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Sleep-Walking to War with Iran

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Source: The Guardian

Even at Harvard, that bastion of east coast intellectual liberalism, a dangerous mixture of ignorance and belligerency towards Iran swirls through the hallways of America’s premier university.

Although the Middle East geopolitical focus shifted east to the Gulf in 2003, most policy talks at Harvard still focus on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Well-informed insights on Iran are few and far between at the policy powerhouse that is the Kennedy School of Government. Speakers are greeted with questions that follow the “can-we-bomb/overthrow/degrade-them-successfully” template and betray the one-dimensional view dominating US policymaking circles on Iran.

Agenda-driven commentators fill the knowledge gap. It’s all eerily reminiscent of 2002.

Controversial pop historian Niall Ferguson recently warned a room of high-powered journalists on sabbatical of the dangers posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. Ferguson is notorious for advising Washington post-9/11 to admit it is an empire and to shoulder its “White Man’s Burden“. He argued that a nuclear-capable Tehran would bomb Israel and all means – even military – must be deployed to ensure this doesn’t happen.

A few days later, leading Arab affairs columnist Raghida Dergham addressed another media and policy crowd with similarly anti-Iranian sentiments [MP3 file]. She accused Tehran of seeking to create an Islamic republic in Iraq and Lebanon, warning that “neither this country [the US] nor the world can afford to sit by and say to the Iranians and their partners the Syrians, ‘You can go ahead and blackmail us as you wish because we’re afraid to act’.” Dergham writes and broadcasts for Saudi-owned news-media al-Hayat
al-Hayat and MBC, both of which represent the conservative, anti-Iranian, Sunni Arab view.

Saudi Arabia has disliked Shia Iran – whether in its current revolutionary, theocratic manifestation or in its Shah-era, secular, monarchical incarnation – for at least five decades. In the 1980s, Riyadh joined other Arab nations in donating billions of dollars to Saddam Hussein during the eight-year Iran-Iraq military stalemate, a bloody exercise in containing Iran that marked the only time during the Cold War when Washington and Moscow linked up on the same side of a Middle East conflict.

During last summer’s war between Hizbullah and Israel, Saudi Arabia became the first Arab country to take the side of Israel against an Arab power, when it denounced the actions of the Tehran-backed Hizbullah group as “uncalculated adventures”. Immediately after the war, there were leaks that Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and Saudi King Abdullah had met to discuss Hizbullah. Riyadh denied the meeting took place.

Yet Dergham did not offer her listeners full disclosure about her employer, robbing them of a critical detail when addressing an American audience that views her as an authentic and authoritative voice from the region.

As a US-educated, pro-west journalist, Dergham is an influential individual whose cautionary words stoke the fears of US policymakers vis-à-vis Iran. Saudi Arabia may want to deflate Tehran’s rising regional stature, but this regional readjustment could come at the expense of hundreds of thousands of lost Iranian lives. Much as Iraqi oppositionist Ahmad Chalabi acted in the run-up to the war against Iraq, so do Dergham’s talking points assure hesitant Bush administration officials that there is tacit support among Arab elites for an attack against Iran. And just as Washington removed Tehran’s two greatest enemies when it toppled the Taliban and Saddam regimes, so do unpopular Arab rulers now hope that they can avail themselves of US military power to stunt the populist rhetoric of Ahmadinejad, an Islamic Hugo Chavez who enjoys greater popularity among Egyptians and Jordanians disgruntled with their systems of government than among his own electorate.

A few nights ago, a high-level former official in the Clinton administration predicted to me a strike on Iran by March next year. In her Harvard speech, Dergham concurred, adding that “the logic of it would be to wait until sanctions bite [and] give Mohamed el-Baradei a little time to deliver.” The former official said that September’s mysterious Israeli strike on Syria was a successful test of an American missile against the new Russian radar system that Moscow sold to Damascus and Tehran, ahead of a strike against Iran. According to the source, the Syrians were warned in advance through back-channels that they would be getting hit and advised to keep mum about it as it was “not personal”.

The Pentagon recently requested from Congress $88 million to complete development of the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a 13-ton satellite-guided, bunker-busting bomb. “Urgent operational need” was cited, prompting fears it was intended for use against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

But striking Iran would render the chaos of Iraq insignificant. While Iraq’s strife is still contained within its geographical boundaries, Tehran is likely to take advantage of its rocket arsenal, foreign military networks and strategic positioning and engineer a region-wide counter-strike in responding to an attack. Not only does it straddle two of the world’s most energy-rich bodies – the Gulf and the Caspian Sea – but Iran’s territory also extends across three crucial geopolitical pivots: the Middle East, Central and South Asia. A strike on Iran will be no one-move checkmate, for its aftermath threatens to escalate across the region with horrific repercussions. Dergham will surely continue covering the diplomatic repercussions of such an aftermath from her New York perch. And she has a stake too: as she told me after her talk, “if Lebanon falls to the mullahs, then we’re all f*cked.”

Irancove @ November 11, 2007

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