Published on Sunday, April 16, 2006 by the Observer/UK
So How Close is a Showdown Over Iran?
News of British involvement in a mock invasion of Iran is just the latest step in what seems a slow slide to war.
by Paul Harris in Washington, Gaby Hinsliff in London and Robert Tait in Tehran

It would seem, to Middle Eastern eyes scanning the latest headlines online yesterday, yet further evidence of secret plans for the conflict that everyone is now dreading. Britain, it was suggested, had taken part in an American war game that simulated an invasion of Iran, in an apparent mockery of both countries' insistence that they want a diplomatic - not a military - solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis.

But in the overheated atmosphere of current debate over Iran, nothing is quite what it seems. The simulated battle, fought in 2004 and codenamed Hotspur, was in fact one of a series of 'paper exercises' that have been conducted every few weeks by senior military planners on both sides of the Atlantic since the Sixties to test strategic readiness. Each time, a different country is invaded.

To save inventing new topography every time, maps of real countries around the world are used in strict rotation. In July 2004 - before the current president came to power in Tehran - it happened to be Iran. A few weeks ago, it was Scotland. If Tehran is panicking as a result of the story, so too should Edinburgh.

For all that, the story on the front page of yesterday's Guardian is an indication, if not of imminent invasion, of an intense period of smoke and mirrors both in Washington and Tehran: of posturing, lobbying and hyperbole that is as much to do with the domestic politics of the US and Iran, as with the threat posed by either country.

The war talk comes as a new report will argue this week that George Bush's war on terror is itself to blame for the nuclear stand-off over Iran.

The regime in Tehran has concluded, says the Foreign Policy Center think-tank, that the US is too bogged down fighting the insurgency in Iraq to try to stop the Iranians getting the bomb, making their defiance of the United Nations 'one of the little-noticed consequences of America's failure in Iraq'.

Controversially, it also argues that Iran 'cannot be entirely faulted' for seeking nuclear capability when it feels threatened by US troops in neighbouring countries and saw North Korea, a nuclear power, left untouched while the relatively undefended Iraq was invaded.

Which leaves a fundamental question to be answered. Amid the fanning of the flames by both sides, how real is the prospect of war?

Reading recent headlines, it would seem very real indeed, as they have warned of potential nuclear strikes by the US against Iran's nuclear facilities, floated by the veteran US investigative reporter Seymour Hersh and described by the Foreign Office as 'completely nuts'. The reality, however, is far more complex.

In truth the anonymous and warlike noises emanating from Washington reflect a debate about possible military action against Iran that has pitted hawks in the Bush administration - including such senior neo-conservatives as Vice- President Dick Cheney and the US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton - against large segments of the military, intelligence and political establishment.

In fact the debate in America is not over whether the US can or should stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons, but on how best to stop them.

At the moment the overwhelming consensus centers on a diplomatic strategy. Yet it is also certain that military options are being studied, if only theoretically.

While insisting that the military option will still be considered, the White House itself has moved sharply to distance itself from reporting on the issue.

There is no doubt, however, that signs emerging from the administration are familiar to any of those following events in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq - not least the building up of the threat posed by Iran by senior administration officials.

To some, the parallels are convincing enough. 'I would expect an attack in the next six months,' says Larry Johnson, a former deputy director in the State Department's counter-terrorism office. 'This is not just planning for possible military contingencies. There is real planning under way for carrying out a military strike against Iran.'

But many point to the huge problems of carrying out any form of attack - not least that it would fail to destroy much of an Iranian nuclear research programme buried deep underground. Then there is the risk to the US military in Iraq after any attack on Iran. Iran's close links to the majority Shias would likely see a widespread uprising against the US forces.

Finally, such a move would be unlikely to have any international support, except possibly from Israel, which is nervous of the potential consequences from Iran's Hizbollah allies on its northern border.

Such enormous difficulties - and the belief that the US joint chiefs of staff are against an attack - could mean that the public pronouncement and behind-the-scenes leaks and hints are just part of a complex game designed to convince Iran that the threat is real enough to dissuade its nuclear ambitions.

Johnson believes that the key task for US intelligence is to understand the threat of a nuclear Iran. Does Tehran want the bomb to attack US interests and Israel, or is it for self-preservation? 'They have learned the lesson of North Korea. Once you have nuclear weapons, the US sabre-rattling becomes much less. After all, with North Korea you have a genuine madman in control of a country with the bomb and yet we don't hear very much about them at all,' Johnson said.

The real US policy, enunciated by a senior State Department official close to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, revolves around a belief that Iran's hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is weaker than his bellicose attitude might suggest and is vulnerable to the pressure of international sanctions.

It is the figure of Ahmadinejad who is at the center of the conundrum of whether Iran and the US are slipping towards war.

On Friday Ahmadinejad was in Tehran at a conference on Palestinian aspirations for statehood. Such, however, was the international outcry surrounding his announcement three days earlier in the city of Mashhad that Iran had mastered the basics of uranium enrichment, that this subject seemed to be a mere sideshow to Iran's intensifying confrontation with the West.

With the President bearing the triumphal tidings in the presence of the country's atomic energy chief and an assortment of senior mullahs and military top brass, the outward impression was of a regime united in the face of intense pressure from the UN Security Council, which set a 30-day deadline last month for Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment activities.

Such unanimity, however, is by many accounts only superficial. Behind the scenes, a bitter war of words has taken place over Ahmadinejad's inflammatory rhetoric.

Hashemi Rafsanjani - the influential former president and a strong advocate of holding official talks with America - is a particular critic and is said to have denounced the President's tactics to his face. Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, has also warned about the international effects of the often-febrile remarks made by Ahmadinejad, who on Friday called yet again for Israel's destruction. Rafsanjani made his feelings clear by trumping the President's announcement in an interview with a Kuwaiti news agency, meaning the news was public hours in advance.

'There are some Iranian leaders, not least Rafsanjani, who think we should act more prudently and who don't approve of this radical trend,' said Dr Sadegh Zibakalam, a politics lecturer at Tehran University. 'They think we should buy friends in the international community by saying, for example, that we understand the anxiety about Iran's nuclear programme, but we can assure the West that it would in no way be intended to move towards an atomic weapon and that Iran is quite prepared to compromise.'

The deep divisions over tone are matched by differences over substance. Some analysts speculate that last week's announcement - having been sold as a historic national achievement - could presage a climbdown that would involve a return to negotiations.

'The main point for Iran throughout has been that voluntary suspension of nuclear activities could deprive it of the opportunity to complete the fuel cycle forever,' one analyst said. 'The West, especially the US, is pressing for a revision to the additional protocol of the NPT [nuclear non-proliferation treaty] that would bar non-fuel-producing countries from pursuing their own cycle. In that context, last week's move can be interpreted as a sign of Iran's willingness to compromise. Even those pushing for a tougher Iranian line agree that we could take several steps ahead before retreating, because then we would have something in our hands to bargain with.'

Zibakalam dismisses this as 'wishful thinking' and says Iran's leaders are determined to push ahead. They may, he says, eventually settle for a deal in which they agree to suspend industrial enrichment of uranium for two to five years while continuing laboratory work under international supervision.

If that is unacceptable to the West, then Iran is facing, at the very least, economic sanctions. Whether ordinary Iranians will take heed is far from certain.

'We have needs other than the nuclear program from a President who gave many promises to the young people,' said Ali Reza Ghamsari, 36, an official in a shipbuilding company. 'They need jobs and security. It's better for Iran to negotiate and co-ordinate its actions with the international community. I think the majority of the nation asks for such a thing. Otherwise, there is a high probability of sanctions and the President won't be able to deliver his promises.'

Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006