Pentagon blocked Cheney's attack on Iran
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - Pentagon officials firmly opposed a proposal by Vice President
Dick Cheney last summer for airstrikes against the Iranian Revolutionary Guards
Corps (IRGC) bases by insisting that the administration would have to make
clear decisions about how far the United States would go in escalating the
conflict with Iran, according to a former George W Bush administration
J Scott Carpenter, who was then deputy assistant secretary of state in the
State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, recalled in an interview
that senior Defense Department (DoD) officials and the Joint Chiefs used the
escalation issue as the main argument against the Cheney proposal.
McClatchy newspapers reported last August that Cheney had
proposal several weeks earlier "launching airstrikes at suspected training
camps in Iran", citing two officials involved in Iran policy.
According to Carpenter, who is now at the Washington Institute on Near East
Policy, a strongly pro-Israel think-tank, Pentagon officials argued that no
decision should be made about the limited airstrike on Iran without a thorough
discussion of the sequence of events that would follow an Iranian retaliation
for such an attack. Carpenter said the DoD officials insisted that the Bush
administration had to make "a policy decision about how far the administration
would go - what would happen after the Iranians would go after our folks".
The question of escalation posed by DoD officials involved not only the
potential of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army in Iraq to attack, Carpenter said,
but possible responses by Hezbollah and by Iran itself across the Middle East.
Carpenter suggested that DoD officials were shifting the debate on a limited
strike from the Iraq-based rationale, which they were not contesting, to the
much bigger issue of the threat of escalation to full-scale war with Iran,
knowing that it would be politically easier to thwart the proposal on that
The former State Department official said DoD "knew that it would be difficult
to get interagency consensus on that question".
The Joint Chiefs were fully supportive of the position taken by Secretary of
Defense Robert Gates on the Cheney proposal, according to Carpenter. "It's
clear that the military leadership was being very conservative on this issue,"
At least some DoD and military officials suggested that Iran had more and
better options for hitting back at the United States than the United States had
for hitting Iran, according to one former Bush administration insider.
Former Bush speechwriter and senior policy adviser Michael Gerson, who had left
the administration in 2006, wrote a column in the Washington Post on July 20,
2007, in which he gave no hint of Cheney's proposal, but referred to "options"
for striking Iranian targets based on the Cheney line that Iran "smuggles in
the advanced explosive devices that kill and maim American soldiers".
Gerson cited two possibilities: "Engaging in hot pursuit against weapon supply
lines over the Iranian border or striking explosives factories and staging
areas within Iran." But the Pentagon and the military leadership were opposing
such options, he reported, because of the fear that Iran has "escalation
dominance" in its conflict with the United States.
That meant, according to Gerson that, "in a broadened conflict, the Iranians
could complicate our lives in Iraq and the region more than we complicate
Carpenter's account of the Pentagon's position on the Cheney proposal suggests,
however, that civilian and military opponents were saying that Iran's ability
to escalate posed the question of whether the United States was going to go to
a full-scale air war against Iran.
Pentagon civilian and military opposition to such a strategic attack on Iran
had become well-known during 2007. But this is the first evidence from an
insider that Cheney's proposal was perceived as a ploy to provoke Iranian
retaliation that could used to justify a strategic attack on Iran.
The option of attacking nuclear sites had been raised by Bush with the Joint
Chiefs at a meeting in "the tank" at the Pentagon on December 13, 2006, and had
been opposed by the Joint Chiefs, according to a report by Time magazine's Joe
Klein last June.
After he become head of the Central Command (Centcom) in March 2007, Admiral
William Fallon also made his opposition to such a massive attack on Iran known
to the White House, according Middle East specialist Hillary Mann, who had
developed close working relationships with Pentagon officials when she worked
on the National Security Council staff.
It appeared in early 2007, therefore, that a strike at Iran's nuclear program
and military power had been blocked by opposition from the Pentagon. Cheney's
proposal for an attack on IRGC bases in June 2007, tied to the alleged Iranian
role in providing both weapons - especially the highly lethal explosively
formed projectiles (EFPs) - and training to Shi'ite militias appears to have
been a strategy for getting around the firm resistance of military leaders to
such an unprovoked attack.
Although the Pentagon bottled up the Cheney proposal in inter-agency
discussions, Cheney had a strategic asset which could he could use to try to
overcome that obstacle: his alliance with General David Petraeus.
As Inter Press Service reported earlier last week, Cheney had already used
Petraeus' takeover as the top commander of US forces in Iraq in early February
2007 to do an end run about the Washington national security bureaucracy to
establish the propaganda line that Iran was manufacturing EFPs and shipping
them to the Mahdi Army militiamen.
Petraeus was also a supporter of Cheney's proposal for striking IRGC targets in
Iran, going so far as to hint in an interview with Fox News last September that
he had passed on to the White House his desire to do something about alleged
Iranian assistance to Shi'ites that would require US forces beyond his control.
At that point, Fallon was in a position to deter any effort to go around DoD
and military opposition to such a strike because he controlled all military
access to the region as a whole. But Fallon's forced resignation in March and
the subsequent promotion of Petraeus to become Centcom chief later this year
gives Cheney a possible option to ignore the position of his opponents in
Washington once more in the final months of the administration.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.