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America’s Iran Strategy (Sick)

America’s Iran Strategy (Sick)

From Gary Sick

It is commonly said that the United States has no Middle East
strategy. That may not be true much longer. The United States has
begun to establish the framework of a new coalition strategy in the
Middle East that could rebuild tattered alliances, shift attention
away from the Iraqi catastrophe, and provide a touchstone for
policymaking that could appeal across party lines.

The organizing principle of the new strategy is confrontation with
and containment of Shia influence – and specifically Iranian
influence – wherever it appears in the region. US allies in this
endeavor are Israel and the traditional (and authoritarian)
governments of predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.
One unique feature of this otherwise unremarkable set of
long-standing friendly governments is the possibility that the Arab
states may subordinate their hostility to Israel at least
temporarily out of their even greater fear of Iranian/Shia
dominance of the region.

One of the products of the U.S. armed intervention in the Middle
East since 9/11 has been a shift in the fundamental balance of
power. In the name of fighting terrorism, the United States
empowered Iran. By removing the Taliban, Iran’s greatest threat to
the east, and then removing the government of Saddam Hussein, its
deadly enemy to the west, and finally installing an Iran-friendly
Shia government in Baghdad for the first time in history, the U.S.
virtually assured that Iran – essentially without raising a finger
-- would emerge as a power center rivaled only by Israel. It is one
of the great ironies that U.S. policy would inadvertently make it
possible for these two non-Arab states on the eastern and western
flank of the Arab Middle East to dominate the traditional Arab
heartland. The process was further accelerated by U.S.
democratization policies that put its traditional Arab allies on
the defensive.

Although these were unintended consequences of U.S. policy, the
effects dismayed friends and foes alike. From Iran’s perspective,
it was a strategic gift of unparalleled proportions, tarnished only
by the fact that its two major enemies had been replaced by a
pugnacious U.S. military giant looking for new worlds to conquer.
That tarnish was gradually removed as the United States found
itself increasingly bogged down in the Iraqi quagmire, with a
public fast growing disillusioned with the ugly realities of empire
building in a hostile and unforgiving environment. Erstwhile U.S.
allies in the Persian Gulf, Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere privately
viewed U.S. actions as a failure at best and a betrayal at worst.
They were ripe for a change.

The origins of the new cooperative undertaking are murky, but they
appear to have been galvanized by the Israel-Hezbollah war in
Lebanon the summer of 2006. This event was perceived by Israel, the
United States and the Sunni Arab governments in Saudi Arabia, Egypt
and Jordan as an Iranian attempt to extend its power into the
Levant by challenging both Israel and the Sunni Arab leadership.
Whether Iran in fact had any direct control over the decision by
Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, to kidnap Israeli
soldiers is far from clear; however, the perception of growing
Iranian strength and reach – a fundamental shift in the Middle East
balance of power – was unquestioned and hugely menacing to the
traditional power brokers of the region. Initially they had to
swallow their words of discontent as Hezbollah acquitted itself
very creditably and entranced the Arab “street.” But once the war
was over and Hezbollah began challenging the predominantly Sunni
and Christian Lebanese government of Fouad Siniora, initial
misgivings reemerged.

In the following months we have seen a number of indicators of a new
coordinated policy approach. Senior Saudi officials met privately
with equally senior Israeli officials, which was itself a
remarkable new development. The content of the discussions has not
been revealed, but one of the participants was rumored to be Prince
Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi Ambassador to Washington and
presently Secretary-General of the Saudi National Security Council,
one of the architects of the U.S.-Saudi collaboration against the
Soviets in Afghanistan, and a wheeler-dealer of legendary
reputation. During the same time period, Bandar began a series of
private visits to Washington, meeting with U.S. officials at the
highest level. Apparently these meetings occurred without the
knowledge of the present Saudi ambassador who abruptly resigned
after the information became public.

The United States successfully shepherded a resolution through the
United Nations Security Council denouncing Iran’s nuclear program
and imposing limited sanctions. It was adopted unanimously, and it
gives Iran 60 days to change its policies or the issue will be
revisited. In the speech by President Bush announcing a troop
increase in Iraq, he focused a surprising amount of attention on
Iran. The announced increase of U.S. naval presence in the Gulf
region together with the supply of Patriot anti-missile batteries
to the Gulf were widely interpreted as warning signals to Iran. The
United States is taking an expansive view of the UNSC sanctions by
prohibiting a major Iranian bank from operating in the U.S. and
leading a campaign to persuade others to do the same. In the
meantime, Israel has maintained a drumfire of criticism of Iran’s
nuclear program, including suggestions that if no one else is
willing to act, Israel may be called upon to launch a strike
against Iran on is own.

Some of these developments were spelled by Deborah Amos of NPR in a
special report on January 17

There have not been (and probably will not be) any formal
announcements, but the accumulating evidence suggests that a major
new strategy is being pursued. What are its moving parts? It is
still early days, but here is my own interpretation of the division
of labor that seems to be emerging:

United States:

-- Drop any further talk about democratization in the Middle East;
-- Use its influence in the United Nations Security Council to keep
the pressure on Iran (and to a lesser extent Syria) with sanctions
and coordinated international disapproval;
--Provide military cover for the Arab Gulf states as they take a
more confrontational position vis a vis Iran (Patriot missiles,
additional naval aircraft, etc.);
-- Undertake a more vigorous diplomatic effort to find a settlement
of the Arab-Israeli dispute, recognizing that even limited visible
progress will provide diplomatic cover for the Arab states if they
are to cooperate more closely with Israel;
-- In Lebanon, provide covert support for efforts to support the
Siniora government and to thwart Hezbollah, probably in close
cooperation with Israeli intelligence;
-- Organize dissident movements in Iran, primarily among ethnic
groups along the periphery or other targets of opportunity, to
distract and potentially even destabilize the Tehran government;
-- In Iraq:
(1) keep attention focused on Iran, including raids and general
harassment of its representatives;
(2) keep U.S. forces in country to prevent the situation from
descending into full scale civil war or a breakup of the country
(or, as Henry Kissinger presents it in a recent article, combining
both points: “They [U.S. troops] are there as an expression of the
American national interest to prevent the Iranian combination of
imperialism and fundamentalist ideology from dominating a region on
which the energy supplies of the industrial democracies depend”);
(3) consider engineering a more Sunni-friendly government,
especially if Prime Minister Maliki is unwilling or unable to
control the Shia militias;

Arab States (the six Gulf Cooperation Council states plus Jordan and
 Egypt – 6+2):

-- Provide major funding and political support to the Siniora
government in Lebanon and work to undercut Hezbollah’s influence
and image;
-- Attempt to woo (or threaten) Syria away from its alliance with
Iran with promises of money and support of Syrian efforts to regain
the Golan Heights;
-- Provide facilities and funding to assist the various U.S.
initiatives above;
-- Attempt to bring down the price of oil, which will remove some
political pressures on Washington and make life more difficult for


-- Provide intelligence support to U.S. (and potentially Arab)
anti-Hezbollah efforts in Lebanon;
-- Keep international attention focused on the Iranian threat as a
uniquely dangerous situation that may even demand Israeli military
-- Use long-standing Israeli contacts, especially with the Kurds in
Iraq and Iran, to foment opposition to the Tehran government;
-- Be prepared to make sufficient concessions on the Palestinian
issue and the Golan to provide at least the perception of
significant forward motion toward a comprehensive settlement.

A tripartite strategy of this sort has a number of appealing
qualities. By keeping attention focused as fully as possible on
Iran as the true threat in the region, it tends to change the
subject and distract public attention from the Iraqi disaster. It
provides something of real value to each of the participants, but
most of the distasteful parts of the plan are plausibly deniable so
they will not have to be explained or justified in great detail to
skeptical observers in any of the countries involved.  In the
United States, the antipathy to Iran as a result of the hostage
crisis in 1979-81, inter alia, is so strong that such a strategy is
likely to have widespread appeal to Democrats and Republicans alike,
with enthusiastic endorsement from pro-Israel lobbying groups.

Perhaps most important of all, it provides a single, agreed enemy
that can serve as the organizing point of reference for policies
throughout the region. Like the cold war, this can be used to
explain and rationalize a wide range of policies that otherwise
might be quite unpopular. The Holy Grail of U.S. Middle East policy
has always been the hope of persuading both Arab and Israeli allies
to agree on a common enemy and thereby relegate their mutual
hostilities to a subordinate role. Trying to get the Arabs to
conclude that the Soviet Union was a more immediate threat than
Israel was always a losing proposition, though it did not prevent
several U.S. administrations from trying. But Iran, as a large,
neighboring, non-Arab, radical Shia state, may fulfill that role
more convincingly.

The advent of Mr Ahmadinejad in Iran, with his extravagant rhetoric
and populist posturing, makes that a much easier sell than it was
under President Khatami. More than anyone else, Ahmadinejad is
responsible for the appeal of this strategy. He has done immense –
and perhaps irreparable – damage to Iran’s image in the world and
its genuine foreign policy objectives. The fact that Iranian
parliamentarians are banding together in opposition to him and his
policies is evidence that this has not gone unobserved in Tehran,
but it may be too late.

Will the strategy work? Well, it does NOT necessarily mean an
immediate recourse to military conflict, as some are predicting.
The underlying fundamentals have not changed: none of the
tripartite protagonists stand to gain by an actual war. Especially
after the Iraqi experience, it is widely understood in Washington
that a war with a country as large and as nationalistic as Iran
would be immensely costly and almost certainly futile. Moreover,
there is no halfway house. You can’t do a quick air strike and
realistically expect it to end there. The situation would
inevitably escalate and ultimately require boots on the ground.
That is a bridge too far for the United States at this juncture.
However, the strategy is deliberately provocative and risks
prompting a belligerent Iranian response (or perhaps it is
deliberately looking for a belligerent response} that could quickly
escalate into an armed exchange. So the threat of military action is
not insignificant.

Will the new policy persuade Iran to change its policies? Probably
not, although knowledgeable Iranian political observers say Iran is
actually ripe for a deal that would deal with both the nuclear and
the Iraqi issues. Iran will have a celebration in a few weeks about
its initial success in running a linked series of centrifuge
cascades. That would be the moment when they could accept at least
a temporary suspension of enrichment activities without renouncing
their national “right to enrich.”  If the Europeans (and Americans)
are interested in moving to a settlement of the nuclear issue, that
would be the moment to revisit and/or creatively reformulate the
array of proposals – Iranian and European – that are already on the

The new tripartite strategy, however, is not really about Iran but
about the three protagonists. It brings them together, gives them a
common purpose, offers an alternative to the current misery of
reporting about Iraq, and provides a focus for future planning that
might gain a wide measure of support. Unfortunately, that suggests
that actually finding a negotiated solution with Iran is very much
a secondary priority.
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