US Headed for Confrontation With Iran

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 book, Quagmire: 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 arms.

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 in Iraq.

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 Shi’ite minority).

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 against Tehran.

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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