Playing the Iran Card

Without Iran, Clinton Still Holds a Bad Hand

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 the Radwaniya prison 30 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.

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