The risk of a conflict between the United States and Iran is, unexpectedly and in a new context, acquiring fresh force. True, the current scenario has elements of the familiar - the recent deployment of two US carrier-battle groups in the Gulf, a pointed reminder to the Tehran government of the extent of Washington’s naval power ; and a continuation of arguments over Iranian nuclear ambitions, including inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the imposition of a third layer of sanctions by the United Nations Security Council. What makes the latest phase of tension between Washington and Tehran different, however, is the influence on US calculations of its predicament in Iraq and Afghanistan - and, in particular, of the upsurge in violence in March-April 2008 in Basra and Baghdad.
Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001
Several columns in this series have discussed the possibility of a US-Iran confrontation being sparked by a minor incident, possibly a provocation by either side or by Israel (see "Israel, the United States and Iran : the tipping-point" [13 March 2008]). Such fears seemed to recede with the publication on 3 December 2007 of the US’s national-intelligence estimate NIE) - Iran : Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities - which gave a more cautious assessment of the state of Iran’s nuclear expertise and ambitions. The widespread conclusion was that the report made US military action against Iran less likely, though the potential for provocation or unintended escalations clearly remained.
Now, however, the systematic planning for US air-strikes that was prominently discussed is again on the agenda - and the target this time is not Iran’s nuclear facilities, but Pasdaran-e Inqilab (Revolutionary Guard) forces that are accused of supporting insurgents in Iraq (see Michael Smith, "United States is Drawing Up Plans To Strike on Iranian Insurgency Camp", Sunday Times, 4 May 2008).
What has brought the United States political and military leadership back to this point, as in another part of its universe the presidential-election race consumes so much of the media’s attention ?
The cost of failure
The answer begins with the apparent success of the US military "surge" in Iraq, announced by George W Bush in the wake of his rejection of the Iraq Study Group report of December 2006. The surge, entailing the phased deployment of additional contingents of American troops over the period February-July 2007, had (in combination with other factors and measures) some effect in reducing insecurity in certain parts of Iraq. This was generalised by a number of analysts and commentators into an argument that the entire dynamics of the conflict in Iraq were being reshaped in favour of peace and security (to be followed, it was hoped, by an internal political settlement).
This evolving argument was always open to challenge on the basis of a closer inspection of what was happening on the ground in Iraq - and the assessments of senior US officials in the country tended in any case always to be more cautious than the surge’s neo-conservative cheerleaders at home. But the events of spring 2008 is making the case for progress in Iraq look ever more threadbare.
The attempt by forces loyal to the Nouri al-Maliki government to take control of the port city of Basra had a drastic effect in this regard. The Saulat al-Fursan (Operation Knights Charge) campaign of 25-31 March 2008, backed by US forces, was designed to oust the Mahdi army militias around the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. A period of intense fighting largely failed to secure this objective, and in turn provoked armed combat in Baghdad too ; these included repeated attacks on the highly fortified "green zone", many of them originating from the fringes of the Shi’a stronghold of Sadr City. In response, US and Iraqi government forces have been engaged in sustained assaults on parts of Sadr City in a major operation that began in the third week of April 2008 and is still unfinished.
These assaults have involved the use by US forces of air-strikes, helicopter gunships and even surface-to-surface missiles in efforts to force supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr to retreat from the areas they control that are closest to the green zone. Hundreds of Iraqis, many of them civilians, have been killed ; many more have been forced to flee the area.
As a result of these and other operations, the US military death-toll in Iraq has also been rising. The number of soldiers killed in February-April 2008 was greater than for equivalent period since mid-2007, and much higher than in the period when the surge seemed to be having its greatest effect.
The Mahdi army militias that support Muqtada al-Sadr have mounted strong resistance to the combined US-Iraqi government assault ; the sandstorms of 3-4 May in Baghdad provided them with the cover needed to launch further mortar-attacks on the green zone. To complicate matters worse for the US, Sunni militias have also been active. A double suicide-bombing near Baghdad on 1 May killed thirty people and injured sixty-five ; and Sunni insurgents killed ten Iraqi soldiers on 5 May (Sholnn Freeman, "10 Iraqi Soldiers Die in Drive-By Attack", Washington Post, 6 May 2008).
More broadly, US military sources cite recent evidence that the al-Qaida movement in Iraq is undergoing a revival following its reversals of late 2007 ; they conclude that it is planning a new series of bomb-attacks, especially in Baghdad (see Liz Sly, "Al Qaeda Revival in Iraq Feared", Chicago Tribune, 20 April 2008). This compounds the problems for a US military already facing combat with a freshly active network of Sadrist militias and with renewed operations by Sunni insurgents.
This is a delicate situation for the US, and some distance from the fleeting optimism of the post-surge period. It means that there is now very little likelihood that the Pentagon will be able to withdraw any further troops from Iraq after summer 2008, by when the surge’s full effects will have been allowed to run their course. This is a severe problem for an overstretched US military, since such withdrawals are seen as a prerequisite of sending reinforcements to Afghanistan to fight a resurgent Taliban (see "No US Troop Increase in Afghanistan Without Deeper Cuts in Iraq : Pentagon", AFP, 7 May 2008).
Indeed, Afghanistan itself continues to present great difficulties for the US and its Nato allies in the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf). The attempted assassination of Hamid Karzai in the heart of Kabul on 27 April - the fourth such attempt on the life of the Afghan president - reflects the change of Taliban strategy towards a different style of asymmetrical warfare (see "Afghanistan’s Vietnam portent", 17 April 2008). This incident was followed on 29 April by a suicide-bombing in Jalalabad, to the east of the capital, aimed at an opium-eradication team ; it killed nineteen people and injured dozens more.
In response to a range of challenges in Afghanistan - including the proliferating opium-poppy crop, now being harvested by farmers in many of the Taliban-controlled districts - many Nato contingents are constrained by national rules of engagement. As a result, Washington is exerting strong pressure for US military forces to take over the leadership of Isaf across the south of the country (see Gordon Lubold, "U.S. To Heighten Afghan Role ?", Christian Science Monitor, 25 April 2008)
The Pentagon thus has a clear idea of the necessity of its taking charge in Afghanistan. But from the US’s own perspective, little progress there will be possible unless it can reinforce its troops there. There may now be around 61,000 coalition forces in Afghanistan, the majority of them American, which represents a significant expansion since autumn 2006 ; but even this has failed to halt or reverse the Taliban’s spreading influence.
For a George W Bush administration in its last months in office, surveying a bleak international landscape in which the grand ambitions of the "war on terror" are very far from achieved, the accumulated result of this unsettlement and pressure is intense frustration that it is not in control. The vaunted success of the surge in Iraq is being reversed ; the security situation in Afghanistan is deterioriating ; and both trends are happening just as the presidential-election campaign is approaching top gear.
The signs of war
This, by a roundabout but remorseless route, is the heart of the answer to the "why Iran again, and why Iran now ?" question. The default American establishment position when faced with problems in Iraq is often in any case to blame Iran. The pattern has been repeated in the past week, with a litany of complaints that Iran is involved in supporting the Shi’a militias.
Iran undoubtedly does provide backing to some of the militias. But it is equally notable that Muqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi army have tended to distance themselves from Tehran, and that the Nouri al-Maliki government itself maintains strong political links - reflected in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to (and warm welcome in) Baghdad in March 2008. Moreover, the Iraqi government is cautious about making strong claims for the closeness of the Iran connection (see Leila Fadel & Shashank Bengali, "Iraq Backs Off Allegations that Iran is Behind Violence", McClatchy Newspapers, 4 May 2008).
Washington, however, often seems impervious to such important complexities (see Patrick Cockburn, "Who is Iraq’s ‘Firebrand Cleric’ ?", Mother Jones, 31 March 2008). So there have been repeated allegations that Iran is fomenting conflict in Iraq, extending now to reports that Hizbollah instructors are training Iraqi insurgents (see Michael R Gordon, "Hezbollah Trains Iraqis in Iran, Officials Say", New York Times, 5 May 2008).
The Iranians have reacted by withdrawing from discussions with the Americans on security in Iraq. This is at the very time when the chair of the US joint chiefs-of-staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, has gone on record that military options are being considered because of Tehran’s "increasingly lethal and malign influence" in Iraq (see Ann Scott Tyson, "U.S. Weighing Readiness for Military Action Against Iran", Washington Post, 26 April 2008).
These developments do not make a conflict with Iran inevitable. They do, however, suggest that "something" is being considered. The most likely action might be some kind of "demonstration" air-strike against a Revolutionary Guard base close to the Iraqi border. This need not be imminent ; it might well be deliberately timed for late summer.
A US decision to launch such a high-profile, symbolic and calculated attack would also explode into the middle of the campaign for the presidency. The more likely beneficiary would be John McCain rather than his Democratic challenger, since any escalation of tensions with Iran tends to mobilise public and media sentiment behind the Republican, establishment and military currents in American politics.
A military confrontation with Iran, however limited in Washington’s design, will have incalculable consequences in the region (see "America and Iran : the spark of war", 20 September 2007). Iran - as earlier columns in this series have suggested - is an agent in this overall situation, and will respond in accordance with its own perceived interests by using the range of possibilities at its command (see "The United States and Iran : the logic of war", 1 February 2007). The attack will also reinforce the position of Iran’s hardliners.
In January 2009, the new US president will be obliged to pick up the pieces of a complex conflict that American action against Iran will have exacerbated But the desired domestic political effect will be secured, in the prolongation of Republican control of the White House. And the "long war" will have entered a new and even more dangerous phase.