Jaw-jaw or war-war?

RUMOURS circulating around Washington that the Bush administration could announce sometime within the next few days the opening of a US Interest Office in Teheran is being met with mixed emotions. Proponents favouring dialogue applauded the initiative, while hard-core believers in the stick-over-the-carrot approach denounced the move as caving in to the mullahs.

By Claude Salhani (View from Washington)

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Published: Fri 15 Aug 2008, 10:17 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:12 PM

Those who favour a rapprochement with Iran over confrontation are rejoicing that the Bush administration is finally moving in the right direction, extending to Teheran a chance to perhaps find a face-saving outlet to the current crisis over Iran's insistence to develop nuclear capability.

Iran may — if it wishes to avoid escalating the crisis into a perilous conflict — accept Washington's more than symbolic overture to establish serious dialogue with the West, a move which will benefit the country far more than the half-a-dozen nuclear weapons they may or may not be able to produce.

On the other hand, other voices, particularly among the émigré community in the United States and Europe, have expressed strong disappointment that the Bush administration is committing what "may prove to be a major mistake," as wrote Amir Taheri in The New York Post.

Those opposed to the United States renewing, or rather upgrading relations with the Islamic republic, fear the move by the US State Department could be interpreted by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a sign of weakness by the United States and could vindicate his hardline policy, possibly even helping him win the next presidential elections.

They argue that there already exists a US Interest Section in Teheran, run out of the Swiss embassy. True, however, this latest move would base US diplomats in Iran for the first time since the previous crop of American envoys, 52 diplomats, were taken hostage in November 1979, shortly after the Islamic revolution overthrew the Shah, and held captive for 444 days.

To those who believe that the presence of two American envoys to the Islamic republic might be exploited by Mr Ahmadinejad in his re-election campaign, it needs to be pointed out that the absence of American diplomats did not prevent Mr Ahmadinejad from getting elected a first time around. It should also be pointed out that the lack of communication between Teheran and Washington, other than the exchanges of belligerent statements, has in all clarity contributed towards raising the stakes and increasing the distrust and animosity between Iran's rulers and consecutive US administrations since the 1979 revolution.

Taheri questions the wisdom of removing the fear of regime change in Teheran. "Once assured that they no longer face the threat of regime change, the mullahs may well decide that they need offer no concessions at all on any issue, least of all that of their nuclear ambitions," he wrote.

But lest Teheran think it might have won the upper hand in the ongoing political tug-of-war with the West, the country's ruling mullahs better take a good look over the horizon to see that if Washington still hopes to resort to diplomacy to settle the current dispute, it has nevertheless not given up on 'good old-fashioned' gunboat diplomacy.

The mullahs might find a clue in the not-so-discreet joint US-UK-French naval war exercises carried out last week in the Atlantic Ocean, where the theme of the exercise was to practice imposing a naval blockade on Iran and the likelihood of the blockade degenerating into an open conflict.

Known as Operation Brimstone, the task force included one US Navy carrier battle group headed by the USS Theodore Roosevelt; an expeditionary carrier battle group, a Royal Navy carrier battle group, a French nuclear hunter-killer submarine as well as several US Navy cruisers, destroyers and frigates playing the role of the "enemy force."

The lead US warship participating in the war exercises, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, is now headed towards the Arabian Gulf with French Naval Rafale fighter jets on-board. It is escorted by its Carrier Strike Group Two, along with the USS Ronald Reagan and its Carrier Strike Group Seven.

That would bring to four the number of US naval battle groups, with the new armada reinforcing the USS Abraham Lincoln (Carrier Strike Group Nine) and the USS Peleliu (and its expeditionary strike group).

According to informed sources the Navy is further ordering to the Gulf the USS Iwo Jima; the British are sending the carrier HMS Ark Royal; and the French are contributing a number of warships, including the nuclear hunter-killer submarine Amethyste.

Once on site the joint task force will represent the largest naval force to sail into the Gulf since the two Gulf wars. Their mission will be to establish a naval blockade on Iran and to prevent refined oil from reaching the Islamic republic. Although Iran counts among the world's leading oil producers, it does not refine its oil, sending it abroad for refinement — principally by India — and then re-importing it. A naval blockade denying Iran its oil would have devastating consequences on its economy, the result of which could end up bringing about regime change after all. Might this be what the Bush administration is hoping for all along?

Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times and a political analyst in Washington

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