A Triangle of Realpolitik

A Triangle of Realpolitik

Iranians would welcome Hussein’s overthrow, but fear what might come later.


Since the 9/11 calamity, there have been two instances of cooperation between Iran and the United States, once during the assault on the Taliban and then in the course of preparation to attack Iraq. In both cases, a convergence of interests compelled Washington and Teheran to put their exchange of hostile words within brackets and focus on the foe. In the current situation, Iran’s long border with Iraq makes the country useful to the American military; and Washington’s determination to overthrow Saddam Hussein is most welcome in Teheran. This semi-veiled bedfellowship is based on sharing an enemy and the desire to eliminate him at any price. Therefore, once Saddam Hussein is dead or exiled, the temporary marriage will be annulled. Washington will shift the spotlight to Iran and its nuclear program; and the reigning ayatollahs will resume their condemnation of US presence in the Persian Gulf as a threat to Iran’s independence and religious identity.

Since early November 2002, Iran and the United States have been quietly discussing specific measures to deal with military emergencies and the flow of refugees if/when the United States attacks Iraq. These are similar to the arrangements they made when the United States ousted the Taliban regime from Afghanistan. Diplomats from small Arab states in the Persian Gulf and Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, representing the largest dissident group of Iraqi Shiite Muslims based in Teheran, are involved as intermediaries. The ayatollah, who has been living in Iran since 1980 and is closely tied to Iran’s ruling clerics, receives US funds for mobilizing anti-Saddam Shiites. He actually wants the US military to overthrow Saddam and then leave Iraq to the Iraqis, who, according to Ayatollah al-Hakim, could be guided to establish an Islamic republic patterned after the one created by his mentor, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Al-Hakim commands several thousand Iraqi rebel troops stationed on Iranian soil near Iraq. These forces have been trained and equipped by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. In the event of US military action against Iraq, al-Hakim’s forces could move, if Washington and Teheran consider it necessary, to prevent possible Iraqi use of the border areas. Once the war ends, however, al-Hakim will have to choose, for all practical purposes, between one leg of the “axis of evil” and the “Great Satan.” It is virtually certain that he will do what is necessary to win favor from the US military or civilian administrator in Baghdad.

To show good faith to Washington, Iran has ended its lax attitudes toward Iraqi oil smugglers operating along its Persian Gulf shoreline and has begun to implement United Nations sanctions restricting Iraqi oil sales since 1991. According to Vice Adm. Timothy Keating, the coordinator for the US naval force charged with stemming the flow of illegal Iraqi oil sales, in 2002 Iraqis smuggled a lot less oil than they did the previous year. Keating attributed the change, at least in part, to “an apparent change in Iranian policy to restrict smugglers from using Iranian waters.”

Furthermore, Iran has just completed nineteen temporary camps along its 730-mile border with Iraq in preparation for the inevitable flow of refugees to its territory if/when the war starts. Special UN agencies have helped the Iranian government to build these camps, which are situated just a few yards inside Iranian territory because, as Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mussavi Lari put it, Iran does not want Iraqis fleeing conflict to travel too far into Iran. “If war happens,” he said, “with the assistance of international organizations we are ready to offer humanitarian aid at the border.” During the decade following the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Iran became the home for 2.5 million Afghan refugees. And in the aftermath of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, around 1 million Iraqi Kurds and Shiites fled to Iran. An estimated 200,000 of them are still there. Iran is keen to avoid a repeat of this flood of refugees into its territory.

Although in early February Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said that “Iran is basically against war and is not going to support either side,” private meetings between Bush Administration officials and Iranian representatives were held in Europe. The US envoy requested Iranian help in rescuing downed US pilots and in preventing Iraqi units that flee to Iran from regrouping and mounting attacks. Teheran’s rulers certainly favor regime change in Iraq, but they are worried about the possible disintegration of Iraq into ethnic and confessional groupings. They believe that prolonged violent conflict among competing forces will inevitably lead to the use of Iranian territory as sanctuary or staging grounds for rival fighters. Under such circumstances, Iran will try to assist the forces of Ayatollah al-Hakim while claiming to be neutral. Iraq without Saddam Hussein offers Iran an opportunity to extend its influence there. Shiites constitute 60 percent of Iraq’s population and are heavily concentrated in the southern part of the country. Iran’s theocrats have close ties to some leading Shiite clerics, and they are hard at work to increase their influence on the politics of anti-Saddam groups.

In mid-January, when Iraqi opposition leaders, because of US refusal to support them, postponed a scheduled meeting in the Kurdish-controlled zone in northern Iraq, Iran “offered to have the meeting on its territory if the dissidents wanted to stick to the originally scheduled date,” according to the New York Times. The Iraqis turned down the formal offer, but ten days later, another Times story reported, more than a dozen of them “quietly gathered in Iran to prepare their entry into northern Iraq.” Such well-known Iraqi dissidents as Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, and Kanan Makiya, a Brandeis University professor, were included in the delegation. According to Elaine Sciolino, the Times correspondent in Teheran, the Iraqis met with “senior officials in agencies like the Revolutionary Guards and the security and intelligence apparatus.” Chalabi and Makiya are democracy advocates for their country, but they apparently do not mind using and being used by ruthless theocrats on the way to their promised land. Needless to say, Teheran’s reigning ayatollahs have their own agenda for post-Saddam Iraq. They will assist their Shiite allies politically and financially without overtly pushing their theocracy as a model for Iraq. As experienced managers of power, they are well aware that in the current political climate of the region, being perceived as exporters of Islamic revolution could bring them the combined wrath of the United States and its Arab allies.

On August 2, 1990, the day Iraq invaded Kuwait, the equations of power and calculations of interest in the Middle East underwent a sea change. Operation Desert Storm produced a mixed blessing for Iran. The destruction of Iraq’s offensive capability was cause for relief in Teheran, but the subsequent US pre-eminence in the region became a source of humiliation for the ruling clerics. Nevertheless, during the 1990s, although disturbed about the US military presence in the Persian Gulf region, Iran was a clear beneficiary of US determination to contain Saddam Hussein. Another irony of Desert Storm, as sweet for Iran as it was bitter for Iraq, occurred when Iraq sought refuge for its fighter planes in Iran to avoid US missile attacks. Teheran authorities welcomed the move and lost no time in appropriating them as partial payment of reparations for the 1980-88 war with Iraq.

After the Gulf War, Washington chose to replace its pro-Saddam, or balance-of-power, approach to Iran and Iraq with a “dual containment” policy, intended to prevent the hegemony of either country in the region. President Clinton abandoned this policy at the beginning of his second term and tried to engage Iran in dialogue. Iran was in the process of normalizing its relations with European and Arab states (except Iraq) and thus could have been open to official contact with Washington, but US officials’ focus on reformist President Mohammad Khatami, as distinguished from the clerical regime, and their repeated references to factional rivalry in Iran so displeased the Islamic Republic’s real power-holders that they decided to reject Clinton’s conciliatory gestures as interference in Iran’s internal affairs.

Before September 11, 2001, Iran’s rulers expected the Bush Administration to discard the Clinton/Albright fixation on President Khatami and adopt a more flexible attitude toward the theocratic regime. They thought US oil companies, which long to return to Iran, could persuade the oilman in the White House to make peace with the Islamic Republic. They were also encouraged by the fact that Dick Cheney, before becoming Bush’s running mate, had characterized unilateral sanctions on Iran as harmful to US interests. Cheney pointed out that foreign oil and gas companies ignore the sanctions, while US firms are barred from competing for lucrative contracts. Moreover, soon after Bush’s inauguration, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Iranian Foreign Minister Kharrazi sent some signals to each other about the possibility of improving relations between the two countries.

In a January 2001 press conference in Rome, Kharrazi suggested that “the transition of power in the White House has presented an opportunity for the new Administration to make changes in the failed US policies toward Iran.” He asked Washington to stop “meddling in Iran’s internal affairs” and allow US firms to invest in Iran. In return, he continued, “Iran can play a crucial role in creating peace, security and economic prosperity in the region.”

On the day of 9/11, President Khatami sent his condolences to Washington, and Powell described Khatami’s message as “positive signals” from Iran. Powell said the Iranians, too, “are shocked by what happened, they tell us. And so it seems to me that is an opening worth exploring.” Thus it seemed that Iran and the United States were moving toward ending their bitter estrangement through a common desire to oust the Taliban and support Afghanistan’s opposition forces, which had received military and financial assistance from Iran after their abandonment by Washington following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The “axis of evil” bombshell changed the perceptions of the players. Iran’s rulers felt confused when President Bush put them in the company of Iraq and North Korea. They could not make sense of the move, because they were known to be against both Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Indeed, they had opposed the Taliban long before Washington did and almost fought a war with them in August 1998. When the US bombardment of Afghanistan began, in October 2001, Iran went so far as preparing to aid in rescuing US pilots if the need arose. It also played a constructive role in the December 2001 Bonn conference on the future of Afghanistan and pledged a significant amount of aid for the renewal of the country. The new Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, visited Teheran and met with all the leading ayatollahs. Six months later, Iranian President Khatami went to Kabul and reiterated Iran’s support for Karzai and his efforts to unify Afghanistan.

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.

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