Global Policy Forum

The Fire Next Time


By Paul Rogers

May 24, 2007

The United States's response to its problems in Iraq and Afghanistan could escalate into an Iran-centred regional crisis.

The extent of the United States predicament across the Middle East, and the policies being introduced to meet it, is increasing the risk of a crisis with Iran. The nature of the predicament is reflected in the decision to send additional military personnel to Afghanistan as well as Iraq, and in new priorities for equipment geared to counterinsurgency.

After the current additional deployment of troops, US forces in Afghanistan will exceed 25,500, at least 7,000 more than in 2005. Many of these form part of the 34,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) force under Nato control, but others operate independently, meaning that total foreign forces in the country now exceed 40,000 (see "Troops Keep Comin' to Afghanistan", AFP, 10 May 2007). In Iraq, too, it is now clear that the "surge" of the past three months is set to last for up to a year, rather than the six months originally anticipated (see "Iraq's cloudy horizon", 10 May 2007). Current plans are likely to result in combat-troop numbers rising to 98,000 by the end of 2007. Adding in the support troops, the overall total is expected to rise from the 162,000 now in Iraq to over 200,000 by January 2008 (see Stewart M Powell, "U.S. quietly, dramatically increasing Iraq troop levels" Seattle-Post Intelligencer, 22 May 2007). The result will be by far the largest US troop deployment in Iraq since the start of the war in 2003, and comes at a time when National Public Radio is reporting Pentagon plans to maintain up to 40,000 troops in Iraq for many years - possibly several decades.

A Baghdad fortress

Such a prognosis is certainly supported by the construction of the world's largest diplomatic building, the $592-million US embassy in Baghdad's green-zone, now nearing completion. Part of the huge cost of the 21-building complex on its 104-acre compound is due to the need for it to be self-sustaining in terms of energy use, but much of it is due also to the need to provide protection from mortar and rocket fire. To this end, the embassy includes secure compartments for over 600 people (see Anne Gearan, "US Embassy in Iraq to be the Biggest Ever", AP, 19 May 2007).

A clear sign of the current strain in Iraq is the rise in the number of detainees. In the first two months of the surge the numbers of suspected insurgents in US custody in Iraq went up by 3,000 to 19,500, with an even larger increase in those held in Iraqi prisons, camps, police stations. The overall figure is nearing 40,000 (see Joshua Partlow, "New Detainees Strain Iraq's Jails", Washington Post, 15 May 2007). Furthermore, there are signs that sectarian killings - whose reduction is one of the main aims of the surge - are again increasing (see Sudarsan Raghavan, "Morgue Data Show Increase in Sectarian Killings in Iraq", Washington Post, 24 May 2007).

The situation in Iraq and Afghanistan alike is illustrated too by the changing military priorities of the US armed forces. The most urgent requirement for the US air force is not a new bomber or fighter but a new combat-rescue helicopter, because of the urgent need to be able to evacuate the hundreds of troops being wounded every month on the battlefield. For the army, the urgent requirement is for new ambush-resistant vehicles. The key programme here is the mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle, first deployed in Afghanistan in 2003 and in Iraq in 2004. The US military in Iraq has wanted as many as 2,500 of these vehicles for a year or more but the intensity of the insurgency and the experience of persistent ambushes have transformed the requirement; the number requested has risen seven-fold in a few months to 17,770, all to be supplied to the army within the next two years, with another 3,700 for the marines. The total cost will be well in excess of $20 billion.

The Iran plan

Over all these developments looms the political timetable in Washington, with the incipient campaign for the 2008 presidential election already affecting policy. The most substantial change here is a sudden increase in tension with Iran stemming from developments in both countries. The Tehran administration is pointedly failing to comply with the relatively modest requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections. The expiry on 23 May of the latest (two-month-long) UN Security Council deadline has been met by Tehran's determination to speed up the rate of uranium enrichment, even at the cost of less cooperation with the IAEA. The latest report from the agency says that the "level of knowledge of certain aspects of Iran's nuclear-related activities has deteriorated" (see Karen de Young, "Iranian Defiance of U.N. Detailed", Washington Post, 24 May 2007).

A further issue, not much publicised in Europe, is the continuing detention of the American/Iranian scholar Haleh Esfandiari, a well regarded academic and director of the Middle East Program at the Smithsonian's Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars (see Rasool Nafisi, "Haleh Esfandiari: Iran's cultural prison", 17 May 2007). She has now been charged with crimes against national security and may be defended by 2003 Nobel peace laureate, Shirin Ebadi. Haleh Esfandiari's detention has provoked a sense of anger in Washington that is not restricted to the traditional political right. Moreover, it can be guaranteed to bring back memories of the 1979-81 American hostage crisis.

If the Ahmadinejad regime seems happy to play it hard, the same is certainly true of Washington. Renewed calls for military action have come from predictable voices such as John Bolton and Norman Podhoretz; though the latter's Commentary essay is intransigent even by his standards (see "The Case for Bombing Iran", Commentary, June 2007). In any case, this kind of rhetoric is being matched by three further developments. The first is the reported presidential approval of covert operations against Iranian financial interests by the CIA (see Brian Ross and Richard Esposito, "Bush Authorizes New Covert Action Against Iran", ABC News, 22 May 2007).

The second is the welter of claims about increased Iranian interference in Iraq, possibly involving a sudden surge in such activity in an attempt to bring chaos to US security operations. Iran may well possess the capability to do this, even though there is little evidence of any current increase in interference, and independent analysts question the extent of Iranian involvement (see the report by Jacob Halpin for the British American Security Information Council). These doubts notwithstanding, there is evidence of widespread briefings of journalists about the imminent Iranian threat (see Simon Tisdall, "Tehran's secret plan", Guardian Weekly, 25 May 2007).

The third development is that the US navy has moved two complete aircraft-carrier battle-groups from the Arabian Sea through the Straits of Hormuz into the Persian Gulf. Nine warships and 17,000 personnel, together with around 140 aircraft on the two carriers, moved through the straits on 23 May in a very unusual high-profile daytime passage. They will stay in the Gulf for several weeks conducting exercises; these will include an amphibious landing by 2,200 marines in Kuwait, apparently simulating a response to a natural disaster (see Mohammed Abbas, "Nine Warships Enter Gulf in Show of Force", Reuters, 23 May 2007).

Be prepared

To sum up: the US position in Iraq is in trouble, with the surge failing so far to deliver the expected results and a further expansion therefore planned; reinforcements have had to be sent to Afghanistan; meanwhile, the Iranian government is being particularly forceful and US naval forces have moved into close proximity to Iran in the Persian Gulf (see "The Persian Gulf: a war of position", 8 February 2007). These circumstances will not necessarily result in a tipping-point on the other side of which is war, but at a time of pre-existing tension which they in turn reinforce they do present particular dangers. These are the circumstances in which there is a risk of unexpected events developing rapidly into confrontation, even where the latter is not the intended result. That is the situation the region and the world now faces, and there is little indication that it will ease in the coming weeks.
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