I liked that stinging quote from Hans Blix, the outgoing head of the UN weapons inspection team, when he said of the US and Iraq: "It's sort of puzzling, I think, that you can have 100 per cent certainty about the weapons of mass destruction's existence, and zero certainty about where they are." Quite. But as far as American public opinion about Iraq is concerned, the US has been there, done that: now attention is turning to Iran, and it is astonishing how pliant and derivative public opinion here is. Dubbya, flush with "success" in Iraq and ploughing on with his shamelessly insouciant imperialism, says the US "will not tolerate [the] construction of a nuclear weapon" in Iran. And that is generally believed - if we are to trust western intelligence - to be only a few years ahead.
Blix's comments were buried in the media here, but in less than a week after Bush's threat, a new opinion poll was published in the Washington Post. By 56 per cent to 38 per cent, Americans are now in favour of military action against Iran. Indeed, they are gung-ho over the prospect of another glorious war, with a quarter riled by the fictional notion that Iraq used chemical weapons against US troops. Sadly, the same poll showed that the postwar drip-drip-drip of American (and now British) deaths is still "acceptable" to half the American nation. Eye-ran would be a cakewalk in comparison, a majority of people here seem to believe, despite Iran having almost three times the land and population of Iraq. An international crisis thus looms over Iran.
I will always remember waking up to the news more than a decade ago that Farzad Bazoft, a reporter for the Observer and a man with whom I had broken bread, had been hanged by Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. (At almost the same time, a group of US senators, led by Bob Dole, went on a grovelling trip to see Saddam.) I was in Washington at the time, and went to the Iraqi embassy to join the protests that night. I was surprised to see a large number of Iranian exiles there - surprised not so much by their presence, but that they were predominantly students or clearly middle-class people. It showed that Iranian exile groups were alive and well and lobbying hard in Washington.
So are Washington and Langley (the CIA) behind the student protests against the theocracy in Iran? The Republican senator for Kansas Sam Brownback has proposed a US "aid" gift of more than $50m for Iranian opposition groups, while Dubbya has said that America "stands squarely" with them and warned the ruling mullahs "to treat them with the utmost of [sic] respect". What the world was seeing in Iraq, Bush said, was "the beginning of people expressing themselves toward a free Iran".
There is plenty of evidence that at least some of the Iranian protest groups have close ties with the Bush administration. The Washington neoconservatives have helped form the Coalition for Democracy in Iran, which has links with the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld's deputy at the Department of Defence. The right-wing journalist and author Michael Ledeen ("We have defeated Saddam, now we must spread freedom to the heartland of the terror masters in Iran") is supposedly acting as linkman, and has helped produce familiar noises from within the administration: that Iran has a close relationship with al-Qaeda, that it is secretly developing WMDs, and that Iranian exile groups are loudly proclaiming the need for action. The administration has produced a (classified) "national security directive", in which such notions are given further credence. It cites what happened in Iraq this year as a model for Iran. The CIA-backed coup of 1953 which put the Shah of Iran in power is also being seen as a model.
There are problems with the US openly, or even covertly, supporting the most powerful of the Iranian opposition groups - for example, the Mujahedin-e Khalq, the Iranian group operating out of Paris, which was previously financed by Saddam Hussein and was largely behind the major protests this month and in 1999. It is listed by the State Department as a terrorist group and is thus proscribed in the US. But its "political wing", known as the National Council of Resistance, operates freely here, as well as in Paris (at least until a fortnight or so ago) and in London. It, too, is working hard to convince Washington of the need to take action in Iran.
Many of the Iranian protest groups, though active in Washington, derive from well-financed bands of shah-supporting exiles based in California, from where satellite TV channels broadcasting propaganda against the mullahs are beamed and financed. The neoconservatives and well-heeled Iranian exiles even have their own version of Ahmad Chalabi, the decades-long US resident whom it has produced to run Iraq: in Iran's case, it is Reza Pahlavi, the eldest son of the late shah (who was deposed in the revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979). He has lived in the US for nearly two decades, has a degree from the University of Southern California and lives in a mansion in Maryland. He has more supporters in Los Angeles than in Iran, but that would not stop the US from seeing him as an ideal man to replace the theocracy in Tehran. American troops in Iraq are on the border with Iran and only 300 miles from the capital. Dubbya has welcomed what he sees as the prospect of a "free Iran", and who better than an excellent English speaker educated in the US, with his own serious but glamorous website (www.rezapahlavi.org), to return triumphantly to garlands in Iran, as the wretched Chalabi - if only everything had gone to plan - would have done in Iraq?
The US is currently pursuing a policy it did not with Iraq: it is working with the UN, in the form of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The IAEA has reprimanded Iran for evading its "safeguard obligations" and, so far, has acted in a way the US finds acceptable; Iran has acknowledged its construction of a huge uranium-enrichment plant, but maintains that its nuclear programmes are part of a peaceful plan to produce energy. But there are signs that the international solidarity will not last. Kenneth Brill, the US representative to the IAEA, has said: "The US expects the agency's accumulation of further information will point to only one conclusion: that Iran is aggressively pursuing a nuclear weapons programme." This familiar belligerence has been greeted with opposition among the IAEA representatives of non-aligned nations, currently led by Malaysia's Hussein Haniff: he announced that the bloc is opposed to a "growing resort to unilateralism and unilaterally imposed prescriptions".
We can expect France to figure largely as the rhetoric over Iran steps up. It has already outmanoeuvred the Bush administration by taking action against representatives of the Mujahedin-e Khalq in Paris; the arrest of more than 100 activists there was taken "in the national interest" (in other words, France supported the group as a favour to Saddam Hussein, but is now cracking down to curry support among the mullahs).
How confusing all this must be to a US administration as simplistic as this one: and how entertaining the continuing French chicanery is.