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Hichem Karoui: Iran-US showdown
July 15, 2012
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

In an apparent response to reports that the US has increased its military presence in the Gulf, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ air force said that missiles had been aimed at 35 US military bases in the Gulf as well as targets in Israel, ready to be launched in case of an attack.

My take is if the Americans are afraid of Iran, it is not a good sign for the Islamic Republic. I’ll explain why.

According to The Atlantic (April 19, 2012), in November 1985, CNN commissioned a poll asking Americans to gauge the Soviet Union’s threat to the US. At the time, 39,000 Soviet nuclear warheads were pointed at the rest of the world, enough of them ready on push-button alert to destroy the United States near-instantaneously and many times over. The result of the November 1985 poll was: 76 per cent of Americans viewed the Soviet Union as a “very serious” or “moderately serious” threat. Only 32 per cent of respondents classified it as a “very serious” threat. No war occurred. But it wasn’t necessary. The USSR has been brought to its knees, by a fictive strategy called “star wars,” which Moscow was unable to financially and economically sustain, before being dismantled.

In April 2012, CNN released a poll asking the same question, this time about Iran. It estimates that 81 per cent of Americans believe Iran is a “very serious” or “moderately serious” threat, with 48 per cent calling it “very serious.”

I wouldn’t misinterpret that fear as a victory for Iran if I were an Iranian leader. The fact that 84 per cent of Americans believe Iran is developing nuclear weapons and 71 per cent believe Tehran already has them, is not much helpful if the Iranian government is relying on the American public opinion to stand against any US administration making a war decision.

The United States has already moved significant military reinforcements into the Gulf to deter the Iranian military from any possible attempt to shut the Strait of Hormuz and to increase the number of fighter jets capable of striking deep into Iran if the standoff over its nuclear programme escalates.

In the last days, new reports talked about the US Navy rushing tiny underwater drones to the Gulf, to help find and destroy sea mines as part of an American military buildup. The German-made devices, known as the SeaFox, are only 88 pounds and 4 feet long each. They are unmanned, remotely guided submersibles, carrying a TV camera, homing sonar and explosive charge for what amounts to a Kamikaze mission.

Last week, according to The New York Times (July 11), one of the Navy’s oldest transport ships, the Ponce, now converted into one of its newest platforms for warfare, arrived in the waters off Bahrain, a major addition to the enlarged presence of American forces in the Arabian Gulf designed as a counter to Iran. The Ponce will be a launching pad for helicopters, a home to underwater diver teams and a seaborne service station providing fuel and maintenance for minesweeping ships. It may also be a mobile base for several hundred Special Operations forces to carry out missions like hostage rescue, counterterrorism, reconnaissance, sabotage and direct strikes.

On the other hand, how to assess Iran’s military power? Is the Iranian regime able to sustain a US attack and survive?

Beyond what the quantitative data may provide us on Iran’s military power, which may seem impressive indeed, for a medium-rank power, we have to concede that if modern wars were won by the state that can align a million men on the front, and strike (or threaten to) its neighbours out of suspicion for collusion with its enemy, the Iranian regime would probably win any war against the USA.

However, modern wars are not about numbers and much less about threats.

Modern wars are about the capacity of attacking, counter-attacking, and leading an efficient defence, from several sides on earth, sea and air, while the regime (ie the state) remains stable and in control of its resources. On this level, it seems to me that the Iranian leaders are either underestimating their adversaries, or overestimating their own capacities. Anyway, they are mixing two things that should never be mixed, which are: the discourse you address to impress your adversaries and your own population, on the one hand, and your real capacities, on the other hand.

The Iranian leaders are making the same deadly mistake their former enemy Saddam Hussein had made. They are showing off military power to those who are much more powerful than them and do not certainly wish to see them reach a level that may disturb the power balance in the region.

Let us remind those who are willing to think, that in a speech on 2 April 1990, Saddam went bragging: “We do not need an atomic bomb. We have the dual chemical. Let them take note of this…” Then he threatened to burn down half of Israel with it.

Was that the discourse of a wise man, knowing that his adversaries were waiting just for such a blunder to pour on him the sky fire?

I remember what I said when I heard that speech: this is the beginning of his end. And it was so. A few months after, he was enticed to invading Kuwait, and they destroyed him.

So, why do the Iranian leaders think they are more powerful and luckier than Saddam, and more powerful than their adversaries? Is there a reasonable argument behind this kind of belief?

I think not. There is no such reasonable argument. The Iranian leaders are unfortunately mistaken. They got it wrong all the way down. And if they do not review their attitude, in the light of the real power balance, not in the light of their wishes, they are going to lead their country to destruction.

The rational attitude does not consist in giving up their rights and kneeling to the West’s dictations. National dignity must be preserved indeed, and everybody has to understand this. The rational attitude consists in giving substance to negotiations and playing by the rules of the game. Why not try to negotiate directly with the USA on all the issues? Why not try to obtain a big peaceful deal instead of bragging and showing off a force that can be easily destroyed by the more powerful?
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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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