Bush's last throw against Iran
By M K Bhadrakumar – Asia Times January 10, 2008
Playing around with the Persians can be risky - especially when the endgame nears. US President George W Bush is learning this civilizational truth. He could have learned from the Jimmy Carter administration.
The similarity is striking. A beleaguered White House increasingly looks irrelevant while the alienated country keenly searches for an idea of leadership that can offer a clean break with the past. That was also how the Carter administration looked 30 years ago.
What can a superpower do if someone "threatens" it? The Pentagon warned on Monday that five small Iranian speedboats "threatened" a powerful US fleet comprising one frigate, a destroyer and a cruiser in the Strait of Hormuz by coming within 500 meters of them. It warned of "provocative actions that could lead to a dangerous incident in the future". Tehran calmly shrugged it off, "That is something normal that takes place every now and then for each party, and it is settled after identification of the two parties."
Surely, the US can attack Iran in retribution. That is always the prerogative of a superpower in a unipolar world. That will also be fully in accord with the Bush administration's doctrine of pre-emptive war. The influential Israeli lobby in Washington would even ensure a bipartisan consensus, despite the divisiveness and acrimony in US politics in an election year.
Russian missiles for Iran
But there is a rider. A war against Iran may not be an option for long. Moscow has begun hinting that Russia's S-300 missiles are being dispatched to Iran. There is much constructive ambiguity over the subject in both Moscow and Tehran, which leaves Washington nervous and guessing. The medium-range S-300 surface-to-air missiles, together with the short-range Tor-M1 systems supplied by Moscow to Tehran earlier, would help counter any attempt by the Bush administration to bully Iran. To quote the Russian daily Izvestiya, "Iran will be Moscow's trump card in its drive against the third stage of US missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic."
President Vladimir Putin's "asymmetrical response" could drill a hole right through Bush's Middle Eastern policy bucket. The Tor-M1 is equally effective against aircraft, cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles, but it is a close-battle weapon, the last defense line that engages or eliminates targets that may get through the S-300s. That is to say, Tor-M1 plus S-300 would for the first time provide Iran a credible modern multi-echelon air defense system covering any key strategic facility.
What does it add up to? The Bush administration is beginning to grasp that it has no option but to negotiate with Iran. But a new danger is that negotiations with Iran, too, may soon become a non-option. Persians generally don't talk with people who are inconsequential. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said last week that at the moment, relations with the US are of "no benefit to the Iranian nation. The day such relations are of benefit, I will be the first one to approve of that." He seems to be anticipating the post-Bush era.
US policy disintegrating
These geopolitical realities cannot be overlooked. Bush was due to set out from Washington on Wednesday on his Middle East tour - Israel, Palestine, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Egypt - virtually with empty hands. The gamble looks desperate, even for a congenital gambler. Distrust of US regional policy in the Persian Gulf region has extended even to Kuwait, which hosts about 15,000 US troops and which served as the launch pad for the Iraq invasion in 2003. Bush has two objectives in his Middle East mission - weigh in on the faltering post-Annapolis Palestinian-Israeli peace process of last November and seek support for US concerns about Iran.
But Annapolis' pledge to end "bloodshed, suffering and decades of conflict" is caught up in the swirl of escalating violence and dwindling optimism in the Palestinian territories. The perception in the region is that Bush's blatantly pro-Israeli vision altogether clouds his judgement. His sincerity of purpose is held in doubt. Writing in the moderate Beirut newspaper Daily Star, one of the Middle East's respected opinion makers, Rami Khouri, says, "With all due respect, President Bush might do the region and the entire world a favor by staying home - if he plans to visit the Middle East for speeding up the same American policy of blindly supporting Israel, sending arms and money to Arab authoritarian regimes, opposing mainstream Islamist groups that enjoy widespread Arab popular legitimacy, ignoring realistic democratic transitions, and actively pressuring governments and movements that defy the United States."
When a liberal voice like Khouri quivers with indignation and passion, the mood in the region becomes very obvious. In a nutshell, Arabs view Bush's world as a political rodeo, which is good only for entertainment. Not only has the Bush administration's attempt to weaken Hamas in Palestine failed, but also Egypt refuses to heed US bidding and cooperate with Israel in muzzling Hamas.
And Hamas remains defiant. with its chief Khalid Meshaal saying on Monday in a speech in Damascus, "No Arab country has asked Hamas to give up on the current situation in Gaza ... Hamas will resist until the last Israeli soldier leaves Palestinian soil. This is a strategic choice. Resistance will continue - no one can stop it."
Meshaal revealed that Hamas turned down a European proposal for a meeting with "Zionists who are our enemies". Hamas isn't alone in thinking of Bush's visit to the region as nothing more than an attempt to enhance his image before he quits the White House. Fatah and the Islamic Jihad remain equally skeptical. Opinion polls show that almost two thirds of Palestinians (and three fourths of Israelis) doubt Bush's capacity to influence events in the Palestinian territories.
Bush targets Iran
But where people misjudge is that the real purpose of Bush's visit to the region lies elsewhere. His principal aim is to keep the heat on Iran. Bush admitted that in his talks in the region, he would focus on containing the "hostile aspirations" of Iran. He told the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahnronot, "Part of the reason I'm going to the Middle East is to make it abundantly clear to nations in that part of the world that we view Iran as a threat, and that the National Intelligence Estimate [NIE] in no way lessens that threat, but in fact clarifies that threat."
At the first halt of his tour on Thursday - Israel - Bush will certainly have a receptive audience. Israel hopes to hear Bush's assurance that the NIE released late last year changes nothing in the direction of US policy toward Iran, even though it concluded that Iran is no longer pursuing a nuclear-weapons program.
But Israel also knows that's an assurance Bush is no longer competent to give, as the Iran problem has become a medium-term issue. Indeed, there are voices within the Israeli security and foreign-policy community who think it would not be a bad thing if Washington opened a direct channel to Tehran. Then again, there is the perennial sense of uneasiness that once the US and Iran get going, they will leave Israel out in the cold.
Having said that, the Bush administration is ratcheting up rhetoric against Iran. No doubt, the Strait of Hormuz incident comes in very handy. Whether Washington orchestrated the incident, we will never know. But the incident most certainly makes out a neat case for the massive arms deals worth US$20 billion that Washington is offering pro-Arab regimes in the Persian Gulf.
It corroborates US Defense Secretary Robert Gates' recent call for the establishment of an "air and missile defense umbrella" over Persian Gulf states to deter missile attacks by Iran. (It is immaterial whether the real US target is Iran, or Russia.)The Pentagon announced last month proposed sales of Patriot missile defense and early warning systems to the UAE and Kuwait worth more than $10 billion. The Pentagon also notified the US Congress of a sale to Saudi Arabia of upgraded airborne warning and control systems worth $400 million.
The Persian Gulf is skeptical
Arms purchases are always an interesting affair for Arab rulers, especially in such roaring times when oil sells for US$100 a barrel. However, it is an entirely different thing that they do not believe in Bush's rhetoric about Iran's "aggressive ambitions". Al-Hayat, the Saudi-owned newspaper published from London, commented on Bush's rhetoric: "This language is rendering the US's regional allies confused about the real policies of Washington ... Washington is speaking in dual tone, with US military officials commending the Iranian role in minimizing the threat to the forces in Iraq, and the CIA at the same time highlighting the danger posed by Iran's alleged nuclear program."
Arab League secretary general Abu Moussa posed a tricky question to the Washington Post: "As long as they [Iran] have no nuclear program ... why should we isolate Iran? Why punish Iran now?" Clearly, Washington's plan for creating an anti-Iran alliance of "pro-West" Arab states in the Persian Gulf region - raison d'etre of the Annapolis conference - has conclusively disintegrated.
Not only that, Arab regimes are working out their own accommodation with Tehran. Iran, on its part, has sustained the active momentum of its diplomacy with its Persian Gulf neighbors. Thus, Tehran has done a smart thing by scheduling for the weekend the visit of the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, precisely when Bush touches down in the Persian Gulf. From all accounts, the Iranians plan a red-carpet welcome for ElBaradei, including a meeting with Khamenei.
Again, Iran is swiftly building on the positive climate generated by the invitation to Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to attend the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Doha on December 2 and by the friendly gesture by Saudi King Abdullah to invite him to attend the hajj in Mecca. Tehran has reached out to Cairo in a major initiative to repair the ties with Egypt, which were disrupted during the Iranian revolution in 1979. In a path-breaking visit to Cairo last week, Khamenei's representative to the National Security Council, Ali Larijani, offered a resumption of diplomatic relations, as well as cooperation in the nuclear field.
From Cairo, Larijani proceeded to Damascus, where he met Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal, the secretary general of the Islamic Jihad, Ramadhan Abdullah Shalah, and top officials of the Lebanese Amal and Hezbollah movements. Later, talking to newsmen in Damascus, Larijani likened Bush's recent threats against Iran to the "cries of worried aged women who create a commotion to cover up their fears".
The soft-spoken Iranian intellectual seldom uses such colorful language. He was obviously making a harsh point. The purpose of Larijani's visit to Damascus was clear. Tehran wants to express solidarity with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's rejection of the American (and French) overtures aimed at persuading Damascus to cease its ties with Hezbollah and Hamas and to distance itself from Tehran. Iran is simply delighted that the Syrian leadership "rejected this barter, preferring the 'hell' of its relationship with Iran and the preservation of its interests in Lebanon to the 'paradise' of an opening to America", to quote al-Hayat.
Khamenei praises Ahmadinejad
Meanwhile, Tehran remains firm on the Palestinian issue and Lebanon, confident in the knowledge that its alliance with Damascus is intact, and, more important, that its stance is in tune with the overwhelming public opinion in the region. Indeed, Helena Cobban, the shrewd contributing editor of the Boston Review, posed a couple of questions in her blog: "Did the leaders of all these countries transmit warm and hearty invitations to the US president that he couldn't turn down? Or, did Washington propose these visits, and the Arab rulers involved found they had no way to squirm out of their duties as US satraps in the region?"
Also, in the immediate run-up to Bush's arrival in the region, Khamenei made it abundantly clear in a series of speeches that he solidly endorses the policies of Ahmadinejad. Khamenei was signaling to Washington. Last Thursday, in one of his most significant foreign-policy speeches in the recent period, Khamenei went to the extent of chastising anyone who propagated that US hostility toward Iran was a reaction to Ahmadinejad's firebrand statements. "Its [US] enmity is with the principles of the Iranian nation and it has been there since the beginning of the Iranian revolution," Khamenei insisted.
He admonished any "moderates" within Iran who would want a halt to Iran's uranium enrichment activities so as to placate the West. Khamenei warned, "Some people are challenging the system and the government over this and, acting in concert with the enemy, they attempt to create despondency. The nation should be watchful about such [Western] infiltration." (Interestingly, in a debate televised live on December 16, prior to his departure for the hajj pilgrimage, Ahmadinejad warned that at an "appropriate time" he would disclose some "untold stories" about the nuclear issue, which, he said, was one of Iran's "toughest battles", more momentous than the nationalization of the country's oil industry.)
Again, in another speech, Khamenei pointed out that the Ahmadinejad government's "sense of responsibility" and its "self-belief" is the sure guarantee of the country's progress. He praised the government for observing "justice" and "perseverance and self-belief" in advancing the goals of the Iranian revolution. Khamenei said Ahmadinejad has "successfully carried out development projects and helped remove the problems of the people as well as honorably proceeding with the goals and values of the Iranian revolution", and this despite US propaganda aimed at "weakening national resolve and forcing the people to backtrack from their legitimate rights".
Bush's last gamble
Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad remains focused on his domestic priorities. He just announced that Iran's budget for the coming fiscal year will make a whopping 30% increase in allocations for development plans. Addressing the Majlis (Parliament)on Tuesday, he announced legislation for disbursing a part of Iran's oil revenue for the first time directly to the common people - in fulfillment of his major election pledge.
Evidently, Tehran is keeping cool nerves. It factors a real possibility that the Bush administration is capable of resorting to something irrational out of sheer desperation. It is conscious of the growing sense of frustration in the White House. In his recent speeches, Khamenei warned that Iran shouldn't lower its guard since it is still passing through a "crisis period". But then, he added, the situation at present could only be as sensitive as numerous past occasions since the Iranian revolution, which the regime successfully overcame. He referred to Washington's encouragement of Saddam Hussein for launching the eight-year war in the 1980s and the numerous US conspiracies since then against the Iranian regime.
All in all, the Bush administration finds itself entrapped. The Iranian regime has proven to be a tough nut for it to crack. All the talk about dissensions within the Iranian regime spilling over in lava form has turned out to be whistling in the wind.
The leitmotif of Bush's high-profile tour of the Middle East is unmistakably Iran. But Washington's Iran policy lies in tatters and it has no choice but to ratchet up anti-Iran rhetoric, though it realizes there are no takers in the Middle East for such rhetoric of fire and brimstone. The danger now is that Tehran may choose to hunker down and prefer to deal with the next US administration.
Tehran once heeded back-channel pleas from Ronald Reagan's campaign managers not to negotiate the hostage crisis with the Carter administration in its final months in the White House so that Reagan could claim the credit for the denouement. Bush is certainly better placed than Carter insofar as presidential hopefuls such as Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee would never do such a Reaganite thing on him.
Actually, the danger to the Bush legacy comes from faraway places. Continued delay in constructively engaging Iran will only open the gateway wider for the international community to encroach into a region that until four years ago used to be the exclusive strategic preserve of the US. China is already wading deep into the region, and Russia too. The S-300 missiles from Russia are a sign that US dominance of the Middle East is in serious jeopardy.
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/JA10Ak03.html
Last updated 11/01/2008