Playing the Iran Card

It is one thing to fight and lose. It is another to lose and win. The former involves miscalculating your chances. The latter involves accepting your losses up front. The latter is the cynic’s move.

Saddam Hussein sacrificed tens of thousands of largely inexperienced Iraqi troops in the Gulf War, while saving both tactical firepower and his best forces. Only a regime with little need for legitimacy could keep power after squandering so many men.

In the end, it looks like Saddam outsmarted everyone. He did so by lowering the bar to a point beneath which only he could crawl.

Now, with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan having brokered a diplomatic accord with Saddam, Bill Clinton has had to check his plan to bomb Iraq, at least temporarily. But even if the agreement holds, it is unlikely to control Saddam over time. Clinton needs a long-term plan — something he’s never had with Iraq before. And the only real option may be so far away that Clinton can’t see it. If he could, it might take many more years to realize than he has left–even if he survives every affair. But what would be hardest of all for America to fathom: this new anti-Saddam strategy would involve a tactical alliance with Iran — yes, Islamist Iran.

However novel, this alternative is grounded in realpolitik: Everyone who knows Saddam, including his neighbors and his own people, hates him more than they hate anybody else.

Seven years after the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein continues to squander his country’s treasure. His cynicism remains his trump card. Should Clinton ever decide to bomb, and even with the symbolic and logistical loss of allies like Saudi Arabia, the Clinton administration could still launch sustained air strikes against Iraq. Bombing might, in fact, delay Saddam’s capacity to produce chemical or biological weapons. But bombing alone is unlikely to remove him or change his regime. It could even produce a backlash. Any air campaign will produce some collateral damage. More civilians would suffer if Saddam were to deploy human shields at targets such as presidential palaces. The fallout would be worse still if the bombing were to release deadly chemical or biological agents. Meanwhile, Saddam is said never to sleep in the same place twice.

Committing ground forces, the only sure way to oust Saddam, has been ruled out. Hamstrung by the Lewinsky affair, and lacking strategic vision, Clinton could never muster the authority to deploy them. Former coalition allies will not commit any ground forces either. After years of wandering, this administration is lonely in the desert.

Many observers continue to hope that Iraqis themselves somehow oust Saddam. The presumption has always been that someone somewhere in the ruling hierarchy could do it. Indeed, the CIA still prays for a coup. To encourage one, former Bush administration officials like Paul Wolfowitz, who was a senior Pentagon planner, advocate supporting an Iraqi-government-in-exile. By continuing to place their bets on palace insiders, they underestimate Saddam. He has long guarded against a palace coup. Now he has a security force run by Qusay, his younger son.

Popular insurrection was once another option. Unlike the ruling hierarchy, most Iraqis are Shi’ites — like the regime and the vast majority of people in neighboring Iran. One-fifth of Iraq’s population is made up of Kurdish Sunnis who identify themselves first as Kurdish. Together, Arab Shi’ites and Kurds comprise four-fifths of the Iraqi people. U.S. officials, however, have always feared what self-determination might bring. It could lead to the secession of its Kurdish areas or turn Iraq into an Islamist state. So instead of chancing either, President Bush, like President Eisenhower in Hungary in 1956, provoked a revolt only to stand by as the insurrectionists were slaughtered.

Today, Clinton needs the same ground forces that Bush abandoned. Supported by neighboring states, commanding the respect of their region’s residents — many of whom risked everything — the Kurdish and Shi’ite rebels who rose up and tried to oust Saddam in March 1991 were the best hope that anybody has ever had of removing the Iraqi dictator. Now, the survivors are beat. They hate us and each other almost as much as they hate Saddam.

Thus, slick Willy is in a pickle. He and his advisers don’t know what to do. So they’ve been listening to the ghosts of the Bush administration and dusting off a dead plan. Clinton never had his own policy anyway. Instead, he followed Bush’s lead, and then let Langley steer. The spooks ran the ship aground. The agency’s anti-Saddam strategy is its worst regional blunder since the 1979 fall of the Shah in Iran. And the blowback from that debacle still blinds us. The 19-year-old memory of the 444-day embassy siege is what holds our strategy hostage now.

Could a new policy that involves Iran and others work? Writing under a pseudonym on The New York Times op-ed page, an ex-CIA officer in Iran recently suggested that it might. Maybe the spooks aren’t all as dumb as they act. On Sunday, an Iraqi Shi’ite leader based in Tehran and backed by Iran was quoted in the Times suggesting the same thing. Akram al-Hakim wants the United States to coordinate anti-Saddam efforts with Shi’ite forces inside Iraq. That would mean the U.S. would work alongside Iran. The strategy would be a big leap. It is fraught with caveats — not to mention the ghosts of the past.

But it still may be the best chance anybody’s got. Sure, Algeria is a cautionary tale. For different reasons, so is Afghanistan. But if we could get past our trauma over Iran, some Iranians are already getting over their past with us. Last week the American flag flew in Iran for the first time in 19 years without catching fire. Just a month after the country’s new president, Mohammad Khatami, talked with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour about opening the door to cultural and sports exchanges, five U.S. wrestlers carrying the flag in Tehran were cheered. Wrestling is as big in Iran as table tennis is in China; Ping-Pong games precipitated Nixon’s China card.

But the same day, Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, again called the United States ”the Great Satan.” Khamenei still commands fundamentalists of all ages, while president Khatami is backed by a new generation of Iranians wanting more freedom. They are united against Clinton’s plan to bomb Iraq.

Before this administration does anything pointless, or something that could even make things worse, it should expand its horizon. And it should think about what it really means to hit rock bottom, and understand how we sunk there.

The days following the Gulf War were heady days. Saddam Hussein had been driven out of Kuwait. All Bush thought he needed to do was suggest Saddam be gone and, like magic, he would vanish. Last week, Bush told CNN’s Bernard Shaw, ”I thought that when the war ended, he could not survive.” Bush had no other plan. General Norman Schwarzkopf negotiated the terms of a cease-fire agreement as if it didn’t matter. Schwarzkopf was worried about coalition forces. He grounded Saddam’s planes, but allowed him to continue flying helicopters. Saddam said he needed them to get to the negotiations.

The United States still wanted Saddam out of power, even though the U.S.-led coalition had never had the authority to remove him. So Bush tried to provoke a coup. On March 1, 1991, two days after Saddam yielded in the Gulf War, Bush told the Iraqi people ”to put him aside” and bring Iraq ”back into the family of peace-loving nations.” The people Bush had in mind were members of the ruling party and the military — Arab Sunnis like Saddam. But they failed to act. Instead, many Kurds and Arab Shi’ites revolted.

Indeed, on March 1, Islamist Shi’ite clerics in the south called for insurrection. Within days, Shi’ite rebels had taken Basrah, and fighting had broken out in nearly every southern city. On March 11, the largest gathering ever of Iraqi opposition leaders took place in Beirut with Saudi financing and under Syrian guard. Three days later, Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq launched their own offensive. Within one week, they would liberate nearly all of Iraq’s Kurdish-speaking areas. Some Kurdish couples named their newborns ”Bush.” But Bush had not bet on insurrectionary forces.

Everyone presumed Saddam would be overthrown. The only question was when, and who would replace him? Back then the CIA was backing a bunch of London-based exiles. Iran was backing the Shi’ites, and Syria and Iran were helping the Kurds. Though the London exiles’ current leader, Ahmed Chalabi, is a moderate Shi’ite, most of the people he represents are Sunnis and ex-monarchists. Many left Iraq after its monarchy was deposed in 1958. They have never fielded any military force. Yet in March 1991 they planned to form a government-in-exile by themselves.

They never got the chance. While they squabbled, many Shi’ites and Kurds fought. The Kurds made the most gains, going as far as Kirkuk, a key oil-producing town, where Saddam began his northern counteroffensive.

On March 28, everything changed after dawn. In Kirkuk, thousands of Kurds were still in the city, as incoming artillery and tank shells shook the ground. A young girl was killed on her bicycle. ”This is Saddam Hussein!” yelled one man who knew her. ”Mr. Bush must know.” Soon several small helicopters broke the sky. They fired machine guns, as the guerrillas returned fire with anti-aircraft guns. The shells became more accurate, and tanks closed in on the town. Kurdish guerrillas pulled out just two surface-to-air missiles. By about noon, the smaller helicopters were joined by four or five fixed-wing helicopter gunships. Glistening like angry hornets, they unloaded seemingly endless volleys of exploding rockets. Kurds were dying all around. Several multiple-rocket launchers dropped a blanket of fire on fleeing guerrillas and civilians.

Kirkuk was taken by 2 p.m., not by Republican Guards but by army special forces. It took Saddam only three more days to crush the rest of the Kurdish rebellion. By then, the Shi’ite revolt had also been snuffed out. Tens of thousands of Kurds fled into the mountains bordering Turkey and Iran. They panicked as rumors spread that Saddam was using chemical weapons, as he had against the Kurds in 1988. In fact, he didn’t, but during the exodus, many ”Bush” babies died of exposure. The Bush administration eventually established a safe haven in northern Iraq to protect the Kurds.

Soon the London-based exiles tried again to usurp control of the Iraqi opposition. Until 1996, the CIA gave the Iraqi National Congress $15 million in covert aid. They used part of it to establish a headquarters in northern Iraq, and they tried and failed to unite the Kurds.

Iraq’s feuding Kurdish guerrilla leaders, Massound Barzani and Jalal Talabani, though united after the ground war, never trusted each other. They have long struggled over control of contraband traffic as well as over politics. Tensions flared so much that by August 1996 they went to war. Talabani was getting help from Iran, so Barzani made a deal with Saddam. Thus swung open the door for Saddam to the safe haven. He quickly dismantled INC headquarters, then hunted down, tortured, and killed its associates.

Today the CIA is where it always was, backing cadre among the same London crowd. Last week Chalabi tried to convince Clinton to back him in forming a government-in-exile. Ex-Bush administration officials nodded, but even Chalabi is doubtful. ”Doing something inside London,” he told AP in Cairo, ”is not the same as doing something inside Iraq.” Clinton said no.

What Bush should have done back then was back the Kurds and Shi’ites when they revolted. He told CNN why he did not. It would have fractured the coalition, incurred U.S. casualties, and upset the region’s balance of power. Though on point about the latter, Bush has always envisioned foreign forces removing Saddam. Bush always underestimated Iraqis.

Once he realized that Saddam was using helicopters on them, Bush could have knocked the copters out of the sky. Schwarzkopf could have at least kept rebel forces in mind when he negotiated the cease-fire. Anyone in the Bush administration could have asked, ”What if just calling for a coup isn’t enough?” Bush, for one, wishes he had done something different. ”I miscalculated,” he told the BBC last year.

Today, Clinton has another choice, even though he must build amongst his predecessor’s wreckage. The first thing Clinton needs to do is recognize that the bombing-versus-diplomacy debate is shortsighted. Clinton needs to develop a long-term strategy, even though it might outlast him. America needs to acknowledge that its own experience with bombing, from Vietnam to El Salvador, demonstrates mainly hubris. And diplomacy? Ask anyone who has ever dealt with Saddam.

Take [Abu Ghraib] prison [about 20] miles west of Baghdad. In April 1991, captured journalists saw guards beat a prisoner on the buttocks with a flat board. They wanted him to crow like a rooster, laughing when a real rooster finally crowed as if to answer him. Guards hosed down a prisoner on a cool day, while zapping him with an electro-shock weapon. They chased a ”subversive” 16-year-old boy around, taking turns with rubber hoses. More systematic torture took place in other cellblocks deeper inside the prison. Occasionally, journalists heard the screams of men in sustained pain.

Many Iranians are still in Saddam’s jails. Iran also lost several hundred thousand men in the Iran-Iraq war, while the U.S. and others were arming Saddam. The West backed him even after he used mustard gas in 1984. But things change. Iran’s new and old leaders know it. What doesn’t change is that they all still hate Saddam. An alliance with Iran would be a tactical one. Don’t worry, they too would be leery.

Could Clinton bring them in on a plan of prolonged confrontation? It would require more world leadership than he has ever shown. It would involve challenging, complex diplomacy with Gulf states, Turkey, and others. Of course, any progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would only help. The idea would be to develop and sustain Iraqi rebel ground forces against Saddam. Considering our history, we would have to make a serious case to convince them that we would see them through. But if people inside Iraq thought that people outside Iraq were serious about them, then someone inside, or maybe lots of people, might act. Unlike us, they suffer Saddam daily.

And the caveats? Take the worst-case scenario. Saddam is overthrown, but the country splits into a Kurdish government in the north and an Islamist Shi’ite one in the south. The former would threaten Turkey. The latter would expand the reach of Iran. Perhaps diplomacy could manage it. Maybe not. The question is, considering the alternative, Would it be worth it?

Iran, too, would need to take a leap of faith. It currently helps Iraq violate the U.N. embargo against it. Iran opposes the entire U.S. presence in the Middle East, and it still backs Islamist rebels in Israel. Iran has been caught shipping arms to Islamist rebels in Lebanon; it backs Islamist regimes as far away as Khartoum. So, however, does Iraq. Closer to home, Iran, like most of Iraq’s other neighbors, fears the breakup of Iraq. Iraq’s northern neighbors all have disenfranchised Kurds.

Indeed, to win, Clinton would need to master Saddam’s game of divide and conquer. But any clear, concrete plan for removing Saddam would attract the interest of many groups and states. If anyone could unite such disparate forces, it is Saddam Hussein. He is a man who inspires hatred within his own family. In 1990, he killed a member of his own clan, General Omar al-Hazaa, after cutting out his tongue, for criticizing him. According to The Independent, the general’s nephew, Ra’ad, eventually joined forces with underground students to seek revenge. They attacked Saddam’s elder son, Uday, six years later, leaving him a paraplegic. A year before, Uday’s cousin, Lieutenant-General Hussein Kamel al-Majid, had fled to Jordan with his brother, Lieutenant-Colonel Saddam Kamel Hassan, and their families. The two men were each married to one of Saddam’s daughters. In exile, they called for his ouster. But on February 20, 1996, they returned to Iraq, thinking that as fathers of Saddam’s grandchildren they would be safe.

Three days later, Uday and his security men killed them.

No one should underestimate Saddam again. Iran doesn’t. Last week Iraq’s new foreign minister, Mohammad Saeed al-Sahaf, traveled to Tehran. Afterward, Iran’s foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, made an ambivalent statement that mirrors Clinton’s dilemma. He told Clinton not to bomb at the same time he told Saddam to let U.S. inspectors finish verifying the destruction of his chemical and biological weapons. Iran knows Saddam would use them if he could. He already has against Kurds as well as Iran. Even though everybody wants to, no one has figured out a viable way to ensure that Iraq never uses them again. Iran could be the card Clinton needs.