That is to say they do not want to personally experience the consequences of war – destruction of what they have and the deaths of those they know and love.
Nonetheless, many – and most regrettably many officials who have the power to unleash military force – may be said to be in love with the idea that they can, with complete impunity, threaten war to achieve a short-term diplomatic or political advantage or simply to test the limits and the steadiness of a potential adversary’s nerves.
This played out in the Strait of Hormuz last Sunday when five Iranian fast patrol boats intercepted three U.S. warships in international waters, it is a dangerous and all too often deadly variation of “chicken.”
Pundits needed no oracle, entrails, or tea leaves to know that a confrontation of some sort was brewing. In both Iran and the United States, power centers were vying with each other to influence the course of events,
In the United States, members of both Houses of Congress had cautioned the president that prior to any hostilities with Iran (self-defense excluded), he was obliged to seek authorization from the Congress for war. This assertion, predictably, was rejected by the White House, from where President Bush and Vice-President Cheney were attempting to orchestrate new punitive international sanctions against Tehran for its alleged continued pursuit of nuclear weapons technology and “know how.”
Early December proved pivotal in the discussion. First, after being withheld for months from the public, the administration finally released the unclassified findings of a National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program. All sides immediately seized on what seemed to validate their positions while dismissing everything else. But the bottom line could not be ignored: Iran had stopped working on nuclear weapons programs four years earlier and had not – contrary to the White House position – resumed them.
The following week, the administration found itself rebuffed by its Gulf allies for maintaining a double standard with regard to Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons and Iran’s nuclear program. Undeterred, Bush stuck to his mantra in an end of year press conference: “Iran was a threat, Iran is a threat, Iran will be a threat” as long as it is allowed to continue to learn how to make nuclear weapons.
If Iranians were puzzled by events and pronouncements from Washington, so too were U.S. Iran-watchers by what must have been going on in Tehran. On January 3rd, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaking to Iranian students, said Iran may someday resume relations with the United States. But in what can be seen only as a preemptive rejection of any suggestions that Tehran engage in high level direct talks with Bush administration officials, Khamenei added that Iran would gain nothing by pursuing discussions on restoring diplomatic relations.
This was a softer tone than had been the norm in the autumn of 2007, particularly from the leadership of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (RG) and its elite Qods Force that western intelligence puts directly under the Supreme Leader’s control. Indeed, when Khamenei appointed a 28-year veteran, Mohammad Ali Jafari, as the new commander of the entire RG, his predecessor blasted the Bush administration’s designation of the entire force – all 200,000 – as a terrorist organization because, in the view of the White House, the RG is a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction and provides Iraqi insurgents with conventional weapons or components that are used to kill American troops in Iraq.
Under Jafari, the incidents of alleged weapons transfers fell off – and perhaps the explanation for this lies in a shift in emphasis from tactical measures to more strategic considerations – specifically, anticipating that any encounter in the Strait between U.S. and Iranian naval assets will drive the price of oil sky-high.
Finally, having seen the video released by the Pentagon, below, and knowing just enough about procedures used by the U.S. Navy when unidentified vessels get too close, I have no doubt that the incident occurred as reported. As to the location – whether in international waters or in Iranian waters, it would be very risky for the Navy to lie with a Congress already dubious about the Iraq war. Moreover, consider that the Iranians first said the encounter was not a major event and then changed their response to an accusation that the Navy fabricated the whole incident.
Thanks to Mike Nizza at the New York Times for pointing to the video.
After this blog was originally posted, the Iranians released an audio tape with their version of the encounter.
Unfortunately, this incident may signal a new calculation by the RG that at some point will turn into a miscalculation -- an exchange of fire, a sinking, and the loss of life. If the Supreme Leader wants to see diplomatic relations restored, he might consider reining in the RG’s naval arm when it comes to ships of any nation transiting the Strait in international waters. Similarly, the Bush White House ought to tone down its rhetoric, sit down with the Iranians, and “test the waters” (the sincerity) of the Supreme Leader’s wish for re-establishing diplomatic relations before a miscalculation happens.