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Archive for February, 2007

[Originally published in The Herald of Randolph.]

Iranians know that around 550 BC, they ruled a great empire that ranged from the Central Mediterranean to the Indus River and that their civilization dates back to 4000 BC.  That history of power and preeminence is very much a part of who they are today.  They have a sense of their own history and place in the world.  With all their oil, they are not a ragtag country.

There has long existed a strong rivalry between Persians and Arabs with each seeking to be the preeminent power in the Persian/Arab Gulf. Iraq has brought those ancient rivalries more out in the open, with the Arabs generally supporting the Sunnis and the Persians supporting the Shia, and with both seeking dominance in the Gulf.

Western preoccupation with Iran’s atomic program has resulted so far only in the imposition of minimal sanctions on Iran, but the US-led push to impose further, more stringent sanctions has already resulted in a reaction inside the country.  Fearing such sanctions, Iranians have been buying up foodstuffs and other staples.  This has resulted in a sharp increase in prices which, in turn, has spread to other segments of the economy. Western reporters today describe widespread discontent among the general population.  This has been picked up by students who form today’s Iranian intelligentsia, and that has led to rumblings of discontent with President Ahmadinejad among Iranian lawmakers.

During the last election, Ahmadinejad promised to use oil revenues to end poverty and alleviate unemployment. Instead, Iran is suffering from unemployment and inflation, both estimated at between 10 and 30 percent.  This has brought him under criticism from all quarters.  Even conservative lawmakers are complaining that his nuclear policy and stridently anti-american foreign policy should be put aside in favor of fixing the economy.

At the same time, a bellicose US administration is beefing up US forces in Iraq, moving additional warships into the Gulf, quietly backing anti-Shiite groups in Lebanon, moving Patriot missiles to the region and trumpeting the capture of Iranian agents in the Kurdish area. This aggressiveness has prompted somber press speculation that the president is planning a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.   Many of our retired military officers and military pundits say that such an attack could not wipe out the Iranian nuclear facilities, and that it would only delay the production of a weapon by a few years.  Nevertheless, the Air Force apparently has a final plan for just such an attack.  Given this president’s demonstrated proclivity for secrecy and precipitous action, as well as his disinclination to accept expert opinion, it is difficult not to worry that there is some substance in all these concerns.

So, we have a perfect storm brewing.   Ahmadinejad and the Iranian conservatives needing an American attack to solidify their slipping control over their people and Bush and his aggressive conservatives looking for a fight, perhaps for more or less the same reasons.  An unprovoked Iranian attack on one of our ships in the Gulf could easily set it off.  That would only benefit Iran.

It is clear that if this president orders an attack on Iran for whatever reasons, there will be extremely serious consequences for us, for our former friends and for the few friends we have left in the world.  Remember, virtually every drop of oil coming out of the Gulf, or about 25% of daily world oil production, goes through the narrow, Iranian-controllable Straits of Hormuz.

It is equally clear that there is ferment in Iran and that it represents a real threat to the future of Ahmadinejad, his followers and the Revolutionary Guards that support him.  If we can simply let that discontent ferment and perhaps even exacerbate and accelerate it, concern about Iran’s nuclear weapon and its difficult government may diminish.  If they do not drop their nuclear plans, we are told that it will be another 5 years before they have a bomb.  We have enough time to try everything but the military option.  It is worth taking that chance.

If we attack Iran, it will put an end to the ferment in that country.  All Iranians will unite behind the government. America will lose whatever shred of credibility it may still have in the Middle East, as well as whatever minimal ability we might still have to influence events there in our favor.  If we attack while we are still in Iraq, there is no telling what will happen there.  In short, an American air strike against Iran will have unpredictable consequences and bankrupt us politically, not only in that neighborhood, but also just about everywhere in the world.  A hands-off policy may maintain the conditions needed to bring down the regime.  That should be a no-brainer.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served, inter alia, in Lebanon and Iran and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff.  He lives in Williston.

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