The U.S. and Iran have been locked in strategic competition for three decades. But that competition reached dangerous levels in 2011. As U.S. driven sanctions have reduced the wiggle room of the clerical regime, the Iranians have responded by escalating.
President Ahmadinejad has escalated diplomatically. He is attempting to build allies among non-Western or anti-Western States – Russia and China the leaders among them. Now he is off on a diplomatic tour of the Western hemisphere — visiting Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Ecuador. The State Department responded in its typical humiliating tone:
“As the regime feels increasing pressure, it is desperate for friends and flailing around in interesting places to find new friends. . . We are making absolutely clear to countries around the world that now is not the time to be deepening ties, not security ties, not economic ties, with Iran. . . Rather, it’s in the entire international community’s interest to make clear to Iran that it’s got a choice. . . It can remain in an international isolation, or it can comply with its obligations and start cooperating and rejoin the community of nations.”
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and one of the most outspoken anti-Iran hawks, put her comments this way:
“Iran has been actively working for years to expand its ties and influence in the Western Hemisphere, and it has found willing partners in the region’s anti-American despots. Ahmadinejad’s upcoming ‘Tour of Tyrants’ trip illustrates his commitment to deepening those ties and expanding the Iranian threat closer to our shores. . . As Iran looks for help from allies like Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Ecuador, it is important that the U.S. impose the strongest possible sanctions against Iran and urge fellow democracies to impose their own sanctions and deny Iranian access to their financial institutions.”
But in fact, these otherwise not very significant countries are very important. They are important because they will continue to help Iran bypass the sanctions regime imposed by the United States. The countries Iran befriends – in the Western hemisphere and elsewhere — will pose no threat to the U.S. But they will help Iran get the materials it needs to struggle through the worst of the sanctions.
The problem confronting the U.S. is not Iran’s diplomacy in response to the American driven sanctions. It is Iran’s understanding of the sanctions themselves. It has become clear to the Iranians that the sanctions are not designed to thwart Iran’s nuclear mastery. Instead the sanctions are seen as a means of bringing regime change to Iran – ousting the clerics entirely.
As the Iranians perceive this to be America’s purpose, they will take even greater risks in 2012. Fighting for one’s economic wellbeing is one thing. But fighting for one’s life is something else. When you fight for your life, you raise the ante. You take unimaginable risks. That is precisely what the clerical regime has begun to do.
Its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz is one example. The warning that the U.S. aircraft carrier Stennis had better not return to the Persian Gulf is another. The death sentence just issued to an American “spy” is yet another. Now the Iranians have announced they will begin enriching uranium in a second and highly protected underground bunker.
None of these mean very much in themselves. But things could easily go wrong.
Either Iran or the United States could miscalculate and provoke just one step too far. The result could be a shooting competition rather than a strategic competition.
The Iranians could start acting through their proxies – Hezballah or Hamas. They could fire up the Shiites in Iraq or Saudi or the Houthis in Yemen. Bahrain is ripe for more Shiite riots. Serious turmoil could envelop the “Shiite Crescent” from Lebanon through Iraq
But the Iranians could do far more damage when confronted with regime failure. For starters, putting missiles into the sides of tankers or bombing Saudi loading facilities.
What an excuse that would be for a massive bombing raid against Iran’s nukes. Maybe that’s just what the U.S. and Israel hope for.