Has war between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran become inevitable?
These days, the question is at the center of discussions in diplomatic circles across the globe. A good part of the talk on the sidelines of the annual International Security Conference, held in Munich, Germany, last week was precisely about that.
The same question will be at the center of talks between Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad who is due in Tehran today to coordinate his strategies with Iran.
Judged by the visuals of the case, a military conflict seems possible.
Like a pair of angry cats contesting the same space, Iran and the United States have been frowning and making warlike gestures, over who should set the agenda for the Middle East, for a quarter of a century.
At some point, the two cats must jump at one another.
In a sense, the two have been at war since 1979 when Khomeinist militants raided the US Embassy in Tehran and seized its diplomat's hostage.
Since then, pro-Iran militants have killed almost 1,000 Americans across the globe, including in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon and, more recently, Iraq. The Americans killed almost as many Iranians with the accidental downing of an Iranian jetliner and the destruction of Revolutionary Guard positions along the Gulf in 1987.
Through the 1990s, the two managed to avoid conflict, by ignoring one another. That changed after 9/11 when the US decided to reshape the Middle East with "regime change" in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Calling the Islamic republic part of an "Axis of Evil", President George W. Bush made it clear there would be no room for Khomeinism in his new Middle East.
That prompted Tehran to prepare for a showdown that Ahamdinejad seems to welcome.
Iran intensified the arming of Hezbollah, renewed contacts with Shiite militants in Arab states, and increased its military budget by 21 percent. It also resumed uranium enrichment, putting its controversial nuclear program into high gear, and provoking a diplomatic tussle with US and its allies.
In Afghanistan, Iran reactivated Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb Islami militia, shipped arms to the Is'haqzai Pushtun tribe, and helped Hazara Shiites raise an army of 12,000. Iran also opened its borders to fleeing Taleban and Al-Qaeda militants. According to Arab intelligence sources, some 30 senior "Arab Afghans" are in Iran.
To exert pressure on another US ally, Iran has shipped arms to Balochi rebels in Pakistan, including Marri tribesmen led by Nawab Khair-Baksh.
Next, Tehran established contact with Palestinian radicals, notably Hamas, feting its leaders in Tehran and providing aid worth $250 million. Last week's capture of Iranian military advisers in Gaza shows that Tehran was also involved in training Palestinian fighters.
Last summer, Tehran fought a proxy war against Washington in Lebanon with Israel, the United States' regional ally, dueling with Hezbollah, Iran's cat's-paw in the Arab world. A month before the war, Iran had signed a defense treaty with Syria, turning into a client state.
Hezbollah's perceived "victory" encouraged Iran to seek extending its glacis to Lebanon, by trying to topple the pro-Arab government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
Since last year, however, Iraq has become the principal battleground in the indirect war between Iran and the US.
Iranian strategists assume that, if the Americans run away, Iraq will be divided into three mini-states: Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite. Invoking the 19th century Treaty of Erzerum, which gives Iran certain rights in Iraq's Shiite areas, Tehran hopes to play "big brother" to a future ministate in southern Iraq. The list of US accusations against Tehran includes:
• Supplying Iraqi militants with roadside bombs, known as Explosive Formed Projectiles (EFPs), which have killed at least 170 US soldiers and maimed over 600 others.
• Supplying Iraqi insurgents, both Sunni and Shiite, with sniper rifles bought by Iran from Austria in 2002.
• Recruiting, training and financing a number of Iraqi Shiite militias, notably the Mahdi Army, led by Moqtada Sadr.
• Setting up command-and-control networks to coordinate insurgent attacks on US forces in Iraq. Seventy-eight members of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and security services have been arrested in Iraq, including seven senior officers captured in raids in Erbil and Baghdad. Among them were Muhsin Shirazi and Muhammad-Ja'afar Sahraroudi who have been in charge of pro-Iran militant groups abroad since the 1980s.
• Offering safe haven to anti-US militants, including Jamal Jaafar-Muhammad, a member of the Iraqi National Assembly who coordinated the smuggling of EFPs into Iraq. Moqtada Sadr is also in Iran along with Abu-Hamza, a leader of the Al-Qaeda and Ramadan Al-Shalah, leader of the Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO).
Iran cannot allow the imposition of a pax Americana in which Khomeinism could have no place. The US, for its part, cannot allow its Khomeinist foes to dominate a region that contains half the world's oil and gas reserves.
The conventional wisdom is that with the US Army bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington cannot wage full-scale war against the Islamic republic. This ignores the fact that the US Navy and Air Force remain fully free and ready for action. Washington's choice is not limited to either invading Iran or surrendering to the mullahs. Between the two, a range of options is available.
Some are already being used.
These include moves, known in military jargon as "proximity pressure".
Bush has changed the rules of engagement in Iraq to allow US forces to capture or kill Iranian infiltrators. The arrival of two naval battle groups in the Gulf represents the biggest concentration of firepower there since 1990.
These could take out the Islamic Revolutionary Guards positions close to or along the Gulf, including key strategic assets like the bases in Dezful, Bushehr, Bandar Abbas, the Jask Peninsula, and Konarak.
Iran's nuclear installations in Klardasht, Arak, Tehran, Natanz, and Isfahan, along with the uranium mines of Bafq and Sarcheshmeh could also be destroyed, postponing the emergence of the Khomeinist regime as a nuclear power by years.
Other targets include the bases and headquarters of the so-called Quds (Jerusalem) Corps that Iran has uses for "exporting revolution". Located in western Iran, close to Iraq, these could be taken out with a combination of air attacks and ground commando raids.
Such moves by the US would face the Iranian leadership with a tough choice: Whether to retaliate, thus provoking a full-scale war.
Iran could retaliate by using its Lebanese and Palestinian clients for attacks against Israel.
It could also organize terror operations in several Arab states and in Europe while making life harder for NATO in Afghanistan.
Escalation, however, would provide Washington with the excuse to hit the command-and-control structures of the Khomeinist regime, including in Tehran itself.
The list of American accusations is long. It includes:
So far, the Khomeinsit leadership has swallowed the American accusations and "proximity pressure" operations with uncharacteristic pusillanimity. Ahmadinejad's talk of the "Samson option", meaning to set the Middle East ablaze if the Islamic republic is threatened, has not gone beyond rhetoric.
It is as if the mullahs are looking for a way to walk back from the edge of precipice without losing face. The question, however, is whether the US, emboldened by the mullahs' lack of response, will not seek "regime change", and whether the Khomeinist leadership can climb down without losing face, and, perhaps, its grip on power.
This is high stakes poker, with its outcome hard to predict.