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WASHINGTON, Feb 2 2010 (IPS) - The recent expansion of U.S. missile defence systems in the Persian Gulf just days after President Barack Obama warned Iran of “growing consequences” if it did not accept the West’s conditions over its nuclear programme signals a possible change of approach by Washington even as uncertainty still prevails how it will deal with Iran eventually.
Gen. David Patraeus, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East and South Asia, said on Monday that his country had expanded land-and-sea-based missile systems in the Gulf and the Mediterranean in response to what the superpower views as Iran’s growing missile threat.
President Obama’s harsh words against Iran and the announcement of upgraded anti-missile systems in the Middle East have come after a failure of the U.S. administration’s diplomatic initiative to engage Iran. That failure and the missile build-up will likely further increase tensions between Iran and its neighbours on the one hand and Iran and the U.S. on the other.
The U.S. has based upgraded Patriot missile systems in the four small Gulf nations of Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain. Iran has strongly criticised the U.S. move, accusing the West of trying to create “rift and insecurity” in the Gulf.
The move has raised questions about U.S. motives for expanding and upgrading its missile defense systems in the region.
“It’s hard to say whether it’s preparation for military action or essentially part of U.S. policy to further isolate Iran from the regional states and indeed sell more arms to regional states,” Nader Entessar, an Iran expert and chair of the Political Science Department at the University of South Alabama, told IPS.
Although many in the region and the West brand Iran as a “threat”, the country has one of the lowest rates of military spending in comparison to other Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE, which have spent 25 billion dollars on weapons over the past two years.
However, Iran has carried out a number of missile tests in the past and possesses missiles that can reach as far as Israel or Eastern Europe.
With all the talk about the “Iranian threat”, the question is what type of threat Iran really poses to the countries in the region.
“I don’t think Gulf countries generally see Iran as a conventional military threat,” said Chas Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and a former assistant secretary of defence for international security sffairs. “The concern about Iran has to do with Iran’s political prestige.”
Gen. Patraeus has reportedly said that now the tiny country of UAE has the military capabilities to take out the Iranian air force.
Iran’s political prestige comes from its extensive ties with both states and non-state actors in the region, in particular in places like Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and the Palestinian territories.
More than 30 years after the Islamic Revolution, Iran enjoys strong relations with mostly Shia groups in the Middle East, but also Sunni groups such as Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad. That has not only deeply worried Sunni Arab powers in the region like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, but also the U.S. and Israel.
Now the traditional powers of the Arab world have added what they allege is Iran’s support for Huthi Shia fighters in Yemen to their long list of grievances against the Shia power.
Iran and the U.S. have had a history of troubled relations, especially since the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 which led to the overthrow of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, a close U.S. ally in the region. The storming of the U.S. embassy in Tehran by revolutionary students and the U.S. aid to Saddam Hussein during the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq only exacerbated the tense relations following the Revolution.
The Islamic Republic’s officials have repeatedly shrugged off accusations that they pose any threats to the region’s countries and often accuse the U.S. and Israel of vilifying Iran in the eyes of its neighbours and the larger world.
Despite the public pronouncement of concern with regard to Iran’s attitude and policies in the region, the Islamic Republic has no history of aggression against any of its neighbours. The only war the post-Revolution Iran fought, the Iran-Iraq War, was initiated by Saddam Hussein, who enjoyed western support throughout the conflict.
In a meeting with Qatar’s crown-prince Sheikh Tamin bin Hamad Al Thani on Tuesday, Iran’s Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani said “Iran has no problems with its neighbours and has never had any intention of aggression against any country.”
“Imam Khomeini’s foreign policy theory was one of Islamic union, strengthening unity and cooperation among Muslim countries and this is the strategy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Islamic world,” said Larijani, referring to the founder of the Islamic Republic.
However, domestic developments in Iran appear to have seriously limited the ability of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government to come up with any serious initiative. In the wake of the Jun. 12 presidential elections last year, the country has witnessed widespread protests against perceived fraud in the elections.
While Washington says all the options are on the table, a military attack, some experts say, would be highly costly and therefore highly unlikely in the foreseeable future.
“Despite Washington’s sabre-rattling, the threat of reverting back into recession makes one thing clear – when it comes to Iran, all options are not on the table,” wrote Henry Barkey and Uri Dadush, experts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in an analysis for The National Interest, a quarterly journal of international affairs and diplomacy.
They argue that any attack on Iran would cause oil prices to skyrocket to possibly as high as 150 dollars a barrel sending the global economy into a new round of recession. Iran, Barkey and Dadush contend, would then encourage its Lebanese and Palestinian allies, Hezbollah and Hamas, to attack Israel.
And last but not least, an attack on Iran will give the “embattled regime in Tehran an occasion to rally” its disgruntled people against foreign aggression.
As Iran and the West fail to reach a deal on the former’s controversial nuclear programme, uncertainty over how to handle Iran is still prevalent. Although the U.S. has pushed hard for tougher economic sanctions, it has met stiff resistance from China, whcih has lucrative business deals in Iran, especially in oil and gas sector.
Iran’s negative response to western proposals, on the basis that they were not fair, has left a disappointed U.S. adopting an increasingly aggressive tone and course of action to an extent that some say is reminiscent of President George W. Bush’s hawkish years.
“We are back to what the Bush administration was trying to do, back to this notion of regime change once more,” says Entessar. “Back to the ascendancy of the neoconservatives again in the administration as well as outside who are putting pressure on Obama. And that does not bode well, in my judgment, for any kind of breakthrough in the future.”
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