“Far more than the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the defeat of the mullahcracy and the triumph of freedom in Tehran would be a truly historic event.”
– Michael Ledeen, neo-conservative and member of the American Enterprise Institute, June 2003
Iran is very much in the US spotlight at present over concerns that it is developing nuclear weapons, with much talk of “regime change”. Over the next four years of the second George W Bush term, any of a number of countries could come into the crosshairs – Syria, Saudi Arabia and “axis of evil” original North Korea.
Ralph Peters, a former lieutenant-colonel responsible for “future warfare” at the Office of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and deputy chief of staff for intelligence before he retired, commented, “It’s really difficult to exactly delineate who our enemies are, but they number in millions. They’re Arab and Muslim … Our enemy is the majority of the people who live in what we think of as the large Arab nations, plus certain other groups. Our enemy is concentrated in Egypt, Libya, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Syria, plus the Palestinians are part of it.”
Bush has admitted on the record that the “minds” of his administration are “borrowed” from the right-wing think-tank American Enterprise Institute (AEI), which rents office space in Washington to the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) – the people who conceived the Iraq war (see This war is brought to you by … of March 20, 2003).
Vice President Dick Cheney’s concentration of power under Bush II will be even more complete. Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld – despite Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, the quagmire in Iraq – remains in place. The CIA under Porter Goss has been through a Soviet-style purge and is being turned into an ersatz Office of Special Plans (OSP), which everyone remembers was a Rumsfeld-sponsored operation that specialized in fabricating false pretexts for the invasion of Iraq. The OSP was directed by neo-conservative Douglas Feith (who now wants the US to attack Iran). The new CIA is Feith’s OSP on steroids. Goss’ job is to make sure the CIA agrees with everything Bush and the neo-conservatives say. Expect more wars.
The road to Damascus
The road to Damascus is the key node in the Bush/neo-con roadmap for a new Middle East. Some may think the road starts in Baghdad. Wrong. It starts, simultaneously, in Washington, Jerusalem and Beirut. And neo-con think-tanks, the Christian Right and ultra right-wing Zionists are busy mapping it. A key player to watch is neo-con David Wurmser, who has been a member of Cheney’s staff since September 2003 and who has for years called for a strike against Syria.
Bush and the neo-cons must implicate Syria by all means available. This week Bush warned both Syria and Iran against “meddling in the internal affairs of Iraq” – as if Baghdad was the capital of Ohio. On a more serious note, Pentagon military intelligence officials suddenly discovered a few days ago that the Iraqi resistance “is being directed to a greater degree than previously recognized from Syria” and funded by “private sources in Saudi Arabia and Europe”.
The “evidence” was a global positioning system receiver found in a suspicious “bomb factory” in Fallujah with directions “originating in western Syria”. This, Pentagon neo-cons say, proves that Syria hosts Iraqi “terrorists” – who are basically those same Ba’athist “remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime”.
Jordan is not on the neo-con hit list. Of course not: Jordan is a neo-con ideal. The Hashemite monarchy is endlessly pliable; never emphasizes its Islamic credentials; has an acceptable degree of truculence (martial law has been in place for decades); has a very effective Mukhabarat (secret police); and never criticizes Israel’s excesses in Palestine. King Abdullah is always a dependable propaganda asset: he has been insisting lately that “foreign fighters are coming across the Syrian border [towards Iraq], they have been trained in Syria”. The king also blamed Syria not long ago for being behind a huge al-Qaeda chemical weapons plot to bomb the US Embassy in Amman that, if successful, would have killed about 20,000 people. The US State Department was quick to add that the bombers were Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s people. So not only does Syria host Iraqi “terrorists”, but it is also behind al-Qaeda.
King Abdullah also went on the record saying he does not welcome the inevitable Shi’ite government that will emerge from the Iraqi elections after January’s elections, implying that a majority of Iraqis are Iranian agents. His father, King Hussein, would never be that sectarian. Of course it’s a coincidence Abdullah said these words shortly after a meeting with Bush. The influential Hawza – the clerics at the Shi’ite “Vatican” in Najaf – responded in kind, basically accusing Abdullah and his family of always supporting Saddam and being submissive towards the Americans, adding sharply that the era of free oil from Iraq to Jordan (when Saddam was in power) is over.
Lebanon is often a neo-con target because of Hezbollah and because it’s considered a Syrian satellite hostile to Israel. But now the Lebanese are taking matters in their own hands. All opposition forces are now united. Former president Amin Gemayel said this week the atmosphere was just like in 1943, “when all Lebanese fought side by side to get independence” from the French mandate. The leader of the socialist bloc, Walid Jumblatt, said he was “ready to go to Syria” to convey the message: the Lebanese want a “sovereign and independent state”, which means a recognized political role for Hezbollah and no interference from Syria.
The neo-cons refuse to acknowledge the fact of a Sunni Iraqi war of national liberation. It’s much easier to blame it all on elusive Syrians, evil Ba’athists still devoted to Saddam and Zarqawi – a renegade Jordanian. Ba’athists are only one component of the resistance, as they were the military establishment under Saddam. Moreover, the antagonism between Assad’s and Saddam’s Ba’athist regimes has always been visceral. Syria as a regime does not support the Iraqi resistance: a few individual Syrian jihadis do.
The road to Tehran
“Iran has replaced Saddam Hussein as the world’s number one exporter of terror, hate and instability,” Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told the United Nations General Assembly last September. This is Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the neo-con Likud agenda at work. One month later, Sharon said that “Iran is making every effort to arm itself with nuclear weapons, with ballistic means of delivery, and it is preparing an enormous terrorist network with Syria and Lebanon.” This was, of course, the same Sharon who in February 2002 told the Rupert Murdoch-controlled London Times that “Iran is the center of ‘world terror’, and as soon as an Iraq conflict is concluded, I will push for Iran to be at the top of the ‘to do list’.”
In August, incoming secretary of state Condoleezza Rice was already bombarding the European Union’s dialogue with Iran, saying “the Iranians have been trouble for a very long time. And it’s one reason that this regime has to be isolated in its bad behavior, not quote-unquote, ‘engaged’.” The same Rice on September 2002 alarmed the world about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, with her “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”.
It’s the same old script, or excuse for war: first Iraq, now Iran. Last month, outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell even alarmed the world by saying Iran was working on nuclear missiles. He was relying on a single walk-in source with unverified documents. European intelligence officials in Brussels are certain the source was an Iranian exile briefed by neo-cons Richard Perle and John Bolton.
It doesn’t matter that Iran has agreed – at least temporarily – to stop enriching uranium, in exchange for security arrangements, trade, investment and support for World Trade Organization admission offered by the European “Big 3” of Germany, France and Britain. In the neo-con master plan, Iran is doomed to be “shocked and awed” by 2006. The chatter at the AEI, the PNAC and other think-tanks has been thunderous for quite some time: Iran could be bombed from American bases in Iraq, in Pakistan, or from warships in the Persian Gulf. There are no illusions about it at the European Union headquarters. According to a EU diplomat in Brussels, “This bitter controversy over the Iranian nuclear program works as a smokescreen. The neo-conservatives are obsessed with Iran as a fundamentalist Islamic regime bound on exterminating Israel.” Another diplomat adds that the question is not Iran’s virtual nukes, per se, but how to cripple Iran as a military power: “It’s the same agenda for Israel, the Pentagon and the White House National Security Council.”
Neo-cons privilege a pre-emptive strike with missiles fired from warships in the Gulf against the Natanz and Arak plants south of Tehran. European intelligence has also identified another huge underground complex “with 1,000 gas centrifuges and components for the manufacture of 50,000 further centrifuges”. Russian engineers are helping to build a heavy water plant at Arak. Other plants are at Arkadan, east of Natanz, and near the beautiful, historic city of Isfahan. The leaders in Tehran swear the whole program is developed for civilian use.
In another striking parallel to Iraq, the CIA does not know much about the current status of Iran’s nuclear program, certainly not as much as the Europeans. But it seems to have successfully penetrated the roughly 800,000-strong Iranian diaspora in southern California, to the extent that a coterie of wealthy Iranians are eagerly plotting their return home as “liberating” heroes.
One strident player to watch is neo-con Frank Gaffney, who wrote on the National Review online that “regime change – one way or another – in Iran and North Korea, [is] the only hope for preventing these remaining ‘axis of evil’ states from fully realizing their terrorist and nuclear ambitions”.
Long and winding roads
The road to Tehran starts both in Kabul and Baghdad. This requires examination of the Afghan “model” and the Iraqi “model”.
Afghanistan’s new democracy rests on the shoulder of the world’s most expensive mayor (US$1.6 billion a month and counting), Hamid Karzai, who barely controls downtown Kabul protected by 200 American bodyguards, 17,000 American troops and a North Atlantic Treaty Organization contingent. Without all this heavy metal, Karzai would never last. The country is essentially ruled by the Tajiks and Uzbeks of the former Northern Alliance – who now control most of the world’s supply of heroin – powerful regional warlords and the Taliban (in the south and southeast). So much for Afghan “democracy”.
As for the Iraqi “model”, the crucial point is that the Americans managed to turn Iraq into a replica of Palestine – the same ghastly litany of occupation, suicide bombings, streams of refugees and death and destruction. Not only was the Iraq war entirely based on neo-con lies: these lies led, among other disasters, to Iraq’s infrastructure being completely destroyed and the US alienating the Muslim world. Fallujah and Baghdad are replicas of Gaza and the West Bank. A measure of the daily ordeal is offered by these lines written by Iraqi girl blogger Riverbend:
People are wondering how America and gang [ie Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, etc] are going to implement democracy in all of this chaos when they can’t seem to get the gasoline flowing in a country that virtually swims in oil. There’s a rumor that this gasoline crisis has been concocted on purpose in order to keep a minimum of cars on the streets. Others claim that this whole situation is a form of collective punishment because things are really out of control in so many areas in Baghdad – especially the suburbs. The third theory is that this is being done purposely so that the Iraq government can amazingly bring the electricity, gasoline, kerosene and cooking gas back in January before the elections and make themselves look like heroes.
As for the elections, it’s fair to say Riverbend echoes the overall sentiment in secular Baghdad, according to our sources: “We’re watching the election lists closely. Most people I’ve talked to aren’t going to go to elections. It’s simply too dangerous and there’s a sense that nothing is going to be achieved anyway. The lists are more or less composed of people affiliated with the very same political parties whose leaders rode in on American tanks. Then you have a handful of tribal sheikhs. Yes – tribal sheikhs. Our country is going to be led by members of religious parties and tribal sheikhs – can anyone say Afghanistan? What’s even more irritating is that election lists have to be checked and confirmed by none other than [Grand Ayatollah Ali al-]Sistani. Sistani – the Iranian religious cleric. So basically, this war helped us make a transition from a secular country being run by a dictator to a chaotic country being run by a group of religious clerics. Now, can anyone say ‘theocracy in sheep’s clothing’?”
The crucial Iraq-Iran-Afghanistan trio lies at the heart of the Pentagon-denominated “arc of instability” which runs from the Maghreb in Africa to the Kazakh-Chinese border. Of course it’s just a coincidence that the arc holds the majority of the world’s reserves of oil and gas.
Our way or the highway
European diplomats confirm that when they got together with their American counterparts in Washington last October to discuss Iran, there was simply nothing to discuss. Under Secretary of State John Bolton – a man who, on the record, wants the US to invade Iran – simply read aloud a text where the US refused to back any European Big 3 negotiations, and wanted Iran immediately dragged to the UN Security Council. European diplomats remain wary: “The Americans may be paralyzed at the moment – by the lack of international support and because they are trapped in Iraq. But we cannot underestimate the neo-conservatives, and especially Dick Cheney. He might end up convincing Bush of the need of a pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear sites.” Another diplomat adds that “the Americans complain all the time about our dialogue with the Iranians, but they are incapable of formulating an American strategy”.
A “strategy” has been formulated by neo-con Danielle Pletka of the AEI. She says that in exchange for Iran handing over all its (non-existent) WMDs and halting support for “terrorist” groups, Washington should renew diplomatic relations and remove unilateral sanctions. It’s an “our way or the highway” proposition, no negotiations involved.
Both Iran and the EU have a tremendous stake in the success of the new round of negotiations, which started this week and will, according to European diplomats, last for many months. For Iran, a deal with the EU is a major twofold strategic victory: it amplifies the political abyss between Washington and Brussels, and from the point of view of Iranian consumers, it’s good for business. For the EU, it’s above all good for big business in the oil and gas industry. A who’s who of European majors – Royal Dutch-Shell, Total-Fina-Elf, Agip, British Gas, Enterprise, Lasmo, Monument – already has and looks forward to expanding Iranian contracts. Not to mention the Chinese, who last month assured the Iranians in Beijing, after signing a major oil-and-gas deal, that they would block any move by the International Atomic Energy Agency to take the nuclear impasse to the UN Security Council.
Ideologues like Reuel Marc Gerecht of the AEI are unfazed, and keep pushing heavily for a pre-emptive strike. Gerecht boasts that “you have to be crystal clear with them that whatever they dream up, we can dream up something much, much worse”. These ideologues are obviously unaware of the fact that a strike will inevitably alienate the fiercely nationalistic Iranian population, will lead them to rally en masse in support of the government, and will be disastrous for business from a oil major/corporate American point of view. And even with a pre-emptive strike, experts agree Iran could rebuild its nuclear program before 2008 – as Iran learned very well from the Israeli pre-emptive strike that destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981.
Both the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency have extensively war-gamed the possible consequences of a pre-emptive strike. The results were disastrous. The neo-cons dismiss it as perceptions of the so-called “reality-based community”.
Neo-cons obviously don’t read political scientist Chalmers Johnson, the author of Blowback, who explained how the CIA in the 1950s coined the term “blowback” to refer to “the unintended and unexpected negative consequences of covert special operations that have been kept secret from the American people and, in most cases, from their elected representatives”. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini rising to power in Iran in 1979 was blowback for the CIA toppling the elected government of Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 and the American cozying up to the Shah regime. The rise of al-Qaeda was in part blowback for the CIA arming the mujahideen in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Sharon is an expert in provoking an “excuse” for starting a regional war – a favorite neo-con tactic. That’s what he did in 1982 as Israeli defense minister, when he invaded Lebanon in “regime change” mode. Blowback was inevitable: the invasion of Lebanon led to Hezbollah, the first intifada, Hamas, suicide bombers, etc.
European diplomats stress that “Pakistan proliferated nuclear technology to North Korea, Libya and Iran, while Iraq was invaded because it was not fast enough to acquire its own WMDs. The regime in Tehran certainly took notice.” It’s a given in the corridors of the EU that the regime in Tehran may cultivate a nuclear program – but exclusively for defensive purposes. It’s also a given that having lied so consistently and for so long – aluminum tubes, yellow cake uranium in Niger, al-Qaeda in secret meetings in Prague, Osama bin Laden and Saddam sleeping in the same bed, etc – neo-cons have little chance of convincing the EU that Iranian nuclear missiles will soon wreak havoc on London, Paris and Berlin.
The road to Pyongyang
The neo-cons believe the Pentagon should also bomb Kim Jong-il’s North Korea. Bill Kristol, neo-con and chair of the PNAC, escalated the stakes when he recently faxed a statement, “Toward Regime Change in North Korea”, to a select group of “opinion leaders” in Washington, alerting on the emergence of “serious dissident activity” in the country and urging Bush to promptly deal with it.
Compare it with the sober assessment of Han Ho Suk, director of the Center for Korean Affairs, “North Korea is one of the few nations that can engage in a total war with the United States. North Korea’s war plan in case of an US attack is total war, not the ‘low-intensity limited warfare’ or ‘regional conflict’ talked about among the Western analysts … If the US mounts a pre-emptive strike on North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear plants, North Korea will retaliate with weapons of mass destruction: North Korea will mount strategic nuclear attacks on US targets. The US war planners know this … North Korea has succeeded in weaponizing nuclear devices for missile delivery. North Korea has operational fleets of ICBMs [inter-continental ballistic missiles] and intermediate-range missiles equipped with nuclear warheads. And North Korea’s Dong 2 missile may be capable of hitting the West Coast of the United States, as well as Alaska and Hawaii.”
The player to watch in this particular “axis of evil” segment is Victor Cha, recently appointed as Asia director in the National Security Council. He will be the man responsible for American policy towards North Korea.
It’s interesting to compare the neo-con approach with Selig Harrison, director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy. He visited North Korea in the spring of 2004. His assessment is that although the leadership is “very eager for a settlement” with the US, they are “not prepared to do it in the way the Bush administration is asking them to do it. The North Koreans say that Washington wants them to, in effect, simply roll over and disarm unilaterally.” Harrison criticizes the Bush administration’s “very rigid position, not prepared to trade anything”. And this only increases the “risk of war. The point is, the administration’s objective is really regime change in Pyongyang.”
The man in charge of this “very rigid position” is none other than Cha. Cha has argued that “engagement is the best practical way to build a coalition for punishment tomorrow. A necessary precondition for the US coercing North Korea is the formation of a regional consensus that efforts to resolve the problem in a non-confrontational manner have been exhausted. Without this consensus, implementing any form of coercion that actually puts pressure on the regime is unworkable.” Cha qualifies this policy as “hawk engagement”. It essentially means that any multilateral talks are destined to fail, because that’s the premise of “hawk engagement” – building support for an attack. So the whole multilateral ballet in the next few months will consist of how China, South Korea, Russia and Japan will be able to control the neo-con ideologues before they snap it and decide on a “Shock and Awe” against Kim.
The road to Riyadh
Many were abuzz in Washington before the American presidential election when someone leaked what Bush had said at a donors’ luncheon: “Osama bin Laden would like to overthrow the Saudis … then we’re in trouble. Because they have a weapon. They have the oil.” In the neo-con roadmap, Syria and Iran may be short-term targets, but only on the way to a big prize, Saudi Arabia. Osama and al-Qaeda are more than on track to eventually stage a coup in Saudi Arabia. Simultaneously, European intelligence confirms there are now even more detailed war plans than in the 1970s for an American invasion of Saudi oilfields , most of them situated in Shi’ite-populated areas.
European diplomats in Brussels hope that this day will not come. The joint negotiation with Iran has been one more indication of what these diplomats see as the EU’s gradual emergence as a global political player – a historical inevitability. The EU will eventually have a collective military force – and then NATO’s existence will be pointless. The EU has already questioned the neo-con equivalence of “pre-emptive war” with “just war”. The EU – unlike Bush and the neo-cons – heavily supports the UN, as well as the World Court and the International Criminal Court. The EU is multilateral – a concept that is anathema for the neo-cons. Nonetheless, this all leads a diplomat to be overtly pessimistic: “Iran must prepare for an air attack from Israel and the US. This time, no one – the United Nations, the European Union, not even Britain – will be consulted.”
Nuke them all
The Balkanization of the Arab and Muslim Middle East is a follow-up to the “divide and rule” of British colonialism. It’s in the heart of the neo-con agenda. Arab nationalism has to be smashed. And Persian nationalism as well.
The neo-con dream is a stable Iraq by the end of 2005 so the US can concentrate on attacking Iran. With the US still bogged down in a dreadful Iraqi quagmire, the well-oiled neo-con propaganda machine is already full speed ahead manufacturing its trademark brand of fear: Iranian nukes are coming to get us unless we pre-emptively attack (echoes of Ronald Reagan’s “Nicaraguan Sandinistas about to invade Texas” come to mind). In the weeks and months ahead fear in the US will be multiplied by myriad echo chambers – right-wing talk radio, corporate media, Christian rapture congregations, hardcore militarists still bent on avenging the debacle in Vietnam by winning what is a de facto war against Islam.
An American “Shock and Awe” could turn into a nightmare as Iran is fine-tuning a dizzying array of asymmetrical warfare options (See How Iran will fight back Dec 16). Iran has installed sophisticated anti-ship missiles on the island of Abu Musa, thus controlling the critical Strait of Hormuz. In a pre-emptive strike, Iran could easily shut down the Strait of Hormuz – where all Persian Gulf oil tankers must pass. The immediate result: $100 or more for a barrel of oil – with all the consequences this would entail. Neo-cons don’t bother with reality though: they only see that whoever controls Persian Gulf oil controls the world economy.
Israel may decide to stage a “Shock and Awe” of its own – using its precious collection of high-tech fighter-bombers. Last September, Israel bought 52 F-16Is from Lockheed Martin. Israel also bought “nearly 5,000 bombs in one of the largest weapons deals between the allies in years”, including “500 bunker busters that could be effective against Iran’s [as of yet unproven] underground nuclear facilities”, as Israeli security sources told Reuters.
Muslims ask how could Israel get away with it. As far as the Arab world is concerned, Arabs could not be more impotent – or more co-opted at this historical juncture. Incompetence and corruption prevails in Cairo, Riyadh, Damascus and Amman. Arabs hold no significant political, economic or military power on the world stage. As for the Iranians, descendants of the Persians, a hugely sophisticated and influential civilization, they are still feared. In 2002, Israel was saying that Iran could complete its first nuclear weapon by the end of 2004. Nobody called Israel’s bluff then, nobody is calling it now.
With the American military in its current state, Bush and the neo-cons cannot possibly reshape the Middle East to suit the neo-con/Likud agenda. Washington is faced with two options. It could restore the draft – provoking a minor social earthquake in the US. Or it could develop – and deploy – tactical nuclear weapons, mini-nukes. Fallujah – flattened by “conventional” means – was just a test. On the road to Damascus, the road to Tehran, the road to Riyadh, the neo-cons would be much more tempted to go nuclear.