Is Iran Next?

by , April 09, 2005

In the 1950s and 1960s, the curious profession of Kremlinologist was developed among academics and the intelligence community. These worthies made it their business to try to figure out what the less-than-scrutable folks running the Kremlin were likely to do.

It seemed clear to most observers then that insofar as Moscow adhered to ideology it was still bent on something resembling world domination. But the bosses were constrained by events and imperfect knowledge of the world outside communist borders, as well as being notoriously secretive and deceptive in their public statements. Thus it was difficult to predict their day-to-day or month-to-month moves. So various experts pored through turgid documents like statements of Party Congresses, or analyzed official photos at May Day celebrations to guess who was out and who was in, all to try to dope out current communist strategies and tactics.

Their record was notably mixed, but the effort seemed necessary because the regime in Moscow, while it adhered to an overarching ideology, tacked and turned constantly and regarded secrecy and surprise as desirable.

These days, it might require a similar profession to try to figure out what our own government is up to or is likely to be up to in the near future.

What We Think We Know

We know in a general way, from statements from President Bush, from manifestos issued by neoconservative outfits like the Project for a New American Century, as well as the 2002 National Security Strategy, what the general outlines are: preventing any other power or potential power from challenging American hegemony, promoting regime change that can be spun as defensive or pro-democratic, protecting Israel’s security, and using military power preemptively or preventively to ward off real or imagined threats. We have the experience of the run-up to the invasion of Iraq to offer insights into how this administration operates.

However, our planners, like those in the Kremlin during the Cold War, are constrained by reality and are sometimes hostage to events. They can be opportunistic, for example in seizing on opportunities offered by the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri and the anti-Syrian aftermath within Lebanon to try to weaken the regime in Syria, which is a long-term goal anyway. Within the context of a "generational" grand strategy, however, there is plenty of room for the unexpected development, miscalculation, and human error, all of which makes prediction difficult.

Given all these uncertainties, predicting what our regime might do about Iran in the next few months is tough.

On the "To-Do" List

Iran has been on the neocon "to-do" list for a long time. Few have been as persistent as the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Ledeen, who has been hoping for and writing about a democratic revolution in Iran for years. But weakening Iran featured tangentially in the "A Clean Break" paper prepared by neocon stalwarts Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, David Wurmser, and others for Benjamin Netanyahu’s incoming Likud government in Israel in 1996. The 2000 Project for a New American Century report, "Rebuilding America’s Defenses [.pdf]," stated, "Over the long term, Iran may well prove as large a threat to U.S. interests in the Gulf as Iraq has."

During the buildup to the Iraq invasion, neocon writers cited Iran as an example of the beneficial side-effects of the proposed invasion. In August 2002, AEI’s Joshua Muravchik wrote, "Change toward democratic regimes in Tehran and Baghdad would unleash a tsunami across the Islamic world." Michael Ledeen in September 2002 called for the U.S. to begin "a vast democratic revolution to liberate all the peoples of the Middle East. … It is impossible to imagine that the Iranian people would tolerate tyranny in their own country once freedom had come to Iraq."

Thus there’s a backdrop of enthusiasm for regime change in Iran. And there’s the ironic fact that when it comes to the kind of justifications proffered for the war in Iraq, Iran could be a more likely candidate. It actually has harbored al-Qaeda leaders. It has an active nuclear development program, though it claims it’s only after peaceful nuclear technology. It already has long-range missiles that could reach Israel and perhaps Europe. It bankrolls the Hezbollah organization that has bedeviled Israel. There is a quasi-democratic opposition, though the mullahs who still run the country have shrewdly (and occasionally brutally) kept it under control, making last year’s elections somewhat farcical. More than half of Iranians are too young to remember a time before the mullahs took power in 1979, and an increasing number are getting restive.

Some Constraints

Militating against an outright military invasion is the fact that Iran is larger and more mountainous than Iraq, which would make it logistically more difficult to invade successfully. Its population is four times Iraq’s, and its army is larger and probably more competent. And while there are 130,000 or so U.S. troops in neighboring Iraq, they are somewhat busy dealing with the aftermath of "catastrophic success."

What we hear discussed, then, is not a military invasion but one of several scenarios: "surgical" air strikes to take out Iran’s nuclear installations before they can build a bomb, special operations to do the same, more covert support of elements of the democracy movement combined with public statements of solidarity, or having the Israelis take out Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Many believe that the fundamental decisions on the invasion of Iraq had already been made as early as 2002, though details could have played out slightly differently. And some now believe that the administration has already decided on some kind of military action against Iran, though circumstances could change the timetable or even quash the idea. It might go something like this:

Start clamoring about Iran’s nuclear program and create the fear that it is not only after nuclear weapons but is close to acquiring them. Demand that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) do more intrusive inspections, and when it finds few problems, question its credibility. Make demands you know the Iranians will rebuff. Make it clear that the current European Union effort to get Iran to renounce nuclear weapons with carrots like trade promises rather than sticks, while well-intentioned, is naïve and unworkable. Get the UN Security Council to pass a resolution demanding that Iran dismantle its existing nuclear program, or something equally unlikely to happen. After a few weeks, when that doesn’t "work," declare that it’s up to the U.S. to enforce the will of the UN and start the bombing, perhaps by June.

Fitting the Pattern

Some recent news would seem to fit the pattern. In November, Colin Powell suggested that Iran was working on nuclear weapons more actively than an IAEA report the same day indicated. That same week, an Iranian opposition exile group in Paris claimed Iran was enriching uranium at a secret site unknown to UN weapons inspectors. In January, New Yorker writer Seymour Hersh did a lengthy piece saying the U.S. had begun sending special ops forces covertly into Iran to identify nuclear targets last summer, and quoted an unnamed "former high-level intelligence officer" to the effect that "It’s not if we’re going to do anything against Iran. They’re doing it." While the administration denounced the article, it didn’t explicitly deny the reconnaissance missions, which Philip Giraldi also reported in that magazine.

Also in January, Vice President Cheney helpfully suggested on the Don Imus radio show that Israel might decide to take out Iran’s nukes.

In mid-February, following Condoleezza Rice’s warning to Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons pursuit, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom predicted that Iran would soon have the knowledge to build a bomb, and "in six months from today they will end all the tests and experiments they are doing to have that knowledge." Israel’s Mossad chief said Iran would have the ability to produce enriched uranium (which can be used for weapons or power stations) by the end of 2005. In early March, Israeli President Motsav Katsav said he believes Iran may have nuclear weapons by 2007.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Europeans that Washington supported the EU efforts to get Iran to renounce efforts to acquire nukes by diplomatic means, but she refused to reiterate former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage’s flat statement in December that the United States does not seek regime change in Iran. During his trip to Europe, President Bush flirted with supporting the European effort more actively and said concern about possible U.S. military action in Iran "is simply ridiculous" – but pointedly paused and added, "That said, all options are on the table."

If the die is already cast, most of these actions would fit into a strategy that would eventually justify a "reluctant" United States to undertake air strikes and/or unleash the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), an anti-government Iranian dissident group that is said to have 4,000 guerrilla fighters on a U.S.-guarded military base near Baghdad. (The State Department still designates it as a terrorist group, but that’s a detail.)

Hard to Read

One problem is that our intelligence on Iran, relying as it does so heavily on Iranian exile groups, may be no better than it proved to be on Iraq, where intelligence services got almost everything wrong, especially regarding weapons programs. And as former head weapons inspector David Kay pointed out in a Feb. 7 Washington Post article, a bombing campaign could easily miss concealed sites and leave Iran more angry and determined than cowed.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see an escalation that culminates in a bombing campaign, although June seems early. But like the commies during the Cold War, our rulers can be difficult to read.

Read more by Alan Bock