Foreign policy expert says Bush has ruled out first-strike on Iran; Worries about 'accidental' conflict
John Byrne
Published: Wednesday September 19, 2007

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Tells RAW he doesn't believe Bush is in the 'Cheney gang' yet

President Bush is not going to bomb Iran -- unless an "accidental" incident forces his hand, according to well-respected foreign policy moderate Steve Clemons, who laid out his case in Wednesday's Salon article, "Why Bush Won't Attack Iran."

Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program at New America Foundation and publisher of The Washington Note, says Bush has deviated from a Cheney-laid track to launch a first-strike on Iran, citing, as examples, frustrations that the vice president's aides are airing, a conversation with a journalist who sat in on a December 2006 strategy meeting, and private conversations with high-level foreign policy players.

In a telephone conversation with RAW STORY Wednesday, Clemons emphasized that he wasn't arguing that there wouldn't be an American conflict with Iran. Rather, he believes that Bush has opted not to strike Iran in a first-strike scenario. His gravest concern, he said, was that the US might seize on an accidental incident -- such as a collision between a US and Iranian ship or a border skirmish between Iraq and Iran -- as a causis belli.

"A mistake in the Gulf where ships collide or US soldiers are attacked or Israel fires a low-level cruise missile attack against Natanz or there's a border skirmish between Iraq and Iran that results in the death of a high-ranking military or diplomatic official – any of these could spark a conflict," he said.

Of the indications that Bush has thus far tabled a preemptive strike, Clemons believes "the most significant is that the Cheney wing feels that Bush is not on their side and they're frustrated with that. The fact that the Cheney wing feels they need to tie Bush's hands, 'end run' the president and remove the 'diplomatic course' from the field of options in front of the President is an indication that Bush hasn’t decided to bomb."

Clemons cites a report by Time Magazine journalist and commentator Joe Klein, which spoke of a meeting Klein sat in on in December 2006.

Then Bush asked about the possibility of a successful attack on Iran's nuclear capability. He was told that the U.S. could launch a devastating air attack on Iran's government and military, wiping out the Iranian air force, the command and control structure and some of the more obvious nuclear facilities. But the Chiefs were -- once again -- unanimously opposed to taking that course of action.

Why? Because our intelligence inside Iran is very sketchy. There was no way to be sure that we could take out all of Iran's nuclear facilities. Furthermore, the Chiefs warned, the Iranian response in Iraq and, quite possibly, in terrorist attacks on the U.S. could be devastating. Bush apparently took this advice to heart and went to Plan B -- a covert destabilization campaign reported earlier this week by ABC News.

"I think a classic war buildup that we had with Iraq is not possible for Iran," he continued. "There are too many inter-agency blocks."

"I'm not saying there won't be any war but nothing in Bush’s posture suggests he's really with the Cheney gang yet. But I do worry about the Cheney gang and the [Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps]/Ahmadinejad crowd in Iran trying to precipitate a spark that produces a very fast escalation that circumvents most of Bush’s national security decisionmaking structure -- and that kind of war is something we should worry about. That's what I think could happen.

"An 'accidental war' would escalate quickly and 'end run,' as Cheney aide [David] Wurmser put[s] it, the president's diplomatic, intelligence and military decision-making apparatus," Clemons wrote in his Salon editorial. "It would most likely be triggered by one or both of the two people who would see their political fortunes rise through a new conflict -- Cheney and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad."

Increased CIA activity on the ground

RAW STORY has reported on alleged attempts by the Office of the Vice President to provoke Iran into a first strike situation as a pre-text for US strikes.

Managing Editor Larisa Alexandrovna reported in August on alleged new activities by the Central Intelligence Agency, seen by some to suggest US escalating its attempts to provoke Iran.

A senior intelligence official told RAW STORY that the CIA had stepped up operations in the region, shifting their Iran focus to ”other” approaches in preference to the “black propaganda” that Raw Story “has already reported on.”

The source would not elaborate on what these “other” approaches are. At the time, CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano would neither confirm nor deny that “other” operations were taking place.

“The CIA does not, as a matter of course, comment on allegations involving clandestine operations, despite the large amount of misinformation that circulates publicly on the subject," Gimigliano said.

RAW STORY revealed in June that Iran was being targeted by CIA activities promoting a “pro-democracy” message and that the agency was supporting overt “pro-democracy” groups.

Clemons first revealed a battle between Cheney aides and those at the State and Defense Department in May. Supporting a pre-emptive strike, he said, was Cheney's office; opposing was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, White House chief of staff Josh Bolten and Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell.

"The thinking on Cheney's team is to collude with Israel, nudging Israel at some key moment in the ongoing standoff between Iran's nuclear activities and international frustration over this to mount a small-scale conventional strike against Natanz using cruise missiles (i.e., not ballistic missiles)," he wrote.