As US troops begin their “surge” into Baghdad, the Bush administration is preparing a scapegoat for the failure of this latest escalation: Iran.
After weeks of hints, a “dodgy dossier” accusing Tehran of supplying weapons to Iraqi insurgents was finally presented in Baghdad on 11 February (but no paperwork was handed over, reporters weren't allowed cameras or tape recorders, and the three US presenters insisted on anonymity). On the one hand, the briefers said the “highest levels” of the Iranian government were involved in supplying Shia insurgents with extremely effective roadside bombs and other bombs. (This accusation leads naturally to the position that the US must attack Iran in order to “defend” US soldiers in Iraq from Iranian weapons.)
On the other hand, the “senior defence analyst” making the Baghdad presentation also said there was “no smoking gun” evidence linking the weapons to the Iranian government. (No “quality” British newspaper reported this crucial admission.) This was admitted by the head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace.
The evidence doesn't (so far) support any of the accusations against Tehran, but the US public is getting the impression that Shia Iran is behind the Iraqi insurgency (which is overwhelmingly Sunni, anti-Shia and anti-Iran).
In fact, Iran's closest allies in Iraq, such as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), are part of the Iraqi government, and largely cooperating with the occupation.
The provocation is coming from the US, with raids on Iranian offices in Iraq, the seizing of Iranian diplomats there, the presidential order to capture or kill Iranian suspected “agents” in Iraq, the deployment of a second naval battle group to the Gulf (for the first time since the 2003 invasion of Iraq), and threats from Bush himself.
The intention seems to be to provoke Tehran into aggressive statements or actions. Instead the Iranians, including the usually fiery President Ahmadinejad, are toning down the rhetoric, and showing signs of a willingness to negotiate.
In May 2003, a “grand bargain” was proposed by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (Khamanei, not Ahmadinejad, is in charge of Iran's foreign policy). Iran offered support in stabilising Iraq, decisive action against terrorists (above all, al-Qaeda) in Iranian territory, tighter international controls on its nuclear programme, a two-state approach to Israel-Palestine, an end to material support for armed Palestinian groups, and pressure on Hamas and Hezbollah to become political rather than military organisations.
In return, Iran wanted a number of concessions from the US, the most important of which was a “security guarantee” removing the threat of US military action.
The bargain is still on the table; the diplomatic path still lies open. It could start now with the three month “time out” proposed by Mohammed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The international community would freeze the imposition of stringent sanctions, and Iran would suspend its nuclear programme, including its uranium enrichment, creating the opportunity for direct negotiations between the US and Iranian governments.
The “time out” has been rejected by Bush (with Blair's tacit support), but not by Ayatollah Khamanei, whose representatives merely asked for more time to consider the proposal.
There's much discussion about the US timetable for war, with warnings that there might be a US strike this spring. My own reading is that while we should mobilise against an attack, it's not likely for the next six months. Noam Chomsky says: “I still think, despite everything, that the US is very unlikely to attack Iran.” An assault could be a huge catastrophe. Only an administration that's really desperate would resort to such a thing. He adds, however, “But if the Democratic candidates are on the verge of winning the election, the administration is going to be desperate.”