Déjà vu

Given all that has happened in Iraq, why would the US want to extend the conflict into Iran?


Déjà vu
by Asghar Massombagi

In Nixon and Kissinger, Partners in Power, Robert Dallek sheds light on one of the more sinister episodes in the American foreign policy in the past forty years. Drawing heavily on the recently declassified Kissinger tapes, Dallek paints a cynical picture of the Nixon White House circa 1970. The Vietnam War was raging hard and Nixon who ran his election campaign partly on the promise to end the war but had instead increased US involvement was in a quandary.

The then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, while acknowledging the impossibility of a military victory in Vietnam, nevertheless advises Nixon to widen the conflict into Cambodia and Laos. What Dallelk makes clear based on Kissinger's own words as captured on tape is that the decision to commence the secret bombing of Cambodia and Laos was not taken out of a grand conviction to stop the march of communism and save the free world but as Kissinger tells Nixon's Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman to save Nixon's chances of a second term.

The proven wisdom is that the voters almost never throw out a war time president. Kissinger's callous logic is blood curdling but consistent with the manner in which foreign policy is usually conducted at terrible expanse to the people. Widening the conflict into Laos and Cambodia terrorized and traumatized the population and in no small amount contributed to the rise in power and homicidal radicalization of the Khmer Rouge.

The current quagmire the US is involved in Iraq and the policy path it appears to be following vise a vise the ruling clergy in Iran bears similarities to Nixon's quandary back in 1970. Unlike Nixon, Bush is not running for re-election and neither is Dick Cheney, the apparent puppet master behind the imperial crown but there is the Bush legacy to think about and the revitalization of the neo-conservative agenda whose crest George W. Bush rode to two controversial presidential victories.

Just after the Republican defeat in 2006 mid-term elections when most observers seemed to write off Bush, Seymour Hersh, arguably the most important and well informed journalist in America, wrote in The New Yorker magazine that far from having being tamed, the Cheney-Bush team is more hawkish than ever. Hersh made his point specifically in the context of the White House's approach towards Iran. [1]

The United States' policy in the past year has pretty much affirmed Hersh's assessment. Starting with the August war in Lebanon, where most observers acknowledged the strategic posture in Israel's out of proportion "response" to Hezbollah's kidnapping of the two Israeli soldiers as a first step in a potential war against Iran, the Bush administration has shown an unwillingness to engage Iran on a comprehensive basis (the keyword here is comprehensive). It seems pretty clear that what the Iranians want is engagement not necessarily further military adventurism.

Ahmadinejad's silly grand pronouncement against Israel always get lavish coverage in the American media (can't you just see him one day as a Fox News personality?) but Iran's recent efforts to engage with its neighbours hardly register a blip on US media. Only recently Nouri Al-Maliki, the US approved Iraqi prime minister paid a visit to Tehran discussing security and trade. Al-Maliki has publicly contradicted the US claims that Iran is the major destabilizing factor in Iraq.

As well, Iran is expanding its relationship with Afghanistan. In the recent meeting with Ahmadinejad, Hamid karazi, practically rejected the US claims that Iran is behind rearming Taliban, [2] a claim by the way that even the American military seems to be contradicting from time to time. From Kabul Ahamdinejad was due to arrive for the meeting of the Shanghi Organization where Iran is seeking a permanent seat.

There is very little doubt that Iranian Revolutionary Guards have armed and trained the Mahdi Army in the past but the majority of US deaths have not been in the hands of Iraqi Shia militia but the Sunni insurgents. The elephant in the room, the one US media seems to be blind to, is that Saudis and Jordanians have been bankrolling Sunni insurgency from the beginning. Regardless of what one thinks of the ruling clergy ˆ they have plenty to answer for - Iran's neighbours don't seem to be terribly afraid of Iran in spite of dire warnings by the US.

To be sure an Iran with nuclear weapons is not a good idea. True, Pakistan (that paragon of stability and political moderation), India and Israel are already nuclear powers but further arms race in the region will only result in accentuating animosities. But to achieve this goal it seems much more fruitful to engage Iran and attempt to integrate it into the world community rather than the "do as I say or else" approach by the US which will either result in discrediting US power further in the Middle East or lead the region into an all out of war.

Instead of engagement, the US, "frustrated with political process" (low-level, very limited talks on Iraq security apparently should result in Iran abandoning its nuclear program) has followed two paths. Politically it has propagated the so-called Shia Crescent fiction. The idea that Iran can become a regional superpower based on its alliance with Syria, a fiercely secular state incidentally, and the Hezbollah is frankly laughable. Syria has been isolated for many years and the Assad regime is hanging on to power precariously.

As to Hezbollah, the August War may have won them moral victory but in practical terms it clearly demonstrated who the real superpower in the region is: Israel not Iran. The recent arms deal with the Saudis and the promise of an unprecedented military aid to Israel, on a scale that dwarfs anything Iran may have or could possibly be capable, dubbed by US media as "arming Iran's enemies"[4] promises to further militarize the region.

So given all that has happened in Iraq, why would the US want to extend the conflict into Iran? I think this remains a strong possibility for two reasons, both of which have more to do with the US internal politics that any worries about Iran's impending accommodation of the coming of Mahdi, the "Shia Messiah" according to the suddenly Shia savvy American media. Firstly because the neo-con clique around Bush are revolutionaries and like all revolutionaries they are driven by ideas and not public opinion. Having been washed up and discredited due to the disastrous turn the Iraq war has taken, the neo-con ideologues such as William Kristol are coming in from the cold.[3]

They have found a new rallying cry in Iran's nuclear program and are demanding action. Secondly, and this is more in line with Kissinger's cynical advise to Nixon back in 1970, they want to hang onto power. In the heady days after the first Bush presidency Karl Rove famously put forward a vision to permanently marginalize the Democrats and in effect create a single party system in the United States. It's very possible that the mainstream Republicans would indeed go along with a widening of conflict into Iran since right now it's almost certain that short of a colossal collapse the Democrats will recapture the White House.

In the recent Republican candidates debate all but one said that they would consider military action against Iran if it does not halt its nuclear program and some went as far as endorsing a tactical nuclear attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Let's hope that pragmatics and sane minds on both sides prevail. The alternative is just too scary.�

[1] Seymour Hersh: The Next Act
[2] Guardian: Ahmadinejad's first Afghan visit ruffles US feathers
[3] William Kristol: It's Our War.  Kristol's claim?  Simple.  Eliminate the IRI and the Middle East will be ushered into paradise.  The last time Kristol made sweeping statements such as this was when he and his cronies claimed overthrowing Saddam in Iraq will result in spread of democracy and coming of utopia.
[4] Time: Arming Iran's Enemies