Dangers of an aggressive US approach to Iran

By Anatol Lieven
Published: June 8 2003 19:20 | Last Updated: June 8 2003 19:20

As the Bush administration seeks international support for increased pressure on Iran, US politicians and foreign governments need to take a close look at the dangers of this course. If the US commits itself both to regime change and to preventing Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons by all means, including strikes on Iran's nuclear sites, a vicious circle of pressure and retaliation may develop, ending in full-scale war.

The danger is all the greater because if the US wants to stop Iran developing a nuclear deterrent, it must hurry. European intelligence sources agree that Iran may be within two years of developing a nuclear deterrent, and may be past the point where even an end to Russian assistance to Iran's civilian programme would make much difference.

For the moment, not even America's neoconservatives support an invasion of Iran. Pentagon analysts regard the idea as a dangerous fantasy. However, according to media reports, plans have been advanced for the armed destabilisation of the regime in Tehran by US-backed forces. And there are plenty of historical examples to demonstrate how insurgency in support of regime change can easily lead to full-scale war.

Iran also has the ability to retaliate by reactivating Hezbollah's international terrorist potential or by stirring up the Shias of Iraq. If the US does try to destroy the regime in Tehran, Iran will do all it can to destroy US authority in Iraq. The extent of Iranian influence among the Iraqi Shias is unclear; but Islamist groups among them have ambitions totally at odds with US aims, and a tremendous capacity for mass mobilisation. Combined with guerrilla attacks on US and allied forces in Iraq, this could be all too effective. For by occupying Iraq and destroying the Iraqi state, the US and Britain have laid themselves open to challenge by the one enemy to which they have no effective response - unarmed crowds.

Unrest in Iraq might then encourage a more aggressive US policy towards Iran. If US plans for Iraq collapse, Washington will be sorely tempted to blame outside intervention (read Iran). The temptation will be especially strong in the run-up to next year's US presidential election. Until now, the Bush administration has used military victory and American nationalism with brilliant success against the Democrats. But if a year from now the US is bogged down in an ugly quagmire in Iraq, while terrorist attacks elsewhere continue, this will give the Democrats a chance to turn the tables. In these circumstances, there would be an in- centive for the administration to play up the threat and strike a more jingoistic tone for its political advantage.

That is all the more reason for America's allies to respond with great reserve to US demands for support. Above all, this is a time for the British government to use its influence in the US to avoid being sucked step by step into a repeat of the Iraq war. This time, Tony Blair should categorically and publicly oppose a strategy of regime change disguised as a response to an alleged nuclear threat.

The possibility of a US destabilisation of Iran can only increase Tehran's desire for a deterrent. Britain and other states should certainly seek to dissuade Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. They should do this through engagement, incentives and promises of integration into the world economy as well as through economic pressure. They should also highlight the flaw in Bush administration thinking on the whole issue of nuclear proliferation. For in their obsession with the supposed threat from states, Washington's hawks have neglected the much greater threat from terrorist groups and the societies that spawn them.

States that possess nuclear weapons can be deterred from using them or giving them to terrorists by the certainty of catastrophic retaliation. Suicidal terrorists cannot. Indeed, while terrorists desire such weapons in order to use them, states desire them not in order to use them but as a deterrent against attack. To destroy Moslem regimes may well therefore, far from contributing to the defeat of terrorist groups, actually strengthen them by spreading state arsenals into society.

The most scandalous example of the US administration's inability to understand this danger was its failure immediately to secure Iraq's known civilian nuclear sites, leaving nuclear materials open to looting for almost a week after Baghdad fell.

That an administration supposedly obsessed with the nuclear threat from terrorist groups could have made such an error points to a warped sense of priorities. Saner voices in the US, Britain and Europe need to point this out, loudly and urgently.

The writer is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC.