The Day After the Attack


As President Bush steps up his push for an invasion of Iraq and U.S. Marines practice city assaults in downtown Dayton, Ohio, experts closer to the heart of the matter say that America doesn't know what it's getting itself into.

Hundreds of specialists in Persian languages and societies from around the world gathered in the capital of Tajikistan last week to discuss topics ranging from Sufi mysticism to modern Iranian painting. The conference was rescheduled to Dushanbeh when the U.S. Treasury Department prevented American organizers from holding it in Iran, where U.S. visitors would have learned more about the current Iranian political and cultural situation.

In hallways and conference rooms, the hot topic was the possibility of a U.S. attack on Iraq.

"We believe that the United States doesn't realize the implications of its actions," said Taghi Azadarmaki, an internationally known Iranian sociologist. "America is in Afghanistan. They are friendly with General Musharraf of Pakistan. Now, if they invade and occupy Iraq, it looks like they are starting a pincer movement, with Iran as their next target. This makes everyone in the region wonder about American hegemony."

The general opinion at the First International Conference of the Association for the Study of Persianate Societies was that although Saddam Hussein is an unworthy national leader, the United States government gravely miscalculates the effect of an invasion on regional stability. Moreover, experts here say that Washington does not have the competence to manage internal Iraqi politics and a possible internal civil war after a "regime change."

Gholam-Abbas Tavassoli, another eminent Iranian sociologist, pointed out that Iran has made strong friendships in the states of the Arabian Peninsula in recent years. "If the United States invades Iraq, Iran will stand with the regional states to prevent further expansion of American power."

However, both Azadarmaki and Tavassoli said that Iranians are sick of violence and war, and would be unlikely to participate in a fight to defend Iraq.

One specialist on Kurdistan said that the United States underestimates the vigor of the Kurdish drive to establish an independent nation in northern Iraq -- something another American ally, Turkey, deeply opposes. The specialist said the Kurds believe the United States will use them to eliminate Saddam Hussein, and then abandon them. Should the United States stay in Iraq and not foster Kurdish independence, Kurdish opposition to U.S. troops could be fierce.

Afghan specialists wondered how the United States intended to create a new state in Iraq when they have failed to do so in Afghanistan. "Every American promise for Afghanistan has been broken," said Zahir Mo'meni, a social scientist working for the new Afghan government. "We are now looking primarily to European nations to help in our rebuilding effort. We are skeptical when we think of Americans trying to govern Iraq."

Opinion was widespread that American expertise in the region is very thin. Many pointed out that only a handful of Americans know anything in depth about Iraqi society. The number who know about Iran is also small. Moreover, Washington is doing little to increase this knowledge. It has been nearly impossible for Ph.D. academic specialists from the region to get visas to visit the United States to consult with American academics and regional specialists even when their credentials are impeccable.

Clearly, thwarting contact between those who know the region best is a tactical error. If the United States does invade Iraq -- and if it remains there for a long time -- America will need all the help it can get.

William O. Beeman ( is director of Middle East Studies at Brown University. He has lived and conducted research in the Middle East and Central Asia for more than 30 years.

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