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    Middle East
     Jul 2, 2008
Tehran puts on a show of strength
By Sami Moubayed

"Should it happen that a strong government finds it may with impunity destroy a weak people, then the hour strikes for that weak people to appeal to the League of Nations to give its judgment in all freedom. God and history will remember your judgment."
- Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia

DAMASCUS - Haile Selassie delivered these words in an address to the league while the fascist army of Italy's Benito Mussolini was invading Ethiopia in 1936. The Italian boycotted the session, and Italian journalists booed and hissed as the emperor was making his speech - not in French although he was fluent at it - but in Amharic.

TIME magazine labeled Haile Selassie man of the year, but the


league failed at doing more than imposing partial - and ineffective - sanctions on Rome.

Reportedly, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is an admirer, or as some would say, observer, of the ex-emperor, who ruled Ethiopia from as regent from 1916 to 1930, then as emperor from 1930 to 1974.

The emperor's autobiography, My Life and Ethiopia's Progress is one of the books recently read by the Iranian president; so he must be aware of this famous speech and, perhaps, would make a similar address today, if he were invited to speak before the General Assembly of the United Nations, as risk of war increases between his country and the United States, and Israel.

Probably, Ahmadinejad will not be given the chance to deliver such an address, and even if he did, the UN - just like its predecessor - would be completely incapable of helping him.

Psychological warfare is on the rise. This weekend, a senior Iranian general, Mir-Faisal Bagherzadeh, said his country was digging 320,000 graves for American soldiers scheduled to fight in Iran. "In implementation of the Geneva Conventions, the necessary measures are being taken to provide for the burial of enemy soldiers. We have plans to dig 15,000 to 20,000 graves for each of the border provinces, or a total of 320,000," he said, pointing out that some of them would be mass graves, if necessary. This was "to reduce the suffering of the families of the fallen in any attack against, and prevent the repetition of the long and bitter experience of the Vietnam War".

These may sound like big words - similar to those barked by Saddam Hussein and his information minister Mohammad Said al-Sahhaf in 2003 - but they carry real impact on the psychology of American troops. Iraq - with its weak army and corrupted regime - was impossible to chew for the Americans. Nobody can imagine how difficult a war would be against 65 million Iranians, with a well-trained, well-armed military indoctrinated with Shi'ite Islam and a strong sense of purpose against the "great Satan".

In addition to building the graves - which has actually started - the Iranians have several actions they could resort to if war were declared between now and the end of President George W Bush's tenure at the White House in January.

They can incite the Shi'ites of nations where there are US military bases; Saudi Arabia (33%), Kuwait (36%), Bahrain (80%). They can incite the Kurds of Turkey and create problems with the Shi'ites of Yemen. They can unleash hell in Iraq through proxies like the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr and the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council. The Shi'ites of these countries have strong bonds to Iran and would listen and respond, if duty calls, and if the Americans or Israel went to war against Tehran.

The Iranians can - and would - close the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway separating the Arabian Gulf from the Gulf of Oman and the North Arabian Sea. This would cause already rocketing oil prices to go through the roof, as pointed out by Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Mohammad Ali Jaafari.

The strait is the world's second-busiest international water route, channeling 25% of the world's oil supplies on a daily basis. Over 75% of Japan's oil, for example, runs through Hormuz. According to Mustapha al-Sayyed, a Syrian oil expert, "if the strait is closed, alternate routes [if available] would have to be used, and this will result in a loss of more than 20 million barrels per day in the international market." He added that he expected oil prices to reach "no less than US$500 a barrel". Currently, the oil flow through the strait stands at more than 17 million barrels per day. The chaos in world markets this would cause does not need explaining.

Iran has also reportedly positioned some of its Shahab-3B missiles, with a range of nearly 2,000 kilometers, and according to certain press reports, is ready to fire at the Dimona reactor inside Israel.

The arrogant tone of the Iranians came after the New York Times ran a story saying that over 100 Israeli warplanes had carried out major training exercises over the eastern Mediterranean on June 12, in preparation for a war on Tehran. As part of the exercise, they flew the distance needed to reach the Iranian city of Natanz, where a nuclear facility is based.

One day after the Israeli provocation, Deputy Prime Minister Shaoul Mofaz was quoted in an Israeli daily as saying his country would attack Iran if it did not halt its nuclear program, which Iran maintains is for civilian purposes only. Meanwhile, an ex-Mossad (Israeli intelligence) chief, Shatai Shavit, told The Sunday Telegraph of London that the "worst-case scenario" was that Tehran would develop nuclear weapons within a year, and, therefore, require Israel to strike at Iran.

Hersh, again
Making the situation all the more difficult is a groundbreaking report written by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, saying that in 2007, the US Congress approved a $400 million request, sent by Bush, for covert operations in Iran, aimed at destabilizing the regime.

The veteran US journalist has a track record when it comes to breaking big news on how to deal with Iran and the so-called Shi'itification of the Arab world. Last year, he gave an interview to CNN International, saying that Saudi Arabia and the Americans were funding Sunni fundamental groups in Lebanon to stand up to Hezbollah.

In March 2007, he wrote an essay called "The Redirection" claiming the US was once again funding and arming Sunni fundamentalists - just as it did with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the 1980s - to stand up to the Shi'ites in the Arab world. It also said that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was involved in destabilizing Iran from within by supporting ethnic and religious groups that were at odds end with the country's majority Shi'ite population.

The architects of this policy, responsible for "the redirection", are US Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams and former ambassador and current Saudi National Security Adviser, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Hersh said, "It's not that we don't want the Salafis to throw bombs, it's who they throw them at - Hezbollah, Muqtada al-Sadr and the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran."

Many dismissed these words as part of Hersh's imagination, but this time, in June, he adds evidence to his words, proving that if a war was not in the horizon for Iran, something serious is being prepared by the Americans. Interestingly, his new article is called "Preparing the Battlefield".

Reportedly, the $400 million is to be spent by the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) on arming terrorist groups like the Mujahideen Khalq (MEK), supporting minority groups such as the Ahwazi Arabs, Kurds, Azeris and Balochi. That is, the 40% non-Persian citizens of Iran are being singled out to break the regime from within.

Vali Nasr, an Iranian professor at Tufts University in the US, notes, "Just because Lebanon, Iraq and Pakistan have ethnic problems, it does not mean that Iran is suffering from the same issue." He added, "Iran is an old country, like France and Germany, and its citizens are just as nationalistic. The US is overestimating ethnic tension in Iran." Nasr notes that the groups being groomed by the Americans are either weak, or, at best, marginal, adding, "You can always find some activist groups that will go and kill a policeman, but working with the minorities will backfire, and alienate the majority of the population."

One of the groups sleeping with the CIA, for example, comprises Sunni fundamentalists, known as Balochis, who produced Ramzi Yousef, one of the key players in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, an organizer of the September 11, 2001, attacks. Another group is Jundullah, a Salafi organization, while a third is the MEK, which has been on the US State Department's list of A-class terrorists for over 10 years.

The Americans realize, however, these groups are not too strong, nor are they capable of bringing down a strong regime like the one in Tehran. Any strike on Iran that does not bring down the regime will only make it stronger. But at least, and if their activities are accompanied by Israeli strikes on nuclear sites in Natanz and Asfahan, then this might pressure Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to abandon his country's nuclear program.

Hersh acknowledges how disastrous any new Persian adventure would be, and recounts a conversation between a Democratic senator friend of his, and US Defense Secretary William Gates. The latter, realizing the horrors and seriousness of such a threat, said that if the US bombed Iran, "We will create generations of jihadis, and our grandchildren will be battling our enemies here in America!"

But despite all of what is being said and done, neither the United States nor Israel can wake up tomorrow and fire missiles into Asfahan or Tehran. They need a pretext.

Strange as it may sound, the Americans are actually pressuring Iran into doing things and saying things that might give Israel or the US all the reason it needs to go for a full-scale offensive, by December.

One is the closure of the Strait of Hormuz. Naturally, this closure would happen - and serve as a very effective yet double-edged sword - around 24 to 48 hours before any strike takes place.

In 1967, Gamal Abdul-Nasser did a similar thing with the Strait of Tiran, closing it to any shipment bound for Israel, thus blockading the Israeli port of Eilat at the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba. Israel considered the closure to be illegal.

In the UN General Assembly immediately after the war, many nations argued that even if international law gave Israel the right of passage, Israel was not entitled to attack Egypt to assert it because the closure was not an "armed attack" as defined by article 51 of the UN charter.

Similarly, international law professor John Quigley argued that Israel would only be entitled to use such force as would be necessary to secure its right of passage. Nasser did not see it coming. He thought that by these kinds of actions, he would scare off the Israelis in 1967. What started out as a minor border incident in April 1967 led to a full war that led to the loss of the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula and the West Bank.

Nasser did not see it coming in 1967. Saddam did not see it coming in 2003. Leaders usually develop a blind spot when in the seat of power and it seems that Iran as well, does not see it coming - or has realized, a little too late.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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