‘War in Iraq, war in Iran?” That’s a headline I saw in Britain earlier this week. In Washington, the headlines read more like “Tentative nuclear deal reached with North Korea” and “Obama must show more than potential”, but never mind: the American invasion of Iran appears imminent, at least in some quarters of the British Isles, so it has to be taken seriously.
But before we all head off to the next round of anti-war demonstrations, it’s important to separate the facts from the rhetoric.
Fact Number One: Iran is a large country containing 75 million people, in possession of a large and competent army. We don’t have the men, we don’t have the machines and we don’t have the money to stage an invasion. If we were even to contemplate such a thing, we would have to reduce force levels elsewhere, but where? In Iraq, the policy is to send more troops, the war in Afghanistan isn’t going away anytime soon, and, just as diplomacy there is starting to produce results, this isn’t a great time to start monkeying about with the military balance on the Korean peninsula either.
Fact Number Two: even if we were to contemplate a more limited military strike – the bombing of Iranian nuclear facilities, for example – there are some pretty serious obstacles to overcome. The most serious is the fact that we don’t know where all Iran’s nuclear facilities are located, which is not a minor problem if we are contemplating their destruction. Even if we could hit a few of them, which we probably could, that would merely delay Iran’s nuclear programme by a few years.
Such a limited result hardly justifies either the political fallout or the (literal) environmental fallout which would follow. Even the Israelis, who do indeed believe that Iran’s nuclear programme is designed to create the bomb that could destroy their country, appear unconvinced, at least for the moment, that selective bombing can succeed.
Fact Number Three: neither at home, nor internationally, does the Bush Administration have a shred of support for military action of any kind.
This is one of the most unpopular presidents in recent memory, and he is already fighting an unpopular war. More to the point, his credibility on intelligence matters was damaged – perhaps the better word is “eviscerated” – by the Iraq intelligence debacle, so no one is likely to believe his claims about Iranian nuclear prowess or Iranian anything, whatever the evidence. More to the point, Iran is not Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which had been under UN surveillance for a decade. It is a sovereign state which has relatively normal relations with America’s allies, not to mention China and Russia.
Fact Number Four: contrary to some other British press reports, America is “talking” to Iran, or at any rate using diplomacy to deal with what is a nasty regime. In fact, the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, has pretty much staked her reputation on her belief that diplomacy, in co-operation with Germany, France and Britain, will produce results in Iran, just as it now appears to have done in North Korea. So far, it is true, these results – a weak UN Security Council resolution and some huffing and puffing – are thin.
Nevertheless, President Bush on Monday night repeated his preference for diplomacy, calling the Iranians a “good, honest, decent people” with a “government that is belligerent, loud, noisy, threatening”. America’s, objective, he went on to explain, “is to keep the pressure so rational folks will show up and say it’s not worth the isolation”. For those who need a translation from Texan dialect, that means: “We really do hope they’ll remove Ahmedinijad as rapidly as possible.”
Of course it is true that American rhetoric about Iran has lately taken on a harsher tone, and that America is using some of what one Middle East expert, Tamara Wittes, calls “coercive diplomacy”.
The administration has started to apply selective sanctions – restricting Iran’s access to hard currency, for example – and has pointed out, rather late in the game, the fact of Iranian support for Iraqi militias and terrorists. They’ve sent a few ships in Iran’s direction, and have also tried to get other Arab states to push back against Iranian intervention in Iraq as well as Lebanon.
There is some evidence that this sort of thing is working. It does indeed seem as if the good, honest, decent people of Iran are getting sick of their loud and noisy leaders, at least if election results can be believed.
Last weekend, Iran’s nuclear negotiator also sounded more conciliatory when he offered to re-open the stalled Iranian-European negotiations. Iran’s president has also gone out of his way to say that his country poses “no threat to Israel”, despite earlier promises to “wipe Israel off the map”.
But it is also true that at least one of Iran’s tactics is also working. For some time now, the Iranians have been trying to play America off against Europe, so as to relieve the pressure on themselves. After all, if there aren’t joint American-European sanctions, then the Iranians will find it that much easier to ignore them. Thus do the “war in Iran” headlines – guaranteed to stir up fear and loathing of the American government – feed right into Iranian interests.
Which matters: for we are at an unusual juncture in history. If Britain, France and Germany go along with America’s “coercive diplomacy”, that diplomacy might stand a slim chance of success. If they do not, then yes, the distant, but not completely unthinkable military option might begin to loom larger in the minds of politicians in both Washington and Tel Aviv.
Having started an unpopular war already, having no prospect of being re-elected to anything, President Bush might decide that, in the absence of allies, there is no other way. For the first time in a long time, it really is up to Europeans to influence what comes next.