Rich in oil and gas and situated in the Gulf region, Iran is flanked by American occupied, Iraq in the west and Afghanistan, in the east. Across the Gulf, towards southwest, is its principal regional rival Saudi Arabia and on its southeastern border is a nuclear power, Pakistan, with which Iran vies in offering transit route to Central Asian Republics. With a sizable American naval presence in the Arabian Sea in the south, Iran’s source of solace appears to be Russia and China in the far north and northeast, beyond Central Asia.
Iran’s strategic and geopolitical environment makes it highly security conscious and sensitive to developments in the region. Iran intends to strengthen its defenses and deterrent capability by acquiring nuclear weapons. It has a reasonably advanced ballistic missiles program that can deliver conventional and nuclear warheads.
Fully aware of its potentials, Iran aspires to play a pro-active role in the Middle East, a policy that is anathema to Israel, the United States and the conservative Arab regimes.
The US view of Iran may be summarized as follows:
1. Iran intends to expand its role in the Middle East. Its acquisition of weapons of mass destruction would bring about a paradigm shift in the power-balance in the Middle East and would be a threat to Israel and pro-American Arab countries.
2. A nuclear Iran would thwart American design to tighten its hold on the oil resources of the Gulf region and undermine American capability to command the VITAL MARITIME route passing through the Strait of Hormaz.
3. Iran’s assistance to Hizbullah and Hamas are to the detriment of Israel’s interests in Lebanon and Palestine. Recent Israel-Hizbullah conflict exposed Israel’s image of invincibility.
4. Iran is supplying arms to various resistance groups, in particular Shia militia of Muqtadar al-Sadr, in Iraq, which helps them, carry on guerrilla warfare against the American-led coalition. The US authorities are particularly critical of the supply of Iranian arms to the Mahdi Army, which is giving tough time to the Americans. Ironically, in some cases Iran is supporting the same groups that America favors.
5. If at any stage the US and coalition forces withdraw from Iraq, Iran would be able to strengthen Shia elements and substantially increase its influence on Iraq. Such a situation would not be acceptable to Saudi Arabia and Turkey. For stability in Iraq, it is imperative that Sunnis and Kurds are also given there due share. Saudi Arabia and Turkey may interfere if they find Iran promoting its interests at the cost of non-Shia groups. On its part, Iran has maintained links with Kurdish parties also to counter Turkish moves at penetrating Kurdish region.
6. Iran’s nuclear status would be a source of strength for the radical regime of Syria, which would not be in the interest of Israel, Egypt. Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
7. A defiant Iran would become a role model for Islamic radicals and extremists. There would be pressure on conservative and pro-American regimes in the Middle East to develop their nuclear programs and adopt independent foreign policies.
The United States wants to ‘contain’ Iran and the latter desires to break that ‘encirclement’.
Time and again the American leaders, including President Bush, have declared that a nuclear Iran is ‘unacceptable’.
The immediate American objective is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. In its attempt to prevent Iran from going nuclear, the United States may:
1. Resort to military strikes to knockout Iran’s nuclear installations or go for outright war of occupation.
2. Work for regime change in Iran in the hope that its replacement would abandon the country’s nuclear program.
3. Strengthen sanctions and try to make it costly for Iran to continue with its nuclear agenda.
4. Offer attractive reward to Iran for abandoning its nuclear ambitions.
Each of these options has its pros and cons and is easier said than done:
1. In case the United States resorts to military strikes, there would be a strong retaliation from Iran, which may engulf the entire region. Iran has sufficient firepower, provided mainly by Russia, to disrupt oil supplies from the Gulf region. Iran’s Supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has warned that Iran would hit back at American interests worldwide if the United States attacks his country to thwart its nuclear program. He has threatened to give “a comprehensive response to the aggressors.”
2. Although the conservative Arab regimes favor a non-nuclear Iran, they want to achieve this objective through peaceful means. The United States has built up its naval presence in the Arabian Sea but has shown restraint for now, fully knowing the disastrous consequences of any military adventure. However, it has not given up the military option as a means of the last resort. The occupation of Iran is in fact non option for America. Thousands of suicide bombers would be pleased to welcome the aggressors.
3. Reportedly the American operatives are already inside the Iranian territory for espionage purpose and to foment trouble. The US assistance to the opponents of the Iranian regime, the Mujahideen-i-Khalq, Arab, Kurds and Baloch minorities is well known. But the present government in Iran is quite popular and enjoys full support of the masses on the issue of the country’s nuclear program.
4. It is next to impossible to change the regime in a peaceful or clandestine manner. Ahmadinejad is not Mussadeq and these are not 1950s. The United States may succeed in creating disturbances but it is extremely unlikely that it can topple the regime. Besides, there is no guarantee or certainty that the next regime would not be nationalistic?
5. Since Iran has failed to comply with the Security Council resolution, the Permanent 5 + Germany are considering imposition of fresh sanctions. However, Russia and China, and to some extent Germany are soft. The French president has even spoken about living with a nuclear Iran. The United States and Britain are not likely to succeed in forging consensus in the Security Council over sanctions that are really damaging to Iran.
6. When it comes to national interest, honor and prestige, the sanctions don’t work. Iran is not likely to be browbeaten by sanctions. Iran knows that once it explodes a nuclear device, in due course the international community would come to terms with the reality and the sanctions would evaporate in thin air.
7. The sanctions did not work in the case of India and more so, Pakistan. On the contrary, now the United States rewarding nuclear India, in the very same field by providing advanced nuclear technology and Pakistan, is most important ally on its war on terror and getting economic and military aid.
8. There is a remote chance that Iran may refrain from crossing the nuclear threshold if the United States is prepared to recognize the legitimate interests of Iran in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and to assign it an important role in the region as the leader of the Shia bloc. After all, before the Revolution, the Shah of Iran was considered as the American policeman, and Tehran and Riyadh served as informal ‘twin pillars’ of stability in the Gulf region.
9. If the United States is able to wean Iran, it would strengthen its position in the ‘Great Game’ being played for its ascendancy over Central Asia and Afghanistan. The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, has offered “If it [Iran] stops its enrichment and reprocessing activities as demanded by the international community, we’re all prepared to have full–scale negotiations anytime and any place.” What does “full-scale” mean? If only Iran is ready to normalize with Israel, the rest would follow.
Notwithstanding the ground realities, the United States is gearing up for a possible military action. Reportedly, the United States may try to disable the entire structure of the Iranian armed forces by attacking Iran’s air defense systems, missile sites and command and control centers, along with nuclear installations that include enrichment facilities at Natanz, a heavy water plant at Arak and a uranium conversion plant at Isfahan. If the United States does not go ahead, there is a risk that Israel may do so.
United States has deployed two aircraft carrier groups with a flotilla of mine sweepers in the Gulf. Altogether there are 30 American ships in the vicinity of Iran’s coast.
The United States has also supplied Patriot anti-missile systems to regional Arab countries.
Saudi Arabia has prepared a long shopping list to enhance its conventional military capabilities. Obviously this is a windfall for American arms-makers who support the neo-conservatives and their policy of brinkmanship.
By naming Iran for troubles in Iraq, the US Administration may shift some of the blame for its failure in restoring semblance of normalcy in that country. It would be a good face-saving for the Republican president, only if Bush administration, with almost total depletion of its credibility with national and international community, is able to hawk its excuses to US congress and people of America. To say the least, it seems farfetched.
Be that as it may, the US administration and media is painting Iran, as the world’s largest sponsor of terrorism and an irresponsible state that denies the Holocaust and whose president wants to ‘wipe Israel off the map’ (Thanks to Verbal Diatribes and un-warranted intellectual discourses of Ahmedi Nijad). This propaganda campaign creates serious doubts about the US intentions.
Pakistan as a neighbor of Iran cannot be immune from the consequences of America’s Iran policy.
1. In case of American military strike, there may be demand on Pakistan to offer some military-air facilities. When the Pakistan government decided to build three new cantonments in Balochistan, it was rumored that they were meant to build up pressure on Iran to mend its ways.
2. In case of American attempts at regime change in Iran, US may desire Pakistan to provide a regional base in Balochistan, for infiltration, propaganda, command, control and monitoring purposes. Some recent incidents of terrorism in Iran are, alleged to have their roots on Pakistani territory. Thirteen Revolutionary guards were killed last month when a car bomb exploded in Zahedan. Four policemen were killed, one abducted and another wounded by rebels on 27 February 2007 in Sistan. Reportedly these rebels fled towards Pakistan. Voices are being raised in Iran that Pakistan is becoming a sanctuary for terrorists who are operating in Zahedan. Despite Iranian Demarche to Ambassador of Pakistan, the Iranians were cautious and absolved the Government of Pakistan. However, this is not a good omen.
3. In case sanctions are strengthened, Pakistan may be required to shelve the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project, which is vital for energy-starving Pakistan.
4. In case any Shia bloc was to emerge, it would be disastrous for the whole Muslim world. Irrespective of whether there is an Iran-America rapprochement or not, the United States is likely to play the sectarian card. In fact, Secretary of State Rice has made it clear that the US intends to form a bloc of conservative (read Sunni) states of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan against Iran-Syria combine.
For Pakistan, the best course is to maintain a visible distance from the US policy towards Iran.
Pakistan could never afford to become instrumental in any American design against Iran, by allowing use of its territory for infiltration or military strikes. It should continue to oppose recourse to military means to prevent Iran from going nuclear and insist on dialogue.
Recent meeting of foreign ministers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan has created doubts that some Sunni or pro-American alliance is in the offing. Pointed questions have been raised that, if Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq were discussed, how come Iran and Syria were not invited?
No attempt at creation of Shia or a Sunni bloc should be made. History and succeeding generations of people, will never forgive Muslim leaders, both Sunni and Shia, in the event of either for designing, facilitating or ostensibly pre-empting any perceived design of anyone, for attempting or creating such a situation!!! A self-made disaster is going to be the destiny of every one.
It is heartening that King Abdullah and President Ahmedi Nijad met in Riyadh and declared that; "The two leaders asserted that the greatest danger threatening the Middle East at the present time is the attempt to spread strife between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and that efforts should be exerted to stop such attempts and close ranks," said the Saudi agency.
Pakistan is already deeply engrossed in Balochistan and Federally Administered Tribal Areas. With hostile India in the east and Afghanistan in the west, Pakistan cannot afford to invoke the wrath of Iran. It would be a folly of colossal proportion for Pakistan, given its internal political, ethnic and sectarian fissures.
The American hands are full in Iraq and Afghanistan. If it opts for a rash venture in Iran, it would pay the price. It would be better for the United States if it prepares itself to live with a nuclear Iran and sets its priorities accordingly.
Internationally scenario is slowly but steadily changing towards multi-polarity. Russia is reasserting itself. During his recent visit to Germany, President Putin criticized the United States for “hyper-use of force” and “disdain for the basic principles of international law”. The recent visit of Putin to Saudi Arabia with an offer for cooperation in the fields of oil, gas and nuclear energy is indicative of Russia’s desire to attract Saudi Arabia and to alley its fears concerning Iran.
Although China is discreet and more calculating, it too resents American unilateralism. Chinese military build-up is a testimony that it would like to play an active role in near future. Chinese fully comprehend the situation in the Middle East and Central Asia. Look at their preparedness now and the future provisions for defense, infrastructure and for funding its international alliances and commitments, in the fields of acquiring and securing energy resources, in the neighborhood and beyond.
Given the circumstances, if Pakistan was to rise from its apprehensions, it may find, the United States has neither the will nor the strength to browbeat it.
By cutting off economic aid to Pakistan, the United States would only lose whatever leverage it has on Pakistan. Let us hope that reason and rationality prevails over wishful thinking in the inner sanctums of US and the Region and the World is spared the agony of yet another fiasco that has horrendous consequences, that appears to be in the making.