Sometimes, when trying to make sense of complex events, it pays to look at alternative scenarios that fly in the face of the common wisdom. This holds especially for events that by their very nature are governed by deception, betrayal, and the robust dispensing of disinformation. The alternative one might call it, in our case, the contrarian version, can often reveal possibilities that the habits of thought had led us to discount or never consider even when it is for the most part wrong. In some instances, though, when the common wisdom is the product of a deliberate campaign to mislead, the contrarian version might well be closer to the truth than the commonly accepted one.
So let us consider that the real axis of power in the Middle East is the alliance between the United States, Israel, and Iran. Iran's recent offer to suspend its program of uranium enrichment fits in well with this scenario, which has the strength of making perfect strategic sense. Nonetheless, the idea confounds common wisdom both of the right, which assigns Iran a prominent place in the world's "axis of evil", and the left, which believes that the U.S. and Israel are already planning to attack, if not actually invade, Iran.
If this alliance does exist and if so, it has for a number of years the complex web of conflict in the Middle East suddenly becomes a lot clearer. Let's follow the logic.
First, we have to acknowledge that Iran is a far more serious power than Iraq ever was. Given the exhaustion of U.S. forces, the American people's growing revulsion towards the war and the Bush administration, Blair's position as a lame duck P.M., and Hezbollah's stinging rebuff of Israel's invasion, the notion that any of these nations is ready to take on Iran militarily is ludicrous. An air attack on nuclear plants will cause limited damage and only further undermine the attacking nation's position in the world community. We might expect a "pretend" bombing in which some empty concrete shell in the middle of the desert is leveled by Israeli jets for publicity purposes that advance an ultimate public rapprochement among the three main player (more on this later). The Iranians would react with bluster that eventually subsides into begrudging diplomacy.
We might immediately object on the basis that the amount of rhetoric seems excessive: "rogue state", "axis of evil", reports from British insiders that the U.S., Britain, and Israel will attack Iran by the end of the year as reported by Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed in www.opednews.com on 7/23/06 or that it is planning war with Syria and Iran (Sarah Baxter and Uzi Mahnaimi, truthout from The Times UK, 9/3/06). However, the rhetoric is necessary to enable the three main parties to appear strong to their respective stakeholders. "The cheaper the crook the gaudier the patter," as Sam Spade says in The Maltese Falcon, and "gaudy patter" and rhetorical denunciations are often used to obscure the direction of behind-the-scenes negotiations. There is no easy way for Israel, Iran, and the U.S. to engage in public embrace; it must be done in a way that appears to imply that all are operating from positions of strength, that all are willing to compromise, and that all receive clear "deliverables" upon resolving their differences.
Geography provides a solid clue to Israeli-Iranian relations. Iran and Israel are separated by Syria and Iraq. Iran's geographical situation is one of the most highly charged in the world. As Pepe Escobar wrote in The Asia Times, 9/30/05, "as a nation-state at the intersection of the Arab, Turk, Russian and Indian worlds, as the key transit point of the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Indian sub-continent, between three seas (the Caspian, the Persian Gulf and the sea of Oman), not far from Europe and at the gates of Asia, Tehran on a more pragmatic level has to conduct an extremely complex foreign policy." In Iran's calculations, the state of Israel, small and remote however fierce militarily, is barely on the radar, except for propaganda purposes. Conversely, from the Israeli perspective, Iran is hardly a primary threat. The myth that Iranian funding is sustaining Hezbollah may be convenient as a feed to the media, but the reality is that financial support for terrorist operations comes from many sources, through a tangled web of financing, while Hezbollah itself is in a largely self-sustaining position within Lebanon. Israel is concerned, first and foremost, for its borders, and Iran is far removed from the circle of familiars that Israeli policy is really aimed at neutralizing, whether justly or not.
Similar geographic considerations influence Iranian-U.S. relations. Americans are still overly-influenced by the 1980 images of Iranians taking the U.S. embassy in Tehran and of crowds chanting "Death to the Great Satan!" As Karl Meyer points out in The Dust of Empire, Iranian frustration was aimed at the U.S. in its role as the latest of the western powers, primarily Britain and Russia, that had aggressively interfered in Iranian politics and self-determination for well over a century. But look at a map and weigh the evidence against the mindless media-rhetoric that holds Iran up as a major threat to dominate the Middle East. Hello-o-o!!! Iran is hemmed in by four of the world's major first and second tier super-powers: China, Russia, India, and Pakistan, all of whom have nuclear weapons, and Turkey, the U.S.'s loyal and powerful ally, to boot. Even Kazakhstan, across the Caspian Sea, retained significant Soviet armaments after the disintegration of the U.S.S.R. Isn't it reasonable to consider that in very real, immediate terms that every Iranian probably understands, that the United States, while a good propaganda target, just doesn't measure up as a threat to Iran's long-term security when compared to the very crowded pool full of giant sharks that history has compelled it to swim in? Any regional partnerships or alliances that Iran forges can only be strengthened by a friendly alliance with the U.S., as we will see further on.
The Nuclear Problem
But, it is argued, Israel has a great deal to fear from Iran if the latter builds a nuclear bomb. Hence the heated rhetoric of the past months around Iran's nuclear power program and its alleged plans to produce enriched uranium, from which "nukular" weapons are but a toad's hop away. It's not only Israel that would be the loser if Iran achieves nuclear capabilities. Religious fanaticism is more likely to prompt release of the nuclear trigger than political pragmatism. Fortunately, Iran's leaders can taste a level of power and prestige on the global stage that even the deposed Shah could not envision. Pragmatism may well win out.
One reason is that nuclear weapons are over-rated. They work better as a strategic deterrent than an actual tactical instrument. Pakistan and India both have the bomb and neither has used it because once you've dropped it on an enemy, your enemy will send a special delivery package unto you. The country that becomes the first in over 6 decades to use a nuke will become an instant pariah on the world stage, even inviting all-out war. Israel, which has built up its own nifty nuclear arsenal, has undoubtedly warned its potential antagonists in the region that any nuclear or overwhelming military assault on Israel will be met by Israel's own nuclear response. What good does the bomb do Iran? If they use it, someone else will see to it that Iran winds up on the receiving end of same and in worse shape than it was when Cyrus the Great was but a twinkle in his parents' eyes.
So a nuclear bomb does Iran little good except as a dubious deterrent and is just a good bargaining chip to help it get what it really wants. What is that? Nuclear power, for starters. American policy makers are well aware of Iran's energy plans. How could they not be? As reported by NBC's Lisa Meyers and one of the network's investigative units, Halliburton, GE, and various oil service companies have been doing a booming business with Iran as recently as last year, in violation of American sanctions against such activity (although Halliburton claimed it was within the law because it was using a Cayman Island based foreign subsidiary!). Iran wants nuclear power. And guess what? The United States wants Iran to have it. And the U.S. and Iran will devise a scenario in which both seem to be compromising in order to allow Iran to build nuclear power plants while renouncing plans to build a nuclear bomb. Cui bono? The U.S. and Iran and let us count the ways.
Therefore, on the Iranian side of this new equation, Iran achieves the very enviable position of owning and managing two major energy sources, oil and nukes. It thus can become an energy exporter without even depleting its oil. As global oil supplies peak and prices rise (despite the recent drop-off in oil prices), Iran will rely on nuclear power while selling oil to those nations wealthy enough to meet its price. The resulting profits then enable the government to offer a restive population the social freedoms it craves. Iran has changed in 25 years and while the ayatollahs still rule, the younger generations are, like their counterparts in the West, children of the Internet with cell phones attached to their hands like Spiderman's web-shooters. The austerity of the post-revolutionary war-time 80s will no longer fly and Iran's leaders are sufficiently pragmatic to realize their economy has to be able to support a middle class or they'll be faced with street riots and instability.
Where does the energy go? The oil to China and the nuclear-generated electricity to Central Asia. For the latter region, it is much cheaper and less risky to buy electricity directly off the line rather than building their own plants and finding their own fuel sources. Iran has ready-made customers in the region raring to plunk down World Bank cash for straight-up supplies of electricity. But China, ah, there's the beauty of it all. China has become the world's great oil drunkard. Where other countries down oil by the barrel, China drinks it by the tank. China is like Godzilla with a craving for Red Bull and Iran would be the ideal supplier. The close ties between China and Iran not only lift Iran economically, but provide it with leverage in Asia's shifting power relations. In this, however, Iran runs up against the interests of Russia, which also is feeding China's growing habit.
But not to worry. Iran has the backing of a very rich Uncle, Sam by name, who will guarantee Iran's financial interests against the jealousy of the Russian bear. Uncle Sam is also happy to keep Godzilla (who recently moved from Japan's financial district to China's industrial zone) tethered to an unending fix from the U.S.'s good partner, Iran. If Russia and China draw closer together, the U.S. can assert itself in its respective roles as Russia's partner in economic development and China's best customer. If all goes according to plan, that is.
There's an added bonus for the United States, or at least for the same gang of amoral industrial pirates who get their kicks from manipulating national governments and undermining the stability of entire regions for the sake of extraordinary returns on their balance sheets. (Does the term "Halliburton" come to mind?). It would be similar to how it works in Saudi Arabia and now Iraq. In Arabia, a good portion of oil profits go towards building American military bases and other white elephant construction projects. Much of that money, of course, goes to the construction empire of the bin Laden family, but a huge amount finds its way back to U.S. defense contractors. In Iraq, it's U.S. taxpayer money as well as oil profits that are recycled back to the energy, security, and construction contractors. As for Iran, just think Halliburton or General Electric, which builds nuclear plants. Welcome to one more grand gold rush as Iranian oil profits get paid out to international including many U.S. companies to build nuclear plants.
Everyone Must Save Face
And just as Ronald Reagan's envoys manipulated the Iranian embassy hostage situation for its own electoral gains, so too will the U.S. and Iran manipulate the current situation so that both can save face on the world stage. This is always a necessary ritual before embargos are lifted and normal market relations restored. For example, when the U.S. oil men were drooling over the profits Italian and French firms were drawing from their ties with Libya's oil industry, a way had to be found to restore the image of Colonel Qadafi, which had undergone the usual process of demonization in the U.S. So a sham trial in the Hague found one of two accused Libyans guilty of the 1988 Lockerbie airplane catastrophe (see any number of sources, including the Wikipedia article on Lockerbie, for material on the questionable nature of the accusations and trial) even though the greater likelihood was that Iran was responsible, retaliating for the U.S. shooting down an Iranian passenger plane over the Persian Gulf. We didn't have the power to hold Iran responsible, but Colonel Qadafi, after some negotiation, took responsibility for the Lockerbie disaster and paid two billion dollars in "reparations" oil money masquerading as blood money and in return, Libya was given the green light to re-enter the global market economy. The U.S., on its side, could now access Libyan oil and trade. These guys make the manipulations of Syriana look downright wholesome but a similar trade-off is due between the U.S. and Iran.