US debates different ways of applying political pressure on Islamic Iran

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In the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq last year, the Bush administration spun a careful web of propaganda and deceipt designed to prepare US public opinion for the war that neo-conservative leaders had decided to wage even before coming to power. This web was spun between two key pillars, both of which have subsequently proved utterly baseless: that Iraq was somehow connected to the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, and that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) which threatened US interests and even the US itself. Two years later there are increasing signs that the US is now building a similar case against Islamic Iran, which many analysts have long regarded as its main enemy in the Middle East.

The Congressional Commission Report on the 9/11 attacks, published on July 22, provided a detailed critique of major failures on the part of several US agencies in the run-up to the attacks, even though it failed to ask several key questions. However, for the Bush administration, the key finding in it was that eight of the alleged hijackers allegedly passed through Iran on their way to the US, prompting Bush and other officials to imply Iranian involvement in the attacks. Speaking after the publication of the report, Bush was resolute in his determination to find and punish all those responsible. "We are now urgently investigating the role that Iran played in these attacks," he said. "Iran is a totalitarian society about which I have long held deep concerns."

Even as Bush was talking up the supposed Iran connection, other officials, particularly in the intelligence community, were expressing caution, pointing out that the Commission report did not find any firm evidence that Iran had known about the attackers passing through their territory. Having been severely criticised for allowing intelligence to be distorted and misrepresented to support the Bush case for war on Iraq, at least some in the intelligence community are obviously reluctant to risk making the same mistake again.

Iran, of course, denied all knowledge of the 9/11 attacks, pointing out that it had no dealings with al-Qa’ida and wholly condemned terrorism of all sorts.

The US’s hypocrisy was highlighted just a few days later, on July 27, when it granted ‘protected status’ under the Geneva Conventions to members of the Mujahideen-e Khalq Organization (MKO), an Iranian opposition terrorist group based in Iraq . (The fact that the status was granted by the US is also an indication of who is really in charge in Iraq.) The MKO has been responsible for a long list of terrorist attacks in Iran since the Revolution, and was supported by the West despite being based in Iraq and having close ties with the Saddam regime, until shortly before the US invasion, when the US put it on its list of terrorist organizations. Despite this, the US did a deal with the MKO before its invasion of Iraq, by which the MKO forces and bases were spared US attack. Since then, some US officials have been recommending that the MKO be supported against Iran, while others have argued that that would be too blatantly hypocritical considering that the MKO remains on the US terrorist list. The decision to recognise its legitimacy to operate in US-occupied Iraq suggests that the former position is prevailing.

At the same time, there are also growing whispers about Iran’s nuclear programme, which the US has long used to attack the Islamic Republic. Iran insists that it is within its rights to develop a peaceful nuclear capability to meet its energy needs, while denying that it has any intention of developing nuclear weapons. Iranian officials have said, however, that they would be entitled to develop nuclear weapons should they wish to do so, considering that it is under constant threat from the US and Israel, both nuclear powers. It has co-operated with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whose head, Mohammed El-Baradei has confirmed that Iran has permitted inspectors to visit its nuclear sites. Iranian officials must be aware, however, that international inspections were exploited by the US to justify their attack on Iraq, with no regard to what the inspections had actually found or not found.

Western intelligence sources are now reported to be leaking unattributable statements in the world media, accusing Iran of working on a weapons programme. The BBC reported on July 27 that intelligence sources, speaking "on condition that they were not identified", had told it that "there has been a pattern of cheating the world and the IAEA, of trying to disguise its true intentions… Iran wants to produce nuclear weapons." Such anonymous statements, unsubstantiated and unprovable, are virtually impossible to counter, but are becoming increasingly common, creating a general impression of wrong-doing on Iran’s part.

The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz also reported last month that unattributable sources in Israeli intelligence had voiced concern about Iran’s nuclear programme, and the Israeli government was launching a diplomatic offensive to garner international support for action against Iran

The immediate impetus for this campaign may come from the IAEA meeting scheduled in mid-September, at which officials are due to discuss Iran’s cooperation with its inspectors and whether Iran is in compliance with IAEA rules. Western governments have a long record of pressuring such bodies to produce the findings they want, regardless of the realities on the ground, and then of distorting and misprepresenting their reports for political purposes. There is every indication that this is what will happen with the IAEA meeting in September.

While the Bush administration wields the big stick against Iran, however, there are others in the US advocating a softer approach to achieving the same end: the subversion and destruction of the Islamic state. The Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) last month published a report prepared by a taskforce chaired by former CIA director Robert Gates and Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor under Jimmy Carter in the 1970s. This recommended that the US should counter Iran by engaging it in political and diplomatic dialogue, as Nixon did China in the 1970s. This approach is an anathema to the neo-conservatives currently in power in Washington, but may come into play should the democratic candidate, John Kerry, defeat George W. Bush to win the US presidential elections in November.

No-one seriously expects that the Americans will plan an invasion of Iran any time soon, particularly given the mess they have made of direct action in Iraq, but the invsion last year was prefaced by over a decade of intense political and economic warfare under, it should be noted, both Republican and Democratic administrations. There are increasing signs that, the lessons of Iraq notwithstanding, the US may be planning a similar war of attrition against Iran in the next few years.

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