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US-Iran 'cold war' warming up

By Marwan Bishara

Washington has taken advantage of Tehran's nuclear programme and regional ambitions to portray Iran as a dangerous regional power that must be contained, deterred, and if/when necessary, confronted sooner rather than late.

After year-long optimism that the three decade old US-Iran standoff might finally come to an accommodation, the two sides are ratcheting up their rhetoric and in the process risk new escalation with unpredictable consequences.

This weekend's leaked US intelligence reports about Iran's plans to build new nuclear reactors are adding urgency to already tense relations.

Washington has taken advantage of Tehran's nuclear programme and regional ambitions to portray Iran as a dangerous regional power that must be contained, deterred, and if/when necessary, confronted sooner rather than later.

Washington's 'psychological warfare' against Tehran has been fought in the diplomatic and public opinion arenas, as well as in the Gulf where the US military has been parading it war ships.

Media leaks drip-fed by the US and Israel envisions attacks on Iran's nuclear and military facilities as well as proxy wars against Iran's allies.

After spelling out the Iranian threat, real and manufactured, the US has gallantly come forward to sell its 'exposed' regional clients expensive weapons to protect them from an 'unpredictable' and 'increasingly militarised' Iranian regime.

Good to its name, the mini 'cold war' between the US and Iran have precluded direct serious military confrontations for over three decades while hurling the worst possible accusations against each other. All along the real battles have been fought by proxy.

Israel's 2006 war on the Lebanese Hezbollah and its 2008 war on the Hamas-led Palestinian entity in the Gaza Strip are proof enough.

Even the Saudi-Yemeni war against Al-Huthis in northern Yemen was dubbed as necessary defence against growing Iranian influence.

But as Washington's containment and alliance building strategy against Iran reaches its limitations, what can Washington do to stem the Iranian tide?

Vicious cycles

Ever since the US became the dominant superpower in the Middle East after World War Two, successive American governments have interfered in the region with ultimatums and wars.

In the five decades between the overthrow in 1953 of an elected government in Iran that it engineered and its 2003 war on Iraq, Washington has spearheaded numerous military interventions, regime changes and proxy wars in the region.

Every decade or so, the US-Israel combine demonised a movement or leader who stood for regional change and demanded that people and governments take sides.

In the 1950s, Jamal Abdul Nasser's pan-Arab nationalism emanating from Egypt was compared to Nazism. In the '60s Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organisation was dubbed as the leading terrorist movement till Ayatollah Khomeini's movement in Iran took that mantle in the '70s.

Soon after forcing an Iranian surrender, a reinvigorated Saddam Hussein became the new enemy in the late 1980s, only to be substituted in the late 1990s by Osama Bin Laden's Al Qaeda.

Each one of those designated enemies, large and small, had to pay the price, directly or indirectly, within a decade or so.

Nasser was defeated in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Arafat in the invasion of Lebanon, Khomeini was curtailed by the eight year-long war against an US- supported Iraq, Saddam was defeated twice in 1991 and 2003, and Bin Laden has been hiding for almost a decade since the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001.

Is Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the next scapegoat for the new decade?

The new bogeyman

For Washington, Iran is the ideal regional enemy. If it did not exist, the Pentagon would have created something every close.

Iran is big enough to justify a major US build-up in the region, and Ahmadinejad is loud enough to be demonised and Tehran is sufficiently ambitious to alienate many of its neighbours and push them into US arms.

The Iranian regime has invested in problematic nuclear and missile programmes and supports robust resistance movements and continues to form new alliances with anti-US leaders like Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

Moreover, Tehran insists on representing a greater, more benevolent idea of a unified Muslim alternative to Western agenda that goes beyond narrow nationalism or Shia sectarianism.

In so many ways, Tehran is walking in the footsteps of its former Soviet neighbours to the north.

However, unlike Moscow, Tehran presents no serious military, ideological or economic threat or challenge to the United States and the Nato alliance and certainly is incapable of creating an alternative or competing project in the Middle East.

Fact and fiction

Since the Iraq fiasco and the rise of the New Right lead by Ahmadinejad in 2005, Iran has behaved like a lion who recovered its long lost roar.

Iran's size, resources, geography and determination of its regime renders it de facto regional power to reckon with; especially in relation to divided and humiliated Arab leaders.

But not opposite the US. While Iran projects an image of a military power, its arms budget is only one per cent of what the US spends and its capacity to project force beyond its border is very limited.

Iran's economy is in bad shape and growing weaker. Its oil revenues have decreased and investments in the energy sector are comparatively low if its questionable nuclear programme is set aside.

Likewise, Iran's internal stability remains fragile even though the regime has suppressed recent domestic 'upheavals'.  Its middle class is poor and bitter and continues to challenge Ahmadinejad and the results of the recent elections.

Iran's Shia sectarian ideology cannot go far in a predominantly Sunni region, just as its ambitions face serious challenges from other either more powerful, better connected or richer regional players such as Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia along with the nuclear powers Israel and Pakistan.

At best, Iran can fend for itself.

With its northern and southern neighbours swarming with US/Nato troops and its other neighbours, Turkey and the Gulf countries armed and aligned with the US, Tehran worries that Washington is encircling it and may engineer a regime change.

However, in the light of costly fiascos and painful military interventions by the US in the region, Iran has taken advantage of Arab and Muslim anger to rally the region behind its strategic gamble.

While anti-Americanism might earn Tehran some admiration and even distant support in certain corners, by no means is it sufficient to form a new regional order, let alone a worldview.

What it does provide is Washington the excuse it needs to maintain its heightened military deployment in the oil-rich region and ensure that its rulers remain dependent on the US for protection.

Cold war, hot region

Meanwhile, Washington and Tehran maintain two different calendars.

Preoccupied by the military escalation in Afghanistan and the future security of Iraq, the Obama administration reckons this is a bad time for military confrontation with Iran, if ever there was to be one.

But as Washington paces out its regional strategy, Tehran is accelerating nuclear enrichment in the hope of achieving the status of a 'nuclear state' before the Obama administration and its Western allies close in on it along with China and Russia.

The movement towards sanctions against Iran, which picked up momentum over the last few days, should be viewed in this context. It is clear that the Obama administration has opted for an intermediate strategy, a sort of 'third way' between overtures/reconciliation and military action/war.

This way, both sides benefit. Tehran gets to maintain its image as unrestrained regional power and Washington gets to finish its other wars, continue to project force in the Middle East and justify up to a trillion dollar defence budget.

By the time US forces withdraw from Iraq and presumably from Afghanistan by the end 2011, the Gulf region and Iran in particular will be the new front where the US forces will redeploy.

Would Tehran become a 'nuclear power' by then, or merely a 'nuclear state' with no nuclear arms? The answer will determine whether the US will confront Iran head on sooner rather than later, or will leave it to implode from within over the next decade like its Cold War bogeyman, the Soviet Union.

Alas, it is very difficult to say if or when Tehran might produce the nuclear arms considering the disinformation about Iran's nuclear programme over the last quarter of a century.

If I got a dollar every time the media predicted imminent production of Iranian nuclear arms, I would have been a millionaire by now. Ahem...

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