Target Iran - Military Options
The Bush administration is reviewing its policy toward Iran in light of allegations that the Tehran government is developing nuclear weapons and allowing al-Qaida terrorists to operate on its soil. But whether the United States will adopt a more aggressive stand toward a country President Bush has called part of the axis of evil is far from clear.
Right after the September 11th, terrorist attacks on the United States two years ago, President Bush declared the nation would adopt a far more aggressive policy toward terrorism -- no longer drawing a distinction between terrorist groups and the countries supporting them. "Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them. Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists."
With Washington accusing Iran of harboring al-Qaida terrorists and developing nuclear weapons, Bush administration officials appear to be making a case for what could be a more aggressive approach toward Tehran's Islamic rulers. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has all but accused Iran of becoming a new haven for al-Qaida following the May 12th suicide bombings in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, that left eight Americans among the dead. "There's no question but that there have been and there are today senior al-Qaida leaders in Iran and they are busy." He threatened action against Iran if its alleged attempts to influence politics in neighboring Iraq do not stop. "Indeed, Iran should be on notice that efforts to try to remake Iraq in Iran's image would be aggressively put down.
Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. It also denies providing a safe haven to terrorists and has arrested or handed over al-Qaida members in the past. Still, on-going US-Iranian contacts and years of trying to encourage reform-minded, pro-democratic elements within the country have produced few signs Iran is ready to moderate its behavior and move away from being a rogue nation.
Nearly a quarter century after the Islamic revolution, the Iranian government still considers the United States an enemy, even though many ordinary Iranians now favor better relations with America. There are no easy solutions to Iran. On the one hand, there's a policy of appealing to the Iranian people over the government. Yet on the other hand, there are sort of negotiations with government representatives on a variety of issues so in that particular sense, there is sort of a confusion.
The US Government's Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996 (ILSA) (Public Law 104-172), which proscribed any company (American or foreign) from exceeding a $20-million-per-year investment or trading limit with Iran in the petroleum sector, initially had hampered foreign investment in petroleum and other mineral industry projects in Iran. Since 1998, however, many European nations have reestablished official relations with Iran and have not discouraged investment in Iran. In 1998, the US Government waived sanctions against an international consortium that was developing the offshore South Pars gasfield (Middle East Economic Digest, 1998). In 1999 and 2000, the U.S. Government lifted the restrictions on the sale of spare parts for Iranian civilian passenger aircraft; modified the restrictions on the export of food, medicine, and medical equipment to Iran; and allowed the import of Iranian carpets and certain food products into the United States. The gradual reduction of restrictions led to the anticipation that the US Government would allow the ILSA to expire in 2001. Without ILSA, additional international companies would probably invest in the Iranian minerals sector. In fact, the US Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) of 1996 was renewed for 5 more years in July 2001.
In addition to ILSA, American citizens and companies were banned from investing or participating in Iran's mineral sector activities under Presidential Executive Orders 12957 of March 15, 1995, 12959 of May 6, 1995, and 13059 of August 19, 1997.
In March 2003, President Bush extended sanctions originally imposed in 1995 by President Clinton for another year, citing Iran's "support for international terrorism, efforts to undermine the Middle East peace process, and acquisition of weapons of mass destruction." The 1995 executive orders prohibit U.S. companies and their foreign subsidiaries from conducting business with Iran, while banning any "contract for the financing of the development of petroleum resources located in Iran."
The Bush administration's approach toward Iran may be taking shape and moving closer to its pre-war view of Iraq. There are powerful forces in the administration who are making the argument that we should move from this middling posture, cut off all contact with Iran, all tactical engagement, forget about strategic engagement entirely, and move toward a formal posture of regime change.
In late March 2003, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, John Bolton, said, "In the aftermath of Iraq, dealing with the Iranian nuclear weapons program will be of equal importance as dealing with the North Korean nuclear weapons program."
On June 4, 2003 Douglas Feith, defense undersecretary for policy, said a recent London Financial Times article "grossly misrepresented" Rumsfeld's views on Iran and the desire of the United States to topple the clerical regime in Teheran. A 30 May report in the British newspaper stated that Rumsfeld is pushing for regime change while "'neo-conservatives' outside the administration are turning up the volume of their demands for an end to Tehran's theocracy." Feith said the United States wants Iran to turn over all al Qaeda operatives and to comply with its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, "but as for the future of the Iranian government, that's a matter to be decided by the Iranian people." Feith also spoke about the U.S. policy on the Mujahedin-e Khalq. The United States has declared the group a foreign terrorist organization. The MEK has several thousand fighters scattered throughout Iraq, mostly organized in the MEK's National Liberation Army. Some of these units possess tanks, armored vehicles and heavy artillery. U.S. forces demanded the surrender of MEK forces in Iraq. "That demand is being complied with and the MEK forces are being disarmed," he said.
Although US government officials have denied intending to overthrow Iran's theocratic regime, Iranian officials seem unconvinced. They were especially vocal in their denunciations of the U.S. during the first week of June 2003, as the country commemorated the 1989 death of the "Father of the Revolution," Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The US Government has long expressed serious concerns about Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, along with other weapons of mass destruction and longer-range missiles. As US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher made clear, Iran's claim that its nuclear program is transparent and intended for peaceful purposes contradicts known facts: "Iran admitted to constructing a. . .uranium enrichment plant and heavy water plant only after it had no choice because this had been made public. . . . The first uranium enrichment plant could be used to produce highly enriched uranium for weapons. A heavy water plant could support a reactor for producing weapons-grade plutonium."
The International Atomic Energy Agency is conducting an examination of Iran's nuclear program, including facilities that Iran had tried to hide. Russia is continuing to help Iran build a nuclear reactor at Bushehr. In the US view, said State Department spokesman Boucher, "no country should be cooperating with Iran's nuclear program": "Our concern is about the potential acquisition of nuclear weapons by a state that's a known supporter of terrorism. This has been something that President Bush has talked about. That's why he talked about the 'axis of evil.' "
America is debating a change in US relations with Tehran against a background of news reports on a resurgent nuclear weapons development program in Iran and intelligence information that some al-Qaida terrorists may be hiding there. There is concern that reports the Bush administration is contemplating a program to unseat Iran's theocratic government is a mistake.
US rhetoric toward the Iranian government seems to be hardening, causing a good deal of reaction. In Texas, The Corpus Christi Caller-Times wonders: "Is Washington angling for an Iran showdown? There are indications that Washington is interested in taking care of some unfinished business with Iran. It dates back to the U-S Embassy takeover in Tehran in 1979, which still rankles in our national consciousness. However, the real impetus for renewed interest in this component of the celebrated "axis of evil" (the other two being Iraq and North Korea) traces back to concern over the Iranians' support of terrorist movements, possibly including Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network."
The Chicago Tribune suggested that the US needed to get farther along in Iraq's stabilization before we take on another major challenge. "The lights aren't even on in all of Iraq, and yet there is speculation that the Bush administration may turn its attention to regime change in Iran. At least that's the buzz that has been intensifying over the past week. The Washington Post reported that unnamed Bush administration officials were alarmed by intelligence [suggesting] al-Qaida operatives in Iran had a role in the May 12 suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia. That prompted the administration to cut off diplomatic conversations with Iran that had seemed to portend a thaw in relations. But the U-S should be wary of promoting active talk about regime change. Put simply: Iran is not Iraq. Iran has a reform-minded, democratically elected government and a vibrant pro-democracy movement that is working [peacefully] to topple the despotic mullahs who hold most of the power.
The Orlando Sentinel agreed with Chicago's Tribune: "While pressing the hard-liners in Iran to abandon the country's objectionable and dangerous policies, the United States must take care not to undermine the reformers who are trying to lay the foundation for a more responsible regime. Iran is not Iraq. As Mr. Bush, himself, said in his last State of the Union speech, "Different threats require different strategies.""
New York's Daily News took a much harder line, proposing: "In three major areas -- supporting a democratic Iraq, stamping out terror and curbing nuclear arms -- Iran is failing to act as a responsible member of the international community. But there could be hope. It lies with the Iranian people. On its neighbor Iraq, Iran is "being unhelpful," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld [says]. "Iran," he explained, "should be on notice that efforts to remake Iraq in Iran's image will be aggressively put down." On terror: Iran denies it is harboring al-Qaida. On nukes: Why does a state rich in oil and gas need a nuclear energy program in the first place? Or is it an arms program in disguise? [However] Unlike Iraq under Saddam, Iran has democracy. Regime change is possible from within. That's the way to go. Take the case directly to the people. Our quarrel isn't with them, but with the unelected ayatollahs."
On 28 October 2003 the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on "Iran - Security Threats and US Policy". This hearing included an exchange between Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Richard Armitage, Deputy Secretary of State:
Hagel: Regime change in Iran - is that our policy?
Armitage: No, sir.
Hagel: What is our policy?
Armitage: Our policy is to try to eliminate the ability of Iran to carry forward with disruptive policies, such as the development of WMD [weapons of mass destruction], such as the abandonment of human rights, such as repression against minorities, such as religious oppression against the Bahais, and to try to get them to eschew their state sponsorship of terrorism.
Bush administration officials say Iran is aggressively building a nuclear weapons program and must be stopped. But a group of European nations says the Iranians are opening up their program to inspections and those should take place before any punitive actions are taken.
But Geoffrey Kemp of the Nixon Center says the Bush administration is in a race against time. "There's a two-track problem in Iran. On the slow track, you have clear signals that Iran is building towards some climax where ultimately greater political reform is inevitable, but it's a slow track and there have been many disappointments, and it may take many more years before you get a truly reformed government in Tehran. But the other problem is there is a fast track, and the fast track is what they are doing on the nuclear front, as is abundantly made clear in this IAEA report."
And Reuel Gerecht, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says the European approach of engagement is bound to fail. He believes the Iranian clerics are bluffing to buy time so that they can develop a nuclear weapons program. "What they are going to do is the tried and true European approach: Let's engage and have a talk about it. Well, the Iranians have already had these discussions. These folks are not children. These are very serious men, and they have looked at the map and determined that for both internal and external reasons, the nuke is a good idea. I would suggest the only way you are going to dissuade the clerics, who have been raised on a diet of real politic, is to, in fact, point out to them that military or economically there is going to be hell to pay."
Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, says the United States should learn from its current difficulties in Iraq that diplomatic channels need to be exhausted before any kind of military action is contemplated. "If we do not go through these steps, and we do anything like covert or overt military action, it is going to make Iraq look like a welcoming party. It's going to make our treatment of Iraq look incredibly mellow."
It's not clear what military measures might work. Some analysts maintain the Bush administration is overextended fighting an insurgency in Iraq and trying to stabilize Afghanistan.
Some analysts say a diplomatic deal won't work unless Iran's security concerns are addressed. These include being surrounded by US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Israel's status as the sole nuclear power in the Middle East and its ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, which has been at the center of problems in US Iranian relations for the past two decades. One idea is to fashion a deal along the lines of what the United States and its partners in Northeast Asia are attempting with North Korea, which claims it already has nuclear weapons. Such a plan with Iran could start with an agreement on nuclear issues and then branch out to include security matters. Diplomatic efforts to resolve Iran's nuclear issues will ultimately hinge on the country's commitment to work with international organizations. By declaring a willingness to clear up past cover-ups and allow more intrusive inspections, Iran's clerics appear to be emerging from two decades of isolation. It remains to be seen if they are sincere.
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