Tension is escalating between the United States and Iran, amid reports that the Bush administration is once again mulling air strikes against its long-time nemesis. While Iran is taking defensive precautions, the country's leaders have not sought to match the Bush administration's belligerent rhetoric. Meanwhile in Washington, an influential array of officials and experts are opposing presidential efforts to widen Gulf War II.
For a White House that relied on faulty and/or misleading intelligence to guide the United States into the Iraq quagmire, an attempt to conduct strategic bombing raids against Iran at this point would be the height of folly, some leading American experts on Iran suggest.
"About every six months there are ominous reports of an impending war with Iran," said Gary Sick, a Columbia University academic and a member of the National Security Council during the Carter administration. "These reports are not founded on reality. The conditions for a military confrontation with Iran simply do not exist."
Though US-Iranian tension may be artificially enhanced, there is no denying that it exists. Much of the mutual animosity is connected with Iran's on-going nuclear program, with Bush administration officials insisting that Tehran is striving to manufacture a nuclear weapon, and Iranian officials claiming that the research is motivated by purely civilian energy considerations. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Of late, the Bush administration has also mounted a case that Iranian meddling in Iraq constitutes a security threat. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. During recent congressional hearings, the administration's point man in the military, Gen. David Petraeus, lambasted Iran as a "malign influence" in Iraq.
Since then, several signs of White House scheming have surfaced. In late April, CBS News reported that administration officials had issued orders for Pentagon planners to develop a blueprint for selective strikes inside Iran that would aim at crippling Iran's ability to fuel insurgents inside Iraq. In addition, a second US aircraft carrier was dispatched to the Persian Gulf, thereby enhancing the Americans' air strike capabilities.
The conventional wisdom among neo-conservative policy wonks in Washington is that Bush, before he leaves office next January, must do something to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear power status. The neo-con rationale behind this thinking is that Bush's successor, either due to ideological weakness or political constraints, would not be able to muster the strategic will needed to contain Iran's ambitions. President George W. Bush who infamously pledged to be a "uniter" not a "divider" during his controversial 2000 election campaign, only to prove the most divisive president in US history caused an uproar among Democrats when he recently hinted that the likely Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama was an ideological descendant of one of history's most notorious appeasers Neville Chamberlain.
In such a manner has the Bush administration attempted to establish a foundation for an attack against Iran.
Iranian leaders have so far acted in a relatively restrained manner to the Bush administration's provocative actions. A canvas of the Iranian conservative media, as well as of the statements made by various Iranian officials in the last few weeks, shows no appreciable change in Tehran's official tone toward the United States.
On May 4, Iran announced that it was indefinitely suspending talks in Baghdad between American and Iranian diplomats that had focused on Iraqi security issues. But experts in Tehran say the Iranian decision was only partly connected to the increase in hostile rhetoric coming out of Washington. A more influential factor in the Iranian pull-out was a change in the dynamic governing relations among Shi'a political factions in Iraq and Iran.
When Iranian leaders agreed to enter into a dialogue on Iraqi security, Tehran was under considerable pressure from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government in Baghdad. Iranian officials were also hopeful that the dialogue on Iraqi security would lead to broader discussions with the United States aimed at reducing tension, and even normalizing relations.
"When the first round of these talks got underway in Baghdad in May 2007, the Iranians had attached a great deal of hope to them," a Tehran-based academic said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "At the request of the US side, the talks could not involve the two country's top diplomats and it had to follow a very narrow agenda Iraqi security. But the Iranians were hopeful that since these were still the highest-level official talks between the two countries in some 25 years, they [the talks] would eventually grow to something bigger."
Iranian officials were interested in engaging their American counterparts in discussions about Iran's nuclear program, United Nations sanctions and the possibilities for a normalization of diplomatic relations. According to the Tehran academic, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei implicitly gave his backing for the reestablishment of ties with the United States, provided certain conditions were met.
During the second of talks last July, it became clear to the Iranians that the Bush administration had no intention of expanding the scope of the talks. Instead, US officials began publicly criticizing Iranian actions in Iraq.
Iranian officials at this point felt that there was little to be gained from continuing the dialogue. Tehran had its own ties to various Shi'a parties and militias in Iraq, as well as with Iraqi Kurds. And it had also opened channels of communication with Sunni elements in Iraq. Iranian officials thus never felt that dealing with the United States was necessary for them to achieve their policy objectives in Iraq.
The only reason Iran went ahead with a third round of talks and initially agreed to a fourth one was the heavy pressure placed by it by the al-Maliki government and from the Shi'a religious leadership centered in the holy city of Najaf.
A development inside Iraq provided the chief impetus for Iran to abandon the security talks. In particular, Iran brokered two separate ceasefires between al-Maliki government and the Sadr militia. This accomplishment, in turn, bolstered Iran's image among Iraqi Shi'as, underscoring the notion that Tehran was capable of playing a constructive role in the ongoing stabilization process.
While President Bush may have an itchy trigger finger, his lame-duck status makes it difficult for him to act against Iran. In addition, the recent US intelligence estimate on Iran, which downplayed the Iranian nuclear threat, serves as an important restraint on a new Bush adventure against evildoers, whether real or perceived.
Gary Sick believes the administration may be angling to cajole the UN Security Council into tightening the sanctions on Iran. "They could frighten reluctant European countries to go ahead with stronger sanctions; the idea being that if they failed to act on the sanction side, the United States may decide to militarily attack Iranian targets," Sick said.
An actual attempt to carry out small-scale surgical strikes against Iranian targets could easily backfire. Even limited air strikes "would immediately bring about an escalation by the Iranians," Sick said.
Perhaps the most important restrain on Bush is the reported opposition of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to military action at this time.
Earlier in May, Gates told a group of retired diplomats at the American Academy of Diplomacy: "My personal view would be we ought to look for ways outside of government to open up the channels and get more of a flow of people back and forth. There are actually a fair number of Iranians that come to the United States to visit. We ought to increase the flow going the other way, not of Iranians but of Americans. And I think that may be one opening that creates some space, perhaps, over some period of time."
Gates also wondered aloud whether the Bush administration prior to 2004 when a reformist president was in power in Tehran, and Gates himself had yet to join the White House team neglected diplomatic openings to engage Iran and work jointly for the stabilization of Iraq. "One of the questions that I think historians will have to take a look at is whether there was a missed opportunity at that time," Gates said.
Gates went on to say that ever since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's neo-conservative faction rose to power in Iran, it has become much tougher for the United States to find negotiating room with Tehran. "We need to figure out a way to develop some leverage with respect to the Iranians and then sit down and talk with them," Gates said. "If there's going to be a discussion, then they need something, too. We can't go to a discussion and be completely the demander with them not feeling that they need anything from us."
On April 14, the British newspaper The Independent revealed that there have been multiple informal sessions for the exchange of opinions between various Iranian and American figures in the last few years. These were spearheaded on the US side by former senior diplomat Thomas Pickering, and Sick was among the experts who participated in these meetings. "They [the informal meetings] should not be a substitute for actual one-to-one talks between the two country's diplomats. But they serve an important purpose: to familiarize each side with the other's positions," he told EurasiaNet.
While it is not clear if these meetings are still taking place, the Independent's revelation indicates that amid the hysterical charges and counter-charges, saner heads have tried to prevail. We can only hope that the voices of reason will not go silent at this critical juncture.
Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.