|While a decision on war has apparently been kept on hold, it is entirely possible that it could be waged at a later date. Only a fundamental shift in position, by either Tehran or Washington, can defuse the crisis.|
Iran’s refusal to halt its uranium enrichment drive, despite the sanctions that have been imposed on it, has encouraged hawks in the Bush administration and Israel to press for military strikes against Tehran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s remarks at the United Nations General Assembly that the state of Israel is in terminal decline, and that the eclipse of the American empire is on the horizon, have further infuriated pro-war lobbies in both countri es.
In Israel, the former military chief, Moshe Yaalon, remarked that an Israeli armed confrontation with Iran had become inevitable. He said: “Today, we in the West are facing the same situation, the lack of decisiveness toward a threat no less severe than that which Hitler posed in 1939.”
Observations made by Israeli military intelligence sources have added to a sense of urgency in Israeli ruling circles with respect to dealing with Iran.
In a recent Cabinet briefing, a senior Israeli military intelligence official observed: “The sanctions have very little influence, and are far from bringing to bear a critical mass of pressure on Iran.” He added: “Iran is developing a command of uranium-enrichment technology and is galloping toward a nuclear bomb.”
The statement made on September 22 by Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, that the IAEA had not made “substantive progress” in clarifying the “possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme,” has encouraged those who see air strikes as the only way to curb Tehran’s presumed drive towards atomic weapons.
Notwithstanding an aggressive campaign to shape public opinion in favour of an attack, there has been a major shift in the political circumstances that the advocates of war now encounter. Russia’s military assertion in Georgia and a show of strength in parts of West Asia, combined with domestic political and economic preoccupations in Washington, appear to have forestalled the chances of an immediate strike against Iran.
Following Russia’s movement into South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev acknowledged that Moscow was aware that serious plans to attack Iran had been laid out. “We know that certain players are planning an attack against Iran. But we oppose any unilateral step and [a] military solution to the nuclear crisis,” he said at the Valdai Discussion Club, an annual forum of opinion-makers in Moscow.
Russia’s confrontation with Georgia appeared to be partly responsible for Moscow’s perception that an attack on Iran was in the works. It is now acknowledged that Russia seized control of two airfields in Georgia from where air strikes against Iran were being planned. The Russian forces also apparently recovered weapons and Israeli spy drones that would have been useful for the surveillance of possible Iranian targets. A strike on Iran from Georgian soil would have been easier: planes could fly into Iran after crossing the Caspian Sea. Otherwise, Israeli aircraft would have to take off from home soil. In that case, sorties would involve a much greater distance.
Besides, this would entail seeking permission from Jordan and Iraq for an air corridor — an objective that would be harder to achieve.
In mid-September, Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s envoy to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, said Russia had received intelligence that indicated that Washington also had plans to use Georgian military infrastructure for a war on Iran.
Russia’s involvement in Georgia has therefore greatly strengthened Iran’s hand. Even prior to the conflict in the Caucuses, Russia had promised Iran 29 Tor M-1 anti-aircraft missiles. These weapons, since deployed, were meant to protect Iran’s nuclear installations. But more important, the possible delivery to Iran of the highly capable S-300 missiles is now a favourite topic of discussions in Ministries and Chanceries in the region and beyond. The S-300, which can be used to down both aircraft and ballistic missiles, has been described by some experts as a “game changer” in the region. It can track 100 targets simultaneously at a distance of around 120 km. Not surprisingly, the Israelis have held a massive air exercise in Greece, which has purchased S-300 missiles from Russia. One of the objectives of the exercise was apparently for Israel to familiarise themselves with this weapon and try out effective countermeasures to neutralise it.
The Russians have hinted that they do not have any immediate plans to deliver these missiles, but the possibility of transferring them to Iran at some later point has been left open-ended. Mr. Mededev’s adviser, Oleg Tsatsurin, in remarks quoted by the Israeli daily Haaretz, said: “Russia would not take any action that would change the balance of power in the Middle East or harm the excellent relations between Russia and Israel.”
Notwithstanding these verbal assurances, the possibility of S-300 exports to Iran provide Moscow with a powerful means of leverage to enforce its will. What Russia wants is international acceptance of its actions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as an acknowledgement of its re-emergence as a major player in West Asia.
Russia’s military tie-up with Syria, at Israel’s doorstep, is also unlikely to go down well in Israeli military circles. The visit to Moscow of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in August apparently resulted in an agreement that allows Russia to establish a naval base at Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartus.
Ten Russian warships are reportedly positioned at Tartus. Rear Admiral Andrei Baranov, the chief of Russian’s Black Sea Fleet, has said that Russian engineers were expanding the capacity of the harbour in Tartus to accommodate more ships. Besides, Russian teams were increasing capacity at Syria’s Latakia port.
The Russian military presence in Syria, a key ally of Iran, is likely to discourage a military strike against Damascus and Tehran. Russia is therefore in the process of providing sufficient deterrence in an arc covering West Asia’s Mediterranean coastline to an area north of the Persian Gulf.
Diplomatically, Moscow has exerted itself by undermining American efforts to impose fresh sanctions against Iran. The six Foreign Ministers of countries that are represented in the Security Council and Germany who met in New York on September 27 failed to agree on the imposition of fresh sanctions against Iran. The Russians and the Chinese were the key players who successfully opposed any new curbs on Tehran.
Two other developments have reduced the chances of an imminent attack against Iran. First, the Americans are looking inwards because presidential elections are round the corner. The only window to mount an attack, or permit Israel to do so, is between November 5 and January 20, when the elections are out of the way and a new administration is yet to assume office.
This is, however, unlikely because caretaker administrations are hardly expected to take major foreign policy decisions that would seriously impact on the new administration, even if the President-elect happened to be a Republican.
Second, the Americans are preoccupied with a mega-financial crisis at home. Billions of dollars are required to fix Wall Street, and bringing down Iranian nuclear facilities may appear to be a lesser priority.
Iranian retaliation, which will inevitably follow an attack, will trigger an unprecedented surge in oil prices — a scenario that would be unwelcome, especially as the U.S. economy is already in the doldrums.
While a decision on launching a war has apparently been kept on hold, it is entirely possible that it could be waged at a later date. Only a fundamental shift in position, by either Tehran or Washington, can defuse the crisis. Consequently, a military build-up around Iran, which is necessary to prosecute a war, is unlikely to be scaled down in a significant manner anytime soon.
While heavy force deployments around Iran have been reinforced by the Bush administration, a new development that needs further evaluation has surfaced. Apart from amassing military hardware, the Americans have begun to take tentative steps towards positioning diplomatic assets in Iran. The U.S. Treasury Department in late- September permitted the American-Iranian Council, a private organisation, to open an office in Tehran. The Council hopes to encourage academic exchanges between Iranian and American scholars, and later promote exchanges between law-makers. An idea of opening a U.S. Interests Section — a scaled-down embassy — in Tehran has been floated, though a final decision has been deferred until the next administration is in place.
The Americans have also shown enthusiasm for a face-to-face nuclear dialogue with Iran. This was apparent in the presence of top U.S. diplomat William Burns in the last round of talks with Iran that were led by European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
A diplomatic presence in Tehran will provide Washington with the flexibility of pursuing both options — of going ahead with war during the tenure of the next President, if the situation deteriorates, or rapidly moving on the reconciliation track through negotiations. The second option is the more likely one that will be exercised if Barack Obama is elected President of the United States.
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