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Published in the 16-31 Jan 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

A new American ploy for Iran?
By Karamatullah K. Ghori

U.S. is, once again, in the throes of a wave of sensation-mongering. It is, by now, a familiar and time-tested device of the Bush neo-cons to stir panic and fear in the hearts of the American people close to any period of festivity and joy.

America is on 'Orange Alert' according to the new, Orwellian, Department of 'Homeland Security's ( a name straight out of the pages of George Orwell's " 1984" ) sliding, colour-coded, scary bar; it is only a notch lower than a full red alert. It went into effect days before Christmas because Homeland Security perceived serious danger lurking in the wings for the Americans. This, too, is a very Orwellian tactic: keep the people in perpetual fear so they may have no chance to question your policies or motives. In the name of shielding them from the likes of Al-Qaeda, the Bush war-mongers are rapidly curtailing what used to be known and admired in the world as American freedoms and personal liberties.

The sweep of madness, this time around, is so comprehensive that dozens of flights originating from various European capitals have been grounded in panic because 'terrorists' were feared to have infiltrated them. It doesn't bother the Washington cabal of imperialists one bit if their megalomania hurts thousands of ordinary air travellers.

Indeed, all this induced paranoia is part of the Bush re-election campaign, just getting into full stride with eyes fixed on the autumn, 2004 election. Every trick of the trade is being deployed with unabashed vulgarity to impress the American voters that Bush is the man to lead them on.

The Bush handlers seem convinced that with Saddam in their bag there is little chance of anything damaging their candidate on the Iraqi issue. They think that those graphic pictures of a dishevelled Saddam resigned to an American medic probing his molars with impunity are good enough to convince the American people that Bush's invasion of Iraq was justified and has been amply vindicated.

But what about those two other 'evil' states on George W. Bush's list of regional and global 'rogues', Syria and Iran?

There seems to be a lack of vision and cohesion on both these neighbours of Iraq, just as there is total failure of direction on the handling of the American-'liberated' Iraq, even after the capture and virtual elimination of Saddam.

On dealing with Syria, the centre stage appears under the control of the hawks favouring robust action in cahoots with their Zionist and Likud friends in Israel. The neo-cons seem convinced that if President Bashar Al-Asad doesn't agree to play ball according to their diktat then their Israeli hawks are suffciently powerful to teach him a lesson. The recent assertion by the ultra-hawkish Israeli Housing Minister-later repudiated by Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert-that his ministry was ready to expand Jewish settlers' population in the Golan Heights, seized from Syria in 1967, by 50 per cent was a pointer in that direction. 

However, on Iran the Bush cabal seems to be tinkering with a mix of stick and carrot as opposed to the erstwhile aggressive posture of only firing threatening verbal salvos at Tehran.

According to political pundits, confidential probing contacts between Washington and Tehran have been going on for some time. The neo cons think that Tehran has been sufficiently rattled by the presence of 130,000 American troops within its sniffing distance in neighbouring Iraq. They think that Washington should exploit this qualitative change in the political equation with Iran to press it harder on acceding to their agenda of demands. This includes a cessation of Iran's alleged nuclear weapons programme; an end to Iran sponsoring 'terrorism' ( read an end to Iran's support for the Hizbollah in Lebanon which has been a thorn in the Israeli side for two decades) in the region; and Iran to give up its plans of dominating the region.

Stripped of all its sophistry, the neo cons want Iran to recognise only Israel's U.S. given 'right' to dominate the region, especially now that the challenge to Israeli supremacy from Iraq has been neutralised for the time being, if not for good.
The more moderates in the Bush ranks in Washington have long reposed their faith in President Khatami's ability to guide Iran on the road to moderation and have often expressed their dismay, loudly enough for the world to know, that he was being checkmated at every step by the hawks and the radicals in the higher echelons of the Iranian hierarchy who don't want to seek a change in their strained relations with U.S.
President Khatami, on his part, has been shrewdly sending mixed signals to Washington reflecting the strains on his position to operate freely with the kind of flexibility that may suit U.S. His statement of November 17 on the status of the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC ) was a case in point. It was as encouraging and heartening an affirmation of Iran's positive stance on IGC as the Washington moderates could expect from a man whose hands are not entirely free but who is still interested in breaking a new path with U.S. provided there is matching response and moderation shown from Washington.

Khatami said, in reference to the legality of IGC, that " we recognise the Iraqi Governing Council and we believe it is capable, with the Iraqi people, of managing the affairs of the country and taking measures towards independence."

Such a categorical affirmation of Iran standing by the American-invented IGC had the effect of a diplomatic tremor for the simple reason that much of the outside world has failed to take this American hand-maiden seriously because of its suspected credentials as a front to promote American interests in the occupied Iraq. But here was the leader of Iraq's most important and most sensitive neighbour clearly stating that he was ready to do business with it, irrespective of who had crafted it.

Khatami's unequivocal affirmation of support for IGC becomes all the more significant when seen in the perspective of when it was made. He said those words soon after the Bush viceroy in Iraq, Paul Bremer, had returned from Washington with a fresh brief on what to do with Iraq and had entered into an accord with IGC to transfer power to the Iraqis by 30th June, 2004. The signal that Khatami wanted to send to Washington was a pragmatic one: he was prepared to walk a mile if the Americans were also willing to walk the extra mile on the road of moderation, and not war-mongering.

The devastating earthquake that trashed the historic, Silk Road- famous, city of Bam on December 26 seems to have given a major filip to this budding and putative process of a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran. The Bush administration wasted little time in rushing emergency medical and humanitarian relief to the site of the devastation and the Iranian government welcomed it with open arms. Bush also suspended, for at least six weeks, the sanctions against Iran for the remittance of relief money and philanthropic donations.

But, on the flip side of the coin, the senior Iranian hierarchy put its foot down on the U.S. suggestion to send a survey mission to Bam to take stock of the extent of damage and suggest a co-ordinated assistance programme for rebuilding. The Iranians are, no doubt, well acquainted with the Americans' dismal qualifications for 'rebuilding' anywhere, be that Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan. But more realistically, it is indicative of the deep tussle still fiercely on between the moderates and the hardliners in Iran on substantive issues. And what could be more crucial than the question of entering into a new, and qualitatively different, phase of relations with U.S.-the 'Great Satan', according to the late Imam Khomeni.

On a more pragmatic plank, however, Khatami and his moderate colleagues should see the current and impending developments in the context of Iraq with some optimism.

No matter what tricks in their bag the Americans might try to keep the 'troublesome' Iraqi Shiia clergy out of the hard core of democracy they claim to be ushering into Iraq it would be impossible to keep the majority Shiia population out of power. The Iranians have to do nothing but watch intently the unfolding scenario in Iraq. In their own sweet time, things will fall into place, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, to paint a favourable picture for Iranian interests in and around Iraq. Whatever government comes to power after the deadline of June 30th , will have to seek good relations with Iran. There is simply no possibility of this going wrong.

Therefore, from Tehran's point of view it is needless to provoke Washington by appearing to be troublesome, or meddling in Iraqi affairs. A calculated preference to give no handle to the hawkish cabal around Bush was implicit in the Iranian decision to 'come clean' on its nuclear programme and accept blatantly intrusive inspection of its nuclear sites by IAEA.

For Washington, likewise, it is pragmatic to pursue a course of accomodation with Tehran in order not to give it any excuse, or justification, to meddle in the Iraqi affairs. The Bush moderates know it well that an Iran on talking terms, at least, with them would be a far more welcome proposition than an antagonistic or hostile one. There is a realistic assessment in Washington of Tehran's great existing and potential leverage, vis--vis Baghdad.

Iran's co-operation would also come in handy to Washington in its much exalted 'war on terrorism.' The Iranians have never had much patience for the likes of Taliban or Al-Qaeda. There is an untalked about nexus of interest between these two estranged powers on how to deal with the ultra radicals of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda types. Iran's help could be crucial to Washington, especially with Afghanistan still in disarray and far from normalised.

And, then, there is the future of U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia. 

The Wahabi kingdom had been an asset to Washington for the better part of the 20th century in muzzling any and all progressive movements in the Islamic world. The Saudis stood by Washington, through thick and thin, and served the American cause to the hilt. But September 11 changed that equation, perhaps for good. The Saudis have since been a thorn in the side of the neo cons who hold them partly responsible for turning a blind eye to, if not outrightly promoting, bin Laden's type of 'terrorism.'

The moderate policy planners and advisers in the Bush hierarchy believe that correct relations with Iran could give U.S. an antidote to check the spread of Wahabi-inspired radicalism in the region. They are convinced that their beach- head in Iraq would keep Iran's own expansionist ambitions in check and force Tehran, even if reluctantly, to stay on the right side of Washington in any regional equation. But Tehran's legitimate clout in Iraq will have to be duly recognised, as such, and acomodated as long as core American interest is not compromised.

However, all these straws in the wind still have the potential of going awry. A strong puff of wind from Washington's teeming hawks and neo cons could still blow them away. These war-mongers still want Bush to train his tanks and missiles on Tehran, because that is the agenda of their soul mates in Israel's Likud. They have a great capacity to queer the pitch because of their ready access to Bush. They literally have his ears, and the success of their pernicious agendas for Afghanistan and Iraq prove their unlimited capacity for mischief. The likes of Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz are still feeding Bush their primers on how to unleash terror on the likes of Syria, Libya and Iran. Only time will tell who has the last laugh in Washington: the moderates or the unsatiated neo cons.

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