Global Policy Forum

Towards Fresh Disaster in Iran


by Alain Gresh*

Le Monde diplomatique
November 8, 2007

The Bush administration steadily increases its accusations of Iran as a monstrous evil that threatens the Middle East region and the world. But this anti-diplomatic discourse is coupled with a number of deliberate and threatening activities that risk military confrontation. Would Bush attack Iran to cover his disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq?

There's a substantial difference between declaring that the third world war has begun and identifying the new Hitler. Since 9/11, President George Bush's enemies have included al-Qaida, the "axis of evil," proliferators of weapons of mass destruction, and Islamic fascism. But now Iran is public enemy number one, as incarnated in its provocative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

According to the US under-secretary of state, Nicholas Burns: "Our beef with the Iranian government is not just about Iran; it's about what Iran is doing in the broader Middle East. With the Middle East occupying the great majority of the time and attention of our administration and Congress -- I want to set the problem of Iran in the larger context of what we are doing in the Middle East and in the world. Our view is that Iran is a generational challenge. It is not a challenge that is going to be episodic or fleeting; it will likely be on the front burners of our foreign policy in 2010, and 2012, and probably 2020."

Iran is a leading oil-exporting nation, but is it really an evil monster? Its military expenditure has risen considerably since 2000, but the army is still under-equipped. Iraq's fragmentation has increased the relative importance of Iran, but whose fault is that? A transnational Shia clergy may be an advantage: Some Iraqi and Lebanese Shia are loyal to Iranian ayatollahs. But it could equally prove to be a weakness since many Iranian Shia are loyal to Iraqi and Lebanese ayatollahs. The Shia clergy is divided, not least over one of the present Iranian government's basic tenets, velayat-e faqih (guardianship of jurisprudence), which gives absolute power to the Supreme Leader -- once Ayatollah Khomeini, now Ayatollah Khamenei. Aside from the religious aspect, there are divisions in Iranian politics that do little to strengthen the regime.

From the early 1990s several US reports predicted that Iran would have nuclear weapons within two to three years. This has regularly been denied but the forecasts have just as regularly been updated: in 1991, 1995, 2000, and today. And yet the International Atomic Energy Agency has stated several times that despite Tehran's attempts to avoid controls, there is no evidence of an Iranian military nuclear programme.

If Iran did obtain nuclear weapons tomorrow, what would happen? In an interview in January, Jacques Chirac, then French president, made a controversial statement that led to a hasty official correction. "Where could Iran drop its bomb?" he asked. "On Israel? If that were so, Tehran would be flattened by the time the bomb was 200 metres out of Iran. There would be retaliation and coercion. That's what nuclear dissuasion is all about." But as Chirac pointed out, Iran's possession of nuclear weapons would accelerate nuclear proliferation in the region. Egypt and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries have already declared their intention to develop nuclear power for civilian purposes. The goal of a nuclear-free Middle East was supposed to be a priority, on condition that it included Israel -- the first country in the region to possess nuclear weapons.

Black and white
But the United States sees things in black and white. It does not think the idea of dissuasion is likely to work with an irrational Iranian government under Ahmadinejad, any more than it did with Gamal Abdel Nasser or Saddam Hussein. Professor Bernard Lewis, the "orientalist" historian who supported US intervention in Iraq, went so far as to warn, quite seriously, that Tehran might drop a nuclear bomb (which it does not have) on Israel on 22 August 2006, because that is the day the Muslim calendar commemorates the prophet Muhammad's flight to Jerusalem and thence to heaven, and the Iranian president would believe that the ensuing apocalypse could hasten the return of the hidden imam. He wrote: "This might well be deemed an appropriate date for the apocalyptic ending of Israel and if necessary of the world. It is far from certain that Mr Ahmadinejad plans any such cataclysmic events precisely for August 22. But it would be wise to bear the possibility in mind."

This level of madness is commonplace in Washington, where hostility to Iran since the Islamic revolution has become pathological and has led to an aggressive anti-Iran stance, not only in the White House but also by most of the election candidates, Democrat and Republican, who accuse Iran of subverting Iraq and Afghanistan. A similar stance is taken by the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, who claimed that Iran was behind everything in Iraq and was transforming it into a perfect training ground. France now stands out from its European colleagues by hardening its stance, demanding more sanctions against Iran and aligning itself with Washington, just when the US war on terror is clearly a failure.

The United States, as part of its regional strategy, is increasing aid to the Kurdish, Arab, Azeri, and Baluchi minorities in Iran. Will the fragmentation of Iraq spread to Iran? Such a policy can result in some surprising reverses: while the Kurdish Workers' Party is listed as a terrorist organisation, a delegation from its sister organisation in Iran, the Kurdistan Free Life Party, was welcomed in August in Washington with its leader Rahman Haj Ahmadi. That is not the only contradiction in the anti-Iranian strategy Bush is trying to put in place with Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the moderate Gulf countries -- and will reinforce during the Annapolis conference.

To combat the Shia, the United States has increased direct and indirect aid to fundamentalist Sunni groups, including extremists close to al-Qaida. In an interview on Al-Jazeera in April, Prince Hassan of Jordan accused a Saudi official (later identified as Bandar Bin Sultan, head of Saudi national security and close to US leaders) of financing radical Sunni groups. The Jordanian authorities confiscated the film. Just a year from US presidential elections, and 16 months before Bush's term of office ends, there is a considerable risk that he may be tempted to rush into a military operation against Iran to cover up his setbacks in Iraq.

In 2006, after four years as Israel's ambassador to the US, Dani Ayalon was asked if he thought a president as unpopular as Bush could make such a decision. "Yes, I do," he replied. "You have to know this man. I was privileged and I consider him a personal friend. People who know him know he is very determined. He is certain of the moral supremacy of democracies over dictatorships. The way he sees it, an ayatollah with a nuclear bomb makes an intolerable combination that threatens the existing world order, which is why he will not let this happen on his shift."

About the Author: Alain Gresh is editor of Le Monde diplomatique and a specialist on the Middle East.

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