Thanks in part to reporting by Sami Moubayed (The two ‘kings’ of Iran, May 19) and Kaveh L. Afrasiabi (Iran courts the US at Russia’s expense, May 16), we know that Iran is steering away from confrontation with the United States.

With a newly elected pro-American president in Paris and an Atlanticist chancellor in Berlin, the Iranian leadership cannot count on discord in the West. Russia also seems less willing to play the spoiler where Iran’s nuclear ambitions are concerned, not surprising given the fact that Russia and its Muslim minority are in the first line of any potential conflict. Moubayed reported on May 18 that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants to “rein in” the country’s bumptious President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, especially after the ill-fated seizure of British sailors and marines turned against Iran’s advantage.

Tehran signaled its shift in a number of ways; one is the fact that Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad’s rival in the 2005 presidential elections, gave the important Friday sermon two weeks in a row. Rafsanjani has close links to the Europeans, particularly the Germans, and German diplomats have been working hard behind the scenes to promote Rafsanjani as the prospective arbiter of a compromise solution to the nuclear issue. Another signal was an Iranian gesture toward Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, on whom Washington has placed much of its hope for stabilizing Iraq. That is the background to Washington’s new willingness to speak officially with Iran about Iraqi stability; high-level talks are scheduled for June 28.

So much for the silly thesis that messianic visions of the imminent return of the Twelfth Imam motivated Iran’s aggressive stance of the past year. Whether Ahmadinejad actually believes that the Mahdi will arrive shortly is a moot point; if he is mad, there are others in Tehran who are not. Iran seeks regional hegemony because its domestic position gradually is becoming desperate. Within a few years it will become a net importer of oil, and the oil subsidy to its underemployed population will disappear. The Persians are chess players, and if the constellation of forces (to use the old Soviet term) is against them, they will pull back and wait for another opportunity. That does not imply, however, that they have abandoned the game.

Real conflict, though, is not a chessboard. The pawns have an unpleasant tendency to move on their own and spoil the game. We know from the admissions of both sides in last summer’s Lebanon war that blunders on both sides provoked the conflict, which nearly spilled over into a regional war. Hezbollah did not anticipate the massive Israeli response to its kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, and Israel did not anticipate Hezbollah’s tenacity in response to its bombing campaign, as we know from the Winograd Report. [1] Israel was not prepared to commit the resources and sacrifice the soldiers’ lives required to put down a dug-in force officered by Iranian regulars.

In the current round of negotiations between the United States and Iran, Hamas rather than Hezbollah is the odd man out. Iran attempted to insert itself into Palestinian politics by taking over subsidies to the irredentist wing of the Palestinian movement, to the chagrin of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Hamas appears able to make a nuisance of itself great enough to force the Israelis to take action, which in turn will make it extremely difficult for its sponsors to abandon it. In response to Hamas’ shelling of the town of Sderot from Gaza, the Israeli Air Force on Sunday destroyed the home of Sheikh Halil al-Haya, a Hamas parliamentarian, killing several members of his family.

As I wrote last July, “Dogs of war incline toward caution, which after all is how they grew up to be dogs. More worrisome are puppies, who do not know what danger is. Gavrilo Princeps, the Serbian gunman who shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand dead in June 1914, was a puppy … Wars start because no one wants to disown his dog. If your dog bites a neighbor, your neighbor well might come after you with a shotgun.” [2]

It is even possible that the fighting in Gaza was provoked by Egypt, the United States, Israel or others who wanted to draw Hamas out and crush it. Writing in the Jerusalem Post on May 17, Khaled Abu Toamed reported, “Some Hamas and Fatah operatives in the Gaza Strip have accused followers of PA [Palestinian Authority] National Security Adviser Muhammad Dahlan of instigating the latest cycle of violence.

“They claimed that Dahlan’s supporters in Fatah and some of the PA security forces were trying to drag Hamas into an all-out confrontation with the help of the US and Israel.”

If the Palestine Liberation Organization crushes Hamas with arms supplied by the US and Israel, Iran’s bid for leverage in the Israel-Palestine dispute will come to nothing. That will leave the supposed moderates in Tehran in a dilemma. It is one thing for Iran to offer transient cooperation to the United States in Iraq, in the expectation that the Shi’ite majority ultimately will prevail and become a regional ally. It is quite another for Iran first to proclaim itself the champion of Palestinian irredentism, and then hang its clients out to dry.

By the same token, Iran’s position in Lebanon is unstable. Although Iran and Syria have rearmed Hezbollah, it seems clear that Hezbollah is under orders to keep its head down. Hezbollah has the support of Lebanon’s Shi’ites, but not of the 400,000 or so Palestinians living in United Nations refugee camps in that country. Fighting over the weekend at the Nahr al-Bared camp near Tripoli, which left 22 Lebanese soldiers and 17 Palestinians dead, refreshed the world’s attention to the volatile Palestinian element in the mix.

With only a few dozen deaths in Gaza and Lebanon during the past week, the latest fighting barely merits the term “crisis.” Palestinians can shoot one another in Gaza indefinitely without consequences – or could, that is, if it were not for the fact that the region’s powers have dogs in the fight. Iran’s hope for a way out of its terminal case of domestic sclerosis lies in becoming the champion of the region’s underclass against the more conservative powers in the region, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It cannot easily abandon them.

The parallels to 1914 are noteworthy. It was not the Imperial Court in St Petersburg that drove the Balkans toward war, but rather the Serbs, who so thoroughly crushed the Turks during the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 as to force Turkey’s German ally to insert itself into the Bosporus. Serbian refusal to accept Austria’s control of Bosnia produced the assassination at Sarajevo. The Serbian puppy dragged the Russian dog into war. I reviewed these improbable events a year ago, in an essay called Why war comes when no one wants it. [3]

It is very difficult to tell when the puppy-fights might become a broader conflict. From the Russo-Japanese War to July 1914, European diplomats extinguished a half-dozen sparks that might have provoked a general war, until one spark forced them into open hostilities, against the intent and expectations of almost all the participants. It is hard to believe that a few dozen deaths in Gaza will upset the diplomatic maneuverings of Washington and Tehran. Whatever the spark turns out to be that ultimately lands in the gunpowder, it will seem no less trivial.

1. The Israeli government’s Winograd Commission, chaired by retired judge Eliyahu Winograd, investigated last summer’s war and issued a report on April 30 that harshly criticized key decision-makers.
2. Cry havoc, and let slip the puppies of war, Asia Times Online, July 11, 2006. 3. Why war comes when no one wants it, ATol, May 2, 2006.