Iran, Iraq and Syria . . . where next?

The so-called 'insurgency' in Iraq is slowly being defeated. More and more of the security work is being undertaken by Iraqi security forces, and the anti-Iraqi terrorists are having fewer and fewer successes. When Dick Cheney said the insurgency was on 'its last legs' he was, perhaps, understating his case. The violence of last summer and autumn - when the violence of post-Saddam Iraq peaked - was actually the death throes. It was a last violent spasm with a single goal: to prevent the elections planned for the end of 2005. It failed. An ever higher proportion of those engaged in terrorism in Iraq are not Iraqis, but foreign Jihadists. This violence can, and will, be defeated, and the installation of a new government will be a further incremental step to achieving this goal.

But there is a necessary precondition to the absolute defeat of the Jihadists and Iraq's own totalitarians alike. Iran and Syria must be prevented from fostering and sheltering anti-Iraq terrorists. The Iraqi government, and its Coalition allies, must be willing to engage in hot pursuit of terrorists into Iran and Syria.

While it is wholly illegitimate for Iran and Syria to shelter terrorists who fight against the elected government of Iraq, it is perfectly right and proper for Iraq to shelter freedom fighters against the oppressive regimes of its neighbours. Aiding them, as Britain aided the French Resistance, is a sensible as well as moral policy.

Syria in particular is a dictatorship totally devoid of any democratic trappings. The Syrian government continues to oppress its own people, and it is through Syria that Iran sponsors Hizbollah in its murderous attacks on Israel and Lebanon. Bringing down the Syrian government, or at least totally disrupting its control of the country, is a major strategic priority that will benefit all Syria's neighbours. Destabilising Syria will help to stabilise the rest of the region, as well as providing an object lesson to Iran.

The model for this should be the destruction of the Taleban rather than the overthrow of Saddam. The west should arm and support Syrian dissidents rather than invade. The CIA and special forces can provide tactical support, and perhaps air cover can be provided from Iraq. Soon the Assad dictatorship will be fighting for its life.

Of course, this set of priorities will need to be completely reversed if Iran is anywhere close to developing nuclear weapons. Estimates vary, but most suggest that Iran is 5-10 years away from doing so. Intelligence estimates are notoriously unreliable. In Iraq, for example, they grossly underestimated Saddam's WMD programme in the 1990s, and apparently overestimated it in 2003. Nonetheless, Iran is almost certainly several years away from developing a usable bomb.

In five years time Iraq will be a stable democracy, already past the second the election under its democratic constitution; Iran's Syrian ally will have been overthrown, though it could be still in the early stages of its own democracy; and Iran will have been cut off from sponsoring Hizbollah, leading to a more prosperous and stable Lebanon.

Support for Iranian dissidents and freedom fighters can do much, especially in this transformed situation, to force a change of policy on the mullahs, or perhaps help ignite a new revolution. Invading Iran or launching a strike on its deep bunkers must remain a live option, if they seem like the only practical route to prevent the current theocracy from gaining nuclear weapons, but it seems there are other options still available.

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