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[casi] Iran: the next target?

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Below is the latest from Paul Rogers of Bradford University's Peace Studies Department.

Best wishes,

voices uk
Iran: the next target?
by Paul Rogers

30 - 1 - 2003

President Bush's State of the Union speech rhetorically clears
the path to war on Iraq. Regime change in Baghdad will enable US forces to
establish strategic command in the region, and secure its abundant oil
supplies. But the effects on Iran will be dramatic. Will this be the tipping
point for Europe?

            President Bush's State of the Union address comes as near to a
declaration of war on Iraq as is possible without the guns beginning to
fire. It rehearsed all of the reasons for an attack relating to Iraqi
weapons of mass destruction, made no mention of oil, and made it clear that
the US was prepared to go to war with minimal international support if need

            The speech was significant for two other reasons, involving the
'war on terror' and Iran, respectively. First is George Bush's affirmation
that there are direct and compelling links between the Saddam Hussein regime
and al-Qaida, with evidence on this promised in the next few days. The
connection between terminating the Iraqi regime and fighting the war on
terror is crucial in obtaining domestic support for war on Iraq, even if it
is likely to cut little ice across much of the rest of the world.

            Within Iraq there is a small paramilitary group called Ansar
al-Islam, loosely linked to al-Qaida, which is active in the north of the
country. This group has the tacit support of the regime but it is marginal
in Iraq as a whole. More generally, al-Qaida has shown virtually no interest
in Iraq until very recently, for the obvious reason that Saddam Hussein's Ba
'ath party runs a secular regime of a kind that is anathema to al-Qaida's
aims for the region.

            This makes it highly implausible that substantial links exist
between the regime and al-Qaida. In turn this suggests that the equivalent
of the 'Gulf of Tonkin' incident of 1964, which enabled the US to engage
more forcibly in Vietnam, may provide a suitable pretext for US onslaught on

            There is, though, one complication that greatly aids the Bush
administration. However much al-Qaida takes a different view to that of the
Saddam Hussein regime, it would actually welcome a US war against Iraq,
seeing this as proof positive of US determination to control the region, in
turn leading to greater support for its own cause. It is worth remembering
that groups such as al-Qaida are not thinking in terms of month-to-month or
year-to-year; their time frame is decade-to-decade, and they confidently
expect the US to be in Iraq indefinitely.

            Al-Qaida's desire for US military action plays into White House
strategy precisely because it enables the group to declare forceful
opposition to US action, and consequent support for the Saddam Hussein
regime. The end result is to make it easier for the US administration to
nurture in people's minds a connection between Iraq and al-Qaida. This may
aid domestic support for the war; it is also just what al-Qaida wants.

            Oil: eyes on the prize

            The second point about the State of the Union address has been
largely neglected in immediate commentary but tells us a lot about the
longer-term US plans for the region. It concerns President Bush's extensive
mention of Iran, which almost went as far as to imply that Iran would become
an immediate focus of attention once Iraq was made safe.

            To put this in wider perspective, we need to go back to the
underlying motivation for US policy in the Gulf, namely the security of oil
supplies - an aspect of the entire confrontation that is getting less and
less attention the closer we get to war.

            As argued in earlier articles in this series, the key issues are
that the Persian Gulf region is immensely rich in oil, which is cheap to
exploit and of generally high quality. Around two-thirds of the world's
known oil reserves are to be found there, and more keeps getting discovered.
In comparison, the North Sea, Alaska and even the Caspian Basin are little
more than puddles, and expensive ones at that.

            Iraq alone has about four times the reserves of the United
States and its reserves have actually increased by a figure equal to half of
total US reserves in the past decade. Meanwhile, the United States (together
with Europe, China and Japan) becomes more dependent on Gulf oil year by

            As this is happening, there are growing worries about the
stability of Saudi Arabia, so that Iraq becomes more and more important.

            This is not to deny that Iraq's chemical and biological
programme is not a significant element, but it is only part of the issue. If
Iraq produced rice or oranges instead of oil, there would be no great
concern. After all, the US was not greatly exercised by the Brazilian and
Argentinian moves to develop nuclear weapons in the 1980s; still less did it
consider going to war with South Africa when that country had actually
developed a small nuclear arsenal.

            Syria may be in illegal occupation of parts of Lebanon and may
maintain a substantial arsenal of missiles equipped with chemical warheads,
but it is 'oil-free' and is not a target (at least not yet). Israel can
maintain hundreds of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons, probably has
chemical and biological weapons, and has at various times been in occupation
of parts of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, yet remains a close ally of
the United States.

            The bottom line with Iraq is oil, and it is in this respect that
the Iran connection in George Bush's speech is so significant. The war with
Iraq will certainly be intended to destroy the Saddam Hussein regime, but
its much more significant purpose is to consolidate power in a fractious yet
strategically crucial region.

            If the regime is terminated by US military force in the coming
months, then there will be an immediate military occupation while some
degree of stability is ensured, leading to a regime in Baghdad that is a
client of Washington. At that stage, many of the US occupying forces may
well be withdrawn, but we should also expect the rapid development of an
extensive and permanent US military presence.

            This is likely to involve the establishment of at least three
(and possibly four) substantial bases, centred on air power but also
involving a permanent presence of ground forces. One such base will
obviously be in the vicinity of Baghdad itself, combining air force and army
units. A second will be close to the huge oil fields near Basra in the
south-east of Iraq, close to the Iranian border.

            The third base is likely to be in the north, probably in a
Kurdish-controlled area, close to the Kirkuk/Mosul oil fields. One candidate
site is a large abandoned airstrip west of the city of Suleimaniya,
currently being renovated for use by US forces in the coming war. Located at
Bakrajo, it was visited last week by a US intelligence team and would cover
both the oil fields and the northern border with Iraq.

            A fourth base might be established in the western desert close
to Jordan and conveniently close to the south-west oil fields that are
believed to contain massive additional reserves. There may, in addition,
even be a small naval base created, perhaps, at Umm Qasr on the Persian Gulf

            We should expect the three major bases at least to be set up as
permanent military centres in a matter of months; their development may be
modelled on the large-scale Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo. There, the US military
did not even bother with temporary structures, but directly built a
heavily-protected base for 7,000 troops complete with a two-storey shopping
mall, Burger King outlet, theatre and all the other accoutrements of US life
abroad, at a cost of $330 million.

            The view from Tehran - and Europe

            A consolidated and substantial military presence in Iraq has, in
Washington's eyes, several major advantages. It ensures the security of
Iraqi oil for the long term, it limits dependence on a potentially unstable
Saudi Arabia and it increases the security of America's closest ally in the
region, Israel.

            Moreover, it makes it abundantly clear to Iran that the United
States is the controlling power in the region. This is important because of
Iran's remarkable combination of oil reserves, massive gas reserves (second
only to Russia), potential control of the Straits of Hormuz, a burgeoning
population and a geographical location at the heart of south-west Asia. From
the Bush administration's point of view, dominating Iran in this way is
therefore a perfect answer to controlling an unstable yet crucially
important region.

            What is missing, of course, is any evident understanding on the
US side of the impact of this policy. Across the region it will confirm a
near-universal view that the Middle East will be under long-term foreign
control, with the United States working with Israel and with local elites to
secure cheap oil to maintain its economy at the expense of the people of the

            One effect of this will be to consolidate and enhance the
influence of al-Qaida and its associates. Another will be a shift in Iranian
perceptions. The dominant view from Tehran is likely to be that US forces
pose a threat extending right through the Persian Gulf in the shape of the
US Fifth Fleet and, even more significantly, right up Iran's long western
land border with Iraq.

            It is more or less guaranteed that this new proximity of US
forces will cause serious concern in Tehran, with three probable effects.
First, it will bolster support for the more conservative elements,
particularly among the clerics. Secondly, it will allow an opening for
Russia to expand its influence in the country.

            Thirdly, and perhaps most significant of all, it will almost
inevitably increase Iran's desire to develop its own strategic deterrent,
based largely on missiles and chemical and biological weapons. This will be
seen as an absolute necessity in the face of US power in the region, even if
it risks a further confrontation.

            There is one further factor in all of this - the role of
European states. France, Germany and other western European countries have
worked quietly and persistently to improve relations with Iran. Moreover,
their connection with the country is free of the embittered historical
memories that remain from the US role in the overthrow of Mossadeq in 1952
and the embassy siege of 1979-80.

            The possibility that regime termination in Iraq could then lead
on to a confrontation with another part of the 'axis of evil', Iran, is
something that would cause real concern in Europe. It may well be that the
real crisis in European-American relations will eventually come not over
Iraq, but over Iran. The gravest long-term consequence of the strategy
outlined in the President's State of the Union address is, therefore, that
war with Iraq is not the end of US ambitions in the region, but only the

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