'Great Satan' warned of a burning hell
The US is making threatening noises towards Iran, but, says Ian Black, any military action would have dire consequences
The Guardian - 16 Feb 2005 - No one knows whether the US is serious about attacking Iran to destroy its alleged nuclear weapons programmes, and today's assertion from Tehran that US spy planes have been overflying the country will have done nothing to calm the jitters.
But everyone is perfectly clear that if that should happen, it will be a very big deal indeed - and one which might make the invasion of Iraq look like quite a minor incident.
It takes two to create a sense of crisis, and George Bush deliberately used his state of the union address on February 2 to depict Iran as "the world's primary state sponsor of terror", as well as accusing it of secretly developing an atomic arsenal.
In Washington's eyes, one of the central members of the "axis of evil" of 2002 has now graduated to become an "outpost of tyranny".
Lest anyone imagined that Iran would take such charges lying down, tens of thousands of people braved snowstorms a few days later to turn out in central Tehran to mark the anniversary of the 1979 revolution, and to hear a stern warning from President Mohammed Khatami that anyone who dared attack his country would face a "burning hell".
Decades of mutual animosity means that is no empty threat. For some, memories go back to the CIA's overthrow of the nationalist prime minister Mossadegh in 1953, and while many Iranians admire the US, it is still known, as Ayatollah Khomeini famously dubbed it, as the "Great Satan".
<>Americans remember the 444-day hostage drama at their embassy in Tehran. Nor have Iranians forgotten US support for Khomeini's bitter foe Saddam Hussein during the eight bloody years of war with Iraq.
Israel, physically far closer to Iran - and equipped with its own undeclared nuclear arsenal - is banging the drum even louder.
Its foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, warned on a visit to London on Wednesday that Iran, supporter of groups like Lebanon's Hizbullah and the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad, was now only six months away from acquiring the knowledge to join the nuclear club.
"This kind of extreme regime with a nuclear bomb is a nightmare, not only for us," he said.
So far, so bad. And if the rhetoric is to be believed, things may be about to get worse.
For the moment the US is grudgingly acquiescing in diplomatic efforts by the EU3 - Britain, France and Germany - to persuade Iran to permanently abandon its programme of enriching uranium, which can be used to make bomb-grade material. So far, this has only been suspended "temporarily", with more talks due next month.
That was the conciliatory-sounding message conveyed by Condoleezza Rice, the new US secretary of state, on her maiden visit to Europe, though she left no doubt about basic US hostility, criticising "the loathed" Tehran regime of "unelected mullahs" and urging "those of us who happen to be on the right side of freedom's divide" to encourage Iranians to win democracy.
Whether this amounted to a call for regime change, as seen in Baghdad, was tantalisingly unclear.
President Bush will be closely monitored on this subject when he arrives for his first second-term visit to the old continent next week - taking in Brussels, the German city of Mainz, and the Slovak capital Bratislava.
Europeans are increasingly worried that options are being closed off, with the distinct possibility that the issue will end up being referred, as the Americans would like, to the UN security council - the beginning of a path that could lead to sanctions, and, in the worst case, military action.
Joschka Fischer, Germany's foreign minister, has suggested that sanctions could strengthen hardline elements in Tehran.
"Iran is not Saddam Hussein," he argued. "We have there a contradictory mixture of very dark elements and democratic elements."
International divisions, however, mean sanctions are unlikely, as Russia and China, permanent members of the security council, would be loath to agree.
Alarmingly, there are signs that military options are being explored by the US, with reports of unmanned drones, special forces identifying targets (Seymour Hersh's recent New Yorker article on this was reprinted in its entirety in the Iran News), as well as carefully-publicised nods, winks and briefings that Israel might attack Iran's nuclear sites, as it did Iraq's in 1981.
None of this, however, is entirely convincing. With US forces bogged down in Iraq and hunting al-Qaida and Taliban remnants in Afghanistan, it requires a huge leap of the imagination to see the 82nd airborne heading for Tehran and Qom.
Thus the dismissive comment by Ali Yunesi, Iran's powerful intelligence minister, that the very idea of US military action was "psychological warfare".
"The Americans," he insisted, "would not dare to implement their threats."
Still, Iran is playing hardball, robustly defending its right to develop civilian nuclear energy under the terms of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and denying - though unconvincingly in the light of well-documented concealment and evasion in the past - that it has any plans to produce weapons.
Its motivation may well be the same search for national prestige and modernity that drove the shah - then backed by the US - to build the country's first nuclear reactor at Bushehr, on the Gulf, back in 1974. But it is no secret that the military option is an attractive one.
Experts warn of the danger of miscalculation and error as Iran, cut off from the international community in so many ways since the revolution, does not have a sophisticated nuclear or strategic community.
Shahram Chubin, a veteran observer of Iranian nuclear policy, argues that Tehran simply does not understand the complex doctrines of deterrence developed and refined between east and west during the cold war.
Clearly, an Iranian nuclear capability would not pose a threat to overwhelming US nuclear dominance, but it might force it to keep large forces in the region. It could also encourage other countries - Saudi Arabia and perhaps Egypt - to go down the nuclear path. That would leave the non-proliferation treaty in tatters.
Ironically, this crisis is deepening just as Iraq's elections ended in clear victory for the Shia Muslim groups which were supported by Iran during Ba'athist days. US officials have been quizzing them about their current relationship with Tehran, and especially about the implications of a confrontation over Iranian nuclear weapons.
Iraq's painful and violent march towards democracy, for all its shortcomings, holds some discomforting lessons for the Iranian regime, dominated by conservatives and clerics whose record on human rights is regularly lambasted.
It is hard for them to say so publicly, but some frustrated Iranian reformists - who lost their majority in the majlis last year - agree with Joschka Fischer that a hardline US approach, combined with Israeli sabre-rattling, will strengthen the hardliners and divert attention from their failure to tackle a stagnating economy and high unemployment.
Part of this riveting and volatile story is that American credibility is in very short supply - at home as well as abroad. Is the Bush administration, many wonder, likely to be more right about Iran than it was about Iraq?
"There is an eerie similarity to the events preceding the Iraq war," commented David Kay, who led the search for banned weapons of mass destruction in postwar Iraq, in a Washington Post article.
"Nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran would be a grave danger to the world. That is not what is in doubt. What is in doubt is the ability of the US government to honestly assess Iran's nuclear status and to craft a set of measures that will cope with that threat short of military action by the United States or Israel."
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