Washington had the opportunity at the turn of 2007 to isolate and neutralize the Mahmud Ahmadinejad regime in Tehran, but through stupidity and arrogance has made war the most probable outcome.
Misreading Russia (see Russia’s hudna with the Muslim world, February 21) may have been the irreparable blunder. Meddling in the Muslim-majority states of the former Soviet Union and expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization prompt Russia to step on Washington’s toes in the one place that hurts, namely West Asia. Russia drags its feet on United Nations Security Council sanctions against Iran to send Washington a message of extreme displeasure about the overall state of Russian-US relations. But this has an unintended consequence: it has led Iran to believe that without Russian support, the United States will be isolated and impotent to act against it. That is not true, for the US can and will act to forefend a nuclear-armed Iran, alone if need be.
A three-way tragedy of errors is in progress. Russia can make a reasonable case for US mistreatment given the construction of anti-missile radar in Eastern Europe, the increasing US military presence on its southern border, and – worst of all – fostering what may become hostile Islamic political movements in Central Asia. But Moscow has misread the consequences of a tactical maneuver to embarrass Washington in the Persian Gulf. The Iranians, in turn, have taken false hope from the disagreement among the former Cold War antagonists.
America’s foreign-policy establishment dismisses Russia as a spoiler. Professor Niall Ferguson wrote in Time magazine on February 15, “Russia is the only major power that has an interest in high energy prices. It is therefore the only major power with no interest in Middle Eastern stability. That is why Russia poses America’s biggest problem when it comes to stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.” 
That assessment is catastrophically wrong; unlike the Americans, for whom the distant future is bounded by the next presidential election, Russia thinks a generation ahead, to the year 2040 or 2050 when Russia will have a Muslim majority. Unlike the senescent Europeans, Islamification is something Russia never will tolerate. The danger of radicalizing the Muslim populations of Russia vastly outweighs the potential benefits to Russia of a spike in oil prices, particularly given that the present level of oil prices puts Russia’s finances in superb condition.
Russia and Saudi Arabia, I observed on February 21, have a common interest in suppressing conflict in the Persian Gulf, and for precisely the same reason. Both are exposed to political contagion from a US attack on Iran. That explains an unusual choice of dinner guests in Riyadh, namely former KGB official and now president, Vladimir Putin, on February 11, and arch-heretic Ahmadinejad on March 3. At Saudi invitation, the Iranian president flew to Riyadh for dinner on Saturday evening and flew back the same night, without, however, commenting on the subject that the Saudis had invited him to discuss: Iran’s nuclear program.
It is a reasonable assumption that the Saudis invited Ahmadinejad in the hope of buying him off – for all they can do, or try to do, is to buy off prospective adversaries – and that the effort failed entirely. Guy Bechor wrote on March 4 in the Jerusalem Post, “The Iranian president essentially spurned the Saudis’ hand, extended in hopes of preventing a major crisis in the Gulf. The Saudis themselves are also afraid of such a crisis, with its many possible scenarios. Could the 15% of their Shi’ite population begin an uprising? Could Iran attack them? This scares them.”
Regime change in Tehran might avert the crisis; Asia Times Online correspondent Pepe Escobar on March 2 outlined one such scenario, in which a triumvirate including former presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami might assume the position of supreme leader now held by the ailing Ayatollah Ali Khameini.  European diplomats have been trying “to talk Washington out of an attack” by fostering such a shift in Tehran, but assign a low probability to its success.
Woulda-shoulda-coulda is a poor starting point for political analysis, but it seems likely that if Washington had sat down to horse-trade with the Russians, Iran would be isolated and the regime-change scenario might have had better chances for success. As matters stand, European diplomats are gloomy about the likely outcome.
From the vantage point of Tehran, regime change in Washington seems far more likely than regime change at home. A Democratic administration in January 2009 may simply walk away from the Iraq mess, leaving Iran as the dominant power in the region. Iran may believe that its leverage inside Iraq will compel the administration of President George W Bush to stand down. This negotiation has been in play since the autumn of 2005 (see A Syriajevo in the making? October 25, 2005). Again, Tehran seems likely to overplay its hand. The US wants to stabilize Iraq, but it will not do so at the expense of permitting Iran to acquire nuclear arms.
It is pointless to read the signals out of Washington to divine US intentions. A generous interpretation of the confusion on the Potomac would be that matters have become so complex that the moment Washington sends one sort of signal, it is compelled by the next turn of events to send a different one, to the point that no one can make sense of what the US wants to communicate. A less charitable interpretation would be that no one is in charge, and that different agencies of government are pursuing their own agendas without accountability to a central authority.
In the end it does not matter much which interpretation we choose, for Washington has done everything possible to destroy the prospects for a diplomatic solution. Whether it was possible to begin with, the historians will have to debate. For the time being, Bush has snatched war out of the jaws of peace.
1. The Godfather, Time.
2. An ill wind in Iran, Asia Times Online.