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March 12, 2008

Fallon’s Retirement has unclear implications for US-Iran War

On Tuesday, the Pentagon announced that Admiral William Fallon, the 41-year navy veteran and commander of US Central Command (CentCom) requested permission to retire, and that Secretary Gates approved his request.  Last week, Thomas Barnett of Esquire Magazine published a revealing piece speculating that Fallon might be pushed out because he “was the strongest man standing between the Bush Administration and a war with Iran.”

Gates was quick to call a press conference to announce the retirement and dispel the notion that there were any policy differences between Fallon and the administration.  We have been following this story all day, and a few different theories are percolating inside the beltway about what this all means.

Though there are plenty of reasons to see this development suspiciously, Fallon’s history with conventional wisdom suggests that the truth may yet be unknown.

When Fallon was named to the CentCom post on January 5th, 2007, it was widely viewed in anti-war circles with trepidation.  After all, CentCom had never had a naval officer as a leader, because the area under its purview is dominated by land. From the Sahara in the West to Kashmir in the East and the Caucus mountains in the North, this is an area with two active theatres of war (Afghanistan and Iraq) and half-a-dozen conflict zones. 

Furthermore, Fallon was to replace General Abizaid, who had opposed the Iraq surge and advocated for a regional approach to Iraq; so it was natural for many policy analysts to be worried that he was being brought in to command a naval-based war with Iran from the Persian Gulf.  This conventional wisdom was fully turned on its head a mere two months later when Fallon opposed a military build-up in the Persian Gulf, and was even quoted saying, “There are several of us trying to put the crazies back in the box,” referring to Iran-war hawks.

Since March 2007, Fallon has been seen by many within the DC policy community as one of the main obstacles to a White House-led pre-emptive military strike on Iran.  Then on December 3, 2007, when the Iran National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) was released, the conventional wisdom inside the beltway (except for a few notable exceptions) changed dramatically to believe that a war with Iran would be improbable.  (As recently as last week, Steve Clemons dismissed “premeditated attack on Iran”.)

Then last week, a six-part Esquire piece was published.  When asked about the possibility that Fallon was going to leave before his tenure was up, White House press spokes person Dana Perino attacked the “rumor mills that don’t turn out to be true.” Yet today it seems the ‘rumor mills’ have been justified.

One disheartening byproduct of this resignation is that Fallon was an advocate for an “Incident-at-Sea” agreement that NIAC has also called for.  This agreement, if pursued, could help prevent an all-out war being sparked by relatively insignificant incidents, like the one that occurred in January of this year.  According to reports, these types of ‘brush-ups’ occur regularly in the narrow and heavily-trafficked Strait of Hormuz.

Thus, it is easy to view Fallon’s ‘retirement’ as an internal power struggle between the more hawkish elements of the administration in the Pentagon and the Vice President’s office, and those trying to pull the ‘crazies’ back from the brink of war.

There are other plausible explanations.

In a personal conversation between NIAC and someone close to the CentCom commander, it was suggested that he is retiring intentionally to provide himself with a cushion of distance in order to be brought back (in a policy role) by a future administration.  Another informed opinion close to Fallon has indicated that he may be leaving because he is confident enough that an attack on Iran will not occur. 

Whatever the case may be now, Fallon’s role in the complicated US-Iran relationship has been consistently misinterpreted. This may be yet another occasion where there is more going on than meets the eye. Or, it could be the first indication of an imminent policy shift on Iran.  We will keep you updated as we uncover more information.

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