I've been embarrassed a few times in the past
with my predictions (for example, that it was going to be U.S. President John
Kerry in 2004), but I've also been right on a few occasions (for example, my
America in the Middle East, was published in 1992). So let me put my
credibility as a political analyst on the line again and make another forecast:
The news this year will be dominated by the growing confrontation between Washington
and Tehran (if that doesn't happen, well, I promise not to remind you about
that early next year).
Notice that I'm hedging my bets here. I refer to "confrontation,"
as in diplomatic and military confrontation, and not to war, as in the war with
Iraq. I don't think that the United States at this point has the needed military
resources and the necessary political support at home and abroad for launching
a full-scale attack on Iran, including the possible American occupation of that
country (or even parts of it).
In short, don't replace the "q" with an "n" and expect
a rerun of Iraq in Iran. The military and political realities are quite different
than they were three years ago when the Bush administration decided to oust
Saddam Hussein from power. One doesn't have to be a veteran military expert
or a diplomatic observer to recognize that the U.S. armed forces are overstretched
in Mesopotamia (150,000) and around the world, and that the Bush administration
wouldn't be able to persuade even Tony Blair to invade Iran.
Most important of all, the American public is exhausted with the war in Iraq.
Hence, short of a 9/11-like terrorist attack that could be linked (really, that
is, and not through deceptive "intelligence") to the ayatollahs in
Tehran, Congress is not going to provide President Bush with the green light
to send U.S. ground troops to Iran, especially since none are actually available
(there are less than 400,000 combat troops in the U.S. Army and only 150,000
of those are on active duty).
A total war with Iran, the world's second-largest
oil producer, in 2006 could also lead to a huge hike in petrol prices in
the United States that would make it less likely that the American SUV owner
would reelect a Republican Congress in the November midterm elections.
But a U.S. confrontation with Iran is inevitable for several reasons. Much
of the public's attention has been focused of course on the U.S.-led push, backed
by the European Union (EU), to block what seems to be Iran's drive to speed
up its nuclear-development program. The recent American efforts have been taking
place through multilateral channels, suggesting to some observers that the Bush
administration has been adopting a "realist" strategy. The EU-3 countries
(Britain, France, Germany) have been negotiating on and off with Iran, and meetings
between the Americans and the other 34 members of the International Atomic Energy
Agency (IAEA) governing board have produced resolutions calling on Iran to adopt
a more cooperative approach.
But the Bush administration agreed last November to go along with a European
recommendation to delay asking the IAEA board members to refer Iran to the United
Nations Security Council for action, after Russia and China indicated that they
would block UN action to punish Tehran.
And while the EU-3 negotiations with Iran seem to be reaching a dead end, there
have been signs of growing tensions between the Iranians and the Israelis. Iranian
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has publicly threatened to eliminate Israel and
suggested that the Jewish Holocaust didn't take place.
At the same time, Israeli officials have stressed that they would not permit
Iran to develop a nuclear military capability, igniting some reports that they
are planning an attack against Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor similar to the
Israeli raid on Iraq's Osirak nuclear site in 1981.
But it seems very unlikely given the conditions that exist today in the Middle
East – with the United States occupying Iraq, a state that borders Iran – that
Israel would take military action against Tehran that could affect U.S. interests
without receiving a go-ahead from its patron in Washington. The Israeli tail
won't be allowed to wag the U.S. dog.
More likely, the Israeli threats serve the U.S. strategy of pressing Iran to
make concessions over the nuclear issue. In fact, recent reports in the German
media that the Bush administration was preparing its NATO allies for a possible
military strike against suspected nuclear sites in Iran in 2006, which appeared
after similar news was published in the Turkish press, should be regarded as
part of the U.S. campaign to pressure Tehran to agree to make compromises during
the negotiations with the EU-3 and the IAEA.
Most observers are speculating that without any breakthrough in the talks with
Iran, Washington will demand that the UN Security Council impose sanctions on
Iran, and if the Russians and/or the Chinese decide to veto a resolution along
those lines, the Bush administration will urge the Europeans and other governments
to join in an embargo on technologies that Iran can use in its nuclear program.
Both the Americans and the Iranians are aware that such moves, assuming the
Europeans and others back them, would have very little effect on Iran. With
the continuing rise in oil prices, the Iranians are now awash with oil and money,
while the Russians, the Chinese, and probably the Indians remain important trade
partners for the Iranians and can be expected to reject a U.S. call to isolate
Iran and to continue to make major economic deals with Tehran on energy and
Moreover, the Iranians are familiar with the argument made above, that the
United States won't be able to "do an Iraq" in Iran, among other reasons
because of the high military and economic costs for the United States involved
in maintaining the occupation of Iraq. If anything, the Iranians could probably
raise those costs for the Americans by encouraging their political and military
allies in the majority Shi'ite community in Iraq, some of whom are now in power
in Baghdad, to make life miserable for the occupiers through violence (the use
of the Shi'ite militias) or by sabotaging moves toward political accommodation
As an Iran expert suggested to me: "All the Iranians need is to push their
Shi'ite button, and Iraq would explode in the face of the Americans." Indeed,
note the irony here. By ousting Saddam Hussein and his Arab-Sunni allies in
Baghdad and by destroying Iraq's military power, the Americans have removed
the major regional counterbalance to Iran's power in the Persian Gulf on which
other Sunni-Arab regimes in the region, including Saudi Arabia, have counted
as a way of containing the Shi'ite ayatollahs in Tehran, who seem to have adopted
an even more radical style than before.
Compounding this sense of irony is the fact that democracy and free elections
in Iraq – under U.S. occupation! – are bringing to power a Shi'ite political
coalition with strong ties to anti-American Tehran (where another exercise in
democracy led to the election of the Holocaust denier and anti-American Ahmadinejad).
It's not surprising, therefore, that the Saudis and other Arab Gulf states,
not unlike the Israelis, have been putting pressure on the Americans to "do
something" about Iran before a regional Shi'ite bloc led by Iran emerges
in the Gulf and threatens the interests of the Saudis (who also have a large
All of which means that if the Americans want to make sure that Iraq under
Shi'ite rule doesn't turn into a satellite of Iran, they need to use their own
diplomatic and military power to contain Tehran while continuing to occupy Iraq.
The Iranians, however, assume that they are in a win-win situation. They can
drag out the negotiations with the EU-3 and the IAEA, create a sense of a diplomatic
brinkmanship, and make a few last-moment, minor concessions on the nuclear issue.
That option would leave Washington isolated and with no support to take action
Or the Iranians could decide to raise the diplomatic ante and reject any compromise,
counting on the Russians and/or the Chinese to block UN action and on Venezuela's
Hugo Chavez and other anti-American Third World nations to join them in countering
U.S. diplomatic moves, which in turn would put enormous pressure on oil prices.
Doing nothing about Iran would not only demolish what remains of the U.S.-led
nuclear arms-control regime, it would also turn the balance of power in Iraq
and the Persian Gulf against the United States and create incentives for the
Saudis and others to make deals with Tehran.
Short of trying to open direct diplomatic channels with Iran (very unlikely),
the United States will probably try to increase the diplomatic and military
pressure on Iran in the coming months, demonstrating that the Pax Americana
project in the Middle East is becoming more expensive.
That the central banks of China and other Asian economies are paying for it
is probably the most intriguing element in this evolving story.
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