The official word in Washington and London is that military attack on Iran is “not inevitable”. “We are not preparing to invade Iran,” Tony Snow, Bush’s press secretary, said. “I cannot understand why some people act as if they are blowing on the embers when there is no fire,” his deputy Dana Perino added.
Of course, similar noises were made in March 2003 when American and British officials strove to brush aside any suggestions of an approaching military strike on Iraq. Time and time again the Pentagon and Whitehall repeated that war was neither inevitable, nor imminent. Then we had war.
That a military strike against Iran is imminent is not a matter of speculation, but of concrete facts on the ground. What might at first sight seem like a set of unrelated incidents turn upon closer inspection to be part of the same unfolding picture. When pieced together these lead to the conclusion that far from being a mere option on the table, as David’s Mepham’s piece yesterday seems to suggest, the decision to attack Iran has already been taken and preparations for its execution are already under way. Talk of economic carrots and sticks is long overdue.
The root of the crisis between the US and Iran, it is worth recalling, is a collision of red lines and great strategies. The Americans and their Israeli ally are not prepared to allow Iran to pursue its nuclear programme, while the Iranians are not prepared to abandon it. It is a zero-degree equation which leaves very little room for manoeuvre and propels the two sides towards military confrontation.
In fact, careful examination of the situation indicates that we are no longer in the contingency stage of planning for this war. We are in the operational stage.
1) On Wednesday August 1, the American aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, the navy’s largest air carrier, sailed through the Suez Canal on its way to the Gulf, accompanied by destroyers and a submarine. Enterprise joined the aircraft carrier the USS Stennis and its strike group and the USS Nimitz, the nuclear armed carrier which recently replaced the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Sea of Oman. The strike group, to which 6,500 sailors and marines have been assigned, also includes the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam, guided-missile destroyers USS O’Kane and USS Preble, and fast combat-support ship USNS Bridge.
Not since the Iraq war in 2003 has America amassed so much fire power around the Persian Gulf. When asked about this huge deployment Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, replied “We are not planning for a war with Iran”.
In the world of politics, official statements are often little more than smokescreens. It is in the movement of troops and war fleets that strategies are to be found, not in the pronouncements of politicians.
2) A huge influx of arms is being pumped into the region. On July 30 the Bush administration announced a series of enormous arms deals worth $63bn (£31bn) for its Middle East’allies. The centrepiece of the deals is an agreement worth $20bn between the US and a group of Persian Gulf nations, which include Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman. An arms aid package worth an estimated $13bn is to be renewed with Egypt, while Israel is to get a $30.5bn package over the next 10 years, an increase of more than 25%.
3) The announcement was followed by a frenzy of high-level diplomatic activity, with both American state and foreign secretaries converging on the Middle East. Visiting Cairo, Saudi Arabia and other countries, the pair sought to mobilise the region against Iran, reviving talk of an axis of moderates threatened by an Iranian-led Shia crescent. Iran, Rice said, “constitutes the single most important challenge to … US interests in the Middle East and to the kind of Middle East that we want to see.”
A war climate is being created, and this is the context within which Wednesday’s declaration of the Iranian Republican Guards as a terrorist organisation should be understood.
4) These movements were accompanied by a reactivation of the long stagnant Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Having entirely endorsed the Israeli line of the absence of a “real peace partner”, suspending all peace talks with the Palestinian side for years, the administration suddenly leapt into action, dispatching its most senior officials to the region to mobilise support for a “peace conference” to be held at the end of 2007.
This is strangely reminiscent of 2004 when, amid international opposition to the Iraq invasion, Tony Blair announced his intention to host an international peace conference in London as “an important start to getting the Middle East road map back on track”. Then as now, the objective remains the same: absorbing some of the tension in the region and throwing a few crumbs to America’s allies to help them sell its policies to their people. The history of US peace initiatives in the Middle East is such that they are always vehicles to wider strategies, never ends in themselves.
These developments are not lost to Tehran. To this testify the repeated manoeuvres in the Persian Gulf by the Republican Guard and Iranian army, Ahmadinejad’s recent visits to Syria and Afghanistan, and Hizbullah’s announcement that it is capable of striking any city inside Israel. Tehran knows full well that war is a stone’s throw away. It, too, is bracing itself for its eruption.
Of course, what the United States has in mind is not an invasion of the country, Iraq-style. Instead, it envisages a limited series of air strikes, with Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from US navy ships and submarines in the Gulf, targeting Iranian air and naval bases, missile facilities, command-and-control centres, and nuclear plants at Natanz, Isfahan, Arak and Bushehr.
First Published in The Guardian, Friday 17 August 2007