The political Gulf

The US and Iran have agreed a broad policy on Iraq.

The consensus, which must be reviewed in Washington and Tehran, calls for a “trilateral security mechanism” consisting of the three nations, and depends on the Iranians ending support for militants.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the talks could lead to future meetings, but only if Washington admits its Middle East policy has been unsuccessful.

Iran and the US have been at odds for years, but things have intensified because of the Iranian nuclear programme. Adding to the tension were the recent American naval exercises in the Gulf, which has resulted in an increased US build-up in the region. However, the face-to-face talks between US ambassador Ryan Crocker and Iranian ambassador Hassan Kazemi Qomi — which focused solely on Iraq — do mark a slight thawing in relations.

It’s just too bad that people on both sides are looking for an armed conflict.

Steven Clemons reports that Dick Cheney is busy undermining diplomatic initiatives toward the Islamic Republic. It is a complex move on several fronts: elements within the Department of Defence and national intelligence are readying for conflict in a bid to convince Iran that it could be attacked, while Cheney and his cohorts want to persuade Bush that the military option is viable.

This runs contrary to the diplomatic efforts of Condi Rice, which are backed by the Pentagon, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and CIA Director Michael Hayden.

Apparently:

The thinking on Cheney’s team is to collude with Israel, nudging Israel at some key moment in the ongoing standoff between Iran’s nuclear activities and international frustration over this to mount a small-scale conventional strike against Natanz using cruise missiles (i.e., not ballistic missiles) .

This would provoke an Iranian military response and force Bush to abandon diplomacy in favour of another war.

Clemons has derived his information from a Cheney aide, who has been doing the rounds in Washington in a bid to drum up support for hawkish maneouvres against Iran. This official has apparently been saying words to the effect that:

Cheney believes that Bush can not be counted on to make the “right decision” when it comes to dealing with Iran and thus Cheney believes that he must tie the President’s hands.

A scary thought.

On the other side are Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guard. War would suit them down to the ground as it would give both a major boost in domestic support. Like the Cheney brigade, these actors are not necessarily advocating an out-and-out conflict, but manoeuvering so it becomes a viable, even preferential option.

Who would win such a conflict? That depends on the definition of victory. Ousting Ahmadinejad and implementing a more favourable regime (which would, quite incidentally, allow the US greater access to Iranian oil reserves) is one such definition. On the Iranian side, simply not being conquered would be enough. Repelling a US invasion — should it come to such a drastic measure — would be PR gold.

Anything the US has learned in Iraq would be practically useless in Iran. The US and its allies have had enough trouble subjucating Iraq, and Iran dwarfs its neighbour, as this Wikipedia map shows (click for larger view):

659px-middleeast.png

It is also a mountainous country, which would slow down any military advance and allow Iranian forces to conduct a successful guerilla war. It is unlikely the likes of Pakistan, Afghanistan or Turkey would allow the staging of an invasion.

But that said any war would most likely take the form (initially at least) of airstrikes on key infrastructure in a bid to bring the country to its economic knees. This was the pattern followed in Serbia during the Kosovan conflict and in Iraq prior to the invasion. It also offers the best PR strategy for the US, as its military can be seen as winning while risking very few of its members.

Both Cheney and Ahmadinejad are playing a dangerous game. A chaotic Iraq has already threatened to destabilise the region; a chaotic Iran would only add to this. Whether it would unlease further sectarian strife is a subject for wiser heads than mine. But there would be no happy ending to such a story.

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