- WASHINGTON (IPS) -- Admiral
William Fallon, then President George W. Bush's nominee to head the Central
Command (CENTCOM), expressed strong opposition in February to an administration
plan to increase the number of carrier strike groups in the Persian Gulf
from two to three and vowed privately there would be no war against Iran
as long as he was chief of CENTCOM, according to sources with access to
- Fallon's resistance to the proposed deployment of a third
aircraft carrier was followed by a shift in the Bush administration's Iran
policy in February and March away from increased military threats and toward
diplomatic engagement with Iran. That shift, for which no credible explanation
has been offered by administration officials, suggests that Fallon's resistance
to a crucial deployment was a major factor in the intra-administration
struggle over policy toward Iran.
- The plan to add a third carrier strike group in the Gulf
had been a key element in a broader strategy discussed at high levels to
intimidate Iran by a series of military moves suggesting preparations for
a military strike.
- Admiral Fallon's resistance to a further buildup of naval
striking power in the Gulf apparently took the Bush administration by surprise.
Fallon, then Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, had been associated
with naval aviation throughout his career, and last January, Secretary
of Defence Robert Gates publicly encouraged the idea that the appointment
presaged greater emphasis on the military option in regard to the U.S.
conflict with Iran.
- Explaining why he recommended Fallon, Gates said, "As
you look at the range of options available to the United States, the use
of naval and air power, potentially, it made sense to me for all those
reasons for Fallon to have the job."
- Bush administration officials had just leaked to CBS
News and the New York Times in December that the USS John C. Stennis and
its associated warships would be sent to the Gulf in January six weeks
earlier than originally planned in order to overlap with the USS Eisenhower
and to "send a message to Tehran".
- But that was not the end of the signaling to Iran by
naval deployment planned by administration officials. The plan was for
the USS Nimitz and its associated vessels, scheduled to sail into the Gulf
in early April, to overlap with the other two carrier strike groups for
a period of months, so that all three would be in the Gulf simultaneously.
- Two well-informed sources say they heard about such a
plan being pushed at high levels of the administration, and Newsweek's
Michael Hirsh and Maziar Bahari reported Feb. 19 that the deployment of
a third carrier group to the Gulf was "likely".
- That would have brought the U.S. naval presence up to
the same level as during the U.S. air campaign against the Saddam Hussein
regime in Iraq, when the Lincoln, Constellation and Kitty Hawk carrier
groups were all present. Two other carrier groups helped coordinate bombing
sorties from the Mediterranean.
- The deployment of three carrier groups simultaneously
was not part of a plan for an actual attack on Iran, but was meant to convince
Iran that the Bush administration was preparing for possible war if Tehran
continued its uranium enrichment programme.
- At a mid-February meeting of top civilian officials over
which Secretary of Defence Gates presided, there was an extensive discussion
of a strategy of intimidating Tehran's leaders, according to an account
by a Pentagon official who attended the meeting given to a source outside
the Pentagon. The plan involved a series of steps that would appear to
Tehran to be preparations for war, in a manner similar to the run-up to
the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
- But Fallon, who was scheduled to become the CENTCOM chief
Mar. 16, responded to the proposed plan by sending a strongly-worded message
to the Defence Department in mid-February opposing any further U.S. naval
buildup in the Persian Gulf as unwarranted.
- "He asked why another aircraft carrier was needed
in the Gulf and insisted there was no military requirement for it,"
says the source, who obtained the gist of Fallon's message from a Pentagon
official who had read it.
- Fallon's refusal to support a further naval buildup in
the Gulf reflected his firm opposition to an attack on Iran and an apparent
readiness to put his career on the line to prevent it. A source who met
privately with Fallon around the time of his confirmation hearing and who
insists on anonymity quoted Fallon as saying that an attack on Iran "will
not happen on my watch".
- Asked how he could be sure, the source says, Fallon replied,
"You know what choices I have. I'm a professional." Fallon said
that he was not alone, according to the source, adding, "There are
several of us trying to put the crazies back in the box."
- Fallon's opposition to adding a third carrier strike
group to the two already in the Gulf represented a major obstacle to the
plan. The decision to send a second carrier task group to the Gulf had
been officially requested by Fallon's predecessor at CENTCOM, Gen. John
Abizaid, according to a Dec. 20 report by the Washington Post's Peter Baker.
But as Baker reported, the circumstances left little doubt that Abizaid
was doing so because the White House wanted it as part of a strategy of
sending "pointed messages" to Iran.
- CENTCOM commander Fallon's refusal to request the deployment
of a third carrier strike group meant that proceeding with that option
would carry political risks. The administration chose not to go ahead with
the plan. Two days before the Nimitz sailed out of San Diego for the Gulf
on Apr. 1, a Navy spokesman confirmed that it would replace the Eisenhower,
adding, "There is no plan to overlap them at all."
- The defeat of the plan for a third carrier task group
in the Gulf appears to have weakened the position of Cheney and other hawks
in the administration who had succeeded in selling Bush on the idea of
a strategy of coercive threat against Iran.
- Within two weeks, the administration's stance had already
begun to shift dramatically. On Jan. 12, Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice had dismissed direct talks with Iran in the absence of Tehran's suspension
of its uranium enrichment programme as "extortion". But by the
end of February, Rice had gotten authorisation for high level diplomatic
contacts with Iran in the context of a regional meeting on Iraq in Baghdad.
- The explanation for the shift offered by administration
officials to the New York Times was that the administration now felt that
it "had leverage" on Iran. But that now appears to have been
a cover for a retreat from the more aggressive strategy previously planned.
- Throughout March and April, the Bush administration avoided
aggressive language and the State Department openly sought diplomatic engagement
with Iran, culminating in the agreement confirmed by U.S. officials last
weekend that bilateral talks will begin with Iran on Iraq.
- Despite Vice President Dick Cheney's invocation of the
military option from the deck of the USS John C. Stennis in the Persian
Gulf last week, the strategy of escalating a threat of war to influence
Iran has been put on the shelf, at least for now.
- *Gareth Porter is an historian and national security
policy analyst. His latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of
Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in June 2005.
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