Published on Thursday, August 26, 2004 by the International Herald Tribune
An 'October Surprise'? Neocons have Iran in their Sights
by William Pfaff
An American presidential election campaign is an invitation to adventure. The candidates themselves - especially when they're sitting presidents - are tempted to produce October surprises to scare or stampede the electorate.
There has been much speculation about an October surprise this year. The American public, however, has grown cynical about terrorist scares and would need a pretty convincing one to overcome the skepticism provoked by the Bush administration's past exploitations of the terrorism risk, notably around the Democratic National Convention.
What about something that increases the violence in the Middle East? It is hard to imagine that the administration wants more trouble in the region since it is far from mastering the Iraq insurrection.
But one theory says that making the war bigger would make it better for U.S. forces, since what is going on now is "the wrong kind of war."
The U.S. has troops and tools for "real" wars, the kinds it wins, and should move on from today's disastrous affair of suicide bombers and kids with rocket-launchers.
The temperature has been rising between Washington and Iran over the latter's alleged efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Some former U.S. officials concerned with Middle Eastern policy suggest that when President George W. Bush must eventually explain what has gone wrong in Iraq, it might be convenient to blame Iran.
Bush could accuse Iran of fostering the Islamic extremism responsible for U.S. frustration in Najaf and elsewhere, and of encouraging Shiite resistance to the occupation force and the new Iraq government the United States is trying to install. Blaming Iran would be a step up the escalation ladder.
This scenario includes the possibility that escalation could get out of hand.
Pressure has already increased for "pre-emption" of Iran's nuclear-power program. The extent of Tehran's project has yet to be fully exposed to international inspection, but Iran's enemies insist it includes a covert nuclear military program.
And once again, this is a prominent theme of neoconservative publicists and organizations in Washington. The neoconservative godfather Norman Podhoretz put it suggestively in an interview last week: "I am not advocating the invasion of Iran at this moment, although. ..." Another moment will undoubtedly be along soon.
Israel has an interest in promoting, if not exaggerating, Iran's supposed strategic threat to the United States. Iran already threatens Israel's interest in remaining the unchallenged military power of the region.
The attack on Iraq had exactly the opposite result of what Israel expected. America's invasion of what was once considered the most powerful state in the Arab world, generally believed to possess weapons of mass destruction, turned into a fiasco.
Powerful Iraq is no more. But there is no sign of the peaceful and pro-American Iraq that was supposed to emerge from the invasion. That new Iraq was supposed to provide permanent military bases for the United States, recognize Israel and become a friend to Jerusalem, as well as to Washington. The invasion's advocates promised that the road to Israeli-Palestinian settlement ran through Baghdad.
Instead, what has come out of the Iraq invasion could strengthen Iran. Saddam Hussein's Iraq, after all, was Iran's enemy. It is now gone. The new Iraq could easily fall under the control of its Shiite majority and become Iran's ally, or possibly even an Iranian client-state. That is not what Israel wanted.
What can be done now?
Israel reportedly contemplates a unilateral attack on Iran's nuclear installations. It would want America's permission, so it needs to get it while it is sure Bush is president.
The recent decision in Israel to distribute antiradiation kits to people living in areas that might be contaminated by "an accident" at its own nuclear weapons facility is aimed at American opinion. The indirect message is that Israel is preparing for an Iranian attack on Israel's nuclear weapons manufacturing installations; hence, pre-emption is necessary.
Israel's basic position is forthright and simple to understand. Iran, like Iraq before it, is a major - and hostile - neighboring Islamic state. If the danger it potentially presents can be removed without disproportionate political or military costs, Israel - under Ariel Sharon - will probably do it.
The American case against Iran is entirely different. Its rests on the neoconservative notion that every society instinctively yearns to become an American-style democracy, and would do so if its despotic leaders were removed, by force if necessary. As the world's leading democracy, the United States has an obligation to propagate democracy. Overturning despots is therefore a duty, and the result will be a better world. The argument, of course, is familiar: It is why the United States invaded Iraq.
Copyright © 2004 the International Herald Tribune