Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 November 2006
Issue No. 819
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

In the meantime

While a resolution sanctioning Iran languishes in the UN Security Council, the American navy flexes its muscles off the Iranian coast, writes Mustafa El-Labbad*

The international community has notched up its pressure on Iran to an unprecedented level of intensity in the more than three-year-old Iranian nuclear crisis. The permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are currently deliberating over an EU-sponsored draft resolution which would bring sanctions against Iran. The resolution, if passed, will freeze Iranian assets connected with Iran's nuclear and missile programmes abroad and prohibit the travel of Iranian officials and scientists. Such actions would be only the first step in a series of graduated sanctions. Meanwhile, US forces in the Gulf are engaged in military manoeuvres, under the guise of what the Bush Administration has dubbed, "The Security Initiative for the Prohibition of Nuclear Proliferation". The American naval activity is meant to demonstrate the White House's resolve to bring the Iranian nuclear issue to a head.

For the first time in the history of this crisis, a resolution is being prepared for a vote in the Security Council with no new deadlines being set pending negotiations with the EU. That this resolution is supported by France, Britain and the US signals that the trans-Atlantic rift, which Iran had taken advantage of, has been sealed. More ominously, the click of the bolt on that vital escape hatch of Iranian-EU talks is being drowned out by the rumble of American warships racing to and fro in the Gulf.

The current round of US military manoeuvres differs significantly from its 23 predecessors since the beginning of the above-mentioned "security initiative". Before, these manoeuvres were held in various places around the world: now they are concentrated in the vicinity of that region that contains the world's largest energy reserves; directly off the Iranian coasts, only metres away from Iran's territorial waters. That these manoeuvres have been timed to coincide with the deliberations in the Security Council suggests they are specifically intended to intimidate the regime in Tehran and cast it as the "primary threat" to what the neoconservatives in Washington define as American interests in the Middle East and elsewhere. Furthermore, the declared aim of this round of manoeuvres -- "training in the interception of ships transporting prohibited nuclear substances" -- is clearly a reference to a clause in the prospective Security Council resolution, modelled on a provision in Resolution 1718 pertaining to North Korea, restricting shipping to Iran.

In addition to being a form of sabre-rattling, naval manoeuvres are a way to consolidate and show off political alliances among the participants in the manoeuvres. It was in precisely this spirit that Iranian officials organised two large-scale manoeuvres of their own last year. "The Great Prophet" and "Dhul-Fuqar", as they were called, were obviously intended to deter American forces, which are heavily present in the Gulf, from a possible attack and to project Iran as the foremost regional power in the Gulf.

The American manoeuvres were also timed to coincide with the run-up to the Congressional elections which, if won by the Democrats, will end the Republicans' hold over the American legislature and the virtually free run that the neoconservative administration has had for two and a half terms. Perhaps what the neoconservatives fear most from a Democratic victory is the prospect of seeing an end to the evangelical style of foreign policy that they have pursued with a doggedness and disregard for all ethical standards. Of course, a Democratic victory would also compound the pressures on the Republican administration as it sets its sights on the presidential elections two years from now. Undoubtedly the mistakes and misconduct of the Bush administration would come under the congressional spotlight during this interval. Also, a Democratic Congress would demand a greater say in foreign policy and perhaps succeed in shaking Donald Rumsfeld from his position as secretary of defense. The naval manoeuvres in the Gulf are thus also a kind of electoral campaign gambit intended to draw the attention of the American public to "America's number one enemy" and "Axis of Evil" member, whom the Republican administration has vowed to fight.

But American history tells of other possibilities beyond the overt and implied aims of the naval manoeuvres. Given the current tenor of the current administration, it is not far-fetched that the personal whims of Bush and his entourage could trigger a war in this sensitive region of the world, independently of the machinery of UN sanctions. In August 1964, for example, President Lyndon Johnson issued the order to retaliate against North Vietnam, ostensibly on the grounds that North Vietnamese gunboats had fired upon American warships that were "on routine missions" in the Bay of Tonkin. According to Jeff Huber, a prominent American military historian, the gunboat incident never occurred. But, even if it did, he says, under American military regulations, the commander of American warships have the right to use all the means at their disposal to protect their ships against assault, or even the threat of assault, on the condition that the response is reasonable in terms of duration and intensity. It is not difficult to imagine a scenario whereby a few Iranian coast guard vessels sail towards the American ships that are currently undertaking manoeuvres in the Gulf, and the American fleet commander issues orders to fire upon the Iranian vessels on the grounds that he perceived a potential threat. Once his report of the incident is conveyed up the line of command to Rumsfeld and Bush, what is to prevent the president from using the incident, real or fictitious, as a pretext to initiate a war that had been planned in advance? After all, as Huber points out, the War Powers Resolution of 1973 gives the American president the right to engage the American armed forces in military operations against hostile targets for a period of 90 days before obtaining Congressional approval. When we take this into account, we realise the gravity of the present situation in the Gulf.

The American naval manoeuvres in the Gulf signify the end of many things. The "Iranian- American deal" in accordance with which Iran would be given certain regional guarantees in exchange for easing off inside Iraq is no longer an option, especially given the extent to which the situation in Iraq has deteriorated. Whatever flexibility Iran had demonstrated has been stretched to its limit; indeed, Tehran is willing to up the level of its confrontation with Washington if it doesn't get the regional and security guarantees it is seeking in exchange for abandoning its uranium enrichment activities. The announcement by Iranian officials, several days ago, that they had begun pumping uranium chloride into a series of centrifuges tells of their determination to dig in their heels. Thirdly, Washington's patience is at its end, in spite of the mending of the transatlantic rift over Iran. This is because the other two members of the Security Council -- Russia and China -- are still sitting on the fence over the draft resolution. Russia, motivated not only by its economic interests in Iran but also by its long- term military and strategic interests (the Iranian Islamic Republican army is the only one outside of the former Soviet Union to still adhere to the Soviet military creed), insists that the Bushehr nuclear plant be exempted from the resolution. China, too, has considerable economic interests in Iran. It is sufficient to note in this regard that in 2005 alone, China concluded a 25-year-long contract to import 110 million tonnes of Iranian liquid gas and another contract for the importation of 250 million more tonnes of liquid gas, valued at $100 billion. Also, the volume of trade between Iran and China in the same year totalled $9.2 billion, making China the second largest exporter to Iran after Germany. In approving the resolution against Iran, China would be making no small economic sacrifice.

Bush's war against terrorism presented Iran with several gifts that enabled it to strengthen its regional power. In toppling the reactionary Taliban regime, Washington opened the path for the expansion of Iranian influence into Afghanistan as never before. Soon afterwards, Washington handed Iran the biggest prize of all: the end to the regime of Saddam Hussein, which Iran had been unable to shake during its eight-year war with Iraq. The rise of Shia influence inside Iraq together with the general regional power vacuum that resulted from Washington's incessant pressures on its Middle Eastern allies further fired Iran's regional ambitions.

The dismal irony in this situation is that while Washington claims that its problem with Iran resides in the ideological character of its regime, the US, since 2000, has been in the grips of an administration heavily influenced by an ideology of a strong totalitarian and theocratic nature. Deterrence has always been an aspect of war and war has always been an extension of politics in the sense that political ends are pursued militarily when diplomatic options run out. But American policy in the age of the neoconservatives has been notoriously short on diplomacy and remarkably trigger-happy. Moreover, in the current run-up to congressional elections, the Bush administration's tendency to brandish America's military might has, regretfully, become an end in itself.

* The writer is a political analyst specialised in Iranian affairs.

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