US power not all it's cracked up to be

SCMP October 11 2009

Forget China's October 1 display of military might. Forget that the G20 now gets more attention than the G7. Forget the devastation wrought on Western economies by the banking meltdown. Forget Chicago's Olympic humiliation. For an illustration of how far expectations in Washington of the reach of US power now run ahead of reality, look at the Iran nuclear question.

By Washington, I refer to the demands of assorted pundits on left and right that the US somehow 'stop Iran' whether through sanctions or, if needs be, a military strike.

Just when, for the first time since 1980, the regime seemed most vulnerable to popular anger and internal division, many in the West are focusing on the one issue that will bolster its own patriotic credentials. Expressions of outrage that Iran has been building a second enrichment facility are both hypocritical and more likely to help than hinder the unpleasant President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and, more importantly, the man who really pulls the strings, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Whether or not (and legal opinion seems divided) Iran has contravened an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, it can hardly be blamed for wanting to protect itself from the overt threat issued by Israel and backed by many in the US to destroy the first facility. The nuclear-armed state created by Western imperialism, succoured by US arms and money, and shielded by US vetoes from Security Council action has the ear of many in Washington, where its citizens are prominent in policy institutes.

Such action now looks unlikely but as much because of the influence of Russia and China as of the change of administration - and the continued presence of realist Dr Robert Gates as US defence secretary. Neither China nor Russia have an particular desire for Iran to have enrichment facilities and thus bomb potential. But they realise that a large, old (as China) and proud nation would sooner or later want that capability and could not reasonably be prevented from acquiring it given that several neighbours were already so armed. China and Russia may play with notions of sanctions but only in pursuit of Western concessions elsewhere, and will never put sufficient muscle into them to make them work.

Anyway, it is doubtful that sanctions can work against regimes like Iran and North Korea. Existing Western ones have certainly hurt the economy, but they have otherwise only fortified Iran's determination to push its nuclear programme and get to a point, like North Korea, of having its own deterrent capability.

Nor will India be much help. It is particularly aware of Western hypocrisy and sensibly it (like Israel) never signed any non-proliferation agreements aimed at keeping nuclear weapons to an exclusive club.

For sure, many Iranians are appalled by Ahmadinejad and dislike confrontation with the West. But threat to the nation can rally them just as they rallied against Saddam Hussein's Western-backed invasion in 1980, thereby providing a wobbly Islamic regime with nationalist credentials.

If the West wants to persist with sanctions they should be done in the name of domestic political change. Otherwise, instead of sticks it might do well to offer carrots in return for some nuclear oversight. Bringing Iran's economy into the global mainstream and opening up already-discovered oil reserves just might appeal to enough of the leadership to do a deal. In turn a focus on economic development might help the regime's popularity in the short term but ultimately would increase pressures for political change. Acknowledgment of reasonable Iranian national goals in return for ending inflammatory rhetoric could also bring the US returns in Afghanistan and Iran.

As for Israel, emphasis on Ahmadinejad's offensive rhetoric may pay short-term dividends by distracting attention from the West Bank settlements. But they make little sense long term. Iran's enmity towards Israel is tactical and linked to its relations with the US. It could switch rapidly - as it did following the ousting of the Shah, a friend of Israel. Middle East enmity is about a much more difficult issue - land.




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