In a recent article in the Washington Post, Robin Wright, author of several books on Iran, describes a new Cold War forming between the United States and its allies against the ascendant Shiite, Persian Iran. Wright cites the removal of Iran’s long time rivals, The Baath Party in Iraq and Taliban in Afghanistan; support for the Hamas government and Hezbollah, who demonstrated a surprising competency in the 2006 Lebanon War; and ties to Syria as precipitating Iran’s new rising regional authority.
With the extended US occupation of Iraq, continued US involvement in Afghanistan, and the subsequent removal of Iran’s traditional foes, most observers agree on Iran’s increased regional influence; however, the comparison of the current struggle to the Cold War remains questionable.
Despite US failures in Iraq, Iran’s economic strength and military spending are a small fraction of the United States’. Indeed, Iran has many checks on its power such as nuclear-armed Pakistan, Israel and the US—each of which is ideologically opposed to the Islamic Republic—in addition to other regional economic and military powers, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Flynt Leverett, senior fellow at the New America Foundation, takes note of this situation:
“Iran is in a tough neighborhood,” he said. “When this program was in its infancy, it faced an Iraq that was in pursuit of nuclear weapons and an Iraq that, under Saddam Hussein, actually used chemical weapons in a war against Iranian targets both military and civilian. This threat has been removed from Iran’s strategic environment, but Iran still faces what it sees as a threat from a nuclear-armed Pakistan that is ideologically hostile to the Islamic Republic [of Iran] and has a record of persecuting Shia [the majority of Iranians are Shiite Muslims],” Leverett continued. “And it has to factor Israel’s nuclear capability into its strategic picture … and then, quite frankly, they have to worry about the U.S. Particularly in a post-9/11 environment in which the American military presence in Iran’s neighborhood has beefed up dramatically.”
The charts below illustrate a few of these points:
Though Iran retains a set of asymmetrically retaliatory options, the characterization of Iran as a Cold War adversary is an extreme exaggeration in light of these figures.
The US recently announced a new $50 billion arms deal to allied Arab countries and Israel as “part of an effort by the Bush administration to counter the rising influence of Iran.” This deal has been criticized by some US lawmakers; the Guardian notes the danger of a potential arms race erupting the region. Iran has also criticized the deal:
Iranian defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar said the United States was trying to “create a fake arms race in order to make their big arms companies survive,” the official IRNA news agency reported.
But he also said countries had the right to buy or make arms to boost their defenses, and suggested military purchases by its Gulf neighbors would not worry the Islamic Republic.
This strikes me as a marvelous example of political jiu jitsu. The United States made possible an emergent Iran by eliminating its Taliban rivals to the east and its Baathist rivals to the west and then installing a Shia government in Baghdad for the first time in history. Having inadvertently created a set of circumstances that insured an increase in Iranian strength and bargaining power, that seriously frightened US erstwhile Sunni allies in the region, and that undermined US strength and credibility, the US now proposes a new and improved regional political relationship to deal with the problem, and, incidentally, to distract attention from America’s plight in Iraq while reviving America’s position as the ultimate power in the region.
But there is a potentially huge flaw in this brilliant policy legerdemain. Iraq will just not go away, and the government of Nuri al-Maliki, a Shia partisan, is proving to be an intractable obstacle to sweeping the Iraqi debacle under the rug.
For more on this issue, read Noam Chomsky’s analysis on the Cold War rhetoric.
Despite the saber-rattling, it is, I suspect, unlikely that the Bush administration will attack Iran. The world is strongly opposed. Seventy-five percent of Americans favor diplomacy over military threats against Iran, and as noted earlier, Americans and Iranians largely agree on nuclear issues. Polls by Terror Free Tomorrow reveal that “Despite a deep historical enmity between Iran’s Persian Shiite population and the predominantly Sunni population of its ethnically diverse Arab, Turkish and Pakistani neighbors, the largest percentage of people in these countries favor accepting a nuclear-armed Iran over any American military action.” It appears that the U.S. military and intelligence community is also opposed to an attack.
Irancove @ July 30, 2007