President Barak Obama’s triumphal proclamation of a US military victory in Iraq upon the December 2011 withdrawal of all US armed forces from that country made it possible for the unelected makers of American national security policy to focus attention on Iran, a nation high up on any list of US enemies since 1979. Indeed, from November 2011 until March 2012, the rhetoric of senior political leaders in both the United States and Israel about Iran’s alleged efforts to develop a nuclear weapon fueled a frightening depiction in the mainstream media of an Iran that posed an existential threat to Israel and to ‘vital’ US interests (i.e. oil) in the Persian Gulf region. Various analysts and pundits stoked these fears by calling for or cautioning against a bomb attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Although the immediate crisis atmosphere has abated since late March, it remains prudent to assess the likelihood of such an attack and its consequences for Iran and the wider Middle East.
Despite their public rhetoric to the contrary, senior political and military leaders in both Washington and Tel Aviv know that Iran has not diverted any of its enriched uranium for manufacturing a nuclear weapon. They know this because Iran voluntarily submits to very intrusive International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of its nuclear facilities, and allows IAEA inspectors to put all the low-grade uranium it enriches under IAEA seals. Presumably, Iran tolerates these measures to demonstrate that it is NOT developing a nuclear bomb. As long as Iran continues this cooperation with IAEA inspectors, it is not crossing the often mentioned but never defined ‘red line’ that likely would trigger the constantly threatened air strikes by Israel or the USA.
The US and Israeli public preoccupation with an imagined nuclear weapons program in Iran is a cover for Washington’s real political objective: regime change in Tehran. This goal has been an implicit policy objective since at least 1993, when the Clinton administration inaugurated its dual containment policy of Iran and Iraq, and has been explicit policy since 2002, when George W. Bush named Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, as members of an ‘axis of evil’ in his State of the Union address. Although some key Bush administration officials may have seen the invasion of Iraq as prelude to an assault on Iran, the post-invasion insurgency in Iraq effectively derailed any military plans for Iran.
When the Obama administration acceded to power in January 2009, it initially used more diplomatic language about Iran than its predecessor, but as we now know from State Department documents released by WikiLeaks in 2010, its use of a softer tone was a calculated strategy to lure allies, such as Canada and the European Union, into adopting tougher policies against Iran. The EU’s implementation of wide-ranging economic sanctions, including a ban on imports of Iranian oil, demonstrates the success of Obama’s strategy.
It became obvious in November that US official rhetoric about Iran had become unambiguously hostile. The more strident tone is a direct consequence of the reinvigoration of the US national security ideology, which in turn is a result of perceived victories against Al-Qaida and in Iraq. This development has introduced unpredictable psychological elements and power calculations into US Iran policy. This is a time of grave concern, for whenever a mindset of invincibility is operating at the highest decision-making levels, it becomes easier to choose military options rather than diplomatic solutions.
The capability to launch an air assault against Iran has been readied: there is a flotilla of over a dozen US, UK and French naval vessels in the Persian Gulf and the adjacent waters of the Arabian Sea. This armada includes ships carrying fighter aircraft and guided missiles and is supplemented with drones, one of which crash-landed in Iran in late November. This display of force is intended to intimidate Iran, but miscalculation and misinterpretation could lead to conflict. If a strike against Iran were to take place, its military does not have the capability to retaliate directly against the United States or its European allies, but it does have the ability to inflict substantial damage on local US allies such as Qatar and the UAE—a war consequence that rarely is discussed in the media. Iran can also disrupt the passage of oil tankers out of the Persian Gulf way beyond the few weeks that Western hubris claims it would take its mine sweepers to counter. A prolonged disruption of oil exports from the region would have dramatically negative consequences for the global economy.
The only way to avoid blundering into a conflict with catastrophic regional consequences is to engage Iran in serious negotiations over policies that the United States perceives as regional threats. In early 2003, the Iranians actually offered to enter into unconditional negotiations with Washington on all issues, including Israel and Palestine, but Bush administration officials rejected this offer, confident of their impending victory in Iraq and subsequent ability to effect regime change in Iran. Although it may be implausible to use the rejected 2003 memorandum as a basis for talks with Iran in 2012, it seems that both domestic and international concerns about the unpredictable consequences of a possible attack against Iran by mid-March may have persuaded the Obama administration to start toning down its more aggressive rhetoric and actually try a diplomatic tactic toward Tehran. Significantly, at the scheduled April talks between Iran and the five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) about its uranium enrichment program, US representatives did not present a list of demands for which Washington wanted compliance, and the negotiations concluded, unlike earlier ones, with all parties expressing cautious optimism for a second round of talks in late May. The crisis temporarily may be defused, but as long as Washington continues to pursue covert policies of regime change in Tehran, then Iran and the United States cannot reach any long-term resolution of the political issues that divide them.