"Weapons of Mass Deception"


Next Stop, Tehran?

by Chris Toensing

"Real men want to go to Tehran." So went the mordant barroom quip--variously attributed to Undersecretary of State John Bolton and other neoconservative hawks--during the --long buildup to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Saddam Hussein's ruling clique in Baghdad, it was said, would be only the first in a series of rogue regimes to get crushed under the Bush Administration's heel.

In the summer of 2003, the "real men" looked to be in the driver's seat. The Iraqi regime had fallen rapidly, without the bloody urban battles many had predicted. Iran, designated by President George W. Bush as one-third of the "axis of evil," was surrounded by U.S. troops in Afghanistan to the east and Iraq to the west, as well as the Fifth Fleet and multiple U.S. air bases in the Gulf States to the south. Neoconservatives at the Pentagon had prevailed over the State Department in internal Administration debates about the Iranian parliamentary reformists led by President Mohammad Khatami, with an Administration spokesman dismissing the reform current as "ineffective." The preceding summer, an Iranian opposition group had revealed a clandestine nuclear program in Iran that was further advanced than previously suspected. Sensing an opportunity, rightwing hawks like Michael Ledeen and Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute formed a "Coalition for Democracy in Iran" to agitate for regime change.

A year--and several bloody urban battles in Iraq--later, the talk of invading Iran has quieted down, for the time being, anyway. Bolton, loudest squawker of them all, is reportedly leaving the State Department. The Bush Administration's hostility to the Islamic Republic has only deepened, however, with the President accusing Iran of "meddling" in the U.S.-sponsored Iraqi elections, arming Iraqi insurgents, and lying to the world about its alleged intention to build an atomic bomb. While a U.S. attack on Iran is not around the corner, the regime-change crowd's fingers remain disconcertingly close to the trigger.

As with Iraq, gung-ho neoconservatives can count on members of Congress tied to the Christian right and the pro-Israel lobby to generate political pressure on the White House. In July, Senator Rick Santorum, Republican of Pennsylvania, introduced a bill calling upon "the United States to support regime change for the Islamic Republic of Iran and to promote the transition to a democratic government to replace that regime." The bill did not pass out of committee, but Santorum reportedly plans to reintroduce it early in this session of Congress. Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas, crows on his website about having slipped a provision for "not less than $3 million to support the advancement of democracy and human rights in Iran" into the Omnibus Appropriations Bill passed in late November. An Iran Freedom Support Act is also incubating in the House of Representatives.

Bush has repeatedly vowed that he "will not tolerate" a nuclear-armed Iran. Over the last two years, his Administration has tried to browbeat the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) into recommending U.N. sanctions on Tehran, but the IAEA has declined for lack of proof that Iran is, in fact, working to manufacture a weapon. What is proven is that Iran is pursuing the ability to enrich uranium that could be used either to generate nuclear power or to make a bomb. For now, the U.S. is grumbling on the sidelines while Britain, France, and Germany try to persuade Iran to pledge never to enrich uranium. They are dangling the carrots of increased trade and security guarantees to induce such a pledge.

Publicly, the U.S. backs these negotiations, though few in Washington believe that Iran will ever honor a deal. At think tanks and in the corridors of power, how to frustrate Tehran's atomic ambitions is an all-consuming question to which there are no pat answers.

Two options in the Pentagon's war games are invading Iran or bombing the nuclear facilities. One would think that the Bush Administration, with its history of military adventurism, would gravitate in this direction. But there appears to be some resistance, even within the neoconservative camp.

"Most of the neoconservatives are realistic about Iran," explains Kenneth Pollack, a Clinton-era CIA and National Security Council official now perched at the Brookings Institution. Pollack is the self-described "neoliberal hawk" whose 2002 volume, The Threatening Storm, galvanized support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. His new book, The Persian Puzzle, is a case against invading Iran. Not only does Iran's greater size and mountainous terrain increase the military challenge, but invading troops would encounter much fiercer resistance, despite the deep unpopularity of the clerical regime. Gary Sick, who sat at the National Security Council's Iran desk under President Jimmy Carter, agrees: "If you like Iraq, you're going to love Iran."

Iranians remember the CIA's role in the 1953 coup that replaced the nationalist Mohammad Mossadeq with the hated Shah, who was in turn overthrown by the 1979 revolution. They also remember the Carter White House's dispatch of General Robert Huyser to Tehran on January 4, 1979, where he tried to goad the Shah's top generals into crushing the revolutionaries with an iron fist.

Morad Saghafi, editor of the respected Tehran-based journal Goftogu, says contemporary history is even more important. "Two years ago, if the Americans had made a move against Iran, many Iranians would have been happy," he says. But the steady descent of the U.S. occupation of Iraq into the current inferno of suicide bombings and U.S. incursions has made them think twice. Iranian media supply nonstop coverage of the violence, chaos, and social disintegration in Iraq--as well as the horrors of Abu Ghraib. "Even if we Iranians were not as nationalistic as we are," Saghafi continues, "no one would accept U.S. intervention now."

The standoff over the nuclear program has itself "created enormous nationalistic fervor," adds Hadi Semati, a Tehran University political science professor currently based at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Many Iranians, and not just far-right regime supporters in the Revolutionary Guards, are angry with their nuclear negotiators because the perception is that they are conceding too much. Under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to which Iran is a signatory, non-nuclear nations do have the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, as long as they inform the IAEA of their progress.

With the bulk of the U.S. military tied down in Iraq for the foreseeable future, the Bush Administration may not be able to pull off another war against a more formidable foe.

But what about the kind of air strike that Israel launched in 1981 to knock out Saddam Hussein's Osiraq reactor?

There has been persistent speculation that a reprise of the Osiraq raid, mounted either by Israel or by the United States, is in the works. Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz fueled the speculation in September when he said: "All options have to be taken into account to prevent [Iranian nuclear capability]." Ominously, in June, Israel ordered nearly 5,000 "smart bombs" from the United States that can penetrate six-foot concrete walls such as those that might encase Iranian nuclear sites.

But Iran learned from Saddam's mistake. Instead of concentrating its enrichment and processing equipment in one place, the Islamic Republic has dispersed it throughout the country, including in heavily populated neighborhoods of the capital. Not only are some research facilities protected in concrete bunkers, but others might be underground--and no one claims to know where all of the facilities are. Pollack says he has talked with Israeli pilots who are "absolutely certain" that they could not destroy the nuclear program in its entirety. "The fact that you are hearing the Israelis rattle their sabers so much is the best evidence" that a reprise is not imminent, Pollack concludes. "If the Israelis really were planning an attack, you would hear dead silence."

Of course, the Osiraq attack only disrupted Saddam's quest for a nuclear bomb. By 1991, Iraq was quite close to building one, U.N. inspectors discovered after the Gulf War. Though very few in Washington openly advocate a missile strike on Iran, some use the Osiraq case to argue that delaying Iran's presumed nuclear program might be better than nothing. Peter Brookes of the Heritage Foundation, who was a deputy assistant secretary of defense under Donald Rumsfeld, says: "The fact is that a strike could push back the program." A report published by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, staffed by many ex-military officers and intelligence operatives, made the identical point.

Pollack is also "willing to think about an air strike" for this reason, but, he cautions, "first you have to weigh the costs." Like Bush Administration officials quoted in recent New York Times and Los Angeles Times stories, he thinks those costs could include rocket attacks on Israel by the Iranian-backed Hezballah militia in Lebanon, as well as "asymmetrical warfare" targeting U.S. installations in the Gulf or even further afield.

If the U.S. bombed nuclear sites, says Semati, the first order of business for the clerical regime would be "to make life as miserable as possible for the Americans in Iraq." Bush Administration claims notwithstanding, Iran has not interfered in post-Saddam Iraqi politics as much as it could have. The Iraqi Shiite militia whose members lived in Tehran throughout the 1990s, the Badr Brigades of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, has not taken up arms against U.S. soldiers. To the contrary, these militia leaders served in the Iraqi Governing Council that advised U.S. viceroy Paul Bremer, and they are bitter rivals of Muqtada al-Sadr, the one Shiite cleric who has openly fought the Americans.

Semati says the hardliners would stir up trouble among the Iraqi Shiites in the event of an air strike, and might also infiltrate Revolutionary Guards across the long border to shoot at U.S. soldiers themselves.

Despite the hazards in Iran and the bog of war in Iraq, many neoconservatives--especially those who remain in orbit around Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney--are itching for a fight. "They believe that regime change is the only legitimate policy for Iran," Pollack says. They may admit that regime change is presently impossible, but that admission simply creates a tape loop in their heads that they cannot stop.

As Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith told The Jerusalem Post on December 12, "I don't think that anybody should be ruling in or ruling out anything while we are conducting diplomacy." Pletka, co-founder of the Coalition for Democracy in Iran, concluded her comments on Iran at a recent Brookings briefing as follows: "So we have to recognize that while there are plenty of stops along the way, in fact, [military action] is the end of the road."
Chris Toensing is Editor of Middle East Report, published by the Middle East Research and Information Project.

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Milton Frihetsson, 01:27


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