The United States is facing key military and political decisions over a bitter current adversary, Iran, and an adversary-turned-ally, Iraq. Their outcome will have major consequences for the short- and medium-term future both of the middle east and the US homeland.
The decision over Iran, put crudely, is whether and when to go to war in the attempt to counter and/or disable Iran’s nuclear-power developments. The signs that this prospect is returning to active consideration in the White House have been accumulating for weeks (see "Iran and the American election", 5 June 2008). The fact that the discussions between George W Bush and the beleaguered Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert on 4 June 2008 are reported to have focused more on Iran than on Gaza and the Palestinians is only one; Olmert expressed satisfaction that the US administration’s firmness towards Tehran, fuelling speculation that plans for a military strike may have been on the table. The hints that Israel itself may be involved in any attack on Iran are spreading (see Dion Nissenbaum, "Strikes on Iran’s Nuclear Sites Under Discussion Again", McClatchy Newspapers, 11 June 2008)
The momentum is reinforced by President Bush’s insistence during his "farewell tour" of Europe from 9-16 June 2008 that Iran’s uranium-enrichment programme (cited as evidence of its intent to acquire nuclear weapons) poses a continued threat that must be addressed. The soon-to-depart president reaffirmed at a press conference in Germany on 11 June that "all options" for dealing with Iran remain on the table.
Alongside this putative military track is a diplomatic one. The return of Iran’s nuclear project to the top of the international agenda is reflected in a number of events: criticism of Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA’s) board report of 26 May 2008, proposals of a further tranche of finanical sanctions from the European Union and United States, and the imminent visit to Tehran by the European Union’s foreign-policy chief Javier Solana. So far, diplomatic pressure of this kind has not had a perceptible impact on Iran’s policy or rhetoric (whatever the exact nature of its nuclear-energy intentions); and this is itself useful ammunition for those elements in the American administration most determined that the "unfinished business" with Tehran should indeed be wrapped up before the presidential and congressional elections of 4 November 2008.
The strongest supporters of military action against Iran are on the neo-conservative right, both within the administration (principally vice-president Dick Cheney) and in the media (notably the Weekly Standard). They are dismayed at evidence of Iran’s increasing influence in the region, and at its extension of diplomatic and trade links to a range of countries; Iran, for example, has applied for membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which includes China and Russia (see Anna Fifield, "For oil-rich Iran, friends are not proving hard to find", Financial Times, 27 May 2008).
The prospect of a grinning Mahmoud Ahmadinejad outlasting the administration that for so long excoriated him would be a form of humiliation as well as confirmation of deep policy failure. What makes it even more exasperating is the ever-stronger view that the Iraq war is winnable. The neocons, and more generally hardliners inside and outside the administration (such as former United Nations ambassador John Bolton), would regard victory in Iraq as hollow if the regime in Iran - which they have always seen as the real threat to the US’s regional interests - survives and thrives.
The head of the Inter-Press Service’s Washington bureau, Jim Lobe - one of the more astute White House-watchers - focuses especially on Dick Cheney’s obsessive desire to avoid leaving a pivot of the "axis of evil" unscathed and defiant as the Bush administration’s eight years in office near their end. Lobe has over the past two years expressed scepticism when talk of a war with Iran has arisen, but this time confesses to genuine concern (see Jim Lobe, "Hawks still circling on Iran", Asia Times, 9 June 2008).
The reasons for taking seriously the indications that armed confrontation with Iran is an active possibility include the continuing power and influence of Cheney himself within the White House. A further factor is the retirement of the commander of the US’s Central Command (Centcom), Admiral William Fallon, who left his post on after his clear reservations over the war option were aired in a magazine profile (see "The Man Between War and Peace", Esquire, 11 March 2008). Fallon’s replacement, General David H Petraeus - who wins this promotion after overseeing the "surge" strategy in Iraq - has closer ties with, and is regarded as a more dependable figure by, the current administration.
The choice of a strike against Iran in the last months of George W Bush’s period in office would be momentous from a military point of view, but it would also have wider and longer-lasting political implications in the region and in the United States itself. The neocon calculation is that America’s overwhelming air-power superiority would at least inflict serious damage on Iran’s economy; in addition it would bind its successor administration - whether led by John McCain or Barack Obama - into a conflict whose agenda and dynamics the architects of the "long war" would continue to shape.
A crucial and as yet unknown aspect of a decision to attack Iran would be its effect on the US’s position within Iraq. Washington is seeking, amid Iraq’s still very uncertain security environment, to establish a long-term military and political presence in the country; to that end it opened negotiations with Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Baghdad on 8 March 2008 over a long-term security agreement that will both extend and legitimise its control.
The agreement is required because the United Nations-mandated operation which provides the legal foundation for US forces to operate in Iraq ends in December 2008. It would be possible in principle for Washington to seek a one-year extension through the UN Security Council, which would allow the negotiations to be undertaken by the next administration; but the dominant view inside the White House is that the political timetable makes an early decision essential (see Kyle Crichton, "Iraq Closeup: Who Decides When U.S. Troops Leave?", New York Times, 11 June 2008).
What is being demanded is a relationship that would allow US military forces quite remarkable freedom of action, possibly for as long as ninety-nine years (see Patrick Cockburn, "Revealed: Secret plan to keep Iraq under US control", Independent, 5 June 2008). They would maintain a major contingent at sites such as the massive Balad air-base north of Baghdad, and fifty-eight other sites would be earmarked for US use.
Thus, a very long-term and substantial presence is being envisaged. Since the original occupation began in March 2003, the Bush administration has consistently claimed that there were no plans for permanent bases (notwithstanding a notable leak to this effect in the New York Times within three weeks of the termination of the Saddam Hussein regime). That reported a plan for four major military bases: two of them close to the northern and southern oilfields, one near Baghdad and another towards the Syrian border, in the potentially oil-rich region of the western desert (see "Permanent occupation", 24 April 2003). Even now, the Bush administration may eschew the term "permanent", but with a decades-long occupation in prospect that is a matter of semantics.
The American personnel operating under the planned agreement would have the right to carry out military operations without Iraqi government approval (including the arrest of Iraqis), yet they would be immune from prosecution by the Iraqi authorities. This is particularly controversial within Iraq because those covered by the agreement would include some tens of thousands of private-security contractors - including staff of the Blackwater company, employees of which were involved in the killing of seventeen Iraqis in 2007, an incident that has not prevented Blackwater from having its contract with the Pentagon renewed (Benjamin Morgan, "Immunity for private guards in Iraq a sticking point: US", AFP, 10 June 2008).
The United States would also maintain control of Iraqi airspace, including air-to-air refuelling rights. This means that the US air force might even be able to undertake military attacks outside Iraq - such as action against Iran.
Washington maintains "status-of-forces" agreements with more than eighty countries around the world (its close ally Britain among them); but, just as the United States’s embassy in Baghdad is the biggest such building in the world, so the agreement planned with Iraq is the most comprehensive of its kind.
The reaction within Iraq is variable, though anger at perceived American "colonialism" has been growing as news of the ingredients of the deal has spread, forcing a more emollient tone from Washington (see Leonard Doyle, "Bush forced to rethink plan to keep Iraqi bases", Independent, 12 June 2008). Kurdish politicians have been reasonably supportive; some significant figures among the minority Sunni community are willing to accept aspects of the plan because of their fear of the Shi’a majority; among the Shi’a themselves there is widespread opposition. Meanwhile, the Iranian government sees a permanent US presence in its neighbour (and historical rival) unacceptable. The George W Bush administration views Iranian hostility as proof of the value of the agreement, but the considerable domestic Iraqi criticism presents it with a major problem (Amit R Paley & Karen De Young, "Iraqis Condemn American Demands", Washington Post, 11 June 2008).
There are indications that as Iraqi opposition to the agreement grows, it may precipitate a political crisis in Baghdad (see Charles Recknagel, "Iraq: Debate Flares Over U.S. Security Pact", RFE/RL, 12 June 2008). But in face of this, the United States retains two major advantages. The first is that the current Iraqi government is heavily dependent on the security provided by the US forces. The Iraq police and military forces may slowly be increasing their capabilities, but they are far from being able to protect the government; Nouri al-Maliki’s administration knows this only too well, whatever the political bluster now coming out of Baghdad.
The second US advantage is more subtle. It draws on the rigorous sanctions imposed in the 1990s on the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, and associated policy arrangements. At that time, Iraq was designated a threat to international order under Chapter 7 of the United Nations charter - a technicality which has not been revoked. One result is that around $50 billion of Iraqi money is held (under the terms of the UN mandate) by the Federal Reserve bank in New York, pending multiple legal cases against Iraq in US courts (see Patrick Cockburn, "US issues threat to Iraq’s $50 billion foreign reserves in military deal", Independent, 6 June 2008).
These reserves - increasing markedly in value in line with the steep rise in world oil prices - are not directly available for court settlements, but neither are they under the control of or useable by the Iraqis themselves. The funds may be technically independent of the US treasury, but in fact the US has the power to prevent any initiative to restore them to effective Iraqi ownership. This became clear in 2007 when (according to Iraqi sources) the Iraqi authorities made an attempt to diversify some of the holdings in the reserve out of dollars because of the depreciation of that currency; this was blocked by the US treasurer as it would damage international confidence in the dollar.
The US’s military, political and financial influence over Iraq is thus already very great; the George W Bush administration believes that it would expand even further if the UN mandate comes to an end. It is using this financial dimension - essentially of "possession being nine-tenths of the law" - to pressure the Iraqis into acceptance of the agreement now under negotiation.
The intention is to conclude the status-of-forces deal by the end of July 2008. This is a tight schedule for the US, and there are serious obstacles to be overcome; but Washington is determined - even at the cost of some compromise - to secure a comprehensive agreement. Much will be made of any concessions to the Iraqis, but this will not change the reality that the Bush administration seeks to ensure a large, all-embracing and long-term dominance of the Iraqi security environment (see Patrick Cockburn, "The reality is that Iraqi authority would be nominal", Independent, 12 June 2008).
The calculation is plain: with all that oil in Iraq and its immediate vicinity, it would be nonsense - whatever the Democratic contender, Barack Obama, might promise - to walk away. A number of columns in this series have argued that that was never the intention of those who scripted the Iraq war (see, for example, "It’s the oil, stupid", 24 March 2005). Nothing has changed there. But an attack on Iran would write a perilous new chapter.
Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England.