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Commentary Last Updated: Mar 14th, 2007 - 01:54:02

US sends out mixed signals on Iran
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Mar 14, 2007, 01:52

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Last Saturday, US, Syrian and Iranian diplomats sat around the same table with Iraqi government officials to discuss ways of stabilizing Iraq. It was a meeting the Iraqis had long wanted but until very recently George W. Bush had been adamant in his refusal to talk to either Iran or Syria, despite being pressed by foreign policy experts and members of the Iraq Study Group. Why the change of heart?

The question is does Bush seriously believe that either the Iranians or the Syrians or both can turn back the tide of violence in that beleaguered land? The Syrians have long been asking for US assistance in patrolling its porous border with Iraq and have received little response. The Iranians do have influence in the Shiite-controlled south, it�s true, but that isn�t the part of the country with the most serious problems.

Moreover, any Iranian or Syrian assistance is certain to come with conditions. Indeed, the Iranian delegation has already asked its American counterpart for the return of its kidnapped officials and an exit timetable, which, until now, the White House has refused to contemplate for fear that would strengthen the insurgency.

All parties around the table have signaled that the meeting was fruitful although they traded accusations. They say it�s a positive first step but it is hard to imagine this frosty session leading to even lukewarm relations.

The US is busy twisting UN Security Council members� arms to get them to agree to harsh economic sanctions against Iran over its uranium enrichment program. So far, both China and Russia have been reluctant to comply, as they fear such sanctions would make life difficult for ordinary Iranians. That�s the official line. In reality, both countries have too much to lose in light of their close economic ties with Iran.

Given the onslaught of predictions from people in the know concerning Washington�s alleged intent to launch a massive bombing campaign in April to destroy Iran�s nuclear facilities, what are we to make of these latest moves toward cooperation?

Have the hawks in the US administration turned into doves overnight? Does Bush intend to send his warships and strike forces congregating in the region back to their home bases? Is he now convinced that a preemptive strike against Iran would be more pain than gain?

Most countries in the region, with the exception perhaps of Israel, think so. In fact, a newly released report by the respected British think tank Chatham House makes clear that Israel would face �dire and far-reaching� consequences should Iran retaliate against a US attack, including �substantial loss of life.�

Such an attack, far from halting Iran�s nuclear program, would merely delay it, suggests the report. This makes sense when one recalls the Israeli strike on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Tuwaitha in 1981.

That unprovoked bombing of a peaceful facility merely prompted Saddam Hussein to summon his nuclear scientists and ask them to begin work on a bomb.

George Bush may have also discovered that launching a new war with Iran wouldn�t be an easy sell to either the Democratic-dominated Congress or the American people disenchanted with the Iraq fiasco.

In fact, he�s already having trouble persuading anyone that his so-called �surge� is working in Iraq while Congress is likely to be inflamed by his newest request for a further 4,700 troops to top up the extra 21,500.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has said any future preemptive war would have to be approved by Congress and she is pushing for US troops to be pulled out of Iraq by August 2008.

In this case one could safely assume that Bush has weighed the pros and cons and changed his mind about any plan he might have nurtured in the past to bomb Iran. Isn�t that right?

Not necessarily! If Bush were not surrounded by dedicated neoconservative ideologues and were someone who could be counted upon to act with caution and wisdom, then maybe. But the fact is he has made it crystal clear on more than one occasion that he intends to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon before he leaves office.

It matters little that there is no evidence that Iran is developing a nuclear bomb; in Bush�s universe there is no doubt -- just as he had no doubt that Iraq was.

Then Israel is constantly whispering in the president�s ear. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert presided over a cabinet meeting on Sunday to discuss the perceived Iranian nuclear threat, while right-wing former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been popping up on Western satellite networks comparing the current fraught situation with the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany.

As Olmert�s popularity is dwindling to all-time lows, Netanyahu�s is on the rise, indicating Israeli support for the latter�s hard-line approach.

The question of whether Iran will or will not be attacked is a hard one. For sure there is a detailed plan in place but whether this can be implemented by what some refer to as a lame duck president with approval ratings heading south is moot.

In my opinion, there is only one way this could be done. Israel would have to strike first claiming Iran is a threat to its very existence then the US would �reluctantly� weigh in.

If this is the case, then Saturday�s meeting in Baghdad was a red herring; an attempt to lead Iraq and Syria away from the scent to give Israel and the US a crucial element of surprise. As someone who has a sincere love for this region, I hope and pray that I�m wrong.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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