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The Stand-off on the Iranian Nuclear Issue– A Reappraisal Before the Final Countdown

For the Indian general Vinod Saighal, President Ahmadinejad’s provocations will not succeed in dissuading the United States to destroy Iran. The war is programmed in Washington, to conquer oil fields, to strengthen Bush presidency and to satisfy Israel at the same time. Nothing can stop it, and Teheran is wrong to believe in its friends’ protection, whether they are Muslims, Russians or Chineses. In such circumstances, the wisdom would be the discretion.

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Long after the Americans would have left Iraq, and long after the world would have discovered alternate energy sources, and well after the hydrocarbon reserves of the Middle East would have been depleted, the consequences of the US intervention in Iraq in March 2003 will continue to haunt the region. The Sykes-Picot agreements of an earlier period shaped the post-World War I history and geography of the Middle East. Its effects continue to linger to this day. In like fashion the effects of the US policies in the region in the first decade of the 21st Century are likely to be felt till the end of the century. The turmoil in Iraq will spill over to engulf the Arab world from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. There is a tendency to focus on the immediate consequences of a cataclysmic event, whereas the long-term effects can often assume a configuration scarcely imagined at the birth of the climactic.

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General Vinod Saighal
At Axis for Peace 2005 2005 Conference.

And so it is with Iraq 2006. It has sucked in Iran, Israel and the USA into the quagmire that was created in a manner that each of these countries will find it difficult to bring about major changes in their national and regional policies without affecting the other countries. With the ground offensive by the United States to displace the regime in Iran no longer being a feasible proposition, given the US commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, air strikes seem to have become the other viable alternative. It has been said that an air attack by Israeli or US forces involving the systematic destruction of research, development, support and training centres for nuclear and missile programmes and other military facilities would set back Iran’s nuclear programme by several years. A US attack would also involve comprehensive destruction of Iranian retaliatory capabilities. Most analysts believe that Iran would retaliate in a big way with whatever means that it could muster to cause maximum damage to US interests and major disruption to Middle Eastern oil supplies.

Geo-Strategic Churning

Has the United States declared a new cold war on Russia is the question that is being asked by Russian politicians and analysts after hearing about the scathing anti-Russian speech that the U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney made recently at a conference in Vilnius, Lithuania? Washington’s change of heart towards Russia since the initial bonhomie between Presidents Bush and Vladimir Putin during their first meeting six years ago might have been provoked to an extent by Moscow’s increasingly assertive foreign policy. Moscow has defied Washington on Iran, rejecting its call for sanctions against Teheran, going ahead with the construction of Iran’s first nuclear power station, and refusing to back down on a $700-million deal to sell anti-aircraft missile systems to Iran. With the soaring global demand for oil and gas, Russia is boldly using energy resources as a political weapon to tighten its grip on former Soviet states and win a bigger foothold in European energy markets, firmly rejecting the West’s demand to relinquish government monopoly on energy transit pipelines and open its energy resources to foreign companies.
Keeping Iran in its fold would be a key Russian endeavour. Russia has reportedly finalized a US $700 million deal to sell Tor M1 air defense missiles systems to Iran. Although the Bush administration has not been overly critical of the missile sale, it would have been taken note of by the Pentagon planners and the US CENTCOM. Notwithstanding international pressure over their nuclear programme the Iranians have shown increasing bellicosity – almost entirely verbal - against Israel and the US. Although both China and Russia have kept their options open while the US inexorably prepares for the final showdown with Iran, it is the Russians who are involved in a complex double game. Undoubtedly, the deployment of the Tor M1 air defense missiles system will considerably enhance the defensibility of Iranian nuclear facilities.

The transportation of the Caspian Basin oil resources to the United States, Israel and Western European markets was clearly aimed to reduce dependence on OPEC oil producers in the Middle East. Because the region is sandwiched between two of the world’s major energy providers – OPEC Iran and non-OPEC Russia – and the fact that the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline passes through regions of heightened political instability have led to broader U.S. military presence in the region. This, in turn, has increased the sense of vulnerability in both Iran and Russia. Washington’s policies have met with criticism on the ground that they have encouraged polarization of regional politics. The growing U.S. engagement in the Caspian region and the geo-political importance attributed to the Baku-Ceyhan project has led to a rapprochement between Russia, Iran and Armenia; solidifying at the same time a strategic alliance among Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey and the United States. For the latter the question was less about the commercial viability of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline route. The idea was to make an east-west transport corridor, which in the future could be expanded to include rail lines, communication networks and highways, leading over a period of time to the connection of the economies of some of the former Soviet Republics in the south with the markets of the world. Because the Baku-Ceyhan project from Washington’s perspective was a matter of greater geo-strategic significance rather than an economic one Turkey benefited at the cost of Iran, despite the fact that Iran offered the shortest and cheapest route to global markets for oil from the Caspian republics.

Before the US invasion of Iraq, Iran’s ambitions in the Gulf were kept in check by the surrounding Arab countries. Now Tehran and Washington remain the only real players, because Iraq has ceased to be the traditional counter-balance to Iran. Axiomatically, the Arab countries feel obliged to place greater reliance on the West. They fear that in rejecting the West, Iran could be gaining the admiration of many countries that are against American policies. In addition to the Shia communities of the Middle East, Iran could start enjoying the sympathy of the common people in Arab countries, on account of its defiance of the US and its western allies. The Iranian leadership continues to adhere to Ayatollah Khomeini’s legacy of supremacy of the Shiite priesthood through the exercise of power - velayat-e-mutlaqhe faqih - and to the strongly anti-American and anti-Israel line. Khomeini had spoken – perhaps presciently - about the inevitability of a confrontation between the West and Islam.

The American military presence in the region could affect, if it has not already done so, the safety of future energy supply routes. It has also brought in a new element into the power projection calculus: from Afghanistan into Central Asia and from Caucasus into the northern Middle East. Iran remains the country in the region that in Washington’s perception has the maximum potential for the spread of radical Islam and nuclear armaments [1]. It is for this reason that in spite of the growing pressure from U.S. oil companies earlier on to lift the embargo upon Tehran, which wants to be the main export corridor for Central Asian oil and gas, the U.S. administration showed reluctance to soften its stance towards any Iranian role in the region. The construction of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline for oil exports from Azerbaijan and Central Asia was aimed mainly at excluding Iran and at making Turkey a major actor in the region.

Tehran is worried that a prosperous, independent Azerbaijan would be an unwelcome role model for the large Azeri community in Iran. The conflict over the legal status of the Caspian, and the fact that Iran joined Russia in support of Armenia in its conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh are also reasons for the breakdown in relations. Consequently Iran failed to secure a share of Azerbaijan’s oil. It helped Turkey’s campaign to build the connecting line from Baku to the Turkish Mediterranean terminal at Ceyhan. Moscow and Tehran seem to have forged a strategic alliance to resist the perceived American hegemony in the Caspian. Russia’s huge military sales to Iran are part of the growing military and strategic cooperation between the two countries.
Both Iran and the USA have painted themselves into a corner. The common ground that could have been the basis of negotiation is fast disappearing. The irreconcilables are increasingly coming to the fore. Personalities of the key decision- makers in both nations have a lot to do in exacerbating the differences. President Ahmadinejad - albeit he can be overruled by the supreme leader Ayatollah Khameni, the velayat-i-faqih - has nevertheless displayed a tendency to raise the rhetoric to near fever pitch. Whether he was misreported, or whether his statements were distorted in translation, the fact remains that he had called for the annihilation of Israel [2]. Although his letter to President George W. Bush is an interesting call for introspection, and could be construed by some as a serious attempt at narrowing the differences, it does not offer the type of concrete proposals that the US government could bite on [3]. Taken together his statements suggest that he is deliberately going from one provocation to the next, often making exaggerated claims of Iranian capabilities.

Then again, he could be trying to strengthen his own position as the unchallenged future leader of Iran or attempting to project an Iranian fait accompli in the nuclear domain. A third possibility could be that the Iranian president is actually spoiling for a fight by goading the Americans and the Israelis into attacking Iran. Mr. Ahmadinejad would certainly not be unaware that in an outright military exchange Iran would be easily worsted and it’s nuclear and war-fighting capabilities put back by several years, if not decades. President Ahmadinejad might be willing to accept a major reverse for Iran with the hope that in the process he would not only be able to unify all Iranians behind him, but that he would also emerge as the undisputed leader of the Muslim world in its fight against America. He would thereby have supplanted the tall Arab leaders before him – all Sunnis - who were seeking to don the mantle of leadership of the entire Arab world, notably leaders like Gemal Abdel Nasser and Saddam Hussein.
To a considerable extent, Baghdad is already under Iranian influence although the Iranians would be hesitant to prematurely disclose their hand by openly calling the shots. With the possibility of the Iraqi capital Baghdad soon falling into their lap, the Iranians, and specially Mr. Ahmadinejad could be dreaming of establishing a moral ascendancy over all Muslims by re-establishing the grand Caliphate of Baghdad, in the manner of Haroun al Rashid of the days of yore. Thereafter, it would only be a matter of time before Mecca too fell into their lap. A grand strategy or a grand illusion! Only time will tell.

On the other side of the Iran – US divide, at the helm of affairs stands George W. Bush. The Iranians have clearly miscalculated by underestimating the US President and the forces that brought him to the White House in January 2001 and for the second time in January 2005. In pushing the crisis to the point of eruption in 2006 they would have clearly been influenced by the perceived US setbacks in Iraq and the increasing difficulties in the face of the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. Undoubtedly, the US tiger may have been mauled to an extent in Iraq in so far as they have not been able to consolidate their gains in the country. However, as mentioned at another forum in November 2005 [4] , the American failures have been exaggerated by opponents of the US President. As a matter of fact, taking the longer-term view of their geo-strategic enterprise in the Middle East, the Americans may have succeeded admirably in some respects. At the very least, the principal backers of the second invasion of Iraq in March 2003 have benefited handsomely from the venture and may continue to do so for a long time to come.

In earlier writings [5] it had been mentioned that the US invasion of Iraq had been decided soon after George W. Bush’s occupation of the White House. At about the same time Iran was included in the countries forming the ‘axis of evil’. Iran had to be taken out then. Iran will in all probability be taken out. The US was looking for a plausible casus belli. The Iranians have given one, almost on a platter, to George W. Bush. Mr. Ahmadinejad and his backers would be making a grave mistake in presuming that the low rating of the US President will force him to change course. The US President and his team, notably the Vice President, Dick Cheney and the Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld have been accused of messing up the intervention in Iraq. They are said to have won the war, only to lose the peace. Their opponents have read the US presidential hierarchy wrong. George W. Bush is not a quitter. He has already spoken about World War III and the long drawn out war on global terrorism. Before his second term comes to a close George W.

Bush will knock out Iran. Unless there is a political earthquake in the US at the end of the year the US attack on Iran is a near certainty. This time round George W. Bush and his team aim to get it right. They would have learnt from the mistakes made in Iraq. This time round they aim to come out clear winners. The Iranian nation will be pulverized in the process, so that there is no doubt left in anyone’s mind about the outcome. Against all the advice coming in from various directions, should the US President still decide to hit Iran his own party the Republicans as well as the Democrats will once again rally around him as they did after 9/11. So will the American nation. At that point in time the US President’s ratings could again go past the 50 percent approval mark. George W. Bush is aiming to quit the White House a winner.
He can only salvage his diminished glory by a successful outcome in Iran. The Iranians must not give him that opportunity. For the sake of the survival of the nation the Iranian leaders must back down in the face of the US determination to not let them get away with overt or covert nuclearisation. Backing down is not too steep a price to pay at this point in Iranian history, more so after the mortal blow that has been dealt to the Babylonian civilization of which they too were a part in historical times. The Iranian civilization is a precious heritage of mankind. It is up to the Iranian leadership to save it from the brute force that can be unleashed against them by the US hegemons. Iran’s well wishers must advise the Iranian leadership accordingly. China and Russia would be doing their friend of the day Iran a great disservice if they were to artificially boost Iran’s self-confidence and if they do not join the US led clamor for Iran to terminate its nuclear capability. Iran does not have the type of friends who can stand up to the Americans and the West in a military showdown. Encouraging Iranian intractability at this point in time would be extremely unwise.

Israel no longer has the overwhelming military superiority over its neighbours as it did at the height of the cold war and possibly up to the turn of the century. It no longer has the capacity to act individually against a country the size of Iran. Leaving aside the nuclear equation Iran would be able to give back as good as it gets, in one form or another. In fact, while Ahmadinejad has been raising the decibel level against Israel, the latter has been uncharacteristically restrained in its rhetoric. Iran now has a much greater influence on both flanks of Israel, through Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. This influence is bound to grow and could lead to a larger inflow of sophisticated weaponry for the enemies of Israel. With increasing oil revenues Iran would wish to bolster Syria’s military capability as well.
Meanwhile, the Israeli planning for the neutralisation of the Iranian capability would be proceeding apace, silently but surely. Although the Americans have a much better intelligence capability against Iran than they had before, Israeli help in this regard would be critical. Israel has had enough time to strengthen the Kurdish militias in northern Iraq as also their intelligence capabilities in Iran, especially in the northwest. At the end of the day Israel knows that if Iran has to be dealt with, the sooner the action takes place the better for Israel. Time, in this regard, were action to be postponed, would be on the side of the Iranians and not Israel. Therefore, should military action against Iran take place during George W. Bush’s watch, Israel would have had a big hand in that decision.

Concluding remarks

In spite of the welter of opinions expressed about the options available to both sides the Iranians may be making a mistake by pushing the US to take the extreme step. Should the Americans decide to hit Iran, they would go for a knockout blow. It would not be a question of pushing the Iranian nuclear programme back by several years. The Americans, should they decide to go all out, have the technological means to finish Iran as a civilized nation for decades to come. Sabre-rattling by the Iranian President – actually designed to deter the US from attacking by highlighting Iran’s retaliatory potential – will only ensure that the Americans do go all out. There will be no holds barred. Neither the arms deals with the Russians nor any clandestine help extended by the Chinese would be able to save the Iranians. The Arabs or the Sunni Muslim nations are not going to lose any sleep should Iran go under, really go under. The Iranians would be well advised to back down. Ten or twenty years down the line it would not make very much of a difference to successor Iranian regimes whether they got the nuclear weapons capability or not. The world itself would have changed beyond recognition, wracked by environmental cataclysms whose effects though staring humanity in the face are not yet being addressed with the urgency that they deserve. It is still dog eats dog, each nation for itself, till the time that the planetary decline becomes irreversible.
At this juncture in its troubled history Iran needs a Khatami and not an Ahmedinejad at its head to lead it out of the confrontation with the US and its Western allies. The latter have infinite resources compared to Iran and the support – tacit or collusive - of several countries. Iran is virtually friendless. When the chips are down nobody is going to come to its aid. At this point in time, discretion for the Iranians is definitely the better part of valour.

[1] Until now, Pakistan is an ally not being a part of the NATO.

[2] "Reuters participates in a propaganda campaign against Iran", Voltaire Network, November 14th, 2005.

[3] "Text letter of Islamic Republic of Iran President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to American President George Bush", Voltaire Network, May 8th, 2006

[4] " Nearing the End Game in Iraq: Still Missing the Big Picture", speech given before an international public in New Delhi on November 11th, 2005. First printing for the Journal of the United Service Institution of India, CXXXV Volume October-December, 2005 N. 562.

[5] For more details, see the author’s book, Dealing with Global Terrorism: The Way Forward, ISBN 1-932705 - 00 - 7. New Dawn Press, Inc., 244 South Randall Rd # 90, Elgin, IL 60123, USA, 2004.

General Vinod Saighal

Major-General Vinod Saighal is a former general director of the Indian army’s military training. He was an embassy military attaché in France and Benelux, and commander-in-chief of the peacekeeping forces in the Near East. Today he is the founder of the Movement for Restoration of Good Government (MRGG) and head of Eco Monitors Society (EMS). He is the author of numerous works on strategy and political analysis, and has recently published Dealing with Global Terrorism: The Way Forward. He is member of the anti-imperialist conference Axis for Peace.

 
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