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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.
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."
Mr. Ekeus told WORLD that when Iraq attacked Iran in 1981, "it was backed massively by the Arab world, and Iran has not forgotten." Iraq, he said, would have lost the war "if they had not had WMDs, primarily chemical weapons." Iran learned a lesson: Despite having an army and population three times that of Iraq, it could not be its own gatekeeper against the Arab world without unconventional weapons.
But viewing Iran in isolation within the Arab world, with its ancient Persian empire and adherence to Farsi over Arabic, should not lead to discounting its linkage with Arab-based terror groups, other experts warn. The assertion that a Shiite regime in Tehran would not support a Sunni-led insurgency in Iraq-and al-Qaeda operatives in general-said Michael Ledeen, author of The War Against the Terror Masters and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is "a hoax."
Mr. Ledeen asked, "How many examples of cooperation do you need to get beyond this?" Iran's Shiite Revolutionary Guards trained Sunni-led terrorist groups going back to the 1970s, but more recently there is much intelligence to confirm Tehran's support for al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in Iraq June 7. In early 2003, according to Yossef Bodansky, a bin Laden expert and former director of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism, Mr. Zarqawi received sanctuary in Tehran along with seven other al-Qaeda leaders and, at some point, Mr. bin Laden. That began a coordinated effort to fuel insurgency in Iraq along the ethno-religious divide.
Mr. Ledeen said, "They'll do anything that works to kill us. This is the mafia. Think about the godfather sitting around the table and making a war plan. They don't care which one married a blond and which one converted to Catholicism."
Neither regional considerations nor terror linkages seem to have received prominent consideration in the latest overtures from the West. With the ayatollah's dubious welcome, the United States and its Security Council counterparts last week sent the European Union's foreign minister, Javier Solana, to Tehran with an incentives package aimed at prompting the regime to end its enrichment of weapons-grade uranium.
Sponsored by the United States, Great Britain, Germany, France, Russia, and China, the package was heavy on inducements and light on penalties: It would allow Iran to continue enrichment for nuclear power and would actually provide U.S. technology in order to do so. The deal also offers trade concessions not dreamed of in nearly three decades of stiff U.S.-Iranian relations.
In a move reminiscent of concessions offered to Saddam Hussein despite UN sanctions, the United States under the deal will allow Iran to import spare parts to upgrade its aging fleet of commercial airliners. And in a step mirroring President Bill Clinton's nuclear deal with North Korea, the United States and other allies may assist in developing light-water reactors for nuclear power if Iran agrees to set aside its weapons-grade enrichment program.
The catch? Iran will end a nuclear weapons program it kept hidden for 18 years, and the United States and its allies will rely on strict UN monitoring to make sure it does so.
Since April when Tehran acknowledged enrichment activities, conservative experts have put forth solutions along a spectrum between hat-in-hand appeasement and all-out war. What landed on the table last week, many believe, goes beyond the spectrum.
"The details as they come out make the proposals look softer and softer. You don't hear anyone talking about sticks; it's all carrots all the time," said James Phillips, research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He called the proposal "increasingly disturbing" in its resemblance to the Clinton administration's deal with North Korea. "The one thing they want is the means to produce a nuclear weapon, and we are giving them the means to produce one."
Increasingly Iran's thirst for nuclear power and official Western reaction also overlooks the word on the street. Late last month riots broke out at Tehran University following a student protest over what appeared to be a purge of the academic faculty. Eyewitnesses told opposition newspapers that students carried signs and chanted "We don't want nuclear energy" and "Forget Palestine-think of us."
Eight student leaders were arrested, according to the internet Farsi daily Rooz, after about 500 police descended on the demonstrators. The report said 25 students were wounded, five of them seriously, when Iranian security forces fired live bullets on the crowd. One student told Rooz: "The university campus is on fire, raids are being conducted throughout the campus, and the students are in fear and anxiety. . . . Gunfire is heard from all directions. . . . There is blood everywhere." The report also said that university telephone lines were cut.
The kind of plaintive cross-border exchange witnessed by the West Virginia National Guard, many soldiers say, is typical-representing a demographic fatigued by nearly 30 years of Islamic revolution that has annihilated the country's economy, forced men and women into contorted segregation, sanctioned marriage of young girls-and prompted commentator Christopher Hitchens to recently declare the Iranian people "a red state."
The Bush administration and Congress have moved this month to increase support to Iranian opposition groups. Such backing, however, could turn out to be not enough compared to an infusion of American technology.