Seymour Hersh's recent New Yorker article on the risk of war between the United States and Iran contained many insights into the current thinking of US political and military leaders. The one that has attracted most attention was the desire of figures on the political side to keep the "nuclear option" on the table, even in the face of reported opposition from some military planners (see "The Iran plans", New Yorker, 17 April 2006).
The idea of using tactical nuclear weapons in an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities may seem almost unbelievable, but it is not too far removed from the "war-fighting" ideas that have been around the nuclear-weapons establishment ever since Hiroshima (see "The nuclear-weapons gambit", 13 April 2006). Meanwhile, there have been repeated press reports that the Iranians are attempting to protect their key facilities by placing them so far underground as to be beyond the limits of conventional munitions.
At a press conference on 18 April, President Bush in repeating the formula "all options are on the table" in response to a reporter's prompt gave renewed credence to the idea that nuclear weapons could be used against Iran. For his part, President Ahmadinejad when reviewing a parade of troops on Iran's army day pledged resolute action in response to any assault; this followed the extensive naval and Revolutionary Guard exercises in the Persian Gulf (see "The countdown to war", 6 April 2006).
If the net effect of these comments from both sides has been to increase the levels of tension, there have also been voices raised in both Washington and Tehran on the need for direct dialogue. Two former senior state department officials, Richard Haass and Richard Armitage, have taken this line; even more significant was the comment from Richard Lugar the longstanding Republican senator who chairs the senate foreign-relations committee that the two countries had interests in common, not least in relation to energy resources, and should engage in dialogue (see Jim Lobe, "Iran: Cooler Heads Urge Bush to Talk", Asia Times, 20 April 2006.)
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It is true that these comments emanate from people outside the key circles of political power, and that they contrast with other, more hawkish views (for example, the 24 April 2006 issue of the Weekly Standard, the house-journal of neo-conservatism, is headed "To Bomb or Not to Bomb?"; it includes Lieutenant-General Thomas McInerny [Retd], a former vice-chief of staff of the US Air force, arguing that the destruction of Iran's nuclear facilities is militarily feasible.)
Yet Lugar, Armitage, Haass and others do have indirect influence in Washington and they are matched by their equivalents in Tehran. Senior Iranian opinion-formers have made low-key visits to Washington in recent weeks, and Iran's former president Hashemi Rafsanjani has publicly stated that the US-Iranian talks scheduled to discuss the situation in Iraq should be extended to broader issues of common concern between the two states.
Iraq and Afghanistan
The increased tensions between Washington and Tehran, notwithstanding these more positive signals, come at a time of deepening instability in two key theatres of the US's war on terror: Iraq and Afghanistan.
US forces in Iraq experienced what might have appeared a slight easing of the insurgency in March 2006: only thirty-one troops were killed, an average of one per day. This led to suggestions that the insurgency was being overtaken by intense sectarian violence coupled with a greater number of attacks on Iraqi security forces rather than on American troops.
This analysis was belied by the large number (473) of injuries to US troops in the first four weeks of March. In any case, the first weeks of April witnessed an upsurge in fighting involving US troops which, as of 20 April, had taken the lives of fifty soldiers.
These figures are tiny compared with Iraqi civilian loss of life; at least fifty Iraqis are dying every day. Indeed, a high level of violence has become so routine in certain parts of the country that it is barely reported in any detail in the western media. The sustained violence in the Sunni neighbourhood of Adhamiya, northern Baghdad, on 17-18 April was one partial exception; another was the widespread fighting in Ramadi on 17 April as insurgents gathered in force to attack government and Iraqi security-force buildings.
A similarly little-reported trend has been the movement of people more than 60,000 since the bombing of the al-Askari mosque in Samarra, according to some reports away from mixed Sunni/Shi'a neighbourhoods, with the result that communities are becoming restricted to members of one or other confessional group. In the absence of any kind of effective Iraqi government, this internal displacement is one of the clearest signs that security across much of the country is deteriorating as sectarian divisions harden.
In Afghanistan, a clear indication of the predicted spring offensive by Taliban and related groups comes from the monthly review distributed by the British Agencies Afghanistan Group. The group's March survey details a series of attacks on Afghan government police and security forces, assassinations of government officials, and attacks on aid organisations and construction companies. This deterioration comes at an even less propitious time for the Afghan authorities, in that tension with Pakistan has been rising; the Islamabad government claims that during March, Afghan security forces killed sixteen Pakistanis near the border south of Kandahar (see Irfan Husain, "Kabul vs Islamabad: a war of words", 16 March 2006).
United States forces have responded to this predicament by stepping up counterinsurgency actions, with the result that civilian deaths have increased; between 15-18 April, more than twenty Afghans were killed or injured by US or Afghan security forces (see Carlotta Gall, "Afghan Battles See Higher Toll for Civilians" New York Times, 19 April 2006 [subscription only]).
There is a tendency to attribute any guerrilla action in Afghanistan to the Taliban, but there are indications that its source goes wider, in two respects. First, a range of loosely affiliated non-Taliban groups are involved, whose members are mainly of Afghan and Pakistani origin but include some people from central-Asian and middle-eastern states, most of them linked in some way with the al-Qaida movement.
Second, people best described as "warlords" are also active. The BBC's south Asia bureau draws on normally reliable sources to report that a "war council" was convened at the village of Barawal Bandey on the Pakistan-Afghan border earlier in 2006; it brought together many groups and attracted the presence of the former Afghan leader and present-day warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and representatives of the Pakistani militant group Harkatul Mujahideen (see Paul Danahar, "Afghanistan's new militant alliances", BBC News, 17 April 2006).
The combination of Taliban, al-Qaida, Afghan warlord and Pakistani militant groups suggests that a broadly-based and organised movement is developing that goes well beyond the Taliban itself. A key aim of the meeting, according to reports, is to attack both the US presence in Afghanistan and the British troops that are currently establishing themselves in the southern province of Helmand.
The relevance to Iran
These developments in Iraq and Afghanistan are directly related to the risk of an escalation in the crisis between the United States and Iran later this year. In Iraq, violence is escalating as much of the country slips towards civil war; in Afghanistan, insecurity is rising as the fifth anniversary of the termination of the Taliban regime approaches. The common factor is that the United States is involved in long-term conflict after having failed to achieve its original objectives.
The impact of its Iraqi and Afghan troubles on the standing of the Bush administration is already considerable. Republican politicians are viewing the mid-term elections in November with increasing trepidation. These circumstances again suggest that talk of a military confrontation with Iran seems outlandish, especially because they give the Iranians more flexibility in responding to any US assault. The head of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, General Yahya Rahim Safavi underlined this on 14 April when he warned: "You can start a war but it won't be you who finishes it. The Americans know better than anyone that their troops in the region and in Iraq are vulnerable. I would advise them not to commit such a strategic error. We have American forces in the region under total surveillance. For the past two years, we have been ready for any scenario, whether sanctions or an attack".
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A collection of Paul Rogers's Oxford Research Group briefings, Iraq and the War on Terror: Twelve Months of Insurgency, 2004-05 is published by IB Tauris
At the same time, three factors indicate that a timetable for US war on Iran might survive what appear to be unpromising conditions.
First, the Bush administration retains the fundamental belief that Iran simply cannot be allowed to have even the technical capability of diverting resources from civil to military nuclear programmes. That remains the bottom line and should never be underestimated.
Second, it is probable that by the end of 2006 the Iranians will have moved towards a fully-fledged pilot-scale uranium enrichment capability at Natanz, while the Bushehr nuclear reactor may be ready for fuelling. These developments may still be within the terms of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and under the eyes of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors; they may not involve any moves towards producing nuclear weapons; but they will almost certainly take Iran further than the Bush administration is prepared to allow.
Third, the US political leadership, especially in the form of the office of the vice-president, may consider that a concerted US military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities is likely to be highly effective in the short term (in a similar way to the termination of the Saddam Hussein regime, with George W Bush's "mission accomplished" speech following three weeks later).
Iran certainly does have a wide variety of opportunities to retaliate - in Iraq, the Gulf and Afghanistan for a start - but these would take weeks and months, rather than days, to develop. It follows that the most likely period for US military action would be in late October, just before the mid-term elections. The scenario would be of US attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities, declarations of success, plenty of TV footage of destroyed nuclear plant, and a "mission accomplished" speech -all in the space of a week or so, culminating in the elections. It is, in (Republican) political terms, a seductive prospect.
The prospect of war with Iran happening at the moment when it is least expected cannot be discounted. Yet if any rational calculation can be made about the likely trigger-point for a major conflict between the United States and Iran, late October 2006 is the prime candidate. It also follows that if such a conflict can be avoided throughout 2006 and the early part of 2007, there is more chance of sanity prevailing and more positive relations developing between Washington and Tehran. For the present, however, that is the less probable outcome.