Analysis by Gareth Porter*
WASHINGTON, Feb 28 (IPS) - Two weeks ago, Pentagon officials discussed a strategy to escalate U.S. pressure on Iran with the intention of creating the impression that the U.S. is ready to go to war, according to an account by one of the participants.
A meeting at the Pentagon in mid-February was said by the participant to have revolved around a plan to ratchet up U.S. rhetoric about an Iranian threat and make further military preparations for war in a way that would be reminiscent of what happened prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The account was described by a source outside the Pentagon who obtained it directly from the participant.
The description of Pentagon thinking suggests a strategy that is much more aggressive than the line represented by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's announcement Tuesday that the United States would participate in direct talks with Iran in the context of a conference to be convened by the Iraqi government.
According to the account provided by the participant, the administration's decision last month to increase U.S. military strength in Iraq by at least 22,000 troops is related more to a strategy of increased pressure on Iran than to stabilising the situation in Baghdad. The troop decision was described as putting the U.S. military in a better position to respond to attacks by Shiite forces on U.S troops in retaliation against a possible U.S. strike against Iran.
That description is consistent with other indications that Pres. George W. Bush's decision on the troop "surge" was made primarily in the context of strategy toward Iran. Immediately after Bush's Jan. 10 speech announcing the additional troops, NBC's Tim Russert reported that Bush and his top advisers had told a small group of journalists the United States would not sit down with Iran until the United States had gained "leverage".
That was the most direct indication from administration officials that they believed the United States could negotiate successfully with Iran once the administration had altered the bargaining relationship with Tehran.
In that same briefing for reporters, according to Russert, the officials indicated that one of the administration objectives was to achieve a situation in which Washington would not have to "go to Syria and Iran" and "ask for anything". That was an indirect reference to the bargaining leverage that Iran was believed to have derived from the widely shared belief that the United States would need Iran's help to stabilise the situation in Iraq.
Bush was apparently convinced that the troops increase would convince Iran that the United States would not have to rely on Iranian influence in Iraq to deal with Shiite opposition to the occupation.
But the troop surge decision was also linked to another aspect of the U.S.-Iran bargaining relationship. It had been widely speculated that the vulnerability of the United States to retaliatory attacks in Iraq added to Iran's leverage by restraining the Bush administration from waging a preemptive war against Iran.
The briefing before Bush's Jan. 10 speech also provided a key piece of evidence that the Bush strategy would involve increasing pressure on Iran by framing the issue of U.S. policy in terms of new military threats from Iran to U.S. and allied interests in the Middle East. Russert reported that administration officials had tipped off journalists that Iran would soon be raised as a major issue in what Russert called "a very acute way".
The January Bush speech was followed by a carefully orchestrated campaign of administration statements and leaks alleging official Iranian involvement in providing armour-penetrating weapons to Shiite militias in Iraq. The administration admitted in a briefing in Baghdad aimed at bolstering that charge that it was based on "inference" rather than actual evidence.
To increase the sense of heightened tension with Iran and suggest momentum toward a military confrontation, the administration had already moved an additional carrier task force into the Persian Gulf.
Another move in the increased pressure on Iran, according to the same source, is that refuelling assets are now being flown into the U.S. base complex at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. "You can't launch air strikes against Iran without refuelling assets being there," the source observed.
High administration officials have used carefully chosen words in recent weeks to suggest that they are planning for war against Iran even as press leaks about as possible attack multiplied. On Feb. 15, Defence Secretary Robert Gates said, "We are not looking for an excuse to go to war with Iran...We are not planning a war with Iran."
Meanwhile, however, the administration maintains the position that the option of a military strike against Iran remains as its last resort if Iran does not agree to U.S. terms for negotiations.
After the administration failed to produce evidence of such Iranian government involvement in exporting weapons to the Shiites in a Baghdad press conference on Feb. 11, the administration introduced a new line on an alleged Iranian threat.
Vice-Admiral Patrick Walsh, who is leaving his position as Commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, told reporters Feb. 19 that the Iranian military conducts exercises in the Strait of Hormuz, suggesting that they could use mines to close the Strait. Walsh called mines "an offensive terrorist type of weapon."
Iranian officials have always placed their threats to close the Strait of Hormuz explicitly in the context of retaliation for a strike by the United States against Iran.
"The question is not what the Americans are planning," Walsh said, "but what the Iranians are planning." That statement indicates that the United States is designing a new campaign to portray Iran's military posture as threatening to U.S. allies and security in the Middle East.
The participant's account of the Pentagon meeting did not indicate any timetable for the sequence of steps or what the climactic move in the campaign would be. Nor did it suggest that a decision had been made by the White House to launch air strikes against Iran. However, the moves now planned would increase the likelihood of war in the event that Washington's escalatory moves fail to sway Iran's leaders.
A former assistant secretary of defence in the Bill Clinton administration, Chas Freeman, who was also ambassador to Saudi Arabia, calls Bush's escalation of military pressure "brinksmanship" -- a term recalling the practice by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles of threatening war against China over Korea and the Taiwan Strait.
"By deploying forces to add credibility to the threat," Freeman told IPS, "you increase the risk of military conflict, which is fact what is intended."
*Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. His latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in June 2005.