September 16, 2004
By David Hirst in Beirut
When George Bush first identified the two Middle East members of his "axis of evil", Iran clearly ranked as a far more formidable adversary than Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
But President Bush went after the easier target instead. So "did we invade the wrong country?" asks a leading commentator, Charles Krauthammer, speaking for many neo-conservative hawks as the US refocuses on Iran.
From their standpoint, it must surely look as if they did. For the neo-cons, overthrowing Saddam was nothing if not regional in purpose, the opening phase of a grand design to "transform" the entire Middle East.
But such are the region's cross-border dynamics that success was never going to be assured in one country unless it embraced others too.
Yet it is hardly success in Iraq that accounts for the increasingly urgent concerns about Iran; it is more likely the spectre of catastrophic failure. For if the Islamic Republic was always the most dangerous of "rogue states", it is now more dangerous than it was at the outset of the Iraq adventure. It simply has to be subdued.
"If nothing is done", Mr Krauthammer argues, "a fanatical terrorist regime openly dedicated to the destruction of the 'Great Satan' will have both nuclear weapons and the terrorists and missiles to deliver them. All that stands between us and that is either revolution or pre-emptive strike. Both of which are far more likely to succeed with 146,000 American troops and highly sophisticated aircraft standing by just a few miles away in Iraq."
Such talk does not seem to frighten the mullahs. They do worry about the strategic encirclement which the US has thrown around them. Yet, paradoxically, they are emboldened too. For they think that if they are more vulnerable, so - over-extended and floundering - is their adversary.
They are saying it loud and clear: we have strategic assets to match America's, and the cost of any US or Israeli attempt to exploit their military advantages against us will be great and region-wide.
Iran claims it is not developing nuclear weapons. But much of its behaviour, at least that of the once again dominant, hardline clerical establishment, indicates a deliberate attempt to cloak the claim in ambiguity, nourishing the convictions of all those who believe that Iran is developing such weapons. Certainly, at least, it wants to create the impression that it is acquiring the kind of firepower that only weapons of mass destruction can supply.
If the Islamic Republic does not actually have the unconventional means, not yet at least, to lend substance to its militant rhetoric, it does have conventional means that have long been an intrinsic, largely surreptitious, part of its whole "revolutionary" modus operandi.
In fact, through Iraq, the removal of its arch-enemy Saddam and the emancipation and new aspirations of the long-suppressed Shia majority, it has them in new and providential abundance. "Some military commanders in Iran", said the defence minister, Ali Shamkani, "are convinced that preventive operations which the Americans talk about are not their monopoly. We too are present from Khost to Kandahar in Afghanistan, in the Gulf, and we can be in Iraq, where US forces won't be an element of strength, but our hostage."
No wonder that, for the new Iraqi government, the Muqtada al-Sadr rebellion was as much about Iran as it was about Mr Sadr.
And then there is always Lebanon and Hizbullah, that everlasting flashpoint in reserve. Quiescent of late, Hizbullah is ever ready to re-enter the jihadist arena, drawing on the arsenal of rockets with which, according to Israel, Iran has been systematically supplying it.
"This", says the veteran Israeli military analyst Zeev Schiff, "is an Iran-Syria-Hizbullah array", and its use, almost certain in the event of an American or Israeli strike on Iran, could escalate into "all-out war".
It is clear that the mullahs do not want a full-scale showdown; in parading their assets they seek to deter, rather than provoke. In fact they have always wanted better relations with the US, provided they get something in return, and that they, not their reformist rivals, control the process. If anything, the urgency now lies on the other side; hence the urgings of pundits like Mr Krauthammer to "strike before Iran's nukes get hot".
But perhaps the real wild card lies less in the Iranian "rogue state" than it does in what amounts to the Israeli one. Israel has repeatedly warned that it may sooner or later take direct action to stop an Iranian nuclear bomb "going critical".
As Amos Perlmutter, Michael Handel and Uri Bar-Joseph recount in their book Two Minutes over Baghdad, the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, was once part of a three-man inner circle that kept even the very sympathetic administration of President Ronald Reagan completely in the dark as they planned and carried out the daring 1981 airstrike on Iraq's Osirak nuclear plant.
That exploit had little visible fallout. But a repeat performance against Iran today would be universally perceived as American in spirit, even if exclusively Israeli in execution, and the whole Middle Eastern mess which America came to Iraq to clean up would instantly cross a new threshold in scale, virulence and unpredictability.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004