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Wider Conflict Threatens

By R. K. Ramazani


The Bush administration’s aggressive confrontation with Iran over the war in Iraq and Iran’s nuclear program threatens armed conflict throughout the Middle East. A better approach would be for the administration to seek a constructive way to engage Iran.


President Bush’s pledge to “seek out and destroy” the Iranian networks allegedly fueling sectarian war in Iraq and to  “kill or capture” Iranian operatives suspected of killing American soldiers could spark a proxy war between Iran and the U.S. on the chaotic battlefield of Iraq.


Furthermore, the Bush administration’s campaign to create a regional alignment of Sunni states against Shia Iran promises to stoke the fire of ancient enmities between Sunnis and Shia, Arabs and Persians, enhancing the prospects of armed conflict throughout the Middle East.


Threats of military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities also could lead to war between America and Iran. Claims by the United States that it desires a diplomatic resolution ring hollow so long as it insists it will join negotiations with Iran only after Iran stops enriching uranium. Iran claims that its nuclear program is essential for producing electricity and helping economic development to meet the needs of a growing population.

But the U.S. pretense of diplomacy with Iran could be a prelude to war just as it was before the invasion of Iraq. The White House is relentlessly pressing the members of the United Nations Security Council to pass a second punitive resolution with tougher sanctions against Iran. At the same time, Washington is twisting the arms of European leaders to curtail their extensive commercial and economic ties with Iran.


But the Bush administration’s bullying tactics are backfiring and driving the Iranian government to accelerate the pace of its nuclear activities. These in turn may induce other Middle Eastern countries to develop their own nuclear programs. Such a regional nuclear competition would deal a dangerous blow to the international nuclear nonproliferation regime.


Underpinning the current strain between America and Iran is a history of mutual suspicion and mistrust.  A campaign of mutual demonization that began with the Iranian hostage crisis continues to the present time. Iran’s holding of American diplomats for 444 days humiliated America, which has neither forgiven nor forgotten.

At the same time, American support for Iraq’s war of aggression against Iran — the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands Iranians from chemical and conventional weapons— burned a deep scar into the Iranian psyche.


This military debacle led to decades of American economic and trade sanctions against Iran, and U.S. diplomatic efforts to exclude Iran from regional security arrangements have followed.


To resist direct and indirect pressure from the United States, Iran has forged a network of relations across the world, notably with countries of Western Europe, Russia, China and non-aligned states.


Iran’s support of such radical groups as Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, also aims at countering a perceived American or Israeli threat to its security. Such groups would help Iran’s retaliatory capability.


Iran’s nuclear program similarly aims at resisting American pressures and threats. Teheran’s insistence on enriching uranium on its soil under the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty stems from the fact that, after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Western powers, including America, breached contracts they had signed for Iran’s nuclear development.


As a component of its resistance to America’s containment policy, Iran has sought influence in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq where ironically the American invasions created the power vacuum that Iran seeks to fill. Many analysts, who should know better, repeat the unproven American charges that Iran aids and arms Shia militias to attack U.S. troops, but they overlook Iran’s use of soft power such as economic aid and trade.


Iran has extended $500 million in aid for reconstruction in Afghanistan and maintains friendly relations with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. It also has ties with Shia groups in western Afghanistan.


In Iraq, Iran helps an estimated 1,500 Iranian pilgrims travel to Shia shrines every day, a significant source of income for Iraq. Iran exports electricity, refined oil products and Iranian-made cars to Iraq. It has extended a $1 billion line of credit to help Iraq with its reconstruction. Teheran also has diplomatic relations with the Iraqi government in Baghdad and influential ties with the two most powerful Shia parties, al-Dawa and the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq.


Given these historic, political and economic realities, the Bush administration would be well advised to find a constructive way to engage Iran. Instead, it has taken a combative stance, which, as the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-West Virginia, put it, is “bizarre.” Rockefeller also thinks that the efforts of the White House to portray Iran as a threat is “uncomfortably reminiscent of rhetoric about Iraq before the American invasion.”


The Bush administration has excelled in rejecting constructive opportunities for engaging Iran. It summarily dismissed Iran’s 2003 comprehensive proposal for resolving all issues in dispute between Iran and the United States without preconditions. It rejected the recommendation of the Iraq Study Group for a regional approach to the Iraq crisis.


The administration also ignored the recent plea of Mohammad el Baradei, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to Iran and the Western nations to take a “timeout” to head off a large confrontation.


El Baradei noted that a strike by America or Israel on Iran’s nuclear facilities would not deprive Iran of the technological expertise to pursue its nuclear ambitions. He also said that additional United Nations sanctions would serve only to escalate the  confrontation and asked the United States to show “flexibility.” After all, he added, “the Iranians are three to eight years away from being able to manufacture a nuclear device,” an estimate in line with that of U.S. intelligence agencies.


Reckless brinkmanship risks war. A war with Iran would make the Iraq war seem like child’s play. It would set back the Iranian reform and pro-democracy movement, the most salient such movement in the Middle East. And it would be the surest way to saddle the American people with another unwanted war to the great detriment of American national interests in the Middle East and beyond.


The author is the Edward R. Stettinius Professor Emeritus of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia. He has published extensively on the Middle East. 


This article originally appeared in The Daily Progress.


... Payvand News - 2/12/07 ... --

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