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Now Tehran's Pushing Buttons

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Aussie Financial Review

PostPosted: Fri Feb 27, 2004 7:58 pm    Post subject: Now Tehran's Pushing Buttons Reply with quote

Now Tehran's Pushing Buttons
February 28, 2004
Australian Financial Review
Tony Walker

George Bush may appear to have love and marriage on his mind, but Iran is tweaking nerve-endings in Washington severely and for several reasons.

In the swirl of events in an exceptionally busy news week, the following interlocking events could easily have passed unnoticed in the Great Game of tracking the twists and turns of American foreign policy in an era when the administration hardly speaks with one voice.

On the day that US President George Bush commandeered the national debate by announcing he would support a constitutional amendment effectively banning gay marriages, his spokesman, Scott McClellan, addressed another contentious issue which barely stirred the interest of a White House press corps slavering over same-sex unions.

The issue was Iran, and what McClellan had to say in the President's name might have seemed unexceptional, but the fact that he said it, and said it belatedly, added significance to his remarks.

Four days after Iran's parliamentary elections, which by any standards represented a travesty of democratic principles and practice, this is what Bush said: "I am very disappointed in the recently disputed parliamentary elections in Iran. The disqualification of some 2400 candidates by the unelected Guardian Council deprived many Iranians of their opportunity to freely choose their representatives.

"I join many in Iran and around the world in condemning the Iranian regime's efforts to stifle freedom of speech, including the closing of two leading reformist newspapers in the run-up to the election. Such measures undermine the rule of law and are clear attempts to deny the Iranian people's desire to freely choose their leaders."

What Bush omitted to mention in his brief statement was the fact that 87 members of the 290-member Parliament were excluded from contesting the poll, vetted out by the Council of Guardians, an unelected body of elders dominated by clerics, which reports to spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The conservatives have spoken, and the reformers' impotence has been exposed. So the calculus shifts from expectations of a continued struggle between modernists and medievalists to a lop-sided outcome which appears to have established a new, regressive and fractious status quo.

Shaul Bakhash of the Brookings Institution, whose book, The Reign of the Ayatollahs, is one of the best pieces of work on post-Shah Iran, said in an interview recently that above all what the election result indicated was that supreme leader Khamenei had asserted his authority by throwing in his lot with the hardliners.

The leadership, he said, was now a mixture of hardliners and conservative centrists whose influence will almost certainly ensure the election next year of a conservative to replace the reformist Mohammad Khatami, who has been a disappointment to those in Iran and in the West who hoped that he might preside over a new era.

In Bakash's view, the reformists are in retreat and it is hard to see them regrouping soon.

But perhaps the real politics was not in Iran but in Washington itself. For it is no secret that the Bush administration is under pressure from conservatives within and without to adopt a sterner posture towards Iran.

In his remarks, which came four days after the February 20 poll, Bush appeared to come down marginally on the side of US hardliners, but the administration's critics on the right identify an obvious contradiction in the US approach between words and deeds.

"We're three years into [the Bush administration] and we don't have an Iran policy," says Michael Ledeen, of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. "Iran is the leading supporter of terrorism in the world, and we claim to be in a war against terrorism. Maybe we should stop coddling them. Maybe we should support democracy."

What supporting democracy might mean beyond pious words is not clear, but what is almost certainly the case, when the four following pieces of the jigsaw are fitted into place, is that the chances of a thaw between Washington and Tehran have receded for the time being. Hopes, even expectations, of the beginning of an accommodation now seem quite remote.

* In Baghdad this week, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld indulged in some of the heftiest criticism of Iran in recent memory.

Asked at a press conference whether the US planned to increase pressure on Iran to stop an influx of terrorists, Rumsfeld engaged in this exchange with a journalist.

Question: How about pressure on Syria and Iran, maybe increasing the pressure on them?

Answer: That wouldn't be a bad thing. Syria and Iran have not been helpful to the people of Iraq. Indeed, they've been unhelpful.

Question: How have they been unhelpful?

Answer: They've allowed people to move from their countries into Iraq to engage in terrorist activities against the Iraqi people."

* The State Department last week issued its verdict for 2003 on human rights abuses, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2003, which was scathing about Iran in a lengthy and detailed section.

Here's a flavour of it: "Continuing serious abuses included: summary executions; disappearances; torture and other degrading treatment, reportedly including severe punishments such as beheading and flogging; poor prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; lack of habeas corpus or access to counsel and prolonged and incommunicado detention."

The Central Intelligence Agency chief George Tenet, in a briefing on Tuesday with the Senate Intelligence Committee, provided a gloomy, though not alarmist, assessment of Iran's future. The regime was secure for now, its foreign policy, which has been in the grip of the more conservative elements anyway, won't change much, if at all, but repression will deepen discontent.

Tenet touched on the issue that is of most concern without going into details. This is suspicion, actually near certainty, that Iran is persisting in its efforts to acquire a nuclear weapons capability in spite of an appearance of co-operating with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

As Tenet put in open session with the committee before briefing it behind closed doors, Iran was "trying to preserve its weapons of mass destruction options".

* This latter observation corresponds with a piece of intelligence that emerged this week to cast doubt, if that was necessary, on Iran's claims that its nuclear intentions are peaceable.

On Tuesday, the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a report that United Nations inspectors in Iran had found signs of polonium, a radioactive element that can help trigger a nuclear chain reaction, like that in a nuclear bomb, according to an Associated Press dispatch.

This comes on top of the discovery earlier this month at an air base in Iran of an advanced P-2 centrifuge system that could enrich uranium for weapons use. The US has said the finding raises "serious concerns" about Tehran's intentions.

These "concerns" are certain to be ventilated by the US representative at a board meeting of the 35-member IAEA on March 8 to re-assess what is being described by the Americans as the "Iranian threat".

The atmosphere will be quite tense.

But beyond Iran's trashing of its reformists, beyond its apparent program to acquire a nuclear capability, beyond its support for organisations like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine, it is Iraq which is of most immediate concern to the US and where potential for friction arises, as Rumsfeld indicated.

It would hardly be news in Washington that Iran has no interest in a flourishing example of Jeffersonian democracy on the banks of the Tigris.

As Shaul Bakash observes: "Iran doesn't want Iraq to break up, but if they can make life difficult for the Americans and undermine this shining example of democracy, fine, great."
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