Is Iran Next?

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Protesters burn a U.S. flag in front of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran

Next stop Tehran? Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who backs a policy of regime-change in in Iran, on Tuesday charged that the country is harboring al-Qaeda members, trying to remake Iraq in its own image (thus undermining U.S. efforts to do the same) and developing nuclear weapons. Sound familiar? It should; similar charges were used to justify the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and the fact that Rumsfeld is making them in the wake of a Bush administration decision to end high-level back-channel talks with Tehran and on the eve of a reported White House policy review on Iran is of some concern both in Europe and the Mideast.

Rumsfeld would have a tough time convincing even the most loyal of U.S. allies to go to war with Iran — and not only because almost two months after Saddam's overthrow, no evidence has yet emerged to conclusively validate the WMD and al-Qaeda charges against Iraq. Even the Bush administration's most loyal ally, Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, may be inclined to take a more nuanced view than Rumsfeld. Britain does, after all, maintain diplomatic ties with Tehran and has engaged actively with Iran in the hope of promoting the country's reform movement.

To deem, as Rumsfeld does, calls from some Iraqi Shiite clergy for a theocratic government in Baghdad as signs of Iranian meddling is simplistic. The most ardent advocates of that view are followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, who remained inside Iraq under Saddam's repression and are disdainful of rivals who chose exile in Iran. They may have some backing from elements in Iran, but their movement is essentially homegrown. By contrast, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which had been based in Tehran for the past 23 years and whose militia was trained by Iran's hard-line Revolutionary Guard, has joined the opposition coalition the U.S. had seen as the nucleus of a transitional government. Their leaders have spoken of democracy rather than theocracy.

Of course, Iran's own power structure is sharply divided, and there are likely to be conflicting views on how and whether to intervene in Iraq. But if hard-liners in Iran have concluded that their best chance of surviving is to make life as uncomfortable as possible for the occupying forces next door, a more telling indicator would be the launching of a Hezbollah-style guerrilla insurgency among Iraqi Shiites. So far there are no signs of that, and the increasingly assertive Shiite political activity in Iraq has remained largely peaceful. The Iraqi Shiite community doesn't require Iranian influence to generate suspicion of U.S. motives or to insist on a role in government consistent with its two thirds majority of Iraq's population — and it could be a dangerous mistake for U.S. officials to imagine every expression of Islamist sentiment among Iraqi Shiites as the handiwork of Iran.

On al-Qaeda, the picture is more murky. Iran and Osama bin Laden's movement are hardly natural allies — Tehran almost went to war with al-Qaeda's Taliban hosts in Afghanistan in 1998, following Taliban massacres of Afghan Shiites. The extremist theology that inspires both the Taliban and al-Qaeda sees Shiites as infidels, although bin Laden is on record advocating unity for purposes of anti-American jihad. The reformist elected leadership in Tehran has sought to repair its relationships with the West and rehabilitate Iran diplomatically, but the hard-liners may have hedged their bets. It remains unlikely that the government of President Mohammed Khatami has made common cause with al-Qaeda operatives, although it has long been alleged that hard-liners in the Revolutionary Guard have unofficially provided some with shelter in Iran. Al-Qaeda may also have set up shop in the predominantly Sunni border region of eastern Iran, where central government authority is more limited and the authorities have lost thousands of men in battles with smugglers.

But U.S. pressure on Iran is certainly be paying off on the al-Qaeda front. Feeling the heat, Tehran announced last week that it had arrested and deported some 500 al-Qaeda operatives. Washington was unimpressed, demanding proof and alleging that last week's al-Qaeda bombings in Saudi Arabia may have been orchestrated from Iran. More tantalizing, perhaps, are reports that Tehran has told the Australian government that Iran has arrested al-Qaeda's Number 3 man, Saif al-Adel — a possible suspect in the Riyadh bombings — and plans to deport him to his native Egypt, where he could be arrested by the U.S. Handing over key al-Qaeda suspects would certainly give greater credence to Tehran's claim to be helping the global crackdown on bin Laden's movement, but until such time as they do, the pressure is likely to continue.

Measured against the complex reality, Rumsfeld's allegations that Iran is meddling in Iraq and harboring al-Qaeda are unlikely to galvanize much by way of international action against Tehran. But the issue of nuclear weapons is different. If Washington can prove that Tehran is, indeed, planning to use its Russian-built nuclear reactors to create weapons, the U.S. would have a strong case for international action against Iran. Tehran swears it has no plans to develop nuclear weapons, and that it has played open cards with the International Atomic Energy Agency. But the U.S. and some of its allies have demanded that Iran submit to more intrusive IAEA inspections, and the Pentagon has reportedly concluded that an Iranian weapons program is already at an advanced stage.

The post-Saddam strategic reality would likely increase the temptation for Iran to go nuclear — a cursory glance at the fates of Saddam Hussein and North Korea's Kim Jong-il would certainly help any hard-liner trying to argue the virtues of a nuclear deterrent. But if such a program exists, it would be conducted under extensive camouflage, for the Iraq example also proves that there's nothing like an alleged WMD program to make a case for regime-change.

The Bush administration has already begun pressing for international action to compel Iran to submit to further inspections and prove its compliance with the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty — Secretary of State Colin Powell plans to argue the case at the G8 meeting in France this weekend.

Despite the enthusiasm of Rumsfeld and the neo-conservative ideologues who first promoted the Iraq war for regime-change in Tehran, the Bush administration remains committed — at least for now — to a multilateral diplomatic strategy for dealing with Iran. But the debate in Washington, and allied capitals, is likely to heat up. Nobody, at this stage, is advocating a direct U.S. invasion: Iran is a far larger and more powerful adversary than Iraq. And Washington would likely be forced to shoulder such a burden alone — the British, for example, have made clear they'd have no part in such an enterprise. So, the hawkish option is to press for Iran's diplomatic isolation, destabilize the country through covert operations and directly back an armed uprising led by exile groups such as the Iraq-based Mujahedeen e-Khalq (which would have to be removed from the U.S. list of terrorist organizations to make that possible).

But advocates of engagement with Iran — both in Washington and in allied capitals — warn that such a strategy would kill prospects of peaceful internal reform. Political systems under external attack tend to circle the wagons and go more conservative, and that's as likely to be true in Iraq as it has been in Washington since September 11. Iran's conservative mullahs have been in the throes of a domestic political crisis ever since their electorate voted overwhelmingly for the reformist President Mohammed Khatami in 1997. Crackdowns on reformists have periodically ignited street demonstrations, and a major confrontation has been looming over the threat by 127 legislators to resign after a hard-line council of clerics overturned reform legislation approved by parliament. But new threats from the U.S. will embolden the hard-liners, who have begun casting any internal challenges to the system as a threat to national security.

The Washington hawks, however, have little patience for an Iranian reform process that has produced few palpable achievements, and may already have hit a wall. They believe mounting popular anger makes Iran ripe for revolution, and a concerted U.S. push for the overthrow of the mullahs could ignite an uprising. The pro-dialogue camp says that vision is farfetched and dangerous, and that concerns over al-Qaeda and nuclear weapons must be addressed in the course of engagement with Tehran that rewards progress towards reform and punishes bad behavior.

And so the debate goes on. Iran is unlikely, at least in the near term, to be the next major military campaign of President Bush's tenure. But it may well become the next major foreign policy confrontation between the U.S. and its allies.