Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Flashback: "Countdown Iran" from October 2003

As a sidelight on this week's Shadowland column, "Unreality Check," about the not-so-magical realism at work in the Iranian mind and the U.S. administration, it's worth a glance back at a couple of articles.

One is the essay I wrote for "Foreign Policy" in May 2006:

The Oil Shield
Iran is commanding the world’s attention as the ayatollahs accelerate their race for the bomb. But the timetable for talks—or a nuclear crisis—is not being shaped by centrifuges, uranium, or reactors. It’s about the security only a barrel of oil can provide. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=3428
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The other, no longer on the Newsweek site, is published here in its entirety:

Shadowland: Countdown Iran, 17 October 2003

The United States finally won a diplomatic victory in the United Nations. But Washington and Tehran are moving toward war. How far will they go?

By Christopher Dickey

Good news from the United Nations today: the Security Council unanimously approved a new resolution for the reconstruction of Iraq. Unfortunately, even the Security Council’s words are cheap, and reconstruction is not. Worse still, there’s a new war on the horizon.

A countdown has started for war between the United States and Iran. It’s quiet but persistent right now, like the ticking of a Swatch. Soon enough though, alarms will start ringing.

When did this move toward war begin? You could say 25 years ago, with the fall of the Shah of Iran, or just this year, when Saddam was deposed. You could make the case that the clock started the moment some of Osama bin Laden’s key aides found sanctuary in Iran, or on the day that Iranian equipment used to make nuclear fuel showed traces of the stuff used in nuclear weapons. But whenever the countdown to war began, it’s already well under way.

Now, countdowns come in a lot of guises. They can be bluffs as trivial as a schoolyard threat, “I’m gonna count to three!” And sometimes they can be stopped, of course. But when it comes to making war, the closer you get to zero hour, the harder that is to do. Expectations rise, political capital is spent, troops are deployed. A crescendo approaches, a point of no return is passed—or is said to be—and the drama of the countdown itself starts to dictate events.

That’s part of the reason we rushed to war in Iraq last spring. The Bush administration didn’t want to lose the momentum it had drummed up for ousting Saddam Hussein, even if it had to fudge the facts about him. So: weapons of mass destruction? “Check.” Links to Al Qaeda? “Check.” United Nations support? A pause there. “Not needed.” U.S. troops in place? “Check.” Ready for action? “Hoo-ah!” Popular support in Iraq? “That’s what they say.” Popular support in the U.S.? “Just look at the polls!” Pliant press? “Yep.” Supine Congress? “Got it.”

In the case of Iran, the first part of that checklist is much the same, except the evidence against the ayatollahs is much more damning. Weapons of mass destruction? Iran has chemical weapons and probably has developed biological ones, but the danger of nasty germs and poison clouds is minor compared to The Bomb, which Iranians are better able to produce with each passing day. So much evidence has piled up suggesting they’re doing just that, a special team from the International Atomic Energy Agency went to Iran at the beginning of this month. The U.N.-backed organization has set an Oct. 31 deadline for Iran to come clean. Inspectors are still there. Still digging. Their report is expected to be tough. So, WMD? Check. Terrorism? Iran supports suicide attacks on Israelis, and its rap sheet for bombing and kidnapping Americans goes back to 1979. (Just 20 years ago next week, it helped blow up 241 Americans at the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut.) But the big question today is whether Iran has ties to Al Qaeda. In the last few weeks, damning leaks have come out of Washington, Europe and various Arab intelligence services suggesting that, yes indeed, those links exist.

Osama bin Laden’s son, Saad, along with Qaeda operations chief Seif al-Adel and other notables are supposed to be working with a special unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards known as the Jerusalem Force. With help from this group, they are reported to have plotted recent attacks in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. The sourcing for these stories is not conclusive. But they’re much more detailed than the vague allegations about Saddam’s Al Qaeda connections. So, terrorism? Check.

If there’d been this much evidence about Saddam, his zero hour would have come a lot sooner.

But what about popular sentiment at home and in Iran? The Iranian people are desperate for a change. In every election since 1997, they’ve showed just how sick they are of this regime. When they thought they could trust the candidates, they turned out in droves and gave them huge majorities. When those candidates failed to deliver, voters stayed away from the polls altogether. In Tehran’s recent municipal elections, only 12 per cent of the electorate showed up. When the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded the to human-rights activist Shirin Ebadi last week, it strengthened calls for reform across the board. Isn’t this a cause worth fighting for? And what about domestic political imperatives in the United States? Not to be cynical, but President Bush’s approval ratings speak for themselves. When America’s at war he’s wildly popular, when it’s not, he’s not.

You’d think such calculations would make the mullahs repent, if not resign. But these guys clearly think they can call the American bluff, and they’re sure as hell testing American resolve.

The reason is Iraq. Iran’s hard-liners probably believe the United States is too overextended to take on a new enemy, and most probably they’re right. Iran has 500,000 soldiers and mountainous terrain. It probably has chemical and biological weapons, and it has learned from North Korea that if it does manage to produce nukes, it will not be invaded and could be invulnerable.

The troops Washington has on the ground in Iraq, meanwhile, are easy prey for guerrillas, terrorists or mobs any time the mullahs want to play that game. The Iranians don’t need to show their hand. They have lines in with the Kurds, they can buy off Sunnis and they know all the players among the Iraqi Shiite majority. A Western official who negotiated with several of the powerful clergy in Najaf and Karbala recently came back to Europe convinced that Tehran had those holy cities completely wired: “When I talked to the Iranians they knew verbatim—verbatim—my conversations with the Iraqi ayatollahs.” At best, there’s a stand-off, and a dangerous one for both sides. But the countdown continues.

If the IAEA gives a negative report at the end of this month, which it probably will, Washington will back United Nations sanctions against Iran. But to get the Iranians’ attention, those sanctions are going to have to bite. They’d have to hit Iran’s oil industry. And even tough sanctions, by themselves, are the bluntest of instruments. Best of all would be to back up U.N. pressure with the threat of direct force. The record shows that was very effective against Iraq—before the force was used. But at this point, not even Washington’s closest allies will support that kind of bellicosity. Before the Iraq invasion, apologists like British Prime Minister Tony Blair could claim the countdown was all a game of brinkmanship, that the credible threat of
war was intended, in fact, to prevent war. Who would believe him now?

Among Iranian exiles and retired intelligence agents there’s a lot of talk about surgical strikes on nuclear installations. But with its military overburdened and its diplomacy discredited, the Bush administration might be willing to cut a deal with Iran. It could actually wind up guaranteeing the mullahs’ security, in effect, in exchange for promises (verifiable, of course) that they’ll give up weapons of mass destruction, sign a protocol allowing snap inspections, keep their fingers out of Iraq and turn over their Qaeda cohorts.

That’s not really a happy solution. It would do nothing to encourage the demoralized Iranian majority. It would appease the most dangerous elements of the clerical regime. But it might buy time to explore other solutions, and at least it would stop the countdown. Right now, before the United States gets dragged into a third war in three years, that’s probably not a bad plan.
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