Saturday, July 24, 2004

Iran amok

Okay, so I zigged when I should have zagged. For a while I've had it in the back of my head that Syria was next on the neocon hit list; I even suspected that the Shrubberies were working on cooking up a rationale they could sell to Congress (easy) and the public (not so easy, but, based on the experience of Iraq, certainly doable).

But at least for the moment, Syria is not the focus of the baleful gaze. Iran is.

In fact, as I expect is common knowledge, the same neocon cabal that demanded and ultimately got their way on "regime change" in Iraq had never limited their intentions to that "unique" situation. Now the pressure is being increased on Shrub & Co. to, as the Washington Post - as quoted by The Age (Australia) for July 20 - put it, "do something about Iran, and end the drift that has characterised US policy."

"Drift," it needs to be noted, is the ultimate insult in foreign policy critiques; it's better to have a disastrously wrong policy, it's held, than to appear to have none. No President can politically withstand the image of a "drifting" foreign policy. In 1986, in the wake of a bombing of a disco in Germany which killed several American soldiers, the Reagan administration bombed Tripoli. Among the killed was Muammar Qaddafi's daughter. On May 22, 1986, in a letter to a friend, I wrote
A, perhaps the, quintessential Americanism, submitted for your approval (with apologies to Rod Serling, but it makes me feel like I'm in the Twilight Zone): After Jimmy Carter remarked in the wake of the killing of Qaddafi's daughter that if someone killed Amy he'd be more likely to swear vengeance than back off, a newspaper columnist called him "an embittered loser who still doesn't get it," adding (here it comes) "history will judge" if Reagan was right or wrong, but "at least he did something."

That’s it: Do something. Never mind if it's right or wrong, good or bad, moral or immoral, sane or insane, effective or ruinous, do something. Americans can't stand feeling helpless - and there's one of the dangers to the future that the attack on Libya symbolizes, because uncontrollable events will surely continue, even increase in number.
As they surely have. And always is the pressure to "do something."

As the Christian Science Monitor expressed it on Thursday,
[w]ith US interests in a reformed Middle East as strong as ever - even with Saddam Hussein out of the picture - Iran is emerging as the new Satan for some forces in Washington. That is particularly true on Capitol Hill, where pro-Israel and anti-Iran hard-liners are calling for an Iran policy advocating regime change - much like what happened with Iraq in the late 1990s.
Three developments, two of them recent, are being used to drive this pressure. The long-standing development is Iran's clear intention to develop nuclear weapons and its refusal to provide the International Atomic Energy Agency with full details of its nuclear program.
Since May, Congress has been moving towards a joint resolution calling for punitive action against Iran if it does not fully reveal details of its nuclear arms program.

In language similar to the prewar resolution on Iraq, a recent House of Representatives resolution authorised the use of "all appropriate means" to deter, dissuade and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weaponry - words often used to approve pre-emptive military force. Reflecting the growing anxiety on Capitol Hill about Iran, it passed 376 to three. ...

[A] Senate resolution, similar to the House resolution passed on May 6, calling for punitive action, mainly through broad, new UN sanctions, is expected to win overwhelming support in Congress.
(I suppose I could mention that the US has a policy of refusing to allow such inspections, which apparently is different because, well, because it's us, not them - but that would be snarky, so I won't.)

One of the recent developments is the finding by the 9/11 Commission that, as the New York Times reports,
Iran had allowed as many as 10 of the terrorists involved in the Sept. 11 attacks to pass through border stations in late 1990 and early 1991 without having their passports stamped, making it easier for them to enter the United States without raising suspicions.
The other new and perhaps more significant development is an increasing suspicion in some circles, particularly in Iraq, that Iran is actively aiding the insurgency. For example, the Christian Science Monitor had this:
"We know criminals and terrorists are coming through Iran into Iraq, but the question of Iranian government involvement with this is still unanswered," says Sabah Kadhim, spokesman for Iraq's Interior Ministry.

"I have no doubt that some of the people in the south who are working against us, perhaps some factions in the Mahdi Army, have ties to the Iranians."

Though he provided no details, Iraq's interim Defense Minster Hazem Shalam al-Khuzaei complained in an interview with the London-based, Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al-Awsat on Tuesday that Iran was "interfering" in Iraq's affairs.
The Iraqi Press Monitor for July 20, citing the same interview, also noted a threat from the minister:
He said Iraq was capable of transferring terrorism to those states.
And according to IPM for July 21, Asharq al-Awsat reported that Minister of Interior Falah al-Naqeeb went beyond what his representative said and
accused Iran of being behind the terrorist operations in Iraq. He added "it is inevitable to admit that Iran has a major role in terrorist and sabotage operations in Iraq".
A week earlier, the CSM was reporting the belief of US and Iraqi officials in Najaf that Moqtada al-Sadr's militia was reorganizing - with outside help.
As many as 80 Iranian agents are working with an estimated 500 Sadr militiamen, known as the Mahdi Army, providing training and nine 57-mm Russian antiaircraft guns to add to stocks of mortars, antitank weapons, and other armaments, according to Iraqi and US intelligence reports.

"They are preparing for something, gathering weapons; people are coming in buses from other parts of Iraq," says Michael al-Zurufi, the Iraqi security adviser of Najaf Province. "The most important are the Iranians. The Iranian people are trying to reorganize Sadr's militia so they can fight again."
It seems an impressive list. But still, there are some questions about both of the latter developments. In the case of the hijackers passing through Iran, without having their passports stamped, Agencie France Presse, citing Newsweek, said earlier this week that the
finding in the commission's report is based largely on a December 2001 memo discovered buried in the files of the US National Security Agency.
And as the BBC noted, acting CIA Director John McLaughlin
says eight of the 9/11 hijackers passed through Iran, but there is no evidence Tehran was connected with the attacks in 2001. ...

"We have ample evidence of people being able to move back and forth across that terrain."

But he added: "However, I would stop there and say we have no evidence that there is some sort of official sanction by the government of Iran for this activity.

"We have no evidence that there is some sort of official connection between Iran and 9/11."
The same item notes that
Iran acknowledges some of the hijackers may have crossed its borders, but says they would have done so illegally.
There also is doubt about just how much Iran is involved in Iraq. In fact,
[s]o far, there is almost no evidence of Iranian government involvement in the Iraqi insurgency, dominated as it is by nationalist groups and Sunni jihadists, both foreign and local....

On Monday, [Rend Rahim Francke,] the top Iraqi diplomat in Washington said Iran is playing a supporting role. ...

Analysts say it's hard to imagine Iran working closely with the jihadists, who, at least in their rhetoric and stated aims, seem to have much in common with Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda's exclusivist religious ideology sees the Shiites as apostates, and US officials say a key element of the group's strategy in Iraq has been to stir up a Sunni-Shiite civil war - something that could head off eventual Shiite dominance in Iraq and hurt Iran's interests.

Analysts say that while Iran has vital interests in Iraq, they doubt that the country's efforts will veer in a destabilizing direction here.
Nevertheless, continued, long-standing mutual suspicion between Iraq and Iran makes rumors of involvement of the one in the internal struggles of the other common and easy-to-believe fare, and such beliefs can have repercussions in Washington.
In an even more dramatic move, Republican Senator Sam Brownback plans to introduce an Iran liberation act in the northern autumn, modelled on the Iraq Liberation Act that mandated regime change in Baghdad and provided more than $90 million to the Iraqi opposition.
(Sidebar: "northern autumn" because The Age is in Australia, remember.)

The Bush administration is showing signs of being moved by the pressure. In responding to the 9/11 Commission report,
[Bush] also said: "I have long expressed my concerns about Iran. After all, it's a totalitarian society where free people are not allowed to, you know, exercise their rights as human beings." He said, "This has been an issue that I have been concerned about ever since I've been the president."
He also insisted that
the United States will continue to investigate if Iran was involved in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

"As to direct connections with September the 11th, we are digging into the facts to determine if there was one," Bush said at the photo opportunity with visiting Chilean President Ricardo Lagos in the Oval Office of the White House.
That from Xinhuanet.

The most significant statement, not surprisingly, was an anonymous one. From the Sunday Herald (Scotland):
President George Bush has promised that if re-elected in November he will make regime change in Iran his new target.

Bush named Iran as part of the Axis of Evil along with North Korea and Iraq almost three years ago. A US government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that military action would not be overt in changing Iran, but rather that the US would work to stir revolts in the country and hope to topple the current conservative religious leadership.

The official said: "If George Bush is re-elected there will be much more intervention in the internal affairs of Iran."
That this promise is for post-election matters for related practical and political reasons. The practical one is simple: There's an election coming, and the chances for any dramatic new initiatives at such a time are small.
Even with the 9/11 reports and the prospect of various Iran-focused initiatives in Congress this fall, [the CSM observed,] most experts foresee little actual movement until after the November elections. The angry rhetoric may ratchet up, they say, but even after the elections, a conflict-weary America is likely to probe the chances of dialogue.
Which raises the interesting question: Is the reference to regime change after the election a serious one, or is it a political one, designed to send the war hawk base a wink and a "just-you-watch-me-go" message without raising the hackles of that "conflict-weary" American electorate? Or is it just a stall to keep the neocons on board through November? The administration is already divided between the State Department, which has been willing to explore contacts with Iran, arguing that to do otherwise is to deny reality, and the Pentagon and The Big Dick Cheney, who've been unwilling to consider the idea. As we've seen, so far the extreme hawks (as opposed to the ordinary hawks of the State Department) have tended to have the upper hand in this White House. But as a certain degree of reality has penetrated the haze of whatever it is they'd been smoking, the rhetoric has been less grandiose, the claims for the future less expansive. So it may be that they're at least, if reluctantly, accepting that further schemes will have to wait for more propitious circumstances.

On the other hand, Bob Nichols, writing in Online Journal on July 13, said
President [sic] Bush promised to invade and attack many countries in the 2003 State of the Union speech. I believe the man. For some reason, some misguided Americans do not believe him, or think he was "exaggerating." The rest of the world has every reason to believe him and fear him, though.
(The [sic] was in the original.)

And the pressure will doubtless continue.
"There are too many carrots here, but where are the sticks?" says Raymond Tanter, a national security official under Reagan. The US should threaten support for Iranian resistance groups including the Iraq-based Mujahideen-e-Kalq, he says.
Former CIA Director Robert Gates responded that it would be "a tad awkward" for the US to support a group the State Department labels a terrorist outfit - but when has that ever stopped us from doing what we wanted to do?

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