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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 42, October 9, 2010

Who wants a War?

Thursday 14 October 2010, by Rakesh Gupta


In the times of recession Obama claims to fulfill his promise to withdraw troops from Iraq. His military man in Afghanistan, Petraeus, is formulating a programme to withdraw from Afghanistan next year. Obama himself has announced steps to deal with the economy at home. He has unveiled an infrastructure programme of $ 50 billion to get more jobs for the American labour by investing in railways, roadways and airways and help middle class business with tax cuts.

If seen in the context of the forthcoming midterm Congressional elections this is a big image booster. It is means a reply to the Republicans who might get 33 of the seats of the House of Representatives, as per some currently conducted polls. Further the Europeans, especially the French, Germans and Poles are engaged in trimming and transforming their militaries. They want a deployable model so that there is less pressure on the American troops who along with the British and French armies have the expertise and equipment to manage out of region deploy-ability. This may be needed in the Maghreb and Balkan regions as some strategists say. All this sounds very nice and acceptable to one and all. The Chinese are willing to start cooperation with the US on military issue on which the Obama Administration faces Chinese anger over Taiwan despite his Beijing visit.

In this world of cooperation going well with recession, can one imagine a possibility of a war—limited nuclear one/airstrikes—in Iran as alleged by the icon of Revolutions, Fidel Castro? Xinhua recently reported that after the recent NAM ministerial meeting, Iran has agreed to hold talks with the Europeans on the nuclear issue and will continue to cooperate with the IAEA. The latter keeps complaining about the Iranian refusal to allow some inspectors to come in. This is Iran’s right. As per the IAEA, this is unjustifiably used to safeguard its 2.3 tonnes of enriched uranium. To the uranium issue other regional strategic issues need addition to raise and answer the question of war.

The issue to be raised is: would the US want a war against Iran—involving proxy Israel, or its own bombing exercise in aid of Israeli air strikes. There are indications of a war against Iran. Since the 2009 Iranian elections these indications recurrently resurface. There is a talk of its possibility again. Sometimes Iran dubs it, as some US strategists do, that this talk is more in the nature of a psychological war. Recently Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has said if there is a war imposed on it then the US will face the consequences of it and will be finished. Ahmadinejad has also said that Iran does not like to talk to the US on the nuclear issue owing to their attitude. The world has already imposed sanctions by the UN vote of 122 to two with one abstention. Tehran Times reports that its economy is developing. The pinch of economic war may not be the undoing of the nuclear fusion that the Iranians are engaged in. The Russians are further helping them with the nuclear projects they have despite their vote for UN sanctions.

AN Iranian legislator has said at the time of writing that the current talks between the Palestinian Authrority President, Abbas, and The Israeli leader, Benjamin Netanyahu are bound to fail and produce no results. Ms Clinton said at her speech at the Council of Foreign Relations that there may not be another chance to negotiate, as both the leaders know. It is also reported that certain groups in Palestine have mounted attacks on the Israelis in the West Bank. They have been alleged to be supported by Iran. No proof is available yet of involvement of the central leadership of the two outfits or of Iran. It is suggested that the attacks are taking place since the Saudis and Syrians are together and may make some offer to the US and the Israelis that may weaken the Iranian clout. They have recently visited Jordan perhaps to underline the need of the US to remain in Iraq to maintain the Iraq/Iran military balance. They fear a US withdrawal could tilt the balance in favour of Iran. This tilt may motivate Iran to militarily move into Saudi Arabia and not stop as Iraq mistakenly did at the time of its attack in Kuwait. In this criss-cross of diplomatic activities and delivery of verbal punches will the world witness a war in relation to Iran. The answer is a probable “yes”.

There are many reasons for it. First, going by history of the post-Cold War, no US President has desisted from war. Bush Sr, Clinton, Bush Jr and Obama have done it. Obama had to carry the old baggage in Iraq and Afghanistan even if he opposed both of these when they were started. He needs to have his own version of one winnable and short air war. That may ultimately boost his image at home. This may be more relevant for a second term Presidency if the war does not begin well in time for the mid-term Congressional elections. There are three reasons for the US to intervene.

One, it would like to prevent Iran from becoming a regional player in defence of Arab interests, especially in Palestine. For this it is also propping up the Turkish state to adopt a more neutral policy vis-a-vis Israel as the Gaza Flotilla shows. The Turkish state is also no longer a secular one. It has a soft Islamic revivalist government and hard version of Islam in internal and external politics in the opposition. Internally, it would wish to see the anti-government forces overthrow the present Iranian regime. This is the real containment policy that was practised by the US against the socialist states during some phases of the Cold War.

Two, it must help the Israelis militarily. The Israeli airstrikes would need to be supplemented by the US capability of sustained air campaign in the region against the Iranian conventional preponderance. Israelis are incapable to obliterate the Iranian strength.

Three, the US raises the issue of Iran going nuclear. That would make Iran a counter-point to Israel. The reality of Iran going nuclear is clear for peaceful purposes. The US argument is of double use technologies—making the bomb and, according to a British specialist, one that cannot be found out for a long time. So the UN sanctions and the IAEA criticism came in.

The issue to be considered is: have the Iranians reached the critical point of nuclear weaponisation? Can they deploy it, if they have it? By all guesses the answer is a big “no”. There is no estimate to suggest this development. At best they may test it. Like India they may also follow recess deterrence after it. If the position of their detonating a test was reached the Russians, who are committed to the US bilaterally and non-proliferation, would not be helping them with the nuclear plant. The Chinese know of the Russian commitment to non-proliferation since the 1950s. The Chinese themselves are helping against the Iranian case. The issue therefore does not need a war in terms of Israeli bombing and the US giving air-support.

This last point of US air-support is the most hard and of strategic importance. It is felt and propagated that if the Iranians gain in clout the interests of the Western powers in oil transportation in the Hormuz might be jeopardised. It is suggested that as a counter to the Israeli strategies the Iranians might mine the Hormuz with their small boats. Historically speaking since the writings of Alfred Thayer Mahan, the Hormuz, along with the Malacca Straits, have grave importance for any country that needs to be present in the Indian Ocean—the US, Russia, China and India. There are reports that China is equally interested in the area and so its string of naval facilities from Bangladesh to Pakistan. Currently the argument being built is that the Iranians have the power to deny transition of oil through the Hormuz and thereby cause the deepening of current recession in the West. It is in this context that the US may intervene militarily to prevent such a happening in aid of an Israeli attack.

SO, any one of these factors could trigger the war against Iran. If talks on Palestine fail that the US has sponsored, if the Iraqis are unable to manage their own affairs, if the Saudis along with a strange bedfellow, Syria, insist on containing Iran’s land power, if the Israelis need to bomb the nuclear sites with US help or if the US takes out its short surgical aerial warfare for which it has a proven capacity, or if the US wants to help the internal revolt in Iran—then a war on Iran is possible.

When would it be? The answer will depend on Obama’s intensive return to foreign policy after the December Congressional elections, the US’ military preparations for a war and some precipitating incident in the eyes of the US and the Israelis, US politics after the US Congressional elections, the outcome in Afghanistan as a result of the Petraeus plan and the larger West and South Asia picture, the internal condition of Iran and Turkey. War may happen even if on the face of it nobody wants it. Conjunctures may lead us to it perhaps not before mid-2011. There won’t be victors even if the US finishes with its air strikes fast. It cannot sustain regimes and economies. It has to pay a huge bill to Pakistan and all other countries who are supporting it strategically. There can only be breast-beaters in West and South Asia even if states in the region regard the Iranians peacock-lonely and beautiful.

Ms Clinton has praised the US foreign policy on signing a START instalment with Russia, on starting a dialogue with China, on sanctions on Iran, development of relations with India, but not much on Afghanistan, Sudan, Mexico’s drug trafficking, North Korea’s succession issue, and other issues with China. Her remark that the peace dialogue between Abbas and Netanhayu may be the last chance to negotiate can be read in many ways. If this is combined with her focus on America’s capacity to lead the world in crisis, one way of reading it is: if need be, there will be war with multilateral support. This may just be a follow-up to the economic and psychological war.

The author is a former Professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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