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Story Publication logo September 30, 2006

Iran Sounds an Awful Lot Like Iraq


Jon Sawyer is the director of the Washington-based Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. He has reported from Iran and throughout the Middle East.

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 Iraq.

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 along.

The congressional action isn't the only sign of déjà 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 Iran.

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 ever.

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.

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