DUBAI – The mighty emporium of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai, is only a 90-minute flight away from Tehran. But although it’s like flying from one end of the earth to the other, any important Iranian player makes sure to stop over in this definitive crossroads between East and West.

The main topic of conversation among Iranians in Dubai is how Washington hawks are now overacting in their crusade to get Saddam Hussein. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice even stated – without any concrete proof – that Saddam was directly linked with Osama bin Laden, and Washington has for some time hinted that Iran is harboring al-Qaeda warriors. The reality, as usual, is much more complicated. Because Tehran is radically against an American attack on Iraq, some hawkish sectors in America are running a disinformation war to discredit and implicate Iran in terrorism.

Saudi intelligence services insist that a cluster of al-Qaeda warriors now live under cover in guesthouses in Mashhad in Iran – four hours by car from the Afghan border – and Zabol – 600 kilometers south of Mashhad, and also close to the Afghan border. Most of all, they insist that two key al-Qaeda operatives are now in northeastern Iran: the Egyptian Saif al-Adel – head of al-Qaeda’s security committee – and Abu Hafs, the Mauritanian head of al-Qaeda’s religious committee and now also involved in military planning.

It has been impossible to confirm this in Afghanistan: officials in Kabul said that they had no reliable information. And the government of President Mohammad Khatami in Tehran has strongly denied it is harboring any al-Qaeda fighters. This is essentially true. But the fact is that some powerful sectors of Iranian intelligence – which ultimately respond to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei – are indeed connected to and actively support al-Qaeda.

Does this qualify Iran as a member of the axis of evil, along with Iraq and North Korea? Hardly. As far as the axis is concerned, even in Washington there are now powerful assertions that it is an axis of nothing.

An attack on Iraq would exacerbate terrorism by a cluster of hardline groups, would drive al-Qaeda even closer to such groups – who may or may not be protected by axis of evil governments – and would miss the main target, which is the destruction of al-Qaeda itself. It is not about states sheltering terrorism, as some argue: the whole point is that bin Laden privatized terrorism, applying a business model to run al-Qaeda. The Cato Institute, a Washington think tank, argues that Iraq’s ballistic missile program never left its initial stage. And Iran would need at least 10 years to develop missiles capable of reaching American targets.

The Iranian equation depends directly on the next crucial developments in the labyrinth of factions jostling for power in Tehran. Some factions are actively interested in some sort of dialogue with Washington – as far as its remodeling plans for Iraq are concerned. And the most important of these concerned characters is former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

A former Iranian vice foreign minister, Abbas Maleki, very close to Rafsanjani, recently admitted that Iraq currently was “the most dangerous strategic menace against Iran” because a pro-American government in Baghdad could not be worse than Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Iranian sources in Dubai say that there are only three consensus points nowadays in Tehran. Iran cannot prevent America from attacking Iraq. Iran won’t go against it, because this would be the ideal pretext for the Bush administration to set its sights on Iran. And in the event of Saddam going, Iran could at least try to reap some benefits.

This will all depend on the interaction of the three most powerful players in the country. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei – and the powerful, conservative religious clerics around him – are all against any American action in the region. They are against any kind of compromise with the US because this would undermine the 1979 Islamic Revolution. And they firmly believe that Iran itself will be the next in line in Washington’s agenda.

In theory, President Khatami is the second most powerful figure in Iran. He is the man of the “dialogue among civilizations”. He represents the youthful push for democracy, the combative press and practically the whole reformist movement. But even as president he cannot protect them from the repression of the clerics.

On the American attack on Iraq, Khatami is totally aligned with the Franco-German position: the United Nations has to decide the course of action, not the US unilaterally. His sincere opening toward the US was shattered by September 11 – and the subsequent axis of evil logic emanating from Washington. After Tehran collaborated with Washington and the Northern Alliance against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Khatami found out that the Americans wanted even more.

The current American obsession is all about weapons. And weapons – as far as Iran is concerned – are a complex scenario, totally linked to the Israeli version of how the region should be structured. Israel deeply fears Iran as a huge regional power influencing both the Middle East and Central Asia.

Fresh news from Tehran indicates that Khatami is now totally involved in a crucial battle to extend his surveillance powers over others branches of government. He could be able, for instance, to force the judiciary to conduct open-door trials of editors of reformist newspapers. He has that kind of authority under the Iranian constitution – but the constitution is extremely vague on how to implement it. The new reforms pushed by Khatami would in practice reduce the awesome powers of the Guardian Council – which usually disqualifies reformist candidates from contesting an election.

But sources in Tehran already can see the writing on the wall. The reformist parliament will approve Khatami’s proposals. The Guardian Council will reject them. The matter will then go to the sages of the Expediency Council. This would certainly involve a behind-closed-doors assessment by the ultra-conservative Khamenei. And if, as is likely, Khatami is rejected, the only dignified way out for him would be to resign.

Rafsanjani is in theory the third most powerful character in Iran, but in practice he is number two. Rafsanjani presides over the ultra-powerful Expediency Council – established in 1988 upon the orders of Ayatollah Khomeini himself to “overcome the difference of views” between parliament and the Guardian Council. This is the ultimate deciding body in the Islamic Republic. Its political power is truly awesome.

Rafsanjani is now playing a very clever game, denouncing the “oppressive policies” of the US and at the same time claiming an American attack on Iraq would not be so destructive. Last week, in a speech in Tehran, he said that “nothing can be done in this region without the consent of Iran”. Rafsanjani is persuaded that the fall of Saddam would create a huge vacuum. The US will not be able to occupy the whole country, and it will need help from Iran. Whatever happens, Iran has a crucial stake in Iraq’s future. Iran and Turkey, for instance, disagree on just about everything. But both are fiercely opposed to a balkanization of Iraq. This would lead to the automatic creation of a Kurdish state, something by the way that already de facto exists in the north of Iraq. Both Ankara and Tehran recoil in horror when contemplating how a Kurdish state would stir their own Kurdish minorities.

The south of Iraq is populated by a Shi’ite majority (60 percent of Iraq’s population is Shi’ite), while the center in Baghdad is the Sunni branch of Islam. At least 700,000 Iraqi Shi’ite refugees live in Iran, whose population is almost 90 percent Shi’ite. Some of these even rose to the rank of general working as guardians of the revolution.

The most important Shi’ite opposition party in Iraq – the Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, whose leader is Ayatollah Muhamad Baqr al-Hakim – is actually housed in Iran. They claim to have at least 8,000 guerrillas inside Iraq. And they were among the Iraqi opposition groups present in a crucial August 11 meeting in Washington with Bush administration officials. They could only have been there with the express authorization by Ayatollah Khamenei.

However, Rafsanjani and company cannot assume that Iraq’s Shi’ites would automatically align with Iran. Two months ago, the leaders of the Shi’ite majority in Iraq signed a very important document, where for the first time during Saddam’s regime they said what they wanted, which was democracy. They want a regime that protects rights and assures equal treatment for all Iraqi people. They want decentralization from Baghdad. And they want a new law on Iraqi nationality – founded on the principle of belonging to Iraq, and not to an ethnic or religious persuasion.

Tehran also cannot forget that there are tens of thousands of People’s Mujahedeen members inside Iraq. These are the overarmed operatives of the Iranian opposition. They know that the end of Saddam’s regime will be their demise. They might opt for a suicidal attack against Tehran. Or they might try to occupy the oil-rich south around Basra.

Thus, for Rafsanjani to imagine that the fall of Saddam would lead to an Iranian grip over Iraq’s oil-rich south is a very long shot. In fact, Iraqi oil may ultimately become Iran’s nightmare. As Iraq literally floats over a sea of oil, every oil expert in the Gulf says that it would take only a few weeks for American industry heavyweights to exploit it and flood the market. Iran would be left watching oil cargos go by – because its oil installations are out of date and its production costs are much higher.

Iran is anyway already applying the Afghan model to cope with what it sees as the inevitable American attack. Iraqi refugees will not be allowed into Iran. But Iran will build a network of refugee camps about 20 kilometers away on the Iraqi side of the border. The camps will most of all function as a cover for a complex military and security operation capable of screening any developments.

Like any Arab observer, the most incisive Iranians know that the new American adventure is not about preventing Iraq from developing weapons of mass destruction. It’s not about destroying these hypothetical weapons. And it’s not about getting rid of Saddam Hussein. They know that it is about building a brave new Middle Eastern world: America wants to smash the “post-Ottoman order” (or rather disorder) and establish a “democratic” Middle East, according to American interests.

This is not the Arab or Iranian perception. It is an accurate reading by Arabs and Iranians – not to mention Pakistanis and some Afghans – of the neo-imperialist American will as expressed by people such as Richard Perle, Robert Kagan and William Kristol, who enjoy George W Bush’s undivided attention.

There is a new domino theory in the market – and this one is not brought to us by the ghoulish Henry Kissinger. Iraq is supposed to be the first domino in a push to democratize and finally “secure” the Middle East. The next dominoes are bound to be Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Arabs and Persians are now trying to come to grips with the inevitable, as former pro-Reagan democrats and Republican Christian right fundamentalists dream of remaking the world in their image.

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