Standoff or realpolitik?

THE US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, couldn’t possibly be any more accurate in a recent statement, accusing Iran of "playing games" with the international community.

By Ramzy Baroud

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Published: Sat 6 May 2006, 10:14 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:44 PM

Rice was specifically referring to an announcement made on April 30, by the deputy head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency Muhammad Saeedi, that his country is willing to allow ‘snap inspections’ by the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. He conditioned his country’s concession on excluding the UN Security Council from any involvement in inspecting Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities.

Iran is in fact playing games, in the sense that it is repeatedly testing US resolve to see how far the Bush administration is willing to go to escalate the conflict. Naturally, the outcome of Iran’s political experimentations would help adjust —escalate or downgrade —the government’s political attitude towards the issue.

Ironically, the ‘games’ Rice was referring to are called ‘realpolitik’, where practical matters are weighed, considered and taken into account based exclusively on statistical, cost-effective analysis, and where ethics and law carry little weight. It’s ironic, because no Middle Eastern government comes even close to the US and the so-called EU-3 —Germany, France and Britain —in utilising such games. After all, realpolitik was coined by a German writer, describing the attempt to balance the powers of European empires in the 19th century.

True, Iran is no empire and will unlikely metamorphose into one. Moreover, the chances are no balance of power in its real sense is possible between Iran and its Western detractors, considering US military might, especially if combined with that of its willing allies, no matter how hard President Ahmadinejad labours to create a fearsome aura around his nation’s military might.

But thanks to other factors —precisely Bush’s low ratings at home and his embattled military in Iraq —Iran is finding itself in a much more comfortable state than that of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and his government, in the run up to the US invasion in March, 2003.

Some observers have rightfully noted that the US government’s rhetoric concerning the Iranian nuclear enrichment matter is almost an exact replica of that employed in the wake of the Iraq war. First, there was the exaggeration of Iraq’s military might, which was seen as a ‘threat’ to its neighbours —most notably Israel —and US regional interests. Then came the sanctions, formidable and suffocating, meant to contain the Iraqi regime and impede Saddam’s alleged incessant drive for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Then there was the muscle flexing and awesome military deployment. Finally came the showdown: war, forced regime change and occupation.

The Bush administration and the pro-war cliques in the Congress —and they are many —appear equally enthused for another Middle East showdown, and Teheran is the new setting of this show. Once again, it’s neither respect for the law —since Iran’s nuclear enrichment is not in violation of its commitment under the Non-Proliferation Treaty —nor democracy —for Iran is much closer to an actual democratic system than many of the US favoured, yet corrupt and authoritative allies —nor human rights —since the US, as the effective ruler of Iraq is the region’s top human rights violator —that stimulate such enthusiasm. Rather, it’s realpolitik. Iran alone provides 5 percent of the world’s total oil exports. At a time when access to and control of energy sources translates into political power and strategic affluence, and in an age of uncertain oil supplies and fractious markets, the Iran prize is most enviable.

But that alone can hardly justify the seemingly irrational readiness to expand the battlefield for an already over-stretched US military. That’s where the infamous pro-Israel neocon warmongers are most effective. The same way they managed to concoct a pro-war discourse prior to the disastrous war on Iraq —utilising the military and ever willing mainstream media —they’re working diligently to pain another doomsday scenario, required for a military encroachment on Iran.

If all of this is true, then why is Iran playing these games?

The answer is multifaceted. While Iran is no match for an empire, it also understands that it holds great leverage through its significant influence over Iraq’s Shia population and their representatives. While the invasion of Iraq has disaffected most of the country’s population —regardless of their sectarian affiliation —the Shia leaderships are yet to outwardly demand an American withdrawal, and for strategic reasons, are yet to join the flaring insurgency. Using its influence in Iraq, Iran could significantly alter the equation, a decision that would unlikely suit America’s long-term interests in occupied Iraq.

But Iran can do more, even if indirectly. When the price of a barrel of oil recently reached $75, the G-7 sent terrible warnings of an impending global economic crisis. Imagine if the prices hit the $100 mark? Or even $120, according to more liberal estimates? How will the already fractious energy markets treat such a possibility, keeping in mind the already vulnerable Nigerian oil production, the less accommodating Venezuelan oil supplies? Needless to say, ‘unexplained’ acts of sabotage against Iraq’s oil production facilities and export pipelines could add fuel to the fire.

All of these possibilities exclude entirely the implausible likelihood that the US military is in fact capable of leading a ground war or maintaining a long-term occupation of a country several times the size of Iraq, which has not been weakened by years of debilitating sanctions.

As optimistic as it may sound, one can, to an extent, speak of a ‘balance of power’. Wherever such balance can be struck, realpolitik and its associated ‘games’ can also be found in profusion. While the US wishes to maintain the posture of the uncompromising, hardheaded party, ready to mull its many ‘military options’ at the strike of an executive order, Iran is calling the bluff, too confidently speaking of its various options, notwithstanding military ones.

Iran 2006 is certainly not Iraq of 1990-1991, or 2003. Some major changes to the political map of the Middle East have taken place and serious challenges are appearing day after day to the astonishment of the beleaguered US government and its president.

Whether it still genuinely believes in military options as decisive retorts to its many global challenges, the Bush Administration must learn to deal with new political realities, and it must also accept that playing politics is no longer restricted to empires alone.

Eminent Arab American journalist Ramzy Baroud teaches mass communication at Australia’s Curtin University of Technology, Malaysia Campus. He is the author of Writings on the Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle (Pluto Press, London.)

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