Will America attack Iran?

Published on Feb 23, 2007 in the Dawn

THERE is much talk of possible US military action against Iran. But is this the drumbeat of a new war or the crackle of withering imperial hubris, noisy but hollow? Or the stirrings of a cold-blooded diplomacy? Interesting parallels are being drawn between the incendiary talk in the days prior to the Iraq war and the current combative rhetoric.

There is a naval buildup in the area and the intelligence about Iran.s involvement in Iraq is being bandied about the same way Saddam.s WMD capability was being advertised. The conservative think-tanks have emerged from the shadows of the Iraq debacle and are unabashedly reciting the administration.s litany of charges against Iran, egging President Bush on to go for it.

Let us look at the reality of the think-tanks first. There are hundreds of respectable think-tanks, foundations, and institutes in America engaged in research to advance knowledge and understanding on a wide range of issues of public interest. Though none are emancipated from bias, many are free of partisan affiliation. There are some, however, that are ideologically laced or financially motivated, and some acting as adjuncts or sympathisers to special interests including the government agencies. It is they who are better known abroad, firstly because of their resourcefulness in the context of publicity, and secondly because of their provocative and audacious views and capacity for political activism. These are mostly conservative think-tanks.

But let me emphasise that their imprint on public policy has been vastly exaggerated. If anything, they are under the reverse influence of their patrons, including the current US administration, who use them for seducing public opinion. But everything they write is not on the administration.s behalf. They try to have an impact on public policy on their own as well as in response to the constituencies that fund them. Yes they are orchestrating a battle cry against Iran but in this they may be speaking to rather than speaking for the administration.

If I were to write the subtext for US policy and rhetoric on Iran I would describe it largely, but not exclusively, in three words: Iraq, Iraq, and Iraq. Let me explain. The Iraq war has been a palpable failure. The words of Senator Edward Kennedy as far back as 2003 calling the Iraq war a big fraud are coming to haunt the administration. From day one the administration has employed different rationales to justify the war but one by one these have fallen flat.

Initially it was all about WMDs, then about the nexus between Saddam and Al Qaeda. Both turned out to be false. Then for some time the slogan was: .Are we not safe without Saddam?. That turned out to be untrue as well. And for a time the argument was that the Iraq war was all about fighting terrorism. That rationale collapsed also. Next, the war was redefined as an exercise in bringing democracy to Iraq and the wider Muslim world. Soon that claim too proved to be hollow and absurd given the tragic situation in Iraq.

Finally, in desperation the war is now being defined in terms of Iran. This move does three things. Firstly, it changes the subject. Secondly, it is a warning to Iran and its allies in Baghdad to help bring down the spiral of violence so that the surge policy which has drawn so much domestic criticism might appear to be working. But, more importantly, this strategy provides another rationale for the war: the US needs to be there because of Iran and the deadly threat its surrogates Hezbollah and Hamas and the so called Shia crescent under the tutelage of a potentially nuclear Iran pose to the region.

The Iraq cause, whatever it was, has been lost. It is apparent that the president now wants to pass on the problem to his successor so that as and when the next president withdraws from Iraq it is he who is blamed for the consequences, not Bush.

The whole idea is to change the denomination of the war to buy time till the end of his tenure. The hope is that by then the war aims will have merged with so many other issues in the region that the withdrawal by his successor would not be a simple act of the reversal of a blunder that Bush made but look more like a retreat from emerging strategic challenges in the Middle East that he has been warning about. That is why he has repeated so often that history will prove him right on Iraq. History is a common refuge for many a failing leader.

Yet Iraq does not exhaust the explanations for the administration.s Iran strategy that stands on its own. There is no doubt that the policy has the hallmarks of a cold blooded diplomacy. And this does not reflect the influence of any think-tank or neo-con. There is a strong imprint of Israel, Saudi Arabia and other allies on it. Bush has got a reasonably good resolution on the nuclear issue from the UN and he feels it needs to be backed up by a credible threat of use of force and diplomatic encirclement of Iran by enlisting conservative Arab states on the US side. It is basically a containment policy.

Saudi Arabia and other conservative states will of course be happy if Iran.s nuclear assets are somehow knocked out but that will unleash a strong public reaction in these countries which the leadership might not be able to live with. So they are in a dilemma. They want a non-nuclear Iran but without military action. If they have signed on for America.s Iran policy it is with full confidence that there will be no military attack because being US allies, they cannot escape the blame for it. This is another reason to discount the possibility of a military attack.

Bush perhaps sees the stirrings of an internal debate in Iran and wants to influence it by strengthening the hands of those who might be wary of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.s brinkmanship. Only when there is enough pressure on the Iranian president will it be useful for Washington to talk. In any case, right now the US has hardly any leverage. Its hand has been weakened by the Iraq war. So from a beleaguered administration.s standpoint it makes sense not to talk to Iran.

The president may still be hoping that he would be able to solve the Iraq problem militarily and may not need Iran.s help after all. In any case, whatever influence Iran has in Iraq is already being exerted on behalf of the Shia majority that also happens to be supported by Washington. So why talk to Iran and give concessions on the nuclear issue in exchange for help that the US is already getting? Iran may not be in a position to do anything more, given the complexity of the Iraqi situation. Deep down, whatever Washington.s propaganda against Iran.s role in Iraq, the US knows that Iran is not a big issue in Iraq. Iran has got from Iraq no more than what US mistakes have offered.

The US may not be talking to Iran but an imperceptible shift in the thinking on Iran appears to be taking place. The administration may have finally concluded that neither attempts at regime change nor open and direct confrontation with Iran on its nuclear ambitions would work. These are indeed conflicting objectives. Attempts to bring about regime change will make it difficult to stop the nuclear programme and attempts to stop the nuclear programme will make it harder to bring about regime change.

Regime change becomes difficult when the regime has been given an issue . the nuclear issue . on which the nation can rally behind it. To achieve success in this becomes difficult when the regime.s survival depends on it. Regime change will not help anyway.

It is conceivable that with a regime change Iran could become democratic in the American sense of the word, but will likely remain nationalistic and autonomous in foreign policy matters. An attack on Iran will make a permanent enemy out of Iran whatever the complexion of the regime. This is another reason to discount the possibility of a military attack. Not to mention the oil crisis it may trigger and possible terrorist attacks on America or its interests.

Developments such as a major military campaign whose consequences are not clear do not happen in the last two years of the second term of a president. Moreover, for a venture like this domestic consensus is needed. This time, Bush does not have that. He has enough on his plate in Iraq. With the Congress now dominated by the Democrats the president is on the back foot especially scared of any inquest threatened by the Democrats regarding the circumstances that led him to go to war with Iraq. The current debate on the Iraq war in Congress is a precursor to bigger troubles ahead for the president.

The Democratic Party leaders specially those standing for president in 2008 are stung that they had to vote for the resolution to authorise the Iraq war and they may be anxious to expose the administration.s machinations to dupe them into supporting the war. For the very reason that Bush wants to pass on the war to his successor the Democratic presidential contenders may want to force him to take the withdrawal decision himself. The war and the 2008 elections are now very closely intertwined. The Bush presidency is wounded enough. The president is not looking for new wounds.