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
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.
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
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
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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