A matter of legacy
Normally a president would aim to leave office on a note of goodwill. George W Bush doesn't seem to care, writes Ayman El-Amir*
With 18 months to go before the expiry of his presidency, George W Bush must be anxious about the question of his place in history. This, at least, is usually symptomatic of world leaders, who entertain belated self-doubt as to how historians and future generations will judge their era, their actions and their achievements. Not George W Bush. He has dedicated his two-term presidency to the global war on terrorism. Regardless of the dismal failure in Iraq, Afghanistan and the war-by-proxy against Hizbullah in Lebanon, the Bush administration has one more prized target to attack -- Iran. Without arresting Iran's budding nuclear capability, whether by regime change or military strike, President Bush's messianic mission will never be accomplished.
The Bush administration has ulterior motives to cut Iran down to size. At stake is who will control Middle East oil resources in the next decade. From the political perspective of the administration, only overwhelming military hegemony could assure the control and protection of this vital and much- coveted source of energy. This is not only designed to protect it against the ambitions of so-called "rogue states", but also to use it as leverage against energy-hungry states like China, and to moderate the rise in oil prices.
The rise of a politically and militarily powerful Iran would pose a challenge to the regional balance of power where Israel, by no means a peace-loving state, maintains military superiority over all countries of the Middle East region. Israel defines its superiority not only in terms of conventional arms, but also in the tacit threat of its possession of nuclear weapons. Since Israel's unbridled expansionist interests drive US policy in the Middle East, Iran's development of nuclear technology, while presenting no threat to the US, Europe or to other countries of the region, nor irresponsibly benefit terrorist groups, is viewed by Israel as a challenge to its military preeminence. However, no country in the region accepts the Israeli premise, including Egypt which was the first to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.
Iran's support of anti-US resistance in Iraq is another irritant. With the US invasion-triggered war in its fifth year, Iraq has been destroyed but not the regenerative resistance it spawned. Analysts in Washington now talk of the terrible mistakes made by L Paul Bremer III, the first post-invasion US administrator in Iraq, which have unleashed the Sunni-Shia conflict. The overthrow of the old Baathist balance of power and resistance against the occupation has turned Iraq into a sectarian heap of rubble. And Iran is to blame, even though the government of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki is Shia- dominated. Of all the forces at play now in Iraq, only the Maliki government is opposed to premature US withdrawal from the country. For the Bush administration, a Vietnam-type withdrawal is inevitable, but it is worried that an Iranian- dominated coalition could fill in the vacuum it would leave behind. So to undermine Iran through covert political destabilisation, sabotage or a military strike could help weaken forces of resistance in the region, be it Hizbullah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, or anti-American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran is therefore a worthwhile target.
The question in Washington is which course of action to follow. Inspired by his messianic sense of mission, President Bush has repeatedly affirmed that all options are on the table, including the use of military force. Vice-President Dick Cheney, who visited the Gulf and other "moderate" Arab states in May, seems the agitator for the war option. On the international scene, the Bush administration is pursuing the same diplomatic scenario it followed prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. While it seems to be achieving some measure of success in tightening the noose of sanctions around Tehran's neck, it is nowhere close to building an international consensus for military action against Iran. After all, the community of nations could persuasively point to the Reagan administration's complicity in Pakistan's development of nuclear capability by turning a blind eye to conclusive evidence of its efforts in that direction. It needed Pakistan's cooperation to channel weapons, cash and materiel to the mujahideen who fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The case of India serves as another example of US nuclear non-proliferation double standards, as if one is needed. Israel's possession of nuclear weapons does not even come into question in Washington. At this moment in time, Tehran does not seem to be willing to step back from its nuclear enrichment programme, despite all European cajoling and US threats.
The conventional sense is that the community of nations is opposed to military action against Iran, if even only to disrupt its uranium enrichment activities. Gulf states, where the US has stationed 40,000 troops, 20,000 marines and a naval armada, are particularly jittery. They are averse to being caught in the crossfire between the US and Iran and the region- wide destabilisation, should Washington decide on such an option, which would ensue. Speaking in the name of all Gulf states, Saudi Arabia has declared through Interior Minister Prince Nayef Bin Abdul-Aziz that their territories will not be used as staging grounds to attack Iran, which, he added, has no hostile designs against them.
As part of US psychological warfare, many stories have been deliberately leaked in Washington about doomsday military contingency planning for an invasion of Iran. The leaks, however, do not refer to any strategic assessment of the consequences of such action for the US and the entire Gulf/Middle East region. Similar forewarnings had been sounded by the US intelligence community prior to the invasion of Iraq, but were either ignored or cooked to suit the palate of an administration that had already made up its mind to invade.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remains defiant in the face of US muscle-flexing. Iran is proceeding with its enhanced capacity to enrich uranium on an industrial scale, far beyond research purposes. Iran may be betting that, with its predicament in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the circumstances of Congressional discontent with the Bush administration's adventurous policies, the US will not undertake massive military action against it. That is as good a bet as that of Saddam Hussein who, prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, estimated that the US public would not tolerate for long the stream of "body bag" shipments coming back from Iraq. He was wrong.
This may not necessarily mean that a US military invasion of Iran is imminent. For the time being, the Bush administration may opt for regime change through the destabilisation of President Ahmadinejad's government by a combined tightening of sanctions and covert sabotage operations. US and Israeli agents are reportedly infiltrating Iran for that purpose. Compared to the invasion of Iraq, however, Iran may rest more assured in being more militarily potent than Iraq could have hoped to be following 13 years of ravaging sanctions.
Despite the risks, the influence of reckless hawks in Washington, many of whom have long abandoned the Iraq shipwreck, should not be underestimated, if only because of Israeli lobbying. In the balance is the extent of Israeli tolerance of a rival state in the region with potential nuclear capability, and US co-existence with the possibility of the exchange of military hegemony for mutual guarantees of the free flow of oil through negotiated arrangements with Gulf producers. After all, Saddam is gone and US heavy military presence in the region is more of a provocation than a guarantee of the security of both friendly regimes and US interests. At the moment, that is not the prevailing wisdom in Washington.
* The writer is a former correspondent for Al-Ahram in Washington, DC. He also served as director of UN Radio and Television in New York.