THE BLOG
02/21/2007 03:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

US Bites Thumb at Iran; Sanders Responds with Senate Counterpart to DeFazio Resolution

Recently US officials have been at great pains to state that the US has no intention of attacking Iran and why is everybody going on about this anyway. We're just minding our own business in Iraq, don't you know, unlike those meddling Iranians.

It's certainly positive that US officials are asserting that the US has no plans to attack Iran. But when you read the foreign press, a different picture emerges.

"US contingency plans for air strikes on Iran extend beyond nuclear sites and include most of the country's military infrastructure," the BBC reported yesterday.

"...diplomatic sources have told the BBC that as a fallback plan, senior officials at Central Command in Florida have already selected their target sets inside Iran.
...
BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner says the trigger for such an attack reportedly includes any confirmation that Iran was developing a nuclear weapon - which it denies.

Alternatively, our correspondent adds, a high-casualty attack on US forces in neighbouring Iraq could also trigger a bombing campaign if it were traced directly back to Tehran.
...
The BBC's Tehran correspondent Frances Harrison says the news that there are now two possible triggers for an attack is a concern to Iranians."

In this context, the recent flap about US accusations that Iran was behind attacks on US soldiers in Iraq ought to inform our concern about what would constitute "confirmation that Iran was developing a nuclear weapon" or whether a high-casualty attack on US forces had been "traced directly back to Tehran." In a matter of days, the US position evolved from certain that top Iranian officials were behind attacks on U.S. forces, to we don't know, to which is worse, if they know or if they don't know. [Jon Stewart skewers this evolution here.]

It's also worth considering what U.S. officials in the region are saying. The Gulf News reports on a statement by the commander of the Fifth Fleet:

"Although our presence in the Arabian Gulf is for defensive and not offensive purposes, the US will take military action if ships are attacked or if countries in the region are targeted or US troops come under direct attack," Patrick Walsh yesterday told journalists in Bahrain.


Now, we could be reassured by this. After all, this would seem to suggest that if Iran doesn't do any of these things it's not going to be attacked.

But the other way of looking at is this: no-one doubts for a second that if Iran were to attack U.S. troops the U.S. would respond. So what exactly is the point of clearing your throat and saying so?

Picture this: you're sitting in a bar. A guy walks in carrying a nightstick, rapping it against the open palm of his hand. He taps the bar with the nightstick to get everyone's attention, and says, "I just want everyone in this bar to know that if anyone attacks me, I'm not going to hesitate to use this nightstick."

"That's a relief," you think to yourself. "Because before he said that, I was under the mistaken impression that he was threatening us. I'm also glad that he clarified that he would defend himself if attacked, because I had some doubts about that."

This is what Jon Stewart referred to as "brinksmanship," which Shakespeare portrayed in the lines well-known to high school students:

ABRAHAM: Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?

SAMPSON: I do bite my thumb, sir.

ABRAHAM: Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?

SAMPSON [Aside to GREGORY]: Is the law of our side, if I say ay?

GREGORY: No.

SAMPSON: No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I bite my thumb, sir.

The disclaimers by U.S. officials have not satisfied Members of Congress. On February 15, Senator Sanders introduced S Con Res 13, companion to the DeFazio resolution in the House, affirming that "seeking congressional authority prior to taking military action against Iran is not discretionary, but is a legal and constitutional requirement." The Administration has yet to clarify whether they believe they have the authority to attack Iran without explicit Congressional authorization. At this writing, 66 Representatives have gone on record saying that the Bush Administration cannot attack Iran without Congressional authorization.

---

Get involved:
www.justforeignpolicy.org