Sunday, January 14, 2007

Did the U.S. just provoke Iran?

Thursday's raid on the Iranian consulate is more evidence that President Bush is ready to escalate the conflict.

By Juan Cole

"For months, rumors of war between the United States and Iran have been building. Many fear that President Bush is spoiling for a fight, and they've begun to interpret various developments in the region as the run-up to an attack on Tehran. A report in the British press about a possible Israeli raid on Iran's nuclear facilities quickly became linked with predictions about coordinated action with the United States. Observers on all sides, left, right and other, convinced themselves that the appointment of Adm. William Fallon to oversee military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan meant there would soon be Tomahawk missiles, if not U.S. soldiers, crossing the border into Iran.President Bush's speech on Wednesday night only stoked such speculation......

Then Thursday came a U.S. raid on an Iranian consulate in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Irbil. By the end of the day, rumors of war with Iran had spread to normally cautious corners of the Internet. The Washington Note wondered aloud if Bush had issued an executive order to commence military action against Iran and Syria. Was the raid a deliberate provocation and the preface to war?.....

Thursday's events, however, are unlikely to be the immediate preface to wider action against Iran, since the operation appears to have been carefully targeted and limited in scope. It was also not the first action taken against Iranian targets inside Iraq. Last month, U.S. forces raided the compound of influential Shiite cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and netted Iranian intelligence officers.

But if Bush were to escalate the regional conflict and try to involve Iran, the assault on the Iranian consulate in Irbil suggests the ways in which he would justify his actions. He and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have begun speaking, without presenting any evidence, of Iranian aid to groups killing U.S. troops in Iraq -- hence the reference to "networks" in his Wednesday speech. The difficulties faced by the U.S. military occupation of Iraq itself may well be made the pretext for aggressive action against Iran.

In escalating a confrontation with Iran, Bush is placating his friends in Sunni-dominated states. On Thursday, the Saudi-backed London daily Al-Hayat ("Life") reported that Bush called Saudi King Abdullah to discuss security issues with him, and described the measures to be taken in Baghdad. Saudi officials have on several occasions expressed alarm about increasing Iranian influence over Iraq. Sunni Arab allies of the U.S. such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt have taken the lead in asking that Bush not withdraw precipitately from Iraq and not acquiesce in growing Iranian influence and power in the region. In return, the Bush administration is pressuring the kingdom to help rein in rebellious Iraqi Sunni Arabs.

Speaking in Provo, Utah, on Thursday, Saudi ambassador to Washington Prince Turki al-Faisal seemed to endorse Bush's plan, saying, Saudi Arabia "has always maintained that since America came into Iraq uninvited, it should not leave uninvited ... For America to pack up now and leave would be very detrimental and something that would be unacceptable to our part of the world."

The anti-Iranian passages of Bush's speech seem to have pleased Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as well. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat ("the Middle East"), a pan-Arab London daily, reported that Mubarak warned on Thursday against a deep cleavage in the region, which he said would harm the Middle East and the whole world. He accused the Iranians of seeking support in the region. He called on "all to keep their hands off Iraq," urging that the dangers of a sectarian or ethnic war be recognized. He predicted that the situation in Iraq would deteriorate after the "barbaric" way in which former dictator Saddam Hussein was executed. Iran had welcomed the execution of its old enemy....."

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