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War with Iran? Congress says OK

October 29, 2006|Jon Sawyer | Jon Sawyer is director of the Washington-based Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. He has reported from Iran and throughout the Middle East.

AN EMBATTLED president, a Congress distracted by a sex scandal, looming midterm elections -- and yet overwhelming agreement, with scant debate or publicity, on fateful legislation that set the nation on a path to war.

It happened eight autumns ago, when three-quarters of the House of Representatives and every single senator voted for regime change in Iraq.

Has it happened again, on Iran?

Four weeks ago, Congress enacted and President Bush signed the Iran Freedom Support Act, a resolution very much in the spirit of the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act. It mandates sanctions against any country aiding Iran's nuclear programs, even those to which that country is legally entitled under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The new law got virtually no coverage in the congressional rush to adjourn and amid the controversy surrounding e-mails between Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and teenage boys serving in the House page program. It has been overshadowed since by North Korea's explosion of a nuclear device and the world's debate about how to respond.

But if the confrontation over Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program ends in war -- initiated by this administration or the next -- you can bet this law will be cited as proof that Congress was onboard all along.

The congressional action isn't the only sign of deja vu. Recent months have seen the creation of an "Iran directorate" at the Pentagon, using some of the same personnel as the Office of Special Plans, the shadowy Pentagon outfit led by former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith that was accused of massaging raw intelligence on Iraq to make the case for war look far more solid than in fact it was.

Iran has now supplanted Iraq as the greatest single threat to the United States, according to the National Security Strategy released earlier this year. Articles in the New Yorker and Time describe an accelerated rate of contingency military planning in an environment in which many senior officials -- on the military and civilian sides -- consider war with Iran more a question of when rather than if.

As in the run-up to the Iraq war, there are assertions of a broad consensus of experts' views that Iran is intent on developing a nuclear weapons capability; and, just as in 2003, there are muted voices questioning how definitive the evidence is. (The most recent National Intelligence Estimate found that Iran's progress toward weapons capability was actually slower than previously thought, and Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte says that, in his view, Iran is still four to nine years away from having the bomb.)

Once again, U.S. officials are discounting the work of U.N. weapons inspectors on site, and, once again, those inspectors -- and the agencies for which they work -- are saying that the best way to contain the nuclear threat is to keep them in place.

"People confuse knowledge, industrial capacity and intention," Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told Newsweek magazine in an interview last week. "A lot of what you see about Iran right now is assessment of intentions."

He and other IAEA officials warn that the Bush administration's hard-line suspicions of Iran could make reading those intentions even harder. Tehran has already suspended IAEA access to some nuclear facilities and could expel the international inspectors entirely. It happened in Iraq in 1998 -- and the vacuum that followed made possible ever-more speculative estimates as to Iraq's imagined progress toward fielding weapons of mass destruction.

The run-up to possible war is also marked, yet again, by the absence of firsthand knowledge of the enemy.

The war to topple Saddam Hussein came 12 years after the rupture of diplomatic relations, with U.S. policymakers dependent on questionable exile groups long removed from direct knowledge of conditions inside the country. In the case of Iran, the gap is longer still -- nearly 27 years since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized power.

Assistant Secretary of State R. Nicholas Burns announced earlier this year that State Department diplomats would be based in Dubai and elsewhere in the Middle East and Europe to monitor Iran, in a move he likened to Riga Station, the Latvian capital where, during the 1920s and 1930s, diplomats such as George Kennan kept tabs on the Soviet Union. The effort comes late. As Burns himself acknowledged, as recently as early last year, "there were exactly two people focusing full time on Iran" at the State Department.

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