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September 23, 2006

US-Iran Shootout Is Inevitable


by Leon Hadar

Would US President George W Bush and Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad run into each other by chance during their opening session of the United Nations General Assembly this week? That seemed to be the major concern occupying US officials. It seems White House aides were doing their best to avoid a run-in between Mr. Bush and Mr. Ahmadinejad in the hallways of the UN building in Manhattan; for example, the Iranian leader "ambushing" Mr. Bush as he tries to enter the lavatory, igniting a Clash of Civilizations in front of the Men's Room.

Well, that did not happen. Instead, the US and Iranian presidents engaged in diplomatic histrionics, clashing at the UN on Tuesday during the opening debate in the General Assembly. Mr. Bush made a direct appeal to the Iranian people stressing that Washington has "no objection to Iran's pursuit of a truly peaceful nuclear power program," while Mr. Ahmadinejad stressed several hours later that his government was pursuing such a peaceful nuclear power program.

And if Mr. Bush was arguing that the US confrontation with Iran was part of a US-led campaign to establish democracy in the Middle East, his Iranian nemesis contended that his proud nation was standing up against US hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East and worldwide.

Neocon Hysteria

It is difficult to figure out who had "won" this latest battle in the arena of public theater. But the "narrative" that it helped create seemed to play into the hands of Mr. Ahmadinejad whose interest was to assert his nation's status as a Middle Eastern and global power. Indeed, even the New York Times carried on its front page on Wednesday the pictures side-by-side of Presidents Bush and Ahmadinejad addressing the General Assembly with quotes from their respective speeches, recalling the Cold War era when the newspaper would apply similar editorial choices to cover UN speeches by the US and Soviet leaders.

Moreover, the conventional wisdom in Washington is that Mr. Bush's address reflected a more accommodative approach towards Iran. After all, even Mr. Bush's insistence that his administration does not object to a "truly peaceful" Iranian nuclear power program could be considered a reversal from an earlier US policy that rejected any Iranian effort to develop nuclear power.

At the same time, all indications are that the Bush administration is continuing to support the negotiations between the European Union members and Iran that could lead to a peaceful diplomatic resolution of the nuclear crisis with Tehran. Even Mr. Bush in his address expressed his hopes that the United States and Iran one day will "be good friends and close partners in the cause of peace."

Washington's more accommodative approach towards Tehran seemed to be creating a certain hysteria among the ranks of the neoconservative intellectuals in Washington for whom diplomatic "accommodation" is almost always equated with "appeasement."

Mr. Bush's speech marked "the final fizzling out of his Iran policy of the past three years" David Frum, one of the leading neoconservative ideologues (who as a former speech writer to Mr. Bush coined the term "Axis of Evil"), argued this week. "The tough talk of the 'axis of evil' speech of 2002 faded into the background," wrote Mr. Frum, a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, a neoconservative think-tank in Washington.

"Did (Bush) challenge the Iranian bomb program before the world?" he asked. "He did not. He said nothing about it. There will be no UN action, no Security Council sanctions, nothing." And Mr. Frum concluded: "America's dwindling list of Iran options has dwindled further to just two: unilateral military action without any semblance of international approval to pre-empt the Iranian bomb program – or acquiescence in that program."

Such conclusions seem to be based on either fears – on the part of the neocons who are urging the administration to do a "regime change" in Tehran, and on wishful thinking – on the part of those in Washington who are calling for pursuing a diplomatic détente towards Tehran.

But investigative journalist Seymour Hersh and other analysts have reported that President Bush and his aides have already ordered the US military to prepare for operation against Iran's nuclear military sites and have also been providing assistance to Iranian exile groups. Indeed, retired Air Force colonel Sam Gardiner, interviewed on CNN, said the Bush administration had already given a "go ahead" to US military operation against Iran.

"In fact, we've probably been executing military operations inside Iran for at least 18 months," Col. Gardner said. "The evidence is overwhelming."

There are several important reasons that are being advanced to claim that US would not take a military action against Iran.

First, the US military is overstretched in Iran and Afghanistan and does not have the manpower that will be required for widening ground troops operations in Iran.

Secondly, it is doubtful that the Americans could win the backing from the UN Security Council for using military force against Iran. Russia and China will probably veto such a move, while France and Britain will probably not support it.

Thirdly, a unilateral US attack on Iran could produce powerful anti-American reactions among the Shi'ites in Iraq (that control the government), in Lebanon (which could trigger a military confrontation with Israel) and in other parts of the Middle East. Iran could also succeed in rallying support for its cause in the entire Middle East and the Muslim world, threatening pro-US regimes there.

And, finally, a military confrontation between the US and Iran could force the global price of oil into the stratosphere and devastate the American and global economy.

But this line of thinking, which assumes that Iran is now in a position to threaten US interests in the Middle East and around the world and thus deter the Americans from using their military power, also explains why the Bush administration will probably end up doing exactly that – taking military action against Iran. In a way, the Bush administration's policies have created the conditions in which such an American move becomes almost inevitable.

First, the ousting of the Ba'athist regime in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan enhanced Iran's position in the Persian Gulf by removing two strategic threats to Iran.

Secondly, the coming to power in Baghdad of Shi'ite religious parties with strong ties to the Shi'ite mullahs in Tehran has strengthened the political power of Iran and Shi'ite communities around the Middle East, threatening the interest of the pro-American Arab-Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt.

Thirdly, the green light that Washington had given to Israel to attack the Hezbollah guerillas in Lebanon has strengthened the political power of that Shi'ite group and its leading ally, Iran, increasing the long-term threats to America's ally, Israel.

And fourthly, the acquisition of nuclear military power by Iran will formalize its position as the main regional hegemon in the Persian Gulf, and make it likely that Saudi Arabia and other governments will try to appease it. At the same time, a nuclear military stalemate between Israel and Iran could weaken the strategic position of Israel and by extension that of the US in the Middle East.

Bush-Cheney 'Legacy'

As the Bushies see it, they need to "do something" to "correct" the current balance of power which has been shifting in favor of Iran (thanks to US policies, that is). While the diplomatic, military and economic costs of a unilateral US military action against Iran could be high, even if they involve only "surgical" attacks against that country's nuclear military sites, it is important to remember that in the aftermath of the mid-term Congressional elections in November, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney will be free to pursue even very politically costly moves since neither of them will be running for office in 2008.

Instead, they are now in the process of writing their historical legacy which will center on their policies in the Middle East. Leaving office with Iraq in ruins and Iran emerging as the military hegemon in the Persian Gulf – equipped with nuclear military power! – would damage whatever remains of the Bush-Cheney "legacy."

While the possibility of the Democrats taking over the House of Representatives and even the Senate could make it difficult for the administration to deploy more troops in Iraq, it will not face major opposition from the mostly pro-Israeli Democrats on Capitol Hill if and when it decides to take military action against Iran.

Of course, there is another way for Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney to deal with the challenges they are facing in the Middle East: a diplomatic dialogue with Iran (and Syria) combined with an effort to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But for an administration that has portrayed the Iranian regime as a member of the axis of evil and has placed itself squarely behind Israel, such a move would be out of character.

Copyright © 2006 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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  • Leon Hadar is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). He is the former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post and is currently the Washington correspondent for the Singapore Business Times. Visit his blog.

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