There are storm clouds gathering over the horizon in the Persian Gulf and the drums of war beat louder each passing day.
A wounded American presidency, torn between the need to salvage lost pride and the desire to control the world, glowers at a defiant Iran in the hope that the Iranians will blink. The rest of us must wait with bated breath for the debris from another costly and destructive war to fall upon us. And no one has the magic formula to stop this inexorable march of folly towards the next episode of ‘Shock and Awe’. Yet, there are other analysts in the West who do not see this as a war against terror at all, or a war against WMDs, or for democracy and liberty. They see it as a battle for control of oil and, therefore, see it as a victory for Big Oil.
Meanwhile, the Persian Gulf is overcrowded with the US armada of two carrier fleets bristling with state-of-the-art killing machines, making this the largest concentration of US naval forces in history. Patriot missiles have been deployed to defend friendly and ‘moderate’ Sunni regimes like the UAE and Saudi Arabia against Iranian attacks.
After spending half a trillion dollars, resulting in the deaths of countless Iraqis and more than 3,000 American soldiers, the US ended up making Iran the primary power in the Gulf. It must now find ways to overturn this unintended consequence of a wrong war. Therefore, a casus belli is required. Iran is now being accused of meddling in Iraq, supporting Shia insurgents with arms and funds. The Iranian leadership is demonised and being provoked to react.
Preparations for an eventual assault on Iran required other arrangements. It is commonly believed that Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld left because he was too hard on Iraq. Actually, he had to go because he wanted a rethink of policy. Chief of Intelligence John Negroponte would not, or could not, produce intelligence to confirm Iran was enriching weapons-grade uranium. That was blasphemy and he had to go. Centcom Generals who objected to escalation in Iraq were sidelined and Admiral William Fallon from the Pacific Command has been brought in to take on what is going to be primarily a naval and aerial battle against Iran, for the protection of sea lanes.
The fact that Iraq had become a quagmire could not be admitted, and the Iraq Study Group established last year was to find a way out to make a defeat seem a victory. But when the report suggested a phased withdrawal, it was discarded. Instead, there had to be a ‘surge’ of American forces in Iraq. It is strange that 20,000 additional troops will help in controlling a majority Shia insurgency when 150,000 troops could not control a minority Sunni insurgency. It is more likely that these troops are only meant to protect American interests in Baghdad’s Green Zone against a possible Iranian retaliation.
Understandably, there has been considerable obfuscation about the US’s intentions, varying from ‘all options are on the table’ to ‘we will not attack Iran’. This does not mean that the US will not attack in defence of its interests in the region, the definition of which can be fairly flexible. Many have felt that this is meant to be a diversion from the Iraq catastrophe. But some argue otherwise.
In his article, ‘From Afghanistan to Iraq: Connecting the Dots with Oil’ (www.alternet.org, Feb. 5), Richard Behan, American author and analyst, argued that wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not prompted by terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, not even waged to spread democracy in West Asia or enhance security at home. Instead, they were conceived and planned in secret long before September 11, 2001, and were undertaken to control petroleum reserves. Behan quotes US State Department official Christina Rocca as having told the Taliban in August 2001, during the infructuous pipeline negotiations, to “accept our offer of a carpet of gold or we bury you under a carpet of bombs”.
Larisa Alexandrovna and Muriel Kane similarly asserted that planning for Iran began six years ago. Others, like Chris Floyd (truthout.org), have argued that while the world may look at the mayhem and the tragedies in Iraq, in reality this has been a victory for the major oil companies. A new Iraqi law gives major MNCs ‘unprecedented sweetheart deals’ that allow them to have production sharing agreements. These deals will permit some semblance of Iraqi ownership of assets but the oil companies will rake in at least 75 per cent of the profits indefinitely or until such time as they feel that they have made good their infrastructure costs and investment.
The new version of the Great Game includes trying to ratchet the fear of a rising Shia Iran among
Sunni Arabs to create a Shia-Sunni schism. The danger is that this will succeed in generating anger in West Asia, which will give birth to more al-Qaedas. Vali Nasr, a professor at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, says that violent anti-Shia sentiment was the domain of pro al-Qaeda clerics, websites and armed groups in the Arab world and Pakistan. Sectarianism — especially among Sunnis — was a driver for radical jehadi ideology.
The problem with shrill rhetoric is that it develops a logic and momentum of its own. Unforeseen consequences could follow because once the war starts, there is no effective way of controlling events.
One of the worst fears is that Iranians would successfully block the Straits of Hormuz, the lifeline for the rest of the world’s oil and gas. Unlike the Iraqis, the Iranians are far better equipped with recently-acquired Russian Tor M1 anti-aircraft defences, Ukrainian Sunburn anti-ship missiles and Chinese mines, some of which may already have been activated. Any disruption of oil supplies would send petroleum prices sky-high and slow down economies like those of Japan, China and India. This, in turn, would send ripples across the globe.
Such a US misadventure could leave Europe more dependent on Russia for its gas supplies, Russia and China stronger in West Asia, with the US and its allies and friends the most hated in the region. Former American National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski has warned that if the US remains bogged down in Iraq, it will inevitably lead to a conflict with Iran and the rest of the Islamic world. Unless the Americans and the Iranians engage in dialogue, there is a very real danger that we are marching towards an unimaginable disaster fought with tactical nuclear weapons. There is already speculation about the likely date of attack, but when US Air Force tankers move to remote air bases to refuel B-2 bombers, then it will be time for the world to take cover.
Should that happen, the shockwaves will reach our shores sooner than we imagine. The visit of the External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee to Iran, after some tightrope walking and closely following the visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to India, was important. It serves to tell people like Senator Lantos and others that they can irritate but not intimidate. It also means that India is prepared to strengthen peace and make up for lost ground with Iran and gamble on attaining peace with Pakistan in the interests of energy security. This contrasts with the US, which is preparing for an Armageddon to ensure energy security and profits for itself.
Vikram Sood is former Secretary, Research & Analysis Wing.