Iran's Ahmadinejad regime and the White House are engaged in a new round of jockeying.
On the anniversary of the 1979 Iranian revolution, Feb. 11, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that Iran was proceeding with nuclear enrichment and has the ability to create weapons-grade nuclear fuel if it wants to. The government undertook massive security measures before the anniversary to prevent major protests.
On a visit to Qatar and Saudi Arabia last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Iran is becoming a military dictatorship run by its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. She told a Feb. 15 news conference that Iran's religious and political leaders must "take back the authority which they should be exercising on behalf of the people."
A report in the UK Guardian describes the Revolutionary Guards as a political/economic/secret police "business conglomerate" that has amassed growing power through ownership and control over major industries like construction, oil and gas, import/export and telecommunications. It is, the article says, "a behemoth that dominates both Iran's official and black economies."
The Obama administration is drafting new sanctions it will try to get the United Nations to adopt against Iran, aimed specifically at the Revolutionary Guards. However Russia is reluctant and China, another of the five countries with UN Security Council veto power, continues to oppose more sanctions, saying they have been ineffective and arguing for pursuing diplomacy.
The new U.S. sanctions effort is believed to reflect an administration strategy for dealing with the mass opposition movement rocking Iran. By identifying the Revolutionary Guards as the main culprit behind Iran's nuclear enrichment maneuvers as well as its domestic political repression, the White House may hope to show that the U.S. moves against Iran's nuclear program are not directed at the Iranian people.
At the same time, Clinton, as well as Gen. David Petraeus and Joint Chiefs of Staff head Adm. Mike Mullen, who also visited the region, offered beefed up military aid to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, pledging U.S. protection against any Iranian nuclear threat.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz noted that the Obama administration had sent its most senior officials to the Middle East in an attempt to calm both Israeli and Arab leaders.
Haaretz pointed to escalating confrontational language by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ahmadinejad, and noted: "The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chief of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, warned in Tel Aviv on Sunday of the unexpected consequences of an Israeli attack on Iran .... Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Qatar that Iran's neighbors, who are worried about its nuclear plans, must rely on the American defense umbrella. And next week, Vice President Joseph Biden will visit Israel to pass on a similar message."
Haaretz called it a "friendly warning ... from the Obama administration, which opposes a preemptive Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities."
The White House faces a tricky situation in figuring out how to deal with Iran.
Under the headline "What Should Obama Do Next On Iran?" the National Journal says the most frequently discussed options are:
* "continued gradual pressure from the UN Security Council, combined with other U.S.-led, non-U.N.-approved sanctions targeted narrowly at the Revolutionary Guards and hardliners associated with Iran's nuclear and missile programs;
* "'crippling' sanctions, to include a ban or embargo on refined petroleum imports to Iran, as urged by the U.S. House and Senate and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu;
* "full open and clandestine support for the opposition 'green movement';
* "military strikes against Iran's nuclear complex."
Responses from an array of academic, military and intelligence types overwhelmingly reject sanctions, military strikes and involvement in Iran's internal politics, calling all these ineffective or worse. One, Paul Sullivan, an economics professor at National Defense University, comments:
"A question I often wonder about: what if major issues in the region and beyond were to be solved or at least managed better? Could this undercut Iran in some quarters and start to peel off some of its supporters? Maybe the answer is not inside Iran, but outside of Iran."
Food for thought.
Photo: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton walks with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal on her arrival in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Feb. 15. (AP/Hassan Ammar)