The most important battle in Washington today is not the shouting match between Congress and the White House on Iraq. The Bush...

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The most important battle in Washington today is not the shouting match between Congress and the White House on Iraq. The Bush administration will do what it damn well pleases in Iraq, and then blame the resulting catastrophe on Democrats, the media or Iran.

Ah, there’s the catch. The important battle in Washington is over Iran, and neither Congress nor the mainstream media seems to be playing. They should — another mistake here and the Middle East will be Iraq writ large.

Combatants here are the familiar neoconservatives, centered on Vice President Dick Cheney and the others who manipulated us into Iraq, versus what might be called Friends of the Iraq Study Group. It’s talk or bomb, and although at the moment it appears talking is the preferred option, never count the aggressive neocons out of the argument.

An ambitious “regime change” plan for Iran was first choice of many neocons before 9/11, but was sidetracked because Iran was actually helping us against the Taliban and because Iraq was considered an easier target. But Iranian regime change never went off the neocon table, and when Iran’s nuclear ambitions surfaced, so did the old plans.

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There are disconcerting reminders of 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson used trumped-up evidence of an attack in the Gulf of Tonkin to expand the Vietnam War. Today, two carrier groups are parked off Iran, tempting targets for any wacko with a gunboat full of dynamite.

We have captured and questioned hundreds of Iranians in Iraq, including some with diplomatic status. We are actively involved in building an insurgency inside Iran, using Kurdish tribes in the north and urban Marxist terrorists in Tehran. The neocons even have an Iranian counterpart to Ahmad Chalabi, the notorious liar and neocon favorite who fed us false intelligence on Iraq: a seamy Iranian named Manucher Ghorbanifar, an arms dealer and con artist linked to Oliver North during Iran-contra 20 years ago.

We are even hearing a renewal of the “domino theory” so discredited in Vietnam. “Most thoughtful people believe,” Democratic hopeful John Edwards told a reporter, “that if Iran goes nuclear that the Saudis will go nuclear, the Egyptians will go nuclear, the Jordanians may go nuclear … ” Edwards wants “a thoughtful diplomatic process.” Quickly, we hope, before Bahrain gets the bomb!

All of these actions can be seen as either “showing tough” to Iran or as goading Iranians to do something provocative, giving us an excuse to bomb their nuclear facilities. Add to this the itchy trigger finger of Israel, which no American politician dares criticize, and things become very dicey.

As with Iraq in 2002, the mainstream media are telling us little about backroom maneuverings focusing on Iran. The most effective journalism on this comes from three magazines, none of which much reaches the American heartland: The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone. Backroom plotting doesn’t play as well on television as pictures of suspected Iran-made roadside bombs.

Although it is far too early to count the neocons out — not while Cheney has Bush’s ear — there are signs of a cooling of the regime-change rhetoric. Superhawk John Bolton has lost his United Nations platform, and some of the neocons at the Pentagon are gone. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seems to be growing into her diplomatic role and she has access to the Oval Office that was not available to Colin Powell.

Within Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s populist demagoguery may be losing popularity, pressed on one side by young urbanites who want attention paid to economic and social demands and on the other by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has recently left the door open to negotiations on Iran’s nuclear future.

An American or Israeli air strike, however, would rally Iranians to Ahmadinejad and inflame Islamists across the region.

All these circumstances combine to make direct negotiations with Iraq’s neighbors critical, as recommended by the Iraq Study Group. Pay no attention to the public comments of White House spokesmen — they are not credible — pay attention to what the White House actually does. If we engage in serious talks with Iran, it’s positive even if the president won’t admit a change of course.

Congressional Democrats must support the talks and reject the bombs. Iraq is gone, regardless of what President Bush does in his last 20 months. But if he launches — or allows Israel to launch — preemptive strikes on Iran, his successor will inherit a worse mess than Bush faced on Sept. 12, 2001.

Floyd J. McKay, a journalism professor emeritus at Western Washington University, is a regular contributor to Times editorial pages. E-mail him at

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