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 pre-emptive 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 Teheran’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 indicates, 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 Shiites in low esteem, which helped raise tensions with Shiite 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 Shiites 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 Shiite 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 Shiite majority in Iraq was in the driver’s seat in a post-Saddam Iraq, it would naturally ally with predominantly Shiite Iran.
The Zero-Sum Fiasco
The coming to power of the anti-Shiite 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 Shiite-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 Shiites. It has taken the lead in offering aid, material and moral, to Hamas, even though it is a Sunni Palestinian movement.
Iran’s stance is in line with popular sentiment among Arabs. Hassan Nasrallah, Ismail Haniyeh, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — respectively, the heads of the Lebanese Hizbollah 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 Iraq.
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 Shiite 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.
Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project. He is the author of several books, including The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel, The End of Victory Culture, and most recently, Mission Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews. His blog is The Notion. 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.