Simon Tisdall / The Guardian & Jonathan Steele / The Guardian – 2007-02-04 21:41:51
Bush ‘Spoiling for a Fight’ with Iran:
Redux of Run-up to Iraq War
Simon Tisdall / The Guardian
LONDON (January 31, 2007) — US officials in Baghdad and Washington are expected to unveil a secret intelligence “dossier” this week detailing evidence of Iran’s alleged complicity in attacks on American troops in Iraq. The move, uncomfortably echoing Downing Street’s dossier debacle in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, is one more sign that the Bush administration is building a case for war.
Nicholas Burns, the senior US diplomat in charge of Iran policy, says Washington “is not looking for a fight” with Tehran. The official line is that Washington has made a conscious decision to “push back” against Iran on a range of fronts where the two countries’ interests clash. Primarily that means Tehran’s perceived meddling in Iraq, where its influence with the Shia-led government and Shia majority population appears to be increasing as Washington’s weakens.
State Depeartment spokeman Sean McCormack claimed this week the administration has a body of evidence implicating Iran in sectarian attacks against Iraq’s Sunni minority. “There is a high degree of confidence in the information we already have and we are constantly accumulating more,” he told the New York Times. Sure, confidence man. Like with Iraq’s phantom WMD arsenal?
CIA and Pentagon officials are also touting intelligence that “Iranians are smuggling into Iraq sophisticated explosive devices, mortars, and detailed plans to wipe out Sunni Arab neighbourhoods,” the paper said. Officials would make a “comprehensive case” this week.
But President George Bush has already acted on information received. He confirmed yesterday that he has ordered US forces in effect to kill or capture Iranian “agents” targeting Americans in Iraq – as happened earlier this month when five Iranian officials were detained in Irbil.
Hassan Kazemi Qumi, Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, ridiculed “sectarian maps” and other evidence the US military said it had obtained during a raid on a Shia compound in Baghdad. He repeated Tehran’s contention that Iranians were in Iraq to help with “security problems.” Barham Saleh, Iraq’s deputy prime minister, complains that the US and Iran are turning his country into a “zone of conflict and competition” and suggests they take their fight elsewhere.
But as was also the case in the days before Saddam Hussein fell, powerful external forces, ranging from exiled Iranian opposition groups to leading Israeli politicians, appear intent on stoking the fire – and winding up the White House.
“The al-Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards is stepping up terrorism and encouraging sectarian violence in Iraq,” Alireza Jafarzadeh, a US-based Iranian dissident who has been linked to the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MeK) resistance group, told the Washington Times this month. Mr Jafarzadeh is credited with revealing the existence of Iran’s secret nuclear sites in Natanz and Arak in 2002.
“There is a sharp surge in Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and sectarian violence in the past few months,” Mr. Jafarzadeh told a conference organised by the Iran Policy Committee, a Washington lobby group pressing the State Department to remove the MeK from its terrorist list.
Israel is also pushing the intelligence case while upping the ante, claiming to have knowledge that Tehran is within a year or two of acquiring basic nuclear weapons-making capability. In a BBC interview last week, former Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu compared Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime to Hitler’s Nazis. Speaking in Davos the deputy prime minister, Shimon Peres, demanded immediate regime change or failing that, military intervention.
The US “push back” against Iran comprises many other elements beyond Iraq.
Unconfirmed reports suggest Vice-President Dick Cheney has cut a deal with Saudi Arabia to keep oil production up even as prices fall, to undercut Iran’s main source of foreign currency.
Washington is pursuing expanding, non-UN global financial sanctions against Tehran; encouraging and arming a “new alignment” of Sunni Arab Gulf states (just as it did with Sunni-run Iraq in the 1980s); and highlighting Iran’s role in “supporting terrorism” in Palestine, where it helps bankroll the Hamas government, and Lebanon, where it backs Hizbullah.
The US is also deploying powerful naval forces in the Gulf that are of little help in Iraq but could more easily be used to mount air strikes on Iran.
Almost any one of these developments might produce a pretextual casus belli. And when taken together, despite official protestations, they seem to point in only one direction.
The Bush administration, an American commentator suggested, is “once again spoiling for a fight.”
Simon Tisdall writes “World Briefing” column for The Guardian.
As US Power Fades, It Can’t Find Friends To Take on Iran
Jonathan Steele / The Guardian
(February 2, 2007) — The shadowy outlines of a new US strategy towards Iran are exercising diplomats and experts around the Middle East and in the west.
The US says Iranian personnel are training and arming anti-US forces inside Iraq, and it will not hesitate to kill them. It is sending a second aircraft carrier to the Gulf, doubling its force projection there. It is calling on Europeans to tighten sanctions on Iran until Tehran suspends its uranium enrichment program.
Is the US rattling the sabre in advance of an attack on Iran? Or is it merely rattling its cage, as it pretends still to be a power in the region in spite of being locked into an unwinnable war in Iraq?
The only certainty is that Bush’s strategy of calling for democratisation in the Middle East is over. Washington has had to abandon the neocon dream of turning Iraq into a beacon of secular liberal democracy. It is no longer pressing for reform in other Arab states.
On her recent trip to Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf, Condoleezza Rice said little about democracy. Her pitch was old-fashioned realpolitik as she tried to create a regional counterweight to Iran’s influence. Gary Sick, a former National Security Council expert, argues that Washington’s return to balance-of-power considerations is designed to create an informal anti-Iranian alliance of the US, Israel and the Sunni Arab states.
The aim is partly to divert attention from the catastrophe of Iraq. It also reduces Israel’s isolation by suggesting Sunni Arab states have a common interest in confronting Iran, whatever their disagreements over Palestine.
Other American experts argue that Iranian influence should not be confused with Shia influence. The US blunder in invading Iraq and opening the way for Shia Islamists to control its government created an unexpected opportunity for Iran. But it does not follow that Shia movements in other Arab states have grown stronger or that the arc of Shia radicalism that King Abdullah of Jordan has talked of is anything more than a figment of his imagination.
The Shia minorities in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are showing no signs of revolt. On the contrary, Saudi Shias are reported to be fearful of a backlash from the Sunni majority if sectarian threat-mongering continues. Highlighting sectarian identities has turned into a galloping cancer in Iraq, and it would be a disaster if the US seeks to export these tensions into the wider Middle East.
Even in Iraq there are limits to Iran’s role. The eight-year war between the two countries in the 1980s showed that Iraqi Shias put their Arab and Iraqi identity above the religious rituals they share with Iranians.
Moqtada al-Sadr, the cleric who commands one of the main Iraqi militias, frequently boasts of his Iraqi nationalism and the fact that his father, a distinguished ayatollah, remained in opposition in Iraq during the Saddam Hussein years rather than fleeing, as other Iraqi Shia clerics did, to the protection of Tehran or London.
The US claims Iran has increased its subversion in Iraq in recent months. The US has a record of self-serving and false intelligence on Iraq but, even if true, Iran’s actions cannot make much difference to the problems the US is facing. The sectarian violence is perpetrated largely by Iraqis on Iraqis. If outsiders provoke it, they are mainly Sunni jihadis loyal to al-Qaida.
As for attacks on US forces, these come primarily in Sunni areas or the mixed province of Diyala. Some US officials now hint that Iranians may be involved in these areas too. Links between Iran and Iraq’s Sunni insurgents would be new, but marginal.
The real purpose of Washington’s heightened talk of Iranian subversion seems to be twofold. The administration is playing the blame game. When the “who lost Iraq?” debate develops in earnest as the presidential election contest hots up, Bush’s people will name its fall guys.
Number one will be the Democrats, for failing to fund the war adequately and allowing the “enemy” to take comfort from the sapping of American will. Number two will be Iran for its alleged arming of militias and insurgents. Number three will be Syria for allowing suicide bombers through Damascus airport and into Iraq.
The second purpose of Washington’s anti-Iranian claims, as the former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski recently suggested, is to prepare a case for a US military strike on Iran. It will be described as defensive, just as the first attacks on North Vietnam two generations ago were falsely said to be an answer to the other side’s aggression.
There could be a third aim: a desire to influence the internal Iranian debate. A senior US official stated in London this week that the Iranian government was a monolith and “we try to discern differences within the Iranian regime at our peril”.
That may not be the majority view within the administration. Ratcheting up accusations against Iran’s revolutionary guards who are close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be a device to make a case for moderates like the former president Hashemi Rafsanjani. He appears to favour a deal with Washington rather than confrontation.
The safest conclusion is that Washington remains confused about what Iran is doing, and frustrated by its own inability to find allies to support a response. All options are being prepared, along with their “justifications”. The International Institute for Strategic Studies’ annual survey rightly pointed out this week that US power is fading. It can shape an agenda but not implement it globally.
Two stark new events prove that. One was the meeting between the Saudi and Iranian security chiefs to try to stop Lebanon sliding back into civil war. This showed Iran can be a force for regional stability, and that Saudi Arabia is resisting US efforts to isolate Tehran. The other was President Jacques Chirac’s comment that it would not matter if Iran developed a nuclear bomb or two as they could not be used productively.
Described as a gaffe since it broke ranks with Washington, it expressed the views of many Europeans (as well as the contradiction inherent in the French and British nuclear arsenals), since the French president added that the bigger problem was the push for other nations to follow suit.
As Washington’s neocons go into eclipse and the realpolitikers dither, Britain and other European governments need to be far clearer in public than they have so far been. They should point out that the dispute with Iran is not as monumental as Washington claims. Fomenting new divisions in the Middle East or resorting to force are cures far worse than the disease.
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