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May 11, 2006

Iran vs. US: Nuclear Standoff or Realpolitik?


by Ramzy Baroud

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 weight.

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.


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  • Ramzy Baroud is editor-in-chief of the Palestine Chronicle. His book The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People's Struggle is now out in paperback.

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