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 look at the final days of the battle for Tehran and chart the deterioriation in diplomatic ties between Caracas and Havana during the latter stages of the Montoya administration.
O Untimely Death: April-July 2003
By now the question was not if or even when the final collapse of Iran’s Islamic fundamentalist regime was coming; it was how to guarantee that a suitable postwar administrative structure could be set up in its place. Winning the peace would prove to be just as arduous a struggle as winning the war had been, and Jeb Bush was determined to prove that his administration was equal to the task.
But time was growing short-- allied troops now held 70% of Tehran and were pushing deep into the remaining 30%. Like Hitler in Berlin in the closing days of the Second World War, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was holed up underground indulging fantasies that the course of the fighting might still be turned around and Iran gain the final triumph after all. Never mind if most of his country’s capital city was now under allied occupation, or that many of his own people were openly cursing his name. If Ahmadinejad said the Iranian army and Revolutionary Guards would prevail, then it had to be so.
Allied air and ground forces, meanwhile, were doing their level best to prove him wrong. On April 13th, 2003 US F-15 Strike Eagles and British Tornadoes took out one of the last of the Iranian regular army’s tank platoons in a surprise air strike timed to coincide with the latest ground push into the heart of Tehran. By now allied ground troops were getting a measure of assistance from armed anti-government Iranians who were fed up with the death and hardship their leaders had brought upon them. Volunteer militias had been spontaneously forming in recent days as the Islamic regime’s grip on power continued to fade away, and they would help put the final nails in the coffin of that regime.
In eastern Iran, Pakistani ground troops were doing their part for the allied cause with diversionary attacks on Revolutionary Guard outposts in that region, making the already impossible task the Iranian general staff had to perform that much harder.1 Some Iranian military officers opted to wash their hands of the war altogether, walking across the border and defecting to Azerbaijan the first chance they got.
By April 15th, all but a few square blocks of Tehran were under allied control and what was left of Iran’s Islamic fundamentalist regime found themselves trapped like rats in a maze. Not that it particularly bothered Ahmadinejad much; if anything, he felt it a great privilege to be able to die a martyr, and had already laid aside sufficient amounts of explosive to blow himself up if and when allied soldiers entered his bunker. He had also videotaped a farewell address to the Iranian people urging them to continue the fight against the allied forces in his memory.
But broadcasting that tape would prove easier said than done; the war had wreaked havoc on Iran’s television infrastructure, and allied communications personnel were beaming a steady stream of anti-Ahmadinejad video into the country to destroy what was left of his political power base among the Iranian masses. So the besieged Iranian dictator turned to one of his remaining secret agents and instructed him to smuggle the tape to the al-Jazeera network’s headquarters in Qatar; once the video was safely on its way to its intended destination, he said a final prayer to Allah and made himself ready for martyrdom.
Luck was not with him, however; when he tried to set the bombs off as US forces were storming his bunker, a malfunction in the trigger mechanism prevented them from detonating. The Iranian dictator and most of those present in the bunker with him were captured; the rest either shot themselves or fled to take refuge elsewhere.
A new provisional Iranian government was formed in Qom the next day and opened cease-fire negotiations with the allied powers. Clearly few, if any, Iranians who saw Ahmadinejad’s "farewell" video were interested in heeding his call for keeping up the war against the US-sponsored coalition; even among the Revolutionary Guards there was a disaffected element that wanted to quit the fight, and it was this element that finally nudged the provisional government into making peace with the West.
On April 22nd, 2003, General Franks and his senior staff met with surviving officers of the Iranian armed forces high command in Shiraz to sign a surrender agreement that officially ended hostilities between Iran and the allied powers. The Iran War was finally over; now it was time to count the dead and set to work on the critical tasks of rebuilding the shattered country and calling to account those who’d perpetrated human rights abuses and acts of terrorism in the name of its former rulers.
One month after the Shiraz peace pact was signed, American diplomat L. Paul Bremer was named to head the Allied Provisional Administration, the civilian authority which had been set up by the allied nations to handle the diplomatic and political aspects of Iran’s postwar occupation. Even those who didn’t know much else about the war were familiar with Bremer; he’d been the White House’s point man on US diplomatic efforts to gain Middle Eastern support for Operation Persian Dawn before the war began, and during the war he’d been an unofficial liaison between the White House and the Iranian exile community as the Bush Administration sought to create a viable alternative to the theocracy that had once ruled Iran.
Now he would have the task of putting a political and cultural Humpty Dumpty back together in the war’s aftermath. The country’s transportation infrastructure and economy were in ruins, its industry was practically non-existent, much of its oil production capability had been crippled by the war, and its agriculture was unable to provide more than a fifth of the foodstuffs its people needed for daily living.
Bremer formally assumed his duties on July 15th, 2003 amid a fair amount of controversy; liberals back in the States chided him for not taking a more active role in undoing the misogynist attitudes that had been sanctioned and promoted by the former Islamic regime, while some conservatives fretted that he seemed entirely too willing to let ex-officials of that regime influence how the APA conducted its daily affairs. Bremer himself, however, had more important things to focus on-- in addition to overseeing Iran’s postwar reconstruction, he’d been entrusted with the job of assembling a viable legal framework for trying Iranian leaders known or suspected to have committed war crimes or human rights violations.
Hit The Ground Running: July 2003-January 2004
Few politicians would be brave or crazy enough to challenge an incumbent president who had just won a war against one of the United States’ most dangerous adversaries in the post-Cold War era. Fewer still would declare their candidacy in the incumbent’s home state. And almost none would dare to publicly question the commander-in-chief’s sanity. But then again, Vermont governor Howard Dean had never been the kind of man to give all that much heed to conventional wisdom.
Dean thought that Bush could be taken if the Democrats could only find a way to exploit doubts that were already being raised about postwar US policy toward Iran; like many liberals, he had been highly critical of the President’s decision to go to war in that nation, calling it "a recipe for a 50-year-long bloodbath".2 The former physician felt that the US should start scaling back its presence in that country as soon as possible and be ready to leave it altogether in 2004. It was Dean’s contention that UN peacekeepers should take over the job of maintaining order in Iran while that country was being reconstructed.
Bush, of course, disagreed and called Dean’s platform "wildly unrealistic".3 He argued that the United States had an obligation to take an active role in reviving Iran in the wake of the second Gulf war, just as it had done with Japan and Germany after World War II and with Cuba after the Florida Keys War. In the official kickoff for his re-election campaign, the President warned that implementing Dean’s withdrawal proposals would plunge Iran into anarchy and civil war.
In early August of 2003, however, some Americans wondered if things hadn’t already reached that state of affairs anyway: the assassination of a Shiite cleric in the holy city of Qom incited an orgy of sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite radicals across Iran, and moderates in both sects pleaded for an end to the violence while US and allied troops hunted down those who had triggered it.
Meanwhile, diplomatic relations between Cuba and Venezuela, which had been going downhill practically from the second Hugo Chavez formally assumed his country’s presidency, took a sharp turn for the worse after three Cuban diplomats were arrested on espionage charges. President Montoya, who had never held a very high opinion of Chavez to begin with, grew to hate the ex-air force officer, particularly after evidence surfaced that the real reason for the arrest was retaliation for statements made by the Cuban foreign minister in April of 2003 that severely criticized Venezuela’s worsening human rights record under Chavez. Two of the three detained diplomats had assisted the foreign minister in drafting his statements, while the third had acted as a field investigator checking reports of human rights violations against critics of the Chavez regime.
Speaking before the UN General Assembly on August 13th, 2003, Cuba’s ambassador to the United Nations denounced the arrests as "naked bullying" and called on other Latin American countries to use their influence to pressure the Venezuelan government into releasing the jailed diplomats. In Washington, Cuba’s ambassador to the United States met with President Bush for high-level consultations on forming a common strategy for getting the Cuban detainees freed.
But Chavez, true to form, refused to budge and told Havana in no uncertain terms that the three diplomats would be put on trial at once; if convicted of espionage-- and the Venezuelan court system was usually rigged to rule the way Chavez wanted it to --those men would be executed for their purported crimes. The Chavez regime was hardly troubled by the irrelevant minor detail that virtually no hard evidence whatsoever existed to suggest that the defendants had even tenuous ties to espionage activity.
In late August of 2003, in a stage-managed hearing that bore a disturbing resemblance to the infamous show trials of Russia’s Stalinist era, the three diplomats were officially indicted on espionage charges and bound over for trial. The indictments set off a flood of anti-Chavez protests in Cuba and among the Cuban- American community in Florida; Miami’s top Spanish-language radio station broadcast daily appeals to its listeners urging them to sign a petition that called for the diplomats’ release and Hugo Chavez’s resignation as president of Venezuela.
The trial lasted five months; a battalion of witnesses coached by the Chavez government about what to say on the stand testified for the prosecution, while only a handful of people mustered the courage or decency to speak on behalf of the defense. The trial’s presiding judge allowed the prosecution to submit "evidence" that would have been laughed out of any other courtroom on the planet, while defense exhibits that indisputably established the three diplomats’ innocence was either barred or deemed inconclusive. No matter what it took, the court was going to make sure that Chavez got his conviction. This blatant predetermining of an outcome recalled the worst miscarriages of justice that had transpired under the right-wing dictatorships Chavez professed to despise, yet if he was embarrassed by the hypocritical nature of commiting such a sin himself he seemed to be hiding that embarrassment very well.
Meanwhile, massive public demonstrations were taking place every day near the Venezuelan embassy in Havana and Venezuela’s UN mission in New York City. In a televised press conference in November of 2003 held to announce a new US-Iraqi anti-terrorism co-operation treaty, President Bush blasted the Chavez regime as "the worst affront to human freedom in Latin America since Fidel Castro".4 The United States joined two dozen other countries in an economic boycott of Venezuela, and an Organization of American States summit in Toronto Venezuela became only the second nation in OAS history to have its membership suspended.
Even in Chavez’s own country there were murmurs of disapproval at the government’s barefaced railroading of the Cuban diplomats. In early December of 2003, 500 marchers braved rain, taunts from passersby, and nightstick-wielding riot police to hold a rally in downtown Caracas demanding that the government release the three men and allow them to go home to Cuba. The rally lasted nearly 10 hours before it was broken up with tear gas; refusing to cave in to threats of jail or execution, the marchers passed out leaflets challenging the prosecution’s espionage claims about the Cubans.
In Havana President Montoya and his cabinet held a series of closed-door sessions to discuss how the Cuban government should respond if the expected happened and the three diplomats were found guilty. The most popular options included mounting a rescue mission to spring the diplomats from prison and evacuate them to Grenada; enlisting Venezuela’s Latin American neighbors in an economic "quarantine" to shut off the flow of goods into or out of that country; offering to trade the Cuban diplomats for three Venezuelan consular officials who were themselves detained in an espionage matter;5 and using Cuba’s influence in Latin America to shame Caracas into suspending the death penalty and settling for simply expelling the three men.
The moment of truth for both Havana and Caracas would come on January 18th, 2004. In a nationally televised hearing in the heart of the Venezuelan capital, the presiding judge in the case issued his verdict; Montoya and Chavez were on pins and needles, as were millions of other people....
To Be Continued
1The Pakistanis had hoped for assistance from the Afghan regular army in these attacks, but Afghan troops were needed back home to put down the remnants of the Taliban. For a look at what might have happened if the Afghans had participated in these diversionary operations, read Steven Badsey’s "If The Left One Doesn’t Get You The Right One Will: The Afghan Army In Iran, 2003" from Peter G. Tsouras’ book The 9-11 Options: Alternate Decisions of the War On Terrorism (copyright 2009 by Greenhill Books).
2Quoted from Dean’s official announcement of his candidacy, July 21st, 2003.
3Excerpt from President Bush’s weekly White House address the Saturday after Dean started his presidential run.
4Quoted in the November 13th, 2003 Washington Post.
5The difference between them and the Cuban diplomats was that hard evidence did exist the Venezuelan officials were involved in espionage-- in particular there was a tape recording of one of the Venezuelans disclosing sensitive defense information to a senior officer of Venezuela’s counterintelligence service.