Next Stop Tehran?
By Simon Tisdall
Tuesday 27 May 2003
With Iraq beaten, the US is now playing the same dangerous WMD game with Iran
Imagine for a moment that you are a senior official in Iran's foreign ministry. It's hot outside on the dusty, congested streets of Tehran. But inside the ministry, despite the air-conditioning, it's getting stickier all the time. You have a big problem, a problem that Iran's president, Mohammad Khatami, admits is "huge and serious". The problem is the Bush administration and, specifically, its insistence that Iran is running "an alarming clandestine nuclear weapons programme". You fear that this, coupled with daily US claims that Iran is aiding al-Qaida, is leading in only one direction. US news reports reaching your desk indicate that the Pentagon is now advocating "regime change" in Iran.
Reading dispatches from Geneva, you note that the US abruptly walked out of low-level talks there last week, the only bilateral forum for two countries lacking formal diplomatic relations. You worry that bridge-building by Iran's UN ambassador is getting nowhere. You understand that while Britain and the EU are telling Washington that engagement, not confrontation, is the way forward, the reality, as Iraq showed, is that if George Bush decides to do it his way, there is little the Europeans or indeed Russia can ultimately do to stop him.
What is certain is that at almost all points of the compass, the unmatchable US military machine besieges Iran's borders. The Pentagon is sponsoring the Iraq-based Mojahedin e-Khalq, a group long dedicated to insurrection in the Islamic republic that the state department describes as terrorists. And you are fully aware that Israel is warning Washington that unless something changes soon, Iran may acquire the bomb within two years. As the temperature in the office rises, as flies buzz around the desk like F-16s in a dogfight and as beads of sweat form on furrowed brow, it seems only one conclusion is possible. The question with which you endlessly pestered your foreign missions before and during the invasion of Iraq - "who's next?" - appears now to have but one answer. It's us.
So what would you do?
This imaginary official may be wrong, of course. Without some new terrorist enormity in the US "homeland", surely Bush is not so reckless as to start another all-out war as America's election year approaches? Washington's war of words could amount to nothing more than that. Maybe the US foolishly believes it is somehow helping reformist factions in the Majlis (parliament), the media and student bodies. Maybe destabilisation and intimidation is the name of the game and the al-Qaida claims are a pretext, as in Iraq. Perhaps the US does not itself know what it wants to do; a White House strategy meeting is due today. But who knows? Tehran's dilemma is real: Washington's intentions are dangerously uncertain.
Should Iran continue to deny any present bomb-making intent and facilitate additional, short-notice inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency to prove it? Should it expand its EU dialogue and strengthen protective ties with countries such as Syria and Lebanon, India, Russia and China, which is its present policy? The answer is "yes". The difficulty is that this may not be enough. Should it then go further and cancel its nuclear power contracts with Moscow? Should it abandon Hizbullah and Palestinian rejectionist groups, as America demands? This doubtless sounds like a good idea to neo-con thinktankers. But surely even they can grasp that such humiliation, under duress from the Great Satan, is politically unacceptable. Grovelling is not Persian policy.
Even the relatively moderate Khatami made it clear in Beirut recently that there would be no backtracking in the absence of a just, wider Middle East settlement. And anyway, Khatami does not control Iran's foreign and defence policy. Indeed, it is unclear who does. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ex-president Hashemi Rafsanjani, security chief Hassan Rohani, and the military and intelligence agencies all doubtless have a say, which may be why Iran's policies often appear contradictory. Tension between civil society reformers and the mullahs is endemic and combustible. But as US pressure has increased, so too has the sway of Islamic hardliners.
Iran's alternative course is the worst of all, but one which Bush's threats make an ever more likely choice. It is to build and deploy nuclear weapons and missiles in order to pre-empt America's regime-toppling designs. The US should hardly be surprised if it comes to this. After all, it is what Washington used to call deterrence before it abandoned that concept in favour of "anticipatory defence" or, more candidly, unilateral offensive warfare. To Iran, the US now looks very much like the Soviet Union looked to western Europe at the height of the cold war. Britain and West Germany did not waive their right to deploy US cruise and Pershing nuclear missiles to deter the combined menace of overwhelming conventional forces and an opposing, hostile ideology. Why, in all logic, should Iran, or for that matter North Korea and other so-called "rogue states" accused of developing weapons of mass destruction, act any differently?
If this is Iran's choice, the US will be much to blame. While identifying WMD proliferation as the main global threat, its bellicose post-9/11 policies have served to increase rather than reduce it. Washington ignores, as ever, its exemplary obligation to disarm under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). Despite strategic reductions negotiated with Russia, the US retains enormous firepower in every nuclear weapons category. Worse still, the White House is set on developing, not just researching, a new generation of battlefield "mini-nukes" whose only application is offensive use, not deterrence. Its new $400bn defence budget allocates funding to this work; linked to this is an expected US move to end its nuclear test moratorium in defiance of the comprehensive test ban treaty.
Bush has repeatedly warned, not least in his national security strategy, that the US is prepared to use "overwhelming force", including first use of nuclear weapons, to crush perceived or emerging threats. It might well have done so in Iraq had the war gone badly. Bush has thereby torn up the key stabilising concept of "negative security assurance" by which nuclear powers including previous US administrations pledged, through the NPT and the UN, not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states. Meanwhile the US encourages egregious double standards. What it says, in effect, is that Iran (and most other states) must not be allowed a nuclear capability but, for example, Israel's undeclared and internationally uninspected arsenal is permissible. India's and Pakistan's bombs, although recently and covertly acquired, are tolerated too, since they are deemed US allies. Bush's greatest single disservice to non-proliferation came in Iraq. The US cried wolf in exaggerating Saddam's capability. Now it is actively undermining the vital principle of independent, international inspection and verification by limiting UN access to the country. Yet would Iraq have been attacked if it really had possessed nuclear weapons? Possibly not. Thus the self-defeating, mangled message to Iran and others is: arm yourselves to the teeth, before it it too late, or you too could face the chop.
Small wonder if things grow sticky inside Tehran's dark-windowed ministries right now. If Iran ultimately does the responsible thing and forswears the bomb, it will not be for want of the most irresponsible American provocation.
White House Keeps Pressure on Iran
By The Associated Press and Reuters
Tuesday 27 May 2003
U.S. rejects Iran s claims it isn t harboring senior al-Qaida leaders
WASHINGTON The Bush administration on Tuesday rejected Iran s claims that it was not harboring senior al-Qaida leaders. A senior-level meeting on Iran policy set for Tuesday was put on hold, but White House spokesman Ari Fleischer kept the heat on, saying Iran had responded to U.S. concerns insufficiently.
Fleischer also said the arrests of several suspected al-Qaida members announced by Iran on Monday did not quell concerns.
Al-Qaida, led by Osama bin Laden, has been blamed by the United States for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington.
U.S. officials said they had intelligence suggesting senior al-Qaida members were hiding in Iran and had advance knowledge of the suicide bombings May 12 in Saudi Arabia in which 34 people, including eight Americans, were killed.
Fleischer also scoffed at Tehran's assertions that its nuclear program was exclusively designed for peaceful power-generating purposes. "We continue to have concerns that a nation that is awash in gas and oil would seek to produce peaceful nuclear energy," he said.
Fleischer alleged that Iran "flares off" -- that is, burns as a waste product -- more natural gas than the electrical energy it would produce from nuclear reactors.
Meeting Likely Tuesday
Fleischer said a meeting of senior officials to consider new ways to pressure Iran, which had reportedly been scheduled for Tuesday, would not happen.
A source familiar with the policy debate said there would be a higher-level "principles" meeting on the issue Thursday at which top administration officials would consider ways to step up pressure on Iran. Another source confirmed there was a meeting Thursday but was not sure at what level.
"What we will be doing is looking at what our options are to try to get the Iranians to cooperate on al-Qaida in ways that they have in the past. If there's an indication that we can't expect that kind of cooperation again, then we'll be looking at other options," a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.
The Washington Post reported Sundaythat the United States had broken off contact with Iran after intelligence reports suggesting that al-Qaida operatives in Iran had a role in the May 12 bombings.
The Post reported that Pentagon officials were pushing for the Bush administration to adopt a more aggressive policy to destabilize the Iranian government.
Iran Denies Al-Qaeda Ties
The United States has specifically accused Iran of harboring al-Qaida's security chief, Saif al-Adil; bin Laden's son, Saad; and Abu Musab Zarqawi, the operational commander whom Washington accuses of ties to ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Iran, for its part, has said that it has arrested and deported 500 al-Qaida members over the last year as they fled Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq but that none are senior leaders, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has charged.
"Iran is serious about confronting al-Qaida," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said Monday, calling on Washington to "follow logic and wisdom in international relations and avoid making interfering remarks."
Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi called al-Qaida "a very dangerous organization" and said his country was serious about combating it.
"There is no way that Iranians would support al-Qaida because we have been fighting with al-Qaida since before even the Americans were engaged with them," he said.
Iran has also stressed that its Shiite branch of Islam was at odds with the Sunni Islam advocated by bin Laden and al-Qaida.
Iran, which is on President Bush's "axis of evil" list, has come under increasing pressure from Washington since the end of the war in Iraq.
In recent weeks U.S. officials have accused Iran of meddling in postwar Iraq, developing nuclear weapons, sheltering al-Qaida members and sponsoring terrorism. Iran denies all the U.S. allegations.
Hassan Rohani, secretary general of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said Iran "would like to reduce the existing tensions," between Tehran and Washington.
"If America shows goodwill, one could expect better prospects in the future relations of the two countries," Rohani said Sunday in the newspaper Jomhuri-ye Eslami. Rohani added that Iran was "ready to open its nuclear program to full international supervision."
The nuclear issue has been complicated by Moscow's determination to continue helping Iran build its first nuclear plant.
"Russia does not see any reason now to review its stance and its role regarding construction of the first nuclear reactor," Alexander Rumyantsev, Russia's atomic energy minister, said after talks with visiting Iranian nuclear officials Monday.
Diplomatic pressure on Iran is likely to intensify on June 16 if, as Washington hopes, the International Atomic Energy Agency declares Iran in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Iran insists that its network of nuclear facilities, which includes a uranium enrichment plant, are solely geared to electric generation. But U.S. officials and independent analysts say Iran's atomic program could allow it to "break out" of the NPT when it is ready to build nuclear weapons.
Lawmakers Weigh In
Washington broke ties with Tehran shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Officials from the two countries have met several times recently in Geneva to discuss issues related to Afghanistan and Iraq.
The notion of how to deal with Iran has also become a hot topic in Congress.
Sen. Joseph Biden, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told NBC's "Today" show Tuesday that the White House should first finish its military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan before it even considers regime change in Iran.
"We've got a long way to go there," Biden said of Iraq. "I don't think we should be biting off more than we can chew right now."
On Sunday, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., suggested on NBC's "Meet the Press" that Americans might expect "better cooperation from Iran once the strong signal has gone out" that the United States will not accept weapons of mass destruction there.
And Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., a Democratic presidential hopeful who strongly backed the Iraq war, said that while "regime change" is the answer in Iran, he was not suggesting U.S. military action.