Actually, the title should read, "Trying to understand Iran." Or, "Is Iran bipolar?" Or, "Confusion exists over Iranian intentions." Or - and this is ominous - "Are there twin, equally powerful centers of power in Iran?" Put a different way, this writer with years of experience in matters Iranian is totally perplexed over developments in Iran during the course of the past two weeks.
As the reader has known for months there has been speculation that either the U.S. or Israel is going to attack Iran over the nuclear question. To wit: Is Iran building a nuclear weapon? I have written a few articles on the subject myself. So has Scott Ritter. One of his more recent articles was entitled, "Iran not pursuing nukes, but U.S. will attack before '09." The reader knows exactly where Ritter stands on the issue based solely on the title. In the article, Ritter highly minimized the probability of Israel striking Iran due to lack of capability and geography. It is felt strongly by some, and others not so strongly, that Marine Captain [ret] Ritter, who has on his resume years of experience as a lead weapons inspector in Iraq during the '90's, is a man to whom one should listen.
Debate on the issue of a military campaign against Iran has skyrocketed in recent weeks and the rhetoric is getting hotter. The December NIE that reported that Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003 is all but forgotten, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's fatwa in 2004 that nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islamic law is rarely, if ever, mentioned, noting that the real power in Iran is the Supreme Leader Khamenei, not the firebrand Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. What has been mentioned is that American and allied naval forces just concluded a series of military exercises in the Persian Gulf. A top Iranian official recently threatened to shutdown strategic oil shipping lanes, and Iran's Revolutionary Guards are also engaged in highly visible training maneuvers. Also, according to defense analyst Mark Fitzpatrick of London's International Institute of Strategic Studies, Israel had conducted a drill that obviously was to perfect a bombing campaign against Iran's nuclear establishment ..." Indeed, the sabre-rattling was getting as hot as molten lava.
Offsetting all of this are comments made by other interested parties. In June, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said he does not believe there will be war between Iran and the United States or Israel. "The Israeli government is facing a political breakdown within itself and within the region, so we do not foresee such a possibility for that regime to resort to such craziness," he said, adding, "The United States, too, is not in a position where it can engage in, take another risk, in the region." No truer words were ever spoken. An American attack on Iran would be catastrophic in human and economic terms world-wide. Add to that the fact that the only thing that separates our troops in Iraq from Iran is a line on a map. In terms of the American military response to the possibility of an attack, one turns to no less an authority than the Joint of Staffs Chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen - one reason being that Adm. William J. Fallon was fired as commander of CENTCOM for his remarks on the feasibility of attacking Iran ("not on my watch") - who said an attack on Iran "would be difficult." Mullen added, "Opening up a third front right now would be extremely stressful on us." He also stated, "That does not mean we do not have capacity or reserve, but that would really be very challenging. And also the consequences of that sometimes are very difficult to predict." Very difficult to predict, I would say so, Admiral, Sir.
Therein, one has the gist of the Bush administration's summer of discontent with Iran. However, just this last week there appeared to be a remarkable development involving Iran and this was reported by, among others, Gareth Porter, providing a glimmer of hope among Americans who have been facing a years-long drought of hope.
Porter disclosed on July 2 that "A senior Iranian official reportedly told members of the Iranian parliament Monday that Iran has agreed to freeze its enrichment program for six weeks and begin negotiations with the P5+1 group of states as early as next week ..." The “Iran Six” consists of the permanent members of the UN Security Council - the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia - and Germany. He also reported, "Remarks by Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki and a top adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday also seemed to indicate that the decision to accept a 'freeze-for-freeze' proposal from the “Iran Six” to begin at least preliminary negotiations." Basically, what "freeze for freeze" means is that Iran will suspend its enrichment program for six weeks, and the U.N. would suspend any additional sanctions for the same period. The plan was first offered by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana in 2006.
According to Trita Parsi, IPS, "During this [6-week] period, the Europeans and Iran would negotiate an agreement on the modalities of a full suspension, after which the United States would formally join the talks. This way, Tehran can claim that it didn't suspend as a precondition, but rather as a result of talks, and Washington can claim that it did not join talks until Iran had suspended all enrichment activities." That's beautiful. Somebody ought to tell Bush that diplomacy is not just for our country's friends. It is for our enemies as well so that we can iron out our differences, as is the case here, maybe. That will soon become a huge "maybe."
Parsi further reported, "Days before, former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati argued in favour of negotiations in an interview to the conservative daily, Jomhouriye Eslami." She added, "As a senior advisor to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamanei, Velayati's words carry particular weight. Not only did Velayati reassert Khamenei's dominion over Iranian foreign policy-making, he indirectly rebuked Ahmadinejad for his radical stance and argued that Iran should negotiate since it had won de facto recognition for its right to enrich." This is all sounding pretty good. There is hope that, perhaps, the matter will be resolved absent the presence of missiles.
But, not so fast. Parsi wrote, "... government spokesperson Gholamhossein Elham dampened hopes of a breakthrough by publicly rejecting a freeze on Iran's nuclear activities, asserting that negotiations should take place without Iran agreeing to Solana's formula. According to early reports, Iran's formal response to Solana seemed to have been in line with Elham's - and not Velayati or Mottaki's - statements." In the trade, that is known as mixed signals.
Nevertheless, as matters stood on Tuesday, July 8, it appeared as though those closest to the real power in Iran, Khamanei, wanted to negotiate, and the provocative President Ahmadinejad would be wise to keep his mouth shut. On Wednesday that all came crashing down, and a very ominous possibility raised its ugly head.
A warning shot was fired on June 29. Major General Mohammed Ali Jafari, commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, issued Tehran’s toughest and most explicit threats yet in response to recent reports of Israeli preparations to strike Iran’s nuclear installations. Hinting at an American attack, Jafari said: “If there is a confrontation between us and the enemy from outside the region, definitely the scope will reach the oil issue,” according to the Iranian Jam-e Jam newspaper.
On Wednesday, July 9, Iran reported firing nine test missiles, including the long-range Shahab-3, which it says has a range of 2,000 kilometers and could reach Israel and other U.S. allies in the Middle East and South Asia. Then, within hours after a warning from the United States about such missile launches, Iran did it again, a second launch during the night. Iranian state television showed pictures of missiles streaking through the night sky. Iranian media said the test launch included medium and long-range missiles and torpedoes. Reports said the weapons were fired from ships in the Persian Gulf and from on the ground.
Once again, the war of words escalated to a fever pitch as military and political analysts confronted the issues and their consequences, intended and unintended. Representative of those comments are SecState Condoleezza Rice, "We will defend American interests and we will defend the interests of our allies," she said. "In the Gulf area, the United States has enhanced its security capacity, its security presence and we are working closely with all of our allies to make certain that they are capable of defending themselves and we take very, very strongly our obligation to help our allies defend themselves and no one should be confused about that."
Rice's comments were followed by the Guards chief. Jafari asserted that the missile tests show Tehran's strength against its "enemies." Iran has repeatedly said it is prepared to guard against or retaliate harshly to attacks it says Israel and the United States are planning against Iranian nuclear facilities.
It is permitted that the reader by now is totally and irretrievably baffled. Due to Iranian actions, on the 8th we were all on the precipice of truly vital negotiations, something everyone wants, including the Iranians. On the ninth, due once again to Iranian actions, we had all fallen into the abyss of a possible most destructive war, something everyone wants to avoid, including the Iranians. The issue clearly does not involve Ahmadinejad. The Iranian president is merely a tool for Khamanei and the Supreme Council, and, indeed, the Supreme Leader has in the past reined in his erstwhile president for his sometimes provocative statements that accomplish little, but can cause great harm to Iranian goals.
I can also understand the principle that Iranian leaders wish to negotiate from a position of strength. Thus, the intent to frighten Americans who are already embroiled in two costly wars. However, should Bush make the rash decision to attack Iran, the American air force and navy is hardly burdened by the two wars. That will be the force that Iranians will have to contend, an unbridled force that has no equal in the world. Indeed, it is the Iranians who should be frightened, and they are. The trapped tiger will snarl and fight ... right up to the moment it is killed. If matters get really serious, because the Iranians possess some anti-ship missiles that are almost impossible to defend against, the U.S. might lose a few ships. Iran may lose a few cities. Iran, like the snarling tiger, having to contend with American air superiority and wishing to lash out, may, out of frustration, attack Israel with its missiles. That would be a strategic mistake, adding to the mix the daunting Israeli air force that will attack with fury and vengeance.