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Rumsfeld, in Council Speech, Warns Iran and Defends Iraq Policy

Author: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
May 26, 2003
Council on Foreign Relations


Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld continued the Bush administration’s tough tone toward Iran in a speech on Tuesday, saying that Tehran “should be on notice” that the United States will not permit Iran to try to remake neighboring Iraq in its Islamic image. Such an effort, he said, would be “aggressively put down.”

Addressing a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations, Rumsfeld said that reformist Iranians might someday be able to topple the ruling Islamic leadership in that country. He answered a question on Iran by outlining a policy of avoiding “a close, intimate relationship” with the rulers of Iran for fear that this would discourage what he described as a latent popular opposition.

“Look at that country and see that there are things happening, that the women and the young people are churning in that country and putting pressure on the handful of clerics that dominate and control that regime,” Rumsfeld said.

Rumsfeld, alluding to the turbulent times in 1978-79 when popular uprisings overthrew Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and led eventually to the rule of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, said, “My personal view is that I’m still amazed at how fast it went from the Shah of Iran to the clerics, to the Ayatollah Khomeini. Maybe we’ll be favorably surprised someday that it will go back to something where the people of that country will have a broader voice and an opportunity to affect their lives, which clearly they’re restricted from doing today.”

Most Iranian experts agree that students and many other young Iranians are generally reformist-minded and would welcome an easing of the regime’s strict Islamic policies, but do not have the ability to mount a revolutionary overthrow of the clerics.

Since the fall of Iraq, the Bush administration has repeatedly expressed concern about Iran’s actions. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer asserted again Tuesday that the United States believed that Iran was giving sanctuary to al-Qaeda terrorists, despite official Iranian denials. He also criticized Iran again for allegedly pursuing a nuclear weapons program in the face of its commitments not to do so.

Much of Rumsfeld’s opening remarks were an effort to put the current disorder and frustrations in Iraq in a relatively benign light. He said that in the first years after the American War of Independence, there was a “good deal of chaos and confusion.” He cited the so-called Shays Rebellion. Led by Daniel Shays in 1786, farmers stormed local courts and other early government buildings to protest laws and politicians they opposed.

Often repeating lines that were included in an opinion article he published in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, Rumsfeld said that if Iraq could move to representative democracy, “the impact in the region and the world could be dramatic.”

At one point, in answer to a question, Rumsfeld addressed the looting and other crimes in Iraq that have received considerable press attention and referred to incidents of crime in American cities, suggesting that the situations were in some ways comparable.

The secretary advised patience in the hunt for Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. There has been growing criticism of the Bush administration’s pre-war claims that Iraq had massive amounts of chemical and biological weapons stored. Because no significant stocks have been found, doubts have been raised about the veracity of the information conveyed by President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell to make the case for war.

Rumsfeld was asked what intelligence information led to the orders issued to U.S. troops fighting in Iraq to wear protective suits against chemical or biological attack. He replied that the use of suits was prudent because Iraq previously had used chemical weapons against Iran and against Kurds in the north. He repeated the contention of the administration that even though nothing significant has been found yet, that doesn’t mean that weapons won’t eventually be found. “There are hundreds and hundreds of suspect chemical or biological or nuclear sites that have not been investigated just yet,” he said. “It’ll take time.”

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