Vice President Dick Cheney’s arrival in the Middle East has prompted some to speculate that this is a sure sign that President Bush is preparing to launch a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Others have reached a similar conclusion from the firing of Admiral William Fallon has head of Central Command. Such speculation is not hard to understand given Cheney’s previous role as hand-holder to the region’s pro-U.S. Arab regimes whenever the Bush Administration is about to embark on one of its catastrophic schemes to remake the Middle East by force — he did the rounds before the Iraq war, and before and after Israel’s disastrous campaign (at the urging of the U.S.) to eliminate Hizballah in the summer of 2006. And Cheney is nothing if not the champion of the testosterone-addled-teenage mindset in Washington that sees military force as the answer to complex challenges, and has certainly been lobbying for a showdown with Iran.
But to put Cheney’s tough talk and saber-rattling in context, I’d suggest those worried that he means business watch the YouTube clip above, taken from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which the Black Knight refuses to let King Arthur pass, and continues to issue bloodcurdling threats even as the English king lops off his limbs. The Black Knight hopping about on one leg screaming “I am invincible!” is an apt analogy for Dick Cheney threatening Iran, right now.
Cheney might like to see Iran’s nuclear facilities destroyed by either an Israeli or a U.S. air strike, but that’s unlikely to happen. It is questionable whether Israel has the technical capability to do the job alone, and would need a U.S. green light to do. That, and the fact that the Iranians would hold the U.S. accountable for any Israeli strike, and would retaliate against U.S. targets within range (think 140,000 U.S. troops just across the border in Iraq), would make it worth the U.S. doing the job itself if it were going to get done.
The problem is that U.S. power in the Middle East has begun to go the way of the Black Knight’s limbs precisely as a result of the confrontational policies championed by Cheney, and that has left it both lacking the troop strength — and dangerously vulnerable in its Iraq deployment — to launch a war with a country three times the size of Iraq, simply on the basis of a potential threat, i.e. that Iran’s currently very limited uranium enrichment capability gives it the means to eventually create bomb-grade materiel. The air-strike scenario holds far greater perils than those it would currently eliminate, and no rational strategic establishment woud consider it. (That may be why there are such over signs of resistance from within the security bureaucracy to Cheney’s efforts, from last year’s National Intelligence Estimate to Fallon’s blunt comments about war-talk in Washington.)
A military strike has no way of guaranteeing that Iran’s nuclear capabilities will actually be destroyed, and Tehran would almost certainly move whatever it retained underground, and continue to work outside of the monitoring regime (currently in place) of the IAEA. It would compel Iran to respond to an act of war by confronting the U.S. and its allies throughout the Middle East. While neocons tout the fantasy that such a blow would bring down the Islamic Republic, it’s far more likely that the people of Iran, from liberals to fundamentalists, would rally behind the government, and strengthen the hand of the conservatives currently running things. Last weekend’s election, with a turnout close to two thirds of the electorate (far higher than the U.S. usually sees) was a sure sign that Iranians are willing to defend their regime from outside attack, even if they don’t like that regime.
Iran would deliver its response over a sustained period across a wide range of fronts, but its ability to make life hell for the U.S. forces stationed in Iran (both via the firing of short and medium range missiles, and by urging the Shi’ite militias whose loyalty it commands there to attack the Americans), and its ability to drive oil prices into the stratosphere by blocking deliveries through the Straits of Hormuz, make the cost of attacking Iran simply prohibitive to the U.S. right now, and perhaps for the foreseeable future.
Moreover, the Arab allies on whom Cheney is calling over the next ten days have long ago concluded that the Bush Administration’s prescriptions for dealing with the Middle East are dysfunctional to the point of self-destruction, and have longsince begun going their own way, even as they politely indulge emissaries from Washington. While the Bush Administration insists that Iran must be pressed and isolated, the Egyptians and Saudis are openly engaging in the warmest diplomatic ties with Tehran since 1979, aware that only a cooperative and mutually accomodating relationship can stabilize the consequences of the strategic rivalries of the region.
Whatever Dick Cheney has to say, the Arab regimes are well aware that they are having to conduct their own diplomacy to address the region’s problems because the current administration has little more to offer than ideological megaphone diplomacy. But, of course, the current administration only has nine months left, and already the region is simply running out the clock, assuming that things can only get better with a new Administration. At which point, if Cheney keeps to his stated plan of returning to the private sector — and if he returns to the corporation he left in order to take the job — the Vice President will simply revert to being just another Dubai-based CEO.