Washington's reported plan to name Iran's Revolutionary Guards as a "specially designated global terrorist" organization may be less about raising pressure on Tehran than about raising pressure on U.S. allies to support a tougher line with Iran. In fact, the move reflects Washington's relative isolation on the question of how to deal with Iran. The New York Times reported Wednesday that the move is primarily directed at appeasing Bush Administration hawks and U.S. legislators who have been agitating for a more aggressive posture on Iran, and at turning the screws on European allies who are reluctant at this stage to escalate U.N. sanctions on Tehran over its nuclear program.
Naming the IRG as a terrorist group could be used to pressure foreign corporations whose business ties with Iran potentially involve dealings with the IRG, which is extensively involved in Iran's economy. The rationale offered for the move is to curb an organization that has long been at the forefront of Iranian support for Hizballah and other radical groups in the region and, the Administration alleges, is playing an active destabilizing role in Iraq.
In fact, it is Tehran's role in Iraq and other neighboring countries, rather than the state of its nuclear program, that has been the focus of much of the Administration's recent statements on Iran. U.S. officials from President Bush on down have sought to portray Iran, and organizations associated with the Revolutionary Guards specifically, as the prime source of trouble in its neighborhood. U.S. officials now routinely blame Iran for many of the attacks on U.S. forces inside Iraq despite limited evidence to back the claim and accuse it of destabilizing the Iraqi government by supporting radical Shi'ite militia. The Administration also insists that Iran has been working to destabilize the Karzai government in Afghanistan, and accuses it of funneling weapons to the Taliban.
Adopting a more aggressive posture toward Iran's regional role may play well on Capitol Hill, but the White House is clearly having trouble selling it abroad. Just last week, the leaders of the two governments most reliant on U.S. military protection directly contradicted President Bush's claims that Iran was causing trouble in their countries. Both Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai and Iran's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki publicly reiterated their view of Iran as a friend and a positive influence for stability in their countries, leaving President Bush to huffily demur. Iran helped install the Karzai government and has a longstanding hostility towards the Taliban. And Tehran has also been a vocal supporter of the Iraqi government, whose leaders have been historically close to Iran. In both cases, though, these governments fear that the strategic rivalry between Iran and the U.S. could prompt both sides to take actions that could provoke the other and prompt an escalation that negatively affect both Afghan and Iraqi stability. In other words, it's not Iran they fear, but an Iran-U.S. confrontation.
So, the Karzai and Maliki statements highlight a key problem facing those who seek a more aggressive U.S. posture towards Iran: Outside of Israel, there's very little international support for confronting Tehran. It's not that European and Arab allies don't share U.S. concerns over Iran's increasingly assertive regional role, or over the fact that its civilian nuclear energy program will eventually put nuclear weapons within easy reach of the Islamic Republic. But neither the Europeans nor the Arabs see much good being achieved by either economic isolation or military action against Iran.
Like the Europeans, the Bush Administration routinely proclaims its support for a "diplomatic solution" to the nuclear standoff. But unlike the Europeans, until now the Bush Administration appears to have taken "diplomatic solution" to mean simply Iranian acquiescence to Western terms as a result of non-military pressure. The Europeans know that's unrealistic, and are more inclined toward a give-and-take approach to diplomacy. They have lately been encouraged by Iran's moves to restore cooperation with the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which prompted them to shelve any discussion of further U.N. sanctions until September, to allow more time for talks between Iran and the Europeans.
But the hawks on Capitol Hill and in the Administration know that such engagement is unlikely to produce a satisfactory Iranian climb-down, pointing out that the sanctions so far imposed have not ended Iran's uranium enrichment. But that position enjoys little support among the countries whose support the U.S. has worked hard to court over Iran.
Far-reaching compromises with Iran are not on the agenda of the current U.S. administration, nor are they likely to be. But pursuing a harder line effectively isolates the U.S. from its European and Arab allies. Those allies, of course, are well aware that the current U.S. administration has less than 18 months left in office, and they hope for a successor more open to compromise. But they may also be increasingly fearful of what the outgoing Administration may do on Iran before leaving office. That bad-cop fear, of course, is what Secretary of State Condi Rice is trading on when she warns European governments that their failure to back stronger sanctions will force the U.S. to act alone.