President Bush may or may not order a massive aerial bombardment of Iran later this year. Or he may wait until 2007. Or he may simply escalate a risky confrontation with Iran through covert action and economic sanctions. But whatever the next act in the crisis, don’t be fooled by the assertion that the problem is Iran’s pursuit of nuclear arms.
Iran is a decade away from gaining access to the bomb, according to the administration’s own National Intelligence Estimate, and despite all the talk about the ugliness of the theocratic regime in Tehran, the likely showdown is, at bottom, driven by the geopolitics of oil. With one-tenth of the world’s petroleum reserves and one-sixth of its natural gas reserves, Iran sits in a strategic geographical position that makes it the cockpit for control of the entire Middle East. It straddles the Persian Gulf’s choke points, including the Strait of Hormuz; it has important influence among Shiites throughout Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states; and it borders highly contested real estate to the north, from the Caucasus to the Caspian Sea to Central Asia.
The logic of the Bush administration is inexorable. Its ironclad syllogism is this: The United States is and must remain the world’s preeminent power, if need be by using its superior military might. One of the two powers with the ability to emerge as a rival—China—depends vitally on the Persian Gulf and Central Asia for its future supply of oil; the other—Russia—is heavily engaged in Iran, Central Asia, and the Caucasus region. Therefore, if the United States can secure a dominant position in the Gulf, it will have an enormous advantage over its potential challengers. Call it zero-sum geopolitics: Their loss is our gain.
Of course, the idea of the Persian Gulf as an American lake is not exactly new. Neoconservatives, moderate conservatives, “realists” typified by Henry Kissinger and James A. Baker, and liberal internationalists in the mold of President Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, mostly agree that the Gulf ought to be owned and operated by the United States, and the idea has been a cornerstone of U.S. policy under presidents both Republican and Democratic. Its adherents justified it in the past, however thinly, because of the exigencies of World War II and then the Cold War.
But if the administration’s goals are congruent with past U.S. policy, its methods represent a radical departure. Previous administrations relied on alliances, proxy relationships with local rulers, a military presence that stayed mostly behind the scenes, and over-the-horizon forces ready to intervene in a crisis. President Bush has directly occupied two countries in the region and threatened a third. And by claiming a sweeping regional war without end against what he has referred to as “Islamofascism,” combined with an announced goal to impose U.S.-style free-market democracy in southwest Asia, he has adopted a utopian approach much closer to imperialism than to traditional balance-of-power politics.
By inaugurating a war of choice against a nation that had not attacked the United States, and by justifying his actions under a new doctrine of unilateral, preventive war, Bush shattered the U.S. establishment’s policy consensus while alienating America’s closest allies, angering its rivals, and provoking a storm of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world. Now, like a high-stakes blackjack player doubling down, the president is letting the world know that he is ready to do it all over again in Iran.
A SUCCESSION OF U.S. presidents, from Franklin Roosevelt to Dwight Eisenhower to Jimmy Carter to George H.W. Bush, literally and figuratively planted the American flag at the heart of the Persian Gulf. F.D.R., who met Saudi Arabia’s king aboard a warship in 1945, had proclaimed two years earlier: “I hereby find that the defense of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defense of the United States.” Carter, in 1980, restated the doctrine even more forcefully: “Let our position be absolutely clear. An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States.”
From the 1950s through the 1990s, the U.S. backed up those words with muscle. Military treaties reaching into the Middle East, including NATO and CENTO, were established. An archipelago of U.S. military bases took form in east Africa, the Indian Ocean, and the Gulf. Washington sent billions of dollars in military aid and arms sales, and tens of thousands of U.S. military advisers, into the region. The Rapid Deployment Force and then the U.S. Central Command were created, and the U.S. 5th Fleet was assembled and based in the tiny Gulf nation of Bahrain. All that, and more, preceded the Gulf War in 1991, which led to a massive expansion of the U.S. military presence in the region.
Since 2001, President Bush has radically revised the rules of the game. From the beginning, the neoconservative architects of Bush’s policy intended for the war that began in Afghanistan and expanded to Iraq to go on, in a dominolike series of forced regime change, revolution, and even war, to Iran and Syria, Saudi Arabia, and beyond. Iran, in particular, was always seen as the next step after Iraq. The original idea was that if the United States toppled Saddam Hussein and installed in Baghdad a regime dominated by Kurdish and Shiite puppets, Iran would be caught between U.S. forces to its west in Iraq and to its east in Afghanistan. And because both Shiites and Kurds have allies inside Iran, and because Iraqi Shiite religious leaders have intimate connections with the ruling Iranian theocracy, the skids would be greased for a U.S.-inspired overthrow of the Iranian government—or so Bush and Cheney believed.
Needless to say, things haven’t exactly gone according to plan. Still, it’s far too early to write off the impact of 130,000 U.S. soldiers in a country the size of Iraq, backed by a president convinced that he can still pull out a victory, especially if the troops stay for another five years or more. And if the United States launches the sort of bombing campaign against Iran that is being considered—involving attacks against not just nuclear research facilities but also airfields, command and control centers, and other intelligence and military targets—to say that the consequences would be unpredictable is an understatement. The administration and many of its supporters are apparently ready to take the gamble that after an armed confrontation with Iran, a moderate, pro-American regime might emerge from the wreckage. Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is explicit on that score. “I don’t disagree [about] the convulsive effects that a strike would have. I actually think that it would be in the end a healthy thing for Iran internally.”
Not surprisingly, Russia and China have a different perspective. Moscow and Beijing, neither of which wants Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, nevertheless do not see Tehran as a threat. To them, the country’s vast reserves of oil and natural gas make it a natural ally. Both Russian and Chinese oil companies had enormous development and supply contracts with Baghdad under Saddam Hussein, deals that are worthless in an Iraq controlled by the United States. They might be forgiven for thinking that Iran, too, would be off-limits to them if Bush succeeds.
For China’s economic future, Iran and the region are essential. As recently as 1992, China was an oil-exporting country, but since then it has become a voracious importer of oil and gas. (Indeed, China’s demand for oil is the leading factor in pushing prices from $10 to $20 a barrel to around $75 a barrel today.) In Iran, China has signed a series of gargantuan deals, including a 25-year contract reported to be worth $100 billion between Iran and the Chinese state-owned energy company Sinopec. China is also deeply engaged with Russia’s oil industry and with Central Asian oil exporters in constructing a web of gas and oil pipelines throughout the region. President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Hu Jintao of China have made energy the centerpiece of Russian-Chinese relations. Russia’s Rosneft oil company and China National Petroleum Co., two state-owned conglomerates, have negotiated plans for Russia to supply about 10 percent of China’s oil, and the Russian gas giant Gazprom is talking to China about building two huge new gas pipelines with a total capacity of 80 billion cubic meters a year. Last year, the Asia Times heralded the emergence of a strategic “new triangle comprised of China, Iran, and Russia.”
Since 2001, Russia and China have watched America’s heavy-handed push into the Middle East and Central Asia with suspicion and alarm. Together, they and four Central Asian countries—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan—have created the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional security body that has emerged as a counterweight to U.S. influence in the region. Last July, the organization issued a declaration demanding the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Central Asia; by the end of 2005, Uzbekistan had kicked the United States out of its Karshi-Khanabad air base, and soon Kyrgyzstan may evict the U.S. from its Manas air base, both head-on challenges to the administration in countries that Washington considers essential to its influence in Central Asia. This summer, the SCO may agree to extend a membership offer to Iran.
Meanwhile, U.S. relations with both China and Russia are edging toward outright hostility. With Beijing, the administration has maintained cordial ties, in part because Big Business depends so heavily on China. But many Bush officials have an innate distrust, even loathing, of China, especially in the office of Vice President Cheney, who in 2001 drew several of his top aides from the staff of a strongly anti-China congressional committee pursuing allegations that Beijing had stolen state secrets during the Clinton administration. Cheney, too, is leading the charge for a more confrontational stance toward Russia. During an overseas visit in May that took him from the Baltic republic of Lithuania to Kazakhstan, in the heart of Central Asia’s oil and gas fields, Cheney delivered a series of broadsides against Moscow and warned Putin against using “oil and gas [as] tools of intimidation or blackmail.”
Flynt Leverett, who worked on Middle East policy for Bush’s National Security Council before resigning in disgust, told a political salon in Washington recently that the U.S.-Iran conflict could end up pushing Russia, China, and Iran closer together. “What I see as an emerging axis of oil between Russia and China will be greatly bolstered,” he said.
SERGEY LAVROV, Russia’s foreign minister, is Moscow’s point man for the U.N. talks about Iran. After a U.N. meeting in New York earlier this year, Lavrov said bluntly: “This looks like déjà vu.” Indeed, the parallels with the year before the invasion of Iraq are startling.
In addition to exaggerating the nuclear threat, the administration has been accusing Iran of harboring Al Qaeda fugitives and supporting bin Laden’s movement, though there is little or no evidence to support these claims. As in Iraq, Washington is sinking millions of dollars into propaganda efforts and alliances with dubious exile groups; according to a recent State Department planning document, the United States is busily setting up Iran intelligence and mobilization centers in Dubai, Istanbul, Frankfurt, London, and Azerbaijan to work with “Iranian expatriate communities.” Elizabeth Cheney, the daughter of the vice president and a top State Department official, is overseeing a program to spend $85 million on support for dissidents in Iran and to pay for anti-Iran propaganda. She has helped create a brand-new Office of Iranian Affairs at the State Department, and she reportedly supervises an office called the Iran-Syria Operations Group. As with Iraq, U.S. officials—realizing that U.N. support for an attack on Iran is nil—are talking openly about bypassing the world body and forging yet another “coalition of the willing” to confront Iran. And, of course, as with Iraq, there is the escalating rhetoric, the talk of “all options” being on the table, the news of Special Forces already operating in the country to foment civil conflict.
“If that is déjà vu, then so be it,” John Bolton, the neoconservative saber-rattler who represents the United States at the U.N., told reporters in March. “That is the course we are on.”