President Barack Obama seems to be responding at last to American neo-conservative calls for a tougher stance with Iran over its nuclear programme, though he may balk at “regime change”.
With the Obama administration nowhere near the stage where it might declare that “all options are on the table”, increased covert backing of ethnic groups in Iran is one action under consideration, though it carries with it the potential threat of resurgent Kurdish nationalism.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s offer on Tuesday to hand over enriched uranium to foreign countries for reprocessing – an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) demand it rejected in October – has been met with scepticism by the United States, France and Germany, who are now pushing for further UN sanctions against the regime.
The IAEA has called on Iran to send 70 per cent of its low-enriched uranium to France and Russia to be reprocessed, to be returned in a year’s time as fuel for Iranian nuclear power stations.
However, with Russia reportedly amenable to Tehran’s offer, which was reportedly lacking in detail, and China proposing further negotiations, Western officials are concerned that Tehran’s offer is an attempt to buy time by splitting the international community, much as Saddam Hussein did in Iraq during the UN’s nuclear weapons inspections.
Sensing the moment for a comeback, neo-conservatives in the US have been urging Obama to stand up to Tehran. In an article in the Weekly Standard titled “More Mr Nice Guy”, the former US envoy to the UN, John Bolton (a Bush hawk), says “three sets of Security Council restrictions against Iran have only glancingly affected Tehran’s nuclear program, and the Obama administration’s threats of ‘crippling sanctions’ have disappeared along with last year’s series of ‘deadlines’ that Iran purportedly faced. In response, Tehran’s authoritarianism and belligerence have only increased…”
Bolton – a familiar face on BBC’s Newsnight even today — does not go so far as to suggest the United States bomb Iran, but one senses his frustration.
On the surface, Robert Kagan, a fellow neo-con of Bolton’s, also seems to be pursuing moderation, urging Israel to refrain from attacking Iran at a time when the Tehran regime is reeling from sometimes violent opposition: “It would be … tragic if Israel damaged the likelihood of political change by carrying out an airstrike against Iran’s nuclear facilities … That would provide a huge boost to the Tehran regime just when it is on the ropes…”
But, ever the tinkerer with the geopolitical world map, Kagan warns that “if too much time passes without change in Iran, Israel may feel compelled to attack” and asks this question: “What is more likely: that Iran’s present leadership will agree to give up its nuclear program or that these leaders will be toppled?” So, Kagan returns to the Bush “regime change” formula, which he considers “is more important than any deal the Obama administration might strike with Iran’s present government on its nuclear program…”
Ruling out an Iraq-style attack, however, what shape might regime change take? Some analysts point to the Kurdish; Ahwaz Arab; Baluch and Azeri ethnic groups that have been a thorn in the side of the mullahs’ regime for some time.
Kurdish PJAK (Party of Free Life in Kurdistan) rebels in Iran have been receiving arms and training by the CIA and Mossad, which also supports other Kurdish groups, while Baluch rebels are backed by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Both Kurds and Baluchs are Sunni Muslims; the Azeris, the largest ethnic group in Iran, are Shiites and though fairly affluent, are discriminated against by Persians.
The Shiite Ahwaz Arabs, though not especially militant, are a potential threat because they are concentrated in southern Khuzestan province, which produces 80 percent of Iran’s crude oil. The various separatist Arab groups are splintered, but if unified could conceivably be an ally in any attempt at “regime change”.
None of these options is likely to be easy. Turkey, which angered the Bush administration by refusing the US access to its bases in the run-up to the Iraq war, is concerned that the US is now allowing the free movement of PKK guerrillas (which seek independence from Turkey) in northern Iraq to facilitate PJAK operations in Iran.
While the US is intent on keeping Kurds within a unified Iraqi state along with Sunni and Shia Muslims, Turkey fears that arming and encouraging PJAK poses the risk of Kurds making a bid for an independent state.
That wouldn’t worry Kagan. “Were the Iranian regime to fall on Obama’s watch … and were he to play some visible role in helping, his place in history as a transformational world leader would be secure.”