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A war of nerves

Perspectives: Iran wants to engage with the world. But the US is in no mood to relent, writes Vikram Sood.
None | By Vikram Sood
UPDATED ON OCT 15, 2007 09:56 PM IST

Richard Perle, known in Washington power circles as the ‘Prince of Darkness’ and associated with the neo-con American Enterprise Institute and the Project for New Century, had authored a book with his associate, David Frum, soon after President George Bush launched his ill-fated Iraq war. The book, An End to Evil, is the Perle-Frum prescription about how to win the war on terror. They recommended that the US must take bold and decisive action against Iran. They said this in 2003 when the duo was still considered (and probably still are) among the most influential insiders in the Bush White House.

It is true that Iran came clean about its nuclear programme only when its clandestine nuclear liaison with Pakistan and the Libyans had let the cat out of the bag. Although Pakistani delinquency has been swept aside, there has been endless high-pitched rhetoric and speculation about when, or if, the US will attack Iran to end its so-called quest for the N-bomb, and to overthrow the current regime. Washington glowers at Tehran, demonising the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad more or less like Saddam Hussein. The US has rejected the IAEA finding that clearly concludes in Article IV(4) that: “The Agency has been able to verify the non-diversion of the declared nuclear materials at the enrichment facilities in Iran and has, therefore, concluded that it remains in peaceful use.”

There are renewed allegations of Iran interfering in Iraq by supplying the Shia militia with money, weapons-training and explosives and weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan. All this has not galvanised the Iranians into submission. There are other provocations to goad Iran that range from rejection of the IAEA findings, tougher sanctions, which now have the French on board, and if this were not enough, insulting Ahmadinejad after inviting him to address the University of Columbia. There have been leaks about the possibility of a pre-emptive strike that could

include thermonuclear weapons, which according to some is harmless to the surrounding human population. Warplanes are said to be in position since 2004 and extensive wargames were conducted in the Persian Gulf and the Eastern Mediterranean in mid-2006. The Pentagon is supposed to have 2,000 bombing targets. The idea is to force Iran to retaliate and then use overwhelming force when it does.

Undoubtedly, Iran must be feeling surrounded these days much more than before. To the north is Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) member, concerned about the Iranian nuclear programme. Close to Iran are two former Soviet republics, Armenia and Azerbaijan but now friends of the West. Along with Turkmenistan, they are members of the Nato’s Partners for Peace Programme. Afghanistan in the east is home to Nato and US troops, where the Sunni, radical Taliban are becoming increasingly effective and the President, progressively ineffective. The other eastern neighbour, Pakistan, also hosts US bases, and,

US-backed insurgents have used Balochistan as a base for forays into Iran. Across the Persian Gulf are six Arab kingdoms: Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait — all worried about Iran’s growing clout in the region. To the west is Iraq, with its 150,000 US troops and with reports that troops will be moved towards the Iranian border. Finally, the US armada in the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean is poised to pulverise. Encircled thus, it is natural for Iran to try to break the cordon and reach out to Russia and China in a kind of a quadrilateral that includes the other energy-rich nation, Venezuela.

The latest in this round of high drama has been another book by Norman Podhoretz, the widely acknowledged doyen of the Neo-Con Corps in Washington. His book — World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism — is the latest neo-con warbook about the battle against global Islamist terror. Podhoretz, who considers that the Cold War was World War III and that World War IV has begun, met President George Bush recently. Word is that he urged the President to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. Podhoretz is no quaint old man; he is a foreign policy advisor to Rudy Giuliani, who, some say could be the Republican front-runner for the presidential election. Podhoretz may have his reasons to predict that Iran would crumble under US ‘Shock and Awe’ (Iran edition). But it is difficult to accept this prediction after the exposures of the limitations of US military power in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Events in Iraq and Afghanistan have meant that the decline of US prestige and power is the most discerning aspect of the first decade of the 21st century. There has also been a decline in the US’s ‘soft’ power with Al Jazeera challenging the supremacy of BBC and CNN in the region. Apart from Iraq, this loss is most noticeable in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the three countries that Henry Kissinger had described as the pivot to the world’s (meaning US) security. No wonder President Karzai of Afghanistan, on a visit to Washington, and, in the presence of Bush, was emboldened to describe Iran as

a helper and a solution. At about the same time Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was on an official visit to Tehran buying insurance in case the US found him dispensible. A week after Bush and Karzai had met, the Iranian President was in Kabul calling on his Afghan counterpart.

Given the importance of the region, the decline in the supply of oil in the future and production peaks and the growing needs for energy of other nations like China, the US has to keep the oil-producing West Asia and Eurasia under its control. There has always been bipartisan support for this policy in Washington; in fact, many of the projects and policies that the Republicans are now pursuing in West Asia were initiated by Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Therefore, it is not easy to dismiss these leaks as simply designed to scare. They have their own momentum should Iran, in US perceptions, continue to be intransigent.

The alternative to bombing is negotiations but this, too, may be difficult now. Four years ago, in May 2003 the Iranian authorities proposed a package deal to freeze their nuclear programme in exchange for an end to US hostility. The Iranians offered full transparency about their nuclear programme and full cooperation with the IAEA, on Iraq, terrorism and even material support to Hamas. In return, the Iranians wanted their country to be removed from the ‘axis of evil’ list, end of all sanctions, US support for reparations from Iraq for the Iran-Iraq war, access to peaceful nuclear technology and that the US pursue anti-Iran terrorists like the Mujahedeen-e- Khalq. Instead, the US rejected this offer and now threatens ‘just’ Wars when things are going horribly awry for them and the Iranian position in the region is much stronger.

This kind of rhetoric in the US has prompted commentators like Philip Giraldi to portray a scenario should the Iranians not roll over and play dead. This would force the US to strike the country. The escalation of conflict that Giraldi depicts in his

essay What World War III May Look Like quickly engulfs the entire region, reaches the US and ends with a nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India. “World War III has begun” is the last sentence of Giraldi’s script. He might as well have predicted Armageddon.

Vikram Sood is former Secretary, Research & Analysis Wing.

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