[Marxism] The US meddles aggressively in Iran (Le Monde Diplomatique)

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Mon Oct 8 09:40:57 MDT 2007

Le Monde diplomatique

October 2007


The US meddles aggressively in Iran

Despite the disaster of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Bush
administration wants not just to deter Iran's nuclear ambitions but
maybe even to overthrow the Islamic Republic. It has already
authorised `non-lethal' action within Iran and helped separatist
groups. But instead of supporting the country's democratic
opposition, US meddling has encouraged its hardliners to reinforce
their positions

by Selig S Harrison

The battle lines are familiar and clearly drawn in the unresolved
policy struggle over Iran within the Bush administration.
Vice-President Richard Cheney and his allies in the Pentagon and
Congress, prodded by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee
(Aipac), not only want the US to bomb the Natanz uranium enrichment
facility but are also calling for air strikes on Iranian military
installations near the Iraq border.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wants to test diplomacy first by
broadening the US-Iran negotiations on stabilising Iraq that began in
Baghdad in May. But, as the price for postponement of a decision on
military action, she has agreed to a self-defeating compromise that
has directly undermined the Baghdad negotiations: increased covert
action to destabilise the Islamic Republic, formalised by a
presidential "finding" in April.

Covert action to undermine the Tehran regime has already been under
way intermittently for the past decade. Until now, however, the CIA
has operated without a finding (authorisation for covert action) by
using proxies. Pakistan and Israel, for example, provide weapons and
money to insurgent groups in southeast and northwest Iran, where the
Baluch and Kurdish ethnic minorities, both Sunni Muslim, have long
fought against the repression of Shia-dominated Persian regimes.

The presidential finding was necessary to permit accelerated
non-lethal activities by US agencies. Besides expanded propaganda
broadcasts, a media disinformation campaign and the use of US and
European-based Iranian exiles to promote political dissent, the
programme focuses on economic warfare, especially currency rate
manipulation and the disruption of Iran's international banking and

Although the finding was nominally secret, it did not stay secret for
long after it was reported to the House and Senate Intelligence
Committees, as required by law.

On a recent visit to Tehran, everyone was talking about it and both
conservatives and reformers agreed that it came at an unusually
damaging moment of genuine opportunity for cooperation with the US in
Iraq and Afghanistan. Senior officials in the foreign ministry, the
National Security Council, the office of President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad and pro-government think tanks all said that stability in
Iraq and Afghanistan is in Iran's interest. Cooperation with the US
is possible, they said, but only in return for a gradual
accommodation between Washington and Tehran, starting with a complete
cessation of covert and overt regime change policies.

"The United States is like a fox caught in a trap in Iraq," said Amir
Mohiebian, editor of the conservative daily Reselaat. "Why should we
free the fox so he can eat us? Of course, if the US changes its
policy, there is scope for cooperation."

At the other end of the journalistic spectrum, Mohammed Adrianfar,
editor of Hammihan, identified with the moderate former president,
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, said: "The atmosphere here is for starting
negotiations and relations. People want stability. The slogan `Death
to America' doesn't work, and our leaders know it. It's an irony that
two governments which are now enemies have many of the same interests
in Iraq and Afghanistan."

While officials would not discuss whether Iran is aiding Shia
militias in Iraq and, if so, which ones, Alaeddin Boroujerdi,
chairman of the Majlis (parliament) Foreign Affairs Committee,
criticised US "coddling" of Baathist and Sunni elements and made it
clear that Iran expects Shia domination as the prerequisite for
stability in Baghdad and for US-Iranian cooperation there as part of
an overall accommodation.

"The US occupying authorities are not truly pursuing
de-Baathification of the security forces," he said, "and should give
the Iraqi government greater freedom to do so. That is the key to
cooperation between our countries in Iraq."

US-backed militia

The best way for the US to start rolling back its regime change
policy, both editors and several officials said, would be to
dismantle a US-backed militia of Iranian exiles based in Iraq, known
as the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK). The MEK supported Saddam Hussein in
the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and subsequently its 3,600 fighters, many
of them women, stayed on in Iraq.

According to US sources, since the invasion of Iraq US intelligence
agencies have disarmed the fighters but have kept the MEK camps near
the Iranian border intact, using MEK operatives for espionage and
sabotagein Iran and to interrogate Iranians accused of aiding Shia
militias in Iraq.

Until recently, MEK radio and TV stations broadcasting to Iran were
based in Iraq, but Iranian pressure on the Baghdad government forced
their relocation to London. When the moderate Mohammad Khatami was
elected president of Iran in 1997, the State Department made a
conciliatory gesture by listing the MEK as a terrorist organisation
guilty of human rights violations, and it is still on the list.

Dismantling the MEK paramilitary forces would be an effective way to
signal US readiness to accommodate Tehran, suggested Abbas Maleki, an
adviser to the National Security Council, since it is the only
militarised exile group seeking to overthrow the Islamic Republic and
is the darling of the Washington lobby for regime change in Iran.
Alireza Jaffarzadeh, chairman of the MEK's front group, the National
Council of Resistance of Iran, appears regularly on the conservative
TV channel Fox News as its Iran expert, rather like the pro-US Iraqi
politician Ahmad Chalabi before the Iraq invasion, rallying
Congressional and media support for military action against Iran.

As its terrorist listing of the MEK showed, the Clinton
administration hoped for a diplomatic opening to Iran. When the
Republican House speaker, Newt Gingrich, pushed through an $18m
appropriation for non-lethal covert action to force the replacement
of the current regime in Iran, the White House restrained the CIA.
But the Bush administration was quick to change course. Cheney shared
Gingrich's goal of regime change and he persuaded doubters that
pressure on Tehran would strengthen the US in negotiations to end the
uranium enrichment programme. First, the administration revived and
expanded the dormant plans for direct US non-lethal covert action.
Then, in February 2006, it obtained a $75m appropriation from
Congress for an overt State Department programme "to promote openness
and freedom for the Iranian people". Finally, it cast about for
covert ways to harass the regime militarily without the need for a
formal presidential finding.

The most readily available means of doing this was to get Pakistan
and Israel to arm and finance already-existing insurgent groups in
the Baluch and Kurdish areas through well-established US ties with
Pakistan's Interservices Intelligence Directorate (ISI) and the
Israeli intelligence agency Mossad.

The ISI channelled weapons and money to an already established
Iranian Baluch dissident group, Jundullah (Soldiers of God), which
inflicted heavy casualties in raids on Iranian Revolutionary Guard
units in Zahedan and southeast Iran in 2006 and 2007. The US made no
effort to hide its support for Jundullah. On 2 April 2007 the Voice
of America interviewed its leader, Abdolmalek Rigi, introducing him
as "the leader of the popular resistance movement of Iran". Several
of my Baluch contacts recently provided detailed proof of Rigi's ISI

Mossad contacts

Mossad has built up contacts in the Kurdish areas of Iran and Iraq
since it used bases in Iran during the days of the Shah to
destabilise the Kurdish areas of Iraq. Against this background,
Seymour Hersh's report that Mossad is giving equipment and training
to the Iranian Kurdish group Pejak is credible (1). Jon Lee Anderson
interviewed a senior Kurdish official in Iraq who said that Pejak is
operating out of bases in Iraqi Kurdistan to conduct raids in Iran
and has "received covert US support" (2). In retaliation, Iran
bombarded these bases for two weeks in late August, prompting Iraqi

The most dangerous latent separatist threat facing Tehran is in the
south-western province of Khuzestan, which produces 80% of its crude
oil revenue. The Arab Shia of Khuzestan share a common ethnic and
religious identity with the Arab Shia across the Shatt-al-Arab
waterway in Iraq. Ahwaz, the capital of Khuzestan, is only 150km east
of Basra, where British forces in Iraq have been headquartered.

Not surprisingly,in the light of history, Tehran accuses Britain of
using Basra as an intelligence base for stirring discontent in

Backed by British forces and British oil interests, the Arab princes
of Khuzestan seceded from Persia in 1897 and established a
British-controlled protectorate, Arabistan, which Persia did not
recapture until 1925. Although most of Iran's oil wealth is produced
in Khuzestan, separatist groups charge that Tehran denies the
province a fair share of economic development funds. So far, the
scattered separatist factions have not created a unified military
force like the Jundullah and no evidence of foreign help has
surfaced. But they periodically raid government security
installations and bomb oil production facilities.

Several broadcast propaganda in Arabic from foreign locations that
are not clearly identified. The National Liberation Movement of
Ahwaz, which advocates independence, operates Ahwaz TV, a satellite
channel with an on-screen caption giving a fax number with a
California area code. Another satellite channel, Al-Ahwaz TV,
broadcast by Iranian exiles in California, is linked to the
British-Ahwaz Friendship Society, which advocates regional autonomy
for the province in a federal Iran. Nearly half ($36m) of the $75m
2006 US appropriation goes to support for the US-operated Voice of
America and Radio Farda and to anti-regime broadcasting outlets run
by Iranian exiles in the US, Canada and Britain.

Another $20m goes to NGO human rights activists in Iran and the US.
Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns has revealed that "we are
working with Arab and European organisations to support democratic
groups within Iran", since getting direct US funding into Iran "is a
very difficult thing for us to do" given "the harsh Iranian
government response against the Iranian individuals" (3).

One Iranian participant in a US-sponsored workshop in Dubai last year
told the Iranian-American journalist Negar Azimi that "it was like a
James Bond camp for revolutionaries" (4). Four Iranian participants
were later arrested.

Counter-productive attempts

My clear impression in Tehran was that covert and overt efforts to
destabilise the Islamic Republic andpressure it economically to
abandon its nuclear programme have been counter-productive. They have
given hardliners an excuse to harass Iranians working internally to
liberalise the regime and visiting Iranian-American dual citizens
such as Haleh Esfandiari of the Woodrow Wilson International Center
for Scholars, who was imprisoned for three months on vague espionage

By aiding ethnic minority insurgencies, the US has enabled
Ahmadinejad to cast himself as the champion of the Persian majority.
The minorities constitute at most 44% of the population. The largest,
the Azeris (24%) have been mostly assimilated, and the rebellious
Baluch, Kurds and Khuzestani Arabs are bitterly divided between
advocates of secession and of a restructured federal Iran.
Ahmadinejad can also blame external economic pressures for economic
problems that are mainly the result of his own mismanagement.

Negotiated compromises on stabilising Iraq and Afghanistan are
possible, but only if destabilisation stops and not if President Bush
takes the military steps implied in his 28 August threat "to confront
Tehran's murderous activities" in Iraq. Even if the pressure is
relaxed, a definitive nuclear compromise is unlikely in the absence
of changes in the US Persian Gulf security posture, though a
suspension of the Natanz facility might be possible if Israel would
agree to a parallel freeze of the Dimona reactor. "How can we
negotiate denuclearisation while you send aircraft carriers to the
Gulf that, for all we know, are equipped with tactical nuclear
weapons?" asked Alireza Akbari, deputy defence minister in the
moderate Khatami government. "How can you expect us to negotiate when
you won't talk about Dimona?"

The covert and overt pressures so far applied to Iran are just
sufficient to infuriate Iranians of all political persuasions,
strengthening the hardliners, but are not nearly enough to undermine
the regime. The economic pressures are more effective than the covert
insurgency aid. Out of 40 European and Asian banks doing business
with Iran, though, only seven have cut ties with Iran in response to
US sanctions. In any case, Iran is routing its international business
though 400 Dubai-based financial institutions, mostly Arab. With
trade between Iran and the United Arab Emirates, including Dubai,
nearing $11bn this year, US Undersecretary of the Treasury Stuart
Levey's threat of reprisals against firms dealing with Iran, in a
speech in Dubai on 7 March, were pointless. The administration is now
pushing more sharply-targeted measures against enterprises linked to
the Revolutionary Guards and the conglomerates run by clerical
interests, but their impact has been limited.

Likening the US-Iran tussle to a bull fight, a respected European
ambassador long resident in Tehran asked: "What's the point of all
this? What good does it do to keep waving the red flag? It just makes
the bull more and more angry. It doesn't kill."

(1) "The Next Act", The New Yorker, 27 November 2006.

(2) "Mr Big", The New Yorker, 5 February 2007.

(3) Council on Foreign Relations, New York, 11 October 2006.

(4) "The Hard Realities of Soft Power", New York Times Magazine, 24


Selig S Harrison is director of the Asia Program at the Center for
International Policy, senior scholar of the Woodrow Wilson
International Center for Scholars (both in Washington), and author of
In Afghanistan's Shadow: Baluch Nationalism and Soviet Temptations
(Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1980)

  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED C 1997-2007 Le Monde diplomatique


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