Iran: war and surprise

About the author
Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers

The fallout of the war in Iraq has helped to make the George W Bush administration one of the least popular in US political history. The domestic political repercussions are a matter of intense debate and speculation as the campaign for the presidential and congressional elections in November 2008 gets underway.

It is likely that the outcome of the elections will be greatly affected by the progress of United States efforts in Iraq and the experience of its military forces. The most recent of a number of assessments of the US's current predicament - the reports, and testimony before Congress, of General David Petraeus (the US military commander in Iraq) and Ryan Crocker (the US ambassador there) - have drawn intense media coverage in this respect.

There is a danger here, however: too narrow a focus on the domestic political implications of the Iraq imbroglio creates a tendency to ignore the fact that Iraq (and the US story there) is only one element in a broader regional picture (see Volker Perthes, "Iraq in 2012: four scenarios", 11 September 2007). If the accumulated US effort in Iraq is seen in this light, a deeper logic might be discerned in which not Iraq, but Iran, is coming to play a central role in United States calculations.

A grand narrative

This underlying shift is apparent in five recent developments, which can be regarded as components in a reassembling "narrative" designed to direct public attention from Baghdad towards Tehran. The fact that several of the story's elements are in tension with each other does not prevent it from acquiring great potency for its architects (see "Baghdad spin, Tehran war", 6 September 2007).

The first component is the transformation of a complex insurgency in Iraq into a simplistic war against al-Qaida. President Bush and others have repeatedly identified the insurgency within Iraq as being al-Qaida-inspired; this means that the activity role of a wide range of other Sunni groups opposed to the US occupation, and the even larger role of Shi'a militias.

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

The second part of the narrative is the highlighting of the military "surge" strategy, the deployment since February 2007 of six successive contingents of additional US forces on a monthly basis. The surge was the Bush administration's answer to the two main proposals of the James A Baker / Lee H Hamilton report of December 2006: regional diplomatic engagement (including with Iran) and progressive troop withdrawals. The repudiation of the defeatist outlook of Baker/Hamilton (whose report, it is easy to forget, was anticipated as much as that of General Petraeus) was for the White House and its supporters the forceful and correct response to a continuing threat to America.

The new strategy has been confronted with severe problems on the ground in Iraq, making its authoritative justification a vital political requirement. The third element of the narrative enters here: the Petraeus report and congressional hearings (the Crocker testimony is more problematic for the administration, given its bleaker conclusions on the Iraqi government's political progress).

The evidence presented in Petraeus's digest of US experience in Iraq is remarkably selective in its reference-points. Moreover, it tends to ignore the evidence (revealed, for example, in an ABC/BBC poll in Iraq reported on 10 September that records a marked increase in Iraqis' sense of domestic insecurity. True, there has been some decrease in violence in Baghdad and in Anbar province; but violence has increased elsewhere, especially in Diyala province where US troops were withdrawn in 2006 to be replaced by Iraqi security forces. In the south, British forces have given up on Basra city, and even in Baghdad itself the security situation remains dire.

The Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) is one of the few organisations providing detailed, local assessments of Iraq to western audiences. In a recent report, IWPR describes the chaotic situation in Baghdad schools: hundreds of teachers have been murdered in the past year and there have been numerous kidnappings of students (see Iraq Crisis Report 231, 30 August 2007). Many of the city's 21,000 schools lack water and sanitation facilities, are crumbling through disrepair, and have to be regularly closed. A Unicef programme to reconstruct a schooling system that was once one of the best in the region has had to be put aside in order for resources to be focused on the growing numbers of displaced people.

The fourth part of the narrative highlights the prospect of a withdrawal of some United States forces by 2008 as a further indication of military progress. Any such move is unlikely to be substantive; Petraeus himself anticipates a US military presence in Iraq for up to a decade, and expects that - even allowing for such a withdrawal - there will be no decrease in the troop numbers that were in the country prior to the surge.

In any case, the aim of a staged return of some US troops to the homeland in 2008 is dependent on a marked improvement in the performance of the Iraqi security forces. This remains deeply problematic. The US head of the Iraq Assistance Group, Brigadier-General Dana Pittard, is only one of those warning against any early termination of the surge, partly on the grounds that it would take years for Iraqi forces to be able to take over (see Ann Scott Tyson, "General: Iraqi Forces Far From Self-Sufficiency", Washington Post, 26 June 2007).

The reality, then, is that there is unlikely to be any major redeployment of US forces away from Iraq. But that is not the point. The relevant factor is the need to create an impression of some success in Iraq, which can be made to carry a convenient double implication: stay the course, and troop reductions are in sight.

The fifth component of the overall story makes an effective entrance at this point. What difficulties remain in Iraq are very largely the responsibility of Iran. Thus, in US administration statements and interviews, and editorial pieces by the White House's strongest supporters, it is notable that the putative role of Iran in fomenting unrest and violence is being greatly elevated.

Indeed, by some strange alchemy Iran is now integrated into the al-Qaida phenomenon, thereby unifying America's two great enemies in the region - the historic and persistent threat posed by revolutionary Iran and the more recent al-Qaida challenge. It has not yet come to the point of blaming Iran for the 9/11 atrocities, but that could yet happen.

All points east

The increasingly tense relationship with Iran was reflected in the testimony given to the US Congress on 10-11 September 2007 by both the general and the ambassador. David Petraeus went so far as to talk of a "proxy war" with Iran, and Ryan Crocker accused the Iranian government of "providing lethal capabilities to the enemies of the Iraqi state". Behind them, a neo-conservative media chorus, whose voices include experts from the American Enterprise Institute and the ever-reliable Weekly Standard, have poured even more anathemas than usual on Tehran and its works.

More than rhetoric is involved. The Iranians have again insisted that they will not halt their efforts to enrich uranium for (they claim) civil nuclear-power use. In response, the Bush administration plans to return to the United Nations Security Council to demand tougher sanctions (see Robin Wright, "U.S. Starts a Push for Tighter Sanctions on Iran", Washington Post, 13 September 2007). Russian and Chinese opposition will mean that little progress will be made in this direction. But the effort will have symbolic value to the administration, and in any case will not detract from the White House's notable efforts to forge a link between Tehran's "interference" in Iraq and its nuclear plans.

The US intends to build a number of fortified checkpoints on highways linking Iran and Iraq; it also plans by November to construct a new base on the frontier, with living quarters for 200 US troops, as close as six kilometres to Iranian territory (see "Pentagon planning base near Iraq-Iran border", Reuters, 10 September 2007). In a separate move, up to 350 British troops are being assigned to border patrols along stretches of the border from which they were withdrawn some months ago (see Kim Sengupta, "The ‘proxy war'", Independent, 12 September 2007).

The Iranian telescope

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's latest book is Global Security and the War on Terror: Elite Power and the Illusion of Control (Routledge, July 2007). This is a collection of papers and essays written over the last twenty years, with two new essays on the current global predicament

These developments, also part of the change in the emphasis of the whole conflict, provide support to the case of those analysts who believe that conflict between the United States and Iran is highly likely before mid-2008.

There are, equally, many arguments against this - not least a recognition among the more thoughtful sections of the American military that once a war with Iran starts, it will (like the war in Iraq - even if the wars will have a very different character) continue for years.

The evaluation of these different perspectives needs to take account of what is happening on the Iranian side. There exists, for example, a danger that military escalation in the Persian Gulf region could be deliberate provoked. This could come from the American side, but the greater likelihood at present is that elements within the Pasdaran-e Inqilab (Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps) will take such a step. This need not have the approval of the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regime, though its probable effect would be to unify Iranian opinion behind the Islamic Republic's leadership.

Since the end of the war with Iraq in 1988, the Revolutionary Guard has acted as an "army within an army", with its own barracks, recruitment and logistical organisation; it also runs its own businesses. Many Iranians regard the organisation (even in a muted and cautious way) as demonstrating a particular brand of corruption. This is registered within and around the Revolutionary Guards as a sense that the force has "gone soft" since the revolution's early, heroic days and the war with Iraq, and lost much of its support and status as a result.

The conclusion reached by some is that the guard badly needs a new cause: something that will return put it centre-stage once more, encourage renewed recruitment and, above all, regain national status by demonstrating its role in safeguarding the revolution. A possible, attractive option would be to engineer a confrontation with the United States. This could be achieved through overt cross-border operations, or (more likely) through some kind of operation in the crowded waters around the Straits of Hormuz.

The seizure of the fifteen British sailors and marines in March-April 2007 may - although it took place at the other end of the Gulf - be a model for an operation that could be conducted against the US navy (see Sanam Vakil, "Iran's hostage politics", 2 April 2007). Another possibility is that a claim of US aggression into Iranian territorial waters could be met by a Revolutionary Guards' speedboat operation against a US warship or even a supply vessel. In the context of the vehement anti-Tehran atmosphere that the Bush administration and its cheerleaders have been cultivating, Washington would have no choice but to respond to such provocation. Indeed, many of those in or around the White House, particularly those close to vice-president Dick Cheney, would welcome such a development.

The logic of the United States's reassembled narrative about the situation in Iraq and its own role there is increasingly to depict Iran not simply as a problem in relation to Iraq, but as a problem in its own right. This may indeed appear to have a certain political convenience as the elections of 2008 approach. In other respects, the period ahead is starting to look ominous.