Monday, May 14, 2007

US-Iran Relations: Overtures and Ultimatums

In the past few days the US has followed two seemingly divergent strategies on Iran. Dick Cheney on Friday issued what amounted to be an ultimatum against Iran. Aboard the USS John C. Stannis cruising near the Iranian shore on the Persian Gulf, Cheney said the US will not allow the Islamic Republic to acquire nuclear weapons, will keep the sea lanes in the Persian Gulf open against any Iranian threats, will oppose Iran’s strategic gains in the region and will deliver justice to the enemies of freedom.

Cheney’s blunt warning against Iran, and its locale, with two carrier strike groups surrounding him, implied that a US attack will be coming if the Islamic Republic got close to building nukes and if it disturbed the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf.

On Saturday, a day after Cheney’s warning, the White House announced that the US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, will soon meet a top Iranian official in Baghdad to start its bilateral talks with Iran on Iraqi security. The mere meeting between Crocker and, most probably, Iranian foreign ministry’s Abbas Araghchi is the most significant overture toward the Islamic Republic by the Bush administration, notwithstanding the meeting’s announced agenda.

What’s then the US intention? A closer look at the contradictory approaches in the past couple of days reveals a subtle and undeclared US policy towards the Islamic Republic:

- US do not have a policy of regime change in Iran. Aside from Cheney’s vague reference to delivering justice to enemies of freedom, nothing in his blunt remarks suggest willingness in trying to topple the regime. The US is after changing Islamic Republic’s behavior, and it will apply military threat as well as diplomacy to pressure Tehran to behave.

- The main US goal in the region is to keep the sea lanes in the Persian Gulf open and the oil flow uninterrupted. The now-permanent presence of the two carrier strike groups in the Gulf, with hundreds of warplanes and scores of missiles, both conventional and tactical nuke, is to repel any possible Iranian threats to close down the Straight of Hormuz. The two aircraft carries each is powered by two nuclear reactors, giving them unlimited range and endurance.

- The other US goal is to prevent the Islamic Republic to manufacture the atomic bombs. The US is counting on its new diplomatic initiatives, coupled with tightening economic sanctions, to do the trick. The presence of the two aircraft carriers will also serve as a reminder to Tehran of US capabilities to knock down the country’s nuclear facilities.

- And there is a growing unease in the US over Iran’s strategic gains in the region, from Iraq to Lebanon and to public opinions on Arab streets. Cheney wanted to draw the line by showing off US military might. And Condoleezza Rice will try to hold down Iran through bilateral talks.

It is increasingly becoming clear that the US will not attack Iran if such attack does not lead to the change of regime in Tehran. Washington knows well that any military attack on Iran that does not topple the Islamic Republic would rally the people against the US and would actually strengthen the regime.

For the time being, barring a major development in Iran’s nuclear program or any move on the part of the Iranians to disrupt the flow of oil in the Persian Gulf, the US is adopting a policy of pressuring Iran to change its behavior, through military threats and through diplomatic channels. Cheney’s ultimatum and the White House announcement of the bilateral talks do not seem all that contradictory.

The wild card in all this is Israel. The Israelis do not share US concerns that a military attack on Iran’ nuclear facilities without a regime change would rally the people against the West and would strengthen the Islamic Republic. Israel’s main concern is its survival. With on-going threats against its very existence by the political leaders in Tehran, Israel might not hesitate to use its air force against Iran if it felt that the country was on the verge of producing an atomic bomb.

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