Repercussions of the American Establishment's Decision to "Coexist" with Iran
After the surprise issuing of the National Intelligence Estimate, which found that Tehran halted its secret nuclear program in 2003, one must ask: What has happened between the US and the Islamic Republic of Iran? Is it the beginning of a big deal between the two countries to divide up influence in Iraq and use the new relationship to contain the Arabs when needed? Is it an internal coup d'état against US President George W Bush, to halt his march toward war? After all, it was expected that such a blow would have been directed at the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Or was the NIE just business as usual, as part of the truce between the US and Iran and as part of the historical relationship between Persians and Jews, such that no war will take place between these two powers under any circumstances? These are likely possibilities, and the events of the coming weeks and months might even raise the level of the commotion, whether as part of the strategy or as one of its consequences. But it has become clear, and logical, that the military option is no longer on the US president's table, as long as Iran doesn't make a serious mistake against US forces in Iraq. It's become clear that the American "establishment" has taken an implicit decision to coexist with the Iranian regime and has halted attempts to topple it, in return for a price whose details will be revealed later. On the surface, this price is Iraq, and what is taking place there. Realistically, the Iraq war has made Iran the partner of Israel in terms of regional superiority; the NIE report by 16 US intelligence agencies cements Iranian superiority and lifts the specter of war and the burden of sanctions from the minds of the clerics in Tehran.
In any case, withdrawing or neutralizing the military option is something that chills the heart of many people, not only Americans and Europeans, but also Arabs, especially since Arab states are paying the costs of US wars in the region, in terms of stability or money. However, cementing Iran's superiority in "victories" led by the Iranian president could be reflected in Iran's regional aspirations, which have the air of hegemony, unless the big deal involves Iran's halting its intervention in Palestine and Lebanon, stopping its financial and weapons support to Hamas and Hizbulah, working with Arab Gulf states as partners, and leaving behind issues such as "exporting the revolution" and the qualitative aspect of Iranian rule. In any case, Arab leaders must think deeply about the meaning of what has happened, when the US decided to reveal the NIE instead of keeping it secret. American leaders both inside and outside the administration should think long and hard about the gap in US credibility and the cementing of the country's reputation of leaving behind friends under the astonishment of deception and abandonment, even with the impression (even if a passing one) that the NIE has perhaps officially put the administration in the category of lame duck, since it has removed the available options. Merely containing information to the effect that Iran has given up its nuclear military program and is not active today on this front might make it nearly impossible for Bush to direct a military strike against Iran. This estimate has perhaps destroyed every step by the administration to prepare the US public for such a war.
The administration has made efforts over the last few weeks and months to shed light on the Iranian role against US forces in Iraq, without focusing on the nuclear aspect, which indicates that it was expecting the conclusion of the NIE. Or perhaps the administration consoled to friends and allies that the operational preparations for a military strike against the infrastructure of the Iranian regime had entered the stand-by phase, while awaiting the US president's decision to go ahead. The US informed its allies, at the highest levels, that the aircraft carriers in the Gulf were not there for a picnic; this would also give the International Atomic Energy Agency, headed by Dr. Mohammed El-Baradei, an opportunity to make the final diplomatic effort and use of sanctions to convince Iran to abandon its rejection of suspending uranium enrichment, which was a unanimous wish expressed by the members of the United Nations Security Council.
Some believe that the strategy of the war option remains in place, and that the "nuclear" aspect has been separated on purpose from the justifications for military action because of the link in people's minds between weapons of mass destruction and the inability to find them after the invasion of Iraq. Justifications for military action have been based on a reaction to the actions of the Iranian regime in Iraq, which kill US personnel; Iran's efforts to wreck the peace process that was launched in Annapolis, via the Hamas movement; and Iran's determination to turn Lebanon into an Iranian base via Hizbullah. This is possible.
Nothing can be completely ruled out during the current phase of developments. It was very interesting to see the US administration take the decision to publicly reveal the NIE and it is truly interesting to see the US intelligence community's excessive finding that Iran is innocent of currently working on nuclear weapons, while the IAEA is saying: wait a minute, such a decisive conclusion isn't necessary. Of course, El-Baradei feels that the NIE backs what he has always said about his institution's lack of evidence that Iran has embarked upon a secret nuclear military program. However, the NIE weakens the IAEA's own hand: there is a focus on the same conclusion that Tehran abandoned its secret program in 2003, which could weaken international determination to strengthen sanctions, if Iran does not live up to its commitments before the IAEA and offer complete cooperation. In other words, the celebration of seeing the IAEA's opinion triumph and its defeat of the attacks against it, along with the exclusion of the military option and the strengthening of sanctions, means that the IAEA will pay the price, since it will be alone and without international momentum behind it as it negotiates with Iran in Vienna, far away from the Security Council. Thus, it might be in the interest of the IAEA to not push hard toward removing the Iranian nuclear issue from the Security Council and not engineer the dismantling of the Security Council's resolution that demands the suspension of uranium enrichment as a prior condition for the handful of temptations offered by the five permanent Security Council members and Germany to Iran, which include dialogue. If it's true that Iran frozen or halted its secret nuclear program in 2003, we must remember that this date coincides with the countdown to, and implementation of, the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The politically-savvy Tehran perhaps concluded that it might be faced with military action and thus halted its program. But there is another interesting theory.
All of the indications at the time pointed to the pro-Iraq war group - from neoconservatives to those advocating the unleashing of what they called the "Shiite force" - all worked on the basis that the enemy were only Sunnis, who produced terrorism and the 11 September 2001 attack on the US. The basic idea for these people was Iraq, and its president, Saddam Hussein, constituted the "ideal" cover to justify a strike at the country, on the pretext of WMD. They said that the oil-rich Arab lands were inhabited by Arab Shiites, and that the best way to create an oil belt (a "Petrolistan") is to produce chaos in these areas. Then, it would be able to create a Shiite extension of influence in the Arab Gulf for Iran, and via the special Syrian-Israeli relationship, one could link to Israel via Syria and Lebanon. This line of thinking - supported by measures for dividing Iraq on the pretext of liberating it - was probably behind the Iranian leadership's decision to freeze nuclear military activity, and could prove to be correct if military pressure (via the war in Iraq) and the diplomatic efforts (via sanctions) are what prompted the leadership to take this decision.
If history proves that the real reasons for the Iraq war involved a desire to divide the country, since such a move would serve the interests of both Israel and Iran in the minds of war advocates, then the real reason for halting Iran's secret nuclear military program in 2003 was wisdom. It was useless, as long as the US was waging war against the biggest Arab enemy of Iran and Israel; the Saddam Hussein regime had a nuclear capability that could fight back against these capabilities and the dividing of Iraq, with both Arab financing and assistance. It was very intriguing that the US president said, during his news conference following the release of the NIE, that there had been an understanding with the ruling Iranian establishment in Tehran. This was done away with by the election of Ahmadinejad as president.
In this column I have often said that Ahmadinejad's election was a pleasant surprise for the neoconservatives, who had a close relationship with people promoting a Shiite force to gain revenge for the domination by Sunni Arabs. I mentioned that Ahmadinejad was a wheel in the spokes of this plan, since he spoke about Israel in an unacceptable way that did away, temporarily, with the neoconservatives' plans to contain and whittle down the Arabs and take away areas of oil resources as dictated by the clerics in Iran, such as the ambitious and wealthy Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Ali Khameini. These two were behaving with patience and skill as they played the country's strategic cards, despite the "obstacle" represented by a person named Ahmadinejad. They played the strategic card and acted with strategic wisdom by abandoning, temporarily, Iran's nuclear aspirations.
What these men can deliver in a big deal - if such a thing has truly taken place - is a strategic partnership with the US and Israel in containing the Arabs. They offer considerable influence in controlling things in Iraq, provided that Iraq is "Iranian." Iraq is the big prize for Iran: an Iraq free of nuclear weapons-making capacity and cowed, unable to be independent… and Iraq subject to Iranian influence, representing a launching-point for influence in the Gulf state, in the name of Shiite leadership, even though it is in fact Persian influence to exercise hegemony over the Arabs. What will the United States gain in return for this, from recognizing Iran as the de facto force to offering a status of superiority par excellence to the clergymen and Islamic revolutionaries? This is the big question, which is difficult to answer definitively speaking right now.
Logic requires us to consider the natural elements of such a deal, in terms of the US administration's insistence on seeing the Iranian leadership abandon Hamas and Hizbullah. Giving up Hamas is relatively easy compared to the other group. Despite the grandstanding against the Palestinian Authority and exploitation of the Palestinians' sufferings under occupation, the Palestinian issue is not a vital matter for Iran. It is a bargaining chip and not an Iranian responsibility, for sectarian and ideological reasons. Thus, Iran can abandon it.
The matter is different when we talk about Hizbullah in Lebanon. Iran has a vital, strategic and tactical relationship with the party. This doesn't mean that the mullahs in Iran consider the leader of Hizbullah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, a priority ahead of the strategic relationship with the US. But it does mean that Hizbullah and Lebanon are subject to give and take as part of the formulas of relationships among the US, Iran and Israel, passing through Syria.
The wheel in the spokes of this relationship is the International Court to try the perpetrators of political assassinations in Lebanon. One of the most important Syrian demands is to freeze or prevent the formation of this court, for very obvious reasons. Damascus' insistence on abolishing this court is testimony to its likely involvement in these terrorist crimes, according to the Security Council's definition of them. Neither Israel, the US nor France (with which relations have deteriorated in the era of its new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, from a favored standing of the first order to an element of deal-making, of the second order) will be able to give guarantees to Damascus regarding the elimination of the court. The court is now out of the hands of these individuals and bargains and deals won't be able to contain the investigation and its conclusions, or stop the court.
Therefore, we should ask how - if a big deal has been struck between the US and Iran - the role of Syria in Lebanon and the International Court for those who planned and carried out political assassinations is being dealt with. Some are quick to say that the Americans "sold out" Lebanon and the court. But this is a bit hasty and excessive and jumps over several items, such as Bush himself and his view of public positions and personal commitments regarding Lebanon. Perhaps the man has knuckled under to pressure from the ruling American "establishment" and bowed his head, avoiding and withdrawing from his commitments to Lebanon. There is no proof as to whether this is what actually happened, while a development in the Iranian nuclear issue might lead to his speaking out loudly to say to Tehran and Damascus: Enough. Keep your hands off Lebanon.
Because this phase is one of confusion and drift, and searching for what is happening behind the sudden and hidden decisions, it is necessary to wait until events have played themselves out. These include movement by the leaders of some Arab states in surprising directions and visits. One example is the sudden visit by King Abdullah II of Jordan to Syria and the later visits by high-ranking Jordanian officials. Another is the precedent of Ahmadinejad's attendance at the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in Doha. It's not clear if a policy of "splitting off" countries is behind these movements, i.e. separating Syria from Iran, or vice versa.
In other words, it's still not clear if the truce between the US and Iran has launched similar moves by Arab countries toward Iran and Israel, to start a qualitatively new chapter in the entire Middle East. The smell of deals is getting stronger and the timing is intriguing, especially in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon - three issues that distinguish regional and international relations. The preparations are underway to create a US military base in Iraq, by virtue of the understanding and agreement governing bilateral US-Iraqi ties, and this requires an understanding with Iran, according to the analysts. Thus, the history of "failure" in the Iraq war has perhaps led to the intelligence agencies working to regain their dignity and reputation, which suffered in the justifications and pretexts for the Iraq war. Thus, we are talking about the future of these common interests, as represented in the need by the US and Iran to avoid a war and work instead on arranging the division of influence in Iraq and using a new strategic partnership for influence of another kind in the Middle East.
All of this could be overturned by surprises. Just as Ahmadinejad appeared on the scene to upset the arrangements that had been made by the US and Iranian governments, as Bush confirmed in his statements this week, a surprise might try the patience of the man in the White House and see the lame duck "kick," in a bid to regain the momentum. But today, the US president appears to be the victim of an internal coup against him and it's not clear whether the establishment has carried this out in order to rein him in, or whether he was convinced of the step for deeper and wider reasons, which remain secret.