On Sunday came news from the U.N. inspectors on the ground that Iran has made a breakthrough in the enrichment of uranium. It was previously thought that the Iranians were having trouble developing the tight engineering and high speeds needed to get their centrifuges to produce nuclear fuel. But inspectors, on a short-notice visit, came upon 1,300 centrifuges merrily spinning away and churning out the raw ingredient for massive carnage.

“We believe they pretty much have the knowledge about how to enrich,” said Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the U.N. agency that won the Nobel Prize after getting it right about Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent WMD program. That makes his current alarm all the more credible when he warns about Iran’s enrichment program breakthrough: “From now on, it is simply a question of perfecting that knowledge. People will not like to hear it, but that’s a fact.”

Great. Tehran’s religious fanatics have moved closer to the potential for nuclear conflagration, and what can bully-boy Bush do about it? Nothing. He shot his wad gambling on the invasion of Iraq, a nation that didn’t pose a WMD threat, and now needs Iran — which the United Nations fears may pose a real threat — to bail us out in Baghdad. Now it is bluffing time, with the Bush administration making all the appropriate warning noises about Iran’s nuclear program while cozying up to Tehran to help our puppet government in Baghdad pretend to be in power.

That Bush is dependent on Iran’s ruling ayatollahs to salvage a modicum of face-saving stability in Iraq also was made clear on Sunday when, despite new concerns about Iran’s nuclear potential, the White House confirmed an upcoming Iran-U.S. meeting in Baghdad in the next few weeks to discuss Tehran taking a “productive role” in Iraq’s security. “You could expect a meeting in the next few weeks with Ambassador [Chester] Crocker and Iranians,” said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe. His lame excuse for formal talks after a 25-year break in diplomatic relations with Iran: “The purpose is to try to make sure that the Iranians play a productive role in Iraq.”

A blunter assessment of the dark codependency motivating these talks was provided by Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari: “The U.S. is a major player and so is Iran, and there will be a room for some substantial discussions for the stability of Iraq.” Sure there will, but it will be on Iran’s terms, and soft-pedaling U.S. opposition to that country’s nuclear program is a given. So is the acceptance of a version of Iran’s theocratic model, exported to formerly secular Iraq.

Talk about desperation. To bring peace to Iraq, Bush now turns to the very “rogue regime” he accuses of threatening the survival of the planet with its nuclear weapons program, not to mention support of worldwide terrorism. But what choice does he have? Many of the key players Bush installed in power in Iraq were trained during decades of exile in Iran, and key Shiite militias, according to U.S. military commanders, are increasingly supplied with deadly explosives from Tehran.

The serious subtext here, rarely noticed by pundits, is that the United States created a vacuum for the vast expansion of Iranian influence throughout the Mideast. In the creation of a new hegemony, the fervid goal of the neoconservatives led by now-disgraced World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, our nation appears en route to becoming Tehran’s junior partner. Although a military strike against Iran is certainly a continually examined possibility, such action would ignite an anti-American tidal wave in the region, beginning with Iraq. Of course one should never underestimate the ineptitude of the Bush administration.

The big losers in all this are the ordinary citizens in Iraq and throughout the Mideast who were promised an infusion of democratic ideals in the wake of the invasion. Instead, they have been left with a widespread resurgence of religious fanaticism. Never have those fundamentalist forces, which produced 9/11, been more popular in the Mideast — particularly in Iraq, where al-Qaida was ruthlessly suppressed by Saddam Hussein.

It was particularly odd, writing this on a day when a special World Bank committee issued its devastating report on Wolfowitz’s corruption of bank standards, to read Vice President Dick Cheney’s defense of his main henchman in engineering the Iraq invasion. Cheney described Wolfowitz, the leader in hyping regime change in Iraq as the avenue to democratization, as “one of the most able public servants I’ve ever known.” Takes one to know one in that strange alchemy of Bush ideologues, where stunning success is the inevitable product of abysmal failure.

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