The Bush administration is stoking Iran’s fears of intervention, while warning the world against steps President Ahmadinejad takes because of these fears
George W. Bush is in desperate straits. A failed foreign policy is on display in Iraq, an inability to lead was confirmed by Hurricane Katrina, the worst kind of cronyism was flaunted – and then penalised – with Harriet Miers’ failed nomination to the Supreme Court. Vice-President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff has been indicted for perjury; Mr Bush’s right-hand man, Karl Rove, is likely to follow soon. And the mid-term congressional elections are less than one year away, with control of the Senate, and with it Mr Bush’s entire legislative agenda, all in play.
Might it be time for another war? Margaret Thatcher’s defence of the Falklands ensured her re-election in 1983. Fifteen years later, a beleaguered Bill Clinton fired 79 so-called ”Monica missiles“ at Sudan and Afghanistan (a film along similar lines – entitled Wag the Dog – soon followed). The declaration of a ”global war on terrorism“ ensured Republican victories in the 2002 mid-term elections; two years later it carried Mr Bush to a second presidential term.
Now Mr Bush is rattling sabres over Syria and Iran, referring to both countries as ”outlaw regimes“. Syria is accused of allowing insurgents to enter Iraq from its territory, funding suicide bombings in Israel and interfering in Lebanon. In response, American soldiers and aircraft have repeatedly crossed the Syrian border, shooting suspected insurgents and dropping bombs. This past week, the Bush administration has been up in arms about the preliminary results of a United Nations investigation that indicate Syrian involvement in February’s assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Yet the allegations come as no surprise: suspicions of Syrian culpability forced Damascus to withdraw its forces from Lebanon six months before the report was issued. Moreover, while assassination is the antithesis of diplomacy and prohibited under international law, the killing of a former prime minister hardly provides grounds for an invasion. Syria, with few friends, a relatively weak army and no WMD, is simply a convenient target.
Iran is a more serious concern, because it probably does have a nuclear weapons programme. Two years ago, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors discovered that the Iranian Government had been secretly trying to enrich uranium for almost two decades. Washington immediately began pushing to have the matter referred to the UN Security Council which, unlike the IAEA, has the power to impose mandatory sanctions. The United States needs the UN in this instance because it cannot create additional economic pressure on its own, having suspended commercial relations with Iran since the fundamentalist revolution in 1979. Russia, in contrast, has been building a civilian nuclear reactor for Iran, despite the fact that Iran has the second-largest oil and gas reserves in the Middle East.
European governments had opposed referring the matter to the Security Council, perhaps because they feared that Moscow would threaten to veto any stringent resolution and that the resulting deadlock might then – as occurred with regard to Iraq – be seized on by the Bush administration as a justification for war. Instead, France, Germany and Britain – the so-called ”EU-3“ – sought to negotiate an agreement whereby Iran would cease enriching uranium in return for membership in the World Trade Organisation, access to new civilian aircraft and a light-water nuclear reactor that, although less useful for producing nuclear weapons, would produce electricity. This approach, which was modelled on that taken by the Clinton administration towards North Korea, initially made considerable progress, until the election, last June, of hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran’s new President.
In September, Mr Ahmadinejad gave a speech to the UN General Assembly in which he defiantly reasserted his country’s right to resume uranium enrichment. Then, last week, he called for Israel to be ”wiped off the map“. The former position may have some merit; the latter clearly does not. Yet the two positions are somewhat related.
Two of Iran’s neighbours – Pakistan and Russia – have nuclear weapons, while two others – Afghanistan and Iraq – are effectively occupied by American forces. Israel, just a thousand miles away, early this year threatened a pre-emptive strike similar to its bombing, in 1981, of an Iraqi nuclear reactor that was under construction near Baghdad. The threat of such a strike by the Israelis must be taken seriously. Washington is providing Tel Aviv with 500 precision-guided BLU-109 ”bunker-buster“ bombs capable of penetrating up to 12 feet of concrete. Earlier this year, American and Israeli forces spent a month testing their ability to shoot down long-range Shahab-3 missiles, the most obvious vehicle for an Iranian retaliatory strike. In January, Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker that American commandos were already in Iran trying to pinpoint underground nuclear facilities and other potential targets. With Israel rightly concerned about Iran, and Iran rightly concerned about Israel, escalation seems all too likely.
That Washington is involved on both sides of the affair – stoking Iran’s fears while agitating about the transgressions that these fears generate – is reflective of a broader hypocrisy. The CIA estimates that Israel, which has never ratified the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, possesses more than 200 nuclear warheads. The same agency can still not produce conclusive evidence that Iran, a party to the treaty, has a nuclear weapons programme. Yet Iran’s leaders, like Saddam Hussein before them, are presumed to be seeking weapons and have been vilified on that basis. Part of the explanation for this dichotomous approach lies in Washington’s uncritical support for Israel, especially since George Bush became President. Another part of the explanation is revenge. Saddam, who abandoned his nuclear weapons programme after the 1991 Gulf War, made the mistake of trying to assassinate the President’s father in 1993; the Iranian revolutionaries revealed the limitations of American power when, in 1979-81, they were able to hold 52 hostages in the American embassy in Tehran for 444 days. A third part of the explanation is fear: that the ongoing chaos in Iraq could eventually work to the advantage of Iran, which like its neighbour has a largely Shia population.
The UN Security Council will not authorise the use of force against Syria or Iran. President Bush’s domestic problems make him weaker abroad. Moreover, other countries remember how the United States relied upon Resolution 1441 to justify the Iraq War, just four months after assuring the world that its terms provided no ”automaticity“. Members of the Security Council have become extremely cautious about adopting anything that might conceivably be used to support military action. Earlier this week, Russia insisted that a threat of sanctions be removed from a resolution that demanded Syrian co-operation with the ongoing UN investigation into Hariri’s assassination.
The Bush administration might choose to invade Syria regardless, and justify its actions as self-defence. Because the United States itself is not under threat, collective self-defence of either Israel or Iraq is the only possible legal basis. But while Syria may pose some threat to those two countries, any use of force in self-defence must be both necessary and proportionate. In October 2003, Israel’s bombing of a terrorist training camp near Damascus was widely criticised for having failed to meet this test. The same holds true of any military action against Iran, which nobody believes has yet succeeded in building a nuclear bomb, let alone one small enough to put on a missile. Although President Ahmadinejad’s threats are disturbing, there is still much time for negotiations, followed by sanctions if necessary.
Before other countries climb on the Bush juggernaut they should consider the causes of these two crises. The 2003 Iraq War sent a powerful signal to states that might be subject to intervention – notably Iran and North Korea, the remaining members of Mr Bush’s ”axis of evil“. These countries have concluded, not unreasonably, that America attacked Iraq in part because Iraq did not have nuclear weapons. Mr Ahmadinejad’s election victory over the less extreme Mohammad Khatami was possibly aided by the Bush administration’s incautious and illegal actions. Outlaw regimes? We reap what we sow.
Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He is the author of War Law: Understanding International Law and Armed Conflict (Atlantic, 2005).