The Fate of "Operation Bite"

"Operation Bite" never came to be, but the surfacing of a potential American strike on Iran in the international press reveals the contradictory impulses at play in dealing with Tehran.

April 6 has come and gone, and no military strike was launched by the United States against Iran.

So what are we to conclude about why this story about "Operation Bite", which first appeared in mid-March in the Moscow paper Argumenti Nedely (by Andrei Uglanov), saw the light of day?

Was this simply tabloid journalism at its finest-something concocted out of whole cloth? Did Uglanov see a copy of a hypothetical scenario (this is how the United States might conduct an air assault on Iran's nuclear facilities and these might be good times to launch an attack) and turn "could" into "will"? Or were there other factors at work?

This is not an inconsequential question. Uglanov's piece, as Ian Bremmer noted in National Interest onlinea week ago, may not have received much attention in the West but it was quickly picked up by the Iranian press. It is not a stretch to suggest that it reinforced paranoia in Tehran that an attack might be imminent and that this contributed to the atmosphere surrounding the decision to seize and hold the British sailors.

One theory is that this was simply too good of a story to pass up no matter what the facts were, and that Russian military experts and other journalists wanted to milk the story for all it was worth. After all, all the elements for a successful "scoop" were there-war, secret plans, definitive timetable. And if the story didn't come to pass, well, Uglanov and others could simply say that premature disclosure forced the Pentagon to scrap or postpone its plans.

Was this meant as a warning? Was information leaked to send a signal to Washington not to contemplate a military strike? Was it an attempt to smoke out America's plans by dangling this story and seeing what might be confirmed or denied?

Or was the intended recipient-given how quickly the report made its way to Iran-a Tehran that perhaps has been feeling a bit too confident in recent months that things are going its way-and a subtle or not so subtle reminder that Tehran shouldn't be too eager to ignore Russian advice?

Was this a leak meant to scare international energy markets? Every time there is a crisis situation with Iran oil prices shoot up several more dollars per barrel. Is this an example of a very cost-effective way to keep energy markets jittery and prices high?

Any of these explanations-or all of the above-could suffice.

What does seem clear, however, is that Russia-and one could add in China, India and the European Union-all have a set of contradictory impulses at play. No one wants a nuclear-armed Iran, no one wants an American intervention-and no one is particularly interested in anything that could lead to an Iranian-American rapprochement. A continued cold war between Washington and Tehran serves a variety of interests-as long as that cold war can stay relatively cold. And it is in this environment that a story like "Operation Bite" was born and ultimately died.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest. He also blogs at The Washington Realist.