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Iran's Options As America Widens Its War Against Terror Beyond Afghanistan.

** In A Big Blow Against The Traditionalist Judiciary, Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamen'i Lets MP Loghmanian Go Free, But Observers Say He Will Soon Make A Move Against The Liberals To Show Balance

** One Concern For Iran Is The Turkish Role In The Event Of An US Assault On Iraq, In View Of Ankara's New Influence In Afghanistan & Pakistan As Well As Its Ties With Israel

TEHRAN - APS sources here say that, in view of the security climate on its eastern and western borders, Iran faces opportunities which could enhance the country's strategic importance in the region. There are clear indications that the US, now in the conclusive part of Phase One in the war against terrorism on Iran's eastern border, is switching its attentions towards the Iraqi regime of President Saddam Hussein on the western border. Having expanded its influence in Afghanistan following the ouster of the Taliban, the sources believe Iran is now poised to benefit from the collapse of the Baathist regime in Baghdad.

That Iraq is the most likely target for an American assault after Afghanistan is becoming increasingly clear (see News Service No.3), with US President Bush said to regard Saddam's removal from power as an unfinished task left since his father's administration drove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Washington is also aware that Islamic radicals see Saddam's continuation in power as a symbol of American failure in the region.

On Jan. 16, Bush once again demanded that the Baathist regime permit the return of UN arms inspectors into Iraq. He added: "If he (Saddam) doesn't, we'll have to deal with that at the appropriate time". The implications were not lost on Baghdad, with Saddam Hussein retorting on Jan. 17, in a speech marking the 11th anniversary of the start of the Gulf war: "After the course of aggression 11 years ago, backed up by a continuous aggression till this day, our people will not be taken by surprise... Will the performance of one who has sat an examination and passed it be higher and better, or lower and lesser?" The message Saddam wanted to convey was that Iraq would survive another attack.

From Iran's perspective, the sources point out, the situation is developing in a way that will leave it with several strategic advantages. If the US does expand the war against terror by targeting Iraq, then according to the sources Tehran would stand to benefit in the following ways:

1. Saddam's regime, or at least the Takriti elite, would most likely be dismantled because for the US any other outcome would amount to a defeat. This would create a situation of considerable instability within Iraq, representing a kind of vengeance for Iran which during the 1980s saw an Iraq backed by the US and its allies engaging Iran in a war which cost over 1 million lives. More importantly, it will allow Iran to propose a broad-based government (not dissimilar to the one put in place in Afghanistan) wherein the large Shiite community will have a much greater say in political affairs. In the Iranian view, the US would find it hard to reject a proposal for a broad-based government.

2. A US attack would create room for Iran to expand its influence in southern Iraq, where a disgruntled but dominant Shiite population, which looks favourably towards Iran, lives over the choicest part of the Iraqi oil reservoir. Iran has over the past decade steadily built up its relations with the Shiites of southern Iraq. The Shiite Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI) has extensive networks in the region. Depending on the way in which the US assault against Iraq proceeds, the southern areas could eventually either become a separate autonomous entity heavily dependent on Iran, or part of a federal republic wherein the region would have a voice to match its population and natural wealth. Either way, Iran will emerge as a powerful influence in Iraqi affairs.

3. There would be enough military space for Iran to move in and crush the opposition Mujahedin e-Khalq movement, the only armed group targeting the Iranian theocracy, which the US has helpfully labelled as a terrorist organisation. In the event of a US assault, the sources believe that Washington would not be averse to an Iranian presence on the ground aimed at both crushing the Mujahedin e-Khalq and, perhaps, harassing whatever Iraqi forces they may encounter. A loose co-operative arrangement between Iranian and US military intelligence is said to have existed during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, in view of close links between Tehran and the Northern Alliance forces developed over the past decade.

The sources point out, however, that the key to benefiting from a possible US assault on Iraq would be for Iran to make moves complementary to American actions, although these actions would not be co-ordinated. The pattern will follow that of the Afghan campaign, the sources say, adding that British or other European countries could act as intermediaries should the need arise. This will prove to be politically tricky within Iran, where the constant tug-of-war between the traditionalist and liberal theologians has entered a new phase with the release of MP Hossein Loghmanian following a pardon from Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamen'i.

Loghmanian was jailed because it was ruled that he insulted the traditionalist judiciary. But Khamen'i, who is himself regarded as being closer to the traditionalists, was obliged to pardon the MP after Speaker Mehdi Karroubi, seen as among the least confrontational of the liberals, walked out of parliament in protest. It is expected that Khamen'i will balance this decision with another in favour of the traditionalists in the not too distant future.

Yet reports also indicate that Khamen'i and Khatami may have a private formula for co-existence. The Supreme Leader meets with the President on a weekly basis to discuss affairs of state, but they also hold long debates on religious, intellectual, historical, and political issues on a one-on-one basis which sometimes is said to take as long as seven hours; these are held every Monday. There are hints that the two leaders agreed at a recent meeting on the need to calm the situation in the country and reduce tensions between different political factions.

Meanwhile, the sources say, there is no real fear that Iran would become a target in the US war against terror. The way the US reacted relatively coolly to Israel's efforts in recent weeks to link the detained ship 'Karine A' - allegedly carrying weapons for the Palestinian Authority - to Iran is seen as one indicator that Washington is not keen to tangle militarily with Tehran, at least at this point.

One point of concern, the sources say, is the Turkish role in the event of a US attack on Iraq. Tehran is worried that Turkey may take advantage of the situation to move into northern Iraq and establish a permanent presence to exercise control over the Kurdish region, in order to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdish entry which could have ambitions on Turkish territory. It is also concerned about growing Turkish influence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said to be modelling himself as a "Pakistani Ataturk".

Another point of concern is the US military presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which may remain in these countries for the foreseeable future. But they note that, from Iran's perspective that may be a blessing in disguise, because it would help maintain a broad-based government in Afghanistan and prevent Pakistan from trying to expand its influence in any significant way over Afghan affairs. Nevertheless, to keep all options open, it has been reported that President Khatami would visit Islamabad, perhaps by mid-February, to improve relations after years of deterioration owing to Pakistani support for the Taliban.
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Publication:APS Diplomat News Service
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 21, 2002
Words:1297
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