By Joby Warrick and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 13, 2008
The abrupt resignation of the Pentagon's top Middle East commander has silenced one of the Bush administration's fiercest opponents of a unilateral military strike against Iran, yet top administration officials themselves do not see real prospects for military action before the end of President Bush's term, current and former U.S. officials say.
Adm. William J. "Fox" Fallon, who announced Tuesday that he is quitting as head of the U.S. Central Command, had irked the White House in recent months by publicly opposing possible military action against Iran. But support for a military strike within the administration has eroded steadily in recent months, and Fallon's departure will do little to change that, the officials said.
Instead, absent an unforeseen precipitating event, the current policy of seeking multilateral diplomatic and economic sanctions against Iran as punishment for its nuclear-weapons-related work will continue until Bush leaves office and beyond, according to administration officials and independent experts.
Bush has publicly maintained that he wants to use diplomacy to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, but he has pointedly refused to take the military option off the table. Some experts cautioned that Bush's views could still trump his advisers' contrary opinions.
Yet, the administration's ability to execute such a strategy has been weakened in recent months, said former officials and Iran experts, in large measure because a November intelligence estimate on Iran lessened anxieties that the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons capability is imminent.
"The way [White House officials] see Iran has not gone away," said Vali Nasr, an authority on Iran at Tufts University. "Their capacity to do something has been cut down."
The intelligence report -- a consensus document reflecting the views of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies -- concluded that Iran had frozen its research on nuclear weapons design in 2003, even though it has steadily increased its capacity to make enriched uranium, an essential ingredient in both nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants.
Fallon, the officer in charge of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for the past year, had been seen by administration critics as a powerful check against White House hawks who have pushed for a military confrontation against Iran's ruling clerics. In an article released this week in Esquire magazine, Fallon's opposition was depicted as the chief reason Bush had not decided to launch a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.
The Esquire article said that if Fallon left his job, it would signal an impending attack against Iran. Administration officials, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, have publicly rejected the article's contention as absurd.
"Our policy towards Iran has been set out very clearly and very publicly, most recently in successfully obtaining a third Security Council resolution," said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe. He said the president has "made it clear, as have other senior officials, and there's no change in that: Iran needs to comply" with the international demands.
While officials have reiterated that the NIE said Iran could eventually produce nuclear arms, former and current officials said the White House is aware that many hold that there is plenty of time for diplomacy to work. Unlike the situation in 2003, when the administration invaded Iraq without the backing of many allies, action against Iran would need both congressional and allied support not evident now, the officials said.
Many outside experts say the war in Iraq has empowered Iran, but some senior Bush administration officials insist that Iran has never been more isolated. They contend that financial sanctions have begun to pinch the Iranian elite and that Tehran's diplomats are nervously roaming the Arab world seeking to forestall a U.S.-inspired, anti-Iranian alliance.
Fallon was hardly the only administration figure to express reservations about military action on Iran, and today similar concerns are said to be held by Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the removal of Fallon theoretically gives Bush an opportunity to replace him with a commander more open to the idea of military strikes. "It made the task bureaucratically simpler," Takeyh said, though he stressed he doubts that is the direction the administration will go."
"There's no international consensus. There's no domestic consensus. There's this whole NIE situation," Takeyh said. Others said that a decision on Fallon's replacement is not likely to be made in coming days.
Danielle Pletka, the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, agreed that it would be "overreading" the situation to say that Fallon's resignation raises the possibility of a military strike on Iran. "I don't think anything is happening right now," she said, while adding a caution: The key unknown variable is Bush, who has repeatedly indicated he does not want to pass on problems to his successor.
"I think there is a possibility that the president would feel that he could not leave without trying to address this problem," she said. "Nobody knows what the president thinks, and all I can say is to go by what he says -- and he has always said he thinks he has to deal with this problem."
Staff writers Karen DeYoung, Glenn Kessler and Josh White contributed to this report.