Baiting Iran

Print edition : March 09, 2007

Under a picture of the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivers a speech at a rally marking the 28th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, at the Azadi Square in Teheran, on February 11.-VAHID SALEMI/AP

The U.S. appears to be preparing for an attack on Iran in the near future, citing its nuclear programme as the main reason.

SINCE the beginning of the year, the United States administration has started piling up pressure on the government of Iran. Senior officials have been hinting that military force might be used against the Islamic Republic. In the second week of February, the Pentagon announced the despatch of a third aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf region.

In another obvious bid to provoke Iran into retaliating, a senior Iranian diplomat based in Baghdad was abducted. Teheran has blamed the U.S. for the kidnapping, which happened in broad daylight in early February. In January, five Iranian officials working at Irbil in northern Iraq were arrested by U.S. forces. In the second week of February, a top White House official briefed the Washington press corps about Iran's involvement in the Iraqi insurgency. The unnamed official insisted that the American death toll had gone up as a result of the sophisticated weaponry being provided to the resistance by the Iranian government.

The claim by the official did not gain support even from the American military establishment. President George W. Bush, despite being contradicted by his own military commanders, insisted in the third week of February that the Iranian government was involved in supplying lethal weaponry to various militias. Gen. Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in the second week of February, that he had no information about Iran's involvement in arming Iraqi insurgent groups. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in an interview to an American television channel, said that the Bush administration was "pointing fingers at others" when it was aware that all the problems in Iraq were due to the presence of U.S. troops there.

Meanwhile, Israeli leaders have regularly been calling on the Bush administration to take military action in order to derail Iran's nuclear programme. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stated before the U.S. Congress that his country faced an "existential threat" from Iran. U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney has also been talking about "existential threats" emanating from Teheran. Prominent neo-conservative voices in the U.S. have, on the other hand, suggested that the Israeli air force take the responsibility of bombing Iranian nuclear installations. The Bush administration has not questioned the Israeli argument that Iran is a supporter of terrorism. As proof, Israeli propaganda mentions Iran's support for the Hizbollah and Hamas. Both these political parties, which enjoy significant popular support in Lebanon and Palestine respectively, have been deemed "terrorist groups" by the U.S. State Department.

The powerful Israeli lobby in the U.S. has also convinced the American political establishment that Iran is pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapons programme that will ultimately threaten the existence of the Jewish state. Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned in the second week of February that Israel would be left with no option but to go ahead and bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. Israel bombed Iraq's Osirak nuclear facility in the early 1980s with the tacit approval of Washington. President Bush has said that he "could understand" an Israeli attack.

But President Ahmadinejad explicitly stated late last year that Iran was not a threat to any country, "not even to the Zionist regime".

The United Nations Security Council has set February 21 as the deadline for Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment programme. If it fails to do so, the Security Council could consider further economic sanctions.

A section of the gathering in Teheran on February 11.-RAHEB HONAVANDI/REUTERS

But Russia and China, permanent members of the Security Council, have vehemently opposed the use of force against Iran. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his landmark speech at the Munich Security Conference in the second week of February, said that there was no evidence that Iran was trying to develop nuclear weapons. French President Jacques Chirac recently said that even if Iran were in possession of a few nuclear weapons, it still would not be "very dangerous". The U.S. is thousands of miles away and accounts for half the world's military budget. The U.S. has, however, surrounded Iran with military bases.

Mohammed el-Baradei, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief, has been consistent in his view that there is no proof that Iran's enrichment programme is in any way connected to weaponisation. The Iranian government maintains that all that is being done is under the framework of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran has the support of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the majority of developing countries on the nuclear issue.

The latest allegations against Iran are obvious ploys to soften up world opinion for an attack. The charge that Iranian weapons are being used to kill American troops will be used to support the argument that military action against Teheran is undertaken for "self defence". Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was National Security Adviser to President Jimmy Carter, recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that a "plausible scenario for a military collision with Iran involves Iraqi failure to meet the benchmarks; followed by accusations of Iranian responsibility for the failure; then by some provocation in or a terrorist act in the U.S., blamed on Iran; culminating in a `defensive' military action against Iran that plunges a lonely America into a spreading and deepening quagmire". White House sources told the American media that the National Security Council had already considered the likely consequence of war against Iran. The Bush administration, according to reports, has concluded that the resulting damage to American interests worldwide "would be acceptable".

The allegation by the Bush administration is that bombs, described by the Pentagon as "explosively formed penetrators", or EFPs, allegedly supplied by Iran, are responsible for the death of 170 American soldiers. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the majority of American soldiers have died fighting the resistance led by the Baath Party. A similar claim about Iranian involvement in the insurgency was made by British commanders in 2005. However, the British officials had to give up their claims as no evidence could be produced. Iranian weapons have been in circulation in the region since the Iran-Iraq war began in the 1980s.

The Iranian government trained and armed militias opposed to the Baath government under Saddam Hussein. One such group, the Badr militia, is today the backbone of the U.S.-appointed government in Baghdad. It operates out of the Iraqi Interior Ministry. Many Iraqis allege that it plays a key role in the sectarian purges going on in Baghdad. The Shia-dominated government in Baghdad is an ally of both the U.S. and Iran. The resistance forces that have caused most of the casualties among the American forces have been unfailingly characterising the government in Baghdad as a "puppet" of both Teheran and Washington.

The Bush administration is attempting to rope in Sunni-dominated countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf states to form an alliance with Israel to prevent the rise of a "Shia crescent" in the region. Though there are some fears in the corridors of power in Riyadh and Cairo about the rising Iranian influence, there are very few takers for the Bush administration's plans to build an anti-Teheran alliance on Shia-Sunni rivalry. A recent poll taken in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates showed that 80 per cent of the people consider the U.S. and Israel as the two greatest threats to their security. Only 6 per cent perceived Iran as a threat. The opinion poll was conducted after the hanging of Saddam Hussein, an event that was presumed to have widened the Shia-Sunni divide.

Although White House spokesman Tony Snow has kept on insisting that talk about an imminent attack on Iran is "an urban legend", there are reasons to be wary about the actual game plan of the White House. In a way, preparations for war have already begun. U.S. forces have been conducting secret operations inside Iran, helping Kurdish and Arab separatists. The recent attack on a bus carrying elite Iranian forces in an Arab-populated town is seen as part of the game plan. The Bush administration is propping up the Mujahadin-e-Khalq (MEK), which once enjoyed the patronage of Saddam Hussein. The MEK, a radical anti-clerical militant group, has been staging terrorist attacks inside Iran with the approval of American special forces. The MEK is still classified as a terrorist outfit by the U.S. State Department.

Three carrier groups, an Aegis class cruiser, and a flotilla of minesweepers in the Persian Gulf are all indications of a looming confrontation. Patriot missile defences have been beefed up all over the region. An attack on Iran, if it happens, will be from the air and the sea. A Kuwaiti newspaper has predicted that an attack on Iran will take place in the first week of April. Kuwaitis have been noticing heightened American military activity in their country. Significant numbers of American troops and weapons are located in the Emirate. Despite the recent denial by the U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates of an attack plan, the Intelligence community in Washington is of the view that the plans for a bombing campaign against Iranian nuclear sites are at an advanced stage. President Bush has ordered oil reserves to be stockpiled. The Iranian military has indicated that the first thing it will do if the country is attacked is to close down the Straits of Hormuz, through which large amounts of oil and gas are exported to the West.

It has been a long-cherished dream of the neo-conservatives in the U.S. to attack and subdue Iran. As far back as 1992, a classified defence planning paper written by Paul Wolfowitz, currently the World Bank chief; Zalmay Khalilzad, at present the U.S. Ambassador in Iraq; and Lewis "Scooter" Libby, a close aide of Vice-President Dick Cheney, called on the U.S. to assume the role of the sole superpower and to take appropriate action to prevent the rise of regional competitors like Iran. The report was prepared for Cheney, who was the Defence Secretary at the time.

Similar views were expressed in a paper titled "Rebuilding America's Defences" brought out by the Project of a New American Century (PNAC) in 2000. Libby and Wolfowitz made significant inputs in this report too. The report became the basis of the incoming Bush administration's foreign policy. Cheney and former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were also members of the PNAC.

The PNAC Report emphasised the need "for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf.... We cannot allow North Korea, Iran, Iraq or similar states to undermine American leadership." That this goal remains the Bush presidency's main foreign policy aim is clear after the recent statements by top American officials. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns said in late January, while trying to justify the despatch of aircraft carriers to the Gulf, that West Asia "is not a region to be dominated by Iran".

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