George Bush’s administration continues to try to tighten its vice around the Islamic Republican regime in Iran.
Thus last week it emerged that the US is considering classifying the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a “specially designated global terrorist”. The Revolutionary Guard provides the Iranian regime with a highly politicised military elite that also has considerable economic interests.
US state department official Sean McCormack said, “We are confronting Iranian behaviour across a variety of different fronts on a number of different ‘battlefields’. We are confronting Iran’s behaviour in arming and providing material support to those groups that are going after our troops.”
These accusations aren’t new. At the start of the year the US claimed that Iran was responsible for the more sophisticated improvised explosive devices being used against US troops in Iraq.
The Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force was accused of training Shia militias “to kill coalition forces”, as one US counter-terrorism official put it.
But why the escalation of rhetoric now? US vice president Dick Cheney is pressing for a military attack on Iran. Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice is apparently arguing instead for tougher economic sanctions against Iran’s nuclear programme.
According to the New York Times, “A move towards putting the Revolutionary Guard on the foreign terrorist list would... pacify, for a while, administration hawks who are pushing for possible military action and further press America’s allies to ratchet up sanctions against Iran in the [United Nations] Security Council.”
A fundamental problem facing the Bush administration is that the Iraq war has greatly strengthened the position of the Iranian regime in the Middle East. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein removed Iran’s most determined local rival.
Moreover, to deal with the Iraqi resistance the US has been forced to ally itself with that section of the Shia political leadership that is willing, for its own reasons, to collaborate. Since these elements are closely linked to the Iranian regime, this has further increased Iran’s influence in Iraq.
So the US is trying to put the Iranian genie back in the bottle. The establishment Iraq Study Group last December recommended that the US open negotiations with Iran and its ally, Syria.
Bush has made gestures in this direction – there was a recent low key meeting in Baghdad between US and Iranian diplomats. But the US’s dominant response has been to isolate and confront Iran.
This policy has involved more than UN sanctions. At the end of July, Rice announced a ten year military assistance agreement with Israel worth $30 billion and a $13 billion arms deal with Egypt. She promised another package for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states rumoured to be for $20 billion.
The Financial Times said, “Washington hopes [these deals] will stabilise the Middle East and counteract the rise of Iran.” It’s a strange logic that assumes that spraying weapons around a region will stabilise it. In any case Iran looks far from isolated.
The Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s denunciations of Israel have proved popular in the Arab world. The Lebanese Islamist movement Hizbollah, Iran’s ally, won even greater acclaim when it defeated Israel in last year’s war.
Further afield Iran is finding friends as well. Last week Ahmadinejad attended the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation – formed as a counterweight to Nato by Russia and China.
Even the US’s miserable Afghan puppet Hamid Karzai has defied Bush on the issue. He insisted at a recent joint press conference at Camp David that “Iran has been a helper” for his regime.
The spread of Iranian influence poses Bush and his advisers with a dilemma. They can come to terms with the regime or they can try to destroy it.
A military attack on Iran is extremely unlikely to succeed. A weakened Pentagon lacks the muscle to defeat a regime that enjoys much more popular support than Saddam’s.
But this doesn’t mean that, in the dying months of their lame duck administration, Bush and Cheney might not launch a desperate gamble. The anti-war movement has to remain vigilant against this danger.