- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 4, 2005

In a single news cycle:

• The chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency tells the Senate Armed Services Committee North Korea has the wherewithal to stick a nuclear device in the nose cone of a three-stage, long-range missile that can reach Hawaii and Alaska.

• The Bush administration sells to Israel for $30 million 100 bunker-busting bombs clearly designed as a signal to Iran it may be next on the hit list unless it ceases and desists its quest for nuclear power.

• Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pleads with Congress for funds to research nuclear bunker-busters to get at weapons of mass destruction facilities hidden underground (presumably in Iran and North Korea);

• The Pentagon, according to calculated leaks, is polishing a contingency plan for 240 air strikes over three days, including Tomahawk cruise missiles, to set Iran’s nuclear plans back 10 years.

• Scott Ritter, the controversial ex-Marine turned UNSCOM weapons inspector in Iraq, who correctly predicted there were no WMD in Saddam’s arsenal, says the plan to bomb Iran’s widely scattered nuclear installations has been approved by President Bush. Mr. Ritter predicts the massive air attack against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure will take place next June.

Mr. Bush has pledged Iran will not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. This ancient civilization of 70 million people, ruled by a theocracy of aging clerics since 1979, has been doing just that for the last 18 years. Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, Pakistan’s Dr. Strangelove, made his first million or two by midwifing Iran’s bid to become the world’s ninth nuclear power. It is now positioned for 10th place after North Korea.

The Bush administration, loath to talk directly to nuclear pretenders, tasked the Europe Union’s three major powers — the United Kingdom, Germany and France — to play both hardball and softball to persuade Iran to give up its quest. So far, no luck, except for Iran’s temporary moratorium on enriching uranium to weapons-grade quality. The economic incentives are judged derisory by Iran and the disincentives — pre-emptive U.S. or Israeli air strikes — lack credibility.

Iran knows the United States knows it could make life hell for U.S. objectives in Iraq. Iran also has a regional apparatus of terrorist sleeper cells that can be activated quickly. Hezbollah’s several thousand strong militia is armed and funded by Iran.

Iran has an 800-mile mountainous border with Iraq, largely unguarded. Countless thousands have moved into Iraq since the United States toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in April 2003. For years, Islamist terrorists infiltrated Iraq from Iran, with the blessing of the mullahs, smuggling weapons to anti-Saddam Kurds. When Kurdish peshmerga fighters, backed by U.S. Special Forces, attacked Ansar al-Islam, an al Qaeda affiliate, in the opening phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom, hundreds of guerrillas fled back into Iran.

The Iranian government, under President Mohammad Khatami, wants a Shi’ite-dominated government to succeed in Baghdad. The regime’s Revolutionary Guards have a different agenda. An anti-U.S. theocracy is their objective.

The Pentagon always has contingency plans for every contingency. If EU3’s negotiations with Tehran fail, the battleground will shift to the U.N. Security Council with a request from the United States for a vote on draconian economic sanctions against Tehran.

China recently negotiated a long-term oil deal to fuel its dizzying economic development. Russia is making good money helping Iran’s nuclear development, ostensibly for electric power in a country with huge oil reserves. Moscow says it is satisfied Iran is not developing nuclear weapons. So the chances are slim Russia and China will support a tough sanctions regime against Iran. A Russia-China veto is likelier. Scott Ritter has probably extrapolated a U.N. deadlock into U.S. air strikes. And air strikes into regime change. The U.S. Air Force has been training for major air attacks against Iran’s nuclear facilities. So has the Israeli Air Force with its limited air-to-air refueling capability. But an Israeli Air Force general in Washington last week said privately he hoped the United States — and not Israel — would ‘take out’ what he judged to be a mortal peril to Israel’s survival.

An Israeli air strike would have to fly over Iraq and/or Saudi Arabia. This could not be done without U.S. acquiescence. And if attempted without a White House green light, the United States would be blamed for it anyway.

Mr. Bush’s crusade for democracy and freedom in the Middle East would come to a jarring halt either way — U.S. or Israeli fighter bombers taking out Iran’s ability to acquire nuclear power. The crusade already ran into a roadblock in Saudi Arabia. A 10-day exercise in using the ballot box for municipal elections, sans women voters, gave a clean sweep to Islamist activists endorsed by the Wahhabi clergy. Moderate reformers had their clocks cleaned.

The big news from Iraq has been overshadowed by serial terrorist car-bombings. Massive corruption in the last year under the provisional government has bled Iraq of tens of millions of dollars. The funds disappeared with no accounting.

European intelligence services with agents in Iraq report one of the easiest ways for anti-U.S. elements to scam funds is through nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) involved in reconstruction and humanitarian projects. These European agents also say Saddam loyalists and pro-al Qaeda insurgents have infiltrated almost every level of government.

There are some 3,000 NGOs in Iraq, most above reproach. But off the record, many concede little can be accomplished without kickbacks to local officials, police and even terrorists.

The average is about 30 percent per layer of bribes to get anything done. In some cases, that left 25 percent of the original budget for ordinary Iraqis.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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