Still Dreaming of Tehran
The "realists" inside the Bush Administration, led by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer in Iraq, are well aware that Iran could deal a fatal blow to the already faltering US efforts. Partly as a result, they've engaged in a quiet dialogue with Tehran. According to the Financial Times, last May Iran offered a "road map" for normalizing US-Iranian relations. Since then, Powell and his allies have sent assistance after the devastating earthquake in southeast Iran, and offered to send a delegation led by Senator Elizabeth Dole. They've also supported efforts by Germany, France and Britain to work a deal with Iran over its nuclear weapons program. (Germany's intelligence service also brokered a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hezbollah, which is close to Iran.) But of late, some of those conciliatory efforts have stalled. A planned Congressional staff delegation to Tehran, the first since the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini's regime in 1979, was canceled by the Iranians, according to the office of Senator Arlen Specter, whose staff was to participate. And after the initial harmony, signs are emerging of a serious split between Washington and Europe over Iran's nuclear program, with echoes of the US-Europe split over Iraqi WMD.
How the differing approaches--the neocons' war cries and the realists' more conciliatory strategy--are viewed by Iran's leadership is anybody's guess. But there are at least several factors that might push the Iranian ruling elite in the direction of the confrontation the neocons want. First, the hard-line clergy are in the midst of a crisis with the so-called reformists. In the past, the mullahs have used anti-US rhetoric, and even militant actions, to trump liberal and reformist rivals. Second, while Iran welcomes the rise of Shiite power in Iraq, it is at the same time uneasy about losing influence to the mullahs in Najaf and Karbala. According to several experts on Shiism, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is now the leading Shiite cleric in the world, which could make him a rival to Iran's less prestigious clerics. Though Sistani has foiled US policy in Iraq by insisting on direct elections, he has refused to denounce the US occupation and may cooperate with a UN-brokered compromise for creating an Iraqi government. "Sistani is a double-edged sword for Iran," says Juan Cole. And third, there is the Bush factor. Some neoconservative strategists argue that Iran will act decisively in order to prevent Bush from being re-elected. Raymond Tanter, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank, predicts, "They are going to launch a political-military campaign in an effort to defeat President Bush, because they believe that if Bush is re-elected, he will do to them what he did to Iraq."
It's unclear that Iran would risk a confrontation with the United States in Iraq even if the mullahs do believe that they are next on Bush's invasion list. But the mullahs are famous for misunderstanding US politics, just as Americans have failed repeatedly to understand Iran's.
In a way, the neocons' Iran project is very similar to the early phase of their Iraq one. It includes a steady drumbeat of threats and warnings, Washington lobbying, a media offensive and support for exile groups--in Iran's case a mishmash that combines supporters of Khomeini's grandson; Reza Pahlavi, the son of the fallen Shah, and the Iranian monarchists; and the Mujaheddin e-Khalq (MEK), a 3,800-strong exile force based in Iraq. In one of the strangest events ever to occur at a Washington think tank, last September Khomeini's grandson--dressed in rough-hewn black and brown robes and crowned by a turban, with dark brooding eyes like his grandfather's--took the podium at AEI, introduced by Michael Ledeen, to call for US assistance to overthrow the Iranian government. He even welcomed an alliance with the Pahlavi monarchists.
Many analysts view the prospects of a Pahlavi-Khomeini-MEK alliance with exceeding skepticism. And they note that the neocons, having bungled Iraq, don't have a lot of credibility left on Middle East policy. But it would be wrong to count them out. A former CIA officer who took part in the debate over Iraq policy in the 1990s recalls how the neocons ultimately prevailed. "The neocons had this idea of working with the Iraqi opposition to arm and train them and to overthrow Saddam Hussein, and people like me said, 'That is really stupid,'" he says. "But you get people to think about it, you get the President engaged, then options expand and then when opportunities come along, you seize them. That's what they did. They got people to buy in. Before September 11, people told them, 'It's never going to happen.' Come September 12, the rules changed." An explosion in Iraq, and some Iranian mischief there, and the rules could change again.