Washington-Tehran Faceoff War Games For Iran?

Diplomatic hostility between the US and Iran is swelling. Iran's neighbors worry about what some think is a prelude to military aggression -- and they don't trust the Americans or the mullahs in Tehran.

By in Dubai


The USS John C. Stennis is now positioned in the Persian Gulf, just off the coast of Iran.
AP/U.S. Navy John Reeves

The USS John C. Stennis is now positioned in the Persian Gulf, just off the coast of Iran.

The relationship between Iran and Iraq is both complicated and simple, and its essence can be seen every couple of days in the northern border town of Hajj Umran. Whenever Baghdad calls a new state of emergency, the large cast iron gate at the Hajj Umran border checkpoint closes. A peshmerga or Kurdish soldier from the Iraqi side positions himself in front of the gate with his Kalashnikov rifle. To an untrained eye the border looks sealed; only the faces of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his successor Ali Khameini peer across the border from a wall on the Iranian side.

For the Iraqi and Iranian smugglers who struggle up the mountain pass every day, though, it's just an annoyance. They stop briefly in front of the closed gate, loaded with heavy luggage, then walk past the checkpoint to the right or the left, sometimes waving at the guards. No one stops them. Heavily used footpaths lead around most checkpoints between Iraq and Iran. This is true in Hajj Umran, high up in northern Iraq, but it's especially the case in the south, where Shiites live on both sides -- tribes that not even the massacres of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s could divide.

Washington has started raising the volume on allegations that Iran is supporting groups in Iraq with money, military training and weapons. When the US military carried out a raid in Baghdad recently, according to the Daily Telegraph, it discovered 100 Steyr HS.50 guns from the catalog of Austrian arms producer Steyr-Mannlicher. These weapons probably stemmed from a 2004 arms shipment to Iran. British forces have seized suspicious ammunition in Basra, and US troops have arrested Iranian undercover agents in Arbil, the capital of Kurdistan, and in Baghad. This week, they also presented the first piece of concrete evidence: specially built grenade launchers that were -- according to the National Security Agency (NSA), the US military intelligence agency -- produced in Iran.

Still, no concrete evidence has come to light for the crucial allegation -- that the military aid was sanctioned at the "highest levels" of the Iranian government. When smugglers work so casually in Hajj Umran, though, it's hard to see how charges of collusion can be proven or denied.

Tehran has chosen to deny them. Mohammed Ali Hosseini has said the United States has a "long history in fabricating evidence" -- an argument US authorities were surely expecting after their intelligence debacle in Iraq. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, chose his words carefully when he commented on the fact that some weapons used in Iraq can be traced to Iran. "That does not translate that the Iran per se, for sure, is directly involved in doing this," Pace told reporters on Tuesday. "What it does say is that things made in Iran are being used in Iraq to kill coalition soldiers." That's certainly a more nuanced statement than those made by US Secretary of State Colin Powell in the spring of 2003.

The question now is which of the two arguments will have a greater public effect in the coming weeks: Washington's not-implausible charge that Iran is massively intervening in Iraq, or Tehran's not-implausible suggestion that slide shows prepared by US intelligence should be taken with a grain of salt.

Who would wage the war, if it came?

Iran and Iraq's neighbors in the Gulf have watched this diplomatic escalation with understandable concern. They don't trust Iran's expansionist foreign policy -- including its secretive nuclear program -- or the American strategy in Iraq. Different versions of three basic scenarios have circulated on the opinion pages and blogs of the region for the past weeks. First, an imminent US military strike. Second, a unilateral Israeli attack like the one on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. Or, third, the scenario everyone hopes for -- that one of the two antagonists, preferably Iran, will back down before the war of words degrades into violence.

One line of speculation says the US won't attack Iran alone because the Bush administration lacks support from within his country. But would Israel? Ehud Olmert's administration lacks internal support, too, but an Iran with nuclear weapons would pose an existential threat to Israel. The likelihood of an Israeli airstrike has been rehearsed in a study by security analysts at the International Netherlands Group (ING), a Dutch financial group. The study is being mailed back and forth busily by interested readers in the Gulf region. "Financial markets are assuming that an Israeli and/or US attack on Iran is unlikely. However, bellicose rhetoric from Israel and an imminent build-up of US forces in the Gulf suggest that they could be in for a shock," says the ING Group's chief economist, Mark Cliffe.

Mohammed Al Naqbi at the Gulf Negotiation Centre in Abu Dhabi also believes Israel, not the United States, is preparing for war. He says the process is long past the stage of psychological warfare. "Everything is in place, from the US point of view, for a war most probably this time on Iran," says Naqbi, adding that the US administration is "sleepwalking" to its next conflict. He expects military operations to begin in March or April, shortly after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) presents its next report, and in time for Admiral William Fallon, the new head of US Central Command, to get acquainted with his job.

Unofficial reports have emerged from the Gulf in recent weeks accusing the US of working to undermine the Tehran government by meddling at the country's borders and provoking ethnic and religious violence. But the Iranian Interior Ministry made no such allegation when a car loaded with explosives killed 18 members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards on Wednesday. Interior Ministry official Majid Razavi said one of the perpretrators had been arrested, but refused to elaborate on his identity, while Revolutionary Guards commander Qasem Rezaei vaguely blamed "insurgents and elements of insecurity" for the attack.

Preserving the balance of power

If they had to choose, some Gulf states would probably accept the risks of war than have to live with a nuclear-armed Iran, according to Nicole Stracke, an analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. But things are far from having reached that point, she adds. Many analysts, in her opinion, underestimate the Americans' diplomatic tangle with Iran, while overestimating the lone superpower's military and operational possibilities in the Gulf. An overhasty attack on Iran would not only endanger US allies in the Middle East, Stracke argues; it would also put the 160,000 US soldiers occupying Iraq at even greater risk, who would face direct retaliation by radical Iranian groups. Stracke doesn't believe the United States will conduct a military strike on Iran or give Israel the green light for such a strike until the direct influence of Iran in Iraq has at least been reduced.

Two US aircraft carriers are currently positioned off the coast of Iran -- the Dwight D. Eisenhower and the John C. Stennis. They sometimes come within their own artillery range of the port city of Bushehr, with its nuclear facility. "It can't be a good feeling for the Iranians," says Admiral Michael Miller, commander of the USS Reagan Carrier Strike Group, which finished maneuvers in the Gulf last June. He says it would make him nervous if Iranian aircraft carriers operated just off the California coast -- but quickly adds that the comparison is just hypothetical. Iran, after all, isn't a declared enemy. "We're just here to preserve the balance of power in this region," he says.

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