Iran's turn for a 'coalition of the
willing' By Ehsan Ahrari
The Bush administration has conducted a
calculated three-tiered campaign either to force
Iran to lower its "threat potential" with regard
to its nuclear program or, failing that, to bring
about a regime change in Tehran. And within these
tiers, other layers are unfolding that confirm
Washington's unwavering determination to
resolve the matter, one way or
the other, one plodding step at a time.
This is illustrated by the latest wrinkle
in the crisis.
On Wednesday, the
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) wrapped
up a two-day meeting by deciding to forward a
report on Iran by its head, Mohamed ElBaradei, to
the United Nations Security Council. The report
found that after nearly three years of
inspections, the IAEA remained unable to rule out
the possibility that Iran still had secret nuclear
activities, which could include work related to
uranium enrichment and efforts to adapt weapons to
carry a nuclear bomb.
Referral to the UN
has always been the United States' goal in the
years of international wrangling over Iran's
nuclear program, which the US is convinced is
aimed at producing nuclear weapons, something
Tehran vigorously denies.
But now that
moment has come, the US has to tread carefully.
Russia and China, two of the permanent Security
Council members with veto powers, along with the
US, France and Britain, cannot be counted on to go
along with any moves to impose direct UN sanctions
Instead, as US Under Secretary of
State Nicholas Burns told a congressional
committee, the United States wanted a non-binding
presidential statement to "condemn" Iran when the
Security Council meets next week as Iran "directly
threatens vital American interests". After that,
he said, the US would move to a binding Chapter 7
resolution designed to "isolate" Tehran and
"hopefully influence its behavior".
much like "the coalition of the willing" that
invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, would
involve the United States' allies "to show that
they are willing to act [by imposing sanctions
against Iran], should the words and resolutions of
the United Nations not suffice", as Burns put it.
So the saga continues, all in line with
the United States' orchestrated plan to see the
matter through in terms of its three-tier
Tier 1: The European
connection This approach allowed the
European Three (Britain, France and Germany -
EU-3) to conduct the diplomatic campaign to
persuade Iran to forgo its uranium-enrichment
program, something that Tehran says it is entitled
to under its nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
The US never had any doubts that
Iran would not listen to the Europeans. What was
important was that this diplomatic campaign served
a purpose, which was to create a semblance that,
unlike in the case of Iraq in 2003, the
administration of President George W Bush was not
obsessed with carrying out a military operation to
stop Iran in the potential development of nuclear
However, such an option was never
far from the thinking of the US or its Israeli
Tier 2: War of words This involves gradually ratcheting up
threatening and accusatory rhetoric toward Iran
regarding its nuclear program and about its "real"
intentions in Iraq.
US Vice President Dick
Cheney continued his share of this campaign when
he spoke to the pro-Israeli American-Israel Public
Affairs Committee on Monday: "The Iranian regime
needs to know that if it stays on its present
course [of enriching uranium], the international
community is prepared to impose meaningful
Cheney continued, "For our
part, the United States is keeping all options on
the table in addressing the irresponsible conduct
of the regime. And we join other nations in
sending that regime a clear message: we will not
allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon."
phrase "keeping all options on the table" has
become a euphemism to threaten Iran with military
action, either from the US or from Israel. Bush
has used the phrase on a number of occasions.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld added
his bit on Tuesday by accusing Iran of dispatching
the Al-Quds Division of its Revolutionary Guard to
"stir trouble inside Iraq". This division is
understood to conduct military-style operations
aimed at destabilizing a government - much like
the US Special Forces - outside Iran. Even though
Iran is suspected of influencing the outcome of
Iraqi elections, that was the first time that any
American official had accused it of using the
The question is, why the
ratcheting up of this rhetoric against Iran now?
The most likely answer is that Iran and Syria have
remained the most obvious targets of US criticism
for all the insurgency-related trouble it is
encountering in Iraq.
There is little
doubt that such criticism has basis. At the same
time, one has to remain highly conscious of the
insatiable desire of US officials to find a
scapegoat for their country's inability to tackle
effectively the Iraqi insurgency.
reason might be that, by accusing Iran of using
its own version of "special forces" in Iraq, the
US might also be getting ready to indulge itself
in "tit-for-tat" activities. American journalist
Seymour Hersh accused the Bush administration
several months ago of using Special Forces to
monitor nuclear sites inside Iran. There have also
been reports that Israel's Mossad is involved in
similar activities by using Iraqi territory to
launch espionage operations in Iran.
has always been an influential actor in Iraq. The
commonality of Shi'ite religion is its chief
basis. From the perspectives of realpolitik, Iraq
tried to influence the politics of Iran - or at
least its Sunni minority population - while Iran
regularly and unsuccessfully tried to influence
Iraqi Shi'ites during the rule of Saddam.
Now that Shi'ites have emerged as the
dominant group in Iraq, the influence of Iran is
likely to be a permanent feature of Iraqi
politics. That is a reality with which the Bush
administration is having quite a bit of a problem,
especially at a time when sectarian warfare is
Tier 3: The bear and the
panda The third tier of the US campaign
against Iran is to deal with, and neutralize, the
positions of Russia and China.
Russia: Moscow belatedly
decided to side with the US in terms of having
Iran's dossier referred to the UN. Russian Foreign
Minister Sergei Lavrov was in Washington on
Tuesday, assuring Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice that his country had decided to drop its
proposal of allowing Iran to undertake small-scale
nuclear enrichment on Iranian soil.
seems President Vladimir Putin is no mood to
irritate Bush further, so soon after making
another highly controversial decision of inviting
Hamas leaders to Moscow for consultations.
However, Russia has made it clear that it
does not favor sanctions against Iran. "I don't
think sanctions as a means to solve a crisis have
ever achieved a goal in recent history," Lavrov
was reported in the media as saying.
interestingly, Lavrov said the discussions of how
to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions reminded him
of the run-up to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
"It looks so deja vu, you know," he said.
"I don't believe we should engage in something
which might become self-fulfilling prophecy."
China: Beijing remains a
wild card in this episode. Thus far, it has made
no objections about referring Iran to the UN
Security Council. How it will behave now that this
has happened is unclear. However, as in the case
of Russia, it is hard to say whether China will
stay quiet once the US decides to turn up the heat
Given Russia's attitude, and the
uncertainty of which way China might jump, the US
has been forced to go the "alliance-building"
route in terms of having sanctions imposed on
Tier 1 in this drama has played
itself out, with the European initiative having
served its purpose of appearing to give diplomacy
a chance. The rhetoric of Tier 2 will continue
unabated ("no options are off the table",
"meaningful consequences"). With the US seeking
action beyond the UN, Tier 3 now sees China and
Russia to some extent sidelined.
move on to Tier 4: the building of another
"alliance of the willing", with Lavrov's warnings
of deja vu ringing in the ears.
Ehsan Ahrari is the CEO of
Strategic Paradigms, an Alexandria, Virginia-based
defense consultancy. He can be reached at[email protected]or[email protected].
His columns appear regularly in Asia Times
Online. His website: www.ehsanahrari.com.