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POLITICS: Iran Nuclear Conflict Is About U.S. Dominance

Analysis by Gareth Porter*

WASHINGTON, May 11 2006 (IPS) - As the George W. Bush administration pushes for a showdown over Iran’s nuclear programme in the U.N. Security Council, it has presented the issue as a matter of global security – an Iranian nuclear threat in defiance of the international community.

But the history of the conflict and the private strategic thinking of both sides reveal that the dispute is really about the administration’s drive for greater dominance in the Middle East and Iran’s demand for recognition as a regional power.

It is now known that the Iranian leadership, which was convinced that Bush was planning to move against Iran after toppling Saddam Hussein in Iraq, proposed in April 2003 to negotiate with the United States on the very issues which the administration had claimed were the basis for its hostile posture toward Tehran: its nuclear programme, its support for Hizbollah and other anti-Israeli armed groups and its hostility to Israel’s existence.

Tehran offered concrete, substantive concessions on those issues. But on the advice of U.S. Vice Pres. Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, Bush refused to respond to the negotiating proposal. Nuclear weapons were not, therefore, the primary U.S. concern about Iran. In the hierarchy of the administration’s interests, the denial of legitimacy to the Islamic Republic trumped a deal that could provide assurances against an Iranian nuclear weapon.

For insight into the real aims of the administration in pushing the issue of Iranian access to nuclear technology to a crisis point, one can turn to Tom Donnelly of the neoconservative think-tank the American Enterprise Institute. Donnelly was the deputy executive director of the neoconservative Project for the New American Century from 1999 to 2002, and was the main author of “Rebuilding America’s Defences”.

That paper was written for Cheney and Rumsfeld during the transition following Bush’s election and had the participation of four prominent figures who took positions in the administration: Stephen A. Cambone, Lewis Libby, Paul Wolfowitz and John Bolton.

Donnelly’s analysis of the issue of Iran and nuclear weapons, published last October in the book “Getting Ready for a Nuclear-Ready Iran”, makes it clear that the real objection to Iran becoming a nuclear power is that it would impede the larger U.S. ambitions in the Middle East – what Donnelly calls the administration’s “project of transforming the Middle East”.

Contrary to the official U.S. line depicting Iran as a radical state threatening to plunge the region into war, Donnelly refers to Iran as “more the status quo power” in the region in relation to the United States. Iran, he explains, “stands directly athwart this project of regional transformation”. Up to now, he observes, the Iranian regime has been “incapable of stemming the seeping U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf and in the broader region”. And the invasion of Iraq “completed the near-encirclement of Iran by U.S. military forces”.

Donnelly writes that a “nuclear Iran” is a problem not so much because Tehran would employ those weapons or pass them on to terrorist groups, but mainly because of “the constraining effect it threatens to impose upon U.S. strategy for the greater Middle East”.

The “greatest danger”, according to Donnelly, is that the “realists” would “pursue a ‘balance of power’ approach with a nuclear Iran, undercutting the Bush ‘liberation strategy'”. Although Donnelly doesn’t say so explicitly, it would undercut that strategy primarily by ruling out a U.S. attack on Iran as part of a strategy of “regime change”.

Instead, in Donnelly scenario, a nuclear capability would incline those outside the neoconservative priesthood to negotiate a “détente” with Iran, which would bring the plan for the extension of U.S. political-military dominance in the Middle East to a halt.

What is really at stake in the confrontation with Iran from the Bush administration’s perspective, according to this authority on neoconservative strategy, is the opportunity to reorder the power hierarchy in the Middle East even further in favour of the United States, by pursuing the overthrow of the Islamic republic of Iran.

Meanwhile, Iran has not acknowledged its real interest in pushing its position on nuclear fuel enrichment to the point of confrontation with the United States either. Instead it has focused in public pronouncements on the enormously popular position that Iran will not give up its right to have civilian nuclear power.

According to observers familiar with their thinking, senior Iranian national security officials have long been saying privately that Iran should try to reach an agreement with the United States that would normalise relations and acknowledge officially Iran’s legitimate role in the security of the Persian Gulf.

Trita Parsi, a specialist on Iran’s foreign policy at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, who conducted extensive interviews with senior Iranian national security officials in 2004, says Iran “is now primarily trying to become rehabilitated in the political order of the region”.

Najmeh Bozorgmehr, an Iranian journalist now at the Brookings Institution as a visiting scholar, agrees. Based on several years of covering Iran’s national security policy, she says, “Iran wants to bargain with the United States on Iran’s regional role,” as well as on removal of sanctions and assurances against U.S. attack. Tehran has been looking for any source of leverage with which to bargain with the United States on those issues, she says, and “enrichment has become a big bargaining chip.”

Bozorgmehr says the Iranians have become convinced that they have to do something to show the United States “we can give you a hard time” to induce the Bush administration to negotiate. And Parsi says the prevailing view among Iranian officials after the 2003 U.S. rejection of diplomacy was that they had to have the capability to inflict some pain on the United States in order to get their attention.

According to Parsi, that rejection confirmed Iranian suspicions that the U.S. problem is not with Iran’s policies but with its power. That Iranian conclusion precisely parallels Donnelly’s insider analysis of the Bush administration’s aims.

But what the Iranians really want, according to these observers of Iranian national security thinking, is not nuclear weapons but the recognition of Iran’s status in the power hierarchy of the Persian Gulf. The Iranian demand for regional status can only be achieved through a broad diplomatic agreement with the United States.

The Bush administration’s insistence on extending its dominance in the Middle East even further can only be achieved, however, by the threat of force, and if that fails, war against Iran.

*Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. His latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam”, was published in June 2005.

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