“Anyone can go to Baghdad. Real men go to Tehran.”
Senior Bush Official, May 2003
The United States and Israel have been itching to go to Tehran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. That Revolution was a strategic setback for both powers. It overthrew the Iranian monarchy, a great friend of the US and Israel, and brought to power the Shi’ite Mullahs, who saw themselves as the legitimate heirs of the Prophet’s legacy, and, therefore, the true defenders of Islam.
As a result, the Iranian Revolution was certain to clash with both the US and Israel, as well as their client states in the Arab world. Israel was unacceptable because it was an alien intrusion that had displaced a Muslim people: it was a foreign implant in the Islamic heartland. But the US was the greater antagonist. On its own account, through Israel, and on the behalf of Israel, it sought to keep the Middle East firmly bound in the chains of American hegemony.
The US-Israeli hegemony over the Middle East had won a great victory in 1978. At Camp David, the leading Arab country, Egypt, chose to surrender its leadership of the Arab world, and signed a separate ‘peace’ with Israel. This freed Israel to pursue its plans to annex the West Bank and Gaza, and to project unchecked power over the entire region. The Arab world could now be squeezed between Israel in the West and Iran to the East, the twin pillars of US hegemony over the region’s peoples and resources.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 ended this partnership. At that point, real men in Washington would have loved to take back Tehran from the Mullahs but for the inconvenience of Soviet opposition. But great powers are rarely stymied by any single development however adverse. It took little encouragement from Washington to get Iraq to mount an unprovoked invasion of Iran. In the twenti-eth century, few Arab leaders have seen the difference between entrapment and opportunity.
The war between Iran and Iraq served the United States and Israel quite well. It blunted the energies of Iran, diverting it from any serious attempts to export the revolution, or challenging American influence in the region. The Israeli gains were more substantial. With Egypt neutered at Camp David, and Iraq and Iran locked in a bloody war, Israel was free during the 1980s to do what it pleased. It expanded its settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak, expelled the Palestinian fighters from Lebanon, and established a long-term occupation over much of Southern Lebanon. Israel was closer to its goal of commanding unchallenged power over the Middle East.
The end of the Cold War in 1990 offered a bigger opening to the United States and Israel. Freed from the Soviet check on their ambitions, and with Iran devastated by the war, the United States began working on plans to establish a military control over the region, in the style of earlier colonial empires. This happened quickly when, with American assurance of non-intervention in intra-Arab conflicts, Iraq invaded Kuwaiti in August 1990.
The US response was massive and swift. In January 1990, after assembling 600,000 allied troops in Saudi Arabia about half of them American it pushed Iraq out of Kuwait, and mounted massive air strikes against Iraq itself, destroying much of its industry, power-generating capacity and infrastructure. The US had now established a massive military beachhead in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. It established permanent military bases in Saudi Arabia, continued its economic sanctions against Iraq, created a Kurdish autonomous zone in the north of Iraq, and, together with Britain, continued to bomb Iraq on a nearly daily basis for the next thirteen years.
With the US beachhead in place, where did the real men in the US and Israel want to go next? There was no secrecy about their plans. At a minimum, the Neoconservatives in the US and their Likud allies in Israel wanted ‘regime change’ in Iraq, Syria and Iran. This would be delivered by covert action, air strikes, or invasion whatever it took to be mounted by the US military. Israel would stay out of these wars, ready to reap the benefits of their aftermath.
The Likud plans were more ambitious. They wanted to redraw the map of the Middle East, using ethnic, sectarian, and religious differences to carve up the existing states in the region into weak micro-states that could be easily bullied by Israel. This was the Kivunim plan first made public in 1982. It would give Israel a thousand years of dominance over the Middle East.
The attacks of September 11, 2001 were the ‘catalyzing event’ that put these plans into motion. The US wasted no time in seizing the moment. Instantly, President George Bush declared a global war against terrorism. The first target of this war was Afghanistan, but this was only a sideshow. On January 29, 2002, the President announced his initial targets for regime change: the ‘axis of evil’ that included Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
The plan was to invade and consolidate control over Iraq as a base for operations against Iran, Syria and perhaps Saudi Arabia. This sequencing was based on two assumptions: that the invasion of Iraq would be a cake-walk and American troops would be greeted as liberators. The US invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003 and Baghdad fell on April 9, 2003. It was indeed a cake-walk, and it appeared to television audiences that American troops were also being greeted as liberators. Understandably, the mood in Washington and Tel Aviv was triumphant. The US is unstoppable: it was time for real men now to go to Tehran.
Nearly three years after the Iraqi invasion, the real men are still stuck in Baghdad. Yes, there has been a great deal of talk about attacking Iran: plans in place for air strikes on Iran’s revolutionary guards, on its nuclear installations and other WMD sites, and even talk of a ground invasion. There have been reports of spy flights over Iran and operations by special forces inside Iran. Israel too has been goading the US to strike, and if the US shrinks from this duty, threatening to go solo.
What has been holding back the real men in Washington and Tel Aviv? One reason of course is that the cake walk very quickly turned into a quagmire. The apparent Iraqi welcome was replaced by a growing and hardy insurgency, which has exacted a high toll on US plans for Iraq even though it was led mostly by Sunni Arabs. As a result, close to 150,000 US troops remain tied down in Iraq, with little prospect that they can be freed soon for action against Iran. Most Shi’ites aren’t resisting the American occupation, but they are ready to take power in Iraq, and want the Americans to leave.
While the US cannot mount a full-scale invasion of Iran without a draft, it does possesses the capability despite the Iraqi quagmire to launch air and missile strikes at Iranian targets, using nuclear weapons to destroy underground weapon sites. On the other hand, despite its saber rattling, most analysts agree that Israel does not possess this capability on its own. Unlike Iraq, Iran has dispersed its nuclear assets to dozens of sites, some unknown. Then, why hasn’t the US mounted air attacks against Iran yet? Or will it any time soon?
More and more, as the Americans have taken a more sober reckoning of Iran’s political and military capabilities, they realize that Iran is not Iraq. When Osirak was attacked by Israel in June 1981, Iraq did nothing: it could do nothing. One thing is nearly certain: Iran will respond to any attack on its nuclear sites. Iran’s nuclear program has the broadest public support: as a result, the Iranian Revolution would suffer a serious loss of prestige if it did nothing to punish the attacks. The question is: what can Iran do in retaliation?
Both the CIA and DIA have conducted war games to determine the consequences of an American air attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. According to Newsweek (September 27, 2004), “No one liked the outcome.” According to an Air Force source, “The war games were unsuccessful at preventing the conflict from escalating.” In December 2004, The Atlantic Monthly reported similar results for its own war game on this question. The architect of these games, Sam Gardner, concluded, “You have no military solution for the issues of Iran.”
What is the damage Iran can inflict? Since preparations for any US strike could not be kept secret, Iran may choose to preempt such a strike. According to the participants in the Atlantic Monthly war game, Iran could attack American troops across the border in Iraq. In responding to these attacks, the US troops would become even more vulnerable to the Iraqi insurgency. One participant expressed the view that Iran “may decide that a bloody defeat for the United States, even if it means chaos in Iraq, is something they actually prefer.” Iran could also join hands with al-Qaida to mount attacks on civilian targets within the US. If Iranian losses mount, Iran may launch missiles against Israel or decide to block the flow of oil from the Gulf, options not considered in the Atlantic Monthly war game.
What are the realistic options available to the US? It could drag Iran to the UN Security Council and, if Russia and China climb on board, pass a motion for limited economic sanctions. Most likely, the US will not be asking for an Iraq-style oil embargo. Not only would this roil the markets for oil, Iran will respond by ending inspections, and accelerate its uranium enrichment. If Iran is indeed pursuing a nuclear program, then it will, perhaps sooner rather than later, have its bomb. Once that happens, one Israeli official in the Newsweek report said, “Look at ways to make sure it’s not the mullahs who have their finger on the trigger.” But the US and Israel have been pursuing that option since 1979.
It would appear that US-Israeli power over the Middle East, which had been growing since World War II, may have finally run into an obstacle. And that obstacle is Iran, a country the CIA had returned to a despotic monarch in 1953. Paradoxically, this has happened when American dominance over the region appears to be at its peak; when its troops occupy a key Arab country; when it has Iran sandwiched between US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan; and when it has trapped Iran inside a ring of US military bases running from Qatar, through Turkey and Tajikistan, to Pakistan.
Could it be that al-Qaida’s gambit is beginning to pay off? It had hoped that the attacks of September 11 would provoke the US into invading the Islamic heartland. That the US did, but the mass upheaval al-Qaida had expected in the Arab streets did not materialize. Instead, it is Iran that has been the chief beneficiary of the US invasion. As a result, it is Iran that now possesses the leverage to oppose US-Israeli aims in the region. Al-Qaida had not planned on a Shi’ite country leading the Islamic world.
It is possible that the US, choosing to ignore the colossal risks, may yet launch air attacks against Iran. President Bush could be pushed into this by pressure from messianic Christians, by Neoconservatives, by Israelis, or by the illusion that he needs to do something bold and desperate to save his presidency. By refusing to wilt under US-Israeli threats, it appears that the Iranians too may be following al-Qaida’s logic. We cannot tell if this is what motivates Iran. But that is where matters will go if the US decides to attack or invade Iran.
No one have yet remarked on some eerie parallels between the US determination to deepen its intervention in the Islamic world and Napoleons’ relentless pursuit of the Russian forces, retreating, drawing them into the trap of the Russian winter. It would appear that the United States too is irretrievably committed to pursuing its Islamic foe to the finish, to keep moving forward even if this risks getting caught in a harsh Islamic winter. On the other hand, the Neoconservatives, the messianic Christians, and the Israelis are convinced that with their searing firepower, the US and Israel will succeed and plant a hundred pliant democracies in the Middle East. We will have to wait and see if these real men ever get to add Tehran to their next travel itinerary or they have to give up the comforts of the Green Zone in Baghdad.
M. SHAHID ALAM teaches economics at a university in Boston. Some of his previous essays are available in a book, Is There An Islamic Problem (IBT Books, 2004). He may be reached at email@example.com.
© M. SHAHID ALAM