Talking war

Print edition : February 09, 2007

Sailors on the deck of the USS John G. Stennis as they prepare to leave for the Persian Gulf on January 16.-CAROLYN YASCHUR/AP

The U.S. is trying various means to provoke Iran into retaliating, and the raid on the Iranian liaison office in Irbil, northern Iraq, was one such.

WITH defeat staring it in the face in Iraq, the administration of President George W. Bush, seemingly in a last throw of the dice, wants to snatch an illusive victory. The victory being envisaged is not against the insurgency but against the government in neighbouring Iran.

Bush's speech on January 10 announcing a "surge" in troop levels in Iraq also contained serious threats against Iran. Bush singled out Iran and Syria as countries aiding "terrorists". He warned that the United States "will seek and destroy the networks" that were allegedly training and arming "our enemies in Iraq". A few days after, American soldiers entered the Iranian liaison office in Irbil, in the Kurd-dominated part of northern Iraq, and arrested five Iranian diplomats on charges of helping the insurgency. The Sudanese embassy in Baghdad was also raided. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, himself a Kurd, criticised the arrests, saying that the Iranians were providing valuable services to Iraqis.

The "Irbil incident", according to observers, was staged to provoke the Iranian government. Teheran, while issuing a strong statement, is not willing to walk into a diplomatic or military trap at this juncture. For the last year and a half, the Bush administration has alleged that Iran is supplying the Iraqi resistance with arms and military expertise. These allegations have not been taken seriously as most of the fighting against the occupation forces is being carried out by Sunni resistance fighters. Concurrently, some Sunni groups are also engaged in a sectarian war against Shias. Some Shia politicians who occupy key positions of power in the American-sanctioned government are also known to be close to Teheran. Many of them lived in exile in Iran when the Baath government was in power. Many Sunni militant groups consider Iran an enemy. It would be foolhardy on the part of Teheran to train and supply militant groups opposed to it.

The allegations against Teheran are being articulated with more vehemence now by senior American officials such as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the new Secretary of Defence Robert Gates.

The latest moves by the Bush administration are contrary to the proposals made by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which strongly recommends that the Bush administration engage diplomatically with Iran and Syria. Instead, Bush has virtually declared war against the two countries. Condoleezza Rice, during her recent trip to West Asia, said that there was "plenty of evidence" of Iranian involvement in the making of the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that have caused very high casualties to American troops in Iraq. Gates said that the Iranians were acting "in a very negative way". Vice-President Dick Cheney has been warning of the "growing threat" from the Islamic Republic.

The Iraqi resistance started using IEDs almost immediately after American forces occupied the country. Senior American military officials have themselves admitted on several occasions that the expertise to make the IEDs was indigenously developed. The late Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, as recently revealed tapes have shown, made meticulous plans for a guerilla war once he knew that an American invasion was inevitable. The IEDs have the devastating ability to penetrate the highly touted armoured vehicles used by the U.S. Army.

Even before these latest developments, the Pentagon had moved aircraft carriers to the region. Mine-clearing ships are also being despatched. Patriot missile defence systems have been ordered to be put in place in countries in the Persian Gulf friendly to the U.S. A second aircraft carrier battle group left for the region in the second week of January. Condoleezza Rice has described the build-up as a strategy to counter Iran's "destabilising behaviour". In tandem, there have been calls from senior Israeli officials and politicians for a military strike against Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently described Iran as an "existential threat". His Deputy Defence Minister Ephraim Sneh was even more explicit. He said: "The time is approaching when Israel and the international community will have to decide whether to take military action against Iran." According to an article that figured prominently in The Sunday Times on January 7, the Israeli government is planning to attack Iran's uranium enrichment facilities with tactical nuclear weapons.

In the third week of January, President Bush, while not ruling out the option of using military force, said that there were no moves for an imminent strike against Iran. His domestic critics have warned him against taking any precipitate step against Iran. Democratic Senator Joseph Biden told Bush that he would need a separate authorisation from the U.S. Congress to launch an attack on Iran. Republican Senator Chuck Hagel told the President to desist from starting a "Cambodia-style" diversion. (When military defeat was looming in Vietnam, the then President, Richard Nixon, tried to stave off the inevitable by expanding the war to neighbouring Cambodia and Laos.) Hagel described President Bush's January 10 speech as the "most dangerous foreign policy blunder since Vietnam".

Many political analysts in the U.S. feelthat before the U.S. beats a humiliating retreat from Iraq, the Bush administration could launch a "preventive" attack on Iran and then claim that the country's non-existent nuclear weapons programme has been destroyed. The Bush administration can claim a "victory" by stressing that the U.S. and Israel will never again come under a "nuclear threat" from Iran. According to the International Court of Justice, even the threat of use of nuclear weapons is a violation of international law. U.S. and Israeli officials have on several occasions talked of using "bunker-busting" weapons against Iran. If an attack, however unrealistic such a scenario looks now, takes place, then Iran has many cards to play. Southern Iraq, overwhelmingly Shia, would explode. There are significant Shia pockets in Saudi Arabia and other neighbouring countries. Despite the military odds stacked against them, the Iranians, according to military experts, could choke the strategic Straits of Hormuz and disrupt the flow of oil and gas from the Persian Gulf.

Another view articulated in the American media is that the latest posture adopted by the Bush administration is nothing but a move to placate some of Iraq's Sunni-ruled neighbours such as Saudi Arabia. The Saudi establishment is known to be unhappy about the growing Iranian influence in the region. Another American ally in the region, Egypt, shares the same concern. These two countries along with Jordan do not seem unhappy about the Bush administration's decision to increase the number of American troops in Iraq and to prolong their stay there. Condoleezza Rice, after her recent visit to the region, emphasised that a "new alignment" is emerging in West Asia. She has repeatedly suggested that the Gulf Arab kingdoms, Egypt and Jordan, are with the U.S. and Israel in their confrontation against "extremist forces" such as Iran, Syria, Hizbollah and Hamas. However, senior Egyptian government officials have been quick to distance themselves from the notion that their country is part of such an alliance. Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia are in fact critical of the Bush administration's refusal to open a dialogue with Iran.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that it was inconceivable that either the U.S. or Israel, its client state, would be foolish enough to open a new military front against his country. The Iranian army chief, Brigadier General Mustafa Mohammed Najjar, said in the third week of January that all the talk by Israel of "a nuclear invasion is a bluff". He said that it would be "suicidal for the Israeli regime" to launch an attack. Gen. Najjar said that the recent speculation about an imminent attack is part of the "psychological warfare being waged on Iran". But some prominent clerics are taking the threat seriously. Mohsen Rezaei, secretary of Iran's Expediency Council, said on state television that the Americans "have made their decision to attack Iran". He predicted that the attack will take place in March or April this year.

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