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Iran and the American election

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Paul Rogers
10 June 2008

The possibility of a war involving Iran has been raised on several occasions since 2004. The likely trigger has moved between Iran's nuclear ambitions and claims of its interference in Iraq; the likely instigator has been variously seen as the United States and Israel - though it has been argued too that radical elements within Iran's Revolutionary Guards might provoke a confrontation with the American "great satan" to rebuild their own status within Iran's power-structure.

A recent column in this series noted indications that the war option was returning to the agenda in the United States (see "The Iran risk, again", 8 May 2008). It also suggested that if Washington became embroiled in a conflict with Iran some time later in summer 2008, the result would be to aid the Republican candidate John McCain in his bid for the White House. Such a conflict would be extraordinarily dangerous for the US, but the further signs that it is becoming a real prospect are impossible to ignore.

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

Most of the studies undertaken around earlier times of tension between Washington and Tehran have consistently argued that the effects of a war would be counterproductive for the US as well as disastrous on their own account. Three of the conclusions of the report from the Oxford Research Group (ORG) - Iran: Consequences of a War (February 2006) - were typical.

First, the report highlighted the probability that a war would encourage Iran (whatever its original intentions in the matter) to acquire nuclear weapons as soon as possible. Second, it found that Iran (again, irrespective of its record hitherto) had formidable potential for large-scale interference in Iraq; it could also interrupt oil exports from the Gulf, thus fuelling both economic and strategic insecurity; and it had a range of other military options. Third, military action would have a profound unifying effect within Iran, thus bolstering support for the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad government and marginalising those Washington hoped would be able to challenge it.

The ORG report was widely quoted in the United States and the middle east, and was soon translated into a number of languages (Farsi, Turkish and German among them). A number of other analyses shared the view that any initiation of war with Iran by Washington would be a foolish miscalculation.

These analyses may have been widely disseminated, but the war option will not go away. Why indeed does the risk of a conflict appear to be increasing? The answer lies partly - though not exclusively - in the US's domestic politics and its electoral timetable (see "Israel, the United States and Iran: the tipping-point" [13 March 2008]).

The logic

The war in Iraq remains unpopular in the United States as a whole. But among neo-conservatives in Washington there is an enduringly strong narrative of potential victory (see Matthew Continetti, "Win the War? Yes We Can!", Weekly Standard, 9 June 2008). The sharp decline in US casualties in May 2008 (after protracted violence in March-April) is highlighted now as proof of the success of the military "surge" policy. A key part of this narrative is the case that the largest single problem for the United States is Iranian interference.

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

Paul Rogers's most recent book is Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed.

This line of thinking tends to ignore the fact that there may actually be little evidence of direct Iranian involvement in the insurgency, especially in terms of the direct supply of weapons (see Gareth Porter, "Where are those Iranian weapons in Iraq", IPS, 21 May 2008). It also evades the uncomfortable reality that the government of Nouri al-Malaki in Baghdad has closer links with Iran than the major current source of opposition to the American presence in Iraq, namely Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army.

These absences reveal the political imperative that is just under the surface of the narrative of victory - that it is unacceptable for George W Bush to complete his two terms without doing something about Iran. The return of intimations of war is one result.

The drumbeats are audible among a wider political and media constituency in the United States. The contention that the attitude of Iran is the main obstacle to a long-term security agreement between the US and Iraq is, for example, gaining currency (see Robert H Reid "Iran is Roadblock in U.S.-Iran Security Deal", Philadelphia Inquirer, 4 June 2008); and Condoleezza Rice has said there is no reason to talk to Iran until it suspends uranium enrichment (see Helene Cooper & Isabel Kershner, "Rice Calls Dialogue With Iran Pointless", New York Times, 4 June 2008). Moreover, the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] has been uncharacteristically sharp in its criticism of Iran (see Paul Reynolds, "Iran Nuclear Crisis Refuses to go Quiet", BBC News, 27 May 2008), in effect adding to the polarising momentum.

Tehran is unmoved. Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has reaffirmed Iran's intention to pursue civil nuclear power. For his own part, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used a gathering on 1 June to air his familiar condemnations of Israel, which the president again predicted will soon disappear. As in earlier phases of tension, the political statements of Iran's leaders make their own contribution to sustaining an abrasive atmosphere.

The enemy

The sense of approaching crisis is heightened by a series of reports, meetings and comments:

* four key US senators, it is claimed, have been briefed that military action against Revolutionary Guard units is likely by early September 2008

* neo-conservative sources have recommended that a naval blockade of Iranian ports to prevent imports of armaments should be imposed (see Muhammad Cohen, "Bush 'plans Iran air strike by August'", Asia Times, 27 May 2008)

* Israel's troubled prime minister Ehud Olmert made clear in his meeting with George W Bush at the White House on 4 June that Israel's priority was to prevent Iran proceeding with its nuclear programme (see Barak Ravid, "Olmert visits U.S. with focus on defense ties, thwarting Iran", Ha'aretz, 3 June 2008); after it, Olmert expressed satisfaction with the "progress" on this issue (see Hilary Leila Krieger, "PM: Fewer questions remain on Iran", Jerusalem Post, 5 June 2008)

* both John McCain and Barack Obama were notably harsh in their comments on Iran on 2-4 June before the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac).

The potency of these developments is underlined by the way current trends in Afghanistan and Iraq/Iran are becoming increasingly linked to US domestic politics and the presidential campaign. A US military operation, for example, is underway in eastern Afghanistan and the border districts of Pakistan to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri (see "Al-Qaida's afterlife", 29 May 2008). Its success would inevitably have an impact on President Bush's standing, and by inference that of John McCain.

More broadly, the very existence of tension with Iran during the decisive phase of the campaign would help make the US's foreign and security policy a pivotal issue. A focus on Iran's disruptive role in Iraq could yet turn the war there to electoral advantage: by depicting Barack Obama's talk of military withdrawal from Iraq as ill-timed and a sign of weakness, and by emphasising that it is time to face down the real enemy in Tehran.

The choice

A calming of tensions with Iran would by contrast make the John McCain/Barack Obama contest more likely to focus on the domestic economy, an arena where Obama would have the advantage. Any Republican strategist worth his pay-cheque would see the killing or arrest of Osama bin Laden, coupled with an attack on the Tehran roadblock to victory in Iraq, as hugely tempting in electoral terms.

The fact that Obama's team has already recognised the danger is reflected in his Aipac speech, when he declared: "I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon - everything." This may be an early indication of a ratcheting up of rhetoric on Iran, of which McCain is the more likely beneficiary - and which itself will create tensions that could all too easily slip over into conflict (see "Iran: war and surprise", 13 September 2007).

An additional and relevant factor in all this is how the world - including the United States election - looks from an al-Qaida perspective. The movement will be aware that an Obama administration would carry the risk of changes in style (and perhaps in policy) that might diminish the perception of the US as a threat to Muslims otherwise attracted to the idea of confronting the "far enemy". This, and its larger understanding of its long-term interest, would lead al-Qaida to regard a victory for John McCain as far preferable to one for Barack Obama.

If Osama bin Laden is killed or detained in the coming months and/or if there is armed confrontation with Iran, the calculation on both sides of the political divide in the United States is that the Republicans stand to benefit. If neither event occurs, there is a real prospect that the al-Qaida leader will endorse Barack Obama as a man of peace just before the vote on 4 November 2008 - in order to ensure that he goes down to defeat.

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