OpinionIran in the World PressNow Iran is in Washington's nightmares

Now Iran is in Washington’s nightmares

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The Globe and Mail: An election will be held on Jan. 30 in Iraq. Later in the year, another will be held next door in Iran. The Iraq election will produce a Shia-led government, because Shiites make up about 60 per cent of the population. The hope must
be that such a government, resented by the Sunnis and barely tolerated by the Kurds, will not be the first step in Iraq’s unravelling through political conflict and/or civil war.
The Globe and Mail

By JEFFREY SIMPSON

Page A19

An election will be held on Jan. 30 in Iraq. Later in the year, another will be held next door in Iran.

The Iraq election will produce a Shia-led government, because Shiites make up about 60 per cent of the population. The hope must be that such a government, resented by the Sunnis and barely tolerated by the Kurds, will not be the first step in Iraq’s unravelling through political conflict and/or civil war.

A Shia conservative theocracy rules Iran. Ruling theocrats keep under their thumb an ostensibly elected government. Iran’s election will likely produce a conservative prime minister to go with what is already a conservative parliament.

The theocrats’ aim is to preserve their rule, influence developments as best they can in neighbouring Iraq and, in due course, produce a nuclear weapon.

Civil war in Iraq and nuclear weapons in Iran are the nightmare scenarios for this crucial corner of the world; real democracy in both would be the dream scenario. Reality seems suspended between the two scenarios.

Iran has been trying to develop nuclear weapons, despite protestations that it only wants nuclear technology for energy production — an implausible assertion for a major oil producer. Nobody else wants Iran to go nuclear, but from Tehran’s view of the world, going nuclear makes geopolitical sense. Iranians have an abiding sense of themselves as heirs to one of the world’s greatest and oldest civilizations. Other old, great civilizations have nuclear weapons — Christendom, Jewry (Israel), Hindu, Chinese/Confucian, Sunni Muslim (Pakistan). Why not the Persians, the Iranians ask themselves?

As the Iranians look around, they see countries on all sides with nuclear weapons: Israel, Russia, Pakistan, India and the U.S., whose navy is in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. They see what Iranians would consider U.S. client states on Iran’s borders, Iraq and Afghanistan. And, most important, they see that countries with nuclear weapons don’t get attacked (North Korea), whereas those without them, such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, can get rolled over.

So how to stop the Iranians from building a nuclear weapon that could be coupled with missiles the country has already developed? The British, French and Germans have negotiated a temporary deal with the Iranians; the Americans don’t like it.

All of 2005 will be dominated, therefore, by efforts to monitor, cajole, entice, threaten and otherwise attempt to influence Iran’s behaviour, while outsiders and domestic reformers hope, perhaps against hope, that in due course the country’s economic stagnation and stifling politics will embolden the citizenry to demand changes in the country’s government.

Diplomacy will have to be used, because military options are so hazardous as to be almost unthinkable. Sanctions will be discussed if the Iranians do not co-operate, but sanctions would be hard to make stick against a country with such long borders and so much oil that other countries need.

The Iranians have spread their nuclear facilities around so that they are hard to detect. A one-strike blow such as the Israelis laid on Iraq’s nuclear facilities won’t work. An invasion would be hellish, given Iran’s vast size and population of 70 million. Invasion talk is also silly, considering the military quagmire in which the United States finds itself in Iraq. Predictably, once the U.S. election was safely over, President George W. Bush authorized sending send more troops to Iraq.

Again predictably, the much-ballyhooed training of Iraqi soldiers to assume responsibility from U.S. troops has gone badly. Many won’t fight. Some desert, or pass intelligence to the insurgents. At best, they can do police work, or are useful in peaceful parts of Iraq. Even the President is dismayed, and he doesn’t admit dismay easily.

The U.S. is politically trapped. Its senior military people are talking about staying in Iraq for five to seven years. But the longer the U.S. troops remain, the thinner the political support back home for their mission and the greater the likelihood of deeper Iraqi resentment of foreign soldiers on their soil. If those soldiers depart not long after the Jan. 30 elections, however, parts of Iraq will spiral into worse chaos than is now evident.

There will be an election. The Shiites demand one so they can take power; President Bush needs one because his entire strategy depends on bringing “democracy” to Iraq. It’s a bit like the war itself, however. The military victory was easy. What came next was always going to be the hard part. The election, although hard to conduct, will be easier than averting division, turmoil and possibly civil strife thereafter.

And with those cheerful conjectures about a troubled corner of the world, a very Merry Christmas.

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