Sunday, August 06, 2006

Tyrant Who Stands Between Peace and Catastrophe

Henry Porter, The Guardian:
With a shudder, I realise I am writing this on 4 August, 92 years to the day that my grandfathers, both serving officers and in the same regiment, learned they would probably be going to war. I do not know how long they thought they would be fighting for or if they expected to survive (both did), but I am fairly sure that neither had an exact idea of the complex forces that brought them to France and Mons by the end of month.

Few people in 1914 saw things as clearly as we do now... the building of alliances, the accumulating tension in Europe and the setting of numerous invisible hair triggers across the Continent and the colonies. Without being alarmist, I wonder if, in future, students will look back on 2006 and observe similar developments and point to some of the same drift, blindness and ambition that characterised the beginning of the last century. READ MORE

Whatever the horrors of Lebanon, it is possible to see it as a minor skirmish on the way to a much bigger confrontation which occupies the policy-making lobe of conservative America and probably of our Prime Minister. One view suggests that America's failure to call for an immediate ceasefire allows Israel to try to deal with at least one of the Iranian proxies that will turn on the West if things come to a head over Iran's continued enrichment of uranium. In Washington's mind, there is no doubt that Hizbollah, Islamic Jihad and the Iranian-backed factions in Iraq could set the Middle East alight in the event of showdown with Tehran. So dealing a blow to Hizbollah in Lebanon would appear to the hawkish mind to reduce part of that threat.

However, it is Iraq that would be the focus of Iranian President Ahmadinejad's retaliation. Iran's Revolutionary Guard military training camps have been made available to Moqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army. Money flows over the border to support attacks and it would only take a word from Tehran to activate what is believed to be a fully formed plan. In extremis, Hizbollah might take action outside the Middle East. It is often forgotten that Hizbollah has interests in the tri-border region of South America, running drugs and doing drugs-for-arms deals between Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina.

As to the confrontation with Iran over its enrichment programme, things have speeded up since the start of the Lebanese war. The Security Council has set an 31 August deadline for Ahmadinejad to comply or face sanctions. Iranians are becoming resigned to isolation and economic hardship, says Sanam Vakil, an Iranian-born American academic who advises Western governments on conditions in Iran, while Ahmadinejad increasingly sees himself as a new Nasser and is unlikely to back down.

The Bush administration insists that Ahmadinejad has no one to hide behind now that he is subject to a Security Council resolution, but that is simply not true. With the West focused on Iraq and Lebanon, few have noticed the strengthening ties between Russia, China and Iran. Essentially, they are bonded by the need for natural gas and oil, which, incidentally, reached an incredible $78 a barrel in July. Russia and Iran are considering a partnership that would co-ordinate gas supplies so that they would run 40 per cent of the world's known resources, Russia supplying the West and Iran the East. China's oil giant Sinopec has signed a $70bn oil and natural gas deal with Iran which goes over 30 years. Besides these deals, Russia and China have invested heavily in Iran and are committed to improving its infrastructure and refining capacity.

So attacking Iran before it can build nuclear weapons, an option openly discussed in the US, even among Democrats, is a more complicated and infinitely riskier proposition than launching a war against Iraq, which is saying something. Quite apart from the mayhem that would spread across the Middle East, there are two permanent members of the Security Council which take a very close interest in Iran's future. This is to say nothing of the strategic importance of the Strait of Hormuz, which separates Iran from the Arabian peninsular. More than 40 per cent of the world's oil supplies pass through this gateway.

There is a fault line on which the world's future depends, but it passes through Tehran and the Strait of Hormuz, not Lebanon and Israel. Across this line, East and West face each other in a new contest; upon this line are concentrated the majority of the world's energy supplies, Islamic ambition and the crucibles of Shia terror.

Reason enough to move cautiously, but if the interpretation of America's failure to call for a ceasefire are right - that Israel has America's tacit encouragement and perhaps Tony Blair's - then we may be witnessing the beginning of something that will define the first half of the 21st century.

The American administration believes Israel has a right to defend itself - so do I - but Israel has gone too far. The attacks on the infrastructure and civilians of the nascent democracy, ironically the only country to achieve anything like the democratic revolution Bush and Blair have called for in the Middle East, are deplorable. For Israel, I believe it is also a disaster.

Hizbollah has gained enormous prestige in the Middle East, both among Sunni and Shia. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has become a hero. He has launched rockets into the heart of Israel, demonstrating that a prosecution of asymmetric war is within the grasp of every well-organised terrorist group. He has provoked Israel into retaliatory raids that have killed women and children and made the country look monstrous, even though his rockets were aimed at civilians. Meanwhile, in Tehran, Ahmadinejad knows that any cost of the war will be offset by the rise in oil revenue: for every $5 rise in the oil price, Iran gains $85m per week.

Mr Blair made an interesting speech at the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles, in which he described the struggle between the values of democracy and the tyranny of violent fundamentalism: a vision of a primordial conflict between the forces of light and darkness worthy of the ancient Persian prophet Mani. But there was little of practical nature, little to give us hope that he and his American partners are thinking seriously how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem. This can only can be solved, as Sir Christopher Meyer said, by a huge diplomatic effort with all concerned taking part.

That is not the thinking of neocon policy makers, so it is well to remind Mr Blair what Henry Kissinger said to the World Affairs Council in 1999. 'In America, there has been a tendency to divide foreign policy into two schools of thought. One that identifies foreign policy as a subdivision of psychiatry and another that treats it as a subdivision of theology. The psychiatrists think relations among nations are like relations among people and you bring peace through this strenuous exercise of goodwill. The theologians believe that all foreign policies are a struggle between good and evil and the thing to do is to destroy the wrongdoer once and for all, after which normalcy returns.'

Kissinger was psychiatrist; the Prime Minister and President Bush are theologians. Unfortunately, they do not hear the guns of August.
I agree with the writer that the comings weeks could easily see the beginning of a major world wide confrontation. But like many commentators, while he complains that Bush and Blair see our present conflict as a battle of good and evil, but ignores the fact that Bush and Blair are responding to an Iranian regime that believes Western concepts of freedom and democracy are evil and must be destroyed.