Attacking Iran would compound Iraq fiasco


Financial Times

Published: December 11 2006

No one who has read the Baker report's devastating if delicately worded indictment of US policy in Iraq could fail to understand that it spells failure. And that without wholesale changes of policy the US is staring at a humiliating defeat in the Middle East. No one, that is, except George W. Bush.

The president seems incapable of acknowledging the scale of the disaster in Iraq. He and his coterie blame the Iraqis, and Iran, for US failures. They persist in identifying the US national interest and Israeli hegemony in the Middle East as the same thing. For good measure, Mr Bush rejects a key finding of the Baker report: that, in pursuing policies to stabilise the region and get a grip on Iraq, the US should talk to Syria and, above all, to Iran.

But it is not just that Mr Bush is petulantly spurning the lifeline thrown to him by his father's former secretary of state - more of interest to students of psychodrama than geopolitics.

There is a terrifying possibility this administration will raise the stakes and compound the Iraq misadventure into a regional and international catastrophe by attacking Iran - or by acquiescing in an attack by Israel.

True, Robert Gates, the new defence secretary confirmed last week to replace Donald Rumsfeld, the man most directly responsible for Iraq, has said there are no plans to attack Iran except as an "absolute last resort". That is not altogether reassuring.

The problem goes beyond the well-founded suspicions about Iran's nuclear ambitions. The US has been viscerally incapable of dealing with Iran ever since the 1979 Islamist revolution, the 1980-81 Tehran hostages crisis and the 1983-84 bombings of US marines and diplomats in Beirut. That hostility has only been deepened by the bitter paradox that the US invasion of Iraq has greatly expanded Shia Iran's influence throughout the Middle East.

Washington rages against the mullahs and their proxies but has become dependent on Iran to hold together western Afghanistan and prevent total implosion in Iraq. Israel, meanwhile, has convinced the Bush administration Iran is a threat to its existence rather than its hegemony - a claim helped by President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad's outrageous Holocaust denials.

But Iran is, nonetheless, as big a challenge in the Middle East as the Soviet Union was in Europe. It requires a similarly robust but reasoned policy response. Attacking it would trigger a wave of reprisals and a long war of attrition across and beyond the region, and might not even seriously set back Iran's well-concealed nuclear programme. That leaves engagement.

The goal, as the Baker report indicates, is to get workable mutual security arrangements with Iran: to steer it away from the nuclear path and towards co-operation in a region where its role would be recognised. That is not appeasement but hard-nosed diplomacy and it is obviously worth trying.