Why the Hawks Are Circling over Iran ; as George W Bush Prepares for a Second Term, His Administration Is Setting Its Sights on Iran. but, Rupert Cornwell Reports, a New Foreign Policy Adventure Could Be Disastrous
Cornwell, Rupert, The Independent (London, England)
THE WARNING signs are aligned, as the stars in the heavens portending a great event.
There are stirrings in Congress and intensified contacts with exile groups from the Middle Eastern country in question. Once more, President George W. Bush is warning that he has not ruled out the use of force to make sure that a regime linked to terrorism does not acquire weapons of mass destruction.
Most sensationally of all, a highly regarded magazine carries a detailed, only partially denied report that US special force units are already carrying out missions on the ground inside that country, pinpointing sites that could be hit by air-strikes or commando raids.
Back in mid 2002, all these things were happening as Washington prepared to demolish Saddam Hussein. This time however, the sights of the US are trained elsewhere.
Two years after invading Iraq, is America about to go to war with Iran?
The issue scarcely featured in the election campaign, but ever since Mr Bush defeated John Kerry last November, it has been clear that the Iran will be a crucial challenge of his second term. Even as US policymakers struggle to find an exit strategy from Iraq, they are obsessed by Iran.
Iran, not Iraq, is the issue likely to dominate Mr Bush's fence- mending visit to Brussels next month. Even more than Iraq, Iran has the potential to divide both the Bush administration and the Atlantic alliance.
"Only wimps stop at Baghdad," was the boast of the neo- conservatives in their hour of greatest glory, as US forces swept Saddam from power in a dazzling military campaign. Why be content with Baghdad, they argued. Why not carry the torch of freedom and democracy across the border to Tehran, that other founder member of Mr Bush's "axis of evil", toppling another dangerous and repressive regime.
But as even slightly chastened neo-cons now admit, Iran is quantitatively and qualitatively in a different league.
For one thing, unlike Iraq, it represents a genuine WMD threat. Saddam's chemical and biological weapons - not to mention his nuclear programme - proved a figment of the Western intelligence services' imagination.
By contrast, inspectors from the IAEA, the nuclear watchdog agency of the United Nations, have been in Iran all along, and what they have encountered - a sophisticated, allegedly civilian, but largely impenetrable, nuclear programme, as well as dissembling and downright lies from the Islamic regime - has been extremely worrying. Almost no-one doubts that Iran wants the bomb. Most experts believe it is roughly three years away from getting it.
Secondly, unlike Saddam's Iraq, the Iranian regime has proven ties with various Middle East terrorist groups, if not with al- Qa'ida itself, is explicitly committed to the destruction of Israel and has far more credible ambitions than Saddam ever had of becoming the dominant power in the Gulf, home of two thirds of proven oil reserves on the planet.
Thirdly, as a potential foe, Iran is on a different scale to Iraq. It is nearly three times as populous and its potential for mischief-making is unrivalled. Unlike Iraq, it could block the Straits of Hormuz, passage for 40 per cent of the world's traded oil. Iran is a Shia country, with close ties to, and potentially disruptive influence on, the Shia majority in Iraq.
For all these reasons, the US has held back. At present Washington is engaged in a "good cop, bad cop" routine with the help of the Europeans. Britain, France and Germany are leading a EU effort to strike a grand bargain with Iran, offering long-term economic and technological and diplomatic assistance to Iran in return for "objective guarantees" that Tehran has no military nuclear ambitions.
With studied reluctance, Washington has thus far gone along, maintaining its harsh rhetoric and strict trade sanctions, but allowing others to lead the way. …