They're back. The American weapons inspector whose presence helped ignite the last crisis between Iraq and the United States returned to Baghdad just before the weekend, picking up where he left off, trying to check out Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.
But while all eyes remain fixed on the American, Scott Ridder, his team of United Nations weapons inspectors and the U.S. armada that remains poised to strike Baghdad from the Persian Gulf, few noticed that the real battle to topple Saddam Hussein quietly began late last month.
It was waged by five burly U.S. wrestlers competing in a little-heralded international meet in the Iranian capital of Tehran.
For two days, the U.S. wrestlers grappled with their Iranian counterparts and those of 18 other nations in a sporting event dear to the Iranian heart. The Americans won some matches, lost others, but it wasn't the tournament scorecard that mattered. It was the fact that for the first time since radical Islamic students occupied the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, burned American flags and humiliated the "Great Satan" for 444 days, an American delegation was back in Tehran, performing under the Stars and Stripes to the cheers of an Iranian crowd.
Both American and Iranian officials have been quick to play down any political significance of the sporting contest, but for anyone who recalls how a simple ping-pong match in Beijing in 1971 opened the door to U.S. recognition of communist China, there is little doubt the event represented an important, if still tenuous, step toward rapprochement between the United States and Iran. If realized, it will have enormous strategic implications for Saddam Hussein's future.
U.S. policy makers still insist that their increasingly unsuccessful policy of "dual containment" of both Iran and Iraq remains in place. But behind closed doors at the White House and the State Department, a debate is raging on whether to continue such an unrewarding policy.
The main reason, of course, is Saddam. A full-scale war in 1991, occasional air strikes, at least five failed CIA operations and seven harsh years of economic sanctions have failed to topple the Iraqi tyrant. Despite all efforts to oust him, he remains ensconced in power, playing a masterful cat-and-mouse game with U.N. arms inspectors trying -- still -- to find what's left of Iraq's deadly armory of biological and chemical weapons.
If this latest showdown with Baghdad showed nothing else, it was that our allies -- in Europe as well as in the region -- no longer have the stomach to use military force. More to the point, even the most sanguine bomb-'em-back-to-the-Stone-Age strategists seem to have concluded that without the land bases denied by our Arab allies -- and without the land forces the American public has no intention of sending to the gulf again -- any U.S. bombing campaign would be more punitive than transformative.
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The Clinton administration's failures in Iraq -- as those of the Bush
administration before it -- have left it casting about for a policy that
will keep Saddam down. With few other options, it is only natural that
American strategists should find themselves turning once again to Iraq's
historical enemy, Iran.
There are, of course, plenty of reasons to remain wary of Iran. There is
Tehran's support for terrorism, its opposition to the U.S.-sponsored Middle
East peace process and a residual hatred for America among the hard-line
But there is also an inescapable logic to a rapprochement with Tehran.
Iran, for decades a pawn of Western powers, views itself as the strategic
counterweight against the volatility and unpredictability of the Arab
nations and tribes with which it shares the oil-rich Persian Gulf basin.
While it opposes the U.S. military presence in the gulf, its strategic goal
of balancing Iraq's power dovetails with American concerns.
The Iranians have plenty of reasons to fear Saddam and to keep him
contained. Not only has the Iraqi dictator ruthlessly repressed Iran's
co-religionist Shiite majority in southern Iraq, but their memories remain
seared by Iraq's 1980 invasion and the eight murderous years of trench
warfare that followed. More than a million are believed to have died in
that dismal war -- some, it should be recalled, by Iraq's use of chemical
Last May's national elections in Iran opened the door to the realignment
of forces that is quietly taking place. While the Islamic establishment
supported the conservative speaker of parliament Ali Akbar Nateq-Noori for
the presidency, the Iranian populace opted for a more liberal direction. By
an overwhelming majority, voters turned against the tired fundamentalist
leadership and chose as their president the Western-educated, relatively
moderate cleric Mohammad Khatami.
Though ultimate power still resides in the hands of Iran's "Supreme
Leader," the dour Ayatollah Ali Khameini, the new president -- ousted from
his previous post of cultural minister for being too soft on Islamic purity
and censorship -- has wasted little time trying to open up Iranian society
to its own citizens, and to the long-shunned Western world.
President Khatami's opening salvo was a live interview with CNN's
Christiane Amanpour in January, in which he praised "American civilization"
and called for a renewed dialogue and exchange between the peoples of Iran
and the United States in order to "crack the wall of mistrust" that has
prevailed since 1979.
Diplomatic breakthroughs among bitter enemies rely on veiled symbolic
gestures such as this. An American response came quickly. In his Jan.
28 message to honor the end of the month-long religious fast of Ramadan,
President Clinton telegraphed Washington's own flexibility.
"To the people of Iran, I would like to say the United States regrets the
estrangement of our two nations," Clinton declared. "We have real
differences with some Iranian policies, but I believe these are not
insurmountable. I hope that we have more exchanges between our people and
that the day will soon come when we can enjoy once again good relations
Within a month of that statement U.S. wrestlers were in Tehran fighting to
great applause, with no less a spectator than Ali Akbar Nateq-Noori looking
on. No sooner had the American wrestlers left Tehran than Middle East
specialist Geoffrey Kemp arrived to hobnob with Iranian Foreign Ministry
The significance of Kemp's visit should not be underestimated. A former
member of the National Security Council during the Reagan administration,
he is one of a handful of former U.S. officials and diplomats who have been
quietly asked by the Clinton administration to come up with a viable
alternative to its dual containment policy.
So beneath the official insistence that nothing is happening, the signs are
that the United States and Iran are beginning to dance with each other once
again. And the tune they're dancing to is probably the oldest song in the
Middle East: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."