Analysis: Iran coud change the region
From the International Desk
Published 5/29/2003 2:33 PM
WASHINGTON, May 29 (UPI) -- Undeterred by the debacle of the Iraq occupation and the dangerous unfinished business in Afghanistan, the Bush administration is turning its attention to "doing something" about Iran. The favored plan in an ongoing discussion is to undermine the Shiite mullahs' regime by encouraging the moderate movement, hoping this will lead to a revolution.
There is no question that a change of regime in Iran would have far reaching consequences for the entire region. The supporters of that change in Washington hope to create a pro-American bloc in the Middle East consisting of Iran, a refurbished Shiite Iraq and the Kurds.
Shiites in the oil-rich eastern province of Saudi Arabia and in places like Lebanon can also be influenced by an Iran, which is run by a moderate, Westernized government.
But this is the administration that could be called The Seekers. They are still seeking a successful formula for rebuilding Iraq, for stability to Afghanistan, for Saddam Hussein, for Osama bin Laden, for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
All of which makes the idea of success in Iran through strategy, and not through massive military assault seem incredible, almost impossible. Still, this theory is being voiced, often loudly, in Washington by those who want the Bush administration to bring about a change of regime in Tehran.
The Iranian opposition in exile, undaunted by the lessons of Iraqi and Afghan exiles, supports the idea. At a news briefing in Washington this week, an Iranian opposition group urged Washington -- as they said in a statement -- to "give up the Clinton administration's policy of appeasing the Iranian regime and instead help the forces trying to bring it down."
Leaders of the National Council of Resistance of Iran believe their country is large and strong enough to have the potential to lead a moderate bloc in the Middle East. A country of 68.9 million people, Iran is so far the world's only Shiite state. More than 89 percent Iranians are Shiites, 10 percent belong to Islam's majority Sunni sect while one percent to Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and Baha'i minorities.
On paper, however, it could prove a formidable enemy. According to the 2002 census, more than 11 million Iranians are fit for military services with more than 800,000 reaching military age (21 years) annually. In the year 2000, the country spent more than $9.7 billion on its forces, 3.1 percent of its GDP.
Iran has large oil resources and borders other oil-rich states in the Middle Eastern region, such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the Gulf states. Its strategic location on the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, which are vital maritime pathways for crude oil transport, further increase Iran's importance in the region.
The fact that, according to U.S. intelligence, it is close to being a nuclear power is the American argument for a regime change, and at the same time of its technological sophistication.
Since the Islamic revolution in 1979, Iran also has established close strategic alliances with Muslim militant groups, particularly those of the Shiites, operating in the Middle East.
It has close ties with various groups in neighboring Afghanistan, with whom it has religious and ethnic affinities.
It also shares similar ties with the newly independent Central Asian states of the former Soviet Union, another region with huge oil reserves.
All these factors place Iran in an ideal position to influence events in the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia where it shares border with Pakistan.
But nowhere is Iran's influence stronger than in Iraq, where the United States is struggling to bring normalcy after pulling down the Saddam regime. After Iran, Iraq is the largest Shiite country with more than 60 percent of its 25.1 million people adhering to this radical branch of Islam. The Sunnis, who are a majority elsewhere and have long dominated Iraqi political life, are only 20 percent.
Although the two most sacred sites of the Shiite religion -- Najaf and Karbala -- are both in Iraq, Iran always has enjoyed a strong influence in these places. Iran also has its own centers of Shiite learning, such as the holy city of Qom, where thousands of students from other Muslim countries go for education and religious training.
These links were a factor in Ayatollah Rhuolloh Khomeini's success in toppling the Shah Reza Pahlavi. Khomeini had lived in exile in Iraq for several years, until Saddam Hussein expelled him in 1978. Observers believe that the situation could be reversed as well by using Iran's influence to bring a government of Washington's liking in Iraq.
U.S. officials now running Iraq already have experienced the Shiite power twice during the past month: First during religious ceremonies in Karbala when hundreds of thousands made the pilgrimage (banned in Saddam's day) to the holy city, and again when an Iran-based Shiite cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Baqr al-Hakim returned to his homeland on May 10.
Hakim fled Iraq 23 years ago after Saddam's government killed dozens of his family members. He is the head of one of the largest Shiite opposition groups, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which until his return to Iraq, operated from Iran.
Addressing a crowd of more than 80,000 who had gathered to welcome him, the cleric declared: "We don't want a Taliban state but we don't want Islam on American terms either. ... We want a system that is grounded in Islam."
The rousing welcome that Hakim received in Iraq and the subsequent strengthening of pro-Iran Shiite forces in the country have increased the fears of Iraq's American administration which wants to turn this Muslim country of 25.1 million people into a strong, pro-Western and moderate state.
Observers believe that the U.S. goal to change Iraq will remain illusive as long as Iran is run by the Shiite clerics. They argue that it is impossible to end Iran's influence in Iraq, given the fact that the Shiites are a small minority among the Muslims and feel the need to stay together wherever they may live.
For the same reason, they say, Iran will also continue to exercise a strong influence over Shiite militants groups in places like Lebanon.
However, Iran's influence over the Shiites, particularly in Iraq, can also be used for promoting America's interests if Tehran has a moderate government. That's why some in the Bush administration are sympathetic to the Iranian opposition's call for increasing their support to the rebels fighting the Tehran regime. Alireza Jafarzadeh, a representative for the National Council of Resistance of Iran, says that there are people both in the administration and on the Hill who understand the need for a regime change in Tehran.
Apparently, such elements believe a pro-U.S. government in Tehran can be a major moderating factor in the region by neutralizing Shiite militants. Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, successive U.S. governments have devoted a great deal of time and resources to fighting radical Shiaism. It was to stop this brand of Islam from spreading across the Middle East that Washington backed Saddam Hussein in his 10-year war against Iran in the 1980s.
A moderate government in Tehran can also pave the way for a similar administrative setup in Baghdad. And the emergence of two large Muslim states -- Iran and Iraq -- as moderate powers will go a long way in placating Muslims around the globe.
©Copyright 2003, United Press International
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