Thursday, April 13, 2006

Pacific News Service > News > Iran and U.S. Locked Into Spiral Conflict -- Last Refuge of Weak Leaders--William O. Beeman

Pacific News Service > News > Iran and U.S. Locked Into Spiral Conflict -- Last Refuge of Weak Leaders

Iran and U.S. Locked Into Spiral Conflict -- Last Refuge of Weak Leaders
Commentary/Analysis, William O. Beeman,
New America Media, Apr 13, 2006

Editor's Note: The venomous rhetoric between the U.S. and Iran is largely a drama staged by weak leaders looking for a political boost -- which doesn't make it any less dangerous. New America Media contributor William O. Beeman is professor of anthropology and Middle East studies at Brown University. He is author of "The 'Great Satan' vs. the 'Mad Mullahs': How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other."

PROVIDENCE, R.I.--Just when it seemed impossible for relations between the United States and Iran to get any worse, they have deteriorated once again. The rhetoric and counter-rhetoric over Iran's nuclear program sounds serious and substantive. However, a little reflection reveals this situation for what it is: a continuing piece of high-stakes political theatre that principally benefits the leaders of both nations by shoring up their lagging political fortunes.

It would be easy to dismiss this absurd scenario if the consequences were not potentially so ominous.

Both the Bush administration and the Iranian clerical regime are reeling from historic low support figures from their constituent populations. United States politicians know that attacking Iran is a sure-fire political winner with the American public. Iran has become America's all-purpose bogeyman. Foolish declarations, such as the State Department assertion that Iran is America's "greatest security threat" are received uncritically by voters throughout the nation. Similarly in Iran, the United States can be freely demonized without serious question. The leaders of the Islamic republic regularly blame the United States for their own failings in managing economic development, border control and corruption.

The issue the two sides have seized upon for the last three years is Iran's nuclear development program. For U.S. politicians, nothing gets the attention of the American public more reliably than the threat of nuclear weapons being deployed against the United States. This frightening prospect was effective in convincing the nation to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Merely suggesting that Iran poses a nuclear danger is enough to convince many Americans that the suggestion is based on fact.

For Iran, the fact that the United States has led an international campaign to halt its 35-year-old nuclear energy development program -- a program started with American blessing -- is an affront to national pride. Indeed, the specter of violent military attacks on Iran from the United States or Israel if Iran does not stop uranium enrichment is met by defiance from Iran, where the enrichment program continues unabated. As Iran's U.N. ambassador, Javad Zarif declared before the United Nations Security Council on March 29, "Pressures and threats do not work for Iran. Iran is allergic to pressure and threats and intimidation." Consistent reports from Iran state that even Iranians who are opposed to their own government support continued nuclear energy development.

The ominous rhetoric from both sides masks the weakness of both nations' positions.

U.S. and British officials when pressed admit there is no hard evidence that an Iranian nuclear weapons development program exists. They also admit that Iran's nuclear energy development program is their right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran (but not Israel, Pakistan or India) is a signatory. Moreover, Seymour Hersh, writing in the New Yorker about U.S. plans for military strikes against Iran, emphasizes that high-raking U.S. military advisors oppose the idea of any kind of military action against Iran's widespread nuclear development laboratories as impractical, ineffective and likely to create a greater problem than it would solve.

Iran's posturing, which included an amusing set of festivities on April 11 with folkloric performers dancing while hoisting vials of enriched uranium against the backdrop of hundreds of flying white doves, conceals the fact that Iran is years away from producing enough nuclear fuel to power a generator, much less in the quantity and purity level that would allow it to construct a nuclear weapon. However, that has not stopped Iran from showing off a new set of conventional weapons designed to counter an American attack.

This makes American and Iranian assertions and counter-assertions appear rather ridiculous. Indeed, the danger in this situation could be dismissed if there were other leaders in power. However, in both nations the leadership needs this conflict. President Bush and the Republican party face defeat in November without an issue to galvanize the voting public behind their assertion that they are best able to protect the United States from attack -- the only point on which they have outscored Democrats in recent polls. President Ahmadinejad also needs public support for his domestic political agenda -- an agenda that is paradoxically opposed by a large number of the ruling clerics in Iran. Every time he makes a defiant assertion against the United States, the public rallies behind him.

This creates what political scientist Richard Cottam termed a "spiral conflict" in which both parties escalate each other's extreme positions to new heights. It is entirely possible that Iran could goad President Bush into a disastrous military action, and that action would result in an equally disastrous Iranian reaction.

The resulting conflagration would likely engulf the region, and then the world.