Will Iran be next?

Does Bush intend to attack Tehran? Mehdi Kia, co-editor of Iran Bulletin - Middle East Forum, looks at the Iran-Iraq-US triangle

It was not entirely unexpected when renewed threats against Iran immediately followed George W Bush's re-election. After all Iran has been on Bush's "axis of evil" and the occupation of Iraq completed its military encircling. Donald Rumsfeld expressed the sentiment beautifully when he told reporters last December that he often dreamt he would wake up one morning to a regime change in Iran. The US has been putting pressure on Iran over its ambitions to join the nuclear club, and has been openly scathing of the efforts of the E3 (UK, Germany and France) at a peaceful resolution to the issue. Dick Cheyne's scarcely veiled threats in January were given extra significance when Bush accused Iran in his inauguration speech of being at the forefront of international terrorism. He went on to openly encourage the people of Iran to revolt, promising his support. While an invasion against that "loathsome" regime is not "on the agenda at this point", as Condoleezza Rice notably put it when visiting London last week, agendas can change at a moment's notice. Certainly the US is not just sitting waiting for the Iranians to revolt. The article by Seymore Hersh in the New Yorker threw some light on the sort of undercover activities currently underway ('The United States has been conducting secret reconnaissance missions inside Iran to help identify potential nuclear, chemical and missile targets', January). At the political level, the US (and the UK) lent their support to an internet collection of signatories for a referendum on the Iranian constitution. This referendum is being driven by a motley collection, ranging from monarchists at the one end, through some pinkish former lefties, to nationalists and reformists with one foot inside the islamic regime, at the other. The Bush administration's sabre-rattling sent monarchists and some other exiled forces into ecstasy. One student group went so far as to call Bush the "messiah of freedom". But the current concerted pressures on Iran has a more immediate and tangible aim than the overthrow of the Iranian mullahs. The Iranian regime's influence over Iraqi shi'ite groups goes back several centuries, but became even more concrete when Iran acted as a sanctuary for Iraqi exiles and hosted the exiled Iraqi shi'ite army of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). This influence became critical in last month's Iraqi elections (see 'The Iran factor in Iraq's vote' Washington Post December 8 2004; or editorial New York Times January 5 2005). The candidate list supported by Iran is likely to be the largest in the new assembly. Supping from the same bowl The list, known as the United Iraqi Alliance, embraces 16 parties, including virtually all the main shi'a groups: the SCIRI, led by Abdel Aziz al-Hakim; Al-Dawa (The Call), led by Dr Ebrahim al-Ja'afari; the Badr organisation, the Mossavat (Equality) Party; the Iraqi National Congress of Ahmad Chalabi; the Turkeman Islamic Unity; the Movement Loyal to the Turkemans; the Islamic Movement of Fili Kurds (mainly shi'a); etc. While the highly influential Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani (himself an Iranian) did not officially endorse the list, he called on all Iraqi shi'ites to vote, and his picture was on many posters of what came to be known as the 'Sistani list'. Thus it could be said that the Americans owe the relatively high turnout in the shi'i regions to the Iranians. Indeed the Iranian mullahs were seriously involved in the election, having put aside $82 million for distribution to their clients and friendly forces (see Baghdad University Centre of Study of Arab Unity, www.albasrah.net). Ironically many of these groups also received funds from the US. While the US supported a wider range of parties (237 organisations approved at the last count), the Iranian-backed groups are far more homogenous, and better organised as well as better armed. Furthermore, Iran's influence also extends to Muqtada al-Sadr's group, with its rapidly growing presence in the shi'a slums and shanty towns. Under pressure from Iran, Sadr, while not directly endorsing the election, did not demand a boycott. A number of his supporters will even have been elected. It is likely that the Iranian-backed groups will have a significant presence in the next government, and Hakim is strongly billed to be the next Iraqi prime minister. The shi'ites will very much be flexing their muscles, with the mullahs of Iran in the shadows. The US is therefore confronted with the dreaded scenario of another islamic republic and Washington's sabre-rattling needs to be seen in this light. The nuclear weapons issue is mainly a smokescreen for a different battle. The immediate conflict is clearly about who controls Iraq. Sounds familiar? Secret understanding The Iran issue, then, has to be viewed as part of an Iran-Iraq-US triangle. How Washington deals with this critical issue is probably still very fluid. There is, first of all, a long history of Republican secret deals with the mullahs of Iran - remember the Iran-Contra affair, when Reagan's emissaries sent a cake and a Koran to Khomeini to get funds directed to the Contras in Nicaragua? And the current ultra-conservative leadership in power in Iran has been adept at simultaneously barking at the 'great Satan', while secretly meeting the devil's emissaries abroad - as happened last year. They calculate - I believe correctly - that in view of the current quagmire in Iraq the US is unlikely to embark on a military adventure over the border. Nevertheless the US has a number of other options short of invasion. There is Israel's potential to bomb Iranian nuclear installations (though the Iranians have made sure these are widely dispersed). The US has already began to exploit the national question in the country, through overtures to Kurdish political parties and Azeri and Baluchi nationalist groupings. UN economic sanctions can be called on the basis of the nuclear threat. Even the old mujahedin card might be worth playing once more (see The Guardian January 18). On its side the Iranian regime has its Iraqi shi'ite allies - to be used as both stick and carrot. It can try to delay US assaults by pressuring the Iraqi shi'ites to play ball with the occupying forces. Or it can persuade them to obstruct US designs on the country. Undoubtedly it is over who rules Baghdad that the next battle is galvanising. An invasion may not be "on the agenda at this point", but neither is sweet talk. This is a dangerous game, not least for the Iranian mullahs. The "Sistani tsunami" is how Sharif Ali bin-Hussein of the UK-backed Constitutional Monarchist Movement characterised the Iraqi elections. It is likely to leave a lot of wreckage in both Baghdad and Washington. I might add that ultimately Tehran may also lie on that tsunami's path. * CPGB motion to StWC conference, February 12 This conference restates its commitment to the immediate, unconditional withdrawal of British and all foreign troops from Iraq. We hold this position despite the risk that this could mean reactionary political forces in Iraq might be strengthened and score a victory. However, imperialism is the bigger enemy and its defeat would be a victory for progressive forces globally. Moreover, any successful movement in countries like the UK for immediate withdrawal would actually strengthen progressive trends both here and in Iraq itself. Thus, we are not indifferent to the fate of the Iraqi people. We reject chauvinist ideas that democracy, secularism and progressive politics are not part of psychological or political 'make-up' of the peoples of this region. Therefore, the STWC will actively commit itself to campaign for practical solidarity with the democratic, secular and socialist forces in Iraq. We want to see these trends gain strength and become the hegemonic force in the fight for the national liberation of their country.