Jewish World Review August 22, 2002 / 14 Elul, 5761

Eli J. Lake

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A War of Words against Iran? | A funny thing happened on the way to war with Iraq. We declared war on Iran.

Mind you, this is not a war with tanks and infantry, the kind of war many speculate the United States will launch against Iraq. Rather it is a war of words. And through this new policy, the administration has made clear publicly and privately that it would like to liberate Iranians from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's theocracy--and that it is siding with those in the country arrayed against him.

The heightened rhetoric reflects a gap between the administration and the State Department, which had made clear its belief that reform of Iranian society was possible through engagement with the country's president, Mohammad Khatami--a notion the administration rejects.

For a Cold War analogy, think of the Iraq war as Vietnam and the Iran war as Poland. President Reagan never considered bombing Warsaw to aid Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement, but U.S. support for the Polish dissidents was clearly a strategy to help topple the Soviet puppet government that imprisoned him.

President Bush seems to be trying something similar with Iran. On July 12 he released a short statement pledging American solidarity with protesters challenging the mullahs in Tabriz and Isfahan. Three weeks later, a top Bush advisor, Zalmay Khalilzad, followed up with a speech to aWashington policy institute, in which he said formal diplomatic relations are not possible with the current regime. On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld repeated his charge that Iran had allowed Al Qaeda fighters to enter that country, despite reports the previous week that Iran had turned 16 suspected Al Qaeda members over to Saudi Arabia. And by late fall, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, will unveil a new 24-hour AM Persian radio station to broadcast pro-American news and U.S. pop music inside Iran.

Before the president's statement last month, the State Department had refused to publicly comment on the demonstrations in Iran, fearing American support would imperil demonstrators. Some Iran hands worried that the administration's support for the freedom seekers would sour cooperation between Iran and the United States in Afghanistan and any potential cooperation with regard to Iraq. The opposite happened.

In spite of Khamenei's fiery speech Tuesday, in which he likened Bush to Adolf Hitler, the Iranian government has quietly cooperated with the U.S. on Iraq. The Iranians recently permitted two Shiite Iraqi opposition leaders living in Tehran to visit Washington for consultations on U.S. plans for Iraq. Ibrahim Hamoudi and Abdelaziz Hakim, representing the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a coalition of Shiite opposition groups in southern Iraq, participated Aug. 10 in a teleconference with Vice President Dick Cheney along with leaders from five other Iraqi opposition groups in town for the talks. Their visit to Washington was the first time since 1993 that SCIRI's Tehran-based leadership was permitted to visit the U.S. Iran provides the council with office space in Tehran, and in the past, Iran's security services have armed SCIRI operatives in southern Iraq. Hamoudi in an interview was careful to say that Mohammed Bakr Hakim (who did not come to Washington) was the organization's political leader but that the organization recognized Khamenei as its religious and spiritual leader. Thus it's not surprising that Hamoudi is confident "Iran will not stand against helping the opposition in Iraq."

And SCIRI is not the only opposition group supported by Iran that the Bush administration sees as an ally in the coming war with Iraq. In March, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Jalal Talabani, traveled to Tehran for consultations with the nation's defense minister, former president and security services. These talks took place more than a month after the president's State of the Union address in which he dubbed Iran's government part of an "axis of evil." In the meeting, Talabani received assurances that the 375-mile border between his territory and Iran would remain open for trade. In 1995, the Iranians sold Talabani small arms, and they continue to sell gasoline to the provisional Kurdish government he controls.

Finally, the Iranians allowed the Iraqi National Congress--the umbrella group the CIA helped form in 1992 to unite the disparate Iraqi opposition--to establish a U.S.-funded office in Tehran last year. Ahmad Chalabi, the group's co-founder, has visited Tehran twice in the last two months. And last fall, the Iranians agreed to allow the congress to erect a radio transmitter near the Iraqi border for broadcasts into the country. Since early 2001, Chalabi has asked the U.S. government to fund a program to send lightly armed rebels into Iraq from Iran.

This support for the opposition is particularly important if the president hopes to pursue an Afghanistan-style military strategy against Iraq in which local militias, with the assistance of U.S. special forces and air cover, liberate the country.

Iran's willingness so far to help the United States undermine Saddam Hussein should come as no surprise. Iran and Iraq fought a war between 1980 and 1988, and neither country has signed a formal treaty ending the hostilities. While some commercial air flights--as well as diplomatic contacts--have resumed between Baghdad and Tehran in the last year, the Iranians have steadfastly refused Iraqi requests to end support for Kurdish and Shiite rebel groups. As Talabani said in a recent interview, "Iran has many friends inside the Iraqi opposition and it wants to maintain influence inside any new regime."

What is peculiar is that the same set of advisors and Washington analysts who have most vigorously advocated military action against Iraq are now also publicly advocating the harder line on Iran. In November, the chairman of the Defense Advisory Board, Richard Perle, former CIA Director R. James Woolsey and former Reagan administration foreign policy advisor Michael Ledeen helped form the Coalition for Democracy in Iran.

The goals of the organization, according to its literature, include publicly shaming Iran for its human rights abuses, its links to international terrorism and its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. In other words, the group aims to make the same kind of public case against Iran as Washington's hawks have made against Iraq. Both regimes are at war with their own people, seek biological, chemical and nuclear weapons and train and support terrorists. Khalilzad in his Washington Institute speech accused the Iranians of stockpiling chemical weapons that choke and blister their victims.

None of this necessarily means the United States will be invading Iran after it liberates Iraq. But it remains to be seen whether the president's war of words with Khamenei will dampen the ayatollah's support to end the regime of his neighbor. "The bottom line is Iran has influence which can be used to complicate regime change going in and going out of Iraq," Al Gore's former national security advisor, Leon Fuerth, warns.

So far, this is not a concern for Woolsey. "The more Khamenei fears us, the more progress we are making," he says. "If he sees us being weak and tentative that will make him jump in on Saddam's side." For the sake of the Iraqi people, let's hope he's right.

Eli J. Lake is the State Department correspondent for United Press International. He has written frequently for the Weekly Standard. Comment by clicking here.


© 2002, Eli J. Lake