As debate escalates over whether to intervene militarily to help Libyan rebels oust Muammar Ghadafi, the specter lurking in the background—both for those who want to intervene and those wary of doing so—is Iran.
The Iranian factor is little discussed but omnipresent. Understanding how it forms the backdrop is crucial to understanding the argument unfolding this week, in Washington, in Europe and at the United Nations, about whether to impose a no-fly zone over Libya.
Those pushing for intervention worry that the lesson Iran will take away if Mr. Gadhafi survives is that leaders who give ground to democracy protesters (see Hosni Mubarak) are swept away. Meanwhile, those who brutally crush protesters (Libya’s strongman) are the ones who hang on. For Iranian leaders already disposed to crushing their own pro-democracy dissidents, the message will be clear.
Those wary of intervening, including many in the Obama administration, worry that Western intervention will play directly into the narrative Tehran’s leaders have been spinning to justify cracking down on their own dissidents: that the U.S. and its Zionist allies are waiting to take advantage of any Mideast unrest to seize control of the region and its oil assets.
This Iranian narrative holds that the protesters in Tehran’s streets are either active or unwitting agents of this insidious American conspiracy. Because any military intervention in Libya inevitably would be led by American forces, it would be used to further the argument. Indeed, an examination of statements by Iranian leaders in recent days shows this is precisely how they are framing the Libya question.
With Iran in position to make trouble by fomenting unrest among its Shiite brethren in nearby Bahrain, the question of how Mideast turmoil might advance Tehran’s interests already loomed large. Now it figures to play more directly into the Libya debate, for Tehran is trying to play both sides of the argument, rhetorically supporting the Libyan rebels while opposing Western help for them.
The debate took on a whole new cast over the weekend when the Arab League, in a stunning turn, asked the United Nations Security Council to establish a no-fly zone to prevent a fellow Arab leader, Mr. Gadhafi, from using his own aircraft against Libyan rebels. Coupled with the fact that rebels seem to be losing ground in Libya’s east, the Arab League statement prompted a new discussion at the U.N. on Monday.
Still, reluctance persists. China, which happens to hold the presidency of the Security Council this month, resists any military move. The fact that Libya’s neighbor, Algeria, opposed the Arab League request undercuts the message to some extent.
Meantime the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq, which illustrate that military intervention is easy to start and hard to finish, and that the U.S. will be expected to fix any country it enters, continue to weigh heavily on the Obama administration.
It’s hard to know how much Iran figured in the Arab League’s decision to ask for a no-fly zone. But clearly, the specter of a radical Iranian regime taking advantage of unrest in the region in order to expand its influence is never far from the minds of moderate Arab rulers.
And for those moderates, the picture that’s emerging can hardly be comforting. The leaders who seem most vulnerable to the unrest have been moderate, pro-Western rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen, who have tried to varying degrees to bend to the protesters.
Meanwhile, the hardliners in Syria and Iran, and those within Lebanon’s Hezbollah leadership and Gaza’s Hamas government, still seem secure.
Thus, there’s a real chance that regional momentum will tip further away from both moderate leaders and pro-democracy forces if Libya’s rebels fail. Left standing would be Mr. Gadhafi, doubtless made more radical by a near-death experience.
At the same time, though, it’s also clear that Iran would try to use any Western military move to aid Libya’s rebels to its advantage, and as an excuse to crack down harder on dissent. In the twisted logic of Iran, popular uprisings in the region are admirable examples of Mideast peoples throwing off oppressive regimes, except in Iran itself, and are worthy of support, except from the West.
Hence, Major Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi, the Iranian military’s chief of staff, declared last week: “The reality is that the U.S. wants to stage a military intervention to find control over Libya’s oil wells as it did in Iraq with the Iraqi oil.”
That’s why U.S. national security adviser Tom Donilon, in talking with journalists late last week, used the term “indigenous” four times to describe dissidents in Libya and elsewhere in the region. The U.S. wants rebels in both Libya and Iran to succeed without acquiring a made-in-America label. Unfortunately, the world may not work so neatly.WSJ