Middle East Roundtable
Edition 37 Volume 5 - October 11, 2007
An American attack on Iran
• Hizballah's reaction depends on its constituency - Nicholas Blanford
Hizballah does not have carte blanche to act as it pleases in matters of war and peace.
• Brown's Wilsonian moment - Tim Llewellyn
British support for a US strike on Iran could be the end of Gordon Brown's tenure at Downing Street.
• Dangerous obtuseness - Danielle Pletka
There is little sign that the Bush administration is planning an attack on Iran, but also little sign that it has developed an alternative policy.
• Ramifications of a military strike against Iran - Sadegh Zibakalam
Even if aimed only against Iran's nuclear sites, an attack would be understood by Iran's leaders as tantamount to a declaration of war.
Hizballah's reaction depends on its constituency
Lebanon may sit at the opposite end of the Middle East from Iran, but many Lebanese fear that if the Islamic Republic is attacked by the United States or Israel in the coming months, this tiny Mediterranean country will be sucked into the vortex of retaliation.
Iran possesses a front seat in the Arab-Israel conflict through its Lebanese protege, Hizballah, which fuels persistent speculation that the party will be compelled to attack Israel as part of Iran's retaliatory package.
Hizballah officials have been cagey about the party's likely reaction, not formally committing themselves one way or another. However, top officials have said in the past that Iran has sufficient means to respond to an attack on its territory, suggesting that any external assistance would be superfluous. But these are fluid and uncertain times and the calculations of allies Hizballah, Syria and Iran are not set in stone but will be shaped by unfolding developments in the region.
"If an aggression occurs in the region, all possibilities are open. I cannot definitely say what our position will be if certain possibilities occur because in all the wars that we have so far fought, we were in a defensive position," Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hizballah's deputy secretary-general, told Ash-Sharq al-Awsat last month.
The polarization pitting the so-called "axis of resistance", grouping Iran, Syria and Hizballah, against the United States, Israel and Washington's Sunni Arab allies is more acute than ever, sharpening speculation of a looming regional conflict. Although Hizballah leaders have played down the prospect of an imminent war, they do not hide the fact that the party has undergone a massive recruitment, training and re-armament drive since the end of last year's 34-day war with Israel. Hundreds of young volunteers have undergone month-long basic training sessions, pounding the craggy mountains flanking the Bekaa Valley on 20-mile route marches with rifles, ammunition and rock-filled backpacks. Other volunteers have received specialist training in Iran where they learn how to plant roadside bombs and fire advanced anti-tank missiles.
Hizballah's military chiefs have been brainstorming new battlefield tactics to keep one step ahead of the Israeli army's own measures. Having yielded to an expanded United Nations peacekeeping force in Lebanon's southern border district, Hizballah has relocated to the mountains north of the Litani river, the limit of the UN-patrolled zone, where it is constructing a new line of defense in sealed-off "security pockets". And, sources close to Hizballah say, there has been a steady flow of arms to replenish the group's war-depleted arsenal, with an emphasis on improving its air defense capabilities.
In a speech marking the first anniversary of the end of the war, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hizballah's secretary-general, confirmed that the weaknesses and strengths of both the Islamic Resistance and Israel had been closely analyzed in preparation for any future conflict. He warned Israel that should it launch another attack on Lebanon it would receive a "big surprise that could change the course of the war and the fate of the region."
Many analysts believe, however, that the 2006 Hizballah-Israel war will be the last fought solely between these two bitter foes. If any lesson was learned from last year's conflict it was that, short of committing genocide against Lebanon's Shi'ite community, Hizballah cannot be defeated militarily. That is why many analysts suspect that the next confrontation between Israel and Hizballah will be a component of a broader conflict possibly involving the US, Iran and Syria--a regional war intended to change the geo-political map of the Middle East in favor of Washington and its allies. Hizballah's strengthening of its military wing reflects this conviction as do the military preparations undertaken in recent months by Syria, and Tehran's tightening economic and military relationship with Damascus.
Yet Hizballah's freedom of action in terms of siding militarily with Iran in the event of an attack is constrained to a large extent by the interests of its Shi'ite constituency in Lebanon. The 2006 war was a conflict that Hizballah would have preferred to avoid. While the party subsequently was able to claim a "divine victory", it came at a steep price. It was forced to abandon the extensive military infrastructure that it had painstakingly constructed since 2000 in the southern border district, and, more crucially, it had to respond to its Shi'ite constituents who, though proud of the achievements of the Islamic Resistance, were not overly happy to have their homes destroyed by Israeli bombing again. Hizballah stands or falls on the level of support it earns from Lebanese Shi'ites, a stark reality that has helped shape the party's course of action since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.
Hizballah and Iran are spending tens of millions of dollars to shore up Shi'ite support through an extensive reconstruction campaign in Beirut's southern suburbs and in South Lebanon. There is little doubt that Hizballah will continue to be the dominant voice of Lebanon's Shi'ites, but it does not have carte blanche to act as it pleases in matters of war and peace irrespective of the views of its grassroots supporters. If Iran is attacked during the Bush administration's twilight months, any Hizballah reaction will be the result of having carefully balanced the scale and regional consequences of the assault with the likely impact on its domestic standing among Lebanese Shi'ites.- Published 11/10/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org
Nicholas Blanford is a Beirut-based journalist and author of "Killing Mr. Lebanon: The Assassination of Rafiq Hariri and its Impact on the Middle East".
Brown's Wilsonian moment
An American military attack on Iran would present the new prime minister of the United Kingdom, Gordon Brown, with a challenge not faced by any British leader since US President Lyndon B. Johnson tried to persuade PM Harold Wilson to send troops to Vietnam.
Harold Wilson was smarter than his successors in New Labour: he kept his support for the American mission moral, not physical (and he still received damaging political flak at home).
Matters have changed since then. The UK under Tony Blair's New Labour identified itself closely with George Bush's far right America, joining in, amid great popular opposition, the disastrous war in Iraq in March 2003. Gordon Brown has so far shown no concrete signs that he is drifting away from this involvement, that his stance is any less pro-American and Atlantically inclined than his predecessor's.
A military attack on Iran, however, would be a test for him of the utmost difficulty and significance.
First, a majority of the British public would oppose it and any hint of British collusion. Since 2003, the British have become totally disillusioned with the lies and failures that have invested the Iraqi invasion and occupation. They are not in the mood to stomach more such adventures, especially one that would offer even more cataclysmic consequences than the one in Iraq (it is so far the poor of Iraq and the British and American infantry who have borne the suffering---the misery would be spread across the earning and chattering classes here if America bombed and/or tried to topple the regime in Tehran).
Neither is this early 2003 in domestic political terms. Gordon Brown has less than half Tony Blair's majority in parliament of those days; he has nervously just ducked one opportunity for an election; and it is unlikely he could persuade or hoodwink his MPs into supporting him in a military assault against Iran alongside the US (and possibly Israel) as Blair did over Iraq with his half-truths, "dodgy" intelligence dossiers on alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and his aura, in the eyes of his parliamentary followers, of victorious electoral genius.
Internally, Brown would have to cope with epic economic reverberations in the UK. Even a hint of military action in the Gulf, let alone Iranian closure of the Straits of Hormuz and a complete blocking of oil supplies, which is quite feasible, would send fuel prices soaring. Britain is already struggling. It has a potentially overheated economy damped only by rising interest rates. Petrol at the pump is more than $8.00 US an Imperial Gallon ($2.00 a liter): double that or more and the feed-through in prices and services would spark inflation (Brown's bete noir) and national alarm.
Labour's electoral fortunes would diminish cataclysmically. A parliamentary revolt against Brown by his own MPs would be very much on the cards if he tried to railroad Britain into military support, and, quite possibly, strikes of a vehemence and spread not seen since the 1970s (postal and transport workers are even now rocking the British system with sporadic industrial action and this under circumstances where the economy is performing reasonably well).
Militarily, Britain is trying to get out of Iraq and Brown must be silently praying that any American action against Iran would come when our commitment in Iraq is minimalized---it is supposed to be down to 2,500 "over-watch" soldiers, mostly in barracks, by the end of next year.
Unfortunately for Brown, Bush may have him in the mangle. The American president would want to do the business for his own party's and possible successor's electoral benefit, and that means in the near future.
Whatever troops Britain might or might not have in downgraded roles in Iraq or elsewhere in the region (the Royal Navy is always present in the Gulf), Brown's support for Washington would be seen there as a crucial test of that "special relationship" that suits America when it needs us but whose benefits are lost on the wider British public.
If they follow British precedent since World War II, Brown and his political and military establishment would be reluctant to be seen internationally as distancing themselves from the US and losing the privileges in terms of military and intelligence assistance and know-how they acquire from Washington, as well as that seat at the high table that the UK's leaders so cherish.
The question for Gordon Brown is so crucial that it is not even being asked or contemplated publicly in official circles here, Iraq and Afghanistan being enough to dominate UK foreign policy. For instance, the steady loss of British soldiers' lives in Iraq and Afghanistan is much more of an issue here than it is (allowed to be?) in the US.
It would be in Iraq and Afghanistan that Iran could move so effectively to damage western (British) interests and efforts if London did help attack Iran; but not only there: terrorist reprisals in mainland Europe and especially Britain, economic chaos, international pariah status---none of it can be ruled out.
It could certainly be the end of Gordon Brown's tenure at Downing Street.
On the other hand, avoiding it could, and should, herald a new and much more positive European, realistic, non-American approach to the Middle East by the British. That will have been a very long time coming and a painful transition for our political leaders to make. Most British voters would certainly---especially after Iraq---hope Gordon Brown would make the latter choice.- Published 11/10/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org
Tim Llewellyn was the BBC's Middle East correspondent and is now a freelance writer and broadcaster on the region's affairs.
To bomb or not to bomb, is that really the question? Washington has seen a frenzy of speculation about American plans to attack Iran, and rumormongers are, as usual, as uninformed as they are uninhibited in sharing their musings as fact.
Iran, its nuclear weapons program, its support for terrorism, its interference in Iraq and its brutal dictatorship cannot be reduced to a simple question about military action. More complicated still, the issues are intertwined, and addressing one without confronting the others may cause more problems than it solves.
Yet a curious passivity in face of these multiple issues means President George W. Bush may, by the end of his administration, leave himself only the alternative of launching a strike or kicking the can down the road to his successor, having failed to develop any other promising options for pressuring the Iranian regime.
On the nuclear front, Mohammad El Baradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, appears determined to allow Iran to evade sanctions, let alone military action. Without the support of IAEA member states, he inked a deal with Tehran to answer outstanding questions about its nuclear program. This agreement, which allows Iran to drag out the inquiry into its clandestine nuclear activities into the foreseeable future, effectively undercuts efforts by the United States, United Kingdom and France to secure a third United Nations Security Council resolution tightening sanctions.
With Security Council action put off until November at the earliest, Iran is now free to move forward with its uranium enrichment program. Amazingly, Bush, who has described Iran's weapons programs as putting the Middle East "under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust", commented in late September that he is "hopeful that we can convince the Iranian regime to give up any ambitions it has in developing a weapons program, and do so peacefully".
As for Iranian support for international terrorism in Gaza, Lebanon, or anywhere else, the United States and the rest of the world appear equally unwilling to move ahead on useful steps. Iran has, without repercussions, violated the demand of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 not to "supply...arms and related materiel to Lebanon except as authorized by its government". Iranian proxy Hizballah has derailed the Lebanese democratic process with only murmured protests from erstwhile champions of democracy in Washington and Paris. American threats to sanction the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the spearhead of terrorist training and armament, have come to naught.
The Revolutionary Guard Corps is also at the heart of training both Sunni and Shi'ite terrorists in Iraq, and coordinates the supply of shaped explosive charges into Iraq and Afghanistan. US military sources estimate that Iran has been directly responsible for hundreds of US combat deaths. Iranian markings have been found on weapons caches in Iraq, training camps have been pinpointed near Tehran and Iranian "diplomats" have been arrested with insurgents. As Iranian efforts to destabilize Iraq and kill Americans escalate, some in the US military have clamored for the right of hot pursuit into Iran, or at least the right to strike Iranian training camps (as indeed the Iranians have not hesitated to strike their perceived enemies in northern Iraq with artillery barrages).
Thus far, however, the US government has not signed off on hot pursuit, insisting on pursuing bilateral talks that US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker has described as "the appearance of discussion... instead of actually doing serious business".
Finally, there is the question of toppling the mullahs. In 2002, when President Bush said the United States stood with the people of Iran in their "quest for freedom", dissidents in Iran believed the tide had turned for them. If indeed it ever did, and there is scant evidence for the proposition, the tide has now receded. The Bush administration has explicitly disavowed regime change, either on its merits or as a means to ending the nuclear program, support for terror or the insurgency in Iraq.
In other words, there is little sign that the Bush administration is planning an attack on Iran, but also little sign that it has developed a coherent, energetic alternative policy.
Faced with the end of his presidency in 2008, the president may yet decide he cannot bequeath this nightmare to his successor. Indeed, there is ample anecdotal evidence that the president believes he may, in the end, have no choice but to launch an air strike on Iranian targets.
In that case, what will the US hit?
Recently, speculation has centered around an American strike on Iranian terrorist training camps, with the US taking a pass on the nuclear program. On the face of it, this is ridiculous. The Clinton administration proved the efficacy of the symbolic cruise missile attack in its bombing of a bin Laden camp in Afghanistan. A hole in the ground is no more likely to deter the Iranians than it did al-Qaeda. Worse yet, it will likely trigger a wave of terrorist response from the Iranians--a high price to pay for little reward.
More serious studies suggest a variety of key targets, including known nuclear installations, missile and air defense sites, Revolutionary Guard operations centers, intelligence ministries, etc. Strikes across a broad spectrum of Iran's terrorist and WMD infrastructure would have a huge impact, to be sure, but would raise a host of difficult questions as well. Would a military assault decapitate the regime? Would the Iranian people rise up in the rubble and take out the mullahs? There's no substantial reason to believe so. Most importantly, would such strikes end Tehran's WMD and terror programs?
The answer to this last question is unsure. A military strike would certainly set Iran back. It would buy time. But what would the United States or, more broadly, the international community do with that time to ensure that Iran doesn't accelerate its drive to acquire nuclear weapons to deter future interference in its plans?
Diplomats inside Tehran believe the regime is overconfident, certain that the United States cannot and will not attack. This is dangerous obtuseness. Of course the United States has ample firepower to level a good deal of Iran, and the war in Iraq has not diminished that capacity. (After all, no one has suggested ground forces invade.) As to whether the US actually should or would launch strikes, that may depend more on the success or failure of other options and Iran's own miscalculations.
If America and Britain are stymied by Russia and China in the United Nations there may be few diplomatic or economic options left to consider. Faced with the choice of accepting an Iranian nuclear bomb or ordering a strike, George W. Bush may choose the latter, risks and all.- Published 11/10/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org
Danielle Pletka is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
Ramifications of a military strike against Iran
Ever since the disclosure of Iran's nuclear program about five years ago the West, particularly the United States and some European powers, has confronted the fundamental question of what to do about it. Broadly speaking, three approaches have emerged.
The first can be described as the "carrot and stick" approach: employing a combination of threats and promises to persuade the Islamic leaders to abandon those parts of their nuclear program--most importantly uranium enrichment--that have the potential of being used to produce nuclear weapons. The second approach advocates strong measures by the international community, including the use of extensive sanctions and a trade embargo, in order to force the Islamic regime to freeze its uranium enrichment program. The third approach, which in part results from the futility of the other two approaches, advocates some sort of military action against Iran with the aim of preventing it from acquiring the ability to reach the stage where it can develop a nuclear weapon.
Every approach has its critics and opponents as well as supporters within the international community. Russia, China, India, the so-called non-aligned countries, some Latin American states, particularly those with left-wing governments, and some African states are among the supporters of the "soft approach". The second approach is strongly advocated by the European Union, Japan, Canada, Australia and some Arab states that fear Iran turning into a nuclear power. Their motives for supporting strong sanctions against Iran vary. Some have territorial disputes with Iran, others resent Iran's increasing influence in the region, particularly in Iraq, and still others perceive Iran as a Shi'ite power threatening the Sunni Arab majority.
The third, or military, approach is broadly advocated by the US and its principal ally in the region, Israel. The chief argument cited by these advocates of the use of force to prevent the Islamic state from achieving its nuclear aims stems basically from the ineffectiveness of the other approaches. They argue that the sanctions imposed against Iran thus far by the Security Council have been ineffective in preventing it from pursuing its nuclear objectives. They therefore conclude that the use of force is the only viable option left to the international community in order to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power in the region.
Perhaps the most fundamental question regarding the use of force against Iran concerns the extent of an attack. Should a strike against Iran be limited to its nuclear sites or should it aim to destroy the country's military, industrial and communications targets. Secondly, and regardless of the extent of the attack, what would be Iran's response to a military strike?
There can be little doubt that a military strike against Iran, even if aimed only against its nuclear sites, would be understood by its leaders as tantamount to a declaration of war. This means that every asset belonging to the perpetrator(s) of the military strike would be recognized as a "legitimate target". If the US becomes involved in such an operation, everything that relates to its armed forces in the region would be described as a legitimate target by the Iranian armed forces. The list would include US navy ships, military and command and communications centers in the region as well as all American personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is precisely in view of such a possibility that some advocates of the use of force against Iran suggest that any military operations against it must extend beyond its nuclear sites and must aim at destroying the country's capability to fight back after the first strike.
Whether or not a strike against Iran is extensive or simply limited to nuclear targets, there must be little doubt that either way it would be interpreted by Iran as a declaration of war against it. If Iran can strike back by deploying its air force as well as firing its missiles it will do so. If, however, it is rendered incapable of using its strategic weapons including its long-range missiles, Iran will resort to long-term guerrilla warfare that destabilizes the entire region for the foreseeable future.
To be sure, no one can predict with any degree of accuracy what will happen if a military operation is launched against Iran. The Islamic regime has room for maneuver geographically. One option it may decide to embark upon would be the disruption of the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf. Hizballah in Lebanon offers another front Tehran may decide to open. And Iranian elite forces can target allied forces both in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Next there are the possible domestic consequences of an attack on Iran. Some analysts are inclined to assess that the Islamic regime would become severely weakened in the event of such a strike. Others go further and argue that the regime might even fall. These ideas are more wishful thinking than reality. Not only would the Islamic regime not weaken, but its more radical and hard-line currents would be strengthened at the expense of its more pragmatic and moderate forces.
A military operation against Iran would create a huge groundswell of anti-western and anti-American sentiment there and would strengthen radical Islamic and Iranian patriotism. Such a social climate is very congenial to the rise of radical Islamic sentiment while at the same time inevitably suppressing voices of tolerance and moderation. In short, any military strike against Iranian nuclear targets may hinder Iran's progress toward becoming a nuclear power in the short term, but will undoubtedly unleash a wave of radicalism with all its dire consequences.- Published 11/10/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org
Sadegh Zibakalam is professor of Iranian Studies at the Faculty of Law and Political Sciences, Tehran University. He is broadly regarded in Iran as an independent academic.
Bitterlemons-international.org is an internet forum for an array of world perspectives on the Middle East and its specific concerns. It aspires to engender greater understanding about the Middle East region and open a new common space for world thinkers and political leaders to present their viewpoints and initiatives on the region. Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, respectively.