Shortly after US troops occupied Baghdad in 2003, president George W. Bush warned Iraqis that there was no prospect of political institution-building or transfer of power to an Iraqi government so long as military resistance continued. At the time, the warning was taken as a pretext for the US to maintain political control for as long as possible; eighteen months later, the process of a transfer of power to an elected Iraqi government is well advanced, despite the fact that resistance remains a major problem in many parts of the country. The change in the US’s position is partly a measure of its failure in Iraq, in that it has repeatedly had to adjust its plans because of the strength of Iraqi resistance. However, it is also partly a sign of the US’s flexibility, its ability to adapt to changing circumstances, while also keeping an eye on the longer-term objective, in this case the installation of a pliable, pro-Western government, or at least one that the US can dominate and manipulate.
This ability to keep an eye on the longer-term objective is also visible in another sphere: their plans for “regime change” in Iran. Although Saddam Hussain had been widely regarded as the US’s key bogey-man in the Middle East for many years before the US’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, US policy intellectuals, key figures in the right-wing and nationalist think-tanks that dominate much policy debate (even during the presidency of the Democrat, Bill Clinton), and Israeli commentators who have disproportionate influence in the US have long regarded the Islamic Republic of Iran as a far more dangerous enemy and a far more important target.
The reasons for this are not difficult to understand: Saddam Hussain was undoubtedly a ruthless, tyrannical and murderous dictator within Iraq, but he was widely hated by virtually all Muslims all over the world, despite his attempts to promote himself as a champion of anti-Americanism and was absolutely no threat to the US’s hegemony or interests. The Islamic State of Iran, on the other hand, proves the possibility and provides an example of truly independent and popular Muslim statehood, based on the principles and values of Islam and the support of a Muslim people, that appeals to hundreds of millions Muslims all over the world, whatever their nationality and school of thought. It also gives the lie to the Western claim that it is impossible either to establish and run a modern society on Islamic principles (or indeed any principles except Western ones), or to survive in the modern world order without accepting Western hegemony. Saddam Husain may have provided the US with a useful pretext to maintain its massive military presence in the Middle East over the last decade, but a reading of US and other western foreign policy plans for the Middle East in recent years shows that it has been the challenge posed by Islamic Iran that really concerns the US and the West.
US neo-cons and other policy intellectuals have been making noises about “regime change” in Iran for many years, without making any positive move in that direction. However, there are more and more signs that the Bush administration is making regime change in Iran a key priority for Bush’s second term in office. This is not unexpected from two points of view. First, it is the logical next step for the US, having completed the encirclement of Iran with its occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the consolidation of its military presences in Central Asia and the Persian Gulf. Secondly, it also enables the Bush administration to maintain an aggressive forward momentum in its foreign policy – couched as a “war against terror” – at a time when it cannot afford very much critical examination of its performance to date.
Much attention has been paid to the US’s attempts to persuade the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to report Iran to the Security Council for obstructing international attempts to monitor its nuclear power programme (see p. 13). This international pressure is part of what has become a well-established American pattern, by which a state identified as an enemy is vilified, accused of terrorism, accused of developing illegal and aggressive weaponry, and subjected to ever more oppressive international political pressure in order to create a situation in which the US can claim to be acting against it on behalf of the international community and for the most altruistic of reasons. This strategy was totally exposed in the case of Iraq, when even the US’s western allies were reluctant to go along with it, and events after the invasion confirmed that the US’s case for war had been built on total lies. Nonetheless, the US feels so secure in its international domination, and the fact that no one can do anything to counter its plans effectively, that the strategy is being used on Iran.
In another sense as well, the US is repeating its Iraq strategy: in its vilification of the Iranian government, seeking to portray it as a dictatorial regime dominated by a tiny clique oppressing the vast majority of Iranian people who are freedom-loving, pro-western, and desperate to be liberated by the US, which they recognise as a champion of democracy and oppressed peoples all over the world. Again, this line is being promoted despite the fact that a similar approach in Iraq - where Saddam Hussain’s regime really was as bad as the US made out, at least in domestic terms – has been exposed by events in Iraq after the invasion.
The US’s approach in this area is expressed in a new proposal for Iran policy, published by the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), a group of senior neo-conservative hawks, last month. The CPD was founded last summer specifically to rally support for the broad foreign policy objectives of the Bush regime. It is co-chaired by former US Secretary of State George Shultz, a senior adviser to the Bush administration and a mentor of Condoleeza Rice, theUS’s new secretary of state. It also includes former CIA chief James Woolsey; Frank Gaffney, director of the Center for Security Policy; Newt Gingrich, formerly the Republican Speaker of Congress; and a number of other senior rightwing figures associated with rightwing thinktanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Project of the New American Century.
One significant feature of this paper, ‘Iran – A New Approach’, is the personalization of the enemy in the figure of Imam Khamenei, the Rahbar of Islamic Iran, in the same way that Saddam Hussain was personalised as the enemy in the case of Iraq. It is based on the premise that “Iran under Khamenei is pursuing regional hegemony in the Middle East and continues to be the world’s foremost state supporter of terrorism.” The paper reserves “the right to take out or cripple [Khamenei’s] nuclear capabilities”, but its main approach is based on the assumption that “Iran’s people are our allies... They want to free themselves from Khamenei’s oppression and they want Iran to join the community of prosperous, peaceful democracies.” It then goes on to recommend “a peaceful but forceful strategy to engage with the Iranian people to remove the threat and establish the strong relationship which is in both nations’ and the region’s interests.”
In its recommendations, the paper suggests a new US policy which would include a pledge to assist the Iranian people to achieve democracy; an announcement of the US’s willingness to reopen its embassy in Tehran; engagement with Iranian government officials and politicians in order to persuade them of the benefits of working with the US, rather than against it; developing direct relations with the military and other agencies in Iran to try to undermine the regime’s pillars of support; developing a case against Imam Khamenei for indictment in an appropriate international court; and the progressive implementation of “smart sanctions” against “the Khamenei regime” and its supporters, particularly economic sanctions aimed at overseas institutions associated with it.
At this stage, the premises of this paper may appear as ludicrous as the accusations against Iraq appeared when they were first made in the early 1990s. However, history shows that reality is no bar to the US once it sets its mind on a particular policy. Elements of the proposals in this paper can already be seen in the US’s moves against Iran. Iranians and their allies, in the Islamic movement outside Iran, need to be keenly aware of the dangers now facing the world’s only Islamic state and the leading edge of the global Islamic movement. In particular, Iranian officials and politicians need to understand that the support and credibility it enjoys among Muslims around the world are assets they cannot afford to squander in what are likely to be extremely difficult times in the next few years.