As Barack Obama and John McCain thrash it out over how they would deal with Iran, voices from inside Iran are weighing in with an unusual message: If the United States strikes hard and fast, we will support you.
Emissaries from inside Iran have been meeting with Iranian exiles in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere in recent weeks to deliver this provocative message, which they claim comes from pro-U.S. dissidents at the upper-most levels of the regime.
“U.S. airstrikes must be powerful and sustained enough to break the myth of the regime’s absolute power and reveal the weakness of the leadership,” a former official who traveled outside of Iran recently said.
The United States should target the office of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well as the headquarters of the Revolutionary Guards Corp, the offices of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and that of his predecessor and rival, Mullah Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Iranian sources say.
The goal should be to carry out sustained airstrikes over a 48-72 hour period that would “decapitate” the regime.
Such a strike would send a clear message to the Iranian people and to disgruntled officials throughout Iran’s faction-ridden government that the United States is serious about confronting the regime over its bad behavior in Iraq and is willing to strike the leaders responsible for that behavior, the Iranian sources argue.
Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton has urged the administration to launch airstrikes against Quds Force bases and facilities in Iran that have been used to support Iran’s campaign to help terrorist groups in Iraq to kill Americans.
But many Iranians contend that limited strikes would have a limited usefulness, and might even be counter-productive.
“The conventional wisdom is that limited strikes will allow the regime to rally the people around the flag,” says Mohebat Ahdiyyih, an Iran media analyst at the office of the director of National Intelligence.
“However, if the U.S. launches a major strike that goes after the leadership in Iran, that’s different,” he told Newsmax. “Most Iranians hate the regime. People would be very happy to see a major strike that took out the leadership.”
Mr. Ahdiyyih and other Iran analysts speaking at an American Enterprise Institute conference on Monday painted a picture of a bitterly-divided regime in Tehran that is “unstable” and fighting for its survival.
“The situation is so bad that former president Mohammad Khatami has said that the hard-liners [close to president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] are worse than al-Qaida,” Ahdiyyih said.
Mr. Ahdiyyih regularly scans the Iranian media, including Web sites close to Ahmadinejad and his rivals, to find clues about the factional infighting in Tehran.
Mullah Hashemi-Rafsanjani, a rival to Ahmadinejad who is often mistakenly portrayed in the U.S. media as a “moderate,” has been warning that Iran “faces a serious threat of being attacked by the United States,” Ahdiyyih said.
“Ahmadinejad’s people say it’s just a psychological war. But if Iranians found out the risks of their nuclear program, the regime would face serious problems” from opposition inside Iran, he added.
Ahmadinejad has boasted frequently that Iran’s nuclear program “is like a locomotive with no brakes,” said Alex Vatanka, an Iran analyst with Jane’s Information Group.
Iranians interpret that to mean just one thing: that Iran is very close to acquiring nuclear weapons capability, if it hasn’t done so already.
It is the real possibility that Iran already could have nuclear weapons or be on the verge of acquiring them that has given a sense of urgency to such discussions in Washington, Jerusalem, and Tehran.
While the hard-liners are convinced that the U.S. is “bluffing” about putting any real pressure on Iran, Vatanka noted that the escalation of U.S.-led sanctions on Iran includes efforts to ban Iran from the international banking system, which would seriously complicate Iran’s efforts to get paid for its oil.
“The United States hasn’t put this type of pressure on Iran ever,” he said.
The popular Tabnak.ir Web site in Iran translated a report from Israel Army Radio on Tuesday claiming that a U.S. military strike on Iran was imminent.
“Based on the statements of senior Bush administration officials, Israeli Army Radio reported today that the possibility of a U.S. attack on Iran in the coming months is more likely than ever,” Tabnak reported.
President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have become convinced since the Iranian-backed takeover by Hezbollah in Lebanon that “the head of the snake must be struck,” Tabnak quoted Israeli Army Radio as saying.
Tabnak.ir is the mouthpiece of former Revolutionary Guards commander Gen. Mohsen Rezai, who is widely seen inside Iran as one of the guiding powers behind the newly-elected, anti-Ahmadinejad majority in the Iranian parliament.
The parliamentary faction, known as the “principalists,” is led by former Revolutionary Guards officer Ali Larijani, who was fired by Ahmadinejad as his chief nuclear negotiator because the president considered him too conciliatory.
Another key figure in the new anti-Ahmadinejad faction is Tehran mayor, Mohammad-Baqr Qalibaf, a Revolutionary Guards general and former commander of the Rev. Guards Air Force, who ran against Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential elections.
“The Revolutionary Guards is not a unified political party,” said Mohsen Sazegara, one of the founders of the Rev. Guards who has broken with the regime and now lives in the United States,
“They are like the rest of Iran. You can see many people [inside the Rev. Guards leadership] who are not satisfied with the present situation” and are seeking a change, he added.
The White House went to great lengths on Tuesday to deny the Israeli Army Radio report, which quoted President Bush as telling Israeli officials that “the disease must be treated — not its symptoms.”
In a statement issued on Tuesday afternoon, the White House said that Bush believed that “no president of the United States should ever take options off the table, but our preference and our actions for dealing with this matter remain through peaceful diplomatic means. Nothing has changed in that regard.”
Some Washington, D.C. analysts take the White House at its word. “The Bush administration has decided that the nuclear issue [in Iran] should be decided by the next administration,” Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told the conference at AEI.
On Monday, the USS Ronald Reagan and its carrier strike group steamed out of San Diego for a six month tour of the Persian Gulf.
The Reagan will join the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group, which entered the Gulf late last month.
The United States frequently has had two carrier strike groups in the region over the past two years, so the arrival of the Reagan is not a reinforcement.
Together, the two carriers can launch 144 strike aircraft and hundreds of cruise missiles against ground targets inside Iran, while ship-board helicopters, U.S. Marines, and naval artillery can destroy Iranian oil platforms and cripple the Iranian navy.
U.S. airstrikes that target the top leadership of Iran and refrain from extensive damage to civilians or religious targets, could win strong support from the Iranian people for a pro-U.S. coup by the security services, many Iranians in positions of responsibility believe.
“Anything that hurts the regime will make the people of Iran happy. The young people in Iran see the U.S. as the only country that can help them,” former regime official, Dr. Mohsen Sazegara, told Newsmax this week.
Dissidents within the Iranian military and the Revolutionary Guards believe that U.S. air strikes that take out the leadership will open the doors to a coup led by the military that would put an end to the Islamic Republic.
But some Iranian pro-democracy activists fear that air strikes will only perpetuate the tyranny of the Islamic Republic.
“Military strikes, as limited as they may be, will allow the regime to repress Iranians even more, because Iran will be at a state of war where dissent will simply not be tolerated,” former student leader Roozbeh Farahanipour told Newsmax.”
Rather than promote military strikes on Iran, Farahanipour believes the United States should be backing pro-democracy groups inside Iran to carry out a systematic campaign of civil disobedience against the regime.
“The speed with which we can organize Iranians depends on the amount of resources at our disposal,” he said. “Marze Por Gohar, with a molecular-sized budget, has been able to organize Iranians to conduct non-violent campaigns inside Iran. Certainly if we received more help from the international community we could be even more potent then we already are.“
Marze Por Gohar is a small nationalist party that is calling for Iran to become a secular republic.
Dr. Sazegara, the former Revolutionary Guards founder, would also prefer to see the United States engage in a serious and sustained “Helsinki process” that would impose crippling international banking sanctions and diplomatic sanctions on Iran, and only lift them in exchange for real concessions.
“The first demand should be a general pardon, a general amnesty against political dissidents,” Sazegara told Newsmax.
But even Sazegara doubts that the current leadership will ever engage in a serious dialogue over its nuclear weapons program or political freedom.
“The regime knows very well that the first step back [from repression] will set off a chain reaction that ultimately will lead to their collapse,” Sazegara said.
The unwillingness to compromise, and the belief that the United States is only bluffing, is encouraging Ahmadinejad and Khamenei to stand firm against U.S. pressure, Sazegara and other Iran analysts believe.
“My biggest fear is that the Iranian leadership will miscalculate, just as Hezbollah did in 2006,” says AEI Middle East analyst Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official who served in Iraq.
Rather than softening the tough talk toward Tehran, the White House should “make the red lines as clear as possible so we don’t stumble into war,” Rubin said.
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