First the Republicans lost their majority status in Congress. Then the Iraq Study Group sent the White House its report card and gave it a failing grade. It looked like Dick Cheney had finally been put in his rightful place - the ceremonial office vice presidents have traditionally occupied.
But this is a man who's alternately schmoozed and clawed his way to the executive heights in both government and business. Also, he's suffered four heart attacks and the onset of congestive heart failure. Not to mention undergoing a bypass operation, as well as an angioplasty, the implantation of a defibrillator, and the repair of an aneurysm in an artery.
Any resemblance to one of those horror movie characters that can't be killed is not coincidental.
So formidable a foe is Cheney that appointed dragon slayer Patrick Fitzgerald is either still girding his loins or has abandoned his quest to indict him as quixotic. In other words, counting out Cheney is premature. In fact, Robert Dreyfuss recently described him as "suddenly revived."
Those who persist in believing Bush has been counseled to sideline Cheney would be wise to ask themselves this: Which of Bush's advisors suffers from a death wish?
However unlikely she is to lock horns with Cheney, Secretary of State Rice at least dared advise the president to tolerate the formation of the Iraq Study Group. But when it issued its report, Bush's reaction -- more luke than warm -- suggests that, far from spurning Cheney, he was just indulging Rice. Not that her stateswoman daydreams don't come in handy.
In 2005, Cheney, along with former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, sent Rice skipping off to the United Nations Security Council. Her assignment? To convince its four other permanent members - the UK, France, Russia, and China, plus Germany - to impose sanctions on Iran for attempting to develop nuclear weapons.
But, as Gareth Porter suggests in "Rice's Iran strategy Fizzles, Cheney Waits in Wings," all Cheney was doing was just giving Rice enough rope. Her mission was actually programmed to self-destruct. The only way the administration would negotiate with Iran is if it were slapped with punitive sanctions. Russia, Cheney knew, would never agree.
Saddam-izing Mahmoud and the Mullahs
At this point, it behooves us to question Cheney's plausibility as a nuclear watchdog. Recall that in 2005 he asked STRATCOM (the United States Strategic Command) to draw up a plan to respond to a terrorist attack on the US with, among other things, tactical nuclear weapons.
Also, as Scott Ritter points out in "Target Iran" (Nation Books, 2006), the administration's goal, "wrapped in layer after layer of disingenuous commitment to arms control and disarmament. . . [is actually] regime change." As in: Drive Ahmadinejad and the ruling mullahs into a crawl space until they're caught and, if not hanged like Saddam, publicly humiliated.
Meanwhile, the sanctions that the European members of the Security Council agreed on were indeed rigorous. Not only ballistic missiles, but the import and export of materials and technology used to enrich uranium, would be banned.
As expected, Russia objected. The severity of the sanctions, it claimed, would only feed Iran's paranoia, thus hastening it further down the nuclear path. Besides, as Ritter writes, "Iran was where Russia intended to draw the line when it came to what it viewed as the naked abuse of power being wielded by the United States."
Neither was Russia about to sacrifice its arms deals and its contract with Iran to construct the Bushehr nuclear power plant. Nor agree to a proposed ban on international travel for Iranian officials championing uranium enrichment, as well as an asset freeze on the attendant agencies and firms.
China, meanwhile, in approximate proportion to the preferential treatment which the Bush administration had been giving Japan, India, and South Korea, aligned itself with Russia. Besides, by signing long-term, mega-bucks deals, it's become Iran's biggest oil and gas customer and investor in drilling and exploration.
According to Porter, the scenario was playing out as Cheney hoped. Like journalist Chris Floyd says, Bush & Co. "love to be thwarted diplomatically." If the sanctions weren't tough enough, they could claim they'd tried, but that Iran was too irrational an actor to respond to reason.
Cheney would then feel free to nudge Bush in the direction of bombing Iran's nuclear plants. Or, more likely, provoking an incident and retaliating with its designated hit man, Israel. Its fighter-bombers have been sighted training over the Mediterranean for the 2,000-mile round trip to the alleged uranium enrichment facility in Natanz.
But just as the US and the European members of the Security Council began to yield to Russia's reservations, the US representative at the negotiations, William Brencick, pulled an odd stunt. He criticized Moscow for allowing its close ally, Belarus, to jail an opposition leader. Russian UN ambassador Vitali Churkin dug in his heels and refused to proceed. When pressed for a reason, he responded, "Because I said so."
British UN ambassador Emyr Jones Parry noted, "It wasn't the best timing by the US."
Talk about an understatement: The ploy bore all the earmarks of Cheney's heavy-handed style. But why ordain this kind of obstructionism just when he had the sanctions right where he wanted them - nice and neutered?
Cheney, ever the contrarian, may be incapable of restraining himself. Just as likely, though, he was trying to make sure it appeared as if he'd left no stone unturned in his attempts to strong-arm Russia into agreeing to harsh sanctions.
As for Condoleeza Rice, she may have been trying to strike a blow for bilateralism. But, her quiver bereft of olive branches, she lacked the wherewithal to insist she be adequately outfitted. Following Rumsfeld's advice about going to war with the army we had, she went to peace with what she had.
When she saw the writing on the wall, Rice reinvented herself once again, proclaiming, "I am also in favor of action." In other words, bombing's not just for boys. Her recent statements opposing negotiations with Syria and Iran demonstrate the extent to which, placing expedience before principles, she has reverted to form.
Attacking Shiite Iran seems now to be within the comfort zone of Rice, as well, of course, as Cheney and probably Bush. (No word yet of a sea change from Robert Gates, who, before becoming Secretary of Defense, came down firmly on the side of negotiation.) Meanwhile, in Iraq, the administration is pursuing the "80 percent solution" -- siding with its Shiite majority.
But when it comes to foreign policy, distinguishing between members of the same sect in two neighboring countries is just putting too fine a point on it. You can't help but cover your ears and emit loud humming noises to block out the cognitive dissonance.
Does Cheney think that, despite his intention to attack Iran, propping up the Shiites in Iraq will win points with the Persian public? Perhaps he's swallowed whole the Neocon tenet which holds that, post-bombing, Iran's citizens seize the day (after). They overthrow President Ahmadinejad for double-daring the US to attack and cast out the mullahs for suffocating their culture. Sure, just like our path to Baghdad was strewn with rose petals.
Two days before Christmas, the sanctions were passed. In concessions to Russia, fewer Iranian officials were restricted from traveling and at least one company was spared the indignity of frozen assets. The Bushehr plant, of course, was given the green light.
American Ambassador Alejandro Wolff, British Ambassador Parry, and American Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns spun the sanctions as tough. But, as the AP reports, the resolution "mandates compliance but restricts punishment to nonmilitary measures." Churkin's statement that the sanctions were "intended to prod Iran to negotiate, not punish it" tells the story, which could be titled "Toothless in Tehran."
What's odd is that in the end, not only the US, but Russia and Iran each got the sanctions it wanted (or thinks it wanted). For Iran's part, its UN Ambassador, Javad Zarif summed it up: "The Security Council sanctions will not be able to stop the Iranian program."
Meanwhile, Dimitry Peskov, First Deputy Press Secretary to President Putin, could be taken at his word when he said, "We are the last country in this world that would want to have a nuclear weapon at its southern borders."
Especially, writes Kaveh Afrasiabi in Asia Times Online, if said weapons belonged to a country whose standing in the Muslim world was immeasurably enhanced following the showing of its A-team, Hezbollah, in Lebanon. Russia, it seems, fears its disaffected Muslim population is swooning over Iran.
Trotting out that diplomatic high-wire act at which they excel, the Russians managed to censure Iran without jeopardizing their mutual interests (arms deals, Bushehr). Not only that, Russia, Afrasiabi conjectures, might have been the beneficiary of a US promise to either rubber-stamp its application to the World Trade Organization or stop throwing its human rights record in its face.
With its briar-patch -- as in "please don't throw me into" -- tactics (offering enticements to Russia to do exactly what it wanted) the US looks like it got played. But, following Gareth Porter's train of thought, the administration was probably just as glad to lock Russia into the type of sanctions it could use to justify war.
Weak sanctions might have been just what the doctor ordered for the US, Russia, and Iran. But they do little to soothe the jittery nerves of Iran's neighbors to the West.
Saudi Arabia, sensing which way the wind was blowing, had already announced plans to develop nuclear energy. Since a tribal oligarchy hardly lends itself to visionary thinking, it's not likely that this is a Peak Oil strategy against the day that even the great Ghawar oil field is tapped out. More exterior than ulterior, the Saudis' obvious motive is developing nuclear weapons to deter Iran.
Bundle that with their stated intention of supporting Iraq's Sunnis in the event of a US military withdrawal and the Saudis seem to be left holding the bag for the security of the Sunni states, from Jordan to Yemen. But a low-profile group of US officials called ISOG (Iran Syria Policy and Operations Group) is approaching Congress about sending those states early-warning radar and missile defense systems to detect and deflect Iranian missile strikes.
Still, Saudi nuclear intentions, like the defanged sanctions, work for Cheney. He can claim that if we fail to stop Iran's programs in its tracks, we'll soon face not one, but two, new nuclear powers in the Middle East. In other words, Iran's nuclear intentions fuel Arabia's. Why, it's a Cheney reaction!
Candy from a Baby
Cheney may be ready to begin the launch sequence with Iran, but first he needs to keep Congress from voting for a binding resolution to stay his hand. We got a sneak preview of how he intends to manage this when the administration ordered the deployment of an aircraft carrier, the Dwight D. Eisenhower, with its strike group, to the Middle East.
Though it's been diverted to Somalia, two more aircraft carriers, the USS John C. Stennis and the USS Ronald Reagan, with their strike groups, have been since sent to the Persian Gulf. Thus do we see Cheney's plan unfold. Ostensibly intended to warn off Iran's own naval exercises, the deployment's actual purpose is less likely to respond to a provocation than to provoke a response.
Not much imagination is required to envision a skittish Iran spooked into launching one of their state-of-the-art Shahib 4 missiles at one of our ships. Nor would anything more be required to make the obstacle of Congressional approval for a US attack magically disappear.
You think the idea that the Democratic Congress would roll over for another war strains credulity? House majority leader Steny Hoyer recently told The Jerusalem Post that he backed negotiations and sanctions. As for air strikes, "I have not ruled that out," he said.
Meanwhile, in a May 2005 speech before Israel lobby AIPAC, Nancy Pelosi said, "The United States will stand with Israel now and forever." Even, one wonders, though Israel has drawn up secret plans to destroy Iran's uranium enrichment facilities with tactical nuclear weapons?
Watch what happens when the first whiff of public outrage over an Iranian strike, should it occur, wafts past the Democrats' nostrils. The spine the Democrats are finally starting to grow about Iraq notwithstanding, stand clear of the door to the Senate chambers lest you be trampled by Democrats rushing to vote yea to retaliate.
Never forget the slogan that would blazon the Democrats' coat of arms if they had one: "Let no opportunity to boost our defense credibility go unseized." Like taking candy from a baby, Cheney will murmur.
In fact, their relief over the prospect of bombing a country that's actively developing nuclear weapons. Of course, that assumption is backed up by neither intelligence nor inspections. But at least Iran's a country that the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) speaks to in a firm tone of voice. That counts for something, right?
Worse, neither would the American public object in significant numbers. With World War II veterans dying off, most Americans have no concept of bombing as anything but risk-free: Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq between invasions, Kosovo.
Until Iran fights back in a way Iraq could only dream of, bombing it could usher in a time of collective healing after the national trauma of attacking a de-proliferated country on the premise it was proliferating. For us, invading Iraq was as fundamentally corrupt as stoning a prostitute to death, only to find out she was a nun.
Never mind that, as Scott Ritter writes, "Every American businessman who needs to factor in the cost of oil in the bottom line. . . must understand that [in the event of an attack on Iran] they will face almost immediate financial ruin." Guess it's a small price to pay (along with the death of tens of thousands of Iranians).
After all, what could be more important than keeping Democrats from appearing soft on security? Tack on expediting a public atonement for Iraq and you've got an example of "value added" that the corporate world would envy.
It hasn't been our intention to characterize Dick Cheney as an ogre. Maybe he'd even think twice about unleashing a thousand bombing missions on Iran if he could get his hands on Ahmadinejad or one of the mullahs of Iran's Supreme Council. They may or may not spill their guts about underground nuclear locations.
Scratching his torture itch by inflicting a rousing round of waterboarding on each of them might be enough to sate Cheney's sadistic streak. After all, the man's got to mellow someday, doesn't he?