|Iran sounds an awful lot like Iraq
There is a disturbing sense of dιjΰ vu in Washington's actions and rhetoric.
By Jon Sawyer / op-ed / L.A. TIMES
Jon Sawyer is director of the Washington-based Pulitzer Center on
Crisis Reporting. He has reported from Iran and throughout the Middle
October 29, 2006
AN EMBATTLED president, a Congress distracted by a sex scandal,
looming midterm elections and yet overwhelming agreement, with scant
debate or publicity, on fateful legislation that set the nation on a
path to war.
It happened eight autumns ago, when three-quarters of the House of
Representatives and every single senator voted for regime change in
Has it happened again, on Iran?
Four weeks ago, Congress enacted and President Bush signed the Iran
Freedom Support Act, a resolution very much in the spirit of the 1998
Iraq Liberation Act. It mandates sanctions against any country aiding
Iran's nuclear programs, even those to which that country is legally
entitled under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
The new law got virtually no coverage in the congressional rush to
adjourn and amid the controversy surrounding e-mails between Rep. Mark
Foley (R-Fla.) and teenage boys serving in the House page program. It
has been overshadowed since by North Korea's explosion of a nuclear
device and the world's debate about how to respond.
But if the confrontation over Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program
ends in war initiated by this administration or the next you can
bet this law will be cited as proof that Congress was onboard all
The congressional action isn't the only sign of dιjΰ vu. Recent months
have seen the creation of an "Iran directorate" at the Pentagon, using
some of the same personnel as the Office of Special Plans, the shadowy
Pentagon outfit led by former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy
Douglas J. Feith that was accused of massaging raw intelligence on
Iraq to make the case for war look far more solid than in fact it was.
Iran has now supplanted Iraq as the greatest single threat to the
United States, according to the National Security Strategy released
earlier this year. Articles in the New Yorker and Time describe an
accelerated rate of contingency military planning in an environment in
which many senior officials on the military and civilian sides
consider war with Iran more a question of when rather than if.
As in the run-up to the Iraq war, there are assertions of a broad
consensus of experts' views that Iran is intent on developing a
nuclear weapons capability; and, just as in 2003, there are muted
voices questioning how definitive the evidence is. (The most recent
National Intelligence Estimate found that Iran's progress toward
weapons capability was actually slower than previously thought, and
Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte says that, in his
view, Iran is still four to nine years away from having the bomb.)
Once again, U.S. officials are discounting the work of U.N. weapons
inspectors on site, and, once again, those inspectors and the
agencies for which they work are saying that the best way to contain
the nuclear threat is to keep them in place.
"People confuse knowledge, industrial capacity and intention," Mohamed
ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told
Newsweek magazine in an interview last week. "A lot of what you see
about Iran right now is assessment of intentions."
He and other IAEA officials warn that the Bush administration's
hard-line suspicions of Iran could make reading those intentions even
harder. Tehran has already suspended IAEA access to some nuclear
facilities and could expel the international inspectors entirely. It
happened in Iraq in 1998 and the vacuum that followed made possible
ever-more speculative estimates as to Iraq's imagined progress toward
fielding weapons of mass destruction.
The run-up to possible war is also marked, yet again, by the absence
of firsthand knowledge of the enemy.
The war to topple Saddam Hussein came 12 years after the rupture of
diplomatic relations, with U.S. policymakers dependent on questionable
exile groups long removed from direct knowledge of conditions inside
the country. In the case of Iran, the gap is longer still nearly 27
years since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized power.
Assistant Secretary of State R. Nicholas Burns announced earlier this
year that State Department diplomats would be based in Dubai and
elsewhere in the Middle East and Europe to monitor Iran, in a move he
likened to Riga Station, the Latvian capital where, during the 1920s
and 1930s, diplomats such as George Kennan kept tabs on the Soviet
Union. The effort comes late. As Burns himself acknowledged, as
recently as early last year, "there were exactly two people focusing
full time on Iran" at the State Department.
To be sure, war with Iran is nowhere near as inevitable as the
neoconservative proponents of aggressive action would make it appear.
The U.S. military is mired in Iraq. The combination of vast oil
reserves and 70 million people make Iran a formidable adversary, one
that has shown itself more than willing to rely on groups such as
Hezbollah or Hamas to wage terrorism on the United States, Israel and
allied nations. Here at home, meanwhile, public opinion surveys show
little appetite for another go at preventive war.
In the face of those hurdles, and the acknowledged gaps in proven
facts, it is remarkable that the neoconservative handmaidens of the
Iraq war are so assertive on Iran, as to the inevitability of war and
the rightness of waging it.
Last April, the Weekly Standard ran an article nearly 8,000 words long
laying out the case for war, why diplomacy and sanctions are doomed to
fail and why letting Tehran actualize its nuclear weapons potential
would be more threatening to the U.S. and to the world than the
consequences of whatever it takes even land invasion on the scale of
Iraq to prevent that from happening. The article's author was Reuel
Marc Gerecht, a former CIA Middle East specialist and resident fellow
at the American Enterprise Institute who has a record of being
articulate, confident and in the case of Iraq wrong.
An issue brief that Gerecht wrote for the American Enterprise
Institute in August 2002 predicted that the U.S. invasion of Iraq
would likely prompt "simultaneous uprisings" by freedom-seeking
Iranians. A November 2002 column dismissed concerns that war with Iraq
would destabilize the Middle East. "The one truly unsettling thing a
second Persian Gulf war might unleash," Gerecht wrote, "is Iraqi
democracy." In February 2003, he brushed aside concerns that the Iraq
war might inspire acts of terrorism by Muslims in Europe. "The coming
war in Iraq," he wrote, "will probably diminish, not enhance, the odds
that young Muslim males will become holy warriors
But at a time when a majority of Americans have turned against the
Iraq war, when Bush's long advantage on national security issues is
under fire and when Democrats dream of wresting control of not just
the House of Representatives but the Senate too, the most
extraordinary parallel to the pre-Iraq-war environment is that so many
Democrats have given the administration a vote on Iran that amounts to
yet another blank-check endorsement of U.S. unilateralism even as
diplomats struggle in New York to craft a multilateral approach to
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) voted for the Iran Freedom Support
Act. So did House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). So did all but 21
members of the House and every member of the Senate, which approved
the measure by unanimous voice vote.
The law they backed codifies existing U.S. sanctions against Iran
and extends those sanctions to any countries or companies deemed to
have aided Iran in the development or acquisition of nuclear weapons
or of "destabilizing numbers and types" of advanced conventional
weapons. It states the sense of Congress that the United States shall
not enter into any form of cooperation with the government of any
country that so aids Iran, unless and until Iran has suspended all
uranium enrichment-related and reprocessing-related nuclear activity
and has "committed to verifiably refrain from such activity in the
future" even though such activities are permitted under the terms of
the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Democrats who voted for the measure were at pains to distinguish it
from the Iraq Liberation Act, noting, for example, that the
legislation specifically rejected military aid to opponents of Iran's
current government, and that it calls for Iran's "democratic
transformation," not regime change. Among those who favor both,
however, this is seen as little more than a wink and a nod.
Michael Ledeen, an American Enterprise Institute scholar, has beaten
the Iran war drums for years. He told the House International
Relations Committee in testimony last March that he was untroubled
that the new law stops short of explicitly calling for regime change.
"People are just afraid of coming out and using the language," he
said. "You cannot have freedom in Iran without bringing down the
mullahs, so what are we talking about?"
In 1998, the Clinton administration went along with the Iraq
Liberation Act reluctantly, fearing that the law's stark anti-Saddam
Hussein line would tie its hands. Republican leaders were demanding a
tough line, and Democrats, facing midterm elections in the shadow of
President Clinton's pending impeachment, were eager to go along.
For all its bellicose rhetoric on Iran, the Bush administration
appeared to have similar reservations about the Iran Freedom Support
Act. It staved off congressional action for more than a year,
contending that mandatory sanctions would short-circuit the delicate
diplomacy of taking Iran to the U.N. Security Council. To critics
within the administration, the law raised the specter of U.S.
unilateralism at a moment when Washington needed allies more than
The administration eventually gave in to congressional insistence on
tough talk not just from Republicans but from Democrats, the latter
seizing the chance to draw a foreign policy red line while at the same
time assailing Bush for wasting lives and dollars in Iraq.
Smart politics? Most Republicans and most Democrats appear to believe
that it is that it's a good idea to take Iran off the table, to make
sure it doesn't figure as an issue in the Nov. 7 elections. It's
reminiscent of the decision many of them made before the midterms in
1998 and again in 2002, when the bipartisan vote authorizing use of
force against Iraq made the looming war almost a nonissue in that
year's midterm elections.
Maybe this time, on Iran, someone will yet decide that it's worth
taking the debate to the people.