As the George W. Bush administration pushes for
a showdown over Iran's nuclear program in the UN Security Council, it has presented
the issue as a matter of global security – an Iranian nuclear threat in defiance
of the international community.
But the history of the conflict and the private strategic thinking of both sides
reveal that the dispute is really about the administration's drive for greater
dominance in the Middle East and Iran's demand for recognition as a regional
It is now known that the Iranian leadership, which was convinced that Bush was
planning to move against Iran after toppling Saddam Hussein in Iraq, proposed
in April 2003 to negotiate with the United States on the very issues that the
administration had claimed were the basis for its hostile posture toward Tehran:
its nuclear program, its support for Hezbollah and other anti-Israeli armed
groups, and its hostility to Israel's existence.
Tehran offered concrete, substantive concessions on those issues. But on the
advice of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld,
Bush refused to respond to the negotiating proposal. Nuclear weapons were not,
therefore, the primary U.S. concern about Iran. In the hierarchy of the administration's
interests, the denial of legitimacy to the Islamic Republic trumped a deal that
could provide assurances against an Iranian nuclear weapon.
For insight into the real aims of the administration in pushing the issue of
Iranian access to nuclear technology to a crisis point, one can turn to Tom
Donnelly of the neoconservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute.
Donnelly was the deputy executive director of the neoconservative Project for
the New American Century from 1999 to 2002, and was the main author of "Rebuilding
America's Defenses" [.pdf].
That paper was written for Cheney and Rumsfeld during the transition following
Bush's election and had the participation of four prominent figures who took
positions in the administration: Stephen A. Cambone, Lewis Libby, Paul Wolfowitz,
and John Bolton.
Donnelly's analysis of the issue of Iran and nuclear weapons, published last
October in the book Getting
Ready for a Nuclear-Ready Iran, makes it clear that the real objection
to Iran becoming a nuclear power is that it would impede the larger U.S. ambitions
in the Middle East – what Donnelly calls the administration's "project of transforming
the Middle East."
Contrary to the official U.S. line depicting Iran as a radical state threatening
to plunge the region into war, Donnelly refers to Iran as "more the status quo
power" in the region in relation to the United States. Iran, he explains, "stands
directly athwart this project of regional transformation." Up to now, he
observes, the Iranian regime has been "incapable of stemming the seeping U.S.
presence in the Persian Gulf and in the broader region." And the invasion
of Iraq "completed the near-encirclement of Iran by U.S. military forces."
Donnelly writes that a "nuclear Iran" is a problem not so much because Tehran
would employ those weapons or pass them on to terrorist groups, but mainly because
of "the constraining effect it threatens to impose upon U.S. strategy for the
greater Middle East."
The "greatest danger," according to Donnelly, is that the "realists"
would "pursue a 'balance of power' approach with a nuclear Iran, undercutting
the Bush 'liberation strategy.'" Although Donnelly doesn't say so explicitly,
it would undercut that strategy primarily by ruling out a U.S. attack on Iran
as part of a strategy of "regime change."
Instead, in Donnelly scenario, a nuclear capability would incline those outside
the neoconservative priesthood to negotiate a "détente" with Iran, which
would bring the plan for the extension of U.S. political-military dominance
in the Middle East to a halt.
What is really at stake in the confrontation with Iran from the Bush administration's
perspective, according to this authority on neoconservative strategy, is the
opportunity to reorder the power hierarchy in the Middle East even further in
favor of the United States, by pursuing the overthrow of the Islamic republic
Meanwhile, Iran has not acknowledged its real interest in pushing its position
on nuclear fuel enrichment to the point of confrontation with the United States,
either. Instead, it has focused in public pronouncements on the enormously popular
position that Iran will not give up its right to have civilian nuclear power.
According to observers familiar with their thinking, senior Iranian national
security officials have long been saying privately that Iran should try to reach
an agreement with the United States that would normalize relations and acknowledge
officially Iran's legitimate role in the security of the Persian Gulf.
Trita Parsi, a specialist on Iran's foreign policy at the Johns Hopkins School
of Advanced International Studies who conducted extensive interviews with senior
Iranian national security officials in 2004, says Iran "is now primarily trying
to become rehabilitated in the political order of the region."
Najmeh Bozorgmehr, an Iranian journalist now at the Brookings Institution as
a visiting scholar, agrees. Based on several years of covering Iran's national
security policy, she says, "Iran wants to bargain with the United States on
Iran's regional role," as well as on removal of sanctions and assurances against
U.S. attack. Tehran has been looking for any source of leverage with which to
bargain with the United States on those issues, she says, and "enrichment has
become a big bargaining chip."
Bozorgmehr says the Iranians have become convinced that they have to do something
to show the United States "we can give you a hard time" to induce the Bush administration
to negotiate. And Parsi says the prevailing view among Iranian officials after
the 2003 U.S. rejection of diplomacy was that they had to have the capability
to inflict some pain on the United States in order to get their attention.
According to Parsi, that rejection confirmed Iranian suspicions that the U.S.
problem is not with Iran's policies but with its power. That Iranian conclusion
precisely parallels Donnelly's insider analysis of the Bush administration's
But what the Iranians really want, according to these observers of Iranian national
security thinking, is not nuclear weapons but the recognition of Iran's status
in the power hierarchy of the Persian Gulf. The Iranian demand for regional
status can only be achieved through a broad diplomatic agreement with the United
The Bush administration's insistence on extending its dominance in the Middle
East even further can only be achieved, however, by the threat of force, and
if that fails, war against Iran.
(Inter Press Service)