The Iranian option

Anthony Barnett
26 May 2004

So the invasion of Iraq was a set-up.

The Pentagon thought it ran Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress. In fact, we are now being told (by whom is a question I’ll come to in a moment) that although the United States paid for Chalabi’s information, Tehran was in control of it.

According to a US intelligence source, the Pentagon has now stopped subsidising Chalabi after “a review of thousands of internal documents”. This has led it to the conclusion that:

“Iranian intelligence has been manipulating the United States through Chalabi by furnishing through his Information Collection Programme information to provoke the United States into getting rid of Saddam Hussein.” A Washington Bureau report of Friday 21 May, states (apparently in all seriousness): “At the center of the alleged Iranian intelligence operation, according to administration officials and intelligence sources, is Aras Karim Habib, a 47-year-old Shia Kurd who was named in an arrest warrant issued during a raid on Chalabi’s home and offices in Baghdad Thursday. He eluded arrest.

Karim, who sometimes goes by the last name of Habib, is in charge of the information collection programme.

The intelligence source briefed on the Defense Intelligence Agency’s conclusions said that Karim’s ‘fingerprints are all over it’.”

Note that insightful, unprejudiced nugget of information, certain to confirm all worst suspicions. Double-agents always have a false name. But just to fool us this one used his own last name as his cover. Damn clever.

Poor, weak America. As George Soros suggests, since 9/11 the United States has turned itself from being a victim into becoming a perpetrator. But it so much wants to remain a victim! It did not mean to launch a nasty invasion.

Ever Mr Nice Guy, Washington was tricked into the war by the mullahs of Tehran who fed it false information which duped the government of America into believing:

  • that Saddam was so strong that he had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) hidden so deviously that only the inside information provided by Chalabi’s informants confirmed their existence
  • that the Iraqi people would rise up to welcome the US as liberators and bore no grudge against the US for having supported Saddam in the past
  • that because of this Saddam was so weak that those pesky WMD which so threatened the world would not endanger the US army, which could therefore invade with few losses
  • and as a result, that Ahmad Chalabi, good friend of the Pentagon as he is, could become the acclaimed, democratic leader of Iraq ensuring cheap oil and an end to instability in the region.

How extraordinarily cunning and devious are those mullahs as they measured the need for understatement, consistency and credibility, into subtly luring the White House into doing their bidding! A trail of a thousand documents confirms the skill of their Persian plot.

Or, pull the other one?

But let’s turn to the other side of satire. There is an ominous pointer in the story.

Not that the whole thing is an inter-agency dust-up, as one quarter of Washington DC tries to pin the blame on another quarter. Of course that’s part of what is happening - but this kind of infighting only goes public when a larger gain stands to be made.

When “sources” officially expose a person as a double-agent, ask the John le Carré question. Not whether it is true or false – in this context true information can be disinformation. Ask “what agenda lies behind this, who gains”?

No one could believe that America was duped into Iraq. Interviews on and off the record confirm that any “information” asked for by the White House about Iraq was a convenience. The decision in principle had already been taken. As George Bush put it, in March 2003 (as reported in Time): “Fuck Saddam, we’re taking him out”.

There isn’t much we can be absolutely certain of about the White House, but I am quite sure that President Bush did not need “Iranian-manipulated intelligence” in order to come to his conclusion.

Now, however, the occupation is threatening to become an inconvenience.

As America seeks to “leave” Iraq, a psychological distancing is called for and blame needs to be projected elsewhere. Among the likely candidates for such an exercise are bound to be those who can be counted as the current winners. In his masterly overview of “America and Arabia after Saddam”, Fred Halliday identified three: Iran, Israel and Turkey. Turkey is too big and important to quarrel with. A choice is being made, therefore, in Washington, between Iran and Israel.

Hence the real alarm bell that needs to be attended to in the denunciation of Chalabi: Iran may be next in line.

We plan, if all goes well, to publish in openDemocracy.net a discussion between Iraqis about how they and their country should move forward. It is clear from listening to them that they are deeply concerned about agents from other countries being involved in their own.

But spare a moment for Iran, whose people are overwhelmingly pro-American and mostly oppose the current regime. Iran’s ruling mullahs too are divided. They aided the US in the removal of the Taliban from Afghanistan, helped to ensure Saddam’s overthrow and have called for patience as the US blunders into the holy cities of the Shi’a. What do they get for their cooperation? Denunciation for their wicked plotting.

Opinion columns are filled with reassuring noises that “the axis of evil” is history and the Bush administration has learnt its lesson and is pulling back from its neo-conservative agenda. If I was in Tehran, or in John Kerry’s campaign headquarters, I wouldn’t be so sure.

This is not to predict that America will invade Iran, or permit it to be attacked by Israel. A “cold war” on the regime there could be sufficient. There are even calls for Bush to do a Richard Nixon, turn the tables and send Condoleezza Rice on a dash to Tehran, to transform her boss into an election-winning peacemaker.

I’m simply noting that the ‘Chalabi scandal’ has brought Iran into the centre of things. It has made the question “what should be done about Iran” (as if it was one homogenous thing) part of the ebb and flow of Washington politics. Chalabi didn’t conceal that he had Iranian connections. By turning them into a betrayal of the United States, someone in Washington has opened up an Iranian option.

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