Turning to Iran

Published : Jun 20, 2003 00:00 IST

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami at a rally in Beirut on May 13, which was attended by thousands of Hizbollah supporters from across Lebanon. - MAHMOUD TAWIL/AP

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami at a rally in Beirut on May 13, which was attended by thousands of Hizbollah supporters from across Lebanon. - MAHMOUD TAWIL/AP

The United States seems to be focussing on Iran as its next target for a psychological-military offensive, but in the absence of clinching proof against the Islamic country as a sponsor of terrorism, an open war is unlikely now.

THOSE who work in the Office for Special Plans (OSP) of the U.S. Department of Defence, or the Pentagon, must be very busy people indeed. They had, in the words of the commentator Eric Margolis, "corrupted and politicised the national intelligence function" to manufacture a justification for the invasion of Iraq. After a brief diversion in which Syria was the target, these officials, who are mandated to produce data that would support the world view and sustain the agenda of U.S. neo-conservatives, have now focussed their attention on Iran.

The interaction between Washington and Teheran, which has been deeply troubled since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, had turned a bit positive for a brief while after Mohammed Khatami became President of Iran in 1997. As Khatami's reform programme got under way, the then U.S. administration of President Bill Clinton seemed to be readying itself for a re-engagement with this non-Arab West Asian country. Statements were issued by both sides which, though not overly effusive in tone, at least indicated a mutual desire to instil some level of normalcy into the approach each side wished to take in respect of the other. Indirect contacts, which had not been fully suspended, were energised to a greater degree than before.

As Khatami's reform movement stalled, the U.S. administration appeared unable to make up its mind as to how it should proceed. As could be discerned from reports and commentaries, one section within the administration was of the view that an instant rapprochement would strengthen Khatami and help him overcome the conservative tendency that dominates the Iranian clerical regime. Another section apparently believed that an overture from the U.S. would be akin to a "kiss of death" that would finish off the Iranian reform movement and kill any chance of a reconciliation. In the event, the opposition from the conservatives proved to be too strong and Khatami, caught as he was between them and the more ardent reformers, appeared to lose his zeal for a domestic change and a dialogue between civilisations. Thereupon, Washington seemed to slip into a mode of waiting to see how developments in Iran would pan out, before deciding on the approach to be taken.

As in respect of many other issues, the events of September 11, 2001 marked yet another turning point in the U.S.-Iran interaction. Iran had opposed the Taliban regime in Afghanistan much longer, with greater intensity and more actively than the U.S. had done until the attacks in New York and Washington. Iran was only too happy to see the U.S. take on itself the burden of dismantling the Taliban regime and, without much fanfare, provided some assistance from the sidelines. But no sooner had the Taliban been driven out of Kabul than the Iran-U.S. interaction slipped back into negative mode. Washington seemed unable to understand, let alone appreciate, the fact that Teheran had compelling interests in Afghanistan and also the capacity to shape events across its eastern border.

The antagonism between the two countries appeared to have been revived in full measure after the current U.S. President, George W. Bush, named Iran as one of the trio of nations that formed the "Axis of Evil". Although Washington's tone was overtly hostile, representatives of both countries continued to meet at the "Six plus Two" consultations on Afghan affairs. (This grouping consists of the U.S., Russia and Afghanistan's six immediate neighbours.) It was also widely understood that in regard to the nations included among the supposed Axis of Evil, the U.S. would deal first with Iraq, then perhaps with North Korea, and finally with Iran.

Now that Iraq has been dealt with - if the mess that has been created there could be called any kind of a satisfactory outcome even from Washington's point of view - and since North Korea represents a different kind of proposition altogether, the empire-building zealots in the U.S. appear to be focussing their attention on Iran. In their view, Iran exhibits the tendencies of a "rogue nation" in three different dimensions - it pursues a clandestine nuclear weapons programme, provides sanctuary to Al Qaeda terrorists and sponsors terrorism in other ways, and resorts to undue intervention in Iraq.

On all three counts, Iran's defence of its record carries more credibility than the U.S. administration's interpretation of it. It is just as absurd as it is outrageous that the U.S., which carried out an unjust and unnecessary act of aggression against Iraq, should be accusing any other country of intervening in the midst of the chaotic conditions that have been created in post-war Iraq. Iran, after all, shares a long border with Iraq unlike the invaders who have come from thousands of miles away, and it surely has vital stakes in ensuring that the situation in its neighbourhood stabilises. In a context where the personal security of Iraqis stands jeopardised, Iran has a special interest in ensuring the safety of Shia Muslims and their holy sites. Iran would also feel that it has a right to intervene in Iraqi affairs when the U.S. is ambivalent towards the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (a terrorist organisation according to the State Department's assessment), which has for long run a guerilla campaign against the Iranian regime.

All the high-minded rhetoric of the U.S. is of course an expedient to cover up the fact that the U.S. cannot afford to give too much leeway to Teheran in Iraqi affairs. It is not very certain that the sectarian sentiments of Iraq's Shia majority will prove strong enough to overcome any Arab nationalistic reservations they might still entertain and lead them to make common cause with Iran. But the Iran-sponsored Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution (SCRI) in Iraq appears to be the most powerful of the many factions vying for supremacy in post-Saddam Iraq. Given Iran's links with Syria and Lebanon, its sphere of influence could stretch across to the Mediterranean if the SCRI is able to exert its dominance in Iraq.

Those critical of Iran's nuclear power programme have long questioned the need for a petroleum-rich nation taking up projects for this alternative source of energy. Iran's defence that its domestic consumption is increasing exponentially and that it has the right to develop such energy resources appears to have gained credence because this critique had become more muted of late. Iran has also consistently pointed out that as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, its nuclear facilities are regularly inspected.

However, the accusation that Iran is actively pursuing a clandestine weapons programme is levelled even more vigorously now. The U.S. avers that inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have found the uranium enrichment programme that Iran conducts at its Natanz facility to be far more advanced than was previously believed. It therefore insists that Iran sign an additional protocol that will authorise a more rigorous inspection regime. Iran, while admitting that it had discovered and extracted uranium to produce nuclear energy, has denied that there is a weapons component to its programme. Iran has apparently insisted that the sanctions, which crimp its nuclear energy programme, should be lifted before it signs the additional protocol.

While it is essentially up to Iran and the IAEA to sort out any discrepancy between their respective assessments, it could be said that Washington's geopolitical designs and activities would only have strengthened Iran's inclination to add a nuclear dimension to its arsenal if it is to fend off a neo-colonial aggression. When the U.S. attacks Iraq, which does not have nuclear weapons capability, and backs off from confronting North Korea, which presumably has one, the equations appear to work out very simply.

Iran has never hidden its support for the Hizbollah in Lebanon. But that is, as per all sound evidence, the only organisation with a terrorist past that Iran supports currently. The Hizbollah has changed as well and it is doubtful whether it can still be termed a terrorist organisation. It has stopped firing rockets into civilian areas of Israel after Israel ended its military occupation of southern Lebanon, though it continues to attack Israeli military pickets in the Sheba farms area located in the eastern junction between the two countries. But to describe the attacks on the Israeli military force, which the Lebanese believe is in illegal occupation of a part of their country, as acts of terrorism is stretching the term too far. The U. S. would have to produce much more, and far stronger, evidence than it has until now, in order to lend credibility to its allegation that the Iranian government consorts with Al Qaeda. Given the history of bitter animosity between the Shia clerical regime of Iran and the Sunni fundamentalist Al Qaeda, it does not seem plausible that the former would associate with the latter, especially given the presence of restive Sunni minorities within their country. Iran does not deny that Al Qaeda activists might be present on its soil. But then, Al Qaeda activists are believed to be on the loose in the U.S., Europe and other parts of the world as well and their presence within a particular country does not necessarily mean that that country is in league with them. Iran has some Al Qaeda members in its custody and claims to be trying to verify their role in the terrorist network. It has promised to hand over these terror suspects to friendly governments such as that of Saudi Arabia.

All that the U. S. has produced thus far by way of evidence of a concert between the Iranian government and Al Qaeda is assertions that it has intercepted radio communications emanating from Iran and directed at the perpetrators of the May 12 bombings in Saudi Arabia. According to the U.S., these intercepts provide proof that an Al Qaeda operative named Saef al Adel had, from a base in Iran, masterminded the Riyadh bomb blasts, which killed 34 people. In reply, Iran pointed out that it had caught and deported over 500 Al Qaeda activists last year and that it was actively hunting for any others who might still be on its soil.

While Washington might believe that its reputation for technical wizardry is sufficient to infuse its allegations with credibility, exposes made in the U.S. media, especially by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, suggest something entirely to the contrary. Through detailed investigations, Hersh has revealed the manner in which the OSP either distorted or fabricated intelligence data to lend credence to the arguments that were trotted out to justify the war on Iraq. That being the record of the OSP and the higher echelons it reports to in the Pentagon (Deputy Defence Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz and, through him, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld) these assertions fall far short of the "bullet proof case" that Rumsfeld says they amount to.

It is becoming increasingly clear that a unique conglomerate of forces has come together to exploit the post 9/11 fears and concerns of the American citizenry for the advancement of their separate but mutually supportive agendas. Big Oil and the military-industrial complex, represented most prominently by Vice-President Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld, apparently believe that the unquestioned strategic superiority of the U.S. has presented them with an open field in which to pursue their interests. The neo-conservative ideology, as encapsulated in the Project for the New American Century (to which Wolfowitz is understood to have made a major contribution), provides a supposedly idealistic facade behind which these commercial interests can pursue their own agendas. A strong dose of ultra-Zionism has been added to this strange brew.

For the moment, the non-expansionist lobbies in the U.S. and the European allies of the U.S. appear to be restraining a Pentagon itching to initiate military action against Iran. The U.S. administration is reported to be weighing three sets of options. The option that it is least likely to pursue, much though the rest of the world may wish it would, is that of active engagement with the government in Teheran. For all the rhetoric emanating from the Pentagon and despite its proven military might, it does not appear likely that the U.S. will attack Iran in the immediate future. For the time being at least, the greater likelihood is that the U.S. will use the Mujahideen-e-Khalq to mount clandestine operations in order to destabilise the Iranian regime. Meanwhile, the moles in the OSP are likely to be busy fabricating more stories.

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