Iran's turn for a 'coalition of the willing'
The Bush administration has conducted a calculated three-tiered campaign either to force Iran to lower its "threat potential" with regard to its nuclear program or, failing that, to bring about a regime change in Tehran. And within these tiers, other layers are unfolding that confirm Washington's unwavering determination to resolve the matter, one way or the other, one plodding step at a time.
This is illustrated by the latest wrinkle in the crisis.
On Wednesday, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) wrapped up a two-day meeting by deciding to forward a report on Iran by its head, Mohamed ElBaradei, to the United Nations Security Council. The report found that after nearly three years of inspections, the IAEA remained unable to rule out the possibility that Iran still had secret nuclear activities, which could include work related to uranium enrichment and efforts to adapt weapons to carry a nuclear bomb.
Referral to the UN has always been the United States' goal in the years of international wrangling over Iran's nuclear program, which the US is convinced is aimed at producing nuclear weapons, something Tehran vigorously denies.
But now that moment has come, the US has to tread carefully. Russia and China, two of the permanent Security Council members with veto powers, along with the US, France and Britain, cannot be counted on to go along with any moves to impose direct UN sanctions on Iran.
Instead, as US Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns told a congressional committee, the United States wanted a non-binding presidential statement to "condemn" Iran when the Security Council meets next week as Iran "directly threatens vital American interests". After that, he said, the US would move to a binding Chapter 7 resolution designed to "isolate" Tehran and "hopefully influence its behavior".
This, much like "the coalition of the willing" that invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, would involve the United States' allies "to show that they are willing to act [by imposing sanctions against Iran], should the words and resolutions of the United Nations not suffice", as Burns put it.
So the saga continues, all in line with the United States' orchestrated plan to see the matter through in terms of its three-tier strategy.
Tier 1: The European connection
This approach allowed the European Three (Britain, France and Germany - EU-3) to conduct the diplomatic campaign to persuade Iran to forgo its uranium-enrichment program, something that Tehran says it is entitled to under its nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty rights.
The US never had any doubts that Iran would not listen to the Europeans. What was important was that this diplomatic campaign served a purpose, which was to create a semblance that, unlike in the case of Iraq in 2003, the administration of President George W Bush was not obsessed with carrying out a military operation to stop Iran in the potential development of nuclear weapons.
However, such an option was never far from the thinking of the US or its Israeli allies.
Tier 2: War of words
This involves gradually ratcheting up threatening and accusatory rhetoric toward Iran regarding its nuclear program and about its "real" intentions in Iraq.
US Vice President Dick Cheney continued his share of this campaign when he spoke to the pro-Israeli American-Israel Public Affairs Committee on Monday: "The Iranian regime needs to know that if it stays on its present course [of enriching uranium], the international community is prepared to impose meaningful consequences."
Cheney continued, "For our part, the United States is keeping all options on the table in addressing the irresponsible conduct of the regime. And we join other nations in sending that regime a clear message: we will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon."
The phrase "keeping all options on the table" has become a euphemism to threaten Iran with military action, either from the US or from Israel. Bush has used the phrase on a number of occasions.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld added his bit on Tuesday by accusing Iran of dispatching the Al-Quds Division of its Revolutionary Guard to "stir trouble inside Iraq". This division is understood to conduct military-style operations aimed at destabilizing a government - much like the US Special Forces - outside Iran. Even though Iran is suspected of influencing the outcome of Iraqi elections, that was the first time that any American official had accused it of using the Al-Quds Division.
The question is, why the ratcheting up of this rhetoric against Iran now? The most likely answer is that Iran and Syria have remained the most obvious targets of US criticism for all the insurgency-related trouble it is encountering in Iraq.
There is little doubt that such criticism has basis. At the same time, one has to remain highly conscious of the insatiable desire of US officials to find a scapegoat for their country's inability to tackle effectively the Iraqi insurgency.
A second reason might be that, by accusing Iran of using its own version of "special forces" in Iraq, the US might also be getting ready to indulge itself in "tit-for-tat" activities. American journalist Seymour Hersh accused the Bush administration several months ago of using Special Forces to monitor nuclear sites inside Iran. There have also been reports that Israel's Mossad is involved in similar activities by using Iraqi territory to launch espionage operations in Iran.
Iran has always been an influential actor in Iraq. The commonality of Shi'ite religion is its chief basis. From the perspectives of realpolitik, Iraq tried to influence the politics of Iran - or at least its Sunni minority population - while Iran regularly and unsuccessfully tried to influence Iraqi Shi'ites during the rule of Saddam.
Now that Shi'ites have emerged as the dominant group in Iraq, the influence of Iran is likely to be a permanent feature of Iraqi politics. That is a reality with which the Bush administration is having quite a bit of a problem, especially at a time when sectarian warfare is intensifying.
Tier 3: The bear and the panda
The third tier of the US campaign against Iran is to deal with, and neutralize, the positions of Russia and China.
Russia: Moscow belatedly decided to side with the US in terms of having Iran's dossier referred to the UN. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in Washington on Tuesday, assuring Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that his country had decided to drop its proposal of allowing Iran to undertake small-scale nuclear enrichment on Iranian soil.
It seems President Vladimir Putin is no mood to irritate Bush further, so soon after making another highly controversial decision of inviting Hamas leaders to Moscow for consultations.
However, Russia has made it clear that it does not favor sanctions against Iran. "I don't think sanctions as a means to solve a crisis have ever achieved a goal in recent history," Lavrov was reported in the media as saying.
And interestingly, Lavrov said the discussions of how to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions reminded him of the run-up to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. "It looks so deja vu, you know," he said. "I don't believe we should engage in something which might become self-fulfilling prophecy."
China: Beijing remains a wild card in this episode. Thus far, it has made no objections about referring Iran to the UN Security Council. How it will behave now that this has happened is unclear. However, as in the case of Russia, it is hard to say whether China will stay quiet once the US decides to turn up the heat on Iran.
Given Russia's attitude, and the uncertainty of which way China might jump, the US has been forced to go the "alliance-building" route in terms of having sanctions imposed on Iran.
Tier 1 in this drama has played itself out, with the European initiative having served its purpose of appearing to give diplomacy a chance. The rhetoric of Tier 2 will continue unabated ("no options are off the table", "meaningful consequences"). With the US seeking action beyond the UN, Tier 3 now sees China and Russia to some extent sidelined.
So we move on to Tier 4: the building of another "alliance of the willing", with Lavrov's warnings of deja vu ringing in the ears.
Ehsan Ahrari is the CEO of Strategic Paradigms, an Alexandria, Virginia-based defense consultancy. He can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]. His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online. His website: www.ehsanahrari.com.