For the past two weeks or so, the American media has been full of speculation about possible US military action against the Islamic republic in Iran. This is not the first time there is war fever in the American media.
What is new about the current war fever is that most of those who take up the subject have an eye on the US midterm elections next month that could produce an anti-Bush majority in the Congress. Thus, scare stories about war with Iran and its incalculable consequences may be designed to frighten the American voter away from President George W. Bush's Republican Party.
Those who follow Iran's politics closely know that a war is neither imminent nor necessary, at least at this time. The Islamic republic has enough rope with which to hang itself without war. And those who know the way President Bush's mind works would know that, if he decided that war was the only option, he would not shy away from it because of partisan calculations.
The war-fever pundits come out with a series of arguments, often identical and presumably coming out of the same intellectual factory, designed to show that the US would pay a high price for any military action against the Islamic republic. The implication is that the US should not go to war expect against weak adversaries who cannot cause it any serious harm in retaliation.
These are some of the predictions:
— The Islamic republic would launch a worldwide terror campaign, possibly including "dirty bomb" explosions in major Western cities against US and its allies in the Gulf, the Middle East, and Europe.
— The Lebanese branch of Hezbollah will unleash a hailstorm of missiles over Israel.
— The Islamic republic closes the Strait of Hormuz to stop the flow of oil, pushing prices up to $200 or even $300 a barrel.
— The Islamic republic orders its surrogates in Iraq, notably the militia led by Moqtada Sadr to attack US forces, and their Iraqi allies in the government of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki.
— Syria enters the war to help the Islamic republic, presumably by attacking Israel and Jordan while also invading Iraq.
The analyses based on the above predictions suffer from several defects. The first is that they do not pose the simple question of "then, what?"
Supposing all those predictions came true, could anyone assume that the US, once engaged in what would be a total war, would cave in simply because of terrorist attacks or massive increases in the price of oil? Would Hezbollah and Syria commit suicide to help their doomed allies and/or masters in Tehran?
The Islamic republic would certainly try to do whatever it can in retaliation. But, paradoxically the bigger the mischief it might do, the more certain would be its ultimate demise. The best option for the Islamic republic, in case it is attacked by the US, is to pose as the innocent victim of the "Great Satan", thus inspiring "beautiful people" marches in New York and San Francisco, and impeachment moves against Bush in the Congress which have a Democrat majority by next month. The last thing that the Islamic republic would want to do is to prove Bush right in suggesting that the Khomeinist regime is America's most dangerous enemy. A Hezbollah "dirty bomb" or suicide attack in any US city would simply mobilize the American people behind a policy of "regime destruction" in Tehran.
As for using the oil card, the Islamic republic might not find things that easy.
If the Strait of Hormuz were closed, the Islamic republic would not be able to export its oil to benefit from the imaginary $200 to $300 per barrel prices. If oil prices rise, the Islamic republic would also have to pay more for its refined oil imports from Europe, India and the Gulf states, assuming that the US would be stupid enough to allow its enemy to be re-supplied without a hitch.
If we proceed at each stage of the speculation to ask "then, what" we would easily see that even if the worse came to the worst, a major military conflict between the US and the Islamic republic would end with the destruction of the Khomeinist regime.
The leaders of the Islamic republic have every interest not to be fooled by the latest explosion of Bush-bashing in the US media which uses the Iranian issue as a pretext for partisan score-settling. The interest of the leaders in Tehran dictates that they should avoid pushing their conflict with Washington to the point of full-scale war.
The next question that the war-fever speculators do not ask is: Whether or not the Islamic republic's refusal to compromise on its uranium enrichment program is the sole, or even the main, reason why it is on a collision course with the US. It is clear that the nuclear issue is a symptom of a deeper conflict rather than the cause of it. The US and the Islamic republic are engaged in a duel because both wish to remold the Middle East after their respective conflicting visions.
A Middle East reshaped into a zone of partnership with the United States cannot tolerate a militant anti-American regime in its heart for very long. The Iranians, arguably the most pro-American people in the region, would not welcome a situation in which they would be the odd-man out because of an ideology they do not share. At the same time, the Khomeinist regime cannot survive without its revolutionary ambitions and its claim of representing the only "divine system" on earth. Surrounded by the US and its allies on all sides, the Islamic republic cannot ignore the "Great Satan".
In such a situation, three options are available:
1- A compromise under which Tehran and Washington jointly dominate the region, something that may not be acceptable to other powers and players in the Middle East;
2- The Islamic republic surrenders to the US vision and is allocated a place within it — a course that could amount to political suicide by the Khomeinist establishment;
3- The US surrenders to the Islamic republic and withdraws from the region — an option that might whet Ahmadinejad's appetite, as he seems himself as the savior of mankind as a whole, while destroying America's credibility as a global leader.
Those who are raising the current war-fever should state which of the above options they would support.