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The Chalabi case: what does it imply for Iran?

By Amir Ali Nourbakhsh - Editor

Iran Focus MAY 2004 (ORDIBEHESHT-KHORDAD 1383), VOL 17 NO 6

This article is from the political-economic monthly IRAN FOCUS, published by the UK based Menas Associates. For more on Menas Associates please visit


Late in May, CIA sources reported that the Iraqi National Congress (INC) had passed classified information to Iran. The finger of suspicion was pointed at Ahmad Chalabi. Since he was once  a US favorite, many had thought that he would emerge as Iraq's next leader.

Chalabi says he has come under suspicion because of his recent open criticism of Washington's plans to transfer power to the Iraqi people at the end of June.

The CIA asserts that it has "hard evidence" that Chalabi and his intelligence chief, Aras Karim Habib, passed US secrets to Tehran. The accusations hold too that Habib, a Shia Kurd, was all along a paid Iranian agent who passed intelligence in both directions.

Habib, who is being sought by Iraqi police, has been Chalabi's right-hand man for more than a decade. Apparently, he was in charge of a Pentagon-funded intelligence collection programme in the run-up to the attacks on Iraq. The Baghdad headquarters of Chalabi has been raided. Now Chalabi's lawyers have written to Paul Bremer, the US administrator of Iraq, condemning the raid and demanding financial restitution.

Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi described the allegations as baseless. "We have not received any classified information, either from Chalabi or any member of the Iraqi Governing Council," he said.

A new US concern or a pretext to pressure Iran?
The first question that comes to mind here is whether the Chalabi affair is based on genuine US concerns or is designed to provide the Washington hawks with another foreign policy instrument against Tehran.

Irrespective of whether or not the new accusations are well founded, it is necessary to ask what precipitates the US to admit to or claim such a stab in the back from its 25-year adversary? If the claim is a false one, what intention lies behind this policy?

And if the US is genuinely convinced of the accusations, what precipitates the US to belittle itself to such an extent - admitting that it has been fooled by Iran?

Scenario 1 The US is using Chalabi to pressure Iran
Should the whole Chalabi case be found to be a set-up or even an exaggeration of a minor predicament it will signify that the American neo-conservatives are still on the rise. Some analysts argue that even if that were the case, the hawkish US attitude in its foreign policy would diminish once the neo-cons were voted out by the American nation, theoretically next November. This argument is not necessarily correct. The following points offer clarification:

- First, the question of hard line or soft line in US foreign policy is not specific to party politics. There are Democrat politicians who are as tough on US foreign affairs as current Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Pentagon hawks such as Paul Wolfowitz served under Democrat President Jimmy Carter. Also, neo-cons Henry Jackson and Richard Perle were Democrats. In other words, there has been a hardline mindset all along among Democrats since the late 1970s.
The Democrat administration of Bill Clinton also embarked on the Pentagon's hawkish new Defense Planning Guidance that Zalmey Khalilzad (an originally Pashtun American, hostile to the Islamic Republic) had prepared under Wolfowitz in 1992. Moreover, it was the Clinton administration that distanced itself from the UN and the concept of collective security, which eventually led to the military intervention in Somalia in 1993, and also in Kosovo, without UN approval. Hence, the attitude of a Democrat administration under John Kerry, if he is elected, will very much depend on the line-up of his team, which is still unclear.

- Secondly, since 11 September, it has become very difficult to draw a clear line between foreign policy objectives of even the most dovish of Democrats and the most hawkish of the Republicans. The central objective is national security and combating terrorism, which both Democrats and Republicans relate to Iran.

The difference will merely lie in the strategies used to deal with the perceived problem. Hence, Democrats might change the "regime change" discourse against Iran but will definitely not give any concessions before Washington's requirements are met by Iran. Under the current domestic political realities, it is highly unlikely that Iran will address US concerns. Even if there was a will among some Iranian conservatives to cooperate with Washington, the domestic situation in Iran would not allow such a détente with the US.

- Thirdly, US foreign policy has always been determined by a variety of institutions and mindsets. Apart from the White House, the Congress and the State Department, the Pentagon, the CIA and powerful lobbies have especially in the past decade set the tone for the pro-hawkish US attitude vis-à-vis "rogue states" such as Iran. It is unthinkable to assume that the Pentagon, the CIA or the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) would favor a détente with Tehran under the given circumstances. Now, with the departure of the Democrat George Tenet from the CIA, the agency's attitude might even turn out to become more aggressive towards Iran.

Also, given the chaos that the US created in Iraq, Washington feels the need to psychologically distance itself from responsibility there. The US search for a scapegoat leaves, according to Middle East expert Professor Fred Halliday of the London School of Economics, three possible candidates: Iran, Israel and Turkey. Considering Turkey's and Israel's good relations with Washington, Iran provides the best choice.

All said, using Chalabi as a means of leverage against Iran should not be read only as the US administration's new initiative to plunge into the role of the victim, instead of the villain. This will have severe consequences for Iran if US foreign policies do not fail as they did in Iraq. To put the blame on Iran would not only release the hawks from a considerable amount of international and domestic pressure, but would also further weaken a long-time enemy like Iran. This is in harmony with the policy that the US has been pursuing for some time already.

Theoretically, the new accusations could keep Tehran under constant US pressure, even if the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board of governors were to decide on 14 June to acquit Iran of US accusations that it has been developing weapons of mass destruction. In fact, all indications are that Iran will suffer more pressure from the international community with regard to its nuclear dilemma in the weeks to come.

The Chalabi case could adversely affect the reputation of a country like Iran which has already suffered under the spotlight of US negative public relations. Any deterioration of Iran's reputation, which only recovered under President Mohammad Khatami, would benefit the hawks, who have an ideological stake in antagonizing Iran.

US neo-cons, given their current good relations with Tel Aviv, will have a lot to lose if the way is paved for a rapprochement between Tehran and Washington. First, a reconciliation would endanger the projected oil pipeline from Baku, Azerbaijan, to Ceyhan, Turkey, which has been favored so much by Tel Aviv. International oil firms that operate in the Caspian Sea region would push for a shorter and cheaper pipeline route - through Iran - to salt water, that is, against the interest of the US allies. Secondly, Israel's quest for the waters of Lebanon's Litani River will be jeopardized, as Iran's support for the Lebanese Hezbollah has made that very difficult. Thirdly, the US hawks will be deprived of one of their main enemies; something that the world's lone superpower could barely afford in the post-Cold War setting, at least according to the mindset of the neo-cons.

Scenario 2 The US's genuine concerns will prompt genuine action
Should Washington be seriously concerned about Iran having fooled the US intelligence apparatus, the collision course will certainly be prolonged. If Washington was heretofore concerned only about Iran's nuclear weapons programme, its disruptions of the Middle East Peace Process, its support of terrorism and violations of human rights, now the ruling circles in Washington are also worried about Iran's active intelligence and counter-espionage capabilities. The US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan will certainly make this much more of an issue.

Such considerations will have their own consequences. First, the US needs to keep the EU on its side. Never before in the past seven years - since Khatami was elected president in 1997 - have the Europeans been so cooperative with the US against Iran. The reasons for this are the failure of the EU's engagement policies with Iran, Tehran's repeated lack of commitment to the IAEA and generally the fact that Iran has not cooperated with the international community to the extent that the US expected and the EU promised.

Another case of "Iranian deception" - the Chalabi case - especially against the Coalition Forces, where the EU is also a key stakeholder, would make a return to Iran-friendly policies for the EU very difficult. By the same token, the mutual US-EU security concerns after 11 September will make European business with Iran - which has always been frowned upon in Washington - ever harder.
The Europeans will find it difficult to argue in favor of bilateral trade relations with Iran if the US provides "hard evidence" that Tehran has been deceiving the Americans and Europeans in Iraq.

This is especially the case if the leaking information is connected to the sensitive issue of hideouts for nuclear weapons. According to the New York Times, Tehran sent a bogus message to Baghdad purportedly disclosing the location of an important weapons site in an apparent attempt to test whether what they were hearing was true.

This article has attempted to show that irrespective of the motives that lie behind the new US allegations against Tehran, the consequence will be more animosity. An end to the collision course between Iran and the US in the foreseeable future would be possible only if the neo-cons were to lose to a moderate Democrat party in November, provided the Democrats changed their foreign policy objectives completely. So far there are no signs that the Democrats would pursue friendlier policies with Iran. Indeed, if the Democrats win, the world might witness the birth of a new generation of hawkish Democrats.

By the same token, the rise of the conservatives to the corridors of power in Tehran makes a rapprochement ever more difficult. Although many have speculated that the conservatives, once in power in Tehran, would immediately establish ties with the US, hitherto the stances of conservative MPs, their death slogans directed against the US, and hostile Friday Prayer sermons are not providing any such signposts.

What can, however, be said about Tehran-Washington relations is that the Chalabi case does not only point at a tougher US stance on Iran. It also indicates that if the hawkish mindset survives the next election, and until then, the US will try harder to change the regime in Tehran.

The decision-making process and the factional struggles aside, the US faces a difficult challenge that the Iraq lesson might have even proven to be impossible. Iran is a sovereign and not a failed or weak state as some hawks insisted about Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran is three times larger and more populous than Iraq, which would makes it all the more difficult to invade. The Islamic Republic is a growing and stable economy with growing international business links. Despite obstacles to foreign direct investment, inflows to certain sectors are gradually improving, if not booming.

Iran, with or without nuclear power, can deter and attack Israel using its Shahab-3 ballistic missiles, if push comes to shove. An American or Israeli pre-emptive strike to prevent nuclear proliferation in Iran could provoke retaliation by Tehran in an asymmetric or non-conventional manner. Also, if a strike on Iran's nuclear sites was to fail to fully destroy them, Tehran would be more encouraged to retaliate with a nuclear bomb, if it is indeed close to having the bomb, as the hawks argue.

Moreover, it is almost certain that the US would not receive any support in the UN Security Council, if it decided to attack Iran or even to surgically target its nuclear sites. On top of that, the US sanction policies against Iran have proved to be an abject failure.

On the other hand, experts agree that the Islamic Republic is not only coup-proof, but that a revolution - despite vast public discontent - is out of the question. The above paradigm leaves a US determined to deal with Iran with just a few options.

- Washington will cooperate with Iran only if a unified voice in Iran guarantees compliance and cooperation with Washington. This is the most unlikely scenario.
- Washington will try to move towards a more coercive approach with Iran. Given the arguments
in this article, this is also an unlikely outcome.
- The US will move more in line with the EU foreign policy on Iran. This is the most likely scenario, especially since the US has currently the necessary tools to intensify the EU's stance on Iran.

Signposts as to whether the last outcome is likely are:
- continuation or deterioration of EU's tough stance on Iran;
- harsher stances from within the IAEA vis-à-vis Tehran;
- a deterioration in Iran-EU economic relations, for example, the further suspension of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement between Iran and Europe;
- intensified human rights discourse by EU member states;
- further condemnation of the February election in Iran as undemocratic by the EU and US, or discussions by Europeans on the legitimacy of the new Majlis;
- The emergence of new or re-emergence of old human rights issues that would undermine Iran's relations with Europe, such as the Mykonos affair. 


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