Iran and the United States: back from the brink

Anoush Ehteshami
16 March 2007

The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) is likely to be the core security concern of the 21st century as the "war on terror" becomes increasingly bureaucratised and takes its place among the other routine business of states. Nowhere are proliferation concerns over nuclear weapons in particular more urgent than the on western and eastern edges of the Asian continent.

In east Asia a process seems to be underway to contain North Korea's proliferating instincts, and indeed reversing them at an appropriate opportunity. Pyongyang's neighbouring countries, plus the United States, are in concert over the dangers that North Korea's programme poses and seem determined to find a practical and collective response to the problem. While this group's success has been so far minimal in effecting actual policy reversals in North Korea, the fact that a multilateral mechanism exists at all for dealing with the problem is encouraging. Yet even despite this, a deepening crisis is gripping the region, directly affecting the security calculations and military policies of two major states, China and Japan.

In the middle east, there is an even greater problem. Here, two pro-western states which already possess nuclear weapons, Israel and Pakistan - neither of them signatories to the non-proliferation treaty - apply strategic pressure upon the region in ways (albeit different in each case) that indirectly stimulate the proliferation tendencies of some of the region's core actors. Neither Israel nor Pakistan has ever been held fully accountable for its development of nuclear weapons, and indeed the impression remains that both have been rewarded for their open violation of international norms.

True, both countries may have quite legitimate and understandable security concerns that have encouraged them down the nuclear-weapons path, and in Israel's case the existential threat has not gone away; but the core problem is that the international community has remained silent over their programmes. At the same time, the pressure on Iran - as in the decision of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council on 15 March 2007 to increase sanctions - continues.

These realities exist against the background of instability in the region's security environment itself. Since 1979 it has experienced a series of wars, conflicts and insurgencies: three major wars (the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88; the war over Kuwait in 1990-91; and the current Iraq war, 2003-the present); two conflicts in Lebanon (the Israeli attack of 1982-85 and the long-term occupation of southern Lebanon) as well as the war between Hizbollah and Israel in July-August 2006; civil strife in Algeria, Somalia, and Sudan; and insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is indeed only a partial list, and many of these conflicts continue or are otherwise unsettled.

The problems are compounded by the fact that outside powers have failed to agree on a set of priorities for the region as a means of charting a way out of its many crises. The Palestinian-Israeli roadmap to peace is in tatters, and even over such a major conflict as the 2003 war in Iraq there has been little or no agreement among the five permanent members of the Security Council. Today, the United States - the chief external power of east Asia - is seen in the middle east more as part of the problem than of the solution.

Anoush Ehteshami is professor of international relations and head of the school of government and international affairs at Durham University. His many book-length publications include Globalization and the Middle East: Old Games, New Rules (Routledge, 2007); (co-author) Iran and the Rise of its Neoconservatives (IB Tauris, 2007); (co-editor) The Middle East's Relations with Asia and Russia (RoutledgeCurzon, 2004); The Foreign Policies of Middle East States (co-editor) (Lynne Rienner, 2002); (co-author) Iran's Security Policy in the Post-Revolutionary Era (Rand, 2001)

The confusions of crisis

Into this environment has entered Iran. It is quite obvious that Iran's foreign and security policy is being shaped in and by this tense environment, and must be understood against that background. It is also undeniable that the securitisation of its own national politics and the rise of such religio-populist neo-conservative figures as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are partly due to the instability of the regional system.

To make matters worse, the one country that can in principle influence the direction of events in the region and which has a very direct stake in the restabilisation of the region - the United States - has no formal relations with the Islamic Republic. Not only that, the US is locked in apparently endemic dispute with Tehran over a wide range of issues, most noisily (though far from solely) Iran's nuclear programme.

All this is a recipe for regional instability and confusion, which the US's inability or unwillingness to settle on a clear course of action serves to reinforce. As related to me in a recent meeting in Dubai: America's friends hear on Monday that the US is bent on striking Iran's nuclear facilities, but learn on Tuesday that the state department is keen not just to have private talks with Tehran over Iraq but is prepared to negotiate a "grand bargain" with Iran that would leave its regional influence intact. While the wily leaders of the Gulf Arab states understand that confusion is part of the US's strategy, they remain concerned that talk of war can easily lead to war.

At a time when there is already growing mistrust between Iran and its Arab neighbours, the fear that Iran may now feel uninhibited to battle the US on the territory of neighbouring Arab lands is genuine. The prospect of another military conflict visiting the Persian Gulf sub-region fills all the riparian states with dread, for they recognise that the consequences of a strike on Iran are likely to be even more far-reaching than the geopolitical mess and humanitarian crisis resulting from the Iraq war.

In any such confrontation, Iran will have the means to attack US targets in the Persian Gulf and the ability to directly pressurise and punish America's friends in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states - Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE and Oman - for their acquiesence. The United States military may be able to protect many of the GCC countries' sensitive military, security and economic targets; but it simply does not have the capacity to issue a credible blanket guarantee to its allies.

Moreover, a US that lacks political credibility in the region would by attacking Iran increase its allies' vulnerability and openness to internal pressures. Tehran could use this as an opportunity to exercise its considerable religious muscle to undermine the standing of ruling Arab elites across the Gulf. It is as much for this reason as for fear of the outcomes of war itself that Arab leaders seek a peaceful solution to the crisis. While none of them want to see a nuclear Iran breathing down their necks, few are ready to see force used to bring Iran to heel; and fewer still are prepared to pay the price for this new conflict.

Among openDemocracy’s recent articles on Iranian politics in a period of crisis:

Nazenin Ansari, "An ayatollah under siege…in Tehran"
(4 October 2006)

Hooshang Amirahmadi, "Iran and the international community: roots of perpetual crisis" (24 November 2006)

Dariush Zahedi & Omid Memarian, "Ahmadinejad, Iran and America"
(15 January 2007)

Ali Afshari & H Graham Underwood, "Iran's post-election balance" (22 January 2007)

Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Tehran" (31 January 2007)

Sanam Vakil, "Iran’s nuclear gamble"
(1 February 2007)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran’s attack blowback"
(5 February 2007)

A hose on the fire

These rational considerations notwithstanding, momentum towards military confrontation remains unchecked. As more American military forces station themselves around Iran, so Tehran's tone hardens even further. Every bellicose statement from Washington causes the Iranian public's mood to harden too. Although no Iranian has an appetite for war, none is prepared to see the country's legitimate rights taken away by force. Internally, therefore, external pressure manifests itself in a strengthening of support for the administration. "Ruling nothing out" in its dealings with Iran, as President Bush has intimated on numerous occasions, has had the effect of the rulers in Iran "ruling everything in" - thus in turn escalating the stakes even further for America's Gulf Arab allies.

So the chances of another military exchange in this area remain high. Yet another war, even a limited and short-lived one, could end the prospects of peace in the entire middle east for the foreseeable future. War against Iran fought outside the rubric of the United Nations (for no such authority would be secured) will not solve the problems associated with its nuclear programme or its radical posture, and - as the war in Iraq shows - will have unintended consequences that are likely to be alarming.

Among the more predictable results of war are that it will:

  • free Iran from the requirement to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
  • set back the prospects of democracy in Iran by a generation or more
  • strengthen the grip of the neo-conservatives on the levers of power
  • deepen Iran's engagement with radical Islamist forces in the region
  • force Tehran to increase its military expenditure and security commitments (currently no more than $5 billion a year, a fraction of its neighbours')
  • accelerate Iran's nuclear and other military-related WMD programmes.

The outcomes will go beyond the confines of the region itself. The spike in hydrocarbon prices that will follow an attack, coupled with possible disruptions in the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf, could destabilise the international economy and spell disaster for the energy-hungry powerhouses of Asia, which today collectively act as a manufacturing facility for the entire planet.

In short, no good can come of igniting yet another fire in the strategically important Persian Gulf sub-region. It must, rather, be acknowledged that Iran's nuclear programme is more a symptom than a cause of the many deep-rooted problems of the middle-east region (and of its tense relations with the United States). The resolution of the crisis must be part of a wider initiative to cap the other burning fires of the area, and part of direct talks between Tehran and Washington. Iranian belligerence is being sustained by these other crises and not the other way around.

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