With Iran on the Border, Expect no Quick Exit From Iraq

When former CIA head Leon Panetta took office as secretary of defense on July 1 he made it clear there would be no let-up in U.S. intervention abroad. He talked of "a big CIA presence" in Afghanistan, and pointed out that the CIA had "a lot of bases in Iraq" and "a number of operations" in Yemen. He failed only to mention the active U.S. military presence in Somalia, where the CIA maintains a large headquarters, drone missile sites, and an underground prison. Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said his priorities were to stabilize Afghanistan and end the war in Iraq. Panetta said his goal, "quite frankly, is to defeat al-Qaeda."

Panetta then flew to Baghdad, where he told an audience of American soldiers that "the reason you guys are here is because on 9/11 the United States got attacked." When reporters reminded Panetta that Iraq had no ties with the 9/11 attackers he replied that al-Qaeda fighters are there now. But he soon made it clear that Iran poses an equal challenge to U.S. interests in Iraq.

At a July 11 press conference, Panetta charged that Iran was providing Shi’i militias in Iraq with the weapons they used to kill Americans, and said, "We cannot simply stand back and allow this to happen." He threatened that the U.S. would act if the Iraqis did not. Panetta was joined in challenging Iran by Adm. Mike Mullen, outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who added that any discussion of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq after next year "has to be done in conjunction with controlling Iran in that regard."

The topper to U.S. charges against Iran came when the Obama administration accused Iran of allowing al-Qaeda to funnel funds and people through its territory. In a statement reminiscent of those used by the Bush administration to whip up war fever against Iraq, David S. Cohen of the Treasury Department said on July 28, "Iran is the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world today. We are illuminating yet another aspect of Iran’s unmatched support for terrorism." Cohen did not explain why predominantly Shi’i Iran would aid al-Qaeda, which adheres to a radical Sunni theology and has bitterly condemned Iran in the past.

According to a U.S. agreement with the Iraqis, all American forces must leave Iraq by the end of 2011 unless the Iraqis ask them to stay. Panetta along with other U.S. military commanders are pressuring them to do so. The problem Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki faces is that his coalition’s parliamentary majority requires the support of Shi’i cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and al-Sadr has vowed to take up arms against U.S. forces if they remain past the deadline.

Nevertheless, given Israel’s proclaimed fear of a nuclear Iran, and U.S. charges linking Iran to al-Qaeda, it seems certain that thousands of American soldiers, private contractors and CIA operatives will be in Iraq long after 2011. According to Yale professor David Bromwich, President Obama shows increasing signs of buying into lsraeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s claim that Iran’s nuclear capability poses an "existential threat" to Israel.

Bromwich writes in the July 14 issue of the New York Review of Books that the 2011 National Intelligence Estimate concluded there was no evidence that Iran’s nuclear program could yet produce a weapon and, according to Bromwich, Israeli intelligence sources are saying the same thing. But the Obama administration has suppressed the NIE report and Obama’s security advisers have blocked access to him by experts who defend its finding. Meanwhile, as Netanyahu drums up war fever in Israel and Washington, Obama has appointed as new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, who has close ties to the Israeli military. A June 1 article in Haaretz referring to Dempsey was even headlined, "Obama’s New Security Staff May Approve Attack on Iran."

Former Israeli intelligence officials recently warned that the current Israeli government intends to carry out such an attack, and the same warning was repeated by Robert Baer, a former CIA officer who spent 21 years in the Middle East. Baer predicts that Israel will launch an air strike in September aimed at incapacitating Iran’s nuclear facilities at Natanz. Citing former Mossad chief Meir Dagan’s description of Netanyahu as "dangerous and irresponsible," Baer said an Israeli attack on Iran would inevitably provoke retaliation, quite possibly against U.S. forces in Iraq. If so, the U.S. would be embroiled in yet another Middle East war.

That possibility undoubtedly figures in the administration’s determination to keep soldiers and other security personnel in Iraq until well after 2011. It seems never to have occurred to either the U.S. or Israel that Iran has far more reason to feel threatened than does Israel. The continued presence of U.S. troops on two of Iran’s borders, along with bellicose threats from Israel, are likely to convince the Iranians to do everything possible to defend themselves–”including producing a nuclear deterrent.

Such a reaction, though understandable, could prove disastrous for the Middle East and the rest of the world. As U.S. officials were trying in late July to secure the Iraqis’ agreement to an extended U.S. military presence, Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Walter Jones (R-NC) wrote a letter to Obama saying, "Leaving troops and military contractors in Iraq beyond the deadline is not in our nation’s security interests, it is not in our nation’s strategic interests, and it is not in our nation’s economic interests." Despite such truths, the sad reality is that American soldiers will continue to die in Iraq and Afghanistan–”if for no very good reason.