USA: Itching for another fight
Youssef M. Ibrahim

The last thing the United States needs in this part of the world is one more enemy. Yet last week, all indications were that the Bush administration was marching straight into a confrontation with Iran, the single largest demographic and military power in the Gulf region.

The US national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, along with several other Bush administration officials, issued ominous warnings to Iran over its nuclear research program.

Rice stated the resolve of the United States – undoubtedly with Israel’s help – to destroy Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor and other nuclear research facilities, insisting that Iran was building nuclear arms, or those famed ‘weapons of mass destruction.’ It sounded pretty much like the kind of talk that led American troops into the Iraqi quagmire.

There is a Muslim proverb that needs to be recited to those Americans itching for a fight with Iran. A true believer should not get stung twice by sticking his hand in the same grotto. Well it sure seems America is heading straight for its second hit.

Rice’s reckless comments ignore the obvious: Nothing would unite Iranians, moderates and hardliners, more than an attack on their country and, above all, on their prized nuclear facilities.

As a historian, Rice should be reminded that Iranians are tough and not easily intimidated. They lost nearly 1 million people in the eight-year war against Iraq, launched by Saddam Hussein in 1980 with full US and Western endorsement. In the end, the Iranians prevailed. How quickly we forget.

I have little doubt Iran is pursuing nuclear weapon systems. Its officials privately assert it is so because they view Israel as a real menace to them and the region with its 200 nuclear warheads. This is a different matter that could be the subject of different negotiations. The United States completely ignores that double standard, which resonates widely among Arabs and Muslims. Added to that is the suspicion the Bush administration is still bent on, or addicted to, more American-induced regime changes.

Using skewed intelligence reports, neoconservatives in Washington appear once again to have convinced themselves Iran is a country boiling with discontent, so rife with opposition to the clerical regime that all it needs is a little military nudge for that divided society to erupt in revolt and for the regime to collapse.

This logic is simple, convenient, and wrong. Fanciful scenarios of a shaky Iranian regime are being reinforced by distant and detached Iranian exile communities living in London, Australia, and Los Angeles, using mobile phones as substitutes for serious intelligence apparatus on the ground.

“Anything that is going to happen, or may happen in Iran, should come from within,” says Nahid Hosseinpour, an Iranian affairs expert who has analyzed and documented the twists and turns of Iran ever since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in the 1978-79 revolution.

“I am not saying there is no opposition in Iran. But it is not the kind of opposition the US should count on. If attacked, 90 percent of those who will fight the US will stand for their national pride and religious beliefs. They are not part of the mobile phone and e-mail address Internet types the Americans are listening to,” Hosseinpour asserted.

This is sound advice, widely shared by many Arab experts living here in the Gulf next to Iran.

For now both sides are raising the stakes. Just before the weekend, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards – the tip of the military spear that constitutes Iran’s army, navy, and air force – warned that, if attacked, Iran would retaliate everywhere. No cakewalks here, and no idle threats either. For anyone concerned about oil prices of $45 a barrel, consider $100 a barrel in case of war with Iran.

What the Revolutionary Guards commander was saying is Iran can, and will, strangle Western economies if attacked. Cooler heads should ponder consequences.

First, taking on Iran’s army will be a laborious job as virtually every country in the region, except American-occupied Iraq, will refuse to lend territory, airbases, or staging areas. This includes Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.

Second, when a fight starts between the Americans and the Iranians, the world’s economy will come under unbearable pressure. It is not possible to have two wars in the single region of the world that holds two-thirds of global oil and natural gas reserves. Oil prices will climb further.

Third, Iran has cultivated hundreds of militias, armed cells, and operatives similar to Hizbullah in Lebanon in this region, most particularly inside Iraq, for just that kind of moment. It has, for more than two decades, built a huge intelligence apparatus penetrating the Iraqi army, police, security forces, and government.

America should digest the first war with Iraq before launching a second war with Iran because, in addition to the 25 million Iraqis it is now governing, it will be taking on 70 million Iranians in a country with long, porous, uncontrollable borders with Iraq through which weapons, men, and equipment will be pouring in to engage an already stretched, tired, and demoralized American force.

Upon careful consideration, I think neocons of all stripes in America should opt for a dialogue with Iran.

Youssef M. Ibrahim, a former Middle East correspondent for the New York Times and energy editor of the Wall Street Journal, is managing director of the Dubai-based Strategic Energy Investment Group.