Iran: the Next Target?

President Bush’s State of the Union address comes as near to a declaration of war on Iraq as is possible without the guns beginning to fire. It rehearsed all of the reasons for an attack relating to Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, made no mention of oil, and made it clear that the U.S. was prepared to go to war with minimal international support if need be.

The speech was significant for two other reasons, involving the “war on terror” and Iran, respectively. First is George Bush’s affirmation that there are direct and compelling links between the Saddam Hussein regime and al Qaeda, with evidence on this promised in the next few days. The connection between terminating the Iraqi regime and fighting the war on terror is crucial in obtaining domestic support for war on Iraq, even if it is likely to cut little ice across much of the rest of the world.

Within Iraq there is a small paramilitary group called Ansar al-Islam, loosely linked to al Qaeda, which is active in the north of the country. This group has the tacit support of the regime but it is marginal in Iraq as a whole. More generally, al Qaeda has shown virtually no interest in Iraq until very recently, for the obvious reason that Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party runs a secular regime of a kind that is anathema to al Qaeda’s aims for the region.

This makes it highly implausible that substantial links exist between the regime and al Qaeda. In turn this suggests that the equivalent of the “Gulf of Tonkin” incident of 1964, which enabled the U.S. to engage more forcibly in Vietnam, may provide a suitable pretext for U.S. onslaught on Iraq.

There is, though, one complication that greatly aids the Bush administration. However much al Qaeda takes a different view to that of the Saddam Hussein regime, it would actually welcome a U.S. war against Iraq, seeing this as proof positive of U.S. determination to control the region, in turn leading to greater support for its own cause. It is worth remembering that groups such as al Qaeda are not thinking in terms of month-to-month or year-to-year; their timeframe is decade-to-decade, and they confidently expect the U.S. to be in Iraq indefinitely.

Al Qaeda’s desire for U.S. military action plays into White House strategy precisely because it enables the group to declare forceful opposition to U.S. action, and consequent support for the Saddam Hussein regime. The end result is to make it easier for the U.S. administration to nurture in people’s minds a connection between Iraq and al Qaeda. This may aid domestic support for the war; it is also just what al Qaeda wants.

Oil: Eyes on the Prize

The second point about the State of the Union address has been largely neglected in immediate commentary but tells us a lot about the longer-term U.S. plans for the region. It concerns President Bush’s extensive mention of Iran, which almost went as far as to imply that Iran would become an immediate focus of attention once Iraq was made safe.

To put this in wider perspective, we need to go back to the underlying motivation for U.S. policy in the Gulf, namely the security of oil supplies–an aspect of the entire confrontation that is getting less and less attention the closer we get to war.

As I have argued in earlier articles, the key issues are that the Persian Gulf region is immensely rich in oil, which is cheap to exploit and of generally high quality. Around two-thirds of the world’s known oil reserves are to be found there, and more keeps getting discovered. In comparison, the North Sea, Alaska, and even the Caspian Basin are little more than puddles, and expensive ones at that.

Iraq alone has about four times the reserves of the United States and its reserves have actually increased by a figure equal to half of total U.S. reserves in the past decade. Meanwhile, the United States (together with Europe, China, and Japan) becomes more dependent on Gulf oil year by year. As this is happening, there are growing worries about the stability of Saudi Arabia, so that Iraq becomes more and more important.

This is not to deny that Iraq’s chemical and biological program is not a significant element, but it is only part of the issue. If Iraq produced rice or oranges instead of oil, there would be no great concern. After all, the U.S. was not greatly exercised by the Brazilian and Argentinian moves to develop nuclear weapons in the 1980s; still less did it consider going to war with South Africa when that country had actually developed a small nuclear arsenal.

Syria may be in illegal occupation of parts of Lebanon and may maintain a substantial arsenal of missiles equipped with chemical warheads, but it is oil-free and is not a target (at least not yet). Israel can maintain hundreds of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons, probably has chemical and biological weapons, and has at various times occupied parts of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, yet remains a close ally of the United States.

The bottom line with Iraq is oil, and it is in this respect that the Iran connection in George Bush’s speech is so significant. The war with Iraq will certainly be intended to destroy the Saddam Hussein regime, but its much more significant purpose is to consolidate power in a fractious yet strategically crucial region.

If the regime is terminated by U.S. military force in the coming months, then there will be an immediate military occupation while some degree of stability is ensured, leading to a regime in Baghdad that is a client of Washington. At that stage, many of the U.S. occupying forces may well be withdrawn, but we should also expect the rapid development of an extensive and permanent U.S. military presence.

This is likely to involve the establishment of at least three (and possibly four) substantial bases, centered on air power but also involving a permanent presence of ground forces. One such base will obviously be in the vicinity of Baghdad itself, combining air force and army units. A second will be close to the huge oil fields near Basra in the south-east of Iraq, close to the Iranian border.

The third base is likely to be in the north, probably in a Kurdish-controlled area, close to the Kirkuk/Mosul oil fields. One candidate site is a large abandoned airstrip west of the city of Suleimaniya, currently being renovated for use by U.S. forces in the coming war. Located at Bakrajo, it was visited last week by a U.S. intelligence team and would cover both the oil fields and the northern border with Iraq.

A fourth base might be established in the western desert close to Jordan and conveniently close to the south-west oil fields that are believed to contain massive additional reserves. There may, in addition, even be a small naval base created, perhaps, at Umm Qasr on the Persian Gulf coast.

We should expect the three major bases at least to be set up as permanent military centers in a matter of months; their development may be modeled on the large-scale Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo. There, the U.S. military did not even bother with temporary structures, but directly built a heavily protected base for 7,000 troops complete with a two-story shopping mall, Burger King outlet, theater, and all the other accoutrements of U.S. life abroad, at a cost of $330 million.

The View from Tehran–and Europe

A consolidated and substantial military presence in Iraq has, in Washington’s eyes, several major advantages. It ensures the security of Iraqi oil for the long term, it limits dependence on a potentially unstable Saudi Arabia and it increases the security of America’s closest ally in the region, Israel.

Moreover, it makes it abundantly clear to Iran that the United States is the controlling power in the region. This is important because of Iran’s remarkable combination of oil reserves, massive gas reserves (second only to Russia), potential control of the Straits of Hormuz, a burgeoning population, and a geographical location at the heart of south-west Asia. From the Bush administration’s point of view, dominating Iran in this way is therefore a perfect answer to controlling an unstable yet crucially important region.

What is missing, of course, is any evident understanding on the U.S. side of the impact of this policy. Across the region it will confirm a near-universal view that the Middle East will be under long-term foreign control, with the United States working with Israel and with local elites to secure cheap oil to maintain its economy at the expense of the people of the region.

One effect of this will be to consolidate and enhance the influence of al Qaeda and its associates. Another will be a shift in Iranian perceptions. The dominant view from Tehran is likely to be that U.S. forces pose a threat extending right through the Persian Gulf in the shape of the U.S. Fifth Fleet and, even more significantly, right up Iran’s long western land border with Iraq.

It is more or less guaranteed that this new proximity of U.S. forces will cause serious concern in Tehran, with three probable effects. First, it will bolster support for the more conservative elements, particularly among the clerics. Second, it will allow an opening for Russia to expand its influence in the country.

Third, and perhaps most significant of all, it will almost inevitably increase Iran’s desire to develop its own strategic deterrent, based largely on missiles and chemical and biological weapons. This will be seen as an absolute necessity in the face of U.S. power in the region, even if it risks a further confrontation.

There is one further factor in all of this–the role of European states. France, Germany, and other western European countries have worked quietly and persistently to improve relations with Iran. Moreover, their connection with the country is free of the embittered historical memories that remain from the U.S. role in the overthrow of Mossadeq in 1952 and the embassy siege of 1979-80.

The possibility that regime termination in Iraq could then lead on to a confrontation with another part of the “axis of evil,” Iran, is something that would cause real concern in Europe. It may well be that the real crisis in European-American relations will eventually come not over Iraq, but over Iran. The gravest long-term consequence of the strategy outlined in the President’s State of the Union address is, therefore, that war with Iraq is not the end of U.S. ambitions in the region, but only the beginning.