The Florida Keys War
By Chris Oakley
Adapted from material originally posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the previous chapters of this series we explored the causes of the Florida Keys War; the course of the war itself; and the war’s impact on the subsequent course of human history. In this segment we’ll deal with President Bush’s reaction to the 9/11 attacks and Iran’s involvement with them, as well as the unexpected rise to power of a Latin American ruler who sought to spark a revival of Castroism.
Drums of War: September 2001-April 2002
From the second the first bodies were pulled out of the rubble of the World Trade Center there were suggestions that a rogue state had a hand in the 9/11 attacks, but for several days after they happened no one could put their hands on any concrete proof Iran was tied to the attackers. Indeed, public suspicion initially put the blame on North Korea, which in the weeks immediately before the attacks had been making some highly bellicose statements in defense of its decision to abandon its nuclear disarmament talks with the United States.
The facts about the link between Iran and the 9/11 hijackers finally began to emerge in mid-September of 2001, when a senior Jordanian intelligence officer met with new CIA director Paul Wolfowitz to present him with documents said to outline the precise money-laundering system through which the Iranian foreign intelligence service had sought to disguise its financial backing of the attacks. The officer-- referred to in subsequent agency memos as "Colonel Akbar" for security purposes --also mentioned that an investigation of Islamic extremists groups in Jordan had confirmed that one such group had acted as go-betweens for the hijackers and their sponsors in Tehran.
Over the next three months, the White House directed a multi- national intelligence effort to uncover further evidence which could confirm Iranian links to 9/11. Britain’s MI6, France’s Sureté, Israel’s MOSSAD and the Iraqi External Security Bureau (ESB) worked hand-in-glove with the CIA to gather documents and other material that could be sued to make a case for taking stern action against Iran; Cuba took an active interest in the probe as well-- three of the 22 hijackers involved in the suicide attacks were Cuban nationals who had converted to Islam in the mid-1990s. Furthermore, shortly after 9/11 Cuban police had arrested a man who’d tried to blow up a Havana-to-Miami passenger flight using a bomb hidden inside, of all things, his shoes.1
In a televised speech in January of 2002, President Bush branded Iran as part of an "axis of evil"2 with Syria and North Korea actively working to undermine world peace. By that time, Tehran’s denials of a role in 9/11 were falling on deaf ears and the White House was lining up international backing for economic as well as military actions aimed at coercing Iran into cooperating with the effort to bring the authors of the hijack plot to justice.
Three weeks after the Bush address, the UN General Assembly approved harsh economic sanctions against Iran and passed a resolution authorizing the use of military force if the Iranian government did not hand the masterminds of the 9/11 conspiracy over for trial by noon on April 3rd. Predictably, the Iranians reacted with defiance to the UN’s decision, threatening that they would obliterate any foreign force that dared venture across their borders.
As the clock ticked towards the April 3rd deadline, the United States and its allies in the Middle East marshaled their forces to be ready to attack should it prove necessary to go to war with Iran. Donald Rumsfeld, then in his second tenure as Secretary of Defense3, acted as the point man for the White House’s efforts to make the case for military action to the American public, while British prime minister Tony Blair was its chief advocate on the foreign stage.
By far, the harder task was Blair’s; not only was Britain home to a sizable Muslim population, but many countries in the Persian Gulf had ties to Iran as well as the West and were reluctant to jeopardize them. Saudi Arabia was in a particularly awkward spot: it had supplied money and arms to Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war and in turn allowed Iranian clerics to teach at some of its most important religious schools, or madrassas. And frankly, as one Saudi diplomat told Blair’s then-Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Riyadh was terrified that if it appeared too enthusiastic about supporting the West in a military showdown with Iran, the Islamic fundamentalist regime might use it as an excuse to foment revolt against the Saudi royal family.
China and Russia were also leery of getting into a military clash with Iran, though not quite for the same reasons. Both countries had long-running-- and highly lucrative --economic and arms sales treaties with Tehran and were reluctant to endanger them; on top of that, Vladimir Putin saw Iran as a potential profit center for Russia’s commercial nuclear power industry, which had fallen on hard times in the post-Chernobyl era.
As he had done during the Korean nuclear crisis, Australia’s John Howard came down four-square in favor of military action against Iran. He generated controversy in the Australian Muslim community when, at a press conference in Canberra in late March, he made an off-handed comment that "if we just made a bloody big parking lot out of Tehran that would fix half the problems in the Middle East straightaway"4; this sparked protests from left-wing activists who interpreted his comment as proof of anti-Islamic bigotry on Howard’s part.
Iraq and Kuwait, suspicious of their regional neighbor’s long- term intentions and goals, also supported military action. Iraq in particular was anxious to keep the Iranians from acquiring a nuclear capability; they knew all too well that the mullahs in Tehran, frustrated by their inability to win the Iran-Iraq war a generation earlier, would not be shy about using such weapons to try and settle unfinished business from those days.
The Iraqis were also concerned that the Shiite-dominated Iranian government would try to recruit Iraq’s own Shi’a community to mount an uprising against the largely Sunni Baghdad government. Thus far, Baghdad had been largely successful in keeping a lid on such revolts, but with the backing of a nuclear-armed Iran there was a danger that these would-be insurgents might yet succeed in pulling off a coup; at the very least they might manage to touch off a civil war. Thus Iraq wanted the nuclear trump card knocked out of Tehran’s hands as quickly as possible.
Israel also wanted to see Iran’s fledgling nuclear weapons program neutralized. Indeed, the country’s prime minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, had indirectly hinted both before and after the 9/11 attacks that if push came to shove he wasn’t shy about acting unilaterally to stop Iran from getting the bomb; it had taken a great deal of persuasion on President Bush’s part to deter Sharon from making good on his threats.
In a last-ditch attempt to prevent war from breaking out, Vladimir Putin sent two of his most experienced Middle East diplomats to Iran to try and negotiate a compromise solution. But Tehran wasn’t interested; the new Iranian prime minister, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, saw the men who’d devised the 9/11 plot as heroes and told Putin’s envoys in no uncertain terms that he would not, under any circumstances, turn them over for criminal trial. He also stated that the Iranian people were determined to acquire a nuclear capability come hell or high water.
At noon US Eastern time on April 3rd, 2002, President Bush’s deadline passed without any signals that Ahmadinejad would back down. One hour later, Iranian air defense squadrons were engaged in pitched battle with tactical fighters off the Enterprise, Nimitz, and HMS Illustrious along with land-based F-16s, F-15s, Eurofighter Typhoons and Harriers out of Afghanistan; almost simultaneously submarines and destroyers in the Arabian Sea were joining with B-52s from Diego Garcia to fire a punishing barrage of cruise missiles at strategic targets like the oil refineries at Abadan and command/control targets inside Tehran. For the second time in its history the United States was leading a multi-national alliance into war with a Middle East dictator.
Just outside Iran’s frontiers, over 570,000 ground troops from 17 countries stood poised to cross the Iranian border. While it would be at least ten days before these forces could enter the fray en masse, at least one Iranian strategic target had already come under ground fire; in between the time Bush’s ultimatum had expired and the time the first coalition fighters entered Iranian airspace, a joint SAS-Navy SEAL demolitions team had wrecked an Iranian oil terminal at Kharg Island.
"It Smells Like Sulfur In Here": April-June 2002
While not everyone agreed with the US-sponsored coalition’s decision to go to war with Iran, there was little if any sympathy for the Tehran government; the prevailing consensus in world capitals was that Ahmadinejad and his cronies had brought their present plight on themselves by refusing to either abandon their nuclear program or co-operate with efforts to bring the authors of the 9/11 conspiracy to justice. There was, however, one conspicuous and highly vocal exception to this line of thinking-- the recently-elected president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez.
Chavez’s accession to the presidency had caught most political experts off-guard; a previous run in 1998 had collapsed in the face of ballot fraud charges against his campaign team, and on top of that he espoused a form of socialism that most people in and out of Latin American believed to have been discredited in the wake of Fidel Castro’s overthrow more than four decades earlier.
But the former Venezuelan air force colonel was a highly persuasive speaker and a dynamic personality; he also had what to many in his country seemed like a noble vision of helping the downtrodden masses escape the poverty which had marked their lives for decades. Questions about the validity of the ballot fraud accusations that had dogged his 1998 campaign were pushed to one side as a tidal wave of popular acclaim swept him into power.
Jeb Bush was leery of the new administration in Caracas, and with some justification; even before taking office, Chavez had made a number of statements harshly critical of the United States. In August of 2000, when Al Gore was making his final presidential tour of Latin America and meeting with Chavez’s predcessor Rafael Caldera, the ex-air force officer and future Venezuelan head of state quipped to reporters after Gore left Caracas: "The devil has passed through here and this place still smells of sulfur."5 In the early months of Bush’s administration, when Washington and Beijing were at odds over the Hainan Island incident, Chavez openly rooted for the Chinese to use nuclear weapons to wipe Los Angeles and San Francisco off the face of the earth.6
So it was no surprise when, in the first hours of the Iran War, Chavez vented his displeasure at the Bush Administration by way of threats to cut off Venezuelan oil shipments to America. He was forced to back off this particular form of protest after learning that many Americans were boycotting the Venezuelan-owned fuel company Citgo in their own protest over Chavez’s authoritarian and anti-US policies.
What he didn’t back off from a series of statements in which he essentially accused Washington of engineering the 9/11 attacks as a pretext for justifying pre-emptive aggression against the Third World. "He(Bush) does not like it when other countries disagree with him," Chavez told a BBC journalist, "so of course he starts a fight and tries to blame it on the other fellow." When he made this observation two days after the war began, he seemed to have rather conveniently forgotten some of his own belligerent behavior towards his own neighbors as well as the United States; nonetheless, it was a perfect illustration of the contempt in which the Venezuelan president held the world’s sole remaining superpower.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was greatly heartened by Chavez’s words, and in May of 2002 he sent Chavez a letter to express his appreciation for the Venezuelan president’s backing in Iran’s battle with the West; Chavez returned the favor by sending a letter of his own to Ahmadinejad’s foreign minister swearing Venezuela’s "undying" friendship with Iran. Both letters were viewed by the Bush Administration as a PR bonanza, for now the commander-in-chief had(at least in his view) evidence that Chavez and Ahmadinejad were co-operating as part of a broader global anti-American front.
While Chavez and Ahmadinejad were exchanging their written vows of eternal friendship, coalition and Iranian ground troops were exchanging gunfire near Abadan...
American Civil War general William Sherman once famously observed that "war is hell", and the showdown between coalition and Iranian troops for control of Abadan proved him right on that score. In contrast to the swiftness with which US and allied ground units had torn through Iraqi defenses in Desert Storm, coalition troops who fought in Operation Persian Dawn found it tough slogging trying to overcome the fanatical resistance by Iranian regular soldiers and Revolutionary Guards protecting this strategically important oil production center.
However, the United States and its coalition partners enjoyed a considerable edge in air power; despite its best efforts to redress technical and numerical shortcomings that had plagued it since the end of the Iran-Iraq war, the Iranian air force still labored under something of a disadvantage against its Western adversaries. The UN economic and arms embargo on Iran had done a great deal exacerbate that disadvantage, and within less than two weeks after Operation Persian Dawn7 got under at least half of Iran’s fighter defense strength had been lost not only to enemy fire but also to mechanical problems stemming from poor maintenance.
In early June of 2002, the deadlock in the struggle for Abadan was finally broken when the US Air Force used unmanned Predator drone aircraft to fire a series of rocket barrages into several key Iranian defensive positions along the southern and western edges of the city. Caught off guard by this merciless volley from an unexpected quarter, the Iranian defenders were easy pickings for the subsequent US and British tank assaults that breached their perimeter. The last pockets of Revolutionary Guard resistance inside the city were captured by US Marines on June 7th; the neighboring town of Khorramshahr fell three days later.
Next in the crosshairs of coalition forces was the city of Isfahan...
To Be Continued
1The would-be bomber was foiled at the last minute when an alert stewardess noticed the improvised shoe bomb and quietly notified the pilot, who then landed his plane in Cienfuegos; moments after the landing the failed bomber was taken into police custody.
2"Bush Accuses Iran Of Being Part Of ‘Axis of Evil’ With Syria and N. Korea, Demands Co-Operation From Tehran In Arresting 9/11 Masterminds In White House TV Address", New York Times, January 15th, 2002. 3 Rumsfeld, who succeed Colin Powell shortly after Powell resigned in February of 2001, first served as Defense Secretary, during Gerald Ford’s brief term as President.
4Quoted from a March 23rd, 2002 story in the Sydney Morning Herald
5"Venezuelan Opposition Leader Calls President Gore ‘The Devil’", Washington Post, August 22nd, 2000.
6The possibility that American nuclear weapons could do the same to Beijing and Shanghai-- and Caracas, for that matter --apparently never crossed Chavez’s mind.
7The official Pentagon code name for the multi-national military campaign against Iran.