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Do We Even Want Someone to Stop Iran?

By David Warren

There are moments when I seriously wonder whether my own lazy propensity to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, is not wiser than the alternative strategy -- namely, to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them. I am thinking here of grand strategy, not of the affairs of my own little life, that cannot interest the reader.

My topic du jour will be revolutionary Iran, which found new ways to misbehave during the couple of weeks I was down with illness, adding more mud to the underlying quagmire in the Middle East. And the question in my mind is, should we even hope that anyone -- America, Israel, anyone -- will do something to stop the ayatollahs before they make the mess in neighbouring Iraq seem like a moment of springtime leisure?

More generally, we have seen the political cost the Bush administration has absorbed, for its outstanding attempt to get ahead of events in the region -- to take arms against that sea of troubles, when the base of political support for any distant military action is invariably fickle. Oscar Wilde said he could resist anything except temptation; we in the West today can endure anything except difficulty.

Leafing through my colleague George Jonas's new book, Reflections on Islam, a cherry-pick of his columns from around 9/11/01 forward, I wonder if people like him were right and I was wrong. That is to say, he favoured charging into Iraq and changing the regime, as I did. But unlike me, he favoured charging back out again after the deed was done.

An argument Mr Jonas does not dwell upon, should be added in support of his general position. It is that the American military has proved a remarkably efficient instrument in actual warfare. But the American civilian bureaucracy that followed in its train, to perform the task of reconstruction, including most crucially the training of a new Iraqi police force, and performing all the intelligence functions that would be needed against the Islamist underground, was and remains incompetent beyond mere words. Tens of billions of dollars have been sunk, in each of the four years since the Iraq invasion, into operations that have gone too frequently beyond ineptitude, into the dizzying realm of the counter-productive. In the course of which the superb military achievement has been undone.

To my view, they could not afford to fail, and they failed. And a key result of that failure, is that now we face the even greater threat of Iran, with no stomach left for the strategic and military measures that will alone cause the ayatollahs to stand down.

The utterly mischievous Russians are currently doing more than the boy-scout Americans to face down the Iranian nuclear program. President Putin, whose interests are seldom coincident with our own, has signed onto the United Nations' most recent fey wrist-slapping gesture against Iran, but immeasurably strengthened it, by halting Russian construction of the nuclear reactor at Bushehr (the first of five projected, earning Russia huge hard-currency income). According to some reports, he may even be reconsidering the open sale of sophisticated surface-to-air missiles, and the more covert supply of advanced ballistic-missile technology.

We cannot yet know the reason for the Russian volte face, which happened suddenly on March 19th. Conspiracy theorists may imagine it was the result of secret diplomacy with the U.S. (a delayed and disguised payoff for U.S. support of Russian entry into the World Trade Organization). It might only be a dispute over Iranian payments (that was cited to excuse the sudden withdrawal of 2,000 Russian workers). It is unlikely Mr Putin has only now grasped that Iran is very dangerous.

The flagrant and outrageous Iranian seizure of 15 Royal Navy personnel on patrol in the Shat al-Arab, well outside Iranian waters (we needn't waste time discussing absurd Iranian claims) is not necessarily connected with anything. The Iranians often pull stunts like that, without fully thinking through their purposes. Rather it should be taken as the latest indication of how unpredictable they are. This is, after all, a country whose president utters public fantasies about nuclear war, in the context of Shia Islamic apocalyptic hallucinations.

But even in this comparatively small matter, in which the Iranians have behaved, yet again, in defiance of all norms of international conduct, just what do the British propose to do about it? Prime Minister Blair said yesterday that efforts to obtain the sailors' release will enter a "different phase" if diplomatic negotiations fail. In other words, the British will start yelling louder.

What else is possible? It may make no sense for any politician in the West to sink himself, doing what really needs to be done now, to prevent Armageddon farther down the road. It may make more sense to let the catastrophe happen. Whenupon, pretty much everyone will be onside for doing something fairly definitive about Iran.

© Ottawa Citizen

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