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A Pre-election Attack on Iran Remains a Possibility

President Bush still believes the Iranians are developing nuclear weapons – and so do the Israelis. So for journalists to assume that neither the U.S. nor Israel will attack Iran before the November election could constitute another failure of imagination. Cato’s Leon Hadar suggests questions the press should ask the presidential candidates about what they think the American response should be to various scenarios in the region – including a Gulf-of-Tonkin-like alleged provocation.

By Leon Hadar

06/02/08 "Nieman" -- -- Since the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran was issued at the end of the last year, much of the reporting and analysis in the MSM has been promoting the conventional wisdom in Washington: That a U.S. attack on Iran is now “out.”

The Bush Administration had been warning that it might use its military power to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. But with U.S. intelligence agencies making it clear that Iran wasn’t developing nuclear weapons, the administration had suddenly lost its casus belli. Without one, the conventional wisdom suggested, President Bush would not be able to mobilize American and international support for an attack on Iran, which in any case would have been a very costly operation.

And yet, even as this conventional wisdom was taking hold, the following events also took place:

1. Reports from Israel during Bush’s recent to the Middle East suggested that the president made it clear he didn’t consider the NIE a reliable source of guidance as far as his policy towards Iran was concerned. It was not difficult to conclude based on reports quoting “sources” that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney seemed to be marginalizing the significance of the NIE – recalling a similar kind of disdain they exhibited towards the conclusion of the Iraq Study Group. In fact, based on Bush’s behavior then – increasing the number of U.S. troops contrary to the recommendation for establishing a timeline for a withdrawal – members of the press should be considering the possibility that he is just as likely to act against Iran as he was before.

2. The incident in the strategic Strait of Hormuz during which Iranian speedboats buzzed three US navy ships and the Pentagon said that US forces were “literally” on the verge of firing on the Iranian boats. That incident should have led journalists to put the scenario in which the United States strikes Iranian nuclear sites on the backburner – and instead consider the possibility that a military confrontation between U.S. and Iranian forces in the Persian Gulf could take place as a result of (a) a provocation by the Iranians (b) a provocation by the Americans or (c) a misunderstanding.

3. Israeli officials also dismissed the NIE conclusions. Moreover, the Israelis expressed concern that Washington seemed to be losing its will to confront Iran and warned that they might have no choice but to launch an Osirak-like unilateral strike against Iran’s nuclear installation. Neither officials in the Bush Administration nor Republican or Democratic lawmakers in Congress have challenged Israel’s right to take such a unilateral action, especially against a regime whose leaders have disputed the legitimacy of the Jewish state and even made Holocaust-denying statements. The media should consider the possibility that the Israelis could take action – and that since they believe that a Democratic administration would not be quite as supportive of the Israeli position as the Bush administration, they could decide to take action against the Iranians before or after Bush leaves office.

So here are some of the questions American journalists could be asking the likely Democratic and Republican presidential nominees:

Q.  The recent incident in the Strait of Hormuz highlighted the danger that provocations by either side or just misunderstanding could ignite a Tonkin-Gulf-like military confrontation between the U.S. and Iran that could degenerate into an all-out war. Do you believe that President Bush has the legal power to retaliate militarily against an alleged Iranian provocation without Congressional authorization?

Q.  Are you concerned about a so-called “surprise” in a form of a Tonkin-Gulf-in-the-Persian-Gulf that could affect the outcome of the election? Have you or your aides raised this issue with officials in the administration or discussed it with your colleagues in Congress?

Q. Under what circumstances can President Bush count on your support if he decides to strike Iran before the election in November? Under what circumstances would he not have your support?

Q. The Israelis have also warned that they could take a unilateral action and strike against Iran’s nuclear sites if the U.S. and the international community fail to prevent the Iranians from pursuing their nuclear military program. Should the president demand that Israel get U.S. permission before deciding to strike Iran’s nuclear sites? What should the consequences be if Israel attacks without U.S. permission?

Q. Would you agree to supply Israel with bunker busting bombs to help it destroy the Iranian installations?

Q. Can the Israeli government count on your support if it decides to strike Iran before the election in November?


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