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Iran's Regional Ambitions

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Update from AIJAC


July 11, 2007

Number 07/07 #05

Today's Update contains three pieces on the subject of Iran's regional ambitions and the means of containing them.

First up, US Senator Joseph Lieberman calls on his congressional colleagues to face up to the fact that Iran is waging a "proxy war" across the Middle East, not only through extensive involvement in Iraq, but also through efforts in Afghanistan, Lebanon, and the Palestinian areas. He points out the evidence, calls for maintaining US deterrence vis a vis Iran, and asks his colleagues to consider the effects on Iran's regional ambitions of a precipitous US withdrawal from Iraq. For his full argument, CLICK HERE.

Next up, Iranian expatriate author, editor and journalist Amir Taheri looks in detail at Iran's regional plans, with special emphasis on its relationship to Israel. He says the natural policy of Iran should be as an Israeli ally, but hostility is the result of a desire to lead the Middle East into a grand Islamic alliance, and a need to quell internal religious dissent. He also discusses the regional reactions, and the situation in Iraq. For Taheri's broad overview of Iran's regional goals and plans, CLICK HERE.

Finally, David Harris, Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee, confronts those who argue that a nuclear Iran is not really a problem. He points out the difficulties with casual assumptions that Iran can be deterred given Iran's theological goals, as well as the terrible consequences for the world and the region, even if these assumptions prove correct. For Harris' very lucid argument, CLICK HERE.


Iran's Proxy War

Tehran is on the offensive against us throughout the Middle East. Will Congress respond?


BY JOSEPH LIEBERMAN

Wall Street Journal, Friday, July 6, 2007 12:01 a.m. EDT

Earlier this week, the U.S. military made public new and disturbing information about the proxy war that Iran is waging against American soldiers and our allies in Iraq.

According to Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, the U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, the Iranian government has been using the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah to train and organize Iraqi extremists, who are responsible in turn for the murder of American service members.

Gen. Bergner also revealed that the Quds Force--a special unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps whose mission is to finance, arm and equip foreign Islamist terrorist movements--has taken groups of up to 60 Iraqi insurgents at a time and brought them to three camps near Tehran, where they have received instruction in the use of mortars, rockets, improvised explosive devices and other deadly tools of guerrilla warfare that they use against our troops. Iran has also funded its Iraqi proxies generously, to the tune of $3 million a month.

Based on the interrogation of captured extremist leaders--including a 24-year veteran of Hezbollah, apparently dispatched to Iraq by his patrons in Tehran--Gen. Bergner also reported on Monday that the U.S. military has concluded that "the senior leadership" in Iran is aware of these terrorist activities. He said it is "hard to imagine" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei--Iran's supreme leader--does not know of them.

These latest revelations should be a painful wakeup call to the American people, and to the U.S. Congress. They also expand on a steady stream of public statements over the past six months by David Petraeus, the commanding general of our coalition in Iraq, as well as other senior American military and civilian officials about Iran's hostile and violent role in Iraq. In February, for instance, the U.S. military stated that forensic evidence has implicated Iran in the death of at least 170 U.S. soldiers.

Iran's actions in Iraq fit a larger pattern of expansionist, extremist behavior across the Middle East today. In addition to sponsoring insurgents in Iraq, Tehran is training, funding and equipping radical Islamist groups in Lebanon, Palestine and Afghanistan--where the Taliban now appear to be receiving Iranian help in their war against the government of President Hamid Karzai and its NATO defenders.

While some will no doubt claim that Iran is only attacking U.S. soldiers in Iraq because they are deployed there--and that the solution, therefore, is to withdraw them--Iran's parallel proxy attacks against moderate Palestinians, Afghans and Lebanese directly rebut such claims.

Iran is acting aggressively and consistently to undermine moderate regimes in the Middle East, establish itself as the dominant regional power and reshape the region in its own ideological image. The involvement of Hezbollah in Iraq, just revealed by Gen. Bergner, illustrates precisely how interconnected are the different threats and challenges we face in the region. The fanatical government of Iran is the common denominator that links them together.

No responsible leader in Washington desires conflict with Iran. But every leader has a responsibility to acknowledge the evidence that the U.S. military has now put before us: The Iranian government, by its actions, has all but declared war on us and our allies in the Middle East.

America now has a solemn responsibility to utilize the instruments of our national power to convince Tehran to change its behavior, including the immediate cessation of its training and equipping extremists who are killing our troops.

Most of this work must be done by our diplomats, military and intelligence operatives in the field. But Iran's increasingly brazen behavior also presents a test of our political leadership here at home. When Congress reconvenes next week, all of us who are privileged to serve there should set aside whatever partisan or ideological differences divide us to send a clear, strong and unified message to Tehran that it must stop everything it is doing to bring about the death of American service members in Iraq.

It is of course everyone's hope that diplomacy alone can achieve this goal. Iran's activities inside Iraq were the central issue raised by the U.S. ambassador to Iraq in his historic meeting with Iranian representatives in Baghdad this May. However, as Gen. Bergner said on Monday, "There does not seem to be any follow-through on the commitments that Iran has made to work with Iraq in addressing the destabilizing security issues here." The fact is, any diplomacy with Iran is more likely to be effective if it is backed by a credible threat of force--credible in the dual sense that we mean it, and the Iranians believe it.

Our objective here is deterrence. The fanatical regime in Tehran has concluded that it can use proxies to strike at us and our friends in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Palestine without fear of retaliation. It is time to restore that fear, and to inject greater doubt into the decision-making of Iranian leaders about the risks they are now running.

I hope the new revelations about Iran's behavior will also temper the enthusiasm of some of those in Congress who are advocating the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Iran's purpose in sponsoring attacks on American soldiers, after all, is clear: It hopes to push the U.S. out of Iraq and Afghanistan, so that its proxies can then dominate these states. Tehran knows that an American retreat under fire would send an unmistakable message throughout the region that Iran is on the rise and America is on the run. That would be a disaster for the region and the U.S.

The threat posed by Iran to our soldiers' lives, our security as a nation and our allies in the Middle East is a truth that cannot be wished or waved away. It must be confronted head-on. The regime in Iran is betting that our political disunity in Washington will constrain us in responding to its attacks. For the sake of our nation's security, we must unite and prove them wrong.

Mr. Lieberman is an Independent Democratic senator from Connecticut.

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Iran's Regional Ambitions: Implications for Israel, Iraq, and the Gulf States

Amir Taheri


Jerusalem Issue Brief, Vol. 7, No. 9   10 July 2007

  • Iran's national interest would be to regard Israel as a strategic ally and partner because Iran does not want a Middle East which is entirely Arab. But the Islamic Republic wants to lead the Muslim world, create an Islamic superpower, and save mankind from a Judeo-Christian conspiracy. 
  • Jerusalem contains the al-Aqsa Mosque, but it is a Sunni mosque. Iranians are Shi'ites and cannot pray there because their prayers would not be accepted. So liberating Jerusalem is a totally useless project from an Iranian religious perspective.
  •  The majority of the Shi'ite clergy, in Iran and elsewhere, are against the Iranian regime. There are more Iranian mullahs in prison today than workers or intellectuals. All of the grand ayatollahs are now bitter enemies of the regime because it is a distortion of Shi'ite theology.
  •  Those who are fighting the regime inside Iran are mostly industrial workers, who have been on strike in many areas. Another group fighting the regime is women, who are very active, especially in hundreds of NGOs. The regular Iranian armed forces, as distinct from the Revolutionary Guards, are also unhappy with the present situation.
  • The real issue in Iran is how it can find a way to emerge from its revolutionary experience, keep part of it, discard other parts, and really become a nation state. Once Iran has become a nation state, instead of a country devoted to an abstract cause, then it will display normal behavior and not be an existential threat to anybody.

Defining Iran's National Interests


There are 7 million Azeris in the Republic of Azerbaijan and about 15-18 million Azeris in Iran. Yet, paradoxically, Iran is supporting Armenia against Azerbaijan because the Republic of Azerbaijan is pro-Western and pro-American. The only yardstick that matters for the Islamic Republic is not Iran's national interests, but its enmity toward the United States.

Iran's national interest would be to regard Israel as a strategic ally and partner because Iran does not want a Middle East which is entirely Arab. It is in Iran's interest to have a Middle East in which there are also Persians, Kurds, Turks, Jews, Maronites, Christians, and Copts. If there was no Israel, all the negative energies of Arab chauvinism and pan-Arabism would be directed against Iran.

Israel should normally be Iran's best ally in the region, but the Islamic Republic wants to lead the Muslim world, create an Islamic superpower, and save mankind from a Judeo-Christian conspiracy. Since the Arabs and the Sunni Muslims who are the majority are reluctant to accept Shi'ite Iran as a leader, Iran's response is to tell the Arabs to destroy Israel under Iran's leadership.

The destruction of Israel has thus become a device to avoid any theological discussions. In British mosques, for instance, God makes a cameo appearance every now and then, but the discussions have become entirely political.

Since there are many different Islamic sects and many different interpretations, the best way to prevent dissension is to avoid religion and talk about politics - Israel, Chechnya, Kashmir, the liberation of Andalusia - issues about which all Muslims can agree.

Iran has created a special corps to liberate Jerusalem, but suppose Iran were to actually liberate Jerusalem.  Jerusalem has no natural resources and is of no strategic value. It has the al-Aqsa Mosque, but it is a Sunni mosque. Iranians are Shi'ites and cannot pray there because their prayers would not be accepted. So liberating Jerusalem is a totally useless project from both an Iranian religious and national perspective.

The real issue in Iran is how it can find a way to emerge from its revolutionary experience, keep part of it, discard other parts, and really become a nation state. Once Iran has become a nation state, then it will display normal behavior and not be an existential threat to anybody. A nation state's demands are tangible and quantifiable. They are about borders, sharing water, markets, access to raw materials, influence, security, and geo-politics. The problem with a country devoted to a cause is that a cause is an abstraction. A defender of a cause wants everything and has no interest in negotiations. 

A Moment of Disequilibrium in the Middle East

The status quo in the Middle East has been shattered as a result of the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Now we are in a moment of disequilibrium. The new Middle East will either be an American Middle East - democratic, pluralistic, and capitalistic - or it will be a Khomeinist Middle East. These are two different visions and they are in competition.

Iran's original calculation was to wait until President Bush finishes out his term, but in recent months the leadership of the Islamic Republic seems to have decided that it does not have to wait Bush out - that Bush is already finished and the "good Americans" will soon be back in power. Therefore, the Islamic Republic has gone on the offensive, as can be seen in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. For the first time since 1988, the Islamic Republic navy is stopping ships, seizing British sailors. It is also intensifying attacks on allied forces in parts of Iraq that were not affected by insurgency. The Iranians want to take the credit for themselves (instead of allowing al-Qaeda, or the Baathist remnants to do so) and to proclaim themselves as the leaders of the region.

Everybody in the region is being affected. The Arabs in the Persian Gulf are afraid of even the peaceful use of Iran's nuclear energy because the Iranian nuclear plant is less than 32 kilometers from Kuwait. Polluted water will pour into the Gulf where Kuwaitis get 90 percent of their water through desalination. The nuclear plant has a German design, but it was built by a Russian company, the same company that built the Chernobyl reactor. Also the plant is located in one of the most active earthquake zones in the world. Scientists at Tehran University sent a report to the regime that this was the wrong site for a nuclear plant.

The Arabs, Russians, Europeans, and Pakistanis all assume that if they pressure the Islamic Republic, the Iranians would make a deal with the Americans. They also assume that the Americans will take care of the Iranians if they really get out of hand.

The Saudis have created a group of eight - six Gulf Cooperation Council member states plus Egypt and Jordan. They also created another group of seven with Islamic countries like Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia plus Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan, and for the first time excluded Iran. The Saudis are laying markers for a third vision of the Middle East, one that would be different from the American and Iranian visions. 

Fighting the Iranian Regime

The majority of the Shi'ite clergy, in Iran and elsewhere, are against the Iranian regime. There are more Iranian mullahs in prison today than workers or intellectuals. Of all the grand ayatollahs, the last one who was still cooperating with the regime until the 1980s was Montazeri, who was supposed to be Khomeini's successor. They are now all bitter enemies of the regime because it is a distortion of Shi'ite theology.

One can help the Iranian people by helping those who are fighting the regime inside Iran. These are mostly Iranian industrial workers, who have been on strike in many areas. The Islamic Republic wants to introduce a new labor code which they call Islamic, but it is really slavery in which the worker has absolutely no rights.

Another group fighting the regime is women, who are very active, especially in hundreds of NGOs. Segments of Iranian society such as legal and medical associations, who elect their own leaders, have liberated themselves in some degree from the regime. The regular Iranian armed forces, as distinct from the Revolutionary Guards, are also unhappy with the present situation.

The forces in Iran that are represented as revolutionary are shallow, and they maintain their power because they control the instruments of coercion - they can kill people, and they control the oil money. They have 3-5 million people linked to them through the distribution of favors.

Iraq: Situation Not as Bad as People Think

The Americans achieved all their objectives in the war in Iraq: they toppled Saddam Hussein and broke his war machine. The Iraqis wrote a constitution, held elections, and did what was necessary to create a new system. In terms of war aims, this has been a very successful war.

If things are going badly in Iraq, the Iraqis will start leaving in droves. Indeed, many Sunnis have left Iraq and are becoming new refugees in Jordan and Syria. At the same time, many Shi'ites and Kurds have returned to Iraq.

When things are going badly in Iraq, the flow of pilgrims to the holy shrines in Najaf and Karbala slows down. According to this criterion, the situation in Iraq is good because since the liberation, Iraq has hosted some 12 million pilgrims from all over the world, for the first time since the late 1980s. It makes Iraq the number one tourist destination in the Middle East. In addition, the Iraqi dinar has been appreciating against both the Iranian rial and the Kuwaiti dinar.

Iraqi agriculture has made a comeback and for the first time since the 1950s Iraq is self-sufficient in food after peasants reclaimed their lands and started growing on it. They are even exporting a lot of food to Iran. Furthermore, the appearance of thousands of small businesses everywhere shows that the situation in Iraq is not as bad as people think.

Amir Taheri, an Iranian-born journalist and author based in Europe, was executive editor-in-chief of Kayhan, Iran's main daily newspaper, from 1972 to 1979. Between 1980 and 1984 he was Middle East editor for the London Sunday Times. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on April 18, 2007.


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In the Trenches: Why Iran's nuclear ambitions matter

by David Harris

Jerusalem Post, June 29 2007; 11:06AM

Of all the issues that vie in keeping me awake at night, the prospect of an Iranian nuclear bomb tops the list, hands down. And yet I’m struck by those who have concluded, for whatever reason, that a nuclear Iran is a manageable proposition. I’ve encountered this view among some elected representatives, religious leaders and military officials, especially in Europe but also in the US. And it’s been expressed publicly.  

Take Professor Stephen Walt of Harvard University and Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, who, incidentally, have famously deemed the “Israel lobby” to be the true enemy. They wrote: “If Washington could live with a nuclear Soviet Union, a nuclear China or even a nuclear North Korea, it can live with a nuclear Iran.” 

Or media personality Ted Koppel: “If Iran is bound and determined to have nuclear weapons, let it. The elimination of American opposition on this issue would open the way to genuine normalization between our two countries.”  

Or a Texas Congressman: “Iran does not have a nuclear weapon and there’s no evidence that she is working on one – only conjecture.” 

Or former French president Jacques Chirac, referring to Iran (and only later trying to distance himself from his own comment) : “Having one or perhaps a second bomb a little later, that’s not very dangerous…Where will it drop it, this bomb? On Israel? It would not have gone 200 meters into the atmosphere before Tehran would be razed.”  

I suppose I should envy them. After all, wouldn’t it be reassuring to believe that Iran’s nuclear program has no credibility, against the backdrop of the intelligence failure in Iraq? Or that an Iran with nuclear weapons capability would behave no differently than, say, France, Great Britain or, for that matter, China or the USSR? Or that any possible Iranian threat could easily be contained? 

But such views may be shortsighted, indeed, perhaps, delusional.  

All the major intelligence services agree that Iran is determined to defy the will of the international community and enrich weapons-grade uranium. If there’s any disagreement, it’s only on the timetable. But whether it’s two years from now or five, the day is coming. 

And, of course, the history of intelligence suggests that it’s an imperfect science, to say the least. Yes, it can overstate a problem, as in the case of Iraq in 2003 or, in the 1980s, the domestic cohesion and strength of the USSR. But it can also understate or, worse, entirely miss, emerging dangers.  

President Harry Truman wrote in his memoirs that he had been told the Soviet Union would not detonate its first atom bomb until 1952, but it managed to do so in 1949. General Douglas MacArthur assured President Truman that China had no intention of entering the Korean War—and was proven dead wrong. Israel, of course, was caught off guard by the 1973 Egyptian and Syrian attack. To fast forward, the US intelligence community, despite its access to previously unimaginable technological advancements and an annual budget estimated in the tens of billions, was caught flat-footed on the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests. And our rather limited grasp of North Korean nuclear violations after the 1994 accord doesn’t offer much in the way of reassurance. 

Why should the world be so concerned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions? Here are three reasons:  

First, Iran might actually use a bomb or make it available, in some form, to one of its non-state proxies. 

To those who reply that Iran wouldn’t do so because of the consequences, that answer assumes there would be consequences—and that Iranian leaders themselves are convinced  that retaliation would be the inevitable result. And it further assumes that Iran cares.  

Any nation driven by rational thinking, of course, would care. But if it’s driven by something else, in this case a well-defined theology, it might not be as concerned. Perhaps it might even welcome the conflagration. 

Consider the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980 to 1988. As was reported in The New Republic, “[Ayatollah] Khomeini sent Iranian children, some as young as twelve years old, to the front lines. There, they marched in formation across minefields toward the enemy, clearing a path with their bodies.” They each carried a plastic key that was “supposed to open the gates to paradise for them.” Tens of thousands of children, if not more, went to their deaths in this manner, while their parents accepted, if not welcomed, the “martyrdom” of their offspring.  

And consider the Iranian president’s belief in the Shi'ite principle that true Islamic rule can only unfold following the reappearance of the so-called Twelfth Imam. That will be hastened by confrontation between the forces of “good” and “evil.” 

Second, as Iran moves closer to crossing the threshold toward nuclear weapons capability, it will inevitably trigger a new round of proliferation in the region. It is unimaginable that other countries would simply sit by idly without seeking to shore up their own deterrent. In fact, some countries have all but said as much.  

Such a spiraling arms race in this critically important—and dangerously unstable—part of the world could have devastating consequences regionally and beyond. 

And third, the experience of North Korea is a sobering reminder that a country doesn’t necessarily have to use nuclear weapons (assuming it has them, and Pyongyang has managed to convince the world it does) to flex its muscles and hold the international community at bay.  

A nuclear-armed Iran—at the epicenter of the world’s most strategically vital region, sitting on much of the world’s oil and gas reserves, and abutting the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the world’s oil supplies pass—would, in a word, be a global nightmare. 

That’s why the world cannot succumb to complacency on the Iranian issue, or fatalistic resignation about the inevitability of an Iranian bomb, or certainty that a nuclear Iran would abide by the rules, so to speak, of the Cold War, and thus pose no special threat to the international order.   Much more can be done to ratchet up the diplomatic, political, economic and financial pressure on Iran, with the goal of changing Iran’s cost-benefit calculus of its current course. The country is vulnerable to outside pressure, insofar as it’s heavily dependent on external links. Its people may not be ready to accept isolation as a possible consequence of its leaders’ bellicose ambitions. But to have any chance of success, this will require stepped-up international cooperation.  

Look at the recent riots in Iran prompted by the official rationing of gasoline, a step taken by the government prompted by fear of more sanctions. This is only the latest sign of a country that may be less cohesive, less united, than its leaders wish the world to believe. Rampant corruption, high unemployment, capital outflows, political dissent and social unrest all contribute to an increasingly strained society. 

We may not hold all the cards in this extraordinarily complex face-off, far from it, but our hand is not nearly as weak – nor Iran’s as strong – as some would have us believe. Between those who assert that the only choices are a military strike or throwing in the towel, there remains a vast space that still has not been fully explored.

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