Who’s “The Decider” Now?

If President Bush is getting cold feet about launching an attack on Iran, Vice President Cheney might be arranging things so that he’ll have no choice.

That’s the most eye-opening headline about Iran in a whole slew of them last week, coming after two months of, well, not much.

In March, the United Nations Security Council set a deadline for Iran to cease enriching uranium. That deadline passed last Thursday.

U.N. nuclear inspectors concluded that Iranian leaders not only blew off the deadline, but they’ve also actually expanded the enrichment process. The top U.N. nuclear watchdog, Mohamed ElBaradei, said that if Tehran is pursuing a nuclear weapon (and not just nuclear energy, as it claims), it is three-eight years away from success. That compresses the five-10-year window most intelligence experts had cited up to now.

The response from Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was predictably defiant: “With the support of the Iranian nation, we do not fear the enemy’s hyperbole and psychological warfare. We are nearing our final goals.”

Show of Force

The day before the U.N. inspectors released their report, nine U.S. warships sailed through the Strait of Hormuz into the Persian Gulf — 17,000 personnel in a show of force unlike anything seen since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. A second aircraft carrier was added to the armada at the last minute, with no explanation. And while U.S. ships typically sail through the region at night so as not to attract attention, this was done in daylight — to send an unmistakable message.

Said Rear Adm. Kevin Quinn shortly before the crossing, “There’s always the threat of any state or nonstate actor that might decide to close one of the international straits, and the biggest one is the Strait of Hormuz.”

If by “biggest” he means “most strategic,” there’s little doubt about that. Forty percent of the world’s exported oil is shipped through this narrow passage.

This too brought the usual bluster from Tehran. “Islamic Iran will resist…any kind of threat and will give a powerful answer to enemies and oppressors,” said Iran’s Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar.

Still, every indication has been that President Bush, chastened by public disgust with the Iraq war, has shied away from launching an attack against Iran, lest he wreck whatever chance the Republicans have of holding onto the White House in 2008. Thus, the thinking goes, he has thrown in his lot with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has pursued quiet diplomacy with Iran in recent months — culminating in an ambassador-level meeting yesterday in Baghdad to discuss what Washington and Tehran can do about security in Iraq.  While they didn’t agree on much, they might well meet again within a month.

Enter the veep.

Cheney’s “End Run”?

Washington policy analyst and blogger Steve Clemons reports that one of Dick Cheney’s senior aides is quietly spreading the word around the capital that Cheney is displeased with President Bush’s backing of the diplomatic track — and he’s taking steps that would force Bush’s hand.

How would this come about? Clemons cites what he calls “multiple sources”:

“The White House official has stated to several Washington insiders that Cheney is planning to deploy an ‘end run strategy’ around the president if he and his team lose the policy argument.

“The thinking on Cheney’s team is to collude with Israel, nudging Israel at some key moment in the ongoing standoff between Iran’s nuclear activities and international frustration over this to mount a small-scale conventional strike against [Iran’s enrichment facility at] Natanz using cruise missiles (i.e., not ballistic missiles).

“This strategy would sidestep controversies over bomber aircraft and overflight rights over other Middle East nations and could be expected to trigger a sufficient Iranian counterstrike against U.S. forces in the Gulf — which just became significantly larger — as to compel Bush to forgo the diplomatic track that the administration realists are advocating and engage in another war.”

In other words, Cheney doesn’t trust Bush to “do the right thing” with Iran, so he’d set events into motion that would bring Bush around to his formerly steely resolve to effect regime change in Tehran.

Of course, all of this might just be misinformation, and Bush has never wavered from a plan to attack Iran — he’s merely waiting for the right moment. That fits better with the usual picture of Bush as “The Decider” — firmly resolute or stubbornly delusional, depending on your point of view.

David Gonigam

May 29, 2007