Over the last few months, a near-consensus has emerged in the press about the prospects for war with Iran: Here we go again. In The New Yorker, Seymour Hersh reports that the Bush administration has “intensified planning for a possible major air attack.” This week, a Time cover story concludes that “a much discussed—but until now largely theoretical—prospect has become real: that the U.S. may be preparing for war with Iran.”
There is an undeniable logic behind these stories. The Bush administration, after all, invaded Iraq in search of a nuclear program that turned out not to exist; in Iran, a fanatical regime presides over a nuclear program that, by its own admission, does exist. But the portrait of an administration bent on war is, at best, premature. The rationale for military action against Iran exists. But, for now and probably into next year, the momentum on the Bush team belongs with diplomats keen to avoid it.
AT THE MOMENT, Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns counts as the principal architect and sole manager of Iran policy. A Foreign Service officer for over two decades and one of Foggy Bottom’s smoothest bureaucratic operators, Burns makes for an unlikely point man in the Bush team’s campaign against a member of the axis of evil. With his thin face, meticulously chosen words, and expressionless demeanor, Burns would be a casting director’s choice to play a Foreign Service officer (and was, in fact, a State Department spokesman during the Clinton administration). Aides on John Kerry’s presidential campaign touted him as their favorite diplomat; administration hard-liners see him, in the words of one, as “the man from the Council on Foreign Relations.”
Burns acquired the Iran portfolio as much by default as by design. Three years of war have sucked the oxygen out of the White House: When a European leader recently broached the question of what to do about Iran, a foreign source close to the politician says, Bush responded that he’s focused almost exclusively on Iraq. As for the State Department’s newly christened Iranian Affairs Office—whose activities have been adduced as evidence of an administration girding for war—its staffers brainstorm about how to promote democracy and have no say on the question of military action. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has largely marginalized Foggy Bottom’s senior-most hardliners—Under Secretary Robert Joseph and U.N. Ambassador John Bolton—on the Iran question.
Although he’s anything but a hard-liner himself, colleagues say Burns has few illusions that the United Nations will take meaningful action against Iran. Instead, he and Treasury Under Secretary Stuart Levey have been pressing European diplomats to block Iran’s access to their financial institutions; last week, they succeeded in blocking even indirect links between one of Iran’s largest banks and the U.S. financial system. One State Department official predicts the campaign could eventually escalate to the point of attempting to strangle Iran’s access to global markets—the logic being that supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and not President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, holds the levers of power and could be swayed by temporal considerations.
SO WHAT HAS become of the Iran hawks? The media’s Iraq template, which imagines hard-liners at the Pentagon and vice president’s office battling against the State Department for control of Iran policy, doesn’t quite apply. Which isn’t to say the former boast no influence: Last year, Dick Cheney exacted a pledge from the Europeans to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council in the event that their negotiations with Tehran went nowhere. But Burns enjoys Rice’s full backing; and Rice, unlike former Secretary of State Colin Powell, enjoys the president’s full backing.
Moreover, Cheney aides see no inherent incompatibility between the State Department’s track and their own, for the simple reason that they believe the diplomatic track will fail. Because the president plans to go the last mile in the name of mollifying the Europeans—and, unlike the run-up to the Iraq war, the diplomatic string on Iran could run for up to two years—administration hard-liners reason that, if Bush tires of the kabuki, he can switch to the military track with little lost.
That track is only now being constructed, mostly in the office of Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman and at Central Command (CENTCOM) headquarters in Tampa, Florida. Where his predecessor Douglas Feith presided over the Office of Special Plans during the run-up to the Iraq war, Edelman, a longtime Cheney protege, now presides over a newly established Iran directorate at the Pentagon. But there the similarities end. The office’s assessments—regarding, among other things, how Iran might retaliate—may come into play in the future. But, thus far, the Pentagon has virtually no say in Iran deliberations. “They’ve been completely shut out,” says a senior official, who adds that Burns and Rice will “have the final say until [the president] says, ‘enough.’”
Further evidence of the remoteness of military action comes from CENTCOM, where General John Abizaid only recently asked his staff to analyze the potential consequences of a strike against Iran. The catalogue of possibilities makes for a sobering read: attacks against oil installations in friendly Gulf states, the unleashing of Hezbollah against U.S. targets throughout the region and beyond, a blockade of the Strait of Hormuz, the destruction of the U.S. enterprise in Iraq. It is this last consequence, more than any other, which leaves many senior officers deeply wary of the military option. The Iranians, says one military planner, “could burn the country down around us if they wanted to.”
WHILE THE bureaucratic maneuvering runs counter to predictions of imminent war, the longer-term logic of military action is real enough. Even officials who place their faith in the sanctions route concede that Iran’s overconfidence could lead to miscalculation. All the more so because the man presiding over Tehran’s game of chicken impresses some members of the Bush team as being, in the words of one, “out of his fucking mind.” Moreover, the Iranian leadership’s taste for brinksmanship extends beyond Ahmadinejad himself. Ray Takeyh, an Iran specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, says, “Iran’s leadership, and that includes Khamenei, thinks America has been weakened so much in Iraq that, even if it wanted to, Washington couldn’t act militarily.” (That this assumption rests on a flimsy foundation—no one in the administration has even contemplated a ground war, but rather other options like naval interdictions or a massive air strike—seems not to have occurred to Iran’s leaders.)
Then, too, the Security Council’s unwillingness to contemplate a robust sanctions regime may actually tip the odds in favor of military action. “The Europeans won’t do anything that would lose the Chinese and the Russians [at the Security Council],” says a senior administration official. Even assuming a newly vigilant China and Russia, the odds seem slight that sanctions would persuade Iran to forfeit its nuclear program. Bush advisers say they see Tehran’s leadership, not unlike Pakistan’s when it flouted sanctions during its own drive to acquire nuclear weapons, as motivated by concerns having nothing to do with commercial ties.
But the most powerful argument for eventual action rests with President Bush. “The Iranians may be feeling their oats, and they may think the administration is back on its heels,” says Thomas Donnelly, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “but they’re misreading American policy, the amount of strike power we have, and, most of all, President Bush himself.” While Rice, with one eye to the Europeans, has convinced the president to give diplomacy a chance, Bush has also vowed privately not to leave office with Iran’s nuclear program intact. An adviser who has discussed the subject with the president says, “[Bush’s] response is visceral; he’s adamant: ‘They won’t have nukes.’” Says an official familiar with Bush’s thinking on Iran: “If Rice and Burns don’t get results, at some point—it could be a year from now—the president’s going to tell the Europeans, ‘You’ve had your chance.’”
One way or another, they insist, the matter will be settled before Bush leaves office. But perhaps not that long before.
This article originally ran in the October 2, 2006 issue of the magazine.