Iran is presently the centre of international controversy with Israel leading a strong campaign against it. As per the logic of Tel Aviv, the nuclear programme of Iran poses an existential threat and it is ready to take all measures to ensure its survival. Similarly, Washington and the European Union are also up in arms and giving several reasons to justify sanctions against Iran.
The current anti-Iran posturing of West has several hidden meanings. The Iranian nuclear issue is a cause of concern, but the question is the West — which once had complete monopoly on nuclear science — and Israel – which has some 250 nuclear arsenals – really worried about the Iranian ‘weapons’ in making. Iran has unique history and from the Islamic revolution of 1979, till the present date it has been deprived of good friends in the West, but due to its energy resources and geopolitical location it has remained a pertinent international player. Iran is also a country, which is consistent on its position against Israel and this has also remained a bone of contention.
The US Dilemma
The problem between the US and Iran was aggravated after the second Iraq war in 2003. The US occupation of Iraq started its strategic competition with Iran for acquiring the lion’s share in the post-Saddam political set up. The divisive politics used by Americans in Iraq for consolidating their influence also led to fragmentation of secular Iraqi society on the Shia-Sunni lines. Iraq has a sizeable Shia population (60-65%) and this provided a wider scope for Iranian intervention in Iraq.
Even after nine years, stability in Iraq is a distant dream and the country, which possesses oil reserves only next to Saudi Arabia, is not in complete control by the US. The US interest in Iraq is not a hidden fact and according to one report, as early as in 1997, nine US oil companies including Mobil, Conoco Chevron, Occidental, Arco, Exxon, Texaco, Coastal and Amoco reportedly contacted Iraq to express interest in developing Iraqi oil fields once sanctioned were lifted1.
Due to the continuous phase of war and instability, Iraq has failed to exploit the full potential of its oil reserves. In 1979, just prior to the war with Iran, oil production in Iraq had reached an all time high of 3.5 million barrels per day (bpd)2. Thus, peace and tranquility is the most required elements in order to reap maximum benefits from Iraq.
It is very interesting to note that in one of the briefing papers released before the second Iraq war, the Royal Institute of International Affairs predicted the Iranian role in post-Saddam Iraq and its related consequences for oil production potential of Iraq. The most damaging fact for the US is that it sacrificed so many lives (approximately 4000 military casualties till 2011) to gain control of Iraq, but it is still struggling to extract the estimated benefits.
Several defense analysts of the US believe that a politically stable and economically strong Iran is one of biggest hurdles, and it should be either tamed or destabilized. This is the reason why Iran-US relations deteriorated further after the US occupation of Iraq. Despite, anti-Iran rhetoric Washington is aware of the negative fallout in case of war with Iran.
It would be a mistake to equate Iran with Iraq as Tehran has far superior military capabilities than Iraq had. Iran is 12th biggest military power of the world and has commendable air power, which is enough to deter any attack and to retaliate in short span of time.
On the other hand, Iran also has active links with some terrorist organizations, which can prove lethal for American interesst in this region. With substantial investment, America could avoid complete anarchy in Iraq, which would be detrimental to Iran’s interest. Whatever is projected about the US-Iran ties, the White House will wait till the last minute for an agreement where US interests are safeguarded without entering into a conflict.
Also from strategic point of view, opening another front at a time when Afghanistan and Iraq are unstable, will only lead to further complications for the US. Despite being the biggest military power in the world it is not possible for the US to enter into three war zones at a time. In short, the US will remain politically and diplomatically active against Iran, but will not go for an all out war.
The Real Beneficiary
The Arab Spring has changed the political spectrum of West Asia and with regard to spread of democracy it is clear that the US interests in the region were harmed with the overthrow of pro-western regimes. Democracy is not a desired system of governance for several Arab countries and it is vehemently resisted.
It is also interesting to note that after the Arab Spring pressure is building on Israel to resolve the Palestinian issue. Protests against Israel were witnessed in Egypt, and Istanbul has also taken a stringent position by curtailing diplomatic ties with Israel. It is evident that there is a strong sentiment in the Arab world against Israel – and democracy will allow people to pressure their respective governments to deal strongly with Tel Aviv. Israel is facing the brunt of this pressure and it requires some immediate aggressive move to divert the attention of the Arab world so it can continue its policy towards Palestine.
Conflict and instability in the region — particularly some type of low conflict — suits the interest of Israel, and Iran is strategically the most appropriate country for this purpose. Being a Shia country Iran does not have many strong allies in the region.
Because of the Shia- Sunni divide it is difficult to imagine that the Arab world will practically come forward to support Iran in case of war with Israel. The kind of statements given by the Arab leaders on Iran are evidence enough to draw inferences as what are the most likely responses of these countries in case Israel attacks Iran. According to Wikileaks, Saudi King Abdullah described Iran as snake whose head should be cut off. King Abdullah is reported to have even urged the US to attack Iran.
Political analysts from West Asia are also of the view that Arab Spring is also favourable for Iran, which is a democratic country. While the democratic model of Iran is different from the one advocated by western political scientists, no one can deny the fact that regular elections is a key feature of Iranian democracy. There were change in regimes by ballot and Iran has a system in place.
These are some of the rare institutional frameworks of Iran, which are absent in majority of countries in West Asia. The Arab Spring in fact for the very first time in many years has given a ray of hope to the people of this region. The Arab Spring is a genuine upsurge for democratic rights in West Asia and this has not gone well with the prevailing ‘sheikdoms’.
It is a notable fact that during the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussain was widely admired amongst the people in West Asia, but the pro-western regimes of the regions sided with the US. The insensitive, pro-West and anti-people attitude of these regimes has helped terrorist organizations, such as Al-Qaida, to draw sympathy and recruits from this region. The West, particularly the US, has immense economic interests in the status quo and it has failed to satisfactorily raise the real issues and instead, until recently, supported the continuation of undemocratic regimes. At this juncture,when demand for democratic rights are widespread, there is a threat for the ‘sheikdoms’ – with a war between Israel and Iran coming as a wishful gift. In short, any military confrontation with Iran will be a relief for the old status quo regimes.
While Israel is prepared for some type of adventure it is noteworthy that without a green light from Washington it can only do so via covert operations. For Washington its interest in Iraq is vital. Additionally, Mr. Obama is facing crucial elections and he will definitely avoid any aggressive move. Iran, in this regard will remain in the international news, with Israel leading overt diplomatic and covert military operations — but there is no indication of a full-fledged war.
1. “Oil, Business, and the Future of Iraqi Sanctions.” Policy Watch No. 283, Washington
Institute for Near East Policy, November 24, 1997.
2. CRS Report for the Congress, “Iraq Trade with the World: Data and Analysis”, [Online: web] Accessed on 20 February 2012, URL: http://www.fas.org/man/crs/RL32025.pdf