In recent weeks the President, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and many other politicians have said over and over that they are not planning to attack Iran, yet they keep sending more specialized troops, aircraft carriers, and other attack units to the region. US navy can put six carriers into battle at a month's notice. Two carriers in the region, the USS John C Stennis and the USS Dwight D Eisenhower, could quickly be joined by three more now at sea: USS Ronald Reagan, USS Harry S Truman and USS Theodore Roosevelt, as well as by USS Nimitz. Each carrier force includes hundreds of cruise missiles. Even presidential candidates are in a race to outperform each other on their toughness towards Iran, emphasizing that NO OPTION is off the table.
From a rational point of view, one would question if the administration is serious about this threat, and how and why they could carry it out. I will try to answer these questions below. This is not just a guessing game, deploying troops at this level is by all means more than what would be needed for psychological warfare.
Although Iran played supportive roles in both, Afghanistan and Iraq, it could never convince Neo-cons that it is trustworthy. When Saddam‚s statue came down, some people around the White House were not satisfied and advocating going to Tehran. In my opinion there are four blocks of interest who could benefit from such action, they are:
Saudi Arabia and other Arab states in the region During the past 5 years, starting with the removal of the Taliban from Afghanistan and the later collapse of the Saddam Hussein‚s regime in Iraq, the power vacuum has given Iran the opportunity to rise to become a regional power more than any time since the departure of the Shah in 1979. In Iraq and Lebanon Shia Muslims are now enjoying roles that they have never had. The four weeks of Israeli engagement in Lebanon last year helped Hizb-allah to emerge as a champion that is respected not only by Shia Lebanese but also by other Arabs in the streets of the Middle East.
A recent poll by Zogby International and Shibly Telhami conducted in six Arab states, shows that Hassan Nasrillah, leader of Hizb-allah is the most favorite leader in the ME. Ironically the exaggeration about Iranian support of Hizb-allah added to the credibility of Iran with the Arab streets. During this military conflict, however, Saudi Arabia issued a statement and distanced itself from the Israeli operation by saying that this is not an Arab problem, rather it is between Hizb-Allah and Israel.
The establishment of Shia as major power block in Iraq also added to the perception that a Shia crescent is shaping and will threaten the Sunnni domination over state power in the region. Sectarian conflicts in Iraq after the assassination of several Shia clerics and finally the bombing of the grand Mosque in Samarra, became all but the sign of a civil war between 60% Iraqi Shia and 20% Iraqi Sunnis. One should note that although the current fights are between Iraqi Shia and Sunni groups, this is not necessarily a religious sectarian war. Rather it is a political fight between sects in line with the US presence and those against it. No need to say that Kurdish Sunnis are by far closer to Shia Arabs than they are to Arab Sunnis, and Shia Hizb-allah in Lebanon is an ally of Sunni Hammas in the Palestinian territories.
Nevertheless, Neo-Cons who had their eyes on Iran from the beginning, were able to successfully transfer this fear of Shia on the rise to the capitals of Saudi Arabia, Arab States in the Persian Gulf, Egypt, and Jordan. In November of last year, following Jordan‚s King Abdullah‚s warnings against the emergence of the Shia Crescent, Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi security adviser close to Prince Bandar bin Sultan (former Saudi Ambassador to the US and close friend of President Bush), in an op ed piece in the Washington Post, warned that Saudi Arabia would intervene militarily in Iraq “to stop Iranian-backed Shiite militias from butchering Iraq Sunnis,” if the United States withdrew. He also wrote that Saudi Arabia would increase oil production to drive down prices and pressure the Iranians, a tactic used successfully in the 80s during Iran-Iraq war.
Later in the year Prince Bandar, who serves as the national security advisor to the King, privately traveled to Washington and Texas several times. These trips were without the knowledge of then Saudi Ambassador Turki al-Feysal, who was a supporter of collaboration in the Middle East and champion of normalizing Saudi-Iran relations after the Iran-Iraq war. Consequently Prince Turki abruptly resigned and left the government service altogether. As the Baker-Hamilton report was due to be released, Vice President Cheney was in Saudi Arabia for a private visit and upon his return we were informed that the Bush administration will not accept the Iraq Study Groups‚s recommendation to seek engagement of Iran and Syria in resolving the Iraq problem. In addition to Saudi Arabia, other Arab states in the Persian Gulf and Egypt and Jordan have stated their support for any option that would eliminate Iran‚s threat or influence over Arab Sunnis in Iraq. This fear in fact coincides with the existence of a significant Shia population in some of these countries, such as Bahrain and to the less extent in Saudi Arabia.
United States of America Despite the obvious results of the Iraq war, and the predominant NO vote to war during 2006 elections, the administration still beats the drum of war and even expanding it to Iran. The Middle East democracy project, as was laid out by Neo-conservatives, could not completely change the Middle East as long as a defiant state like Iran was in the region. Democracy was supposed to spread into other countries like an oil stain, but this did not materialize and now the Bush administration has to put the blame on someone other than itself. Who would better play that role than Iran, a country that does not even have an official representation in the US to defend itself? All independent observers state that by far the majority of American troops are attacked, injured and killed by Sunni insurgents, yet Iran is equated with al-Qaeda in the president‚s State of the Union speech as the major reason for the US losses in Iraq.
Iran offered an olive branch several times through the Swiss Embassy in Iran (in 2003, according to Flynt Leverett, a former top advisor to Condolezza Rice), Iraqi President, Jalal Talebani (twice in 2006 according to BBC), and Abdul-Aziz Hakim, SCIRI chairman (2006), all to be ignored. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently had this to say about America's negotiating position vis-à-vis Iran: “Frankly, right at this moment there's really nothing the Iranians want from us, and so in any negotiation right now we would be the supplicant.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also dismissed talking to Iran about Iraq: “The only reason to talk to us would be to extract a price, and that's not diplomacy, that's extortion.” The fact that US administration has not engaged with Iran in a diplomatic way, when it had the upper hand in 2003 and now that it does not have a strong position, shows that this administration or elements thereof are not willing or not capable of negotiating with a defiant party, period.
On the other hand, an escalation to US presence in the region by way of attacking Iran would certainly distract attention from Iraq, where the problem is, to a new territory. As Henry Kissinger presents it in a recent article, “They [U.S. troops] are there as an expression of the American national interest to prevent the Iranian combination of imperialism and fundamentalist ideology from dominating a region on which the energy supplies of the industrial democracies depend.”
Israel Israel has years of collaborations with Iran and long standing relations of Jews with the country goes back couple of thousands years to times of Cyrus the great. In recent decades, however, Israel has had serious concerns with Iran due to the support of Islamic Republic of major Palestinian resistance group. In the immediate present time of course the rhetoric exercised by Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has fueled this fear to a point that Israel considers Iran an existential threat to the state of Israel. Iranian financial support of Hammas and Hizb-allah has added additional layers to this notion that Iran wants to wipe Israel out of the map.
As we know, during the first Gulf war the US insisted that Israel should stay away, and despite the Iraqi attacks on Israeli cities, the latter did not retaliate. The purpose of this containment was to prevent a break in the coalition that included Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Arab Gulf states, Syria, and Jordan. Considering events of recent years, however, this distancing becomes less necessary, and reports that Saudis have met Israeli delegates to discuss joint defense strategies supports the idea that Arab countries might be indifferent in the case of the Iran.
Although Middle East experts such as Gary Sick, a senior National Security staff during presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan, believe that “Israelis based on the history are not going to directly interfere with this situation, but indirectly are playing a major role with: Keeping international attention focused on the Iranian threat as a uniquely dangerous situation that may even demand Israeli military intervention; and using their long-standing contacts, especially with the Kurds in Iraq and Iran, to foment opposition to the Tehran government;” there are indications that Israelis are preparing for more involvement. The Israeli government and especially Likud Party advocates in the US and Europe have worked significantly on fueling fear of Iran in the public opinion, based on it‚s so called existential threat Meanwhile Israeli Defense Forces have drawn serious plans to attack Iran and as a minimum surgically remove the nuclear sites with low yield nuclear bombs.
Iranian Hardliners The fourth group that may benefit tremendously from an attack, undoubtedly, would be the extremist faction within the Islamic Republic itself. The US invasion of Iraq was indeed a God given gift to the fundamentalists in the government. They were able to capitalize on the instability in the region and present themselves as the only viable option that can save Iran in dangerous situations. They are primarily coming with Revolutionary Guard and/or Intelligence background; in addition they portrayed themselves as populists with economic ideas that can deliver to the poor and more traditional families. This false image, however, is now totally disappeared, and the majority of people see that election campaign promises were not delivered, yet international relations have been severed and sanctions and financial troubles are underway. A better standard of living and less state interference in people‚s private life, a result of 16 years of neo-liberal and reform agenda, is fading out and consequently hardliners are loosing ground. This attitude shift was clearly observed during the recent municipal and city council elections.
An Israeli-American attack could certainly advance the hardliners in the public eyes, and contrary to what Neo-cons are trying to sell, solidify the public behind the government‚s position. According to most observers Iranians are very proud of their country and heritage and are expected to defend it with enthusiasm. In a situation that lacks any plausible alternative to the Islamic Republic, the nation will most probably gather around the status quo and become a defender of the existing system despite all the maladies that it carries. Notwithstanding the problems that Iran has in regards to Human Rights, women rights, ethnic minority discrimination and financial and economic prospects, I believe that sovereignty of the country plays a major role in an Iranian response to this attack. This has been voiced over and over by Iranian intellectuals such as Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Peace Laureate of 2003, to the point that some of the grass root democracy movement activities in Iran are on hold in the fear to be seen by anyone as an invitation for a foreign interference.
Possible Scenarios Invading Iran and a “Regime Change” was the ideal goal of the office of the Vice President and the secretary of Defense up to a year ago and was supported by the Neo-Con‚s analysis. Similar to the Iraq‚s “Cake-Walk”, pundits were calculating the cost of a regime change as low as 20 million dollars (i.e. Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute). Some Iranian opposition groups such as the loyalists to the former Shah, his Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, and also the People‚s Mujahedin Organization (MKO) have helped to shape the illusion that people in Iran will welcome the occupation or will topple the Islamic Republic once the US attacks. The fallacy of similar assertions about Iraq is now common understanding and hence discredits the proposal.
Regardless, these entities then tried meddling with ethnic minority issues in Iran by escalating tensions between ethnic groups and the central government. Investments were made to fuel these tensions towards a possible break up of the country from within. For this purpose Baluchistan, a predominantly Sunni ethnic region close to Pakistan‚s borders in the Southeast of the country, Khusistan, an oil rich Southwestern state with Arab minorities close to the Iraqi border, and finally Azerbaijan, which consists of the second largest ethnic population in the country in the Northwestern part of Iran close to Turkey and the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, were prime candidates to start an uprising against the Islamic Republic. Of course these activities also take place in the Kurdish areas of Western Iran, which has always been considered as a potential break away region. Thus far, none of these activities have been completely fruitful.
The hawks further came to the realization that if a regime change has to happen, it shall be with forces totally from the outside. But … , it is a fact that at this time the President‚s plan for troop surge and sending 21,500 soldiers to Iraq has faced strong congressional opposition and technical obstacles. Most analysts suggest that based on differences in Iran and Iraq‚s population, natural terrain, sophistication, military power, etc. an invasion of Iran would require close to 1 million booths on the ground in order to achieve regime change, a number that even the most optimist supporters of the administration would not dare to commit.
Considering the lack of sufficient troops the question is; what other options are feasible for the administration to pursuit if they want to deal with Iran before Bush‚s term is over? In my opinion the scenario which has gained momentum recently and especially after the developments in Lebanon and Iraq, is to take care of the Islamic Republic by destroying the infrastructure of the country: roads, bridges, electric plants, railroad, airports, refineries, oil platforms, and anything that would strategically support the regime‚s stability and financial power. This way the Iranian Shia-regional-super-power, defiant to the US, Israel, and the leading role of Saudis in the Middle East, will be in effect wiped off the map.
This scenario is similar to the 1991 Iraq war, it would be a shock and awe operation with air strikes and Cruise Missiles fired at up to 4000 targets that are already identified and located. Deployment of two aircraft carriers already in Persian Gulf and having another one close to the theatre, assigning a navy admiral to command the forces in the region-as oppose to an army or marine general, deployment of patriot missiles to the southern shores of the Persian Gulf, and doubling of the emergency oil reserve in the US are all indications for the possibility of such operation.
As we know, Congress has stated that it will not tolerate an extension of the war to Iran without a re-authorization by Congress. Others suggest that for this reason it is possible that the attack will start by an Israeli bombardment of Iranian nuclear sites. In return it is plausible to expect some Iranian retaliation by way of firing mid-range missiles over the Gulf and other sensitive targets. Consequently the US would have to intervene and finish the job as was mentioned above. In this scenario obviously the major issue would be that the involvement of Israel would limit congressional defiance and break the opposition to president‚s action into half or even one third.
Final words Regardless of from what vantage point one looks at it, the future of the Middle East and especially Iran and the Persian Gulf is very dark if any of these scenarios take place. From a rational and pragmatic stand point and if lessons learned from Iraq are of any value, destabilizing Iran would amount to decades of chaos in the exact same region that Kissinger refers to as “a region on which the energy supplies of the industrial democracies depend.”
The former neoconservative theorist and Director of Johns Hopkins University's International Development Program, Professor Francis Fukuyama, described Iranian foreign policy as pragmatic and rational, and announced that a comprehensive political agreement between the US and Iran was still possible, in spite of the Bush administration's present confrontational approach to the Middle East. “The Grand Bargain may still be there… Our hand is weaker than it was three or four years ago,” he said at a National Iranian American Council's (NIAC) and New America Foundation (NAF) Capitol Hill event on US-Iran relations last week. A proposal by Muhammad al-Baradai, the IAEA director general, has proposed a formula to simultaneously halt uranium enrichment and the Security Council sanctions on Iran. Javier Solana, the EU foreign affairs secretary, has also offered limited (dry) enrichment activity by Iran under IAEA‚s supervision during the negotiations. The Iranian side has shown some interests in these scenarios, and meanwhile despite hardliner resistance there are indications that more pragmatists and reformist in the power structure of the country have joined forces to decrease the tension and save face.
Let us just hope that the troops from both sides sitting eye to eye in the Persian Gulf don‚t cause a disaster by mistake. And let us pray that the Apocalyptic leaders of the two countries don‚t attempt to expedite the rapture intentionally, to fulfill what they perceive to be God‚s wish!
About Goudarz Eghtedari, Ph.D. is a political analyst, writer, radio producer (VoicesOfTheMiddleEast.com), human rights advocate, and peace activist by choice and an engineer and educator by profession. He has a Ph.D. in Systems Science from Portland State University. He is a native of Iran and resides in Portland, Oregon.