US stakes between Iraq, Iran

During the Athens Olympics, world-class Iranian judo champion Arash Miresmaeili forfeited his place when he refused to compete against Israeli athlete Ehud Vaks. This small vignette pales in comparison with the 1972 Munich Olympics, when Middle Eastern politics intruded on the Games in a far more lethal way, but it provides some insight into the late-summer intrigues in the region.

For weeks now, Iran and Israel have been exchanging threats and barbs over Iran's nuclear program. Israel wants to raise the temperature over Iran's program, perhaps to win more focused attention from Washington and the international community, perhaps to deter Iran from going the next step in enrichment activities at the Bushehr reactor. Hints of Israeli contingency planning have provoked strong words from Tehran, including threats to destroy the Dimona facility where Israel's own nuclear program was developed decades ago.

This war of words may hint at a real reckoning point: Israel believes that Iran is only months from crossing new thresholds, and perhaps no more than two to three years away from completing its nuclear project. The Aug. 17 announcement that the Bushehr reactor will not be operational until 2006 may be intended to bring this round to a close. Is Iran blinking in light of Israeli statements or is it hoping to buy time with the international community that will address the Iran issue at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and later at the UN in September?

US Undersecretary of State John Bolton insists that the Iran nuclear problem will be dealt with diplomatically. But US officials have used the UN before to declare that diplomatic means are exhausted, and they are now expected to seek punitive action from the Security Council, should Iran fail to satisfy the IAEA in September.

Meanwhile Iran and Iraq are also exchanging harsh words as they stumble toward a new relationship. Acute agitation stirred in the Iraqi Shiite community by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's challenge to the interim government and US policies has created opportunities for Iran, which almost certainly has ties to every major Iraqi political and sectarian faction. Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem el-Shaalan is the most antagonistic in characterizing Iran's behavior, accusing it of working to destabilize his country. He may be reacting to both the fact of Iran's meddling and to deep-seated fear about Iran's strategic designs on Iraq.

As different power centers in the Iraqi Shiite community square off, it is hard to avoid the impression that Iran's interests might be best served by supporting the young firebrand al-Sadr. Al-Sadr is best suited to bring the US down a notch, and thus make the US less likely to work directly for regime change in Iran.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami said Aug. 23 that Iraq's interim government risked losing popular support because of its backing for military operations against Shiite Muslim rebels in Najaf, and made clear that responsibility for all the stresses on the Shiite community falls to the US occupying forces and their "collaborators." Iranian parliamentarian, Mahmoud Mohammadi said it more directly: "Moqtada al-Sadr is an anti-occupiers figure and Iran should support him."

But there may not be consensus in Tehran that Iraqi turmoil is the best option. One has to assume that there are leaders in Tehran who fear chaos and have enough on their plate not to want to provoke total failure of governance in Iraq. Many Iranians probably wish Iraq some stability, and felt deep animus toward the Saddam Hussein regime, not to all of Iraqi society.

In both of these summer dustups, the stakes for the US are high. Yet Washington, perhaps distracted by campaign season, has been coy in what could create serious new complications for its regional policies. With respect to Iran's nuclear policy, Washington is for now pursuing an overt political strategy, trying to keep like-minded Western states in a loose coalition to press for full Iranian compliance with its IAEA and nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations. But there could well be a separate track, planning for paramilitary options, alone or secretly coordinated with Israel, to delay or disrupt any imminent Iranian activities that would constitute a "point of no return" in its nuclear plans.(Editor's note: US officials Saturday confirmed reports that the FBI has been investigating whether a Pentagon analyst funneled classified material about Iran to Israel.)

The US also has big stakes in how Iran and Iraq learn to live as neighbors. At one level, the administration may expect Iraq to see Iran as a regional threat that would deepen Iraq's reliance on the US as its security partner and build regional support for policies that constrain Iran's ambitions. But Iraqis themselves need to decide how to manage this large and overly interested neighbor.

For the US to, intentionally or not, fuel the antagonisms that have characterized Iran-Iraq relations to such tragic ends over the past quarter century seems to undermine its larger goals of Iraqi stability and regional peace.

Ellen Laipson is president of the Henry L. Stimson Center and was vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council, a US government strategic analysis center, from 1997 to 2002.

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