New York Times - Magazine: Imagine with me a nation's security leaders sitting around the conference table being briefed on the progress of things in Iraq. They celebrate the overwhelming victory of their favorites in the Iraqi elections. They are pleased with the effectiveness of their huge investment in building schools and hospitals in Shiite communities. They are delighted that the thousands of their security forces in Iraq are doing well, with few casualties. The nation? Iran. New York Times - Magazine

THE SECURITY ADVISER

By RICHARD A. CLARKE

Imagine with me a nation's security leaders sitting around the conference table being briefed on the progress of things in Iraq. They celebrate the overwhelming victory of their favorites in the Iraqi elections. They are pleased with the effectiveness of their huge investment in building schools and hospitals in Shiite communities. They are delighted that the thousands of their security forces in Iraq are doing well, with few casualties. The nation? Iran.

Yes, Iran, the nation the Bush administration calls the greatest state sponsor of terrorism, is having some good days, largely at our expense. In the 1980's, Iran suffered an estimated one million casualties in a seven-year war against Iraq. From Iran's perspective, the purpose of the war was to place Iraq's majority Shiite religious faction in charge, to unseat Saddam Hussein, to protect the Shiite holy places and, perhaps, to get its hands on Iraq's vast oil deposits. The costly war ended in a draw, after the two sides exhausted themselves. Seventeen years later, Iran has now achieved three of those four war goals, thanks to 13,000 American casualties and scores of billions of American-taxpayer dollars.

Unlike American aid to Iraq, Iran's assistance is having little problem getting through. Estimated at many hundreds of millions of dollars per year, Iranian aid has a low overhead and is buying Tehran influence in Shiite communities. Intelligence sources report that Iran's secret service and Revolutionary Guards have heavily infiltrated Iraq, with perhaps as many as 5,000 personnel. That would make Iran the third-largest force in the coalition, but it does not, of course, participate in the coalition. Iran operates on its own agenda in Iraq. Iran's goal is to have a government in Baghdad under strong Iranian influence, not to create a mirror image of Tehran. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is widely agreed to be the most influential person in Iraq. He and many of the new leaders of Iraq spent many years living in Iran, with the help of the Tehran government.

European and American pressure on Syria has driven President Bashar al-Assad into the arms of Tehran. Although Syria's forces may withdraw from Lebanon, the Hezbollah terrorist force created by Iran will stay and has now gained Washington's acceptance as a legitimate Lebanese political party. Hezbollah is widely believed to have been responsible for the terrorist murders of more than 300 Americans in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, as well as many Israelis.

With oil costing more than $50 a barrel, the money keeps on flowing into Tehran's treasury. Western oil companies, including a Halliburton subsidiary, work with the Iranians, planning new oil pipelines to increase their output. The hope of American national security planners has been for democracy to flourish in Iran. Unfortunately, when a progressive parliament was elected, the ruling mullahs vetoed its actions and then stacked it with their supporters. There will soon be another election in Iran, but it is likely to be fixed by the mullahs.

Iran's nuclear strategists are also succeeding. President Bush has agreed to give Iran trade concessions to get it to abide by nuclear-nonproliferation agreements. Optimists think such concessions will halt the Iranian nuclear weapons program and buy agreement to a reliable inspection regime. Cynics suggest that Iran is playing for time to finish making bombs in hidden facilities. Either outcome, trade concessions or nuclear weapons, will strengthen Iran.

The president recently said that reports of the United States preparing to attack Iran were ''simply ridiculous.'' He then quickly added, ''All options are on the table.'' There are reports that Pentagon planners, reacting to the prospect of drawn-out negotiations, are developing strike packages to take out W.M.D. sites in Iran. Some planners say such strikes would cause the people to overthrow the mullahs. Actually, if we struck Iran, I think we would unite it, trigger a spasm of terrorist attacks against America and Israel and start another war for which we have no exit strategy. Thus, we need an honest national dialogue now on how much we feel threatened by Iran and what the least-bad approaches to mitigating that threat are.

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