Iran & the U.S. on Collision Course? International Observers Agree That US-Iranian Relations Are Now Drifting into Very Dangerous Waters. with Reports from Milan Vesely in Washington and Neil Barnett and Adel Darwish in Iraq
Vesely, Milan, Barnett, Neil, Darwish, Adel, The Middle East
IS THE US MILITARY'S STRUGGLE with Shi'ite cleric Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army an American effort at stabilising interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's authority; or the opening shot in the Bush administration's battle with Iran? That is the question increasingly being asked in Washington's foreign policy circles. And, if the bloodletting is due to the latter, are the fire-fights with the cleric's militia a last desperate effort by the occupation forces to exert control over Iraq's Shi'a majority before US rhetoric over Iran's nuclear programme turns into a more belligerent military posture?
President Bush's national security advisor Condoleeza Rice has given a hint of White House thinking on Iran. "I think we've finally now got the world community to a place, and the International Atomic Energy Agency to a place, that is worried and suspicious of the Iranian activities," she said on a US television interview. "Iran is facing for the first time real resistance to trying to take these steps"--these steps being the development of a nuclear weapon.
In another televised debate she was even more forthright: "We cannot allow the Iranians to develop a nuclear weapon," she bluntly stated. "The international community has got to find a way to come together and to make certain that does not happen." Pressed to elaborate on what a re-elected Bush administration would do if Iran does not comply with more stringent inspections Ms. Rice refused to confirm that the US would act alone to end Iran's nuclear programme, although the implication of her emphasised, "We cannot allow the Iranians to develop a nuclear weapon", was evident.
Two issues point to the fact that the American military's urban war against the Mahdi army is more than a struggle for stability. In July the US State Department and the Pentagon both announced that they considered a group of 3,800 Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MKO) Marxist Iranian rebels interned in Iraq as "protected persons" under the Geneva Convention, despite having previously labelled the group of anti-Iranian fighters "terrorists".
Conferring such status on the Saddam Hussein set-up guerilla group raised more than a few eyebrows. "Are they now going to use these 'terrorists' for covert action if Iran doesn't toe-the-line on its nuclear ambitions?" was a question increasingly being asked by those critical of the administration's go-it-alone foreign policy.
For its part Iran was not taking the American moves lying down. As the US military was preparing its all-out assault on Sadr's Najaf militia fighters on 10 August, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah All Khamenei harshly warned that US combat operations in Najaf constitute "one of the darkest crimes of humanity".
"These crimes are a dark blemish which will never be wiped from the face of America," he declared, his tough-stance statement taken in Washington as a sign of Iran's increased support for Muqtada Sadr's militia. "They commit these crimes and shamelessly talk of democracy. Shame has no place in their vocabulary."
Reports that low-level talks between Iranian go-betweens and State department officials on the possibly of Iran exchanging senior Al Qaeda figures in its custody for the 3,800 "Peoples Holy Warriors" guerillas held by the US in Iraq have been making the rounds in Washington for over a year. The officially announced change in status of the fighters now appears to have scotched that deal irretrievably and with it any possible near-term rapprochement between Tehran and Washington.
"US-Iranian relations are now drifting into very dangerous waters," Ali Ansari, a British expert on Iran said. Questioning Washington's move he asked: "How is it that the MKO get the Geneva Convention and the so-called 'terrorists' in Guantanamo Bay don't? It is definitely a victory for the hawks who favour using the MKO Mujahedeen as a tool against Iran's clerical regime."
The change in status of the MKO coupled with the military assault on Najaf came amid a string of critical reports about Iran emanating from the Bush administration. …