14 June 2008

A line in the sand

By Liam Carroll

The West has been talking tough to Iran for some time now; it has drawn a line in the sand over Tehran's plans to enrich uranium, it has tried to prevent Iranian 'meddling' in Iraq, and it has pursued a policy of trying to neutralise the Iranian backed Islamic resistance, Hizbullah, in Lebanon. Increasingly though, the tough talk is starting to look like a series of bad judgments as Iran gets its way on issue after issue.

The most significant failure of Western policy in recent weeks has been the resolution of the power struggle in Lebanon which has seen the Iranian backed resistance movement, Hizbullah, effectively demonstrate their superior strength to the Western backed government. When the Lebanese government recently attempted to degrade the organisation's capabilities, the plan back-fired and Hizbullah quickly neutralized opposing militia's on the streets of Beirut, demonstrating the government's impotency on the ground. While the end of the political deadlock in Lebanon was widely welcomed, everyone recognizes that the final agreement has increased the power of Iranian backed Hizbullah, not the Western backed government.

The struggle for influence in Iraq appears to be following a similar trend. Hardly mentioned in the press last week was the news that Iran and Iraq have signed a defence co-operation pact. Details are thin, but according to the Iranian press agency that released the news, the pact is largely concerned with mine clearance from the Iran-Iraq war. None-the-less it is another sign that Iraqi-Iranian relations are warming, as many predicted they would.

In contrast, the US plans for maintaining a military presence in Iraq are looking increasingly shaky. Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al Maliki has asked the Security Council not to renew the UN mandate that authorizes the presence of multi-national forces in the country, due to expire later this year, and the US-Iraqi bilateral security arrangement has just been rejected by the Iraqi parliament. Washington's plans for multiple enduring bases in Iraq are opposed by important sections of Iraqi society and officials are conceding that final negotiations for maintaining US forces in Iraq may not be achieved by the current Bush administration.

The other big issue between the West and Iran, does of course concern Iran's uranium enrichment project, which the West has vowed to try and prevent. International efforts are looking increasingly unlikely to succeed though, and not only is Iran continuing to make progress in the development of it's enrichment facilities, it is also drawing a harder line with the inspectors, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This appears to be a demonstration of increased Iranian confidence in the long-term success of the project, which is probably more likely to fail through technical difficulties (enrichment involves huge engineering challenges) than through Western diplomatic efforts.

Iranian confidence has no doubt been severely boosted by the still rising price of oil, which has made Western economies extremely fearful of further potential interruptions to the flow of oil out of the Gulf region, which Iran is well placed to disrupt. It could well also be that the West has made a big blunder in drawing a line in the sand over which they insisted Iran must not step. The West could have allowed Iran to exercise it's legal right to enrich uranium on condition that they signed up to a strict set of monitoring and inspection criteria (known as Additional Protocols). Now, not only does it look like Iran will build their facilities, but they also look set to withdraw from signing up to the Additional Protocols, which would have given the IAEA important and wide-ranging oversight of Iranian facilities. As the hand of the West weakens, it is starting to look like the IAEA may not even achieve that minimal objective.

Fears of an actual Iranian bomb are however overstated; even if they do master the technology and were to secretly divert materials without IAEA knowledge, the supreme leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khamenei, has issued a religious decree, declaring that nuclear weapons are un-Islamic. While officials in London and Washington tend to mock such decrees, in Iran they are taken very seriously and Westerners often overlook the fact that the dominant power in Iran is still the conservative religious clergy, not the firebrand President, Ahmadinejad.

The West could have chosen a more realistic line with Iran and recognized that the regime is here to stay and will inevitably play a large role in the Middle East. By trying to drive Iran from the field, so to speak, the West has not demonstrated it's strengths, it has, on the contrary, simply demonstrated it's weaknesses.