A straw in the wind: the US, Iran and Britain

I propose first to give an account of the causes of complaint which they had against each other and the specific instances where their interests clashed; this is in order that there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind about what led to this great war falling upon the Hellenes. But the real reason for the war is, in my opinion, most likely to be disguised by such an argument. What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta. (Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War I, 23)

Substitute the Washington and Tehran for Athens and Sparta, and perhaps Thucydides provides us with an explanation of the current conflict in the Lebanon.

Certainly, Hezbollah gave Israel with a casus belli with its capture of two Israeli soldiers, but perhaps this only obscures the deeper roots of the conflict as a proxy war between Iran and the US.

It looks increasingly as if the fate of Britain’s former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw may be one window into the manoeuvring behind the scenes.

Straw was heavily involved in atttempts to engage with Iran during his tenure. This record of course made him useful to the Americans in the run up to the Iraq War, but it became a liability once the political wind changed and the struggle over the spoils began.

Straw is no stranger in Tehran. He is, in fact, the only prominent Western politician to have visited the Iranian capital on four occasions in less than two years. He has also written columns from some Iranian state-owned newspapers, and spent time to meet as many mullahs, inside and outside the government, as possible…

…Straw’s three previous visits to Tehran were understandable for at least two reasons.

The first was that the Anglo-American Coalition needed Iran’s neutrality, if not active support, in toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Baathists in Iraq. Straw achieved remarkable success on both occasions…

… But what is the reason for Straw’s current visit? (Amir Taheri, Benador  Associates, 30 June 2003)

Straw’s differences with Rumsfeld over Syria and Iran surfaced even before the fall of Baghdad.

After Rumsfeld ramped up the rhetoric with regards to Syria, British Foreign Minister Jack Straw announced that his country would have "nothing whatever" to do with military action against Syria — a country with which Straw said the British had "worked hard to try to improve relations." Blair’s foreign affairs aide also ruled out a war with Iran, another country that Washington has targeted for verbal assaults. (The Nation, 3 April 2003)

Two years later, Straw was involved in the controversy over the appointment of John Bolton as US ambassador to the UN.

As a series of new allegations against Mr Bolton put his chances of confirmation further into doubt, details emerged of how a furious Mr Straw told Colin Powell, the former US Secretary of State, that Mr Bolton was trying to destroy a European initiative on Iran’s nuclear programme.

Mr Straw made the complaint after he became convinced that Mr Bolton was the source of an article on the front page of The Times last July quoting an unnamed senior US official who dismissed the initiative as “spring training” and advocated “regime change” in Tehran. The Times has never revealed its source. (The Times, 26 April 2005)

Then in April this year came Seymour Hersh’s report in the New Yorker that the US had intensified planning for a (possibly nuclear) attack on Iran.

Straw responded that there was no basis for military action against Iran, something which apparently angered Donald Rumsfeld. There have been reports in recent days that the US pressed for his removal as Foreign Secretary.

It’s difficult to find an explanation for Straw’s departure that doesn’t involve his stance on Iran. The clearest indication on the matter is that his successor Margaret Beckett has refused to rule out military action.

Her stance on Lebanon has also been far more hawkish than that of Straw, who criticisms of Israel’s disproportionate response apparently came after after a phone call from Kofi Annan.

The US-UK position on Lebanon is obviously linked to the Iran issue. If they want to maintain a military option against Tehran, then that implies planning for a conflict with Hezbollah. Seymour Hersh said as much in that April article:

Iran could also initiate a wave of terror attacks in Iraq and elsewhere, with the help of Hezbollah. On April 2nd, the Washington Post reported that the planning to counter such attacks “is consuming a lot of time” at U.S. intelligence agencies. “The best terror network in the world has remained neutral in the terror war for the past several years,” the Pentagon adviser on the war on terror said of Hezbollah. “This will mobilize them and put us up against the group that drove Israel out of southern Lebanon. If we move against Iran, Hezbollah will not sit on the sidelines. Unless the Israelis take them out, they will mobilize against us.” (When I asked the government consultant about that possibility, he said that, if Hezbollah fired rockets into northern Israel, “Israel and the new Lebanese government will finish them off.”) (New Yorker)

This would explain why Israel finalised a plan for war with Hezbollah a year ago. We don’t know whether that plan was intended as a defensive measure or as a preliminary to a US attack on Iran, but perhaps that is academic in the current state of geopolitical tension.

From the Iranian point of view, the defeat of Hezbollah would mean the loss of a strategic deterrent:

Whereas a stalemate or even quagmire may benefit Iran’s position with respect to the nuclear crisis, the obverse possibility of Hezbollah’s substantial weakening, not to mention the squeeze on Damascus, will translate into a more vulnerable Iran confronted with the distinct possibility that Phase 1 of a multi-stage conflict with the US and Israel has already started in Lebanon and Gaza. (Kaveh L Afrasiabi, Asia Times)

Could Britain be part of an attacking coalition alongside the US and Israel?

A couple of weeks ago I spoke to a Labour backbencher who said Tony Blair did not have a majority for an attack on Iran. The reaction to events in Lebanon suggest he was right.

However, if the US and Israel do attack, Britain is likely to become embroiled in the conflict, whatever Parliament says.

Hezbollah is one of two major cards in the Iranian hand. The other is the Shi’ite militias sitting on the US supply lines running through the British area of operations in southern Iraq.

Until now the Shiite Arabs of Iraq have been told by their leaders to leave American forces alone. But an escalation of tensions between Iran and the US could change that overnight. Moreover, the ever-increasing violence of the civil war in Iraq can change the alignment of forces there unexpectedly.

Southern Iraq is thoroughly infiltrated by Iranian special operations forces working with Shiite militias, such as Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigades. Hostilities between Iran and the United States or a change in attitude toward US forces on the part of the Baghdad government could quickly turn the supply roads into a "shooting gallery" 400 to 800 miles long. (Patrick Lang, Christian Science Monitor)

The reality of what this would mean for British forces was almost certainly a factor in Straw’s opposition to an attack, and that of other British officials.

The Foreign Office’s lawyers have gone further than merely advising on the legality of military assistance. It is thought their advice stretched to the use of British military advisers, UK airspace and even the dangers of Tony Blair expressing support which could be taken as legitimising a US-led attack without the express authority of the United Nations…

…To add to the pressure on Blair not to become entangled in any military action against Iran, the officer in charge of army recruitment in Scotland has warned that the shortage of troops is so severe that another overseas conflict – or a resurgence of domestic terrorism in Northern Ireland – would lead to the UK having to pull troops out of Iraq or Afghanistan. (Sunday Herald, 23 April 2006)

This situation is no deterrent to the neo-cons, who are methodically working for a attack on Iran, just as they did with Iraq. Blair’s stance on Lebanon, and his sidelining of Straw, suggest whatever Parliament or the British public may think, he will not be an obstacle to their plans.






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