WASHINGTON - With Iraq under U.S. occupation and Syria shaken by a series of high-level threats from the administration here, Iran is now looming as a major target for U.S. pressure.
With officials in Washington talking darkly about ''Iranian agents'' crossing the border into Iraq to foment trouble for the U.S. occupation, a leading neo-conservative strategist Monday said the United States is already in a ''death struggle'' with Teheran, and he urged the administration of President George W. Bush to ''take the fight to Iran'', through ''covert operations'', among other measures.
The appeal by the chief editor of 'The Weekly Standard', William Kristol, followed last week's surprise announcement that U.S. military forces had signed a surrender agreement with rebel Iranian forces based in Iraq that permits them to retain their weapons and equipment, including tanks, despite their formal designation by the State Department as a terrorist group.
The agreement between the military and the Mujahadeen Khalq sparked speculation that Washington may deploy the group, which had been supported by Baghdad for more than 20 years, against Teheran or its allies in Iraq, despite its terrorist tactics.
''The liberation of Iraq was the first great battle for the future of the Middle East,'' wrote Kristol in the Standard's latest issue. ''The next great battle - not, we hope, a military battle - will be for Iran. We are already in a death struggle with Iran over the future of Iraq,'' added the editor, who is closely associated with Richard Perle and other neo-conservatives in the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board (DPB).
Women fighters of the People's Mujahideen practice artillery gun drills at the Ashraf base, the Iranian militia's largest compound in Iraq, 100 kilometers from the border with Iran, May 2, 2003. The U.S. military bombed Mujahideen at the beginning of its war to oust Saddam Hussein but has now signed a cease-fire with the group that it labels a 'terrorist organization'. REUTERS/Petr Josek
Kristol's blast reflects the ongoing and increasingly intense policy debate within the administration between hawks centred in the Defense Department and Vice President Dick Cheney's office on the one hand and ''realists'' in the State Department and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on the other.
The Islamic government in Teheran, long accused by Washington of being the word's most active supporter of international terrorism, primarily due to its backing for Lebanon's Hezbollah, has been a particular target for neo-conservatives like Kristol, who see it as the greatest long-term threat to Israel, especially now that Baghdad is in U.S. hands.
In an open letter to Bush sent on Sep. 20, 2001 - just nine days after the Sep. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the influential Project for the New American Century (PNAC), chaired by Kristol, called for Washington to deliver an ultimatum to both Syria and Iran demanding a halt to their support for Hezbollah.
''Should Iran and Syria refuse to comply, the administration should consider appropriate measures of retaliation against these known state sponsors of terrorism,'' urged the letter, whose agenda for the anti-terrorist campaign so far has been followed in virtually each detail, from the ouster of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam in Iraq, to the cutting off of U.S. support for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
In fact, intelligence reports claim that supplies to Hezbollah have fallen off fairly sharply in the last year, but the neo-conservatives and other hawks are now claiming that Teheran is determined to make Washington's stay in Iraq difficult.
Despite informal but relatively high-level diplomatic contacts between the two countries - which broke off formal ties after the U.S. embassy seizure in Teheran in late 1979 - in the run-up to the war, the hawks are claiming that Iran failed to co-operate during the actual hostilities and is now actively undermining U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq.
In an article appearing in last week's 'The New Republic', Eli Lake, a reporter with close ties to administration hardliners, claimed that Iran has not only provided safe haven to a number of Iraqi and Islamist fugitives wanted by Washington, but has also planned to infiltrate its own paramilitary units to create confusion on the ground.
In addition, U.S. media reports for the past two weeks have been filled with assertions about ''Iranian agents'' in the Shiite community in Iraq whose goal is to back local clerics in a bid to create an ''Iranian-style Islamic Republic''. Shiites constitute about 60 percent of Iraq's population.
Their main instrument for this effort, according to the accounts, is the Teheran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (SCIRI) headed by Abdulaziz Hakim and his brother Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir Hakim. They have been coy about their participation in U.S. efforts to establish an Iraqi governing council over the next month.
Kristol's article reflects the thinking of a number of neo-conservative strategists who have been arguing virtually since Sep. 11 that the Iranian people, especially the youth, are ready to rise up against the mullahs, including the reformists led by President Mohammed Khatami, the minute Washington installs a secular, democratic government next door in Iraq.
”The theocrats ruling Iran understand that the stakes are now double or nothing,'' according to Kristol. ''They can stay in power by disrupting efforts to create a pluralist, non-theocratic, Shia-majority state next door - or they can fail, as success in Iraq sounds the death knell for the Iranian revolution.''
The hawks have been encouraged in that view by much of the Iranian exile community, according to Gary Sick, a Columbia University expert who served on the National Security Council under the Carter administration.
''The argument among the American ayatollahs (of conservatism) is that the only solution for Iran is to get rid of the regime,'' says Sick.
”They say that the Iranian people are ready to rise up, the regime is about to collapse, but people in Iran say this is just nonsense. The situation in Iran was far more unsettled in 1999 than it is now,'' added Sick, who noted that suspicions among Iranians that Washington is already trying to manipulate the internal situation is ”complicating the life of (Iran's) reformers''.
The fact that prominent neo-conservatives closely tied to administration hawks are now calling for covert action against Teheran, combined with the surrender accord with the Mujahadeen, is likely to fuel those suspicions and will, in any case, make it far more difficult for forces with influence in Iran to press for co-operation with Washington.
Sick said he was ''totally surprised'' by the surrender accord, whose details have still not been released. ''The notion that we would join forces with (the Mujahadeen) really undercuts the whole idea of our war on terrorism,'' he noted, and will preclude ''any kind of working arrangement with Iran''.
But Kristol and his comrades in and out of the administration insist that there is no point in working with Teheran anyway and much to be gained by helping oust the ''theocrats''.
''Iran is the tipping point in the war on proliferation, the war on terror, and the effort to reshape the Middle East. If Iran goes pro-Western and anti-terror, positive changes in Syria and Saudi Arabia will follow much more easily. And the chances for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement will greatly improve,'' wrote Kristol.
Copyright © 2003 IPS-Inter Press Service