A Triangle of Realpolitik
The pressure to name Iran as part of the axis of evil could only have come from Pentagon hard-liners and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's chief supporters in the Bush Administration--Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Rumsfeld's deputy Paul Wolfowitz--against the preference of the State Department. Sharon and his right-wing allies are adamantly opposed to normalization of US-Iranian relations. They are worried about Iran becoming a nuclear-weapons state and see no prospect of dialogue with its clerical rulers. Thus Sharon wants Bush to deal with Iran in the same way he is dealing with Iraq. In fact, right-wing Israelis and their advocates in Washington consider the ayatollahs' Iran a more dangerous enemy than Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Last November Sharon, in an exclusive interview with the Times of London, described the Islamic Republic as "a center of world terror" and openly called upon the United States and Britain to "attack Iran once they are finished with Iraq." He no doubt wants the United States to install the late Shah's son, Reza Pahlavi, as ruler.
Israel believes Iran can produce a few nuclear weapons within five years and develop medium-range missiles capable of reaching Tel Aviv. Moreover, the daily Arabic-language programs of Iran's state-owned radio and television broadcasting system, tailored to appeal to general publics in Arab countries, portray Israel as an illegitimate and aggressive usurper of Muslim land. Thus Israel sees Iran as a serious threat to its security in the short run and a potential geopolitical rival in the long run. At present, Israel's long-range fighters can bomb Iran without fearing retaliation. Sharon itches to strike while this imbalance exists, but he is aware that bombing will not bring about regime change. In fact, aerial attacks on Iran's military and industrial targets will unify the clerical rulers and worsen the already deplorable human rights situation in the country (for a comprehensive and fully documented study of the Islamic Republic's human rights record, see Reza Afshari's Human Rights in Iran: The Abuse of Cultural Relativism).
The only conceivable way to overthrow the Islamic regime through external military force is to invade Iran with hundreds of thousands of troops. Only the United States has such a capacity, and Sharon is hoping to persuade President Bush to undertake the mission while his forces are in the region--preferably "the day after" he "finishes off Saddam Hussein," he told the Times. Ranan Lurie, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, approvingly explains Sharon's argument for popular audiences as follows:
It is inconceivable that [the US] will attack Iraq, succeed, destroy its unconventional laboratories and arsenal, come home for a ticker-tape parade on Wilshire Boulevard and go to the beaches while Iran is still there. Imagine a brain surgeon penetrating the skull of a patient who has two malignant tumors and yet extracting only one of them. Logic says that, as long as you are in that skull, the same incision should serve for the removal of the second tumor.
In this instance, even some Pentagon hawks and neoconservative missionaries will be too shy to translate Sharon's wishes into a proposal for action, but people like Elliott Abrams, President Bush's special adviser on the Middle East, and Michael Rubin, Iran/Iraq adviser for the Defense Department, may well be inclined to push for the idea. Both men have close ties to right-wing and neoconservative Washington lobbyists for Israel's Likud coalition.
When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, Ayatollah Khomeini called Saddam Hussein "a pro-American mercenary" and "an infidel." He was not a US mercenary, but he certainly received Washington's blessing and material assistance to fight the ayatollah. In 1983, three years into the Iran-Iraq fratricide, Donald Rumsfeld was chosen as a special presidential envoy to strengthen US-Iraqi relations. As Michael Dobbs of the Washington Post has recently learned, "Declassified documents show that Rumsfeld traveled to Baghdad at a time when Iraq was using chemical weapons on an 'almost daily' basis in defiance of international conventions." Today, President Bush refers to Saddam Hussein's use of chemical bombs against Iranians and Iraqi Kurds as one of the reasons for the necessity of disarming him. The irony is not lost on the peoples of Iran and Iraq, but it is doubtful that many Americans are aware of this surreal shift in the position of their government.
Nevertheless, both Iran's authorities and ordinary citizens seem to hope the demise of Saddam Hussein will be the outcome of the current US-Iraqi crisis. What concerns both the theocrats and their secular opponents, in very different ways, is the fate of Iraq after his fall. Most Iranians feel ambivalent about the US plan for Iraq. The long history of US support for dictatorships in the Middle East does not leave much hope that the Bush Administration is interested in anything except access to cheap oil and creation of another client regime. Thus Iranians are anxiously waiting for the events to unfold. If post-Saddam Iraq turns out to show a propensity toward pluralism and democracy, Teheran's theocrats will panic while pro-democracy forces will be energized. On the other hand, if Iraq without a dictator disintegrates into warring enclaves, Iran's rulers, like other despots in the region, will once again proclaim, with more arrogance than ever before, that democracy is alien to the values and traditions of their domain. And if Washington, following its anticipated military takeover of Iraq, chooses the option of grooming a new dictator to replace Saddam Hussein, then the worst suspicions of Middle Easterners about the Bush Administration's imperial designs for the region will have been confirmed.