Britain's role is crucial in next stage of war on terror - Iran

By Stephen Pollard
(Filed: 07/03/2003)

If there is a stick to be grasped, you can rely on the BBC to take hold of the wrong end of it. Reporting the latest round of UN manoeuvrings, the corporation's diplomatic correspondent tells us that the British ambassador is trying to find a "compromise" resolution that, by giving Saddam Hussein a final, final, final deadline (one should write "final" 18 times, given that there have already been 17 UN resolutions passed), will both put him to the test and draw France, Germany and Russia into the fold.

Quite the opposite. The purpose of a new resolution is not to issue more deadlines, but to present the so-called axis of weasels with a clear choice. If they are unable to bring themselves even to sign up to this final deadline, their sophistry will be exposed. Their motives will be seen to be based not on weapons inspectors and timing, but on a belief that no action should be taken against Saddam at all. The Prime Minister will thus be handed a strong argument (and some domestic political cover) for supporting American action without a further UN mandate.

Despite the coverage of the Bush-Blair relationship, President George W Bush has been concerned all along to preserve Mr Blair's political capital. Indeed, just before the anti-war march, the Prime Minister took a call from Condoleezza Rice, Mr Bush's National Security Adviser. The content of that call has not been revealed until now. The President, she told him, understood that, with most of the Labour Party and the majority of the country opposed to his policy, his position was precarious. But, she continued, he was far too important an ally to lose.

Nice, supportive words, for which Mr Blair was no doubt grateful. But they contained a twist. If, Miss Rice continued, the Prime Minister judged that he needed to soften his tone and, in particular, distance himself from Mr Bush, the President was relaxed. The reason, as Miss Rice put it, was that the bigger picture required that the Prime Minister preserve as much political capital as possible. Both Mr Blair and Miss Rice knew what the "bigger picture" was without it having to be spelt out. The bigger picture is Iran.

So much attention has been focused on Iraq that most observers have ignored what stares us in the face. When President Bush made his "axis of evil" speech, singling out Iraq, North Korea and Iran, he was not simply looking for good headlines. He was revealing a template for action.

The war on terror is not simply about destroying the Taliban and taking down Saddam; it is a far more complex operation. The President has carefully set about action in ascending order of difficulty. First the Taliban. Then Saddam. Then the next step, Iran - the world's leading financier of terror. North Korea will be left to China to deal with, with Mr Bush making clear to China that, if it does not take its responsibilities seriously, Japan will be given nuclear weapons.

This is not speculation; talk, as I have, to those within the Bush circle - to those who share, and influence, the views of figures such as Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, who were pointing out the threat posed by terror long before September 11 - and they will take you through the plan step by step.

As one of those thinkers, Michael Ledeen, of the American Enterprise Institute, the think tank closest to the Bush Administration, puts it: "Iran is the mother of modern Islamic terrorism. The mad vision that we now associate with Osama bin Laden was elaborated more than a decade ago by Ayatollah Khomeini and institutionalised in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Both preach unbridled hatred of America, the Jews, and anything that represents the modern secular state."

Iran is, if you like, the Henry Ford of modern terror: it invented an assembly line, from the local mosque to the terrorist training camp, which is now copied everywhere. That assembly line is today global in scale, and takes in all types of Islam: Shi'ite, Sunni and Wahhabi, as well as Iraqi-promoted Salafism - even more hardline than Wahhabism, and closely tied to bin Laden. As Ledeen puts it: "The best way to think of the terror network is as a collection of mafia families. Sometimes they co-operate, sometimes they argue, sometimes they even kill one another. But they can always put aside their differences whenever there is a common enemy."

The interception early last year by the Israelis of the Karine A, a ship loaded with tons of explosives and Iranian weapons, en route from Dubai - a major Iranian operational base - to the Palestinian Authority is a typical example of such co-operation. The Iranians are Shi'ite, the Palestinians Sunni.

But it is proving difficult enough to get the UN to support action against Iraq. Mr Bush's most fundamental belief is that actions have consequences. If the UN behaves irresponsibly, it will pay the price. A phrase is doing the rounds: the US out of the UN, and the UN out of the US.

Well-connected advisers tell me that if, as now seems likely, the UN refuses to back action against terror, Mr Bush will announce a "temporary" suspension of America's membership, to be accompanied by an offer: if the UN gets its act together and carries out long-overdue reforms, America (and its money) will return. But if there is no reform, the temporary withdrawal will, de facto, become permanent.

But although British support would be valued, the real need is far more practical. The battle against Iran will not be military. It will be intelligence-led, and will build on existing forces within Iran. After 20 years spent trying to isolate Iran, however, American intelligence is lamentable. MI6, on the other hand, has spent that time rebuilding its links and recruiting highly placed agents. America needs Britain if it is to deal with Iran. And that means it needs Mr Blair to remain in office.

That is why, quite apart from the usefulness of Mr Blair's existing support, the President is looking to the "bigger picture". The Prime Minister's support over Iraq is valuable. Over Iran, the next stage of the war on terror, it will be essential.

  • Stephen Pollard is a senior fellow at the Centre for the New Europe, a Brussels think tank