News Analysis

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Feb. 1, Zbigniew Brzezinski blasted the “U.S. war of choice in Iraq” calling it a “historic, strategic and moral calamity.”

Perhaps more importantly, the former national security adviser warned of a devastating showdown with Iran if the Bush administration doesn’t change course in the Middle East immediately.

Known as both a hawk and a “realist” on foreign policy, Brzezinski, who served under President Jimmy Carter, said if the U.S. continues its involvement in Iraq, “the final destination on this downhill track is likely to be a head-on conflict with Iran” and with much of the Islamic world.

Brzezinski warned that “accusations of Iranian responsibility for the failure [in Iraq]” or a provocation or terrorist attack “blamed on Iran” could culminate “in a ‘defensive’ U.S. military action” that would plunge “a lonely America into a spreading and deepening quagmire eventually ranging across Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

Diplomacy a must

Brzezinski was not alone in his warnings. Three retired high-ranking U.S. military officers said military action against Tehran would be a disaster for the region.

“The current crisis must be resolved through diplomacy,” they said in a letter to London’s Sunday Times calling on Britain to help defuse the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program.

Retired Lt. Gen. Robert Gard, a senior military fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation in Washington; retired Marine Gen. Joseph Hoar, former head of U.S. Central Command; and Vice Admiral Jack Shanahan, former director of the Center for Defense Information, signed the letter. The UN-imposed deadline for Iran to stop its uranium enrichment program is Feb. 21.

Divisions in ruling circles

These statements show the divisions in U.S. ruling circles, which break down into two camps: neoconservatives vs. realists.

“Getting Iran is an obsession of the neoconservatives at the American Enterprise Institute and their plants inside the administration, such as Iran-Contra felon Elliot Abrams in the National Security Council and David Wurmser and John Hannah on Cheney’s rump veep national security council,” Middle East expert Juan Cole said on his blog Informed Comment.

The Bush administration, which called Iran a part of the “axis of evil,” has refused to rule out military action. It has recently sent more warships to patrol off the coast of Iran and arrested Iranian officials in Iraq.

However “realists” — inside and outside the administration — and the majority antiwar public opinion are growing more vocal about White House war plans. Recently, a planned briefing on supposed Iranian weapons shipments to Iraq was “postponed” by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. According to Cole, the postponed presentation was full of exaggerations and unsubstantiated claims.

In addition, the National Intelligence Estimate released Feb. 2 disputed claims that Iran is the main source of violence in Iraq. It said “outside actors” such as Iran and Syria are “not likely to be a major driver of violence or the prospects for stability” in Iraq.

Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia

That’s not to say that the Iranian government is angelic. According to Iran’s Tudeh Party and others, a power struggle is going on in Iran between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s “destructive and adventurous policies” and more reformist and realist-minded forces.

In a statement last month, the Tudeh Party said it strongly objected to any U.S. military adventure but also called for “fundamental changes” in Iran’s foreign policy “to isolate warmongering circles.”

While the U.S. is the major player pushing a confrontation, Israel and Saudi Arabia also have their own interests in the region. But an Israeli attack on Iran, according to analysts, would push Saudi Arabia — which is acting to counter Iranian influence in the region — to side with the Islamic Iranian state.

Congress can act

Congress could place a brake on the administration’s war plans, many say. “If the president refuses to engage in diplomacy, then perhaps Congress should take on that responsibility,” said Dr. Trita Parsi, president of the National Association of Iranian-Americans, at a recent panel on Iran sponsored by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).

Lee introduced the Iran Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 2007, which would severely limit the president’s ability to unilaterally and pre-emptively attack Iran.

Leonard Weiss and Larry Diamond, senior fellows at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and Hoover Institution, respectively, urged Congress to “hold hearings” before “the president orders a bombing attack on [Iran’s] nuclear facilities,” or orders a “provocative act by the U.S. or an ally designed to get Iran to retaliate, and thus further raise war fever.”

They urged that Congress put Bush “on notice” that it will not support a military strike against Iran.

If Bush ignores the restrictions and orders an attack on Iran without congressional approval, they said, “Congress should file a lawsuit and begin impeachment proceedings.”

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