Whatever else the release
of the 16-agency National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the Iranian bomb may
be, it is certainly a reasonable measure of inside-the-Beltway Bush administration
decline. Whether that release represented "a preemptive
strike against the White House by intelligence agencies and military chiefs,"
an intelligence "mini-coup"
against the administration, part of a longer-term set of moves meant to undermine
plans for air strikes against Iran that involved a potential resignation threat
from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and a "near
mutiny" by the Joint Chiefs, or an attempt by
the administration itself to "salvage negotiations with Iran" or shift its
own Iran policy, or none of or some combination of the above,
one thing can be said: Such an NIE would not have been written, no less released,
at almost any previous moment in the last seven years. (Witness the 2005 version
of the same that opted for an active Iranian program to produce nuclear weapons.)
Imagine an NIE back in 2005 that, as Dilip Hiro wrote
recently, "contradicts the image of an inward-looking, irrational, theocratic
leadership ruling Iran oppressively that Washington has been projecting for
a long time. It says: 'Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily
in response to international pressure indicates Tehran's decisions are judged
by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the
political, economic, and military costs.'"
The Iranians as rational, cost-benefit calculators? Only the
near collapse of presidential and vice-presidential polling
figures, and the endless policy failures that proceeded and
accompanied those numbers; only the arrival of Robert Gates
as secretary of defense and a representative
of the "reality-based community," only the weakening of the
neocons and their purge inside the Pentagon, only the increasing
isolation of the Vice President's "office" only, that is,
decline inside the Beltway could account for such a conclusion
or such a release.
Whatever the realities of the Iranian nuclear program, this
NIE certainly reflected the shifting realities of power in Washington
in the winter of 2007. In a zero-sum game in the capital's corridors
in which, for years, every other power center was the loser,
the hardliners suddenly find themselves with their backs to
the wall when it comes to the most compelling of their dreams
of global domination. (Never forget the pre-invasion neocon
quip: "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to
go to Tehran.")
Now, as Jim Lobe points
out, we probably know why the Vice President and others suddenly began to
change the subject last summer from the Iranian nuclear program to Iranian IEDs
being smuggled into Iraq for use against American forces. And why, in August,
according to the Washington
Post's Dan Froomkin, the President "stopped making explicit assertions
about the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program... and started more
vaguely accusing them of seeking the knowledge necessary to make such a weapon."
They knew what was coming.
Enough power evidently remained in the hands of Vice President
Cheney and associates that the final NIE was delayed at least
three times, according to Congressional sources speaking
to the Los Angeles Times. The New Yorker's
Seymour Hersh claims
that "the vice-president has kept his foot on the neck of that
report... The intelligence we learned about yesterday has been
circulating inside this government at the highest levels for
the last year and probably longer." Still, it's now out and
that is a yardstick of something.
Dilip Hiro is intent on measuring a more significant decline
not of the Bush moment in Washington, but of imperial America
which, as he points out below, now finds itself on the losing
end of an ever more humiliating zero-sum game with a relatively
minor power. If you needed the slightest proof of this, just
consider how, on Wednesday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad termed
the release of the NIE a "declaration of victory" for Iran's
nuclear program. And he has reason to crow. After all, as the
headline of the latest Robert Scheer column at Truthdig.org
when it came to the latest stare-down at the nuclear OK Corral
between the President of the planetary "hyperpower" and the
president of a relatively weak regional power: "It Turns Out
Ahmadinejad Was the Truthful One." Tom
The Zero-Sum Fiasco
Bush in a Humiliating Zero-Sum Iranian Game of His Own Making
By Dilip Hiro
Bush's woefully misguided invasion and occupation
of Iraq in 2003, carried out under false pretences, has not only drained the
United States treasury, but reduced Washington's standing in the Middle East
in a way not yet fully grasped by most commentators. Whereas Washington once
played off Tehran against Baghdad, while involved in a superpower zero-sum game
with the Soviet Union, the Bush administration is now engaged in a zero-sum
game, as a virtual equal, with Iran. That is, America's loss has become Iran's
automatic gain, and vice-versa.
To grasp the steepness of Washington's recent fall, recall
that until Saddam Hussein's disastrous invasion of Kuwait
in August 1990, the zero-sum doctrine in the region applied
only to Iraq and Iran, two minor powers on the world stage.
Having emerged in a self-congratulatory mode as the "sole
superpower" after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991,
the U.S. now finds itself competing with a secondary power
in the Middle East. This humbling realization seems to have
finally penetrated the minds of top policy makers in the Bush
administration, causing concern.
More than anything else, that explains the sudden spurt
of presidential interest in healing the long-running Israeli-Palestinian
sore by holding a Middle East conference in Annapolis, Maryland.
The real objective of the Bush team had more to do with mollifying
Arab leaders in order to hold them together in its ongoing
confrontation with Tehran than realizing a genuine urge to
create a viable, independent Palestine within a year.
With his invasion of Iraq in 2003, George W. Bush diverged
wildly from the policies of his two Republican predecessors:
his father, George H. W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan. Both of
them had proved erudite enough to maintain the zero-sum game
between Iraq and Iran.
The Zero-Sum Doctrine
While the United States and the Soviet Union vied for supremacy
in the oil-rich, strategically important Middle East, the
rivalry between Baghdad and Tehran was long submerged in the
Cold War between the two superpowers.
After the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in February 1948,
a zero-sum doctrine came to dominate that global "war." From
then on, each Soviet gain was automatically seen as a loss
in Washington, and vice-versa in Moscow.
This status quo held for 30 years. In April 1978, a Soviet-inspired military
coup in Afghanistan toppled the regime of Daoud Khan who had earlier
overthrown his cousin, King Zahir Shah, and founded a republic replacing
it with a pro-Moscow republic. That alarmed the administration of President
Jimmy Carter. The turmoil that ensued in Afghanistan would last two decades,
at the end of which the puritanical, Sunni, Islamic fundamentalist Taliban movement
would seize control of almost the entire country. (Being staunch Sunnis, the
Taliban held Shi'ites in low esteem, which helped raise tensions with Shi'ite
Iran to a fever pitch in 1998.)
In the Middle East, meanwhile, a historic zero-sum game
had prevailed between the pro-American Shah of Iran, re-installed
after a CIA coup in 1953, and the Soviet-leaning regime of
Arab nationalist officers in Iraq that followed the overthrow
of the pro-British monarch in 1958.
In the eight-year war between the two neighbors, started
by Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran in 1980, President Reagan
maintained a pretence of neutrality, while covertly supporting
the Iraqi dictator, as some "rogue" officials in his administration
sold weapons secretly to Iran's fundamentalist regime that
had toppled the Shah in 1979.
In the mid-1980s, when Saddam's defeat became a real possibility,
the Pentagon introduced the U.S. Navy into the conflict. While
the ostensible purpose was to escort tankers, carrying Kuwaiti
oil, through the Persian Gulf to foreign destinations, this
was an overt U.S. tilt toward Iraq. The war ended in a stalemate,
leaving the regional zero-sum equation intact.
Following the expulsion of Saddam Hussein's occupying Iraqi forces from Kuwait
in February 1991, President George H. W. Bush, leading a coalition of 28 nations,
called on Iraqis to rise up against Saddam. Both the Kurds in the north and
the Shi'ites in the south answered his call. Bush senior came to the rescue
of the Iraqi Kurds under the guise of United Nations Security Council Resolution
688 (relating to "the repression of Iraqi civilian population"). By contrast,
he allowed Saddam's forces to deploy helicopter gun ships to mow down the Shi'ite
rebels in the south. Why?
Bush and his top officials, including then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney,
understood that Saddam's overthrow would end the classic Iraqi-Iranian zero-sum
game. Once the long-suffering Shi'ite majority in Iraq was in the driver's seat
in a post-Saddam Iraq, it would naturally ally with predominantly Shi'ite Iran.
The Zero-Sum Fiasco
The coming to power of the anti-Shi'ite Taliban government in Afghanistan,
culminating in its killing of a dozen Iranian diplomats in the regional capital
of Mazar-e-Sharif in the summer of 1998, raised Tehran-Kabul tensions to an
explosive point. Tens of thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guards gathered
along the international border with Afghanistan for "military exercises."
Although the two governments pulled back from the brink
of war, Iran continued to regard the Taliban, a creature of
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, as an intensely hostile entity.
Contrary to Iran's public posturing, including protests
against the Pentagon's aerial strikes on Afghanistan between
October and December 2001, its government actually shared
intelligence on the Taliban with Washington, using back channels.
Like its politicians, the Iranian public was glad to see the
Taliban defeated, and Iran's diplomats cooperated with their
American counterparts to install Hamid Karzai as the leader
of the post-Taliban Afghanistan.
Then, in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the
Shi'ite-dominated government feared by the first Bush administration
came into existence. The overthrow of its enemies to the east
(in Afghanistan) and to the west (in Iraq) – wrought by Bush
junior to advance his own blinkered agenda had now prepared
the ground for Iran to assume the regionally dominant role
its leaders consider their right.
Iran has the largest population in the region, is four times
the size of Iraq, shares land and water borders with nine
countries, and has a coastline that runs along the whole Persian
Gulf as well as part of the Arabian Sea, not to mention the
land-locked Caspian Sea. It also has the second largest reserves
of oil, as well as natural gas, in the world.
In its regional policies, it does not differentiate between
Sunnis and Shi'ites. It has taken the lead in offering aid,
material and moral, to Hamas, even though it is a Sunni Palestinian
Iran's stance is in line with popular sentiment among Arabs. Hassan Nasrallah,
Ismail Haniyeh, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad respectively, the heads of the
Lebanese Hezbollah movement, the Palestinian Hamas movement, and Iran
now top opinion polls as favorite leaders in Arab countries. That is, ordinary
Arabs generally ignore sectarian differences, except when it comes to occupied
Worried by this fact, Arab rulers have resorted to stressing
their sectarian, rather than ideological or policy disagreements,
with Iran. The Bush administration has encouraged them to
do so. Eager to counter rising Iranian influence by any means,
its top officials are now trying to rally Arab rulers as Sunnis
against Shi'ite Iran, forgetting that a hasty and unnecessary
invasion of Iraq was what has brought about this wretched
mess in the first place.
Increasingly, Washington under Bush will be the loser, no
matter who prevails in the region an apt definition of
a superpower in decline and of a genuine zero-sum fiasco.
Dilip Hiro is the author of The
Iranian Labyrinth, Secrets and Lies: Operation "Iraqi Freedom" and After,
and, most recently, Blood
of the Earth: The Battle for the World's Vanishing Oil Resources, all published
by Nation Books.
Copyright 2007 Dilip Hiro