Day By Day

Monday, December 12, 2005

Iran, the Bomb, and the Middle East

Things are getting really, I mean REALLY, dicey in the Middle East these days. Things are threatening to spin out of control. The key is Iran. Since Ahmedinejad's election Iran has been picking fights with everyone, sort of like France in 1792.

Iranian troops have been probing Iraqi and allied defenses in the Persian Gulf; Iranian agents have been infiltrating across the border into the southern regions of Iraq; Iran has made tactical alliances with militia groups, both Shiite and Sunni, throughout Eastern Iraq. In addition Iranian agents have been cooperating with remnants of the Taliban resisting the new regime in Afghanistan, and Iran has reportedly been instigating terrorist attacks against Israel in Palestine and Lebanon, and of course Iran has become a major haven for Islamist radicals. Clearly Iran is trying to position itself to take advantage of any opportunities that might arise in the region if, as is widely expected, American forces are withdrawn or drastically reduced there.

And this is not the biggest worry. Iran has stubbornly pushed ahead with a program for developing nuclear weapons. This is not a direct threat to the United States homeland, but is intended to nullify US power in the region. Iran clearly has plans for the future and sees the US as the most important obstacle to achieving its goals. Nuclear weapons, aimed at Europe or Israel, or at US forces in the region, would severely constrain America's ability to act in the Middle East and would therefore vastly expand Iran's freedom of action in the region. And, let us not forget, they would present a real threat to potential competitors for power within the Middle East. What I fear is that, just as as Qaeda dreams of a restored Caliphate, Iran's leaders dream of a restored Persian empire and are systematically acquiring the means to make that dream a reality.

For half a century after WWII the Cold War imposed a gruesome stability on power relations throughout much of the world. This did not preclude widespread violence both between states and within them, but it did limit the aspirations of client states. Now, since the collapse of the Soviet empire, ambitious regimes throughtout the world have been making their bids for at least regional dominance. In Iraq, in France, in Venezuela, in the Balkans, in China, in India and Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in Korea, and elsewhere imperial dreams have been stirred by the collapse of the old World Order. The history of the next few decades will be dominated by attempts to contain and come to terms with these rising regional powers and that burden, I fear, will primarily fall upon the United States. The EU, its own grandiose plans currently in disarray, has shown itself to be stunningly ineffective in dealing with turmoil even on its own borders. Russia, beset by internal conflicts and haunted by memories of former empire, presents more problems than solutions. China clearly has ambitions that make it one of the challenges to be faced. So far, the most effective force for order has been a loose association of "Anglosphere" states, and that is unlikely to change in the near future. The challenge posed by Iran must be met by the US and its closest allies, or it will be largely unimpeded.

What might be the immediate effects of Iranian nuclearization? Henry Sokolski and Patrick Clawson have published through the US Army War College an extensive analysis of that question. [here]. Here's a summary of their conclusions:
First, Iran could dramatically up the price of oil by interfering with the free passage of vessels in and through the Persian Gulf as it did during the l980s or by threatening to use terrorist proxies to target other states’ oil facilities. Second, it could diminish American influence in the Gulf and Middle East by increasing the pace and scope of terrorist activities against Iraq, Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states, Israel, and other perceived supporters of the United States. Finally, it could become a nuclear proliferation model for the world and its neighbors (including many states that otherwise would be more dependent on the United States for their security) by continuing to insist that it has a right to make nuclear fuel under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and then withdrawing once it decides to get a bomb.
And that's not counting the insanely belligerent stance that Iran's new regime has been taking toward Israel. There is real danger here.

Israel recognizes the danger and is increasingly likely to undertake actions that will make the situation throughout the region even more problematic. Just this weekend the Times of London reported:
ISRAEL’S armed forces have been ordered by Ariel Sharon, the prime minister, to be ready by the end of March for possible strikes on secret uranium enrichment sites in Iran, military sources have revealed.

The order came after Israeli intelligence warned the government that Iran was operating enrichment facilities, believed to be small and concealed in civilian locations.

Iran’s stand-off with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over nuclear inspections and aggressive rhetoric from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, who said last week that Israel should be moved to Europe, are causing mounting concern.

The crisis is set to come to a head in early March, when Mohamed El-Baradei, the head of the IAEA, will present his next report on Iran. El-Baradei, who received the Nobel peace prize yesterday, warned that the world was “losing patience” with Iran.

A senior White House source said the threat of a nuclear Iran was moving to the top of the international agenda and the issue now was: “What next?” That question would have to be answered in the next few months, he said.

Defence sources in Israel believe the end of March to be the “point of no return” after which Iran will have the technical expertise to enrich uranium in sufficient quantities to build a nuclear warhead in two to four years.

“Israel — and not only Israel — cannot accept a nuclear Iran,” Sharon warned recently. “We have the ability to deal with this and we’re making all the necessary preparations to be ready for such a situation.”

Read the whole thing here.

Here there are two alarming developments. First, Iran seems to be far closer to acquiring nuclear capacity than was generally assumed which means that the crisis is coming much more quickly than we anticipated. Secondly, the belligerent declarations of Sharon, which match those of Ahmedinejad, are raising tensions to levels that cannot be long tolerated without resolution. Both Israel and Iran are now in a position where they have to either put up or shut up. Israel cannot afford to back down from these threats and Iran's current leadership is just unstable enough to push matters toward a violent conclusion. Whatever the outcome, the United States is being drawn unwillingly and very quickly into very dangerous waters.

Ironically, Iranian belligerence may be an important factor promoting stability in Iraq. In recent days many Sunni clerics who had disdained earlier elections have suddenly changed their minds.

FALLUJA/RAMADI Iraq (Reuters) - Saddam Hussein loyalists who violently opposed January elections have made an about-face as Thursday's polls near, urging fellow Sunni Arabs to vote and warning al Qaeda militants not to attack.

In a move unthinkable in the bloody run-up to the last election, guerrillas in the western insurgent heartland of Anbar province say they are even prepared to protect voting stations from fighters loyal to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq.

Graffiti calling for holy war is now hard to find.

Read it here.

What accounts for this volte face? Abu Khaleel thinks that Iran has something to do with it. Seeking a reason for a sudden upsurge in popularity for the Allawi slate, he writes:
[T]he important thing is that many ordinary people, Sunni and Shiite, are looking favorably at [former Prime Minister Allawi]. He is posing as the “secular” politician. I am constantly surprised by the number of people, ordinary Iraqis from all walks of life, in Baghdad, the mixed areas and the western provinces who are supporting him - far more than during the last elections. They see him as the only one capable of standing up to the “Shiite” religious, pro- Islamic Iran fundamentalists, who has a chance of having a say in forming the next Parliament and the next government. Many people have already forgotten, or chosen to forget, that it was he who sanctioned the bombing of Fallujah II and Najaf; that his interim government saw the introduction of corruption to an unprecedented level; and that he is self-confessed CIA man. We have a saying that reflects this mood and that we hear repeatedly these days. It says something like: “He who sees death accepts fever”.
Read it here.

I'll say one thing for Ahmadinejad, he sure shakes things up and captures people's attentions.

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