January 2 2007 The Financial Times
From Dr Asle Toje.
Sir, David Gardner is correct in his end-of-year prediction that the chances of American military action against the Iranian nuclear programme are waning (“US stays out of Iran . . .”, December 29). But if we couple this assessment with another key prediction for the coming year, namely the phased US withdrawal from Iraq, a more surprising possibility comes into view: during 2007 a nuclear Iran may emerge as the leading power in the Middle East.
Needless to say, the New Middle East is looking distinctly different from the one Washington promised three years ago. Although Iran has come some way towards shedding its image as a state sponsor of terrorism, it is clearly a revisionist power. Tehran is offensively challenging domestic power balances throughout the “Shiite crescent” from Basra via Baghdad to Damascus and Beirut. Iran’s willingness to confront the US in Iraq and Israel in Lebanon points to the real New Middle East.
The easiest way for Iran to consolidate the unexpected windfall stemming from the bankruptcy of the US as a power in the Middle East is through becoming a nuclear power. Few in the international community now doubt that Iran is indeed pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapons programme, in breach of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is highly unlikely that Tehran will live up to its commitments, giving up a long-sought-after strategic option.
In 2005 pre-emptive military strikes were on the table; in Washington and in Tel Aviv. The decision then was that the operation would be too risky. In 2006 the proxy war between Iran and Israel in Lebanon ended in an ignominious draw. The US Iraq policy has gone from “bad” to “quagmire” with the unhappy prospect of another proxy war with the Shiite militia – this time in Iraq – in 2007. It looks now not only as if Iran will escape pre-emptive strikes; it also looks as if it will emerge as the main beneficiary from the US Middle East policy.
A nuclear Iran clearly has the potential of a great power. The country has almost single-handedly brought down a centrepiece of the world order: the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The ease with which Tehran resisted the pressures of the European Union is another testimony to its strength – as well as to the weakness of the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy. Iran has showed the same nerve when dealing with Israel. But the greatest prize yet can be handed to Tehran by an old adversary: when the US withdraws from Iraq, Iran will emerge as the leading power in the Middle East.
Cambridge CB2 1RF