Sarajevo became a byword for assassination as casus belli, and Syria’s apparent involvement in the February 14 murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri might be misread as a signal for the US going to war in the Middle East, be it against Syria or Iran.

The murder of Austria’s crown prince in July 1914 precipitated World War 1, but in this case, the only thing likely to precipitate is the ruling Assad family of Syria.

In Iran, a noteworthy set of statements from the Iranian leadership during the past several days makes it clear that the Islamic republic believes it can obtain its objective without confrontation. As matters stand, Tehran is likely to succeed.

I do not believe any formal understanding is in place, but the probable outcome is that Washington will refrain from military action to forestall Iranian nuclear arms developments, while Tehran will refrain from disrupting Washington’s constitutional Potemkin Village in Iraq. Iran has the initiative, and the proof of the pudding is that Iran’s press agency IRNA provides better guidance about the course of events than the Western media.

The Syrian affair is a diversion. Less than any other political entity from the Mediterranean to the Indus does Syria resemble a nation, and its ruling clique has no friends, only customers. If the United Nations investigation of the Hariri killing leads to the downfall of the Assad family, strategic implications will be small, and mourners few. Iran is a different matter.

Compare two reports, the first from the Iranian service on October 20:

Director General of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) [and Nobel Peace Prize laureate] Mohamed ElBaradei said on Thursday that he was optimistic about the future of Iran’s nuclear dossier and settlement of relevant issues. In a meeting with Iran’s ambassador to Vienna and Iran’s permanent envoy to the Vienna-based international bodies, Mohammad-Mehdi Akhoundzadeh, ElBaradei said that resolving the crisis is moving on the right track and hoped that all the concerned parties would do their best to this effect.

And the second, from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei at his October 21 sermon:

Ayatollah Khamenei said holding the referendum on the constitution was “a great and blessed job.” He said the Iraqi nation is making its first constitutional law in its history and this is not absolutely what the Americans want. “In spite of what the Americans pretend, they are pursuing other things in Iraq,” said the ayatollah. He went on to say, “The next important step in Iraq after the referendum is the general elections on which the occupiers are planning right now.” The Supreme Leader expressed his concern over the disputes currently observed in Iraq between the Shi’ites and the Sunnis, adding some extremists who know nothing about Islam are trying to add fuel to the fire. “These elements [extremists] are neither Sunni nor Shi’ite but are the enemies of both and Islam,” Ayatollah Khamenei reiterated.

The “extremists” to which Khamenei refers include Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army. That is of special significance for Washington, for the American side blames Khamenei for turning Muqtada loose in the first place.

William Kristol’s The Daily Standard wrote on October 5, “As early as September 2002, Ali Khamenei placed General Suleimani [commander of the extraterritorial Qods force] in charge of organizing various Iraqi groups as part of an Iranian plan to dominate the country following Saddam’s removal … Yet it was not until April 2004 and the beginning of Muqtada al-Sadr’s failed uprising that the Qods Force would truly make its presence in Iraq felt.” If Washington believes that Muqtada is Khamenei’s dog, then Khamenei can credibly promise to muzzle him.

As I wrote on October 12 (The blood is the life, Mr Rumsfeld!), not so much Sunni as radical Shi’ite opposition to the proposed Iraqi constitution made its approval in the October 15 referendum questionable. But I did not anticipate that the Iranian leadership would pull chits to help pass the American-designed constitution, and lavishly praise it afterwards.

Khamenei and Iran’s President Mahmud Ahmadinejad remind us that the Persians invented chess. By providing resources not only to Shi’ite “extremists” but to the Sunni resistance as well, they set the stage to withdraw such support, making a concession for which they would be rewarded in turn.

Tehran thinks strategically, as befits a country with a government newly elected by an overwhelming majority (The living fossils’ vengeance, June 28), while Washington thinks politically. President George W. Bush is struggling to persuade the American public of the wisdom of his nation-building scheme in Iraq, and badly wants the Iranians to keep their hands in their pockets. Iran is prepared to do so as long as America keeps its opposition to its nuclear program within the confines of the diplomatic cul-de-sac defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In this exchange, Iran gives up nothing of importance, for the rage of the Iraqi Shi’ites will only wax over time. Tehran retains the option to stir things up in Iraq whenever it chooses to do so. Its capacity to do so will increase with time as Iraq grows less stable. Time is on the side of Tehran. Only with great difficulty could the US employ military means to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons; once Iran has acquired them, the military balance will shift decisively in favor of the Iranians.

The analogy to draw between today’s Middle East and the preparations for World War I is not Sarajevo, but rather the First Morocco Crisis of 1905. A timid Kaiser Wilhelm II avoided confrontation with France at a moment when the German army might have trounced the French without English intervention. The diplomats gave the armies of Europe another nine years to even out the balance of power, ensuring that when war came, as it inevitably must, the outcome would be a sanguineous stalemate (In praise of premature war, October 19, 2004).

Over the next generation, Iran faces a devastating demographic crisis, coincident with the peak in its capacity to export oil. Tehran’s aggressiveness is a strategic response to the dual crisis (Demographics and Iran’s imperial design, September 13). But Tehran’s leaders single-mindedly pursue a strategic objective, namely nuclear power status, while the Bush administration frets about exit strategies and opinion polls. What will happen next in Iraq? The best answer would be, “Whatever Tehran wants to happen.” If Tehran can buy American diffidence with respect to its nuclear program in return for reducing instability on the ground, we well may see a period of relative calm in Iraq. But the calm will be deceptive; it will be the calm of 1905, and the clock will continue to tick.

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