Storm Warnings in the Gulf What Does Bush Have Planned for Iran?

When it comes to Iran, the rhetoric coming out of Washington has become noticeably sharper in recent weeks. A naval battle group has also been deployed to the Gulf. A prelude to a military strike?

By Ralf Hoppe, Georg Mascolo and

To dampen the noise coming from their forbidden gathering, the hosts have pushed a clothes rack, heavily laden with winter coats, in front of their apartment door. The windows are covered with blankets. In the apartment, young women dance with young men, the whisky is from America and the red wine from Armenia. It's the sort of affair that can get you into a lot of trouble in Tehran.

The USS John C. Stennis left for the Persian Gulf over the weekend.

The USS John C. Stennis left for the Persian Gulf over the weekend.

The party is in an apartment on Vanak Square in one of Tehran's more exclusive northern neighborhoods. The guests, ranging in age from 20 to 35, are liberal and pro-Western. The hosts are siblings, both single, and they still live with their parents. But mom and dad are away in Europe for two weeks; the mood is festive.

Half of the alcohol is gone within the first half hour. The host appears with a tray of fruit juices and offers it apologetically to her guests. The more threatening the country's policies, says one young women, the more she and likeminded young Iranians are likely to party. But then she says that she prefers not to talk about politics. It would spoil the atmosphere.

But politics are difficult to avoid, and in the kitchen it has become the subject of the evening: American threats; the risk of an Israeli bomb attack; and the risk of war. "If that happens," says one man, "the country will unite and it will make Ahmadinejad even stronger." All the guests approve of the Iranian president's policies, but not his rhetoric. They say that the United States is acting arrogantly and blindly by assuming that the Iranians are acting purely with malicious intent. "The Americans are conducting a disastrous war of aggression in Iraq," says an architect, "and we are supposed to be the axis of evil?"

Sharpened its tone

In the wake of Ahmadinejad's most recent verbal attacks on Israel and the United States, Washington has indeed sharpened its tone and begun an ominous game of saber rattling in the region. In December, after a hiatus of several months, a US Navy unit led by the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower began cruising in the Persian Gulf once again. The unit will be joined in late January by the USS John C. Stennis, which led a group of aircraft carriers in November maneuvers to simulate "the support of a newly elected government against an ongoing insurgency." According to the USS Stennis Web site, "the operations are taking place against the background of growing internal and global tension resulting from a neighboring country’s nuclear ambitions."

A buildup of US aircraft carriers in the Gulf has happened five times in the last 15 years: at the beginning of the 1991 Gulf war; leading up to the "Operation Desert Strike" in 1996; prior to "Operation Desert Fox" in 1998; in the spring of 2003; and today. In only one of these cases was a buildup on this scale not followed by a military strike: in early May 1998, when the Iraqi regime temporarily accepted the conditions imposed by the United Nations Security Council.

The replacement of army General John Abizaid, a staunch opponent of military action against Iran, as the commander of US forces in the Middle East was announced in early January. And in mid-January, the Pentagon announced that it had supplied US allies Kuwait and Qatar with the latest version of its Patriot air defense system. The US Navy Expeditionary Strike Group 2, or ESG 2, will be deployed to Bahrain in February.

"Material support for attacks on American troops"

Observers in the Middle East are worried about the US's growing unwillingness to compromise when it comes to Iran and its ally Syria. In explaining his new strategy for the Middle East, President Bush said that the regimes in Tehran and Damascus are allowing terrorists and insurgents to enter Iraq, and that Iran, in particular, is "providing material support for attacks on American troops."

Bush's tough talk has been followed by action. US troops have arrested Iranians in Iraq four times in the space of three weeks, including arrests made inside the residential compound of influential Shiite leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim. Two weeks ago they stormed an Iranian liaison office in Arbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdish Autonomous Region.

What exactly the Iranians are suspected of having done remains disturbingly vague, especially when measured against the political significance of arresting Iranian diplomats. Washington, though, suspects Iran of helping finance, train and arm terrorists inside Iraq.

The Americans aren't the only ones with such suspicions. As early as the autumn of 2005, the British in southern Iraq found two unexploded bombs that could be traced to Iran. The British claimed that the bombs' infrared-guided, armor-piercing warheads were developed by Hezbollah in Lebanon and delivered to Shiite militias in Iraq via the Iranian revolutionary guards. The British were also convinced that the Iranians were training large numbers of Iraqi fighters in camps across the border in Iran.

Mortal enemies of the Sunnis

However, the assertion that Iran is not only supporting Shiite militias in Iraq's religious war, but is also responsible for the deaths of American soldiers raises a question. The US military continues to face its heaviest casualties in the Sunni triangle, where it is primarily fighting against the al-Qaida terrorist organization and supporters of the regime of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Why should Iran be providing both of these groups with weapons? After all, they are both Sunni groups and as such are the mortal enemies of Iran and its Shiite allies.

US Vice President Richard Cheney has said that Iran is simply "fishing in troubled waters." Outgoing US Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte told the US Senate last week that Tehran "regards its ability to conduct terrorist operations abroad as a key element of its national security strategy."

No one denies that weapons of Iranian origin are constantly turning up in Iraq. The Kurds, in particular, are doing a steady trade with Iran, including illegal weapons shipments across the border. How much of that trade consists purely of smuggled goods and how much of it is deliberate support for the insurgency is a matter of speculation.

But even Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has wondered aloud why Iranians would want to incite unrest in Iraq given that Shiites are already in power. His comments hinted at the dilemma into which Washington has maneuvered itself, caught as it is between Baghdad, Tehran and Riyadh. Iran was the first neighbor to recognize the Iraqi postwar government, which it supports officially to this day. It is America's Sunni allies in the region who are most adamantly opposed to Shiite dominance in Iraq.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has refused to back down in the face of American and United Nations pressure.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has refused to back down in the face of American and United Nations pressure.

This opposition was reflected in the half-hearted reaction by the foreign ministers of the six Gulf states, Egypt, and Jordan to Bush's speech on Iraq last week. The communiqué they issued after meeting with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Kuwait is a study in Arab diplomacy. It supports the "principle of non-interference" in other countries' internal affairs and, without directly naming Iran or the United States, warns against turning Iraq into a "battleground for regional and international powers."

The Arab Sunnis, though fearful of Iran's aggressive posturing, no longer seem to trust their American protectors.

"Storm warnings"

But what does the Bush administration's strategy on Iran amount to? While commentators in the region are issuing what Dubai's Gulf News calls initial "storm warnings," Americans still try to sell their military buildup as an attempt to intimidate the Iranians. The White House hopes to unnerve Iran and encourage realists in Tehran to oppose President Ahmadinejad. The Americans' message to their archenemy is that even a weakened United States will not leave the region without a fight.

But is the message being heard? Mohammed Atrianfar, publisher of Tehran's leading reformist newspaper Shargh and a close associate of former President Mohammed Khatami, says that American threats have forced Iranians into a "trap between the fury of their own government and the fury of the Americans. There is not a single Iranian who is not in favor of the peaceful use of nuclear energy. We are all behind that."

According to Atrianfar, the country -- and the government -- is not nearly as unified as it appears to be under President Ahmadinejad. "A government is like an iceberg. You don't see most of it," says Atrianfar.

He could be right. Something unusual happened in Tehran during Ahmadinejad's recent trip to South America. A number of newspapers allied with the country's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, voiced their criticism of the president's unwillingness to compromise, both on the issue of nuclear energy and with respect to the UN. Ahmadinejad's intransigence, they wrote, is hurting the country economically.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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