washingtonpost.com
Not So Quiet on the Third Front

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, July 3, 2008

At this rate, the October Surprise won't be very surprising.

The threats, counterthreats, and counter-counterthreats between Israel, Iran and the United States have reached new levels of hysteria in recent days. Israel openly threatens to attack Iran's nuclear program, Iran threatens to shut down oil-shipping lanes, and the commander of the U.S. fleet in the Persian Gulf, Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff, says this would be an "act of war" requiring an American military response.

That was the backdrop yesterday as Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, faced the cameras in the Pentagon briefing room. Mullen, just back from a trip to Israel that further raised speculation about an Israeli attack, was asked whether Cosgriff's saber rattling would raise tensions with Iran.

"Actually," the chairman replied, "I think Admiral Cosgriff, who made that statement, is making an accurate statement."

Or, as John McCain might sing, "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran."

The doldrums of the Fourth of July recess have been enlivened by fresh talk of another war. Is it a diplomatic bluff or a serious possibility? Perhaps some of each: Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, told the Associated Press yesterday that the possibility of an attack is "craziness" -- but, just in case, he also made sure in the same interview to speak about progress in negotiations with the West.

The administration, for its part, seems eager to convince Iran that President Bush is crazy enough to sanction an attack. In the Rose Garden yesterday, Brett Baier of Fox News asked Bush how confident he is that Israel won't launch a military attack on Iran before the end of the year. "I have always said that all options are on the table, but the first option for the United States is to solve this problem diplomatically," came Bush's mild reply.

ABC's Martha Raddatz invited Bush to "strongly discourage Israel" from such an activity. The president declined. "I have made it very clear to all parties that the first option ought to be to solve this problem diplomatically," he said.

Neither did the State Department offer discouragement. Spokesman Sean McCormack, at his daily briefing, said the matter of an Israeli strike isn't "under our control." When it was pointed out that the U.S. controls Iraqi airspace, through which Israeli warplanes would travel to hit Iran, McCormack declined to answer a "hypothetical question involving military planning."

As in most things involving the Bush administration, clarity can be found in the name Cheney -- in this case the vice president's daughter Liz, speaking last week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I think the Iranians have to believe that we will use force if necessary, and I'm concerned because you had statements for a period of time there from people like the commander in Centcom, who has since been relieved, suggesting that force was off the table," she said.

Liz Cheney further recommended doing "everything we can to dispel this idea that, somehow, we don't have the capacity militarily to take action," and she said it is crucial to make Iran realize, "despite what you may be hearing from Congress, despite what you may be hearing from others in the administration who might be saying force isn't on the table, that we're serious." As for an Israeli strike on Iran, she said: "I certainly don't think that we should do anything but support them."

Cheney may soon get her chance. Last month, Israel held a major military drill that was widely seen as preparation for an attack on Iran's nuclear program. Around the same time, three prominent Israeli officials made public comments about the likelihood of an attack. Then came Seymour Hersh's article in the New Yorker reporting an increase in U.S. covert activities in Iran, along with Iran's threat to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, through which a large chunk of the world's oil passes. This week, ABC News featured an unnamed senior defense official talking about "an increasing likelihood" of an Israeli attack by the end of the year.

In front of the cameras yesterday, Mullen tried to warn about the military problems such an attack would set off. "This is a very unstable part of the world," the chairman said, "and I don't need it to be more unstable." With troops already stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan, he acknowledged that "opening up a third front right now would be extremely stressful" on the U.S. military. The chief warrior therefore appealed for "other elements of national power to change Iranian behavior, including diplomatic, financial and international pressure."

But Mullen, informed by his discussions with Israeli military officials, did not offer much reassurance that an Israeli strike could be avoided. Iran, he said, is "still on a path to get to nuclear weapons, and I think that's something that needs to be deterred."

Might Iran have enough nuclear fuel to build a bomb by the year's end?

"I don't want to address that," the chairman said.

Is Israel operating on a shorter time frame than the United States?

Mullen said past discussions "indicated that they were."

Is there a danger that all the bluffing could cause an actual war?

"It is high stakes, there's no question, in this part of the world, and I guess I'd just leave it at that."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company