Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 March 2006
Issue No. 787
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

In Focus:

Galal Nassar

War by proxy

Galal Nassar assesses the likelihood, or not, of the US and its allies launching a military strike against Iran

US and Western pressure against Tehran is pushing relentlessly for a Security Council resolution intended to halt Iran's nuclear activities. That any resolution is almost certain to invoke Article 7 of the UN Charter brings with it the spectre of military action against Iran should Tehran refuse to abide by the provisions of the resolution. The likelihood of this eventuality raises several compelling questions.

If military action is taken, will it be mounted unilaterally by the US or Israel or will it take the form of an international coalition? In the case of the former, will there at least be some form of collective umbrella, if only at the level of the intelligence cooperation needed to pull off the operation?

What will the geographic scope of the operation be? Will it focus solely on Iran's main nuclear reactor in Pushar or will it attempt to target other facilities associated with Iran's nuclear and missile development programmes, exposing extensive areas of Iranian territory to attack? Will operations open with a "pre-emptive" strike against Iranian long-range missile silos and launching sites, ostensibly to prevent Iran from undertaking retaliatory action though in fact intended to destroy the manufacturing infrastructure of Iran's Shihab missile series?

There are also tactical questions of timing. If the US and/or Israel intend to do it alone, will they wait for an appropriate UN Security Council resolution to provide the cover of legitimacy? And what of developments on the Iraqi front? The so-called Iraqi factor is crucial to the calculations of both the US and Iran. Given Tehran's influence in Iraq it would seem foolhardy for the US to embark on a military adventure against Iran when no end is in sight to the American quagmire in Iraq.

Then there are the longer-term strategic questions. However well planned and executed, can a military attack really bring the Iranian nuclear programme to a total and immediate halt? The Israeli attack on Iraqi nuclear installations in 1981, after all, may have partially disrupted Iraqi nuclear operations but ultimately failed to achieve its objective. The Iraqi nuclear programme recovered and continued to develop.

There is the question of the environmental impact of a strike against nuclear installations that are presumed to be up and running. How extensive will be the fallout from a strike? Is it only the areas adjacent to nuclear facilities that will be affected or will the fallout threaten the air, water and soil of the entire Gulf?

Leaving these questions aside and returning to more immediate tactical issues, the most pressing questions concern the extent to which the US and its allies are capable of controlling and containing Iranian reactions.

Any anticipation of Tehran's response remains contingent upon two premises: the first, that the US and/or Israel possess the military technology and intelligence to accomplish the objectives of a more-than-limited strike against Iranian nuclear facilities; the second, that Iran does not possess the defence capacities to deter or intercept an onslaught from the massive state-of-the-art arsenal at Washington or Tel Aviv's disposal.

They are premises that inevitably heighten anxieties in the region. That Iran does not possess the conventional means to support a defensive military strategy heightens the prospect that it will resort to unconventional means, to a non-military strategy of an essentially retaliatory nature. The Iranian leadership has in the past shown astuteness in using its intelligence services and diplomacy in furthering its political and strategic objectives. The chances are that when backed into a corner Tehran will pursue an aggressive response that will take the form of a series of high-impact paramilitary operations that Western powers will inevitably classify as terrorist acts.

One can easily envision a series of attacks against US military, diplomatic and economic targets, mostly in the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, in addition to suicide bombings, mounted directly by Iranian operatives or indirectly by allied organisations, targeting US and Israeli interests worldwide. Simultaneously, Tehran is likely to increase its support for Palestinian resistance organisations, especially those of an Islamist stripe, and will attempt to fuel renewed confrontation along the Lebanese-Israeli border, relying primarily on Hizbullah, its main ally in the vicinity, and focussing, at least initially, on the Israeli-occupied Shabaa Farms.

Of more immediate concern to Washington will be the prospect of intensive Iranian diplomatic and strategic intervention in Iraq. By more actively supporting factions within the Iraqi resistance, and by asserting itself more forcefully as a key player in Iraqi domestic politics, Iran could seriously impede US interests in Iraq in both the short and long terms. Finally there is the prospect, equally alarming to the US and the West, that Iran might attempt to tamper with the flow of oil from the Gulf. A limited strike, or even the threat of a strike against oil facilities in the region, would send shock waves through the already jumpy international oil market. This, in turn, would bring the US directly under the spotlight for provoking such adverse consequences through its military strike against Iran.

Given the foregoing -- and add to them the reaction of international public opinion, the pressures of the US and the far reaching consequences of any Iranian response to a strike -- and it seems unlikely that the US and its allies will pursue a military option. There is, unfortunately, another and far more likely scenario -- war by proxy. A war between Sunnis and Shias in the region could all too easily present itself as the solution to the West's dilemma. It would sap the capacities of both sides to the benefit of many parties, none of them Arab or Muslim.

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