U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice couldn't
possibly have been more accurate when she accused Iran of "playing games" with
the international community.
Rice was specifically referring to an announcement made April 30, by deputy
head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency Muhammad Saeedi, that his country is
willing to allow "snap inspections" by the UN nuclear watchdog, the International
Atomic Energy Agency, on the condition that the UN Security Council is excluded
from any involvement in inspecting Iran's nuclear-enrichment facilities.
Iran is playing games in the sense that it is repeatedly testing U.S. resolve
to see how far the Bush administration is willing to go to escalate the conflict.
Naturally, the outcomes of Iran's political experimentation help adjust – escalate
or downgrade – the government's political attitude toward the issue.
Ironically, the "games" Rice was protesting are called "realpolitik," where
practical matters are weighed, considered, and taken into account based exclusively
on statistical, cost-effective analysis, and where ethics and law carry little
It's ironic because no Middle Eastern government comes close to the United
States and the so-called EU-3 – Germany, France, and Britain – in playing such
games. After all, the term realpolitik was coined by a German writer to describe
the attempt to balance the powers of European empires in the 19th century.
True, Iran is no empire and is unlikely to metamorphose into one. Moreover,
the chances are that no balance of power – in the real sense – is possible between
Iran and its Western nemesis, considering U.S. military might and that of its
"willing allies," no matter how hard Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad labors
to create a fearsome aura around his nation's military force.
But thanks to other factors – President George W. Bush's low ratings at home
and his embattled military in Iraq – Iran is finding itself in a much more comfortable
state than that of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his government
prior to the U.S. invasion in March 2003.
Some rightfully observe that the U.S. government's rhetoric concerning Iranian
nuclear enrichment is almost an exact replica of that employed before the Iraq
war. First, there was the exaggeration of Iraq's military might, which was seen
as a "threat" to its neighbors – most notably Israel – and U.S. regional interests.
Then came the sanctions, formidable and suffocating, meant to "contain" the
Iraqi regime and impede Hussein's alleged incessant drive for chemical, biological,
and nuclear weapons.
Then there was the muscle flexing and awesome military deployment. Finally
came the showdown: war, forced regime change, and occupation.
The Bush administration and the pro-war clique in Congress sound equally enthused
for another Middle East showdown, and Tehran is the new destination. Once again,
it's not respect for the law (since Iran's nuclear enrichment is not in violation
of its commitment under the Nonproliferation Treaty) or respect for democracy
(for Iran is much closer to an actual democracy than many corrupt and authoritative
U.S. allies) or respect for human rights (since the U.S., as the effective ruler
of Iraq, is the region's top human-rights violator) that stimulates such enthusiasm.
Rather, it's realpolitik. Iran alone provides 5 percent of the world's oil
exports. At a time when access to and control of energy sources translates into
political power and strategic affluence, and in an age of uncertain oil supplies
and fractious markets, the Iran prize is most enviable.
But that alone can hardly justify the seemingly irrational readiness to expand
the battlefield for an already overstretched U.S. military. That's where the
infamous, pro-Israel, neoconservative warmongers are most effective. In the
same way they managed to concoct a pro-war discourse before the disastrous war
on Iraq – using the military and ever willing mainstream media – they're working
diligently to create another false doomsday scenario required for a military
encroachment on Iran.
If all of this is true, then why is Iran "playing games"?
The answer is multifaceted. While Iran is no match for an empire, it also understands
that it holds great leverage through its significant influence over Iraq's Shi'ite
population and its representatives. While the invasion of Iraq has disaffected
most of the country's population regardless of their sectarian affiliation,
the Shi'ite leaders have yet to outwardly demand an American withdrawal and,
for strategic reasons, have yet to join the flaring insurgency. Using its influence
in Iraq, Iran could significantly alter the equation, a decision that would
likely not suit the U.S. long-term interests in occupied Iraq.
But Iran can do more, even if indirectly. When the price of a barrel of oil
recently reached $75, the Group of Seven industrial nations sent terrible warnings
of an impending global economic crisis. Imagine if the prices hit the $100 mark
– or even $120. How will already fractious energy markets treat such a possibility,
keeping in mind already vulnerable Nigerian oil production and the less accommodating
– read: more independent – Venezuelan oil supplies? Needless to say, "unexplained"
acts of sabotage against Iraq's oil production facilities and export pipelines
will likely add fuel to the fire.
All of these outcomes exclude entirely the implausible likelihood that the
U.S. military is in fact capable of leading a ground war or maintaining a long-term
occupation of a country several times the size of Iraq, one that has not been
weakened by years of debilitating sanctions.
As optimistic as it may sound, one can, to an extent, speak of a "balance of
power." Wherever such balance can be struck, realpolitik and its associated
"games" can also be found in profusion.
While the U.S. wishes to maintain the posture of the uncompromising, hardheaded
party, ready to mull its many "military options" at the strike of an executive
order, Iran is calling its bluff, confidently speaking of its own options.
Iran 2006 is certainly not the Iraq of 1990-1991 or 2003. Some major changes
to the political map of the Middle East have taken place, and serious challenges
are appearing day after day, to the astonishment of the beleaguered U.S. government
and its president.
Whether it still genuinely believes in military options as decisive retorts
to its many global challenges, the Bush administration must learn to deal with
new political realities, and it must also accept that playing politics is no
longer restricted to empires alone.