Sunday, September 12, 2004

The Daily Star - Opinion Articles - The ominous backlash of an attack against Iran

The Daily Star - Opinion Articles - The ominous backlash of an attack against Iran: "The ominous backlash of an attack against Iran

By David Hirst
Special to The Daily Star
Monday, September 13, 2004


When U.S. President George W. Bush first identified the two Middle East members of his "axis of evil," Iran clearly ranked as a far more formidable adversary than Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

But Bush went after the easier target instead. "Did we invade the wrong country?" now asks leading American commentator Charles Krauthammer, speaking for many neoconservative hawks as the U.S. refocuses on Iran. From their standpoint, it must surely look as if they did. For the neocons, overthrowing Saddam was to have been nothing if not regional in purpose, the opening phase of a grand design to "transform"' the entire Middle East. But such are the region's cross-border dynamics that success was never going to be assured even in one country unless it embraced others too.

However, it is hardly success in Iraq that accounts for the increasingly urgent concerns about Iran; it is more likely the specter of catastrophic failure. For if the Islamic Republic - with its intrinsic weight, fundamentalist leadership, a missile and possibly an unconventional weapons program far more serious-looking than Saddam's, hostility to Israel and sponsorship of movements like Hizbullah - was always the most dangerous of "rogue states," it is now more dangerous than it was at the outset of the Iraq adventure. It simply has to be subdued.

That, Washington hawks argue, should come via nuclear weapons, which, they say, Iran is secretly building. It is the only feasible means short of an all but unthinkable full-scale invasion. Bush insists that Iran cannot be allowed to go nuclear. "If nothing is done," argues Krauthammer, "a fanatical terrorist regime openly dedicated to the destruction of the 'Great Satan' will have both nuclear weapons and the terrorists and missiles to deliver them. All that stands between us and that is either revolution or pre-emptive strike. Both of which are far more likely to succeed with 146,000 American troops and highly sophisticated aircraft standing by just a few miles away - in Iraq."

Such talk doesn't seem to frighten the mullahs. Clearly, they do worry about the strategic encirclement that the U.S. has thrown around them. Yet, paradoxically, they are emboldened, too: For they think that if they are more vulnerable, so, overextended and floundering, is their adversary.

They are saying it loud and clear: We have strategic assets to match America's own, we are no Saddam "cakewalk," and the cost of any U.S. - or Israeli - attempt to exploit their military advantages against us will be great and regionwide. In propaganda terms at least, these assets include unconventional ones. Iran claims that it is not developing nuclear weapons. But much of its behavior - at least that of the once-again-dominant, hard-line clerical establishment - indicates a quite deliberate attempt, rather like the earlier stages of Israel's policy of nuclear opacity, to cloak the claim in doubt and ambiguity, nourishing the convictions of all those, not just Israelis and neocons, who believe it is developing them.

Certainly, at least, the Iranian regime wants to create the impression that it is acquiring the kind of firepower that only weapons of mass destruction can supply. What else can former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani mean when, characteristically, he said that if Israel were to kill 15 million Iranians in a nuclear strike, Iran could wipe out 5 million Israelis in response?

If the Islamic Republic doesn't actually have the unconventional means - not yet, at least - to lend substance to its militant rhetoric, it does have conventional means that have long been an intrinsic, largely surreptitious part of its whole "revolutionary" modus operandi. In fact, through Iraq, the removal of its archenemy Saddam and the emancipation and new aspirations of the long-suppressed Iraqi Shiite majority, it has them in new and providential abundance.

"Some military commanders in Iran," said Iran's defense minister, Ali Shamkani, "are convinced that preventive operations which the Americans talk about are not their monopoly. We too are present from Khost to Kandahar in Afghanistan, in the Gulf, and we can be in Iraq, where U.S. forces won't be an element of strength at our expense, but our hostage."


No wonder that, for the new Iraqi government, Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's rebellion was as much about Iran and the part it was suspected of playing in financing, arming and advising it, as it was about Sadr himself. The message, remarked Lebanese Iran expert Michel Naufal, was that "if Washington exerts pressure to foil Tehran's nuclear program, the Islamic Republic will meddle with the U.S. plans in post-war Iraq."

And then there is always Lebanon and Hizbullah, that everlasting flashpoint in reserve. Quiescent of late, Hizbullah is ever ready to re-enter the jihadist arena, drawing on the arsenal of rockets, vastly increased in range and numbers, with which, according to Israel, Iran has been systematically supplying it. Says veteran Israeli military analyst Zeev Schiff: "This is an Iran-Syria-Hizbullah array," and its use, almost certain in the event of an American or Israeli strike on Iran, could escalate into "all-out war." In the event of an Israeli onslaught on Syria - already under renewed Israeli threat for its alleged role in Hamas suicide operations - could even Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak stand idly by as his people boil?

It is clear that the mullahs don't want a full-scale showdown. In parading their assets they seek to deter rather than provoke. In fact they have always wanted better relations with the U.S., provided they get something in return and that they, not their reformist rivals, control the process.

"We can help the U.S. in Iraq," said Rafsanjani. Their meddling there is actually cautious and carefully calibrated. Holding the cards they do, they can afford to take their time. If anything, the urgency now lies on the other side; hence the urgings of pundits like Krauthammer to "strike before Iran's nukes get hot." And so does the volatility: Bush administration policy on Iran - like Syria - is one of those arenas of shifting, unresolved bureaucratic conflict between neocons and the rest, and the Pentagon's latest Israeli spy scandal has shed yet more light on its fierce and nefarious inner workings.

But perhaps the real wild card in an explosive pack of pressures and temptations lies less in the Iranian "rogue state" - in good measure a product of America's endemic hostility - than it does in what amounts to the Israeli one - that product of its excessive indulgence. Israel has repeatedly warned that it may sooner or later take direct action to stop an Iranian nuclear bomb. The well-known Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld isn't alone in suggesting that a first danger period for this is now at hand, with that window of maximum diplomatic opportunity which U.S. presidential elections always offer Israel.

As an Israeli book recounts, in 1981 then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was part of a three-man inner circle that kept the Reagan administration in the dark as they planned and carried out their daring air strike against Iraq's Osirak nuclear plant. The Israelis hoped, however, that the U.S. would come out of that experience looking as if they were complicit in the attack. This had little visible fallout.

However, a repeat performance against Iran today would be universally perceived as American in spirit, even if exclusively Israeli in execution, and the whole Middle Eastern mess, so noxious in itself as well as to the rest of the world, which America came to Iraq to clean up, would instantly cross a new threshold in scale, virulence and unpredictability.


David Hirst was for a long time Middle East correspondent of The Guardian, and is author of "The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East." He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR"

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