Posted by: David O'Mahony | August 23, 2007

Toward a showdown in Iran?

Iran has agreed a timeline with the International Atomic Energy Agency to answer all outstanding questions regarding the Islamic republic’s nuclear programme.

However, it will not be enough to reverse America’s decision to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guards a terrorist group.

This is a bold and dangerous decision. It will be the first time the list, which includes the likes of Hamas, Hezbollah and al-Qaida, will feature a government agency.

The US claims the Guards, particularly its elite Quds Force, has been training and supplying weapons to insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan while supporting extremists across the Middle East. In 2006, Condoleezza Rice described Iran as “a kind of central banker for terrorism”.

Iran — which America has since 1984 accused of being a state sponsor of terrorism and which George W Bush labelled part of an “axis of evil” in 2002 — has strenuously denied these claims.

Revolutionary Guards leader General Yahya Rahim Safavi refused to mince words, telling the conservative newspaper Kayhan: “America will receive a heavier punch from the guards in the future. We will never remain silent in the face of US pressure and we will use our leverage against them.” The nature of this leverage is unclear.

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George W Bush: Included Iran as part of the ‘axis of evil’

The move comes under a presidential bill that authorizes the US to identify individuals, businesses, charities and extremist groups engaged in terrorist activities.

According to the Washington Post, this allows America to block the assets of terrorists and to disrupt operations by foreign businesses that “provide support, services or assistance to, or otherwise associate with, terrorists. Whether or not it has a major impact in real terms will only become clear over time, but it is worth looking at the possible effects.

Rasool Nafisi, a Washington-based expert on the Middle East and Iran at the private Strayer University, Virginia, says:

“[I]f the policy is carried out, the movement of IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp] members abroad would become very, very hard — especially in neighbouring countries. They could easily be detained as terrorists. So I think that’s a major blow to the status and movement of the IRGC. Secondly, because it is a large conglomerate with a tremendous amount of assets and is involved in business, it would not be able to do business with Afghanistan, with Iraq, with neighbouring countries; and that’s going to be another major issue.”

The blacklisting represents a continuing policy of isolating and containing Iran, which following the collapse of Iraq and Afghanistan only has Israel as a serious rival in the Middle East. As such, labelling the Guards as terrorists is strategic.

The US has been allies with Israel for many years, while Iraq and Afghanistan are within its sphere of influence, at least nominally, so long as troops remain on the ground. Strategically, it makes sense to isolate a relatively powerful and unallied nation that could swing the balance of power against America.

Certainly it has concerns regarding an Iran/Syria pact, however loose such an arrangement between the two so-called rogue states might be. When one throws Gaza into the mix the chances for greater instability in the Middle East grow significantly.

Meanwhile, Robert McMahon, writing for the Council on Foreign Relations, feels the US plan “set in motion what is expected to be a lively round of new diplomacy aimed at getting Tehran to suspend its uranium enrichment program”.

Days after the US decision was reported, Iranian officials met with the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, to discuss their country’s nuclear programme — although the two were not related.

In an agreement hailed as a “milestone” by IAEA deputy director Olli Heinonen, both sides have established a timeline whereby the Islamic republic will answer outstanding questions. The US has said it must co-operate with inspectors and end nuclear work if it is to avoid further sanctions — though these face opposition from China and Russia.

However, by designating the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organisation, the US will discourage foreign investment and the sale of goods and supplies to the country — few firms wish to be associated with terrorism.

The Guards, while having few business interests abroad, is a major force in the Iranian economy and has significant interests in construction and the oil industry.

By indirectly pressuring foreign companies and potential investors, the US is undermining the economic weight and effectiveness of the Guards, who exist to safeguard the Islamic revolution. Sitting governments are the natural target for blame in a failing or weakened economy and this would open the door to unrest and dissatisfaction with the regime. Strikes and demonstrations helped topple the Shah in 1979 and usher in the Islamic regime (though there was no financial crisis at this time).

With some 45% of the state’s budget based on oil revenues, anything that could restrict the Guards’ business interests here will eat into government finances.

Iran has one large economic vulnerability — petrol. Although it is one of the world’s biggest oil producers, domestic consumption is so high it must import 40% of its petrol. If the Guards have any interests in this sector it could have a massive knock-on effect for the country, which is in the midst of petrol rationing. There were bitter protests when the scheme was brought in and further restrictions on supply could lead to more.

In addition, a fall-off in available capital will have a detrimental impact on the nation’s infrastructure, feeding into any political dissatisfaction.

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Condoleezza Rice: Described Iran as a “kind of central banker for terrorism” but has lead the diplomatic initiative

There is, of course, no concrete evidence that the United States has political change in mind by adding the Guards to the terror list, though a more amenable Iran would certainly be a great advantage when it comes to oil access. Sanctions and blacklisting are not effective means of ousting rulers; Saddam remained in power despite the suffering of his citizens due to UN sanctions more swingeing than the limitations imposed by including a group on a list of terror organisations. Gaddafi ruled Libya despite the country being an international pariah for years.

Even so, Iranians may be left with the impression that America desires regime change through stealth rather than force. Also, economic weaknesses could exacerbate ethnic tensions within Iran, and this in turn could allow the US to gain valuable allies within the country — it is believed to be backing rebel groups near the Iraq border.

US intelligence sources and officials have linked Iranian elements to several attacks on US forces. The most significant of these was in Karbala, Iraq, in January.

Media reports in July claimed the Quds Force had been involved in the deaths of five US soldiers. However, an analysis by The American Prospect’s Gareth Porter of what the military spokesman actually said that day shows his only words regarding Iran were that men captured over the attack claimed the Quds “knew of and supported the Karbala attack”. This is not the same as being involved — and the top US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, had in April denied any Iranian involvement in the Karbala incident.

Nonetheless, these sorts of reports are what are feeding those in the Bush administration who favour conflict with Iran.

One has to remark on the double standard the US is displaying toward Iran.

On one hand, it is engaging with the Islamic republic on issues such as security in Iraq, while on the other hand it is blacklisting a major agency of the Iranian government. This represents a split in the Bush administration about how to deal with Iran: ‘doves’ such as Condoleezza Rice are eager to pursue and optimistic about a diplomatic approach, while ‘hawks’ such as Dick Cheney want to take a hardline and confrontational stance.

Some in the administration are keen for an attack against Iran, perhaps at Israeli instigation. Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric on Israel has increased tensions between that nation and his own. He has at various times called for the state to be eliminated, said the Holocaust was a myth and most recently said Israel was “the standard bearer of Satan. His aggressive words — though he has also said he respects Jews and his grievance is with the state of Israel — could in the minds of some military figures justify actions against Iran.

Steven Clemons of The Washington Note reported some time ago:

“The thinking on Cheney’s team is to collude with Israel, nudging Israel at some key moment in the ongoing standoff between Iran’s nuclear activities and international frustration over this to mount a small-scale conventional strike against Natanz [one of Iran’s nuclear sites] using cruise missiles (i.e., not ballistic missiles).”

This would provoke an Iranian military response, thus forcing George Bush — who has described Iran “as a very troubling nation right now” — to abandon diplomacy in favour of armed retaliation. In 2006, he delivered a speech in Cleveland where he said that while America’s “objective” was diplomacy, it “will use military might to defend our ally Israel” because of Iran’s “stated objective to destroy our strong ally Israel”. This lends further weight to Clemons’ report.

Former CIA officer Robert Baer, writing for Time.com, says American neo-cons believe “the IRGC is the one obstacle to democratic and a friendly Iran. They believe that if we were to get rid of the IRGC, the clerics would fall, and our thirty-years war with Iran over”.

While stressing this is a “delusion”, he points out that the administration may feel justified because

“the IRGC has had a long, established history of killing Americans, starting with the attack on the Marines in Beirut in 1983. And that’s not to mention it was the IRGC that backed Hezbollah in its thirty-four day war against Israel last year. The feeling in the administration is that we should have taken care of the IRGC a long, long time ago”.

While there may be a burning desire among some US hawks to attack Iran, unless it has adequate provocation the US can not afford to turn economic and ideological conflict with Iran into military action. In a CBS/New York Times poll in March, only 10% of people favoured this strategy against Iran. Meanwhile the US military, which is designed to fight a two-front war, has no troops left to deploy. All of its resources are committed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

But even if it did have the manpower and might to send against Iran, geography is against them. Iran is a mountainous country and its population is three times that of Iraq — and America has had a tough enough job securing that nation.

However, short-term action is possible given the size of US forces in the Persian Gulf. Faced with the inability to invade Iran, a series of air strikes may become a tempting option — particularly if intended to knock out specific targets such as nuclear plants and research facilities.

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Dick Cheney: One of the main hawks in the Bush administration

The US envoy to the IAEA, Gregory Schulte, has dismissed the recent agreement between the Iran and agency as an attempt to deflect “attention from its… bomb-making activities”. So it would appear the administration is unwilling to compromise on the nuclear programme, although Iran has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Ayatollah has declared a fatwa against such weapons.

However, the fact its programme was kept secret for nearly two decades has led to mistrust on the part of nations such as Britain and the US. Iran has also failed to stop enriching uranium despite UN resolutions urging it to do so.

According to Noam Chomsky, the US invasion of Iraq

“virtually instructed Iran to develop a nuclear deterrent. Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld writes that after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, ‘had the Iranians not tried to build nuclear weapons, they would be crazy’. The message of the invasion, loud and clear, was that the US will attack at will, as long as the target is defenceless. Now Iran is ringed by US military forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey and the Persian Gulf and close by are nuclear-armed Pakistan and particularly Israel, the regional superpower, thanks to US support”.

America’s plan to give Middle Eastern nations billions of dollars in defence aid to contain Iran’s military and nuclear ambitions is another tension-building move. As the Syrian foreign ministry said of the plan: “He who wants to make peace does not start out with an arms initiative.”

It would appear the US administration is thinking long-term in its attitude toward Iran, which Rice has described as the “single most important single-nation strategic challenge to the United States and to the kind of Middle East we would like to see”, and the region as a whole.

Of the three nations named by Bush as “the axis of evil”, only Iran remains a major player. Saddam Hussein has been vanquished, while North Korea has engaged with the IAEA on its nuclear programme. It has even taken the extraordinary step of shutting down its reactors and acquiescing to UN inspections. Iran, while co-operating with inspectors, has not shut down its enrichment programme, saying it needs nuclear plants to generate electricity (which it imports) and therefore free up more of its vast oil and gas reserves for export.

America’s actions will be eagerly accepted by elements within the Iranian regime. Although president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — a former member of the Guards who wrote to he US administration in 2006 saying that his nation condemned all forms of terrorism — can be overruled at any time by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he would probably welcome conflict with the US.

It would be a significant propaganda victory for a man who has failed to deliver on pre-election economic promises and whose government only has a 39% approval rating (according to a recent poll by Terror Free Tomorrow). An American attack would allow him to rally his people behind him by focussing their attention on an enemy — a classic political move. Although naming the Guards as a terrorist group is intended to curtail its activities, it could just as easily consolidate the organisation’s position within Iran.

It could also give Iran a reason to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and develop nuclear weapons as a deterrent.

The Iranian people have no quarrel with America, or at least with Americans. Clemons points out that on September 11, 2001, “Tehran was the only place in the Middle East where thousands of people walked out into the streets holding candles and expressing grief and empathy for Americans who died that day”.

Attacking Iran would only bolster the regime. One should never underestimate the rallying effect an external enemy can have on a population, especially in the short term. Not only could such a move consolidate the government’s position, but it could direct it to seek more concrete alliances elsewhere.

Ultimately, China will have a defining say in actions against Iran. Sanctions can not clear the UN Security Council while the Asian superpower’s veto is in effect, while any terror blacklisting by the US can be undermined if China decides it will ignore it.

Iran has observer status with the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, an emerging bloc addressing security concerns in Central Asia whose members include China and Russia. Iran has applied for full membership of the group, which governments and observers in the west have described as an emerging military bloc.

China accounts for 13% of Iran’s exports and 10.6% of its imports, while Russian suppliers make up 4.5%. This is a solid enough foundation for a stronger alliance. One thing weighing against Iran’s membership of the SCO is the group’s mutual defence treaties. Although Russia, which helped Iran with its nuclear programme, backs full membership for Iran, it would be easy for other members to argue it only wants to join so it can activate these treaties in the event of military conflict with the United States.

However, as China’s economy grows and modernises its desire for oil increases. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 40% of oil-demand growth worldwide since 2001 has come from China alone. In Africa, and particularly Sudan, China has allowed its oil and mineral needs to dictate its foreign policy.

With this in mind, it is not a great stretch of the imagination to consider that energy demands could motivate it to seek a more secure alliance with Iran — particularly if a proper pipeline infrastructure could be built between the countries. This would have to pass through the likes of Pakistan or Afghanistan, and its construction could get around the terror blacklisting if a Chinese firm builds it.

Iran’s oil fields need enormous investment, and China has the capital and will to become involved in this. The two would seem a perfect fit should Iranian companies such as those run by the Guards become unable to do business with other nations, though it seems unlikely China and the US will risk a major showdown.

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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: Says his country condemns all forms of terrorism

The signs are ominous. A strike against Iran may come within months. But what would be the outcome of such an attack?

British military historian Corelli Barnett has gone so far as to say it would cause “World War III”. This is an apocalyptic point of view but it would certainly be a disastrous move, both for America and for the region. The international standing of the United States, which is already tarnished because of Iraq, would be depleted even further.

Iran may lack the ability for its military to retaliate on American soil, but it has the missile capabilities to do severe damage to US forces in the Persian Gulf as well as installations across the Middle East. While the US has the capability to intercept these attacks, it only takes one rocket to cause great loss of life. Israel may also come under attack, as it did during the first Gulf War.

Even a short-term land engagement could lead to many deaths on both sides, as well as potentially sucking the US into another long-term occupation/military deployment that would only serve to crush its credibility in the Middle East.

While Iran may not have the armaments of the United States, it does have an important weapon: oil. Any attack on Iran, the second-biggest producer in OPEC, would immediately cause a rise in oil prices. If the country were to cut off its supply the price per barrel would soar. In addition, Iranian oil may instead go to countries non-hostile to it.

As well as the economic weapon, it could ramp up its contacts with militant groups across the Middle East and elsewhere in an effort to strike at American targets wherever possible. It could easily ramp up its involvement with the likes of Hezbollah and Hamas to wreak unpredictable havoc.

While there is a history of enmity between Iran and Iraq, this is due to Saddam Hussein’s attempt to take advantage of the Islamic revolution. The recent announcement that oil pipelines would be built between the two seems to indicate that either Iraqi officials don’t take reports of Iran-trained militants fighting inside its borders seriously, or that the positives outweigh the negatives. A Shia to Shia accord may also be a factor here. Regardless, it makes sense for Iraq to build regional alliances ahead of the inevitable withdrawal by US forces.

Both Iraq and Afghanistan have said Iran is necessary for peace and security to come about in their nations — and if Iran is weakened or collapses the ensuing power vacuum will mean chaos in three bordering nations. This will inevitably draw Pakistan into Iran in a bid to protect its frontier; though given its track record along the border with Afghanistan there is a sizeable chance it will not succeed.

Are there other options than force? Diplomacy will always be a possible avenue, though it can be slow and delayed. Academic Marc Gopin and US Congressman Gregory Meeks have advocated reaching out directly to the Iranian people, thus going over the heads of the ruling administration:

“[T]he perfect way to isolate the Revolutionary Guard, the Iranian president, and the radical clerics, is to invite the Iranian people into an ever more hopeful relationship with the West… The internal vulnerabilities of Iran’s ruling circles make this a perfect time to extend an olive branch to the people of Iran with a diplomatic initiative that involves economic incentives and development opportunities for the poor, the middle class, and the reformers.”

This is an idealistic approach but it illustrates there are alternatives to force. Whether they will be attempted or not remains to be seen.

David O’Mahony
www.tinyplanetblog.com

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Responses

  1. Here we are once again considering the terrorist nation of Iran. A nation that controls Palestine through Hamas, Lebanon and Syria though Hezbollah, and Iraq through the Mahdi army, untold numbers of insurgency and militant organizations and even Al Qaeda. Iran is closing in quickly on the ability to mass produce nuclear weapons while our politicians are arguing over whether or not they are even a threat to the region, and our own nation. Israel, as I have said before, does not have the luxury of debating this issue until the day it is confirmed that the Iranian nuclear program has in fact produced it’s first reliable weapon. Israel has nuclear weapons but will they use them? It is a strongly held belief that only the United States can deliver a conventional strike devastating enough to impact the Iranian nuclear program, however, if the United States does not do that and soon, Israel will be forced to consider the nuclear option as it’s only reliable means of ensuring it’s continued existence.

    When considering the possible destruction of your entire population by nuclear assault, the nuclear option does not seem so terrible in light of the consequence of waiting too long, or conducting an inadequate conventional strike. European nations, Russia and China have prevented measures that could have reigned in Iran many times before. Creating a situation whereby the one entity that could have made a difference (United Nations), is instead provoking the inevitable destruction of either Israel or Iran or possibly even the destruction of both nations.

    Iran has created a reality on the ground throughout the Middle East that provides the ultimate fallback. Iran’s arming, training and positioning of Hezbollah, Hamas, the Mahdi Army, and literally hundreds of other militant assets means that at a moments notice Iran could create complete chaos throughout the entire region. Imagine all of these groups being coordinated by Iran’s military machine causing the cessation of trade throughout the region, the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in countries throughout the Middle East, and the successful overthrow of governments unable to respond quickly enough to such an unconventional enemy.

    If the United States is unable or unwilling to confront Iran militarily within the next 12 months, world war three is almost a certainty. Because if Iran is able to get all their pieces in place before they are directly attacked, this chess game is over and no country in the world will be safe from the terrorist army they have been building up arming and training for over 30 years. China, Russia, Venezuela and many other countries have already chosen their allies in this struggle by supporting, supplying and defending Iran in it’s quest for nuclear weapons and undying support of terrorism in all it’s horrific forms and manifestations.

  2. A lot to unpack here, David, with many possible strategies in play. Probably more than one, but I think the key one is that alluded here towards the end.

    The Revolutionary Guard are, as you say, Ahmedinejad’s powerbase. We can take it that the (probable) majority of Iranians who are sick of theocracy would never back them short of a war – which the US is in no position to wage. His clownish antics have already cost Iran internationally and his economic ineptitude (petrol shortages in a major oil producer, bloody hell) are seriously weakening a regime which lots of Iranians despise.

    So curtailing the guard’s antics and singling them out gives the US a couple of options.

    1. Isolate the Revolutionary Guard from the Mullahs and the Supreme Leader (it would appear there’s something of a power struggle going on there anyway: Rafsanjani has already started politicing) and the US could do a deal with the more cautious elements of the regime: a Nixon in China moment, perhaps, and Bush’s last chance to go down in history as less inept than Jimmy Carter.

    We could take it for granted that Khatami and the reformists would prefer this to war. Hell the US, could even use this to as a bargaining chip to get some of the restrictions on that faction standing for election in the hope they can get back in the game.

    2. Alternatively, as you suggest, they might go for broke with this divide and rule tactic and hope that it hastens the collapse of the regime – and puts a major damper on Hezbollah and Hamas.

    (Then all it needs is for the Taliban to be defeated, a democratic, stable and secular Pakistan and peace between Israel and the Palestinians for everything to be grand.)

    It’s riskier strategy, though, and there’ll be a new president by then. Not that the State Department would mind: but the White House?

    If all this went wrong, or – more unlikely – Ahmadeinejad wins the power struggle, I’d say US military action is pretty unlikely. It strikes me that it’s a comforting delusion for the die-hard hawks and the die-hard paranoid hard-left/hard-right coalition. Which, happily is no more than 20% of the US political debate.

    But one thing you miss from your analysis is that Israel is not the only significant player: both Saudi and Egypt are implacably opposed to the Farsi Shi’ites and, if they felt Iran was getting too powerful would quite possibly act in support of their own interests. (That fact they both have significant military aide and would be serving US interests is, well, how these things work.)

    PS: I’d be very wary about citing Chomsky as a source for, well, anything. He specialises in trite, over-simplifications dressed up in pseudo-academic bullshit which allows the credulous, second-rate intellects who peddle this nonsense to con themselves that they have been gifted with a rare form of acuity.

    (In this specific case, it ignores the rather inconvenient fact that Iran would probably like nukes no matter what and the US invasion convinced Gaddaffi that it might be a good idea to get rid of his WMDs before the US took notice. Not that this means he won’t start the whole thing up if he thinks he can get away with it.)

  3. Happy Thanksgiving My Friend.

    eric aka http://www.blacktygrrrr.wordpress.com


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