The US Looks Headed for Confrontation With Iran
by Leon Hadar
I've been embarrassed
a few times in the past with my predictions (for example, that it
was going to be US President John Kerry in 2004), but I've also
been right on a few occasions (for example, my book, Quagmire: US
in the Middle East, was published in 1992). So let me put again
my credibility as a political analyst on the line, and make another
forecast: The news this year will be dominated by the growing confrontation
between Washington and Teheran (if that doesn't happen, well, I
promise not to remind you about that early next year...).
I'm hedging my bets here. I refer to "confrontation" like
in diplomatic and military confrontation, and not to war, like 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
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 US armed forces are overstretched in Mesopotamia (150,000)
and around the world, that the Bush administration wouldn't be able
to persuade even Tony Blair to invade Iran.
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 Teheran, Congress is not going to provide President
Bush with the green light to send US ground troops to Iran, especially
since none is really available (there are less than 400,000 combat
troops in the US army and only 150,000 of those are on active duty).
A total war
with Iran, the world's second oil producer, in 2006 and its consequences
could also lead to such 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 mid-elections.
But a US confrontation
with Iran is inevitable for several reasons. Much of the public
attention had been focused of course on the US-led drive, 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 groups (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 have would block UN action to
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
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
But it seems
very unlikely under 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 Teheran that
could affect US direct interests without receiving the go-ahead
from its patron in Washington. The Israeli tail won't be allowed
to wag the US dog.
the Israeli threats serve the US 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 US campaign
to pressure Teheran to agree to make compromises during the negotiations
with the EU-3 and the IAEA.
are speculating that without any breakthrough in the talks with
Iran, Washington would demand that the UN Security Council impose
sanctions on Iran, and if the Russian and/or the Chinese decide
to veto a resolution along those lines, the Bush administration
would urge the Europeans and other governments to join in a ban
on export of embargo on technologies that Iran can use in its nuclear
Both the Americans
and the Iranians are aware that such moves, assuming the Europeans
and others would 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 of the Iranians and
could be expected to reject a US call to isolate Iran and to continue
to make major economic deals with Teheran on energy and arms.
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, if they seek to do that, the Iranians could probably raise
those costs for the Americans by encouraging their political and
military allies in the majority Shiite 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 Shiite militias) or by
sabotaging moves towards political accommodation in Iraq.
As an Iran
expert suggested to me: "All the Iranians need is to push their
Shiite 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 on as a way of containing the
Shiite Ayatollahs in Teheran who seem to have adopted an even more
radical style and policies.
this sense of irony is the fact that democracy and free election
in Iraq – under US occupation! – is bringing to power a Shiite political
coalition with strong ties to anti-American Teheran (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 an regional Shiite bloc led by
Iran would emerge in the Gulf and threaten the interests of the
Saudis (who also have a large Shiite minority).
All of which
means that if the Americans want to make sure that Iraq under the
Shiite rule doesn't turn into a satellite of Iran, they need to
use their own diplomatic and military power to contain Teheran while
continuing to occupy Iraq.
however, assume that they are in a win-win situation. They can drag
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 against Teheran.
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 US diplomatic moves, which in turn, will
put enormous pressure on oil prices.
on Iran would not only demolish what remains of the US-led nuclear
arms control regime, it will 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 Teheran.
Short of trying
to open direct diplomatic channels to 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.
the central banks of China and other Asian economies are paying
for it, is probably the most intriguing element in this evolving
Hadar [send him mail] is
Washington correspondent for the Business
Times of Singapore and the author of Sandstorm:
Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). Visit
© 2006 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved. Reprinted
with permission of the author.