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    Middle East
     Jul 2, 2011

Iran crisis close to climax?
By Victor Kotsev

TEL AVIV - As the standoff between Iran, the United States and their allies intensifies, the number of possibilities that lie ahead gradually shrinks. Some sort of a compromise seems inevitable down the road, but whether violence will precede it and who exactly will be left to negotiate remains a mystery.

Armed conflict, too, can take several forms, and these are not mutually exclusive. The preferred solution for the West is that the Iranian regime is overthrown from within; the threat of war also hangs, however, while the Islamic Republic maneuvers adeptly and guns for a regional reshuffle according to its own tastes.

In the past days and weeks, the two sides have been flexing their military muscles and issuing veiled threats. This week, Iran started a massive 10-day military exercise, code named "Great Prophet 6". It tested a new radar system, new fortified underground missile silos, and ground-to-ground missiles that

could reach all parts of the Middle East, alongside various other technological achievements.

Western diplomats responded with alarm. "Iran has also been carrying out covert ballistic missile tests on rocket launchers, including testing of missiles capable of delivering a nuclear payload in contravention of UN resolution 1929," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC [1].

Iran promptly denied the allegation, but Hague's announcement is significant, particularly as it comes on the heels of an Iranian announcement that it will triple its stash of uranium enriched to the level of 20% U-235 by the end of the year.

"Though uranium enriched to this level is intended mostly to fuel Tehran's small nuclear research reactor, which produces medical isotopes," explains Israeli analyst Yossi Melman, "it also bolsters the knowledge of Iranian nuclear experts and their ability to control all stages of enrichment - including to a level of 93%, which enables the production of fissile material used in making a nuclear weapon."

According to Melman, the greatest danger is that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and a few other key Iranian officials ascribe to messianic beliefs that condition the coming of the Mahdi (Messiah in Shi'ite Islam) on "a huge proportion of the world's population be[ing] annihilated in a great war".[2] Nuclear weapons would seem chillingly well-suited to use as a tool to save the world in this scenario.

This argument, however, seems extreme, even alarmist, and a majority of Western analysts hold the view that the Iranian regime is ultimately rational. Some have even pointed out that Iranian policy in the Middle East has been more coherent in the past decade than that of the United States. As a Chatham House report famously put it back in 2006, "While the US has been playing poker in the region, Iran has been playing chess."

On the chess-like field of Realpolitik, too, the tensions are steadily escalating, and Iran poses a major strategic threat to the policies of the United States and its allies. The former circumstance was highlighted by the Iranian announcement last month that it had shared information with Russia on two advanced American drones that it claimed to have shot down earlier this year. While there is nothing surprising in the action itself, such cooperation is usually kept quiet, and the announcement came at a sensitive time, ostensibly as a message of defiance.

Some speculate that Iran may be preparing to respond militarily to any Western intervention in the domestic troubles of its ally Syria. If such an intervention materializes, it would presumably come in the next weeks and months.

Others, such as Asia Times Online's M K Bhadrakumar, point out Iran's recent overtures with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Bhadrakumar writes of a recent top-level "conference on terrorism" between the heads of the three states:
At this point in time, the varying degrees of antipathy felt toward the US on the part of Pakistan and Afghanistan on the one hand and Iran's inveterate standoff with the US on the other give impetus to the three neighboring countries drawing closer ... Pakistan is a major Sunni country and Iran's interest lies in ensuring that it does not become part of the Saudi-led alliance against Iran in the Middle East. Iran can flaunt its friendship with Pakistan to expose the Saudi campaign to whip up the phobia of a Shi'ite-Sunni schism in the Middle East today by way of branding Tehran as the leader of the Shi'ite camp and rallying the Sunni Arab opinion [3].
Yet Iraq arguably tops the list of American worries. As the deadline for the withdrawal of American troops there looms, Iranian influence grows. A number of analysts, including Stratfor, have warned that in the long term this could destabilize key US ally Saudi Arabia [4].

Iran, on the other hand, worries that the US might extend its presence in Iraq, and is doing its best to accelerate the American departure. According to a number of reports, a recent increase in violence in the country is orchestrated by Iran, with the following message for the Americans: "Don't stay. Reconsider. [5]"

This situation could easily spin out of control and deteriorate into a full-blown war, especially considering that all the other fronts between the two sides are heated as well. Proxy attacks on US forces, if proven, could easily serve as a casus belli against Iran.

Meanwhile, reports have it, the United States and its allies are quietly piling up forces in the region. There seems to be no critical mass just yet (from what is known, there are two American aircraft carriers close to Iranian shores; conventional wisdom has it that the United States usually attacks such big targets with at least three), but the trends are worrisome.

Debka, an Israeli intelligence-analysis site that is known for publishing both rumors and legitimate intelligence leaks, offers the following assessment:
Last week, Iranian warships and submarines deployed in the Red Sea tracked the movements of two big US aircraft carriers, the USS Enterprise and USS George H W Bush, which crossed each other in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait on June 21 heading in opposite directions through this strategic chokepoint between the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean ... Strategists in Tehran see danger in these crisscross movements by US war fleets.

According to our military sources, the Enterprise, which is older, slower and has less fire power than the Bush, was moved to the Mediterranean because there it is supported by American air bases scattered across western and central Europe, whereas the Bush was consigned to waters opposite Iranian shores because it is virtually a single-vessel fighting machine capable of operating without support.
It should be noted that the Mediterranean presence could be oriented against both Libya and Syria, while the US might be more inclined to use a smaller, faster and more modern career against Iran, since the latter well-developed anti-ship capabilities and could pose a danger to US careers if attacked.

At this stage, the buildup seems to be intended more as a message than as preparations for an imminent attack. The preferred scenario for the Americans is that the Iranian regime (alongside its allies in Syria and Lebanon) fractures from within, collapsing in the process its foreign-policy stance and halting its external expansion.

There are some signs that this may happen. In the past months, the internal power struggle between Ahmadinejad and Iran's supreme ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has intensified. Also the Iranian position in Syria has deteriorated somewhat, together with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's legitimacy.

A couple of months ago, a crisis erupted between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, and many speculated that the president might be forced to resign [6]. Several top Ahmadinejad aides were arrested. Subsequently, the tensions subsided somewhat, and the president's men were released, but a week later reports surfaced that another one of his close confidantes, former Iranian deputy foreign minister Mohammad Sharif Malekzadeh, had been arrested [7]. Apparently, the crisis continues.

It is possible, even likely, that Western influence is covertly working to deepen the cracks; yet the problem with this strategy is that the Iranian regime is fully aware of it, and may be emphasizing the theatrics to keep its opponents in check. This is true both internationally and domestically, where the so-called Green movement (the self-proclaimed democratic opposition) is split on its course [8].

The fate of the Syrian regime is also far from clear yet. If Assad survives, he will have done so with heavy Iranian assistance, and may well be forced further into the Iranian embrace. Thus, while he would be weakened himself, at least in the short term he would be more likely to conduct Iranian policies (in the past, he has often tried to hold his own course).

In other words, the Iranian regime may turn out to be a superior chess player to Western leaders, always staying one step ahead as it races toward its goals. This creates the very real danger that the US and its allies may have to make hard choices in the near future about using the military muscle they have been flexing.

In Israel, the tone of discussions is gradually shifting from pre-emptive attack to deterrence. A number of Israeli analysts have recently advanced the argument that the Jewish state needs to boost its deterrence and to keep the pre-emptive strike option for the hypothetical moment right before Iran chooses to use (rather than to acquire) nuclear weapons. Boosting the deterrence is generally understood to mean acquiring new submarines (boosting the alleged second-strike capability), missile defenses and advanced airplanes.

Still, Israeli leaders, alongside a few key observers, refuse to rule out the possibility of an imminent Israeli strike against the Iranian nuclear program, and continue to argue that Iran poses an existential threat to the Jewish state. Israel has been known to project contradictory intentions before surprise military operations in the past, and the fact that its government is keeping a stiff upper lip, much more so than a year ago, can be interpreted as a warning sign.

Saudi Arabia has also fallen relatively silent in the past weeks, as it quietly tries to maneuver in the crises in Yemen and Syria. In some ways, this also looks like a silence before a storm: Syria, in particular, is as likely as Iraq to serve as a trigger for any potential showdown between the US and Iran.

If the Assad regime falls (perhaps with some foreign assistance), the entire Iranian deterrence axis featuring Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas would be gravely threatened. Thus, Iran may well be provoked into action, and even if this action is limited (for example, in Iraq), it could easily spiral into a war.

In general, the confrontation seems to be approaching its climax, and some kind of action to change the status quo seems inevitable. This action could be covert (a mixture of sabotage, diplomatic maneuvering and regime change from the inside in key countries), or it can be overt (war).

Its consequences may be felt immediately, or over time. At both extremes of the theoretical analysis stand the possibilities of a complete collapse of the Iranian regime and its allies and of a rout of the American-led alliance and the emergence of Iran as a regional hegemon.

Both of these options, however, are relatively unlikely; decisive military victory, especially in the highly codified modern form of warfare, has largely remained elusive, and its pursuit bears some resemblance to messianic logic.

What is more likely to happen is a significant upset in the geostrategic balance that would bring about some sort of a temporary accommodation, be it shorter or longer-lasting. Currently, its precise terms are almost impossible to forecast, while the debates over who has won will begin only after those terms emerge.

1. William Hague concerned over Iranian missile tests, BBC, 29 June 2011.
2. All signs say Iran is racing toward a nuclear bomb, Ha'aretz, 23 June 2011.
3. Iran carves out an AfPak hub, Asia Times Online, 27 June 2011.
4. Iraq, Iran and the Next Move, Stratfor, 26 April 2011.
5. Is Iran killing U.S. soldiers in Iraq?, Foreign Policy, 28 June 2011.
6. Is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about to resign?, The Guardian, 27 April 2011.
7. Ahmadinejad's ally 'arrested' in Iran , al-Jazeera, 23 June 2011.
8. Iran's marchers question direction, Asia Times Online (via Inter Press Service) 14 June 2011.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst based in Tel Aviv.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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