Wash­ing­ton ‘con­sid­ered strikes against Iran’

The Guardian - - FRONT PAGE - Ju­lian Borger Wash­ing­ton Martin Chulov Beirut

The White House asked the Pen­tagon to draw up op­tions for an at­tack on Iran last year, ac­cord­ing to re­ports in the US

The White House asked the Pen­tagon to draw up op­tions for mil­i­tary strikes against Iran in the wake of two in­ci­dents in Iraq last Septem­ber when mor­tar shells and rock­ets fired by Iraqi mili­tias ex­ploded near US diplo­matic fa­cil­i­ties, it was re­ported yes­ter­day.

Con­tin­gency plan­ning for po­ten­tial con­flicts is rou­tine but, ac­cord­ing to the Wall Street Jour­nal, the se­ri­ous­ness of the re­quest from the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil un­nerved de­fence and state depart­ment of­fi­cials.

“It def­i­nitely rat­tled peo­ple,” a for­mer se­nior US ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial was quoted as say­ing. “Peo­ple were shocked. It was mind-bog­gling how cav­a­lier they were about hit­ting Iran.”

A di­rect US at­tack on Iran would risk trig­ger­ing a con­flict be­tween the two na­tions that would be hard to stop. There are al­ready hard­lin­ers in both the US and Ira­nian camps call­ing for mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion.

The US sec­re­tary of state, Mike Pom­peo, de­clined to com­ment on the re­port yes­ter­day when ques­tioned by re­porters dur­ing his nine-na­tion tour of the Mid­dle East, which is aimed in large part at main­tain­ing Arab sol­i­dar­ity against Iran.

Yes­ter­day he flew from Qatar to Saudi Ara­bia, where he is due to meet Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man.

In Qatar, Pom­peo pro­vided de­tails of a planned anti-Iran min­is­te­rial con­fer­ence to be held, at US prompt­ing, in War­saw next month.

“There’ll be a broad coali­tion of coun­tries present,” the sec­re­tary of state said, “and we’ll work on many is­sues, in­clud­ing how it is we can get the Is­lamic Repub­lic of Iran to be­have more like a nor­mal na­tion.”

Since John Bolton, the for­mer US am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions, be­came Don­ald Trump’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser last April, he has joined with Pom­peo in push­ing for a much more ag­gres­sive stance to­wards Tehran. Bolton, who wrote a New York Times com­men­tary in 2015 call­ing for Iran to be bombed, warned that Tehran would have “hell to pay” if it threat­ened the US or its al­lies.

That warn­ing came after a Shia mili­tia fired three mor­tar shells on 6 Septem­ber into Bagh­dad’s diplo­matic dis­trict, where the US em­bassy is based. A few days later, rock­ets fired by un­known mil­i­tants fell near the US con­sulate in the south­ern city of Basra.

Al­though there were no ca­su­al­ties or sig­nif­i­cant dam­age in ei­ther in­ci­dent, they raised alarm in Wash­ing­ton that US diplo­mats could be vul­ner­a­ble.

Pom­peo made it clear that a mil­i­tary re­sponse was pos­si­ble. “We have told the Is­lamic Repub­lic of Iran that us­ing a proxy force to at­tack an Amer­i­can in­ter­est will not pre­vent us from re­spond­ing against the prime ac­tor,” he told CNN at the time.

Last year, Trump pulled the US out of a mul­ti­lat­eral 2015 nu­clear deal with Iran and or­dered a cam­paign of in­tense sanc­tions against Tehran. But he has re­as­sured Euro­pean lead­ers that he did not want to be drawn into a new Mid­dle East­ern con­flict, and that he would rein in Bolton.

Trump’s or­der to with­draw US troops from Syria, where they were near Ira­nian troops and Ira­ni­an­backed mili­tias, marked a de­feat for hawks in his ad­min­is­tra­tion. But with hard­lin­ers wield­ing in­flu­ence on both sides, the po­ten­tial for an un­planned clash re­mains high, par­tic­u­larly in the crowded sea lanes of the Gulf or in Iraq.

The tough talk from Bolton and Pom­peo has added to con­cerns that Bagh­dad could again be­come a proxy bat­tle­ground be­tween the US gov­ern­ment and Ira­nian in­ter­ests, much as it was dur­ing the height of the sec­tar­ian chaos, when a full-blown proxy war played out be­tween both sides across the coun­try.

Through­out much of the US mil­i­tary pres­ence in Iraq, the vast em­bassy in the Iraqi cap­i­tal’s for­ti­fied Green Zone was a tar­get for Shia mili­tias, which reg­u­larly rained in rock­ets and mor­tar shells from as far as seven miles away.

Two of the main pro­tag­o­nists from 2007-11, Asa’ib ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbol­lah, both prox­ies of the Ira­nian Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards Corps, have gained strength in Bagh­dad in the past four years, and ex­ert con­sid­er­able in­flu­ence across Iraq’s po­lit­i­cal and se­cu­rity spheres.

Con­flict could also be trig­gered if Iran de­cided to aban­don the 2015 nu­clear deal. Tehran is re­ceiv­ing few of the eco­nomic ben­e­fits it was promised since the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion aban­doned the agree­ment.

Yes­ter­day, the head of Iran’s nu­clear pro­gramme, Ali Akbar Salehi, said tech­ni­cians had be­gun “pre­lim­i­nary ac­tiv­i­ties for de­sign­ing” a new method of pro­duc­ing 20%-en­riched ura­nium. This would vi­o­late the 2015 agree­ment, which still ex­ists with other world pow­ers de­spite the US pulling out, and would es­ca­late ten­sions with Is­rael, the Gulf states and the US.

The Na­tional Ira­nian Amer­i­can Coun­cil, a pro-diplo­macy ad­vo­cacy group, is­sued a state­ment on the Wall Street Jour­nal re­port, say­ing: “This ad­min­is­tra­tion takes an ex­pan­sive view of war au­thor­i­ties and is lean­ing into con­fronta­tion with Iran at a time when there are nu­mer­ous trip­wires for con­flict across the re­gion.”

‘Peo­ple were shocked. It was mind-bog­gling how cav­a­lier they are about hit­ting Iran’ For­mer se­nior of­fi­cial in US ad­min­is­tra­tion

PHO­TO­GRAPH: AN­DREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/REUTERS

▲ Mike Pom­peo with the Emi­rati am­bas­sador Yousef Al Otaiba in Abu Dhabi yes­ter­day

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