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It was May 2003. President Bush had declared “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq. The State Department, which had been unenthusiastic about that war, was not inclined to provoke another with Iran and indeed had been calling for diplomatic engagement with the reform-minded Khatami regime. That regime for its part asked the Swiss ambassador to Tehran to forward to the United States a request for talks. These would address U.S. concerns about its nuclear program, as well as the lifting of sanctions and normalization of relations.
Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage were inclined to accept the offer. Vice President Cheney, soon to declare, “We don’t negotiate with evil, we defeat it,” was not. Nor was Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith and his Office of Special Plans. Indeed, Cheney and his neoconservatives had the State Department rebuke the Swiss intermediary as they began to ratchet up the tension level between the countries to its present near-breaking point.
This is the extraordinary narrative provided in large part by a highly reliable source, Powell’s former chief of staff, General Lawrence Wilkerson. He minces no words. ”The secret cabal got what it wanted: no negotiations with Tehran,” he told Gareth Porter of Inter Press Service last month. “As with many of these issues of national security decision-making, there are no fingerprints. But I would guess Dick Cheney with the blessing of George W Bush [is responsible].”
Feith, who quietly vacated his office in August 2005 after the war for which he’d tirelessly campaigned had been exposed as one based on lies, hired neocon ideologue and Iran-Contra principal Michael Ledeen to work for the OSP in 2002. A longtime friend of fellow Iran-Contra plotter Manucher Ghorbanifar, Ledeen had met with the Iranian arms dealer several times from December 2001 to June 2002. These contacts, opposed by the CIA which has long distrusted Ghorbanifar, are thought to have some relation to the forged Niger uranium documents used to bolster the case for the attack on Iraq.
But Ledeen states that his business with Ghorbanifar related to Iran, not Iraq. Ledeen, as an American Enterprise Institute scholar and journalist for the neocon National Review, has repeatedly called for an immediate U.S. attack on Iran. Meanwhile Ghorbanifar has been returned to the U.S. government payroll, working with the Vice President’s Office and the Defense Department. He’s assigned among other things to provide intelligence on Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.
Ghorbanifar and one of his associates are thought to be the source of much of the information in the book Countdown to Terror: The Top-Secret Information that Could Prevent the Next Terrorist Attack on America… and How the CIA has Ignored it written by his friend Congressman Curt Weldon and published last year. It declares that Iran is hiding Osama bin Laden, preparing terrorist attacks on the U.S., has a crash program to build nuclear weapons and is the chief sponsor of the insurgency in Iraq. Shades of Ahmad Chalabi!
This is all so déjà vu. At least for all with eyes to see. The rejection of the Iranian proposal in 2003 reminds me of the Iraqi peace proposals made to the Bush administration from December 2002 to March 2003.
On February 19 Saddam’s regime indicated to Washington through intermediaries that in exchange for a U.S. promise not to attack it would (1) cooperate in fighting terrorism; (2) give “full support” for any U.S. plan “in the Arab-Israeli peace process; (3) give “first priority [to the U.S.] as it relates to Iraq oil, mining rights;” (4) cooperate with US strategic interests in the region; and (5) allow “direct US involvement on the ground in disarming Iraq.” The highest-ranking U.S. official directly involved in the discussion was the chairman of the Defense Policy Board at the Pentagon, Richard Perle. The “Prince of Darkness” (as the neocon is sometimes known) regarded Iraqi pleas for a deal as “all non-starters because they all involved Saddam staying in power.” The neocons wanted regime change and they got it. Now they want it in Iran.
Why settle for a diplomatic resolution of issues between the U.S. and Iran when you can defeat “evil”?
In 2002, Cheney and Rice spoke authoritatively about Iraq’s attempts to import aluminum tubes “only really suited for nuclear weapons programs, centrifuge programs” citing intelligence reported by Judith Miller in the New York Times.
Nowadays the press reports about a laptop computer stolen by an Iranian citizen in 2004 with designs “for a small-scale facility to produce uranium gas, the construction of which would give Iran a secret stock that could be enriched for fuel or for bombs” and “drawings on modifying Iran’s ballistic missiles in ways that might accommodate a nuclear warhead.”
In 2002, unbeknownst to the public, the U.S. intelligence community was divided, with many in the CIA skeptical of the neocons’ claims. In 2006, that community—even though purged in Cheney’s effort to scapegoat the CIA for “flawed” (as opposed to faked) intelligence—is still probably divided.
With that assumption I read the comments of U.S. intelligence chief John Negroponte to the National Press Club on April 20. “The developments in Iran,” he declared, “clearly they’re troublesome. By the same token, our assessment at the moment is that even though we believe that Iran is determined to acquire or obtain a nuclear weapon, that we believe that it is still many years off before they are likely to have enough fissile material to assemble into, or to put into a nuclear weapon; perhaps into the next decade. So I think it’s important that this issue be kept in perspective.”
Negroponte’s career highlight before acquiring his present Homeland Security post was his ambassadorship in Honduras from 1981 to 1985. During that time (which too few Americans remember) he supervised the training of Nicaraguan Contras and covered up vicious human rights abuses. I wouldn’t suggest that he’s personally opposed to a brutal illegal attack on Iran sometime soon. I don’t know. But by urging that the nuclear issue “be kept in perspective” he may reflect a concern within the “intelligence community” that once again the disinformation apparatus is proceeding unchecked. The neocons may disparage the “reality-based community” in favor of their Nazi-like penchant to create their own alternative reality
But there are professional analysts who still highly valuate things like facts and reality and perspective. So maybe we see here again some conflict within the administration—between those merely morally compromised by their very involvement in such a regime (and inclined to say, “Hey wait, let’s try to be honest here”) and those who lie though their teeth—without any moral qualms—to obtain their world-transforming objectives.
Of course, the Iran attack advocates aren’t saying that Iran’s 45 minutes away from nuking New York. They’re saying that it has a secret nuclear weapons program (despite IAEA claims that there is no evidence for one), and that the program must be terminated (at some unspecified point) before Iran builds its first nuke. Those acquainted with the science estimate that Iran is anywhere from three to 15 years away from constructing a nuclear weapon if it so desires. The neocons would like us to imagine the mullahs producing nukes sooner rather than later, because they’re hell-bent on regime change in Iran while their man is in office and want to sell their attack as justifiably preemptive—as an attack to defend the American people.
The power structure is obviously divided on the Iran issue, if not as deeply as one might hope. Democratic Party leaders have indeed competed with the Bush administration to embrace a hard line on Iran. The president’s recent visit to the Hoover Institution to talk with foreign policy wonks who favor an attack suggests the plan’s still on track. But recently there’s been a trend towards advocating negotiations. I would just suggest those doing so note that such negotiations might have begun three years ago—-had Cheney and his neocon acolytes (still dangerously occupying key positions) not sabotaged any diplomatic initiatives standing in the way of their imperial ambitions.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He can be reached at: email@example.com