By M K Bhadrakumar
26/03/08 "Asia Times" -- -- The coming few weeks are going to be critical in the standoff between the United States and Iran as the upheaval in the Middle East reaches a turning point. And all options do remain on the table, as the George W Bush administration likes to say, from military conflict to a de facto acceptance of Iran's standing as the region's dominant power.
One thing is clear. The time for oratorical exercises is ending. A phase of subtle, reciprocal, conceptual diplomatic actions may be beginning. An indication of this is available in the two radio interviews given by Bush last weekend and beamed into Iran, exclusively aimed at reaching out to the Iranian public on the Persian New Year Nauroz.
Significantly, ahead of Bush's interviews, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger spoke. Kissinger, incidentally, is a foreign policy advisor to the Republican Party's presidential nominee, Senator John McCain. For the first time, Kissinger called for unconditional talks with Iran. That is a remarkable shift in his position. Kissinger used to maintain that the legacy of the hostage crisis during the Iranian revolution in 1979 and "the messianic aspect of the Iranian regime" represented huge obstacles to diplomacy, and combining with "Persian imperial tradition" and "contemporary Islamic fervor", a collision with the US became almost unavoidable. Interestingly, Kissinger's call was also echoed by Dennis Ross, who used to be a key negotiator in the Middle East, and carries much respect in Israel.
Bush's interviews with the government-supported Voice of America and Radio Farda, especially the latter, were a masterly piece in political overture. He held out none of the customary threats against Iran. This time, there was not even the trademark insistence that "all options are on the table". There were no barbs aimed at President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Least of all, there were no calls for a regime change in Tehran. Bush simply said something that he might as well have said about Saudi Arabia or Egypt. As he put it, "So this is a regime and a society that's got a long way to go [in reform]."
Bush spoke of the evolution of the Iranian regime's character rather than its overthrow. The criticism, if any, of Iranian government policies approached nowhere near the diatribes of the past. There was none of the boastful claims that the US would work toward isolating Iran in its region and beyond. In fact, Bush acknowledged, "There's a chance that the US and Iran can reconcile their differences, but the [Iranian] government is going to have to make different choices. And one [such choice] is to verifiably suspend the enrichment of uranium, at which time there is a way forward."
Bush assured that in return the US would be "reasonable in our desire to see to it that you have civilian nuclear power without enabling the government to enrich [uranium]". Here again, he pointed out that the problem is that "they [Iranian governments] have not told the truth in the past, and therefore it's very difficult for the United States and the rest of the world - or much of the rest of the world - to trust the Iranian government when it comes to telling the truth".
Bush elaborated, "Well, one thing is to reiterate my belief that the Iranians should have a civilian nuclear-power program. It's in their right to have it. The problem is that the government cannot be trusted to enrich the uranium because, one, they've hidden programs in the past and they may be hiding one now - who knows? And, secondly, they've declared they want to have a nuclear program to destroy people - some - in the Middle East. And that's unacceptable and it's unacceptable in the world. But what is acceptable to me is to work with a nation like Russia to provide the fuel so that the plant can go forward. Which therefore shows that the Iranian government doesn't need to learn to enrich."
Arguably, Bush's interviews signify that "unconditional talks" may have begun with Iran. Everything - almost everything - he said indeed had a caveat. But then, isn't that how negotiations commence without loss of face between any two stubborn adversaries?
Any number of reasons could be attributed to the Bush administration finally jettisoning a war strategy toward Iran. First and foremost comes the unbearable financial cost of waging a war with Iran, which would have to be underwritten by China, Saudi Arabia and Japan. As Nobel Laureate and US economist Joseph Stiglitz stated last week, the impact of the subprime crisis in the US will persist for two to three years, and only after that time could the US economy hope to recover. Stiglitz blamed the Iraq war for dragging down the US economy. "It has proven to be an enormous error," he said, stressing that the Iraq war has been "a disaster in every way".
If in 2001 the US spent about US$4.4 billion a month on military operations in Iraq, the figure had jumped to $8.4 billion by 2007. By the end of the current year, the financial costs of the Iraq war could rise above $650 billion. The human costs have been equally unacceptable. The number of US troops fallen in Iraq now exceeds 4,000. Over 29,000 soldiers have been wounded. The brand "America" has taken a beating that will take years to repair. The horrific images of Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, Haditha, Mahmudiya and Bagram will linger in memory for a long time.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll in March shows that 63% of Americans feel the Iraq war was not worth fighting and only a slight majority of Americans believe now that the war will one day succeed. Clearly, there is no stomach for yet another war in the remaining term of the Bush presidency.
Equally, everything is up in the air on the warfronts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Bush administration has its hands full. The sudden visit of US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, accompanied by Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher, to Islamabad on Tuesday, no sooner than the newly elected Pakistani government assumed office, underscores the gravity of the crisis facing the Bush administration in Afghanistan.
What is at stake now is Pakistan's willingness to continue as an ally in the "war on terror". At the very minimum, the terms of engagement will have to be renegotiated, which, of course, is going to take time and a lot of patience and give-and-take. That is, assuming the Pakistani leadership will show the grace to take the Bush administration as anything other than a lame duck.
This became apparent when soon after meeting the US officials in Islamabad on Tuesday, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif - who is emerging as Pakistan's number one politician - alleged publicly that the people of Pakistan are being "mercilessly" killed in the name of the "war on terror".
"We should not kill our own people for the sake of others," he said. He sought a review of the entire war strategy. "The basic issue is that just as the US wants to be safe from terrorism, we don't want to see bombs and missiles flying in our villages, we want our people to be safe and we don't want blood to flow in our streets," Sharif insisted.
He was virtually endorsing a call by the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party, which is forming the government in the sensitive North-West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan, for a negotiated solution to the alienation in Pakistan's tribal areas. Clearly, with hardly a week to go for the 60th anniversary summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Bucharest, Romania, the agenda of the Afghan war has become much more than an issue of the alliance's force levels.
The status of the Iraq war, too, hangs in balance. After what appeared to be a descending calm, the security situation is showing signs of fragility. Sunday's mortar strikes on Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, which is home to the Iraqi government and the US Embassy, underline the pretence behind the Bush administration's claims of "success" of the so-called "surge" strategy. It does seem as if someone just thought of shaking up the dream world that Washington sought to create.
Again, the southern Basra region has gone under curfew following fighting among Shi'ite political parties and their militias. Most ominous, the Mahdi Army, loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, is showing signs of becoming restive. Its self-imposed ceasefire was one main reason why the graph of violence had dipped in recent months.
The Bush administration's priority will be to leave it to the next president in the White House to decide on any major reduction of troops in Iraq. But that means the Iraqi situation will remain in focus all through the period of the presidential campaign till November. The Bush administration needs to count on Tehran's tacit cooperation with the US to use its formidable influence with Iraqi groups. Belligerence toward Iran is hardly the way the Bush administration can realize this objective.
But after a recent visit to Iran, prominent US author and commentator Selig Harrison wrote in The Boston Globe newspaper, "Tehran is seething over what it sees as a new 'divide and rule' US strategy designed to make Iraq a permanent US protectorate". He was referring to the current US strategy of building up rival Sunni militias - euphemistically called the "Sunni Awakening" - so as to fence in the Shi'ite-dominated government in Baghdad.
The Sunni militias presently number some 90,000 US-equipped fighters, each paid $300 per month. But, as Harrison recounted his conversations in Iran, "The message was clear: Unless [US General David] Petraeus drastically cuts back the Sunni militias, Tehran will unleash the Shi'ite militias against US forces again."
Sunday's violence, conceivably, may be a harbinger of things to come unless the US accommodates Iranian interests. It may have displayed that Iran has the will and the capacity to remain the dominant influence in Iraq with or without a stable government in Baghdad and with or without US acquiescence. The Bush administration has no real choice in the matter. Conversely, what the Bush administration could do is to build on the convergence of interests with Tehran in keeping the Iraqi security situation from degenerating in the critical months ahead in US domestic politics.
Harrison sums up his impressions following talks with interlocutors in the Iranian government: "Iran and the US have a common interest in a stable Iraq ... Before cooperating to stabilize Iraq, however, Iran wants assurances that the US will not use it as a base for covert action and military attacks against the Islamic Republic and will gradually phase out its combat troops. Cooperation will endure only if Washington lets the Shi'ites enforce the terms for the new ethnic equation in Iraq and, above all, if it recognizes Iran's right by virtue of geography and history to have a bigger say in Iraq's destiny than its other immediate neighbors, not to mention the faraway United States."
Evidently, the crucial ingredient henceforth of the Bush administration's Iraq policy is no longer a withdrawal schedule but a political and diplomatic underpinning for a military strategy. Hence the importance of US Vice President Dick Cheney's current tour of the Middle East. Quite uncharacteristically, Cheney eschewed any strident anti-Iran rhetoric during his tour. (The Iranians, on their part, reciprocated by ignoring Cheney's presence in the region.)
But what multiplies the "Iranian challenge" is the grim reality that Tehran may have withstood all attempts by the Bush administration to create dissensions within the Iranian regime. Following the recent parliamentary elections in Iran on March 14, the regime has greatly consolidated. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), custodians of the Iranian revolution of 1979, are finally on the threshold of consolidating their political power in addition to the considerable economic and administrative power they already enjoy.
The so-called "reformist" platform - comprising 21 moderate parties that included the allies of former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi - could together muster only less than 20% of seats in the new Parliament. The "reformist" coalition was the Bush administration's best hope.
In effect, the "reformist' coalition has become a spent force and is now likely to disintegrate. Already by end-February, Rafsanjani seems to have sensed this defeat of "black Shi'ism" by "red Shi'ism". He quickly changed tack and made up with Ahmadinejad. The ultimate clincher, of course, was the extraordinary gesture of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to publicly voice support of Ahmadinejad. Addressing the powerful Assembly of Experts (headed by Rafsanjani) on February 26, Khamenei praised the role of Ahmadinejad for "great success" on the nuclear issue. Later in the evening on the same day, Rafsanjani visited Ahmadinejad.
The IRGC has cadres numbering 10 million. Late spiritual leader ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had envisaged the IRGC to be the core of the Iranian revolution. The parliamentary elections have created a new power calculus devolving on the IRGC. The high turnout at the elections - over 60% - lends unquestionable legitimacy to this extraordinary political transformation of the Iranian regime, returning it, as it were, to its revolutionary moorings.
But it has not been the kind of "regime change" the Bush administration sought. Khamenei has emerged more powerful than ever and Ahmadinejad has considerably strengthened his political standing. Khamenei has risen above nitpicking by senior clerical conservatives. Thus, from Washington's perspective, the new Iranian Parliament will have a preponderant share of "hardliners" and will be more radical and more "loyal" to the regime - to use Western cliches. Bush's interviews on the occasion of Nauroz are a grudging admission of the emergent political alignment in Tehran. The Bush administration is pragmatic enough to estimate the need to engage Iran.
The real issue now is whether the emboldened leadership in Tehran shares the Bush administration's sense of urgency. It will carefully weigh its options. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki announced on Monday that Tehran "recently requested for membership" of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Ahmadinejad will be attending the SCO's summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Meanwhile, Iran's proposal to Russia to form a gas cartel is set to take off at a meeting of gas-producing countries in Moscow in June.
Tehran will surely estimate that Russia-US disputes are hard to settle; that Russia has major commercial interests in Iran; that Moscow needs Iran's endorsement of a multinational arrangement to exploit the Caspian Sea's energy resources. At the same time, Tehran estimates that a viable US exit from Iraq is still a long way off and in the run-up to the US presidential election, the Iraq war looms as a contentious domestic issue.
Besides, Tehran remains on the lookout for a shift in the US stance on the Nabucco gas pipeline sourcing Iranian gas via Turkey for the European market. Last week, Switzerland's Elektrizitaetshesellschaft Laufenburg signed a 25-year deal with the National Iranian Gas Export Company for the delivery of 5.5 billion cubic meters of Iranian gas annually. The agreement was signed during the visit of the Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey to Tehran.
Without Nabucco, the US strategy to reduce Europe's dependence on Russian gas supplies will remain a pipedream, and without Iranian gas, Nabucco itself makes little sense, while Nabucco will be Iran's passport to integration with Europe.
Conceivably, Cheney, who takes a keen interest in energy diplomacy, would have kept Nabucco at the back of his mind in Ankara on Monday during his Middle East tour, on a day when Turkmenistan President Gurbangulu Berdimuhammedov also happened to be visiting the Turkish capital. An unnamed Turkmen official had earlier mentioned that Nabucco would be on the agenda of Berdimuhammedov's talks.
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).