The prospect of war with Iran is beginning to look real. The hardening of positions in both Tehran and Washington over the past week has brought relations to their lowest point since the Iran hostage crisis that began in 1979. Both sides insist that they seek no military conflict, but tensions on issues ranging from Iran's nuclear program to influence in Iraq and the Arab-Israeli peace process is turning their differences into all-out regional power struggle. Last week, Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice criticized Iran's "emboldened foreign policy" and "hegemonic aspirations," while asserting that the U.S. will continue to be engaged on economic, political and security issues in the Middle East. "We are there to stay," she declared.
On the critical issue of Iran's uranium-enrichment program, Tehran and Washington are now engaged in a game of geopolitical chicken, which favors hard-liners on both sides, making compromise more difficult, escalation more likely and war by accident, if not by design a greater possibility than before. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, after stepping up defiance of U.S.-led efforts to compel Iran to halt enrichment, this week appeared to gain greater domestic influence over the issue with the replacement of Iran's pragmatic top nuclear negotiator by a key Ahmadinejad ally. After President Bush invoked the specter of World War III to press the urgency of stopping Iran, the Administration followed up with another round of punitive measures.
"It looks like a slow-motion train wreck," said Barbara Slavin, author of a new book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation. "Neither side is willing to back down and the chances for conflict are growing over the nuclear program and Iran's support for U.S. adversaries in the Middle East."
The showdown has elements of a perfect storm. The decline of U.S. fortunes in Iraq has been accompanied by a rise in Iranian assertiveness, which has intensified with Ahmadinejad's recent tough talk. Trumpeting Iran's nuclear ambitions as a nationalist cause, Ahmadinejad rejected the agreement by his moderate predecessor, Mohammed Khatami, to voluntarily suspend uranium-enrichment during three years of negotiations with European powers. Ahmadinejad abandoned Khatami's "dialogue of civilizations" for more confrontational rhetoric, calling for Israel to be "wiped off the map" and goading the West by denying the Holocaust. Iran enthusiastically backed Hizballah and Hamas in their confrontations with Israel, and denounced the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
Ahmadinejad has repeatedly pooh-poohed the idea that the U.S. might take military action against Iran, to the anger and alarm of others in the Iranian leadership structure, who accuse him of downplaying a real danger. Ahmadinejad says that he considers the U.N.'s case against Iran's nuclear program closed, and dismisses U.N. sanctions as "piles of paper." Bragging that Iran's uranium-enrichment efforts have succeeded in achieving "the capacity for industrial-scale fuel cycle production," he also recently withdrew a compromise Iranian proposal that would base its enrichment activities in an international consortium that would allow Western countries to participate in and monitor Iran's activities. "The proposal was based on the situation last year," Ahmadinejad explained. "New terms must be defined."
Against the backdrop of crucial parliamentary elections in 2008 and his presidential reelection bid in 2009, Ahmadinejad is now seeking a greater leadership role in nuclear decision-making, which is controlled by the regime's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Last week, Ahmadinejad accepted the resignation of Ali Larijani, the pragmatic conservative chief negotiator who is a bitter political rival to the President. Although all Iranian leaders defend their right to uranium-enrichment technology for purposes of producing nuclear energy, Larijani believes it is in Iran's national interests to reach an understanding with the West. But on at least two occasions, Ahmadinejad has publicly slapped down Larijani's conciliatory efforts.
A similar hardening of positions has been taking place in Washington, with U.S. rhetoric assuming a more confrontational tone in the past two weeks. On Oct. 17, Bush warned that "if Iran had a nuclear weapon, it would be a dangerous threat to world peace" that risked a third world war. Four days later, Vice President Dick Cheney warned, "The Iranian regime needs to know that if it stays on its present course, the international community is prepared to impose serious consequences... We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon."
Last week, a day after Rice told Congress that the U.S.'s 2006 offer of talks with Iran was "still on the table" if Tehran suspended enrichment activities, the Administration designated Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps as a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction, and named the Corps' Quds division as a supporter of terrorism.
The tougher tone suggests that U.S. policy has taken a subtle, yet decisive, turn toward not merely stopping Iran's nuclear program, but seeking the end of the Islamic regime. Cheney's objections to Iran went well beyond its uranium-enrichment activities, to include Iran's policies toward Israel and the U.S., its activities in Iraq, its suppression of domestic opposition and what he called its drive for "hegemonic power" in the region a term echoed by the less hawkish Rice in her congressional testimony.
Cheney, like Bush and Rice, stopped short of advocating a new U.S. policy to aggressively pursue regime change, as in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the Vice President pointed the Administration in that direction. He castigated "the nature of the regime"; said that Iranians have a "right to be free from oppression, from economic deprivation and tyranny"; and declared that "America looks forward to the day when Iranians reclaim their destiny." Cheney's indictment of Iran's regime as one that deserves to be eliminated could be read as another point of U.S. pressure, designed to entice Iranian leaders to accept the U.S. offer to negotiate a peaceful end to the crisis. But such rhetoric, instead, may prove the point of Iran's hard-liners, that there is really nothing for the U.S. and Iran to talk about.