Saturday, July 29, 2006

The rise of Iran as an unintended consequence of American policy in the Middle East

If you think of foreign policy as a huge game with multiple players whose actions for and against one another can have the unintended consequence of putting one team ahead then you have to consider what is and has been going on in the Middle East as pushing Iran to the top of the list. At least that is what Daniel Benjamin thinks. He argues that Iran has benefited from recent events, not the least of which is events instigated by the United States and American allies in the region. He writes,
…. the contrast between the appearance of hostility and the reality that
American policy has consistently reduced the pressure on Iran to behave and has
thus emboldened it to take a more aggressive course.

…. By toppling the Taliban in 2001-02, the United States removed the threat to Iran's east. The Taliban were not a great danger to Iran, but, in a foretaste of the
sectarian murderousness of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, they had the habit of
slaughtering Hazaras, the Shiites of Afghanistan's western provinces, whose
protection is an Iranian concern. The Taliban also murdered nine Iranian
diplomats in 1998, almost causing a war.

Dispatching the Taliban was a small favor compared with the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime, which had been the biggest check on Tehran since the two countries' war of 1980-88, in which Iran suffered roughly 1 million casualties in some of the most senseless fighting since the trench warfare of World War I. As home of the Iranian opposition Mujahedin e-Khalq, Iraq remained a permanent thorn in the clerics' side. The Bush administration believed that the post-9/11 wars would result in U.S. troops and American-leaning regimes on either side of Iran and therefore a more airtight containment of the Islamic republic. With all its prewar talk of "shock and awe," the Bush team was also convinced that the demonstration effect of U.S. military power would have the mullahs quivering in their robes.

It didn't work out that way. No one can say if any U.S. occupation would have worked out, but if the Pentagon had put 400,000 troops on the ground in Iraq, the chances are greater that the Sunni insurgency could have been extinguished early on, and Iran would have felt significant pressure even as a Shiite majority came to power in Baghdad. But the comprehensive botch of the occupation has had the opposite effect. One Middle Eastern diplomat put it perfectly last week when he told me the Iranians have the United States exactly where they want it: tied down in Iraq, overcommitted, and incapable of acting.

As Steven Simon and Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations
pointed out in a Washington Post
op-ed, the 135,000 overburdened U.S. troops are potential hostages—or targets—for Iran should the United States take military action to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities. With many of Iraq's Shiite militias
and major Shiite political organizations subsidized by Tehran, life for the U.S.
forces could become very unpleasant very quickly. America has waged two wars in five years; Iran has been the big winner…..

The sum of all these missteps is that the Iranians feel they are in the driver's seat. When Condoleezza Rice persuaded Bush to commit his about-face in June and offer a package of incentives and direct talks over the nuclear issue, the Iranians felt
confident enough to ignore our deadlines and tell us they'd get back to us in
late August. Hezbollah's kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers should also be seen
as a response to U.S. pressure on the nuclear issue: By having terrorists nab
the Israelis, the Iranians both upended the G8 summit discussions about their
nuclear program and sent a clear reminder of the tools at their disposal should
there be a confrontation. They probably miscalculated regarding Israel's
reaction, but the message was unmistakable.

That Iran has broad regional ambitions—to steal the mantle of leadership in the Arab-Israeli conflict, ride the Shiite revival that began with the fall of Saddam, and fulfill its ambition to become a regional hegemon—is increasingly clear. The
containment strategy that had held the line on Iran for more than a decade looks
to be in tatters. It is tempting to say that the destruction of Lebanon is
the culmination of the administration's failed policy for the region. At this
point, though, that might just be too optimistic.

You can read the entire article here at Slate.

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