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Ray McGovern

Retired CIA analyst and Co-Founder, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity

August 27th, 2013 5:37 PM

The Broader Stakes of Syrian Crisis

Amid the increased likelihood that President Barack Obama will cave in to pressure from foreign policy hawks to “Libya-ize” Syria and to accord Syrian President Bashar al-Assad the same treatment meted out to Libya’s Col. Muammar Gaddafi, the main question is WHY? Obviously, there is concern about the human rights catastrophe in Syria, but is the main target Syria’s main ally, Iran, as many suspect?

Surely, the objective has got to be more than simply giving Secretary of State John Kerry a chance to brag, in the manner of his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, regarding Gaddafi, “We came, we saw, he died.” And, there is little expectation – however many Cruise missiles the United States fires at Syrian targets in a fury over disputed claims about chemical weapons – that lives are likely to be saved.

So, what are Iran’s new leaders likely to see as the real driving force behind Obama’s felt need to acquiesce, again, in a march of folly? And why does it matter?

Iran’s leaders need not be paranoid to see themselves as a principal target of external meddling in Syria. While there seem to be as many interests being pursued – as there are rag-tag groups pursuing them – Tehran is not likely to see the common interests of Israel and the U.S. as very complicated. Both appear determined to exploit the chaotic duel among the thugs in Syria as an opportunity to deal a blow to Hezbollah and Hamas in Israel’s near-frontier and to isolate Iran still further, and perhaps even advance Israel’s ultimate aim of “regime change” in Tehran.

In the nearer term, are the neocons in Washington revving up to nip in the bud any unwelcome olive branches from the Iran’s new leaders as new talks on nuclear matters loom on the horizon?

The Not-So-Clean Break

A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” a policy document prepared in 1996 for Benjamin Netanyahu by a study group led by American neocons, including Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, laid out a new approach to solving Israel’s principal security challenges. Essentially, the point was to shatter the frustrating cycle of negotiations with the Palestinians and instead force regime change on hostile states in the region, thus isolating Israel’s close-in adversaries.

Among the plan’s features was “the containment of Syria by engaging in proxy warfare and highlighting their possession of ‘weapons of mass destruction.’” The following “Clean-Break” paragraph is, no doubt, part of the discussion in Iran’s leadership councils:

“Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq – an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right — as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Mysterious Why of the Iraq War.”]

Against this background, what is Iran likely to think of the two-year old mantra of Hillary Clinton, repeated by Obama that “Assad Must Go?” Or what to think of Obama’s gratuitous pledge a half year later, on Super Bowl Sunday 2012, that the U.S. will “work in lockstep” with Israel regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Assuming they checked Webster’s, Iran’s leaders have taken note that one primary definition offered for “in lockstep” is: “in perfect, rigid, often mindless conformity or unison.”

In that pre-game interview, Obama also made the bizarre charge that the Iranians must declare, “We will pursue peaceful nuclear power; we will not pursue a nuclear weapon.” In actuality, Iran has been saying precisely that for years.

Still more odd, Obama insisted, “Iran has to stand down on its nuclear weapons program.” The Israelis could hardly have expected the President to regurgitate their claims about Iran working on a nuclear weapon, but that is what he did – despite the fact that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had said on TV just four weeks before that Iran was NOT doing so.

Of course, Panetta was simply reiterating the consensus conclusion of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies that declared in 2007 that Iran had halted work on a nuclear weapon in 2003 and that it did not appear that such work had resumed.

And even if you don’t want to believe the U.S. intelligence community and Panetta, there was the acknowledgement by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak that Israeli intelligence had reached the same judgment. Barak gave an interview on Jan. 18, 2002, the day before JCS Chairman Martin Dempsey arrived for talks in Israel:

“Question: Is it Israel’s judgment that Iran has not yet decided to turn its nuclear potential into weapons of mass destruction?

Barak: … confusion stems from the fact that people ask whether Iran is determined to break out from the control [inspection] regime right now … in an attempt to obtain nuclear weapons or an operable installation as quickly as possible. Apparently that is not the case. …

Question: How long will it take from the moment Iran decides to turn it into effective weapons until it has nuclear warheads?

Barak: I don’t know; one has to estimate. … Some say a year, others say 18 months. It doesn’t really matter. To do that, Iran would have to announce it is leaving the [UN International Atomic Energy Agency] inspection regime and stop responding to IAEA’s criticism, etc.

Why haven’t they [the Iranians] done that? Because they realize that … when it became clear to everyone that Iran was trying to acquire nuclear weapons, this would constitute definite proof that time is actually running out. This could generate either harsher sanctions or other action against them. They do not want that.”

So, for those of you just now joining us, Iran stopped working on a nuclear weapon ten years ago. That is the unanimous judgment expressed by all U.S. intelligence agencies “with high confidence” in 2007, and has been revalidated every year since. Thus, Israel’s aim can be seen as “regime change” in Tehran, not the halting of a nuclear weapons program that stopped ten years ago. (It should be noted, too, that Israel possesses a sophisticated and undeclared nuclear arsenal that President Obama and other U.S. leaders have politely refused to acknowledge publicly.)

No one knows all this better than the Iranians themselves. But, for Israel, Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani poses a more subtle threat than the easier-to-demonize Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The more moderate and polished Rouhani – IF he can calm those Iranians who consider Washington a Siamese twin to Tel Aviv – may be able to enter renewed talks on the nuclear issue with concessions that the West would find difficult to refuse.

This would rattle the Israelis and the neocons in Washington who must be pining for the days when Ahmadinejad made it easier to mask the very real concessions made while he was president. Israeli and neocon hardliners have amply demonstrated that – despite their public face – they have little concern over Iran’s non-existent nuclear weapons program. Quite simply, they would like to get the U.S. to do to Iran what it did to Iraq. Period.

Israel Riding High Again

Dealing with more moderate leaders in Iran remains one of Israel’s major headaches, even as Israel has ridden a string of geopolitical successes over the past several weeks. First and foremost, the Israelis were able to persuade Washington to represent the military coup d’état in Cairo as something other than a military coup, which enabled U.S. military and other aid to keep flowing to the Israel-friendly Egyptian military.

After shielding this blood-stained Egyptian military from geopolitical pressure, Israel was rewarded by the generals’ decision to choke off Gaza’s lifeline to the outside world via Egypt and thus further punish the Gazans for having the temerity to elect the more militant Hamas as their leadership.

With the Palestinians reeling – as their international backers face internal and external pressures — Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has found it timely to return to the bargaining table to discuss what undesirable land might be left for the Palestinians to live on as Netanyahu’s government continues to approve expansions of Jewish settlements on the more appealing patches of Palestinian territory.

The Israeli position vis a vis its Muslim adversaries is also improved by the spreading of sectarian conflicts pitting Sunni vs. Shiite, a rift that was turned into a chasm – and made much bloodier – by the neocon-inspired U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Now, similar divisions are shattering Syria in a chaotic civil war with the growing likelihood that the Obama administration will soon weigh in militarily against the Alawite-dominated regime of Bashar al-Assad, which is being challenged by a Sunni-led rebellion. Alawites stem from the Shiite branch of Islam and Assad is allied with Shiite-ruled Iran.

The more the Sunni and Shiite are fighting each other – and thus expending their resources on internecine warfare – the better for Israel, at least in the view of neocon hardliners like those who crafted Netanyahu’s “clean-break” strategy in the 1990s. That strategy would see the snuffing out of the Syrian regime as a signature accomplishment.

Hardliners on Both Sides

As these regional pressures build, Westerners tend to forget that there is a hard-line equivalent in Tehran with whom Rouhani has to deal. The hardliners in Tehran believe, with ample justification, that many American officials have the virus that George Washington so pointedly warned against; i.e., a “passionate-attachment” to a country with priorities and interests that may differ from one’s own country – in this case, Israel.

The Iranian hawks do not trust the U.S. especially on the nuclear issue, and developments over recent years – including statements like President Obama’s cited above – feed that distrust. So, President Rouhani faces tough sledding should he wish to offer the kinds of concessions Iran made in the fall of 2009 and spring of 2010, when Ahmadinejad’s government offered to export much of its low-enriched uranium.

That promising beginning was sabotaged in October 2009 when, after Iran had agreed in principle to a deal involving the shipping of two-thirds to three-quarters of it low-enriched uranium out of country, a terrorist attack killed five generals of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, just before the talk to flesh out that deal. A similar deal was worked out with the help of Turkey and Brazil in early 2010 (with the written encouragement of President Obama) only to fall victim to Secretary of State Clinton and other hawks who preferred the route of sanctions.

As if the prospect of U.S. military involvement regarding Syria was not delicate enough, the hardliners in Tehran are bound to make hay out of two major stories recently playing in the U.S. media.

The first is a detailed account of precisely how the CIA and British Intelligence succeeded in 1953 in removing Iran’s first democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and installing the Shah with his secret police. A detailed account was released responding to a Freedom of Information Act request by the National Security Archive. Much had been already known about the coup, but the play-by-play is riveting and, presumably, highly offensive to Iranians.

The second exposé came in a detailed report published by Foreign Policy Magazine on Monday entitled: “CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran.” This account, replete with declassified CIA and other documents, will likewise be a highly painful reminder of the troubled past and great grist for those Iranians bent on exposing U.S. treachery.

In sum, the Foreign Policy report by Shane Harris and Matthew M. Aid provides a wealth of detail on how Washington was aware that the Iraqis were using mustard and Sarin nerve gas in their war with Iran in the 1980s, and nonetheless enabled the Iraqis to use it to maximum effect by providing all manner of intelligence, including up-to-date information from satellites.

The nerve gas, in particular, was effective in thwarting the last major Iranian offensives and left thousands dead. The impression given by the documents is that toward the end of the war, Iran had the upper hand and may have ultimately prevailed were it not for Washington’s precise intelligence support for Iraq and blind eye to the first major use of chemical warfare since it was banned after World War I.

A CIA memo dated Nov. 4, 1983, is titled “Iran’s Likely Reaction to Iraqi Use of Chemical Weapons” included this paragraph: “Iran is unlikely to be deterred from pursuing the war because of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons. … Iran will be forced to adjust its military tactics and acquire additional protective gear but it will continue to launch attacks on Iraq. We have no evidence that Iran has lethal chemical agents or that it is making an effort to acquire any.”

These will be very painful reminders of the tragic history of Iranian-American relations and seem bound to make negotiations even more difficult.

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