Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Threat of a Wider War

While it’s far from inevitable, it is not unlikely that the United States, possibly in tandem with Israel, will launch a military strike against Iran in the next few months. Washington and Tehran have been trading threats and counter threats in an escalation that could end in war. Last week, the Bush White House issued its National Security Strategy report for 2006 which included the stark warning that the United States “may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran.” The words from Washington are ominously similar in tone and content to the language that preceded the invasion of Iraq three years ago. In a recent speech, Vice President Dick Cheney spoke of “meaningful consequences” if Iran did not back down from its insistence that it has the right to pursue a uranium enrichment program, which Tehran claims is for peaceful purposes only. The White House report stated that the U.S. “will continue to take all necessary measures to protect our national and economic security against the adverse effects” of the “bad conduct” of the Iranian government.

What makes the crisis especially worrying is that both regimes, the Bush administration and the Iranian government, are desperate in their own ways. In a recent poll, only 44 per cent of Americans approved of the president’s handling of terrorism and homeland security with only 36 per cent positive about his overall performance. With midterm elections approaching in the autumn, Republicans have been abandoning the administration on issues such as whether a firm based in the United Arab Emirates should be allowed to manage American ports. Most Americans now fear that Iraq is sinking into civil war and that the American mission there has become a quagmire.

For some neo-conservative strategists in Washington, a way out of the dilemma could be to widen the war by launching an assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and perhaps more importantly, on the scientists and technicians who are crucial to the country’s nuclear ambitions. With all its attendant risks, an aerial and missile attack on targets in Iran, with no land invasion, could eliminate any potential nuclear threat from that quarter and could stop the flow of aid to insurgents in Iraq that the Pentagon alleges has been coming from Iran. In the best case scenario, the assault could strengthen internal dissent in Iran, triggering the fall of its regime. Such a wider war, some believe, could win back domestic support for George W. Bush and prevent his second term from becoming a shambles.

At least as desperate is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran who was elected last June from a restricted list of candidates, purged of opponents of the policies of the Islamic Republic. The Tehran government has faced increasing dissent from vocal critics and the rising impatience of the Iranian people. To firm up his base of support, the president has adopted a strategy of inflaming nationalist passions against what he depicts as the American threat to limit Iran’s right to pursue its own nuclear strategy. Pouring kerosene on the flames, he has described the Nazi holocaust of European Jewry as a “myth” and has declared that Israel should “be wiped off the face of the earth.” Iran has ominously threatened the United States with “harm and pain” if the U.S. tries to punish Iran through sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council.

Pointing out that both sides are moving toward a “point of no return”, an editorial in the New York Times concluded that U.S. efforts to get the Iran nuclear issue referred to the United Nations Security Council has “unnecessarily upped the ante.”

If European, Russian and Chinese efforts to defuse the crisis fail and the United States attacks Iran, there will be armed combat in distinct but interconnected theatres stretching from Iraq, through Iran and Afghanistan into the border regions of Pakistan. In its own way, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be subsumed within this wider struggle.

Though this has been underreported in Canada, political analysts and governments around the world are weighing the likelihood and consequences of such a wider war. The German publication Der Spiegel has reported that the Americans have been holding talks with allies in the Middle East to prepare the ground for a possible military strike against Iran. In the event of a much more extensive conflict, Canada’s mission in southern Afghanistan would be ensnared within it.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s clichés about how Canadians do not “cut and run” and do not choose to sit “in the bleachers” do not serve us well in such a perilous hour. Now is the time to consider how Canada can help slow the rush to a wider war and whether it is in our national interest to involve ourselves in it should it erupt.

No comments: