away from obtaining
"the key ingredient for a nuclear weapon." And, finally, the
Bush administration endorsed a European- sponsored nuclear treaty with
Iran that was almost identical to one it had opposed two years earlier.
But perhaps the
most striking sign that some acceptance of regional realities and limitations
is afoot can be found in the strident complaints by various neoconservatives
about Bush Administration failures in Iran. Michael Rubin, a key figure
in the development of Iraq policy, spoke for many when he complained
in an American Enterprise Institute commentary that the Bush Administration
showed "little inclination to work toward" regime change there.
He followed this claim with a catalogue of missed opportunities, policy
shifts, and other symptoms of a lack of will to confront the Iranians.
On the other hand,
as military analyst Michael Klare reports, the Bush Administration has
never ceased its search for an on-the-cheap, few-boots-on-the-ground
military solution to its Iranian dilemma. While the U.S. military (like
any modern military) develops contingency plans for all manner of battles
and campaigns, and while most such plans are never executed, their existence
and persistence give credence to the claims that an attack on Iran is
Most of the extant
contingency plans evidently take into account the "immense stress
now being placed on US ground forces in Iraq" and therefore seek
"some combination of airstrikes and the use of proxy [non-American
ground] forces." One plan, for example, evidently envisions several
brigades of American trained Iranian exiles entering Iran from Afghanistan.
Other plans involve simultaneous land and sea assaults, coordinated
with precision bombing of various military sites currently being charted
by manned and unmanned aerial invasions of Iranian airspace.
Ominously, the Bush
Administration appears to recognize that these sorts of assaults would
not even fully destroy Iranian nuclear facilities, no less topple the
Iranian regime itself, and that an added ingredient might be needed.
Since 2004, therefore, contingency plans authorized by the Department
of Defense have mandated that the use nuclear weapons be an integral
part of the overall strategy. Washington Post reporter William Arkin,
citing the already adopted CONPLAN 8022, mentions "a nuclear weapons
option" specifically tailored for use against underground Iranian
nuclear plants: "a specially configured earth-penetrating bomb
to destroy deeply buried facilities." Such a nuclear attack would
-- at least on paper -- be coordinated with a variety of other measures
to insure that the Iranian government was replaced with one acceptable
to the Bush Administration.
CIA official Philip Giraldi asserted in the American Conservative magazine
that, as of late summer 2005, the Pentagon, "under instructions
from Vice President Dick Cheney's office," was "drawing up
a contingency plan to be employed in response to another 9/11-type terrorist
attack on the United States. The plan mandates a large-scale air assault
on Iran employing both conventional and tactical nuclear weapons
As in the case of Iraq, the response is not conditional on Iran actually
being involved in the act of terrorism directed against the United States."
The breadth and depth of the assault, according to Giraldi's Air Force
sources, would be quite striking: "Within Iran there are more than
450 major strategic targets, including numerous suspected nuclear-weapons-program
development sites. Many of the targets are hardened or are deep underground
and could not be taken out by conventional weapons, hence the nuclear
option." Since many targets are in populated areas, the havoc and
destruction following such an attack would, in all likelihood, be unrivaled
by anything since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After escaping the
Cold War specter of nuclear holocaust, it seems unimaginable that the
world would be forced to endure the horror of nuclear war in a regional
dispute. However, the record of Bush administration belligerence makes
it difficult to imagine America's top leadership giving up the ambition
of toppling the Islamic regime in Iran. And yet, given that the conquest
of Iraq led the administration unexpectedly down strange Iranian paths,
who knows where future Washington plans and dreams are likely to lead
-- perhaps to destruction, certainly to bitter ironies of every sort.
Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Stony
Brook, has written extensively on popular protest and insurgency, and
on American business and government dynamics. His work on Iraq has appeared
on the internet at numerous sites, including TomDispatch, Asia Times,
MotherJones, Antiwar.com, and ZNet; and in print at Contexts, Against
the Current, and Z Magazine. His books include Radical Politics and
Social Structure, The Power Structure of American Business (with Beth
Mintz), and Social Policy and the Conservative Agenda (edited, with
© 2005 Michael