US-Iran stalemate may likely continue

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By Hua Liming (China Daily)

Although the US and Iran have stationed warships at the Hormuz strait, neither country really wants to start a war because military conflicts are not in their interests.Iran seems to continue flexing muscles amid tensions. It has been conducting manoeuvres and launching ballistic and cruise missiles, while two warships entered the Mediterranean Sea over the weekend. It also showed off its “breakthrough” nuclear program for “civilian use” ahead of nuclear talks on Monday. But the true purpose is to gain chips in bargaining.For the past two months, Iran has taken many measures to ease tensions. Besides renewing an invitation for IAEA experts, Iran also conveyed a message to the EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, saying that “returning to the negotiation table would be the best means to broaden cooperation between the two sides.”

On Feb 15, hours after its Islamic Republic News Agency warned it might cut off oil supplies to six EU countries, the Ministry of Petroleum denied the warning and said such a decision belonged only to the Supreme National Security Committee. On Sunday Iran cut off oil supplies, but only to the UK and France, which did not depend on it for fuelling their cars. The incident shows that the Iranian government is not being led by so-called “stubbornists” and does not want much trouble.

For the US, the war is not a good option either. The US economy is still suffering from economic problems and can hardly support any large overseas military operations with a high unemployment rate at home.

The Barack Obama administration could not afford to launch a war during the election year, especially as Iran has become a hot topic on the presidential campaign trail. Obama has received countless blame from Republicans for being too weak on Iran, but if he chooses a military attack he could expect to face more criticisms.


Therefore, domestic pressures would compel Obama to take harsher policies and sanctions against Iran, not war. The recent cancelling of a joint military drill with Israel best describes the US’ real stand. The US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, said an Israeli attack on Iran would have grave consequences for the entire region and urged Israel to give international sanctions against Iran more time to work.

Although unwanted by both sides, this does not mean that war is impossible, because the two players do not control the situation only. The third party, Israel, is hawkish and might make the conflict out of control. Israeli politicians have never concealed their intentions of attacking Iran.

Nearly all countries involved, including Western allies, fear that Israel might launch a sudden attack against Iran. Last Wednesday when Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak visited Japan, he hinted at a military attack against Iran if sanctions fail, but Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda persuaded Israel not to resort to military action.

However, if a war really breaks out, the US would get involved because it has to ensure victory for its ally. Israel is the main uncertainty in the region.

Another uncertainty lies in Syria, where protests by the Syrian people against their president, Bashar al-Assad, have sparked into open and bloody conflicts. Today the country is on the brink of civil war and if Western powers continue to push on instead of trying to extinguish the fire, an all-out civil war may break out.

In some sense, as its only ally in the region, Syria’s civil war would put Iran in a dilemma. Militarily supporting Bashar might involve Iran in the Syrian conflict, thus giving Israel and the US formidable excuses to launch a war against Iran. But if Iran stands idle it might lose a strategic pillar and the only channel to heartland of the Arab world. That’s why Efraim Halevy, a former Israeli national security adviser, called Syria “Iran’s Achilles’ Heel”; in fact, more than one Western observer has talked about the possibility of overthrowing the two governments one immediately after another.

But this plot on paper could not be realized because Syria would not collapse in a quick manner. Unlike Muammar Gadhafi and his personal rule in Libya, the Assad family has accumulated great resources and military forces during its reign in Syria, which dims every hope of a quick and decisive battle to defeat them.

So once civil war breaks out in Syria, the US and Israel would find it tough to repeat the eight-month victory in Libya and push their first domino card down.

If the Syrian civil war comes to a stalemate that would offer Iran more choices than getting totally involved. It could just send material assistance without fighting troops to Syria and make the stalemate go on. The buck would be passed back to the US, which could afford everything but a lasting war.

Therefore, there are great uncertainties to the US-Iran conflict, but it is hardly possible for the US to bring Iran down by a blitzkrieg.

 

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