Sunday, October 08, 2006

Showdown With Iran: Views from the UK

What was the purpose of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice's Middle East tour last week? Why is the U.S. now purporting to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?

Brian Whitaker, the Guardian's Middle East editor, thinks it was about the U.S. trying to build a coalition against Iran. In a column in Friday's Guardian titled "Condi's top priority," Whitaker writes:

The purpose of Condoleezza Rice's visit to the Middle East is becoming clear - to encourage Arab states to form an alliance against Iran. […] The idea is to form a "moderate" alliance in which Israel and some of the Arab countries (principally Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states) would join forces to combat Iranian influence, and Shia influence more generally.
And how does the U.S. propose to sell this plan to moderate Arab regimes?

The bones of the emerging package are that Arab support for the US and Israel against Iran would be rewarded by progress - or at least the prospect of progress - on the Israeli-Palestinian front. So now, for example, we have the Israeli justice minister, Meir Sheetrit, testing the water with a hint that Israel might finally be prepared to discuss the Arab Peace Initiative after ignoring it for the last four years.

"We are talking about a full peace," he said encouragingly. "We want a full peace. We do not necessarily have to accept every detail of the initiative - withdrawal to the 1967 borders. But let's talk."
Whitaker is understandably skeptical of the U.S.’s ability to sell this package to Arab leaders. He quotes Michael Hudson, a Middle East specialist at Georgetown University, for the proposition that the U.S. is short on credibility on the Palestinian-Israeli file:

There's no doubt that there are people in the Gulf, especially, who are very worried about Iran, but the idea that they would be enlisted in an alliance with the US and Israel is just not a politically inviting prospect.

Until the US starts getting actively and even-handedly involved in bringing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to an end, it's really politically impossible for the so-called moderate Arab leaders to sign on to the [anti-Iran] project.

The BBC’s John Leyne also sees Condi’s Middle East tour as part of a U.S. anti-Iran strategy. In a piece on the BBC’s website titled, “Iran behind Rice's Mid-East tour,” Leyne writes that:

By all accounts, the US secretary of state had no fresh ideas to offer to revive what used to be called the Middle East peace process. Both the Palestinian and Israeli sides have governments too weak to handle any major initiative. Aides on all sides played down the prospects of any progress. It seems they were right. So why come at all? Many Arab and Israeli commentators have found the same answer: Iran.

As the columnist Saul Singer wrote in the Jerusalem Post on Friday: "Every time the White House decides to confront a rogue regime, the state department decides it's time to build a coalition."

Another writer, Abdallah Iskandar, put it this way in Al Hayat newspaper on Monday: "Condoleezza Rice arrives in the region today. Her announced aim is to revive the Middle East peace process and stiffen the Arab position against Iran. In other words, the US administration is linking the Middle Eastern conflict to the Iranian file." (paragraph breaks and headings omitted)

Now, here’s where Leyne’s piece gets really interesting. Why is Rice trying to sell Arab allies of the U.S. on joining an anti-Iran coalition now? And what does all this tell us about what the U.S. is planning? Here is Leyne's answer:

If Iran was the real reason behind this visit, there is another implication. If the US wants to pursue the diplomatic route in the dispute with Iran, Arab support is not exactly critical. The only Arab country on the Security Council is Qatar, hardly a crucial vote to be lobbied for. No, the logic of this line of reasoning is that military action against Iran is now being very seriously considered in Washington.

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has now been unmasked, by Bob Woodward in his book State of Denial, as someone to whom President George W Bush turns for advice. So his words should be taken very seriously. In an article in the Washington Post two months ago, Dr Kissinger argued for taking a tough line against Iran's nuclear programme. Otherwise, he warned, "every country... will face growing threats, be they increased domestic pressure from radical Islamic groups, terrorist acts or the nearly inevitable conflagrations sparked by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction".

It sounds almost identical to the argument put forward by Vice-President Dick Cheney on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. Only tough action will make us safe. The implication of that theory is already being played out in Iraq. There is growing evidence Iran may be its next test. (paragraph breaks and headings omitted)

So far, I've been considering the likelihood of a pre-election Showdown with Iran as a Rovian political stunt. I continue to think the odds are on an October Surprise, and that a Showdown with Iran is the form it would be likely to take. But there may be a different calculation favoring a pre-election confrontation with Iran as well.

Simply put, key White House and neo-con players may view the next month or so as their last chance to confront Iran military. If they become convinced (as now increasingly seems to be the case) that the Democrats are likely to take back either the House, the Senate, or both, and if they believe that confronting Iran militarily would become significantly more difficult or impossible to achieve with a Democratic-controlled Congress, they may be under tremendous pressure to act quickly, before their window of opportunity closes.

So here we are. The White House may be planning a Showdown with Iran as a last-gasp election stunt to avert an electoral disaster in November. And the White House may be planning a Showdown with Iran because it faces the prospect of an electoral disaster in November.

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