Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Taking the bait

Iran has chosen the North Korean strategy of in-your-face nuclear development, part bluff, part bluster and part retreat to buy time. Either way it wins, through defiance to the US, development of nuclear weapons, or, under attack, increased influence as another Muslim victim of American aggression. The US took the bait again.

The Iran nuclear issue needs to be understood as part of a larger US-Iranian battle for influence in the Middle East. Both see the issue as a way to increase their power, control and influence over the Arab world, Iran through confrontation with the West and Israel, the US and Israel by knocking down the main ideological opponent to their policies and presence in the region. The Islamic Republic of Iran defined itself as an alternative and in opposition to the West, and specifically America. The US has now defined itself in opposition to political Islam and claims to be pursuing democratic models that provide alternatives to political Islam.

This is not a battle that will be won with military power. It is a battle for hearts and minds, call it political fundamentalist Islam vs. MEPI (Bush's Middle East Partnership Initiative). Being on the side of political fundamentalist Islam does not mean someone is a fundamentalist or even anti-American, as resentment of the US is high enough now that even many secular liberal Arabs and Muslims will sympathize with Iran over the US if it comes down to another military attack on the region.

In this game Iran by far holds the best cards. While its relations with most neighboring states are "not fruitful" as one diplomat told me, Iran has street credibility among a lot of people for its tough rhetoric regarding Israeli and US policies in the region, and for its strong ties with Shiite communities in many neighboring countries. Any attack on Iran may succeed in slowing down Iran's nuclear program, (see here for a view of the fallout on the much celebrated attack on Iraq's Osirak nuclear plant in 1981) but it won't humiliate the Iranian government or lead to regime change. It will inflame people's anger at the US and likely lead to both an increase in religious extremism and anti-Americanism. The region is already not short of both.

The wildcard in all of this is Sunni-Shiite relations in the region. A growing number of Sunnis are voicing concerns about the rise of the "Shiite Crescent", ranging from Iran to Lebanon. While most people here are loathe to make much of a distinction between the two groups, a growing number of high level figures have given voice to this issue, among them King Abdullah II of Jordan and Hosny Mubarak of Egypt. A lot of ordinary Saudis detest the Shiites, estimated at about 20% of the population there, and others fear that Shiites form a "fifth column" in their countries, more loyal to Tehran (or Qom) then they are to their own state. I doubt this question of displaced loyalty, but I'm hearing it more and more.

I say the US took the bait again because even though I think this administration is eager to strike Iran, I think America will be the loser in any confrontation with Iran. But an attack on Iran will certainly lead Iran to counter with all means at its disposal. That means some conventional responses in the region, but more worryingly an increase in its reliance on asymmetrical warfare, otherwise known as terrorism. So while Arabs and Muslims will be furious at westerners for another attack on a Muslim country, Americans will be furious at "Muslims" for all the new terrorist attacks.

The Bush administration argues that Iran is destabilizing the region. That maybe so, but the Bush administration is destabilizing it a whole lot more. Either way, it is people who are the big losers no mater what happens, through money wasted on weapons, lives lost in wars, and hatreds fed by the misguided priorities of power politics.

If the Bush administration is concerned about nuclear weapons in the region, it should spearhead a global effort to create a world free of nuclear weapons, not talk about developing new battle-field useable nuclear weapons. It should hold further talks with the major nuclear powers about further cuts in their own stocks, as a step towards full disarmament, and pressure the minor nuclear powers like India, Pakistan and Israel, to give up their weapons too. With its focus on Iran alone, it just plays directly into the hands of those in the region who make a living off of xenophobic pseudo-religious nationalism.

But then again, that's exactly what the conservative movement in the US does.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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2:42 PM  

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