Features

When the West blinks

Iran | A new deal, experts say, is "all carrots all the time"

Issue: "Death blow," June 17, 2006

Outposts dotting the rugged mountains between Iran and Iraq are a welcome assignment only for the diversion they represent from being cooped up in base camp.

U.S. soldiers take tours of duty here ranging from three days to three weeks, at elevations anywhere from 900 feet above sea level to more than 9,000. Some man signal stations; others patrol for illegal immigrants, insurgents, weapons, and other contraband coming from Iran. Some sleep in plywood shacks, live on coffee, and burn their waste by setting alight the steel drums placed beneath a wooden outhouse.

Others find themselves carrying out border patrols from Lejema Castle, a stone structure built by the British in the 1920s scarcely a mile from Iran. Wherever they are, border units know 360-degree vision is a must. "Our pride is to hide" boasts one retransmission unit. Enemies are on every side, and to be isolated in the Zagros Mountains is to be vulnerable.

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But if the 600-mile Iraq-Iran border poses extreme challenges-particularly as tensions spike with Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over an ongoing nuclear program-surprises lurk also. Looking over the Iranian mountains one hazy morning, a tanker with West Virginia Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 150th Armor told colleague Spc. Sherree Casper he was surprised to encounter an Iranian who asked, "When are you coming to free us?"

For now, the plea of the people is far from the minds of political leaders. Tehran's Islamic regime finds itself in a position any Middle East bully could love: High oil prices have the mullahs betting no Security Council that includes Russia and China will pass toothful sanctions against them; to do so is to risk a petroleum shutdown. Israel, they believe, hovers in a comatose state similar to that of its once-martial leader, Ariel Sharon, with Hamas ascending within its borders. European leaders, having negotiated unsuccessfully for months to snip the cord of the Iranians' inflated nuclear ambitions, make fun props to talk to. And the United States? Judging by poll numbers and casualty reports, Iran's leaders calculate that the Bush administration is in no position to open another front of armed invasion, no matter how nuclear they go.

That nothing-to-lose feeling underlies the confrontational thrum from Iran, highlighted by Mr. Ahmadinejad's boast in April that his country had successfully enriched uranium at its Natanz plant. Iran has its own uranium ore and has facilities in the works to convert it to gas and enrich the uranium, bringing to within months of completing facilities its potential for nuclear weapons, including a bomb.

With talks stalled and Iran on the way to completing its nuclear fuel cycle, the Bush administration made a historic concession on June 1 to enter into direct talks with Tehran. Three days later, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini delivered this taunt over national television: "If you make the slightest mistake regarding Iran, the flow of energy in this region will surely be jeopardized seriously. You must know this."

His audience responded, "Allah Akbar. Allah Akbar. Allah Akbar. Khamenei is the leader. . . . Death to America. Death to England. Death to the hypocrites and Saddam. Death to Israel."

The ayatollah rejoined, "You will never be able to guarantee the safe supply of energy in this region. . . . We adhere to our ambitions and to our national interests. Whoever threatens our interests will feel the sharp wrath of this people."

Why are Iran's leaders so belligerent just now? Ironically, the quixotic euphoria is in part due to the United States defeating Iran's two leading foes. Iran went to war against Saddam Hussein a decade before the United States thought to (the United States, in fact, sided with Iraq in the decade-long Iran-Iraq war). Iran battled Afghanistan's Taliban regime before the United States fully faced its menace. When 11 Iranian diplomats were killed in 1998 after the Taliban seized Mazar-i-Sharif, Iran dispatched 70,000 troops to the border and tensions remained high until the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

Iran is intent to assert regional domination and win conflicts that ended inconclusively during this transitional moment when both foes lack stable governments. In the runup with the West over its nuclear ambitions, few have noted Iran's regional aggression, most notably in progress on intermediate missiles. This year Iran has already tested four missile classes, including an intercontinental ballistic missile, the Shihab 4, capable of hitting targets within the Arab world and as far away as Vienna and Budapest.

"Many are pessimistic about improving the situation with Iran," said Rolf Ekeus, former head of UN weapons inspections for Iraq, "and I belong to those pessimists. I think it is urgent to find common ground in a bilateral relationship-not first between Iran and the United States-but first between Persians and Arabs."

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