Walker's World: Rumors of war

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus

WASHINGTON, Jan. 8 (UPI) -- The firm denial by Israel of a report in the London Sunday Times that its Air Force was training for a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities was as predictable as it is hollow. There is no doubt that Israel's fighter-bombers have been training for a long-distance mission; NATO sources say they have for weeks been watching Israeli warplanes running flights the length of the Mediterranean to Gibraltar -- and nobody expects an Israeli strike on Gibraltar.

The drumbeats of war are beginning to sound from several directions. In Washington, the transfer of Admiral William "Fox" Fallon from Pacific Command to run Central Command (which runs the Iraq war and the Afghan mission) startled the Army and Marines, who had seen these as ground wars. But Central Command also includes Iran.


Fallon's appointment comes as the White House wants to increase the military pressure on Tehran. Fallon is heading to the region with some heavy reinforcements of two aircraft carrier strike groups, led by the USS John C. Stennis and the state-of-the-art new USS Ronald Reagan which left San Diego last week.


And then there was the remarkable suggestion from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, one of the Sunni leaders appalled by the fate of fellow Sunnis in Iraq and the growing prospect of a Shiite alliance led by Iran.

"We don't want nuclear arms in the area but we are obligated to defend ourselves," Mubarak said at a joint press conference last week with Israeli premier Ehud Olmert. "We will have to have the appropriate weapons. It is irrational that we sit and watch from the sidelines when we might be attacked at any moment."

The abrupt resignation last month of the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Turki, reflected the sharp debate in Riyadh over the best way to respond to the Iranian threat. Prince Turki's predecessor in Washington, Prince Bandar, is now acting as the Saudi equivalent of the national security adviser and he is a hawk, convinced that the Saudi monarchy must rally the Gulf states and the Sunni nations against the prospect of a Shiite empire led by a nuclear-armed Iran.

Prince Turki was a dove, who wanted dialogue and negotiations and feared that military strikes against Iran would set the entire region ablaze. Pessimists among the Saudi-watchers say that he lost; optimists say that he returned to Riyadh to continue the argument.


Meanwhile back in Washington, the new House majority leader, Democratic Congressman Steny Hoyer, gave an interview to the Jerusalem Post, published Sunday, that declared a nuclear-armed Iran would be unacceptable.

Hoyer stressed that he backed "discussions, negotiations, sanctions." But Hoyer added that the threat of air strikes had to remain. On the possible use of force to end any Iranian ambitions to deploy nuclear weapons, Hoyer said, "I have not ruled that out. It is not an option we want to consider until we know there is no other option."

The Iranians, for their part, seem to be closing ranks against what they perceive as the mounting threat of military action. Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is seen as a relative moderate in Tehran terms and was defeated in the last presidential election by the fiery Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, said last week that "the enemies of the Islamic Republic have plans against the country."

Rafsanjani warned the "arrogant powers" (the United States and Britain) against launching a new crisis in the Middle East. "They are creating problems for themselves and the region that will not be confined to Iran. This is a fire that could burn many others," he went on. "They are looking for a pretext."


This closing of the ranks in Tehran is significant, since many top Iranian officials make little secret of their distaste for the rhetoric and populism of Ahmedinejad. However much they may sympathize with Ahmedinejad's statements that "Israel must be wiped from the map," or that the Holocaust was an "invention of the Zionists," or that the "Zionist state is illegitimate," they have found him to be an embarrassment. But now they are rallying round.

Most striking was the message by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to the pilgrims to Mecca to celebrate the Haj, which endorsed Ahmedinejad's skepticism of the Holocaust and Israel's right to exist. How, Khamenei asked, could it be a punishable offense in the West to question the Holocaust when the Pope could "openly defame Islam."

But then he went on to challenge the leaders of the Arabic world, the Saudi monarchy and Jordan and Egypt, to end their support for the West and rally round the "united identity of the Muslim ummah" (nation).

Every disaster that had affected the Islamic world in the 20th century, Khamenei said, from colonization to "the creation and strengthening of authoritarian regimes, plundering of their natural wealth and destruction of their human resources, and thereby keeping Muslim nations behind the caravan of progress in science and technology -- all this has became possible only under the shadow of Muslim disunity that in some cases reached the level of internecine and fratricidal strife."


"Today any divisive action in the Islamic world is a historical sin," Khamenei went on. "Those who maliciously use takfir to declare large groups of Muslims as unbelievers (by this he means the Shiites, seen by the puritan Wahhabites of Saudi Arabia as not true Muslims), will be regarded as culprits, detested by history and future generations, and looked upon as mercenaries of the brutal enemy."

Khamenei has not spoken in such extreme terms for some years, and his rhetoric points to the nervousness, perhaps even verging on panic, which seems to be gripping the Tehran leadership. Alarmed by the decision of Russia and China at the United Nations Security Council to agree on the relatively modest sanctions against Iran, the Iranians sent their top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, to Beijing last week where he sought to continue Tehran's traditionally equivocal tactics.

Larijani stressed that Iran had not (unlike North Korea) abrogated the nuclear non-proliferation treaty nor had it stopped its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran remained open to negotiations, Larijani said, and pointedly referred to the close economic relations that now existed between Iran and China, symbolized by the privileged role China now enjoyed in helping to develop Iran's oil and gas reserves.


Back in Tehran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad-Ali Hosseini said Sunday that Chinese officials had agreed that the dispute should be resolved through negotiations, noting that China had adopted "a much more logical and fair stance on Iran's peaceful nuclear program."

But for once, these well-honed Iranian tactics did not work; the Chinese appeared to hold firm, insisting that Tehran come up with "realistic proposals." Yet the political mood in Tehran does not seem conciliatory, and the military pressure is building ominously.

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