Can Bush attack again?
Though the balance of reason weighs against the US waging war on Iran, since when has the Bush administration appeared reasonable, asks Galal Nassar
At a time of ongoing talks between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), of diplomatic efforts by a group of UN Security Council members to persuade Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment activities, and coordination between Washington and Tehran over Iraq to the extent of forming joint security committees, a dangerous current is pushing in the polar opposite direction and gaining momentum. There is a growing frequency of leaks, innuendoes, outright threats and other signs that point to an immanent military attack by the US or Israel or both against Iran.
Is a fourth war really slated for the Gulf or is it all part of an orchestrated pressure to compel Iran to capitulate to Western demands to halt its nuclear development programme? This article takes an in-depth look at the harbingers of war and the obstacles to war, obstacles that may ultimately gain the upper hand if reports that secret negotiations have been ongoing between Washington and Tehran for five years are anything to go by.
THE RISE OF THE MILITARY OPTION AGAINST IRAN: The US and Israel have been pounding the alarm bell over Iran's nuclear programme in the hope of rallying the international community against Iran. Intelligence, they say, shows that Tehran is trying to develop the technology necessary to produce nuclear arms and may soon possess it. They point to Iranian statements regarding Israel's presence in the region to suggest that a nuclear Iran would not only imperil Israel but regional and international peace and stability. They have been beating the war drum in order to pressure Iran into abandoning its nuclear programme.
US military posture against Iran dates to President Bush's state of the union address of 29 January 2002, in which he tagged Iran as a corner in the "Axis of Evil" and charged that Iran was a sponsor of terrorism, an allegation founded upon specious CIA evidence that Iran had given shelter to Taliban leader Mullah Mohamed Omar and Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. Two years later, the Bush administration took the campaign a notch higher. In a speech to the Senate on 28 April 2004, the US assistant secretary of state claimed that Iran was involved in dangerous activities that threatened regional stability and that this could have adverse repercussions on US and international security. He vowed that his government would take all necessary steps to protect American interests. He went on to enumerate the possible alternatives, which included military action against Iran.
Foremost among the "dangerous activities" Iran was allegedly involved in was the development of its nuclear energy programme, which Washington regards as the greatest threat to efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In the case of Iran, Washington does not discriminate between nuclear energy for peaceful or for military purposes. It maintains that Iran is simply bent on acquiring the technology to produce the full nuclear cycle and, hence, the capacity to produce weapons-grade uranium. Not only would this trigger a nuclear arms race in the region, Washington insists, but it would also pose a direct threat to the US, because once in the hands of a "renegade state" such as Iran the likelihood would be high that it would supply nuclear arms to terrorists. US officials take Iran's refusal to submit to UN resolutions 1737 and 1747 calling upon it to halt its uranium refinement activities as proof of its malevolent intentions.
Thus Iran, which has been the object of American anger since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and which has grown ever more irksome since the invasion of Iraq, has come under Washington's military crosshairs. In The New Yorker of April 2007, the eminent journalist Seymour Hersh revealed that he had learnt from intelligence sources that the Bush administration had already begun to draw up war plans. He added that he believed that the play the US administration was giving to Iran's activities in Iraq was intended to prep US public opinion for a military offensive against Iran. More recently, France's foreign minister echoed the tenor of American rhetoric and cautioned public opinion to gird itself for the worst from the Iranian nuclear crisis. When called on to explain this statement he denied that he had actually called for war, but affirmed that war would be the last resort if sanctions failed to persuade Tehran to suspend its nuclear programme.
According to informed military sources, top officials in US Central Command in Florida have long since identified strike targets in Iran, which include the Natanz uranium enrichment plant and similar facilities in Esfahan, Arak and Bushehr. The sources add that the US will use long-range Phantom B-2 missiles and silo-busting bombs dropped from mammoth B-52s in an attempt to destroy reactors built some 25 metres underground. B-52s can fly at altitudes well out of reach of even the latest defence missile batteries.
ISRAEL'S STAKES IN WAR: Signs of Israel's intentions against Iran emerged in August 2003 when Israeli press reports revealed that Mossad -- Israel's primary security intelligence agency -- had received instructions to study means of delivering military strikes to more than six nuclear sites in Iran. A team from Israeli national intelligence accordingly produced a report containing numerous scenarios for coordinated aerial strikes (using F-16 missile carriers) against the targets. The team felt that although logistical support requirements presented major problems, these problems could be overcome.
Ironically, the Israeli threat to Iran shed unprecedented light on Israel's own considerable nuclear capabilities. According to an investigative report in one of Israel's top newspapers, Israel could deliver nuclear strikes against all its targets in Iran and destroy them all in one go. Tel Aviv's choice of that time to depart from its customary policy of nuclear ambiguity, offering a peek beneath the shroud of secrecy with which it normally veils its nuclear arsenal, was designed to deliver an explicit message to all Arab or Islamic countries that might get it in their heads to possess nuclear weapons. The article added that some Israeli military sources stated that Israel's nuclear weapons could reach some 15 major cities at considerable distances away from Israel inside the Arab and Islamic world.
Iran was clearly intended as the main recipient of this message. Like officials in the Bush administration, Israeli officials believe that Iran is on the threshold of possessing nuclear military capacity. On 29 September 2004, the Israeli defence minister stated that, "Israel must get ready to deal with the Iranian threat." Earlier that year, on 18 July, the British Sunday Times announced that Israel was contemplating a pre- emptive strike against the Bushehr nuclear facility, for which purposes it would use Turkish airspace. On 12 March 2005, the same newspaper reported that Israel had drawn up plans for an aerial assault against Iranian nuclear targets to be put into effect in the event that diplomatic means failed to persuade Tehran to shut down the facilities. The report added that the plans featured detailed diagrams of the phases of attack and it quoted then vice- president Shimon Peres as saying, "The world must take action against the Iranian nuclear option."
Israel was not pleased when Bush announced, in advance of his European tour in February 2005, that speculations regarding an immanent military strike against Iran were based on unfounded rumours. Israeli officials voiced their concern over this change in Washington's tone towards Iran, which they feared was conveying the wrong message. The Israeli foreign minister proclaimed, "An Iranian nuclear bomb would be a nightmare for Israel," with the Israeli chief of intelligence reported to have said, "If we don't act now, Iran will have the ability to produce enriched uranium in six months, which will enable it to produce its first nuclear bomb by 2008," and the commander of the Israeli air force was quoted as saying, "Israel must be prepared to strike Iran's nuclear facilities." In addition, Mossad asked for an increase in its budgetary allocations so that it could intensify its covert monitoring of the Iranian nuclear programme.
By 2007, Israeli plans were even more concrete. In January, the Sunday Times reported that Israel was conducting long-range training exercises and that if it did strike Iran it would use atomic bombs to penetrate Iranian underground bunkers. The newspaper added that the air force would use conventional laser-guided missiles to open breaches into which airplanes would then drop tactical atomic bombs, supposedly one-15th the power of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
French military sources confirm the existence of secret Israeli plans to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities using nuclear weapons. They add that following strategic talks between Israeli and US officials in Washington on the Iranian nuclear threat, the Israeli and US air forces conducted joint training missions fine-tuned to the crisis in the Negev and in Gibraltar.
SCENARIOS FOR GULF WAR IV: Many military and strategic reports discuss a blueprint for a run-up phase to military action against Iran. US strategic planners are especially keen to neutralise pro-Iranian militias and organisations elsewhere in the region, such as the Shia Hizbullah in Lebanon, the Mahdi Army and Badr Brigade in Iraq, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine. As a first step towards severing the connections between Iran and the Palestinians, the Syrians and the Lebanese Hizbullah, Washington will hone in on Hizbullah; it has already given the CIA the green light to put into effect a covert operation to assist the Lebanese government in undermining the Islamist resistance organisation and dismantling its militia. In tandem, Washington is campaigning to form a coalition of "moderate" Arab states against Iranian influence in the Arab world. In the meantime, the US has intensified its military presence in the vicinity. More mammoth aircraft carriers are roaming the Gulf, equipped with early-warning radar systems, short- range defensive shields -- consisting of Ram land-air missiles and the latest anti-cruise missile defence to intercept any possible Iranian assault.
Reports predict that the US offensive against Iran will rely primarily on fighter planes from aircraft carriers and combat ships based in the Gulf. They also note that General John Abizaid was replaced by Admiral William Fallon as commander of US Central Command, which oversees military operations in the region, perhaps with this in mind. The replacement took place several weeks before General Abizaid was due to retire because of publicised differences with the Bush administration over the magnitude of the threat of a nuclear Iran and the military option. That Fallon would also step down in circumstances that suggest a difference of opinion on waging war on Iran underlined for many the seriousness of US administration rhetoric on Iran.
One possible scenario for an American offensive was proposed by former US Air Force Commander Tom McKenzie. It identifies 1,000 Iranian locations to be attacked by 15 B-52 bombers taking off from the US and supported by 45 F-15s and F-16s based in the Gulf. The first wave of assault would be intended to take out Iranian long-range radars and strategic defence systems. This would be followed by successive waves of B- 52, F-15 and F-16 aerial assaults targeting Iranian nuclear installations, command-and-control centres, Revolutionary Guard bases, some of the headquarters of the Iranian leadership and other sensitive infrastructure. The thinking is that these attacks will encourage either a mass uprising against the regime or a concerted revolt on the part of opposition groups inside the country. Supposedly the operation could be completed within the space of two days and set the Iranian nuclear programme back to zero for the next five years.
A second scenario drafted by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies envisions the deployment of between 150 and 200 cruise missiles launched from the Red Sea in conjunction with some 100 raids by B-52s and other aircraft. According to Anthony Cordesman, an expert at the centre, the offensive would have to rely on land bases in countries neighbouring Iran for organising and refuelling and re-equipping the aircraft for repeated waves of assault. He believes that an operation of this sort would succeed in destroying at least two out of Iran's three most valuable nuclear facilities.
The Oxford Research Group, with the assistance of global security consultant Paul Rogers, came up with a third scenario. The group operated on the premise that a military operation against Iranian nuclear facilities needed to accomplish two primary objectives: first, to bury the Iranian nuclear dream forever; and second to show that the US is ready to take pre-emptive military action on this matter. Accordingly, the scenario envisions an intensive assault, relying on the element of surprise, to destroy Iran's primary nuclear infrastructure and air defence systems. It would use primarily air and naval power, in the form of hundreds of formations supported by missile fire and reconnaissance flights to take out Iranian defence systems. Some are of the opinion that such a scenario could forestall a protracted war. They argue that a short, intensive and powerful surgical operation against Iranian nuclear facilities would convince the Iranian regime to acknowledge defeat without great resistance or responses that would severely damage US military capacities in the region. Some add that US planners are particularly attracted to the idea of using tactical atomic bombs to accomplish a rapid victory and that this option makes sense in terms of the way US forces are deployed in the area.
Other Western research centres have drawn up scenarios of likely Iranian responses to a military assault. Most believe that these would not exceed closing the Straits of Hormuz, rallying its allies in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine to subject Israel to a concerted barrage of missile bombardment, and mobilising its operatives to attack US and Israel embassies around the world.
WHAT CHANCE DIPLOMACY? Despite all the publicity given to leaks, conjecture and projected scenarios, the US administration still sticks to the claim that it intends to stick to resolve the crisis with Iran by diplomatic means. The last affirmation of this was when US Secretary of Defense Gates announced that Washington had no intention of attacking Iran. Are all those threats and innuendoes, then, no more than smoke? Is it all just psychological warfare, or is the intent to goad Tehran into escalatory actions that would create openings for an American offensive?
Certainly events on the ground suggest the latter. The US military build-up in the region, the provocative tone and behaviour of Iranian President Ahmadinejad, Israeli allegations of an Iranian threat to Israel, US charges against the actions of Iranian forces in Iraq, plus the need to sideline the influence of Iran and its allies in order to push through a formula for a settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict, all seem to tip the probabilities in favour of war. However, there remains a strong likelihood that although this is precisely the impression Washington is trying to convey, it is, in fact, no more than a façade for another strategy.
Amidst the din of the war drums several questions arise. Why see the glass as half empty? Why rule out the possibility of a repetition of US experience with North Korea, which Washington had identified as another corner in the "Axis of Evil," and yet which Washington eventually decided it could live with even after it had crossed the nuclear threshold? Nor should we exclude from our calculations the US quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, tensions between the now Democratically- controlled Congress and the Bush administration, the positions and opinions of other international powers, and Iran's ability to deploy its effective military, strategic and economic assets. Surely these and other considerations weigh in against another US military adventure.
Unfortunately, three recent developments seem to tip the scales in the opposite direction and lead one to affirm that war with Iran is at hand: first, the split of Moqtada Al-Sadr's faction from the Iraqi parliamentary coalition and recent clashes with Iraq forces supported by US-British occupation forces (this faction has sufficient popular and military leverage to form part of an Iranian response in the event of a military strike against it); second, the fact that Israel now seems reluctant to go ahead with a major incursion into Gaza despite the resources and training it has already invested in this option; third, ongoing negotiations between the Israeli prime minister and Palestinian Authority president over a binding agreement. The subtext in these negotiations is that whatever binding agreement is produced it is going to be based on the outcome of a military strike against Iran.
MOMENTUM TOWARDS WAR: Several other developments support this tipping of the scales. French President Nicolas Sarkozy's succession, following British prime minister Tony Blair, as Washington's closest European ally marks a radical departure from his predecessors. Sarkozy has positioned himself fully behind US policies in the Middle East, so much so that during a meeting with France's ambassadors to 188 nations in October 2007 he informed them that Iran would be bombed if it did not renounce its nuclear ambitions. France, he said, regarded the possession of nuclear weapons as a red line that Iran had best not cross. The message was subsequently reiterated by Sarkozy's foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, who cautioned that if Iran obtained nuclear weapons, the whole world would be in danger.
Second, note the about-face Bush made towards the Nuri Al-Maliki government. Whereas the US president had formerly expressed disappointment in that government and hinted that he wanted to remove it from power, he suddenly gave it a public vote of confidence. Translated, this means that the Bush administration does not feel that it has enough time to arrange things exactly to its liking in Iraq before a military operation against Iran, so it decided to accept the current situation and avoid a constitutional crisis in Iraq and other headaches.
Third, the British withdrawal of its forces from Basra and the handing over of security in southern Iraq to Iraqi security forces reflects two British predictions for the future. On the one hand, that the defeat of US-led coalition forces is a foregone conclusion; on the other, that a US military strike against Iran is in the near offing and that Britain wants its own forces well out of range of what would be one of the immediate targets of an Iranian retaliation. Basra is only a stone's throw away from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, if it is not already under their de facto control.
Fourth, the US's branding of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organisation, setting the stage for sanctions against the Iranian leadership, is another step towards war. In addition, the Bush administration has upped the tenor of its invective against Tehran, levelling against it a lengthy list of accusations including intervening in Iraqi domestic affairs, inflaming sectarian violence, undermining security efforts, supplying Shia militias with arms and explosives, supporting such "terrorist groups" as Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine, seeking nuclear weapons technology and working to undermine the Arab-Israeli peace process. As though to back these threats, the US deployed the latest generation of Patriot missiles abroad for the first time since their production, with Israel receiving considerable quantities of them. Also, the USS Stennis aircraft carrier and its attendant fleet recently left its customary patrolling grounds in the Pacific to join the USS Eisenhower in the Gulf. Other naval vessels of various types and functions have also headed to the Gulf. In addition, there is the 21,500 troops increase in Iraq following the suspension of the planned force reductions that had been scheduled for July 2008. The troops, which may yet be increased, could be redeployed to meet a possible Iranian land incursion into Iraq in the event of an eruption of hostilities.
Fifth, the US president's frequently reasserted personal conviction regarding Iran's alleged determination to obtain nuclear weapons. In a press conference in October 2007, he said, "I am telling world leaders that if you want to avoid World War III it seems to me that you have to stop the Iranians from getting the know-how to make a nuclear weapon." Also in October 2007, Israeli President Shimon Peres echoed this belief. Ahmadinejad, he said, was following in the footsteps of Hitler and Stalin, which was why the international community should move quickly against Iran's nuclear designs. He added, "Even if [Russian President Vladimir] Putin says he is not convinced that Iran is conducting nuclear development for the purpose of war, everyone knows their true intentions, and many intelligence agencies throughout the world have proof that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons for the purpose of war and death."
Sixth, as additional proof of the inevitability of war on Iran some cite the theory that this would be only the latest episode in a series of US wars in the Middle East that began in the 1950s and identified a new enemy per decade: Abdel-Nasser and Arab nationalism (beginning in the late 1950s), Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (beginning in the late 1960s), the Iranian Revolution (in the late 1970s), Iraq by the end of the following decade, to be joined by Al-Qaeda and then Tehran again in the first decade of the new millennium. At every new turn, it is charged that the enemy of the moment threatens regional and/or international security, and in coordination with Israel the US has always moved onto the offensive, striking the Nasserist project in 1967, the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1982, Bin Laden in Afghanistan in 2001, and Saddam's Iraq in 2003. Only one of the five enemies is left: Khomeini's Iran (now headed by Ahmadinejad) and its Syrian retainer.
Seventh, there are strong indications of a heavy covert US presence in Iran. Iranian officials have accused the US of engineering a new wave of subversion in the country, using Pakistan as a staging point, with the purpose of destabilising the Iranian regime. In February 2008, Zahedan was the scene of a massive explosion that killed or injured dozens of Iranian Revolutionary Guard members. Iranian fingers pointed to Washington and charged that CIA operatives were increasingly active in the country, especially in the region of Baluchestan adjacent to the Pakistani and Afghan borders. These suspicions are not unfounded. We recall that Bush asked Congress for a $75 million allocation for the purpose of promoting democratic change in Iran and supporting Iranian opposition groups. The problem the US is encountering, in this regard, is that apart from the Kurds, Iran has no minorities that are interested in secession.
Eighth, on the more overt side, the US has engaged in various high- profile displays of muscle in which thousands of US and Israeli troops engaged in joint exercises to test new ways of intercepting missiles carrying nuclear, chemical or biological warheads. In addition, Israel recently carried out the largest training manoeuvre in its history. On 20 March 2008, diverse military formations staged simulated conventional and non-conventional assaults on various Iranian targets. Citing US and Israeli sources, Haaretz reported that the purpose of that manoeuvre was to test and train in ways to confront Syrian or Iranian long-range missile reprisals in the event of a US or Israeli attack against Iran's nuclear facilities. Earlier, on 30 and 31 October 2007, the US staged naval manoeuvres in which 24 countries took part. The purpose was to train in the interception of ships transporting weapons of mass destruction and related materiel. Iran naturally believed itself the target of these manoeuvres, especially in view of an ever-larger display of US naval muscle in the Gulf. The largest manoeuvre since the US invasion of Iraq, it involved two aircraft carriers, support vessels and 100 fighter planes in scenarios based on hypothetical assaults on ships and submarines, and searches for mines off the Iranian coast.
OBSTACLES TO US-ISRAELI PLANS: The US-Israeli path to war is not free of potholes and obstructions. For one, Iran has military capacities large enough to cause significant losses were hostilities to break out. The London International Institute for Strategic Studies report on the balance of powers in 2006 offers tangible information in this regard. Iran produces some 2,000 types of defensive arms, from ammunition to airplanes, and from missile launching systems to satellites. It exports military equipment to more than 30 countries, among which are seven European ones.
According to the report, under the Shah, US companies constructed assembly plants in Iran for helicopters, planes, guided missiles, tanks and electronic components. This military industrial base was expanded during the Iraq-Iran war, enabling Iran to accumulate an arsenal of missiles with ranges from 45 to 2,000 kilometres. It also has 19 aerospace centres employing more than 100,000 engineers. The military complex in Loristan, for example, is capable of producing 80,000 tires for airplanes of different models, which ranks Iran as the first nation in the Middle East and seventh in the world in this technology. In addition, Iran possesses the third largest helicopter fleet in the world, a large number of pilot- less aircraft used for reconnaissance and fighting missions, an arsenal of anti-ship missiles, submarines and high-speed and easily manoeuvrable missile carrying vessels, all produced and/or serviced by its military-industrial infrastructure.
Certain domestic factors enhance Iran's ability to militarily and politically weather an attack. Above all, the majority of the Iranian people feel a deep sense of loyalty to their government, even if they do not always agree with it. Therefore, even if an offensive succeeds militarily, the chances of it succeeding in accomplishing its political objective, which is to topple the regime, are low. Certainly secessionist uprisings are unlikely. Ahvaz is regarded as one of the most sensitive areas because of the some eight million Arabic speakers in the district who contend that the "Persians" occupy this originally Arab land to the north of the Gulf. Saddam's attempt to annex this area in 1980 touched off the eight-year long Iraq-Iran war. But even supposing that that "Arabistan", as some call it, made a bid to rebel, the revolt would be quickly crushed by Tehran that would not tolerate being cut off from an area that contains 90 per cent of its oil resources. As for the left-wing Mujahidi Al-Khalq, it would pose no real threat in view of its limited influence. The same applies to the PJAK (Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan), the most militant Iranian Kurdish group which is being armed by the CIA and that is pushing for national autonomy for Iran's approximately four million Kurds.
A second problem is the lack of sufficiently detailed information, a point made by the US secretary of state in interview with Haaretz, in which she admitted that she had informed European officials with whom she had met recently that her government still lacked vital intelligence on Iranian nuclear facilities. She went on to list three reasons that worked against a US military operation against Iran: her government's desire to settle the matter peacefully; its anxiety over the efficacy of a strike in obtaining its objectives; and its lack of sufficiently accurate information on the intended targets.
What Rice did not mention was that US forces are too widely dispersed, and already overtaxed, in Iraq and Afghanistan. The point was brought up, however, by the chief- of-staff of the US land forces in an annual conference of these forces. The US army is suffering from a lack of equilibrium after six years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, he said, adding that it would take four years for the army to return to normal after the nerve-racking pace of operations in Iraq. As an official in charge of troop morale in Iraq put it, "Our army is tired. We're keeping troops in the field who are reaching their breaking point."
LUKEWARM SUPPORT ELSEWHERE: In addition, the US is having a very difficult time finding support for a strike among its allies. In October 2007, the Italian deputy prime minister and foreign minister announced that in its meeting in Luxembourg in October 2007, the EU Council of Foreign Ministers adopted a balanced approach towards Iran, relying on negotiations, sanctions and cooperation with the IAEA. Geographically closer to Iran, the Caspian Sea countries (Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan) announced during a summit held in Tehran on 16 October 2007 that they would not under any circumstances allow their territories to be used as platforms for any military action against any member of their forum.
Equally frustrating to US planners and policymakers is the unpredictability of the Iranian and regional response. Iran is capable of retaliating on its own, in the Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel. With the help of its allies it can compound the impact of its retaliation on all these fronts. It is perhaps sufficient here to recall that untold numbers of Iranians had poured into and began living in Iraq since security on Iraq's borders broke down. The penetration of what a former Iraqi diplomat called the "second occupation" into Iraq is not restricted to the predominantly Shia area in the south, but also extends to Mosul in the north. Iran thus has the ability to prey on US forces in Iraq without having to mobilise large forces from within its own territory. The same could apply to other areas. On top of this is Iran's ability to cut off the flow of oil through the Gulf and the consequent international economic impact of this and other possible measures.
Military experts in the US also know that, as it plays out on the ground, the concept of a surgical strike is an adolescent fantasy. It is not air forces that ultimately determine the outcome of battles, but rather land forces. In a theatre the size of Iran, in particular, the US would never have enough land forces. In addition, there is the fear that an attack might provoke Iran into accelerating its drive to obtain a nuclear weapon, which would be precisely the opposite result that the US is ostensibly looking for.
The US and its allies in the Gulf also have to take environmental factors into account. Striking active nuclear installations could release large quantities of radioactive contaminants and create a regional Chernobyl. The widespread air and water pollution caused by Iraq's deliberate ignition of Kuwait oil wells during the second Gulf War (1990-1991) is still fresh in people's minds.
Finally, a pre-emptive strike against Iran on the grounds of self- defence will not square with international law. The UN Charter may sanction recourse to pre-emptive force in the case of an immanent threat, but this is clearly not the case with Iran. Even in this fast- paced age when wars are fought at the press of a button, enriching uranium, per se, is far from a hostile act and unsubstantiated suspicions that this uranium is being enriched for military purposes are not sufficient grounds to invoke Article 51 of the UN Charter.
FALSE FLAGS AND DISSIMULATIONS: Perhaps it is for all or some of the foregoing reasons that, at the height of the US propaganda campaign against Iran and in the midst of predictions that a military offensive is at hand, a Pentagon spokesman announced that the US is not planning to go to war against Iran and that rumours to the contrary were groundless. Simultaneously, President Bush reaffirmed his resolve to resolve the Iranian crisis through diplomatic means and his secretary of state reiterated that message on Fox News Television, adding that the Iranian threat in Iraq can be handled without crossing international borders into Iran.
We are thus faced with two antithetical opinions that have us oscillating between certainty and doubt. On the one hand, various developments coupled with well-timed leaks and strategic analyses put us in mind of the lead-up to the US invasion of Iraq. But it is difficult to determine how far the resemblance goes, for Iran differs from Iraq in many political, geographical, economic and strategic/military aspects. In addition, the Iranian regime has been a much cleverer and cool-headed player against the US than its erstwhile Iraqi counterpart. Indeed, Tehran has proved the wiliest adversary the US has encountered since World War II. In addition, circumstances are entirely different today to those that had prevailed in the lead-up to the war on Iraq. The climate of international opinion is not the same, US forces are mired in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and the adversary this time is not one whose resources have been sapped by war and followed by a decade of sanctions. Other domestic, regional and international factors must also weigh heavily on Washington's decision as to whether or not to go to war, all the more so in view of the heavy stakes at risk if it can't guarantee the outcome.
Indeed, the differences between the present situation and the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq are so different that it is almost possible to foresee a deal resulting from direct negotiations on all outstanding issues. Of course, any qualitative breakthrough towards a breakthrough is contingent upon the willingness of both sides to back down from their brinkmanship and compromise. If that condition can come about, then it is possible to envision, for example, Iran's acceptance of a renewed Russian offer to perform its uranium enrichment processes outside Iran under strict controls that allay the fears of the international community that uranium enrichment is being used for military purposes. Then, in exchange, the US and the West in general would recognise Iran as a regional power and its right to defend and promote that position. Undoubtedly, too, there are aspects of the resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis that could be brought to bear.
However, it is difficult to perceive the US and Israeli governments accepting such a compromise, as both fear the transformation of a "hot crisis" into a protracted cold war in the course of which Iran could come into possession of nuclear weapons capacity. A nuclear Iran would obviously tie the US's hands in the pursuit of its project in the region and weaken Israel's strategic value and its negotiating position in peace talks.
A number of other factors work against the spirit of compromise and normalisation. Among these are the staunch ideological tenors of both the American and Iranian regimes, the historic animosity between the two, and the ongoing efforts of the pro-Israeli lobby to push the US into a war against Iran.
DANGEROUS ECHOES: That said, since the Iranian agreement with the IAEA in July 2007 over inspections of its nuclear facilities the most dangerous threat to a peaceful solution resides in intelligence errors and strategic miscalculations on the part of both sides. US military leaders, for example, might reach the conclusion that they could destroy Tehran's military capacities, which would give impetus to the position of American hawks that a military solution leading to regime change is the only way to deal with the Iranian crisis. The Iranians, meanwhile, might be too complacent in their belief that the US is mired and on the verge of defeat in Iraq and that it could not summon the will or ability to wage another war. The current administration in the US is not one to shrink from considerable risk, not to say recklessness.
In sum, while US-Israeli threats should not be underestimated, the situation as it stands seems to favour the protraction of a state of no-war, no-peace. Overall, the factors against war seem to outweigh the factors propelling towards war. But since when has logic had the upper hand in determining the behaviour of the Bush administration? It is perhaps again the unknown quantity of Bush and his neo-con allies that, above all, feeds the spectre of Gulf War IV.