There is a danger that the US might bomb Iran before Bush leaves office. Already we are seeing escalating provocations against Iran. The most recent US mega-base under construction in Iraq is just a few kilometres from the Iranian border; Iranian diplomats in Iraq have been arrested by the US at the invitation of the Iraqi government; and there is no question that the US is carrying out covert action within Iran.
Signs that covert action is under way are shown in reports that Ahwaz Arab, a US funded group, recently shot down an Iranian fighter plane (although the Iranians claim that there was a technical problem with the aircraft), and according to Iranian television, one man from the US-supported Party for Free Life in Kurdistan was killed and one captured by Iranian forces in eastern Azerbaijan province.
So far Iran has responded in a rather sophisticated and mature manner, but how long that will last depends on US intentions. The danger is another Tonkin Gulf episode - when in 1964 the US crafted an incident claiming that Vietnamese ships had fired on a US gunboat as a pretext for escalation. There is every indication that the US would like to do that again to justify an attack on Iran.
Crucially we have also seen Israel carrying out military exercises in readiness for action. Iran's July missile tests were a response to the Israeli war games that took place the previous month. Israel would need advanced clearance for an attack on Iran, because it would require permission to work in Iraqi airspace. The Israeli air force can hit Iran, but not directly from Israel. Their flying fuel tankers would need to use Iraqi airspace, as would their search and rescue helicopters.
As to why the US has gone down this path, it is important to recognise that the Bush regime is not crazy or stupid, but key figures within it are driven by ideology rather than real political assessments of conditions on the ground. And there is a very serious divide within the regime, most explicitly between military brass and civilian ideologues. Even at the Pentagon there has been a shift: you no longer have former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and a very compliant set of generals. The current defence secretary Robert Gates is a far more cautious mainstream conservative - not personally a neo-con. And while the opposition within the military has been weakened, among other things by the forced resignation of Admiral Fallon, the highest-ranking military opponent to a strike on Iran, it is still known to exist. The recent statement made by Admiral Mullen, chair of the joint chiefs of staff, was the strongest explicit repudiation of military force from anyone in the Bush administration, and he said it in the context that Israel does not have a green light to strike. This suggests there is a good chance that an attack can be prevented.
A lot of the high-ranking neo-cons are now gone. Paul Wolfowitz [former deputy defence secretary and a major architect of Bush's Iraq policy] went off to the World Bank. Douglas Feith [who resigned as defence undersecretary in August 2005] is at Georgetown. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby [a former assistant to Bush and chief of staff to US vice president Dick Cheney] is a convicted felon. They are no longer in a position to make this happen. The realists like Condoleeza Rice and the current defence secretary Robert Gates seem to have more influence than they did last time around. Unfortunately there is still no one who can even approach Cheney's rank.
There is some wider Republican opposition to an attack on Iran. The effect on oil prices could hurt Republicans at the election. But neither Bush nor Cheney is running for office again, so they are not accountable to the Republican Party.
Strategically Iran and Iraq have always been the two most important countries in the region for the US because they have the power to be independent regional powers. They have oil; a sufficient size in terms of population and land; and they have water. There is no question that US has always wanted to control both of them. Now that they control one, Iran has remained the primary target, and that's what we're seeing playing out.
The international negotiations on the nuclear issue lend the US the credibility of bringing the world along with them. Even those who are pushing for some kind of military strike are very reluctant to move overtly alone. They need to be able to claim that they are operating in the context of the group of six [the six countries trying to coax Iran into negotiation: Britain, France, Germany, America, Russia and China]. How much that is actually a determinant of whether the US would go to war is a different question. But they need to go through the motions to make it appear as though they have given every shot at keeping the coalition intact before making that decision.
Iran in Iraq
At the same time, the current focus has shifted to Iran's activities within Iraq. This began about a year-and-a-half ago as the legitimacy of the claims about Iran's nuclear facilities began to fail - as more people began to understand that Iran doesn't have a nuclear weapons programme, the claim began to lose its ability to win supporters for an anti-Iran crusade. So the US changed its focus towards this claim that Iran was responsible for killing American troops in Iraq.
In fact it is very clear that Iran has every reason to be committed to creating stability in Iraq. The last thing it wants is for instability to spill over into its own borders. This was shown by the fighting in February in Basra, where the Iraqi military launched a major offensive backed up by US troops, and then Iran moved in to orchestrate the ceasefire between Muqtadar al-Sadr's forces and the Iraqi government.
Over and over again Iran is able to play this mediator role. There is no question that Iran has major interests in Iraq. They share a border for hundreds of miles; they do $2 billion a year in trade; and there is a long history of ties with the Shia political forces and some of the Sunnis in Iraq. Iran may be providing military support for various militias, perhaps even including the Iraqi military, which is functioning as one more militia controlled by the prime minister of Iraq.
So a strike on Iran would have very serious consequences. Some members of the US Congress have expressed relief that no one is talking about an invasion, 'just' a surgical strike. But while it is true that the US military is too stretched in Iraq and Afghanistan to mount a full invasion, there is no reason to think that Iran would not view a surgical strike on its nuclear facilities or on the Republican Guard (which is being viewed as 'terrorist') as an act of war. It would give Iran the legal right to self-defence under article 51 of the UN Charter.
Iran has threatened that if it were attacked it would strike Israel and close the Straits of Hormuz (the main shipping route for oil from the Persian Gulf). It has the capacity for a wide range of attacks, and the US is very vulnerable in that region. There are 150,000 American troops and 100,000 or so mercenaries in Iraq. Iran could essentially invade and take over southern Iraq; it could attack the Green Zone (in Baghdad) with missiles; it could attack US troop concentrations in Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or the 5th fleet in Bahrain. Iran could do all that before breakfast, so the options are wide open.
Of course, it may not respond that way - it could go to the International Court of Justice, much like the Nicaraguans did in the 1980s when the US mined the harbours of Nicaragua.
The US could act differently too. If elected, Obama probably wouldn't strike Iran in the absence of an actual Iranian military attack on US forces or Israel; McCain probably would. But that doesn't mean that if Bush launched an attack Obama wouldn't continue it. Obama has moved faster than anyone thought he would to the centre. In his speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (the pro-Israel lobby) he went shockingly far in his warnings to Iran and promises to Israel. There will be concern within Obama's campaign that he must not antagonise his core supporters over Iran, where he has distinguished himself powerfully from Bush and McCain by saying he would talk first.
And while Barack Obama has not said that he would take the military option off the table, his response to the Iranian missile testing was to reiterate the need for immediate unconditional negotiations.
Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, Washington DC, and the Transnational Institute. Her forthcoming books include Ending the Iraq War: a primer (Arris, £4.99) and Understanding the US-Iran Crisis: a primer (Arris, £4.99). Transcript: Oscar Reyes, Alex Nunns
Phyllis Bennis is Red Pepper’s United Nations correspondent, and a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.