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February 11, 2005

Iran War Drums Beat Harder

by Jim Lobe

Despite the Bush administration's insistence that, at least for now, it remains committed to using diplomatic means to halt Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program, war drums against the Islamic Republic appear to be beating more loudly here.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice assured Europeans on her trip this past week that Washington does indeed support the efforts of France, Britain, and Germany (EU-3) to reach a diplomatic settlement on the issue. However, she also made it clear that Washington has no interest in joining them at the negotiating table or extending much in the way of carrots.

And her consistent refusal to reiterate former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage's flat assertion in December that Washington does not seek "regime change" in Tehran has added to the impression that the administration is set firmly on a path toward confrontation.

Whether the administration is pursuing a "good cop/bad cop" strategy – in which Washington's role is to brandish the sticks and the EU-3 the carrots – remains unclear, but the voices in favor of an "engagement" policy are being drowned out by crescendo of calls to adopt "regime change" as U.S. policy.

The latest such urging was released here Thursday by the Iran Policy Committee (IPC), a group headed by a former National Security Council staffer Ray Tanter, several retired senior military officers, and a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

The 30-page document, "U.S. Policy Options for Iran" by former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer Clare Lopez, appears to reflect the views of the administration's most radical hawks among the Pentagon's civilian leadership and in the office of Vice President Dick Cheney.

It was Cheney who launched the latest bout of saber-rattling when he told a radio interviewer last month that Tehran was "right at the top of the list" of the world's trouble spots and that Israel may strike at suspected Iranian nuclear sites even before the U.S.

The study echoes many of the same themes – mainly support for the Iranian exiled and internal opposition against the government – as another policy paper released by the mainly neoconservative Committee on the Present Danger (CPD) in December, but it is also much harsher.

Both papers favored military strikes against suspected nuclear and other weapons facilities if that was the only way to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and endorsed "regime change" as U.S. policy.

But the CPD paper, which had the influential backing of former Secretary of State George Shultz, called for a "peaceful" strategy that involved elements of both engagement and nonviolent subversion similar to that pursued by Washington in Poland and elsewhere in Central Europe, particularly during the 1980s.

The latest report does grant a role for "carrots" in achieving a delay in Iran's nuclear ambitions and even in regime change, although the IPC's members expressed greater skepticism that the EU-3 talks will be effective or even desirable.

"Negotiations will not work," said Maj. Gen. (ret.) Paul Vallely, chairman of the military committee of the neoconservative Center for Security Policy, who described the Iranian regime as a "house of cards."

Instead, the IPC's main emphasis is on more aggressive actions to bring about the desired goals, including military strikes and active efforts to destabilize the government, in major part through the support and deployment of what it calls "indisputably the largest and most organized Iranian opposition group," the Mujahedin e-Khalq (MEK) – an idea that many Iran specialists here believe is likely to prove exceptionally counterproductive.

"[A]s an additional step [in a strategy of destabilization]," the paper states, "the United States might encourage the new Iraqi government to extend formal recognition to the MEK, based in Ashraf [Iraq], as a legitimate political organization. Such a recognition would send yet another signal from neighboring Iraq that the noose is tightening around Iran's unelected rulers."

The MEK fought on Iraq's side during the Iran-Iraq war and has been listed as a "terrorist group" by the State Department since 1997 as a result of its assassination of U.S. officials during the Shah's reign and of Iranian officials after the Revolution.

However, it has long been supported by the Pentagon civilians and Cheney's office, and their backers in Congress and the press as a possible asset against Iran despite its official "terrorist" status.

Indeed, there have been persistent reports, most recently from a former CIA officer, Philip Giraldi, in the current edition of the American Conservative magazine, that U.S. Special Forces have been directing members of the group in carrying out reconnaissance and intelligence collection in Iran from bases in Afghanistan and Balochistan, Pakistan, since last summer as part of an effort to identify possible targets for military strikes.

After bombing MEK bases in the opening days of the Iraq invasion in March 2003, the U.S. military worked out a cease-fire agreement that resulted in the group's surrender of its heavy weapons and the concentration of about 4,000 of their members, some of whom have since repatriated voluntarily to Iran, at their base at Ashraf.

The State Department, which was then engaged in quiet talks with Iran about dispersing the group in exchange for Tehran's handing over prominent al-Qaeda members in its custody, clashed repeatedly with the Pentagon over the MEK's treatment.

After State was forced by the White House to break off its dialogue with Tehran following al Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia, allegedly ordered from somewhere on Iranian territory, the administration determined that MEK members in Iraq should be given Geneva Convention protections.

The IPC now wants the State Department to take the MEK off the terrorist list, a position backed by several dozen members of Congress who have been actively courted by the group and believe that a confrontation with Iran is inevitable.

"Removing the terrorist designation from the MEK could serve as the most tangible signal to the Iranian regime, as well as to the Iranian people, that a new option is now on the table," according to the report.

"Removal might also have the effect of supporting President Bush's assertion [in his State of the Union address] that America stands with the people of Iran in their struggle to liberate themselves."

But most Iran specialists, both inside and outside the government, who agree that the regime is deeply unpopular, also insist that Washington's endorsement of the MEK will actually bolster the regime in Tehran.

"Everybody I've ever talked to in Iran or who have gone to Iran tell me without exception that these people are despised," said Gary Sick, who handled Iranian policy for the National Security Council under former President Jimmy Carter.

When they invaded Iran from Iraq in the last year of the Iran-Iraq war, according to Sick, who teaches at Columbia University, they had expected to march straight to Tehran gathering support all along the way.

"But they never got beyond a little border town before running into stiff resistance. It was a very ugly incident. They had a chance to show what they can do, and the bottom line was nothing very much. I've seen nothing since then to change my estimate," he said.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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