Syria, Iran, everyone is in Bush's crosshairs
By Patrick Seale
01/22/05 "Daily Star" --In recent days Washington has been awash with speculation that the United States is preparing armed action against Iran or Syria, or possibly both. It is not clear, however, whether the reports, leaks and threats point to preparations for an imminent attack or are merely part of an elaborate campaign of psychological warfare aimed at isolating the Iraqi battlefield from Iraq's neighbors.
According to a source at the U.S. National War College, an American strike against Syria nearly took place a month ago, but was put on hold because of objections from the U.S. Army. Any future attack could take the form of an air and naval bombardment, rather than a ground invasion. Syria is accused of infiltrating money, weapons and recruits to the insurgency in western and northern Iraq, and of giving support to anti-Israeli guerrilla groups like Hizbullah and Hamas; while Iran is in America's gun-sights because of what is described as its "large-scale interference" in Iraq.
Iran is also being targeted because American and Israeli planners have no faith in efforts by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, and by Britain, France and Germany, to persuade Iran to give up its alleged nuclear weapons program. Israeli spokesman, including Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, have said that Israel would not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran.
Another explanation for the recent bout of war fever is that we are witnessing a replay of a familiar Washington game, whereby rival government agencies are competing for U.S. President George W. Bush's ear. By talking up the need to make war on Iran and Syria, neoconservatives inside and outside the administration seem anxious to pre-empt any change of course by the new secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.
At her confirmation hearing last week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Rice echoed the standard rhetoric of Bush's first term: "America and the free world," she declared, "are once again engaged in a long-term struggle against an ideology of hatred and tyranny and terror and hopelessness. And we must confront these challenges ..." This will go some way in reassuring the pro-Israeli, anti-Muslim neocons.
But they will be less pleased with her repeated assertion that "the time for diplomacy is now." She pledged to involve herself personally in the Arab-Israeli peace process, which neocons see as a threat to put pressure on Israel to yield territory. She is also reported to have urged Bush to build bridges to European leaders during his forthcoming visit to Brussels and Berlin next month. This again will arouse neocon anxiety.
The belligerent neocons who pressed for war against Iraq are in still in place, notably in Donald Rumsfeld's Department of Defense and in Vice-President Dick Cheney's office. In spite of their responsibility for the mess in Iraq, they have not lost their jobs. Washington's influential right-wing think tanks have also been waging a vociferous propaganda campaign against Iran and Syria and have been urging the Bush administration to strike at both countries. In a report from Washington this week, Britain's Financial Times said that the neocons were backing an Iranian opposition group, the Alliance for Democracy in Iran, which is hoping for a big injection of American funds. Several senators have also urged the administration to back "regime change" in Iran.
Until now, most observers believed that the U.S. was too busy and overstretched in Iraq to contemplate new wars. But this argument is being turned on its head. The view one now tends to hear in Washington is that there can be no victory in Iraq until Iran and Syria are brought to heel.
No one outside a small circle in Tehran knows whether Iran has taken a decision to acquire atomic weapons or whether it simply wants to acquire the technology in order to have the option of making such weapons at a future date. It seems determined to master the uranium fuel cycle for the purposes of power generation, but denies that it intends to build a bomb. Its policy has all the ambiguity and opacity that Israel deployed when it, too, was developing its nuclear arsenal in the late 1950s and 1960s.
Meanwhile, Iran seems to be preparing for tough negotiations with the Europeans over the coming months in which the prize is a big package of trade and financial benefits in exchange for putting its nuclear program on ice - at least for the time being.
Iran is also looking to its defenses. Some observers believe it is preparing the Revolutionary Guard corps, the Pasdaran, for asymmetric warfare in the event of an American attack, as well as its vast corps of Islamic volunteers, known as the Bassij, several million strong. In December, Iran carried out a military exercise close to the Iraqi frontier mobilizing up to 120,000 men. It was billed as the largest since the 1979 revolution.
No one supposes that the Iranian armed forces, with their antiquated equipment, would be much of a match for the U.S. in a conventional war. But any U.S. strike against Iran, or Syria For that matter, would be likely to unleash guerrilla and resistance forces that could put American and Israeli citizens and interests around the world gravely at risk. Douglas Feith, assistant secretary of defense for policy at the Pentagon, is said to be working closely with Israeli officers in identifying weapons sites for targeting in Iran, much as he did in planning the war against Iraq. Israel has also sought U.S. support in pressuring Russia not to agree to sell advanced missiles to Syria.
In this month's The New Yorker magazine, the celebrated investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reported: "The Administration has been conducting secret reconnaissance missions inside Iran at least since last summer. Much of the focus is on the accumulation of intelligence on Iranian nuclear, chemical and missile sites ... The goal is to identify and isolate three dozen, and perhaps more, such targets that could be destroyed by precision strikes and short-term commando raids."
The Pentagon has dismissed Hersh's report as unfounded, but what seems beyond doubt is that the Pentagon has won its battle with the CIA over control of clandestine intelligence operations. Washington sources confirm that the CIA has been "gutted," while the Pentagon remains in control of much of America's vast $40 billion a year intelligence budget.
Judging from Bush's own remarks, he is clearly not planning a speedy withdrawal from Iraq following the Jan. 30 elections, as several American pundits have been urging. He has said that his own election victory last November was a vote of confidence in his Iraq war. In outlining his plans for the next four years, he continues to resort to slogans like the need to pursue the "global war on terror" and "build democracy" in the Middle East. These generalities may be dismissed as simplistic, except that they conceal a hard-nosed agenda, which includes defeating the worldwide movement of Islamic militancy in order to protect the U.S. from another Sept. 11, 2001, and ensuring long-term U.S. dominion over Arab oil.
Israel and its American friends in the Bush administration add two further goals: securing Israel's monopoly of weapons of mass destruction; and depriving the Palestinians of any external support, whether from Syria or from militant groups like Lebanon's Hizbullah, so as to force them to accept whatever crumbs Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon might throw them.
The strategic doctrine behind these goals is that the U.S. must retain global military supremacy and Israel regional military supremacy. Their enemies must be denied any sort of deterrent capability and must give up any hope of achieving a balance of power. While the wisdom of this doctrine might be doubted, the future does not look reassuring.
Patrick Seale, a veteran Middle East analyst, wrote this commentary for The Daily Star
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