When two parties enter into negotiation over a life-and-death matter intending to cheat the other, in full knowledge that the other intends to cheat, how long does it take for negotiation to give way to violence? I have predicted US military action against Iran by Halloween (October 31), and I am sticking to my story (Military destiny and madness in Iran, June 6).

Iran has no intention of abandoning its nuclear program, and the United States has no intention of abandoning its efforts to destabilize the Iranian regime. The US Republican Party’s strategy for next November’s congressional elections keeps the farce before the public. It is doubtful that it can be spun out that long. A warning on Friday from General George Casey, the top US commander in Iraq, that the Iranians “are using surrogates to conduct terrorist operations in Iraq both against us and against the Iraqi people” indicates how unstable the game has become.

When Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad announced last week that Iran, inshallah, (“If Allah wills it”) would answer America’s proposal for direct negotiations in return for suspension of uranium enrichment, he betrayed both a keen sense of enjoyment and awareness of how much leverage Iran has over the White House.

The US president’s surprise visit to Baghdad signaled a Republican decision to run on the outcome of the Iraqi war. Iran’s leverage over Shi’ite militias allows Tehran to determine the level of violence and the US casualty count. Without Iranian cooperation, President George W. Bush has no hope of persuading US voters that he has made progress in stabilizing Iraq.

The Republicans have no choice but to fall in line behind their president. As the New York Times reported on June 21, “Just a few weeks ago, some Republicans were openly fretting about the war in Iraq and its effect on their reelection prospects, with particularly vulnerable lawmakers worried that its growing unpopularity was becoming a drag on their campaigns. But there was little sign of such nervousness on Wednesday as Republican after Republican took to the Senate floor to offer an unambiguous embrace of the Iraq war and to portray Democrats as advocates of an overly hasty withdrawal that would have grave consequences for the security of the United States.”

Last October 25 (A Syriajevo in the making?), I predicted, “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.” I added:

[Supreme Leader Ali] 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 …

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.

Even if Bush has illusions concerning his Iraqi policy, the Iranian regime, with better sources of information in its Mesopotamian neighbor, does not. Tehran knows that its Shi’ite allies will either crush the Sunni political elite that has ruled the country since the British created it 85 years ago or they will be crushed in turn. Iran cannot abandon the Iraqi Shi’ites, and cannot long keep them on a leash.

For the moment, Iraqi Shi’ite politicians continue to enact the solemn farce of national reconciliation. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Sunday offered an amnesty to Iraqi rebels, but excluded those who have killed civilians. Considering that both the Sunni and Shi’ite militias kill as many civilians as they can get their hands on, the offer is meaningless. More radical Shi’ite elements of the ruling coalition oppose any offer of amnesty to Sunni guerrillas, but have let this formulation pass. Tehran holds enough swing votes to shift from an empty offer of amnesty to an open offer of civil war.

Iran’s leaders have a clearer strategic vision than do the Americans. They know that the soap-bubble of Iraqi democracy cannot last for long. As long as it does last, they retain leverage over Washington; when it pops, that leverage will disappear.

Tehran finds itself in a variant of the “prisoner’s dilemma.” [1] If it accepts the US proposal to suspend uranium enrichment while negotiating with Washington – assuming that this can be verified to Washington’s satisfaction – time will be on the side of the Americans. As the Iraqi situation unravels, Iran’s leverage over Washington will erode, and Iran will have lost crucial time in creating a nuclear-weapons capability. Iran’s only logical response is the one that Ahmadinejad already has offered: neither accept nor reject the proposal, but play for time.

Washington cannot accept this proposal. It will indicate its impatience to Tehran through various gestures, for example by inciting Iran’s national minorities or dissidents. But the effect of such action will be to reinforce Tehran’s conviction that it has nothing to gain by accepting US terms.

For this reason it seems very unlikely that the present phony war can be perpetuated until the November US elections. We have had a relatively quiet June and are likely to have a quiet July. August is a memorable month for major wars, and I predict that August of 2006 will be an eventful one.

1. “Two suspects, A and B, are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal: if one testifies for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent, the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both stay silent, the police can sentence both prisoners to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each will receive a two-year sentence. Each prisoner must make the choice of whether to betray the other or to remain silent. However, neither prisoner knows for sure what choice the other prisoner will make. So the question this dilemma poses is: what will happen? How will the prisoners act?” (Wikipedia)


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