The Bush administration had a couple of bits of good news recently, at a time when the picture facing it was generally pretty grim.
The first was the United Nations (UN) report implicating senior Syrian officials in the assassination in February of former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. The second was the speech by the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, saying Israel should be “wiped off the map”.
Both developments were, in their different ways, grist to the mill of the neo-conservative programme of extending regime change beyond Iraq and spreading George Bush’s “democratic revolution” throughout the Middle East.
Ahmadinejad’s remarks were greeted with delight in Israel. They offered Ariel Sharon’s government a perfect opportunity to press its case that the regime in Iran is a threat to world peace that shouldn’t be allowed to develop a nuclear programme and that may have to be taken out militarily.
But the most belligerent response came from Tony Blair, who said that Ahmadinejad’s speech was “a disgrace” which “indicates I’m afraid how much some of those places need reform themselves”. He declared, “If they carry on like this, the question people are going to be asking us is: When are you going to do something about this?”
The interesting question is actually whether or not Blair’s reaction — and that of other Western governments — is mere grandstanding.
Under how much real danger of attack by the “international community” are Syria and Iran?
Of the two, Syria seems to be much more vulnerable. You only have to look at a map of the Middle East to see how hemmed in it is by Israel and US-occupied Iraq.
Partly for that reason it is still hard to believe that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad would have been foolish enough to assassinate Hariri given that the Western response was entirely foreseeable.
But whatever the truth of the affair (and Syrian intelligence are undeniably a nasty bunch), the Assad regime is facing a real squeeze orchestrated by the US and France, the old colonial power in Syria and Lebanon.
This is unlikely to mean a direct military attack — the US is too bogged down in Iraq for that. But the Assad regime is based on a narrow group mainly drawn from army officers belonging to the Alawite sect of Islam, which constitutes only a small minority of the Syrian population.
A combination of external pressure — sanctions, threats of military action, and so on — and the courtship of elements of the regime by Western diplomats and spies might be sufficient to destabilise the regime.
Iran is a different proposition altogether. Many people see Ahmadinejad as a creature of the Shia clerical establishment that is the most powerful single element in the Iranian state.
But he did win 62 percent of the vote in the hotly contested second round of the presidential election back in June.
He benefited from the support of the Revolutionary Guards and other state institutions. But Ahmadinejad ran an effective campaign based on presenting himself as the representative of Iran’s poor majority.
You would have to be a very stupid neo-con to want to invade Iran, a much bigger and more populous country than Iraq, and seek to overturn a regime that, unlike Assad’s, is still able to demonstrate its popular base. There are plenty of stupid neo-cons, but they are unlikely to prevail in Washington — unless, of course, things get so bad for Bush that another Middle East war comes to seem like the way out, rather than what got him into this mess in the first place.
More likely, the US will try to use Ahmadinejad’s speech to pull the European Union, Russia, and China into line behind a tougher policy towards Iran — economic sanctions, for example. But I can’t see sanctions meaning much against a major oil exporter in what looks set to be an era of high oil prices. There is no easy flight forward that will allow Bush and Blair to escape the Iraqi quagmire.