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Are we going to war with Iran?
Dan Plesch evaluates the evidence pointing towards a new conflict in the Middle East
The Sunday Telegraph warned last weekend that the UN had a last chance to avert war with Iran and, at a meeting in London last week, the US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, expressed his regret that any failure by the UN security council to deal with Iran would damage the security council's relevance, implying that the US would solve the problem on its own.
Only days before, the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, had dismissed military action as "inconceivable" while both the American president and his secretary of state had insisted war talk was not on the agenda. The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have found that Iran has not, so far, broken its commitments under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, although it has concealed activities before.
It appears that the UK and US have decided to raise
the stakes in the confrontation with Iran. The two countries persuaded the
IAEA board - including India - to overrule its inspectors, declare Iran
in breach of the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) and say that Iran's activities
could be examined by the UN security council. Critics of this political
process point to the fact that India itself has developed nuclear weapons
and refused to join the NPT, but has still voted that Iran is acting illegitimately.
On the Iranian side there is also much belligerent talk and pop music now
proudly speaks of the nuclear contribution to Iranian security.
The timing of the recent allegations about Iranian intervention in Iraq also appears to be significant. Ever since the US refused to control Iraq's borders in April 2003, Iranian backed militia have dominated the south and, with under 10,000 soldiers amongst a population of millions, the British army had little option but to go along. No fuss was made until now. As for the bombings of British soldiers, some sources familiar with the US army engineers report that these supposedly sophisticated devices have been manufactured inside Iraq for many months and do not need to be imported.
But is the war talk for real or is it just sabre rattling? The conventional wisdom is that for both military and political reasons it would be impossible for Israel and the UK/US to attack and that, in any event, after the politically damaging Iraq war, neither Tony Blair nor George Bush would be able to gather political support for another attack.
But in Washington, Tel Aviv and Downing Street, if not the Foreign Office, Iran is regarded as a critical threat. The regime in Tehran continues to demand the destruction of the state of Israel and to support anti-Israeli forces. In what appeared to be coordinated releases of intelligence assessments, Israeli and US intelligence briefed earlier this year that, while Iran was years from a nuclear weapons capability, the technological point of no return was now imminent.
Shortly after the US elections, the vice-president, Dick Cheney, warned that Israel might attack Iran. Israel has the capability to attack Iranian targets with aircraft and long-range cruise missiles launched from submarines, while Iranian air defences are still mostly based on 25-year-old equipment purchased in the time of the Shah. A US attack might be portrayed as a more reasonable option than a renewed Israeli-Islamic confrontation.
The US army and marines are heavily committed in Iraq, but soldiers could be found if the Bush administration were intent on invasion. Donald Rumsfeld has been reorganising the army to increase front-line forces by a third. More importantly, naval and air force firepower has barely been used in Iraq. Just 120 B52 and stealth bombers could target 5,000 points in Iran with satellite-guided bombs in just one mission. It is for this reason that John Pike of globalsecurity.org thinks that a US attack could come with no warning at all. US action is often portrayed as impossible, not only because of the alleged lack of firepower, but because Iranian facilities are too hard to target. In a strategic logic not lost on Washington, the conclusion then is that if you cannot guarantee to destroy all the alleged weapons, then it must be necessary to remove the regime that wants them, and regime change has been the official policy in Washington for many years.
For political-military planners, precision strikes on a few facilities have drawbacks beyond leaving the regime intact. They allow the regime too many retaliatory options. Certainly, Iran's neighbours in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf who are worried about the growth of Iranian Shia influence in Iraq would want any attack to be decisive. From this logic grows the idea of destroying the political-military infrastructure of the clerical regime and perhaps encouraging separatist Kurdish and Azeri risings in the north-west. Some Washington planners have hopes of the Sunnis of oil-rich Khuzestan breaking away too.
A new war may not be as politically disastrous in Washington as many believe. Scott Ritter, the whistleblowing former UN weapons inspector, points out that few in the Democratic party will stand in the way of the destruction of those who conducted the infamous Tehran embassy siege that ended Jimmy Carter's presidency. Mr Ritter is one of the US analysts, along with Seymour Hersh, who have led the allegations that Washington is going to war with Iran.
For an embattled President Bush, combating the mullahs of Tehran may be a useful means of diverting attention from Iraq and reestablishing control of the Republican party prior to next year's congressional elections. From this perspective, even an escalating conflict would rally the nation behind a war president. As for the succession to President Bush, Bob Woodward has named Mr Cheney as a likely candidate, a step that would be easier in a wartime atmosphere. Mr Cheney would doubtless point out that US military spending, while huge compared to other nations, is at a far lower percentage of gross domestic product than during the Reagan years. With regard to Mr Blair's position, it would be helpful to know whether he has committed Britain to preventing an Iranian bomb "come what may" as he did with Iraq.