Monday 2 June 2003

Iran countdown begins

'Regime change', the Bush administration’s euphemism for invasion, is once more back on the lips of senior figures in Washington. This time the country being singled out as ripe for special treatment is Iran.

So far, the use of the phrase has not found its way into public speeches. Officially, the US still holds to its policy of cool detachment from Iran. However, the signals emanating from high-level briefings make it clear that a head of steam is once more building in Washington towards more drastic action.

It is not yet a done deal in Washington. Behind the scenes a fierce battle is being waged between the Pentagon and the State Department over what to do about Iran’s theocratic regime, described by President George W Bush last year as part of an "axis of evil", along with North Korea and Iraq.

The Pentagon wants to force regime change on Iran. The State Department wants dialogue.

If this sounds familiar, it is. It parallels the pre-invasion debate within Washington over Iraq, with most of the principal characters taking identical positions.

Heading the hawks are defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and vice-president Dick Cheney. Heading the doves is Secretary of State Colin Powell, this time in the company of Condoleezza Rice, head of the National Security Council, who last time was a hawk.

But the hawk camp is once again the same posse of neo-conservatives in key posts who last time forced through the invasion policy on Iraq. The difference this time, however, is that the talk is not of open war but of destabilisation. Pentagon officials advocate fomenting a popular uprising to topple Iran’s government.

Even so, Rumsfeld has not categorically ruled out an invasion. Asked in a radio interview last week if the US was going to go to war against Iran, he replied: "Not to my knowledge," before adding as a rider: "What might be decided depends, of course, on people’s behaviour."

The accusations against Iran are that it is trying to develop nuclear weapons, that it is fomenting trouble in Iraq, that it supports terrorism, and that it is harbouring al-Qaeda leaders.

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