Sunday, May 14, 2006

Iran War: The stakes in attacking Iran

"God may smile on us, but I don't think so." - anonymous Pentagon adviser quoted by Seymour Hersh April 2006 on Bush administration plans to pressure Iran militarily

Gareth Porter's most recent book, The Perils of Dominance (2005), examines the problems that can arose in relation to the Vietnam War when US decisionmakers mistook conventional military superiority in the world of that time for the ability to coerce the Vietnamese into accepting the long-term partition of their country and an unpopular pro-American regime.

In the article Iran Nuclear Conflict Is About U.S. Dominance Inter Press Service 05/11/06, he looks at the way the Bush administration in today's US "hyperpower" (as it's sometimes called) is approaching Iran policy.  Porter writes:

It is now known that the Iranian leadership, which was convinced that Bush was planning to move against Iran after toppling Saddam Hussein in Iraq, proposed in April 2003 to negotiate with the United States on the very issues which the administration had claimed were the basis for its hostile posture toward Tehran: its nuclear programme, its support for Hizbollah and other anti-Israeli armed groups and its hostility to Israel's existence.

Tehran offered concrete, substantive concessions on those issues. But on the advice of U.S. Vice Pres. Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, Bush refused to respond to the negotiating proposal. Nuclear weapons were not, therefore, the primary U.S. concern about Iran. In the hierarchy of the administration's interests, the denial of legitimacy to the Islamic Republic trumped a deal that could provide assurances against an Iranian nuclear weapon. (my emphasis)

Porter believes that a chapter by neoconservative Tom Donnelly in the book  Getting Ready for a Nuclear-Ready Iran (2005),  Henry Sokolski and Patrick Clawson, eds., provides a good insight into the real basis of the Bush administration's hostile policy toward Iran.  Donnelly's essay, "Strategy for a Nuclear Iran", appears as Chapter 7 of the book, the fulltext of which is available at the link given.

In the book, Donnelly contends that a realist-type approach that seeks a stable accomodation with Iran is an outmoded idea, incompatable with the neocons' gradiose vision of imposing pro-Western regimes in Iran and Syria and elsewhere through Napoleanic wars of liberation:

Such a "balance-of-power" approach, which attempts to divorce U.S. concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions from any broader regional or global strategic framework, is an intellectual relic of an earlier era. It ignores new geopolitical realities of the post-September 11, 2001 (9/11), era, most profoundly the Bush Doctrine's commitment to a "forward strategy of freedom" that seeks to transform the politics of the greater Middle East while containing China's rising geostrategic power. Iran stands directly athwart this project, as a sponsor of Islamist terrorism and an increasingly important patron [?!] of Beijing.  A nuclear-armed Iran is doubly threatening to U.S. interests not only because of the possibility it might employ its weapons or pass them to terrorist groups, but also because of the constraining effect it will impose on U.S. behavior in the region.  (my emphasis)

I highlighted to portions of that quotation referring to China, because while the Middle East is the more immediate focus of the neocons, China is their preferred main Enemy to justify enormous military budgets and a national-security state domestic regime with a (Republican) President wielding "unitary Executive" powers for the indefinite future.

Porter notes:

Although Donnelly doesn't say so explicitly, it would undercut that strategy primarily by ruling out a U.S. attack on Iran as part of a strategy of "regime change".

However, the neocons aren't unanimous in their priorities.  This passage suggests that Donnelly sees Iranian "regime change" as a lower priority than in other nearby governments:

Rather, the most attractive long-term strategy for Iran is traditional containment, which would emphasize breaking Iran's ties to China while pressing for reform and transformation in the greater Middle East. The real isolation of Iran will come when it is drowned in a larger sea of liberal, accountable governments in the region. (my emphasis)

On the other hand, he could also be referring to Iraq on one side of Iran and Afghanistan on the other as consituting a "sea of liberal, accountable governments".  The neocons are nothing if not imaginative.

However, Donnelly then proceeds to argue the same case of the urgent threat of Iran's nuclear program that the Iran hawks are using to justify a near-term attack.  It features the usual villains of neocon diatribes:  gutless State Department bureaucrats; cowardly European wimps; appeasement-minded American Democrats; foreign-policy intellectuals from the Council on Foreign Relations (he sneers at them as "the strategic smart set").

In a broad sense, Donnelly justifies a militarized policy and a warlike against Iran this way, based on the neocons view of the post-Cold War world:

First among these new [i.e., post-Cold War] facts is that the United States is the global guarantor of international order, history's sole superpower, and wishes to remain so. The second fact is that the "greater Middle East" - the immense swath of the planet stretching from West Africa to Southeast Asia - is now the central strategic focus of American security policy. The notion of a bargain with Iran is the by-product of an earlier era when Europe was the strategic key and the Middle East a secondary theater. Thus, the third about-to-be fact - Iran's development of a nuclear arsenal - demands a genuinely strategic response, one consistent with our broader global and regional goals.  (my emphasis)

I wonder how many Americans are conscious of having signed up to be "the global guarantor of international order"?  I wonder how many of us understand that means essentially perpetual war, as Donnelly more-or-less explicitly says: "And, in a realpolitik sense, there is no quiet life for the world's sole superpower."

Why would anyone other than war profiteers or megalomaniacs think this is an appealing or disirably situation for the United States?

It's fascinating to see how explicitly China as the real long-term enemy looms so large in Donnelly's analysis:

Thus there may be little alternative tothe Bush Doctrine's "forward strategy of freedom"; a purely defensive approach is impossible exactly because the pre-9/11 political order in the regime was the primary source of the nihilism and violence that led to those ttacks. The Bush Doctrine's fundamental set of premises may prove remarkably stable: the rollback of both Islamic terror organizations and the governments that support them; containing China’s military ambitions; and, key to it all, preventing any true "axis of evil" that marks a conjunction of Islamic radicalism with the rising great-power capabilities in Beijing.  This strategy is nothing if not ambitious. We are attempting to resolve a massive civil war within the Islamic world while simultaneously preventing a dissatisfied China - even more dependent for its economic growth on Middle Eastern oil than the United States - from interfering with our efforts. (my emphasis)

I wonder how many Americans think that (still-) Communist China and Sunni Salafist extremism are likely allies in opposing America?  I wonder how many Chinese think so - I mean, when they aren't worrying about how to contain the effect of such extremism among their own Muslim population?

Though Donnelly claims, not terribly convincingly, to favor a "traditional containment" strategy toward Iran, his essay is more of an argument for something like what the Bush administration has been preparing.  As Donnelly describes it:

The military approach that perhaps best balances risks and rewards might be a comprehensive air campaign, lasting perhaps a week, to be followed by fomenting an Afghanistan-style insurgency.  Iran continues to suppress separatist moments among Iranian of its own borders. Even the most successful strike campaign would have only transitory effect; having crossed the military threshold, the United States must be ready to keep regime-threatening pressure on the mullahs. Indeed, the Bush administration would do well to put in place covert contacts with Iranian dissident factions - as well as military supplies capable of sustaining them if needed - before considering any punitive air campaign. And while there are tremendous risks associated with any proxy war, it provides an improvement over air strikes alone. The United States should not enter a war with Iran without at least somereasonable plan for victory, measured by regime changein Tehran.  (my emphasis)

This scenario, which Donnelly clearly sees as feasible despite his insistence that he prefers "traditional containment", is an example of how many neocons are willing to argue that attacking Iran would be a cakewalk, just like that did with Iraq.  Donnelly even claims that Iraq clearly has little influence in Iraq that could be brought to bear against the United States!

Porter believes that the administration is pursuing an active regime change strategy against Iran.  And he thinks they are serious about a willingness to go to war to achieve that:

The Bush administration's insistence on extending its dominance in the Middle East even further can only be achieved, however, by the threat of force, and if that fails, war against Iran.

On the other hand, Porter writes that Iran's goal "is not nuclear weapons but the recognition of Iran's status in the power hierarchy of the Persian Gulf", a status which "can only be achieved through a broad diplomatic agreement with the United States".

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