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Issue Date:  December 7, 2007

-- Pedro Molina

Leaders who've 'left the ground'

The media monitor a run-up to possible war with Iran


Many remember the final minutes of Stanley Kubrick’s film “Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”

A bonkers Air Force general orders a nuclear attack on Russia. The planes can’t be called back. Unfortunately, the Soviets have built a doomsday machine which, if triggered by being bombed, will automatically destroy the world.

Meanwhile, in the bunker under Washington, the president is confused, and a mad scientist, Dr. Strangelove, played by Peter Sellers with a Henry Kissinger-like accent, explains how a select percentage of superior people, like those in the bunker, can survive in abandoned mineshafts.

One bomber makes it through the air defenses and zooms in on Russia. Fanatically determined to fight communism, a pilot with a Texas accent mounts the nuclear bomb as it falls out of the plane. Riding it into the void, he waves his cowboy hat and yells “Wahoo!” as the planet begins to be blown to bits.

A recent Denver Post cartoon recalls this mad moment. Two bombs labeled “Pre-emptive Strike II” hurtle through space. George Bush, riding one, waves his cowboy hat, and Dick Cheney, riding the other and reading a CIA report, says that Iran may be five to 10 years from building a nuclear weapon, but “unfortunately, the American people are at least five and probably more than 10 years from being able to elect another administration like us.”

The country’s leaders, having started a war in Iraq they can’t control or end, want the world to believe we are ready to start another war next door in Iran.

When my NCR column reviewed the press coverage of the preparation for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I noted the mainstream press, with the exception of a few opinion magazines and NCR , failed to foresee the disaster in the making. Congress was cowed into submission, knocking its knees in fear of being labeled “unpatriotic.”

In recent weeks the administration has been beating war drums again. The bogeyman now is Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, allegedly both on the brink of making a nuclear weapon and undermining our efforts in Iraq by supplying the makings of roadside bombs to insurgents. The administration has declared the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization, which may be one step short of justifying air strikes or an invasion to wipe them out.

Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary and Rudy Guliani’s foreign policy adviser, wrote in October that President Ahmadinejad is another Hitler. Mr. Podhoretz, who recently had a 45-minute meeting with President Bush, “prays with all his heart” that for the sake of the United States and Israel, President Bush will hit Iran before leaving office.

But this time both the intellectual and mass media, from The Chronicle of Higher Education to “Doonesbury,” are less supine.

In “Doonesbury,” Cheney has become the black-hooded, Darth-Vader-like Lord Cheney, who orders his minions to devise a plan where Iran’s neighbor, Berserkistan, will provoke Iran into a fight so that the United States can come to Berserkistan’s rescue.

On PBS Oct. 30, Charlie Rose asked Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, whether the administration was playing a Cheney-Rice bad cop-good cop charade to scare Iran. Mr. ElBaradei replied that it wouldn’t work, for Iranians are a proud and ancient people. They have the scientific knowledge, but nuclear weapons are a long time away.

Mr. ElBaradei said the Iranians want good relations with the United States but are flexing their muscles. If attacked, several commentators say, they can hit Israel with missiles, cut supplies to U.S. troops in Iraq and kill them with missiles. They can draw in nearby Pakistan, a nuclear power. Oil prices could soar as the United States becomes trapped in a regional war for 20 years.

Seymour Hersh in the Oct. 8 New Yorker and on PBS’ “Frontline” Oct. 23 made it clear that yes, we are preparing another war, and it would be a terrible mistake.

The president’s position, according to Mr. Hersh, is that if things are going badly in Iraq, it is because of Iran, so we must confront Iran. The White House seems to realize that there is not enough popular support for a general bombing campaign, so Dick Cheney has pressed the Joint Chiefs of Staff to “take out” Iran’s anti-aircraft missiles, prepare “surgical strikes,” using sea-launched cruise missiles on Revolutionary Guard bases in Tehran and elsewhere, followed by Special Forces land incursions on suspected training sites. All this on the grounds that the Guards are hurting our troops in Iraq.

Meanwhile, the CIA is building up its Iran desk for the conflict. Analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggests that the United States has classified weapons it might use against nuclear targets, and the History Channel on Nov. 5 depicted the massive ordinance penetrator bunker buster where one bomb pierces the earth to the underground target and the second follows down the hole to blow it up.

Other sources, however, point out that the case against Iran is flawed. The Iranian and Iraqi Shiites have traditionally been allied religiously as well as politically. Tufts University scholar Vali Nasr told Mr. Hersh that last year a million Iranians went to Iraq on pilgrimages and more than a billion dollars a year in trade link the two countries. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki told the Council of Foreign Relations last month that Iraq’s relations with Iran had “improved to the point that they are not interfering in our internal affairs.”

Furthermore, David Kay, former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, suggests that Gen. David Petraeus’ characterization of Iran’s interference may go beyond the evidence. There are so many weapons glutting the black market from both Iraq wars -- including stockpiles of the explosives used in roadside bombs as well as charges recovered from unexploded American cluster bombs -- that it is a stretch to blame insurgent weapons all on Iran.

Debating Mr. Podhoretz on the “Lehrer News Hour” Oct. 29, Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria said that even if Iran does develop a nuclear weapon, we could restrain Iran by deterrence as we restrained the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Deterrence, however, presumes rationality on both sides. As Mr. Cordesman says, the only way you could favor attacking Iran now “is if you become obsessed by computer war games and you’ve forgotten there are real people somewhere outside the computer.”

Speaking at the conclusion of the Sept. 23 “Frontline” broadcast, Iran’s former vice president, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, said, “Leaders in both countries [the United States and Iran] don’t just see themselves as politicians; they also see themselves as carrying out the work of God. They’ve left the ground a bit. And that’s very dangerous for the world.”

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth’s The American Jesuits: A History has just been published by New York University Press. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2007

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