Iran is no cakewalk
Maqsudul Hassan Nuri
This writer, while attending the 13th Persian Gulf Conference in Tehran, Iran in early March 2003, a fortnight before the US-led war against Iraq, could detect ambivalent feelings of most Iranians: wishing to get rid of their arch foe, Saddam Hussein, yet apprehending the octopus-like arrival of US in their immediate neighbourhood.
In the last two weeks, a flurry of accusations and charges are building up against Iran, the foremost being the support for al-Qaeda on the latter's territory. Lately, the US has accused Iran of providing haven to the Egyptian born al-Qaeda leader Saif al-Adel who is alleged to be involved in the May 12 suicide bombings in Riyadh that killed thirty-four people, including eight US nationals. Recently, a district US court found Iran liable for the Oct 1983 attacks on the US troops in Beirut which killed 241 US marines.
Several US defence officials in Iraq have pinpointed the 'troubling Iranian activity' in Iraq, which could result in serious problems for that country if it went too far' in its support to anti-US forces. Defence Secretary Rumsfeld has warned that the US will not allow at any cost an 'Iranian-type regime' in Iraq.
According to a Russian source, the US has drawn up military plans against Iran, using military bases in neighbouring Iraq, Azerbaijan and Georgia. These countries have, however, denied these reports.
Iran has signed the NPT along with many other countries in the world. It is enriching uranium but under the safeguards of IAEA. Even Russia, which is extending close cooperation in building of power nuclear reactors in Bushehr, southern Iran, has defended the Iranian nuclear programme as a commercial enterprise. Both Russia and Iran have solicited US partnership in the building of these plants.
With a burgeoning population of nearly 67 million, likely to double in 20 years or so, Iran is dependent on nuclear energy. Gas and oil are non-renewable resources, and, therefore nuclear energy seems a suitable alternative in fields of agriculture, industry, health and mining sectors. Yet the US doubts these arguments, given the fact that Iran is already awash in gas and oil.
As of today, there is no hard evidence against the US accusations. Iran's relations with the US are 'huge and dangerous' says President Khatami. While Iran caricatures the US as the 'Great Satan' the latter includes it in the 'axis of evil' states. In fact, the US antipathy goes back to the Iranian revolution and the 'unfinished business' of two decades of hostile relations between the two countries. More tellingly, the humiliating detention of the American embassy staff in Iran for 444 days rankles deep in the American consciousness. Both countries do not have diplomatic relations and Iran is under sanctions.
As is usual, if the US it does not like leadership of any country, it tries to create a bogeyman, demonises it through propaganda, and, then, if possible, acts to unseat it by dissident internal or external groups. As a last resort, it may choose to overthrow the regime through military force a la Iraq and Afghanistan.
What has triggered the US in its present war of words with Iran? Perhaps the immediate reason could be traced to the latest suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia and the mass popularity of Supreme Assembly of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI), the largest Shiite opposition group. Its leader Baqir Al-Hakeem recently returned to a hero's welcome in Iraq after a 23-year exile in Iran.
Will the US military invade Iran? For one thing, Iran has a vibrant culture and is perhaps not Iraq or Afghanistan. Persian pride, grassroots democracy -- the only one of its kind in the ME may act as possible deterrents. Moreover, its large population, sizable military and economic strength indicate that Iran may not be an easy or 'digestible' target.
Iraq-al-Qaeda connections seem spurious and trumped up. A hardline Sunni outfit, al-Qaeda is funded by Wahabhi Arab organisations. Saddam Hussein was a secularist and record shows that there was no love lost between them. If today, some of the al-Qaeda cadres are taking shelter in Iran, it is because of the long porous borders with that country, which is difficult to seal or control. As the Iranians point out, these al-Qaeda elements are also present in Pakistan and that too in much larger numbers. In fact, they charge that they are 'properly sheltered' in the latter country and yet no action against Pakistan is contemplated by the US. Further, the Iranians deny that al-Qaeda members enjoy any blessings. In fact, they assert that they have detained and interrogated many of them; moreover, it claims to have captured almost 500 of them.
On the contrary, the US charges that Iran is using al-Qaeda elements to keep Americans off balance in Iraq. It perceives the Shia assertion as future defiance. It could be a result of lifting up of decades of oppression and the newly created power vacuum in Iraq. The Shiites form nearly 60-65 per cent of Iraqi population and the clerical leadership enjoys popularity given their standing in social and charity work in Iraqi society.
Majority of Iranians today look up to economic and political modernising of their country under the reformist President Khatami. The US believes that the time for political change in Iran is ripe as evidenced through the grass root support by liberal elements, youth, women and intellectuals. It feels that time is 'running out' and it can 'reshape' the Middle East, and, the 'best time' is right now by engineering regime change through internal forces, while dangling the threat of US military action. It also feels that Iran is a 'regional hegemon' which is blocking its plans in the region, sponsors and supports Hamas and Hizbollah and poses a constant threat to its Arab neighbours.
Al-Badr, the militant arm of SAIRI is seen as a threat and the US would like other militant Iraqi groups to disarm except Ahmad Chalabi's INA and Kurd's peshmergas. Pentagon and the State Department have some differences. While the former recommends overt means that include anti-Iranian broadcasts, the covert means call for support to the Iraqi based Iranian opposition group, Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), even though it was earlier designated as a terrorist organisation. Contrarily, the State Dept posits that this policy could backfire and radicalise the moderate elements opposed to President Khatami.
What then are the real motives of the US? Officially, those trotted out are mere red herrings. Many commentators feel that it is Israel that calls the real shots for the US policies in the Middle East. It is the Israeli security-enhancing script that is being enacted by weakening or changing regimes -- Iraq, Iran, possibly Saudi Arabia et al. In fact, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had programmed the invasion of Iran in one big sweep 'the day after Iraq is crushed.'
Defence Minister Shaul Mafaz had bluntly threatened to attack Iran's N-installations. Its F-15s cruise and ballistic missiles give Israel the ability to attack any target in Iran as Iranian medium range missiles (Shahab-3 and 4) can easily target Israel's capital Tel Aviv.
How will Iran cope with the US threats of intimidations and coercion? This poses a formidable challenge to its present leadership. It has demanded apologies from the US for supporting al-Qaeda in the 1980s. It does not want to sign an additional protocol for facilitating the NPT inspections.
Iranians are not eight feet tall, but are also not in the business of grovelling and cringing. Its leadership wants to act discreetly and without needless provocation. It has eg, suggested 'cooperation' between Iran and Pakistan to control al-Qaeda movements across their borders and possible US cooperation in nuclear development.
Any 'regime change' in Iran through the use of internal machinations or outside force will further inflame the Islamic world, already brimming with rage, gravely destabilise the region, and breed militancy and terrorism.
Do the Americans know it, and are they prepared for these consequences? Perhaps the Bush administration is too sold to the idea that the greater the Islamic militancy rears its head, the more justified it will be in bludgeoning these terrorists, punishing the host regimes and thereby extending its military outreach.
But Iran is not Iraq, and, if the 'dominoes' keep on falling in the Middle East, it will send convulsions of instability in the region. This does not serve the long term US interests, nor of the regional countries. Ironically, this will mean further spread of nuclear weapons and unbridled rise of Islamic terrorism.
Flyny Leverett, a former ME specialist of President Bush's National Security Council has cautioned the Bush administration by saying: "Tehran is not a house of cards waiting to be pushed over."
The writer is a senior Research Fellow, Islamabad Policy Research Institute