Still Dreaming of Tehran
The Bush Administration's hawks and their neoconservative allies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and The Weekly Standard are engaged in a high-risk and high-stakes effort to restore their fading power in Washington by pressing for a confrontation with Iran. It's no secret that the neocons' star has fallen since the war with Iraq. The intelligence scandal plaguing the White House and the ongoing crisis in Iraq itself can both be laid at their doorstep, and it's widely believed that President Bush's re-election team would dearly like to extricate the President from the Iraqi tar baby.
But the neocons aren't giving up, and they are trying to pull the White House in even deeper. Not only are they undeterred by the chaos in Iraq, but they are pressing ahead to advance their regional strategy, one that calls for regime change in Iran, then Syria and Saudi Arabia. Says Chas Freeman, who served as US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War and a leading foe of the neocons, "It shows that they possess a level of fanaticism, or depth of conviction, that is truly awesome. There is no cognitive dissonance there."
What makes the neocon strategy on Iran especially risky is that with Iraq teetering on the brink of civil war, neighboring Iran has significant clout inside Iraq, including ties to various Iraqi Shiite factions and a growing paramilitary and intelligence presence. If Iran chooses, it can help ease the daunting task that the United States faces in trying to put together a sovereign Iraqi government. But if it seeks confrontation, it can help spark an anti-US revolt in southern Iraq, home to most of Iraq's Shiite majority. In that case, nearly all analysts agree, the American occupation could be overwhelmed.
Leading the charge against Iran is AEI's Michael Ledeen, perhaps best known for setting in motion the US-Israeli arms deal with Iran in the mid-1980s that became known as Iran/contra. Supporting Ledeen's position are two other AEI fellows: Richard Perle, the ringleader of the neocons and a former member of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, and David Frum, a Weekly Standard contributing editor and the former White House speechwriter who coined the phrase "axis of evil." In their new book, An End to Evil, Perle and Frum call for a covert operation to "overthrow the terrorist mullahs of Iran." Speaking to retired US intelligence officers in McLean, Virginia, in January, Ledeen called Iran the "throbbing heart of terrorism" and urged the Bush Administration to support revolutionary change. "Tehran," he said, "is a city just waiting for us."
Ledeen is viewed skeptically by many experts, including at the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency. "Ledeen doesn't know anything about Iran," says Juan Cole, a professor at the University of Michigan who is an expert on the Shiites of Iran and Iraq. "He doesn't speak Persian, and I believe he has never been there." But Ledeen does have connections in the Iranian exile community. For the past two years, he has maintained a relationship with Manucher Ghorbanifar, the Iranian wheeler-dealer who worked closely with him in Iran/contra. Ledeen introduced Ghorbanifar to a key neoconservative official, Harold Rhode, a longtime Pentagon staffer who speaks Arabic, Farsi, Turkish and Hebrew and who until recently served in Iraq as a liaison between the Defense Department and Ahmad Chalabi. Rhode and another Pentagon official, Larry Franklin, have been talking to Ghorbanifar about options for regime change in Tehran. "They were looking at getting introduced to alleged sources inside Iran, who could give them some inside information on the struggles in Iran," said Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief. Ghorbanifar, he said, was spinning tall tales about alleged (but unsubstantiated) transfers of Iraqi uranium to Iran's nuclear weapons program.
Rhode and Franklin were critical players in the campaign for war against Iraq. In 2002 they helped organize the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, the Iraq war-planning unit whose intelligence staffers are now under investigation by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence for allegedly manipulating evidence about Iraq's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and ties to terrorism. Both the OSP and the Rhode-Franklin effort on Iran were run out of the office of Douglas Feith, the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and a key neocon ally. Their initiative on Iran reportedly drew a sharp protest from the State Department. Newsday quoted a US official who said that the entire effort was designed to "antagonize Iran so that they get frustrated and then by their reactions harden US policy against them."
There is widespread disagreement about both Iran's intentions in Iraq and the extent of its capability to cause mischief there. But there is a consensus that Iran can exercise significant power. It has close ties to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, whose Badr Brigade paramilitary force of about 10,000 was trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guard, and to the forces of Muqtada al-Sadr, a 30-year-old Shiite firebrand. "There are thousands of Iranian intelligence agents and operational agents inside Iraq today, and the border is completely open," says Amatzia Baram, an Israeli expert on Iraq.
So far, analysts say, Iran has chosen to play a waiting game. Ken Katzman of the Congressional Research Service says that Iran "views its interest to play it low-key, to keep a low profile and continue to promote a cohesive Shiite bloc in Iraq in order to be in a position to become dominant once the United States leaves."