European colleagues joke that German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer's attractive new Iranian lady friend gives him particular insight into the thinking in Tehran. They could be right. Fischer has been saying for the last two years that Iran would be the big winner from the Bush administration's war on Iraq and the overthrow of Tehran's old enemy, Saddam Hussein.
That certainly seems to be the way that Ali Shamkhani, the Iranian defense minister, analyzes the situation. In an interview last week with al-Jazeera TV, Shamkhani mocked the idea that the American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan were any kind of threat to Tehran.
On the contrary, he insisted, American soldiers in the region, tied down and bleeding daily to guerrilla attacks, were now hostages to Iran. The implication, which British officials in Iraq now consider to be more than half-true, is that Iran could turn the heat on the American troops up or down at will.
Shamkhani is supposed to be a worried man. He is meant to be frightened by the constant hints that Israel and/or the United States is weighing a pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear reactor at Bushehr and at its uranium enrichment facilities.
Shamkhani and the ayatollahs are supposed to be quaking in their slippers at the prospect of a formal U.S. demand to the next meeting of the International Atomic Energy Authority on Sept. 13 that Iran be declared in breach of its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty - the prelude to United Nations sanctions.
There is not much sign of alarm in Tehran. Speaking just after another successful test of Iran's new 800-mile range Shihab 3 missiles (which can reach Israel), Shamkhani also warned the U.S. and Israel last week that it was ready to launch its own military strikes to stop them from attacking its nuclear sites.
We will not sit idly and wait for what others will do to us, the defense minister said. Some military commanders in Iran are convinced that preventive operations which the Americans talk about are not their monopoly. America is not the only one present in the region. We are also present, from Khost to Kandahar in Afghanistan; we are present in the Gulf and we can be present in Iraq.
This could be bluster from Iran. It could reflect Tehran's confidence that it will not face any serious diplomatic pressure while the Americans remain at odds with their European allies.
It could also reflect Tehran's confidence that even the toughest hawks of the Bush administration will be restrained until the November presidential elections. If Tehran has been playing for time in its diplomacy with the Europeans and the IAEA over the past year, it has certainly won a lot of months to continue enriching uranium.
The latest threats of U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice that Iran will either be isolated or submit sound less than convincing. Similar American threats do not seem to have had much impact on North Korea. The Bush administration may yet go down in history - despite the famous axis of evil warning -- as the team that let the genie of nuclear proliferation out of the bottle.
That moment of decision, when the West either accepts the inevitability of a nuclear-armed Iran or launches a military strike to pre-empt it, is looming ominously closer. And such an attack, while rallying Iranian opinion behind the ayatollahs, is unlikely to do more than buy a few years of delay.
Already, anxious officials in London, Berlin and Paris are trying to assess how long it will be before the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran inspires Turkey, Kazakhstan or even Saudi Arabia to follow suit.
The problem is to understand Iran's real motives. Tehran's desire to have a nuclear deterrent is understandable. It is surrounded by nuclear powers: Russia to the north; India and Pakistan to the West; and Israel to the east. The American superpower has already publicly placed Iran on the axis of evil hit-list.
But are Iran's ambitions more than just defensive? Israeli officials have for some time been talking about Tehran's hopes of building a Shi'ite empire, based on the religious ties between Iran's own Shi'ite population, the Shi'ite majority of Iraq, the Shi'ites of Southern Lebanon and the Shi'ite minority in Saudi Arabia, who mostly live along the coast of the Persian Gulf where the oil is.
If Tehran, or rather the ayatollahs of the holy city of Qom, could bring all these Shi'ites together into a political unit that stretched from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, and commanded the oil of Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia, that would be an extremely rich and influential entity. And if it also was defended by nuclear weapons, it might with impunity dominate the Middle East and the Islamic world.
There are formidable objections to this Israeli nightmare. The Shia sect of Islam has not historically been a powerful bond. It did not stop Iraqi Shi'ites (who are Arabs) from fighting Iranian Shi'ites (who are Persian) in the long war of the 1980s.
They do not even speak the same language, and there is a real and potentially divisive rivalry betwen the Shi'ite traditions of the Iranian holy city of Qom and the Iraqi holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. And despite Iran's long years of arming and training the largely Shi'ite Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, there is little sign of any meaningful and lasting political alliance.
Still, it is the kind of grandiose idea to catch the imagination of an ambitious ayatollah in Tehran or Qom, particularly when he sees the Sunni fundamentalists of al-Qaida seeking to combine the twin powers of Persian Gulf oil and nuclear weapons. If the Sunnis can dream such dreams of oil and nuclear power, why not the Shia?
History has been moving with gathering speed in the Middle East since the fall of Saddam Hussein, and Germany's Joschka Fischer is not the only seasoned observer who sees Iran as the likely beneficiary. The challenge now, with Washington distracted for the next 10 weeks of presidential campaigning, is to see whether the United States and its NATO allies can agree a common strategy for this turbulent future.
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Commentary Israel To Bomb Iran?
Washington (UPI) July 2, 2004
As the Bush Administration concludes it cannot risk Iranian retaliation against a fragile Iraq under U.S. occupation, Israel is dusting off contingency plans to take out Iran's nuclear installations.
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