The news that the US is supplying Patriot anti-missile
systems along with state-of-the-art weapons to Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar and is
deploying warships in the Arabian Gulf signifies one of two options. Either
this provocative move is meant as an anti-Iranian deterrent or Washington is
aware that something is afoot and wants to protect its allies.
US President Barack Obama recently used his State of the
Union address to warn Iran of �growing consequences� if it refused to
discontinue its uranium enrichment program. Likewise, former British Prime
Minister Tony Blair, now the Quartet�s Middle East envoy, ramped up the Iran
threat when giving evidence to Britain�s Iraq Inquiry last Friday, and urged
the international community to take �a very, hard, tough line� with Tehran.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has also reportedly told Lebanese Prime
Minister Saad Hariri that France has proof that Iran is developing nuclear
weapons, which, he warns will not be tolerated by Israel.
The fact that Gulf states view Iran with a certain amount of
suspicion is understandable. For one thing, Tehran could well be developing
nuclear capability, which would give it military supremacy over the region,
although it has always protested that its nuclear program is exclusively
civilian while maintaining its right to nuclear power under the terms of the
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
For another, it�s well-known that Iran has been spreading
its influence around the area with financial and military support to Lebanon�s
powerful political and military organization, Hezbollah, the Palestinian
resistance movement Hamas and rebel tribesmen in north Yemen. It is also
believed to have trained, armed and funded insurgents in Iraq and is supportive
of certain members of the Iraqi government, known to have close ties to Iran.
Moreover, Tehran has on more than one occasion threatened to
retaliate against American interests in the Gulf and to close the Straits of
Hormuz to shipping were it to be attacked by the US or Israel. In light of that
threat, who can blame GCC nations for wishing to protect themselves against
Iranian missiles in the event they were caught up in any future conflict not of
their own making.
It should be said that Saudi Arabia together with all the
Gulf countries have cautioned against any attack on Iranian nuclear facilities,
which would destabilize the neighborhood and devastate economies. They would
prefer a peaceful resolution to disagreements between Tehran and the West;
hopes of which are fading.
However, when seen from the Iranian perspective, deployment
of anti-missile systems and US warships is an aggressive step that shuts the
door on d�tente, promised by Obama during the early days of his presidency.
Forgotten are his hopes of unconditional face-to-face talks
with the Ahmadinejad-led government; abandoned are his plans of reaching out to
the Iranians for rapprochement. Admittedly, Iran was lukewarm following Obama�s
friendly New Year message to the Iranian people but, on the other hand, the US
leader was too easily deterred. Indeed, he has been too easily deterred on a
range of topics, including the pursuit of Middle East peace. It�s evident that
the Obama administration is now taking a hard-line stance against the Iranian
regime and is thought to be backing Iranian opposition groups and insurgents in
hopes of toppling the government. It has also been pushing hard for severe
United Nations Security Council sanctions to be added to those already in place
but is being thwarted in that regard by China which benefits from oil deals
worth over $100 billion -- and to a lesser extent by Russia.
Russia, which has strong economic ties with Iran, is
reluctant to back sanctions. Last September, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei
Nesterenko said: �This language of sanctions, it is not our language . . .� A
month later, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned that nothing would be
gained by trying to intimidate Iran.
As the situation stands now, comparisons can be drawn
between attitudes to Iran and the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war, although there
are differences. Once again, the US and Britain -- heartily cheered on by
Israel -- are talking tough, almost to the point of saber rattling. However,
this time they have the full support of France and Germany. And, once again,
China and Russia together form a bulwark to their ambitions within the UN
The question is would Washington and its EU allies take
military action alone and without the cover of an appropriate UN resolution,
while they are still haunted by the specter of the Iraq blunder and its
potential illegality? After all, it is credible that Tehran is not, in fact,
seeking a nuclear weapons� capability, in which case, any attack would be
tantamount to yet another war of aggression. Such a course would also be a hard
sell among a skeptical Western public sick of seeing their soldiers return from
Afghanistan and Iraq in flag-draped coffins.
A far more likely scenario would be an attack by Israel with
the tacit approval of the US and other Western powers. The Israeli public would
likely throw its weight behind its government as most Israelis see Iran as an
existential threat. At the same time, Israel doesn�t worry too much about
flouting international law or receiving United Nations censure, as any
condemnation will be labeled �anti-Semitic� and ignored. Israel does consider a
green light from its benefactor, the US, all-important, however.
Certainly, former US Ambassador to UN John Bolton is
convinced that Israel will attack Iran but, thus far, his predictions have
failed to manifest, including the last indicating there would be a military
confrontation before the end of 2009.
If Bolton is essentially right, even though his timing�s
off, it is impossible to imagine the repercussions from such a strike that will
be suffered by this region and beyond. It�s unlikely that Israel could knock
out all Iran�s nuclear facilities, known to be numerous, spread far and wide
and, in some cases, deep underground. There is another unknown factor too.
Nobody knows for sure what ready-made weapons Iran has purchased and
accumulated over the decades.
If Obama doesn�t want his Nobel Peace Prize to turn into
history�s biggest joke, he should stick to his original plan of sitting around
a table with Iranian decision-makers and reassure them that the US means Tehran
no harm and is prepared to rein in Israel. That�s the only setting in which
Iran can be convinced to make its nuclear program transparent. It�s surely
worth a try when the alternative is so frighteningly awful!
S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes
feedback and can be contacted by email at email@example.com.