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Monday, January 23, 2006

Does Iran Have The Upper Hand?


Iranian Trump Cards
Iran could "win" Without Nukes

Richard Clarke On Iran









The first time I met Richard Clarke, I was role-playing the president of the United States during a weekend war game hosted by the Security Studies Program at the Fletcher School. That game, held annually and dubbed "SIMULEX," is run by staff from the nation's military graduate schools, such as the National War College and the Army War College. This particular year, 1997, Clarke was observing the progress of the game, as he had a special interest in the scenario.The full scenario is too complex to explain here, but what Clarke was interested in was the fact that an Islamic Chechen separatist group was threatening to detonate a suitcase nuclear device in the Dupont Circle Metro (subway) station here in Washington, D.C. As president of the United States, I found that rather annoying. Especially after we learned that it was an elaborate Chechen bluff, pulled off by a classmate who was a former Navy SEAL. But the scenario had another component, which brings me back to Richard Clarke's comments yesterday at the Center for National Policy, a non-partisan think tank led by Tim Roemer. Richard Clarke, of course, was the head of counterterrorism at the National Security Council at the time of the 9/11 attacks. At the time of the attacks in New York and Washington, Clarke was in the process of being reassigned, having determined that the Bush administration was willingly ignoring the threat from Al Qaeda, preferring instead to focus on turning China into a near-peer strategic threat.

That other scenario element was the simultaneous but opposing movement of Russian and Iranian troops into Azerbaijan, which was, in the scenario and is in real life, an American client and major oil-producing state. Knowing that the Iranians and Russians were racing to be the first in Baku, I ordered my envoys to open talks with both Moscow and Tehran. In the meantime, I initiated a rapid deployment of U.S. forces from Turkey to Azerbaijan. Immediately, my secretary of defense, a military fellow at Fletcher who in real life had just returned from duty in Incirlik, Turkey, protested. He said the United States would never open talks with the Iranians. Never. It was, in our own simulated way, gross insubordination. Everyone else around the table agreed with him. So yesterday it was sweet vindication to hear Richard Clarke, who I believe was in the room at the time of the mutiny, declare that in today's real-world escalation with Iran, there is no military solution to Iran 's efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Clarke's comments on Iran were prompted by an alarmist question by an unidentified member of the audience who wanted to know what Clarke thought we should do about Iran presumed nuclear weapons program. Clarke's first response was to chastise the questioner for
mischaracterizing the strategic situation in the Persian Gulf. Whereas the questioner tried to paint a picture of a crazy Ahmadinejad leading a rogue Iran and threatening the rest of the Middle East, Clarke insisted that such a portrayal is extremely dangerous. Rather, Iran must be understood as a state with many centers of intern al power, not only populist Ahmadinejad but the elitist Ayatollah Khameini and the more moderate former President Rafsanjani. Power and decisionmaking is distributed between these three centers and that must be used to create an opportunity for de-escalation. The rationale for diplomatic de-escalation and not unilateral military action was Clarke's other point. In a nutshell, Iran has the ability already to make America pay for such a move. Iran, in Clarke's view, has thoroughly infiltrated southern Iraq with intelligence and military personnel. Should the U.S. or Israel drop one bomb on the Bushehr nuclear facility, says Clarke, these forces in Iraq have the capability to make the current insurgency look like child's play, implying that Iran can trigger the Iraqi civil war we've been fearing. Not only that, Iran has the capability to virtually shut down the flow of energy (oil and gas) from the Persian Gulf. Finally, Iran could quite quickly turn up the heat in Afghanistan, where it holds considerable influence with warlords Washington needs to maintain stability. Any of these moves would be an extremely effective check on American military action. Furthermore, characterizing Iran as irrationally seeking to acquire nuclear weapons is impossible to sustain. From Iran's perspective, Clarke reminded us, Bush has labeled it a member of the "axis of evil" and has since invaded and occupied its two largest neighbors, Iraq and Afghanistan. From Iran 's perspective, it is surrounded by an aggressive, unpredictable United States that is willing to lie to its own people to make war in Iran 's front yard. Clarke is very clear: because of these reasons and the simple fact that the United States has no capacity to invade and occupy Iran, the only alternative is to deal. For Clarke, that means working with the moderates, a situation much more difficult since the moderate, dialogue-seeking former-President Khatami was replaced with the conservative-populist Ahmadinejad. That shift happened, in no small part, due to the way in which the Bush administration confronted Iran on the one issue that would push voters towards more conservative leadership. Instead of the true moderate Khatami, now we are forced to work with the weaker and more conservative Rafsanjani.

There is another card that Iran presumably still holds against the United States, one Clarke alluded to only indirectly, that is, Iran 's ability to destabilize Saudi Arabia. On June 26, 1996, Khobar Towers, a U.S. military barracks in Saudi Arabia, was attacked by a truck bomb, killing 19 American service members and injuring 500. Clarke served as counterterror czar at the time. At first, the U.S. suspected Al Qaeda. After a deeper investigation, however, the Clinton administration determined that the operation was inspired and led by Iranian intelligence. Ten years have passed since Khobar and Clarke makes it sound like we know even less about the oil kingdom. Indeed, Clarke claims that the United States is in the same situation in Saudi Arabia as the one in which we found ourselves in the months before the Shah's regime fell in 1979. We simply have no understanding of how stable or unstable the Saudi regime is. If Iran could successfully attack an American military target in Saudi Arabia in 1996, undoubtedly they could also target the ruling family or the kingdom's oil facilities. Ironically, all this analysis actually supports the Iranian claims that they are not seeking nuclear weapons, only the full nuclear cycle for civilian energy. To check the United States, Iran doesn't need nuclear weapons. It already has that capacity.

-Patrick Doherty






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