Iran – A Jagged Edge on US Postwar Atlas
The Bush administration is engaged in one of the most sensitive and ambitious geo-strategic projects ever undertaken by any US presidency – comparable to landmark events like the termination of the Cold War, the opening up of Communist China to the world back in the 1970s and detente with the Communist bloc.
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In the short term, the US president hopes to lay the dividends of the Iraq War before the American voter in November 2004. He will want to demonstrate his success in bringing to fruition an ambitious agenda for sweeping regime change and improvement in the volatile Persian Gulf and Middle East and the United States’ elevation to kingpin of these regions in control of its oil resources. At the same time he will be undertaking a similar objective in Central Asia and the Caucasus for the sake of building a strong overarching bridge linking the Middle East to the Indian subcontinent and China.
With Saddam Hussein gone, the United States can assemble the modular bricks of its policies, building them on the bedrock of the victory in Iraq.
The main stumbling block in the Bush administration’s postwar path is Iran.
In keeping with its star role in Bush’s axis of evil, Iran is pressing ahead with a not so hush-hush nuclear weapons program. It is also conducting undercover negotiations with fellow axis-member, North Korea, for the purchase of one or two off-the-shelf nuclear bombs (as first revealed in DEBKA-Net-Weekly No. 82, October 25, 2002). Teheran’s support for such terrorist gangs as Al Qaeda, Hizballah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad is just shy of blatant and it is sparing no effort to set up terrorist and subversive networks among Iraq’s Shiites.
Nonetheless, this year, the Bush administration managed to negotiate a series of secret agreements, mostly on military and terrorism issues. Under those deals, Iran agreed to keep its forces out of northern Iraq before, during and after the U.S.-led war. After the fighting began, Iranian Revolutionary Guards helped US and British forces take the Faw peninsula and the southern city of Basra. During the war, Iranian naval and air forces prevented Iraqi terrorist attacks in Gulf waters. After initial attempts at subversion, Iran helped the Americans calm a jittery Shiite populace and persuade their Iraqi coreligionists to accept limited cooperation with US forces in Najaf, Karbala and Baghdad.
In Lebanon, Iran barred the Hizballah from carrying out cross-border terrorist raids.
All these concessions boiled down to a message to the United States: Look what we are prepared to do for you – it would be worth your while for us to talk.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iranian sources report that Iran’s ethnic Arab defense minister, Admiral Ali Shamkhani, spent the past 10 days explaining this strategy in meetings with senior army and Revolutionary Guards commanders.
Teheran, he argued, must very clear when it tells the United States that Iran is not Iraq and the Iranian military is nothing like the Iraqi armed forces. Taking his message of deterrence a step further, Shamkhani said Iran must accelerate its purchases of advanced weapons systems, such as long-range missiles, warplanes and submarines, so as to make the United States think twice about attacking it. At the same time, he said, Iran must continue to challenge the United States on all fronts — Afghanistan, the Gulf, the Middle East and Central Asia – while engaging the Americans in dialogue. These negotiations must be dragged out until Iran achieves its nuclear option.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iranian experts sum up Shamkhani’s argument as follows: Tehran is open to an accord with Washington based on Iran occupying a lead-position as a friendly regional power subject to the radical reform of its regime – provided Washington agrees to Iran’s possession of a nuclear option. That option need not be consummated immediately as long as Iran is left with capabilities for quickly assembling a bomb. Equally important to Iran is an accord with the US for the distribution of the Caspian Sea oil reserves – a historically outstanding issue among the Caspian nations, including Russia.
If Washington’s refuses to give way on those points, then Tehran shifts from accommodation mode to confrontation on all fronts, including the sphere of terror.
The United States, of course, takes a completely different view. Should it indeed decide to tap Tehran as strongest power in the Gulf and a regional partner, Iran’s government must undergo radical change and on no account be in possession of nuclear weapons in any shape or form.
This is the impasse reached after months spent by the two sides in long and tortuous negotiations.
The moment has come for President George W. Bush to decide between two paths: to go on with secret diplomacy in the hope of melting Iran’s intransigence on the nuclear issue, or going straight into military action to wipe out its rogue nuclear program, a blow that would almost certainly unseat the Shiite revolutionary regime. Just over two months after embarking on war against Iraq, the White House is again deep in deliberations over whether to launch a far more complex and extensive campaign against the leading regional power, Iran.
According to debkafile‘s Washington sources, the Bush team is divided on how to handle Iran at this juncture. Some of the president’s White House advisers and certain factions in the CIA and the Pentagon favor direct action. They offer the following arguments to support armed force:
1. Iran is playing a double game – behind its cooperative face, the ayatollahs are in a covert race to make the Islamic republic a nuclear power and present Washington with a fait accompli. They must not be allowed to get away with it; America must first destroy their nuclear program, then go back to the negotiating table.
2. Eradicating the Iranian nuclear option will be a lesson for North Korea, whose only foreseeable source of revenue for its own program is Iran. So action against Tehran’s program would kill two birds with one stone.
3. It would also serve as a graphic lesson to Syria and the Lebanese Hizballah that Washington’s demands are not to be trifled with.
The pro-diplomacy faction in the White House, the CIA and the State Department counter those arguments by maintaining:
A. Iran’s leaders are open to reforming their regime in line with American demands. An accord should be finalized on this point as soon as possible, before any thought is taken of war action.
B. The US government has already discovered in Iraq that changing an entire system of national government is an arduous, difficult and expensive proposition. Does it want to embark on a far more daunting enterprise in Iran, whose population of 60 million is more than three times that of Iraq?
In any case, the reformists led by President Mohammed Khatami, are not a viable alternative to the current hard-line regime. They have proved too weak and ineffectual to bring change to the country. It would therefore be best to go on talking to the radicals currently in power and get the most possible out of them in the way of domestic reforms.
C. No direct tie-in has been proved between the rulers of Tehran and the latest al Qaeda offensive in Saudi Arabia and Morocco.
D. If Tehran can be persuaded to scale down its nuclear ambitions from a bomb to a limited option, then China and North Korea, who rather than Russia are Iran’s primary suppliers of nuclear and missile technologies will have lost their best client. Iran’s switch to the American sphere of influence will leave the Chinese and North Koreans with nowhere to go but to play ball with the Americans on nuclear non-proliferation.
E. Quiet, discreet understandings with Tehran could open up the way to similar working accommodations with Iraq’s Shiites, as well as Syrian leaders and the Iran-backed Hizballah.
Looking at the larger picture, a heavy outlay of effort and patience is worth while for the sake of pricking the hot bubble of Shiite militancy and anti-Americanism and achieving pragmatic co-existence under the American aegis. The Sunni Muslim extremists would be left isolated by their belligerence and terrorism – witness the Palestinians and the multi-branched al Qaeda network. The taming of the ayatollahs would be a mighty achievement in global terms and a historic turnabout. Whereas in the Cold War the United States employed Sunni fundamentalist to fight the Khomeinist revolution in Iran and the Red Army, today, Washington has the chance of turning the sharp edge of Shiite radicalism against violent Sunni fundamentalists, at the same time undercutting European influence, and that of Russia, in the Muslim world.
To this end, the Bush administration is aiming to demonstrate that the Sunni terrorists, namely al Qaeda and the Palestinians, are the enemy – not the entire Sunni community. Success promises Bush policy strategists the unprecedented reward of winning over both great branches of Islam, the Shia and the Sunni. America would then hold the key to prevailing in the global war on terror and to its emergence as the dominant power in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and Central Asia.
A crucial element in this strategy is the effort to show that Washington can settle the violent dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. A concomitant to this process is the transformation of the Palestinians from a poor, hungry and deprived society, the natural prey of terror suicide recruiters, to a thriving, healthy community, strong enough to turn its back on terror. The first step toward this goal is bringing Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon on board.