Iran Reacts to U.S. Power Loss
After the September 11 attacks on the United States, the Bush administration drafted and released the National Security Strategy of 2002. The implications of this bold document envisioned the United States responding with pre-emptive force to the many potential threats to U.S. interests emanating throughout the world. Some potential threats that could warrant pre-emptive action were clearly explained to be countries that were defined as "rogue states," such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea -- three countries that had expressed interest in developing and acquiring nuclear weapons as a deterrent security strategy.
First Demonstration of 2002 National Security Strategy
The first test of the Bush administration's security strategy was the invasion of Iraq. Quite contrary to what administration officials predicted, the occupation of Iraq proved to be much more costly than originally planned -- both economically and strategically. The deadly insurgency plaguing U.S. forces and Iraqi society as a whole has meant that Washington has been unable to reduce its troop commitment to Iraq; indeed, the Bush administration has been forced to overextend the duty of many soldiers and pull troops from other theaters of potential conflict -- such as South Korea -- to reassign them to the war-torn country.
This embroilment of U.S. forces has resulted in a genuine loss of U.S. power. While it is certainly possible for Washington to earn this power back, as long as the occupation of Iraq continues as it is going now, the loss of U.S. power will be very real since the occupation has revealed the limits of American military might.
The limits of American military might had not been seen on any major scale since the end of Washington's involvement in Vietnam. Since that time, the U.S. military has largely engaged in quick interventions that make use of the United States' unsurpassed technological knowledge and avoid any serious attempts at nation-building. This policy meant that the United States was ready to intervene in any conflict in the world when it considered that conflict a threat to its interests. The constant possibility of U.S. interference and intervention prevented many states from taking actions that would work counter to U.S. interests.
Yet, the invasion of Iraq has now removed much of the United States' potential military power. The difficulties demonstrated in rebuilding Iraq have meant that the majority of the U.S. military is now heavily engaged in the efforts there. This deep commitment has translated into lack of assurance that Washington will be able to intervene in other potential points of conflict across the globe. While Washington still retains plenty of military options -- for example, through the use of long-distance warfare -- it no longer retains the option of sending in a massive ground force to overthrow and rebuild a society.
Washington's loss of this military card has led many analysts to argue that the conditions of world order are transforming from a more unipolar world to one of multi-polarism. According to this theory, Washington's loss of power has meant that other potentially powerful states -- such as Russia, India and China -- will begin to assert themselves more readily, since they have less to fear from Washington due to its over-commitment in the Middle East.
Of course, reassertion of interests will not be limited to Russia, India and China, but will also include other powerful states that will attempt to achieve their interests at the expense of the United States. Perhaps the best example of this is the situation in Iran.
Tehran finds itself located in a very volatile region of the world, one in which powerful outside interests have as their major foreign policy objective the desire to prevent a Middle Eastern state from gaining too much power. Due to the region's massive supply of oil and other natural resources, any one state that begins to dominate the area would have too much potential influence in the economies of oil-dependent countries. This concern has explained the United States' Middle Eastern foreign policy for the decades past, from the 1953 covert removal of Iranian leader Mohammed Mossadegh to the 1991 Gulf War.
In addition to economic concerns, another important regional player, the state of Israel, has also sought, since its existence, to weaken those powers around it in order to guarantee its safety and interests. Israel's fear of having its power eclipsed was evident in the 1981 military strike on Baghdad's Osirak nuclear reactor, and is now evident once again with Tel Aviv's saber rattling at the possibility of Iran becoming a nuclear-armed state.
The aforementioned reasons explain why Tehran likely sees the acquisition of nuclear weapons to be an important policy goal that will work to secure its interests in the region and also give it the ability to assert its power in the Middle East and Central Asia. Furthermore, the invasion of Iraq by the United States -- in addition to the Bush administration's threats of fomenting regime change in Tehran -- has likely proved to Iranian leaders that reserving the nuclear card is an absolute must in order to protect against U.S. and foreign interference in Iranian affairs.
U.S. Impotence to Deal with the Iranian State
The June 27, 2004 decision by the Iranian government to resume centrifuge construction, in defiance of the International Atomic Energy Agency, highlights Iran's attempts to flirt with the notion of becoming a nuclear-armed state. Yet, despite this decision, there is very little that the United States can do to reverse it. While before the invasion of Iraq the Bush administration had real potential of threatening the Iranian state into submission, it now has to accept its military constraints, in addition to domestic restrictions, involved when dealing with Iran.
The administration's loss of power in dealing with Iran has convinced Tehran to continue its nuclear posturing to see how far it can go before the United States takes a serious stand. Thus far, all that Washington has been willing to do is to threaten to refer the Iranian nuclear issue to the United Nations Security Council. This attempt, however, was initially rejected by the three European states of Great Britain, France and Germany in favor of a softer approach. However, Tehran's recent decision to resume centrifuge construction has torpedoed the European initiative and it is unclear how these three countries will respond from here.
Washington will attempt once again to refer the issue to the U.N. Security Council, and if all goes as planned, to place economic sanctions on Iran due to their alleged nuclear weapons program. But it is unclear if the Europeans will go along, even though their last proposal was declared null and void by the Iranian leadership. While it may certainly be in these three European countries' interests to cooperate with the United States on the nuclear issue, they may refuse to do so.
Great Britain, for one, fears that using a heavy fist with Iran could cause a backlash and actually cause the Iranian state to withdraw from its European ties and possibly take actions that could destabilize the region; Germany surely shares similar concerns. And France still has not significantly changed its policy of not cooperating with the United States even though it may be in its interests to do so.
Therefore, the Iranian government likely believes that this failure of unity between the United States and its European allies has provided the perfect time for Iran to proceed on its nuclear weapons program. If the United States is unwilling to risk the military, political and even economic costs in stopping the Iranian nuclear program, and the three European states continue to remain unresponsive, then the odds of Iran becoming nuclear-armed will increase.
Yet if Europe comes to reconcile its differences with the United States, and agrees to refer the issue to the U.N. Security Council, Tehran still may walk away unscathed. Under this scenario, Tehran may be able to agree to another freeze in centrifuge construction in order to prevent economic sanctions from being instituted. Tehran could then merely wait until another suitable time when the creation of nuclear weapons becomes possible.
This present lack of commitment by the United States in forcefully dealing with Iran has also worried the state of Israel, which no longer believes its security will be protected by Washington. Israel's concerns help to explain why there have been recent allegations that Tel Aviv has sent soldiers to help train Kurdish fighters; this allegation is certainly plausible, since Israeli cooperation with the Kurds would give Tel Aviv eyes and ears in a very important border region.
Therefore, what is being witnessed in the Iranian example are some of the first effects caused by the loss of U.S. power in the world. Another pertinent example involves North Korea's consistent threats of developing, and testing, a nuclear weapon.
Of course, this is no attempt to make claim that the loss of U.S. power is permanent. Indeed, U.S. troops have been bogged down in Iraq for about 16 months now, and if conditions were to improve, and U.S. soldiers were replaced by Iraqi security personnel, Washington could return to a level of power similar to before the 2003 invasion.
But, this scenario is unlikely, as Washington has made very little in-roads on defeating the insurgency in addition to the failure of U.S. military personnel to adequately train Iraq's security establishment. Furthermore, it is quite possible that some of Washington's power loss will be permanent for the foreseeable future; therefore, it is unlikely in the coming years that the United States will undertake an intervention on the scale as the one seen in Iraq. It is also unlikely that the American people will be as supportive of future interventions as they were of this one. The loss of power resulting from these two issues may take years to reacquire, and perhaps is the worst side effect of the Bush administration's first test of its national security strategy.
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