The Petraeus effect
April 25, 2008 7:30 PM
By naming his favourite military officer, General David Petraeus, to head the US Central Command, President Bush evidently hopes to terrify Iran. Americans and people in the rest of the world, however, have at least as much reason to be terrified as anyone in Tehran.
For several years, President Bush and those around him sought to justify the idea of attacking Iran on the grounds that Iranian leaders were on the brink of producing nuclear weapons. "Iran's pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust," Bush said in August last year.
That argument was deflated by the end of last year, when US intelligence agencies announced their conclusion that Iran was not, in fact, building nuclear weapons. Almost immediately, the administration found a new argument: Iran is an outlaw state because it is responsible for killing Americans in Iraq. General Petraeus has vigorously promoted this view.
"Is it fair to say that the Iranian-backed special groups in Iraq are responsible for the murder of hundreds of American soldiers and thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians?" Senator Joseph Lieberman asked General Petraeus at a recent hearing in Washington. "It certainly is," Petraeus replied. "That is correct."
General Petraeus and President Bush may well be right that groups in Iran are supporting and arming factions in Iraq. Their suggestion that some Iranian leaders dream of building nuclear weapons may also be true. What makes their charges so frightening, though, is their evident belief that these transgressions may justify an American attack on Iran. Such an attack would strengthen militant factions in Iran rather than weakening them; make Iran more dangerous rather than less; and undermine US national security rather than strengthening it.
More and more Iranians, including powerful conservatives, are coming to the conclusion that their religious-dominated government has failed and must be replaced by one that is more open and free. The US should be doing all it can to encourage this transition. The best way it can do so is by doing nothing. If the US can restrain itself, be patient and not intervene in Iran, the transition to a fuller democracy there will continue. That will ultimately produce an Iran that cooperates in efforts to stabilize the Middle East - and perhaps even becomes a friend of the United States.
The Bush-Petraeus policy of threats and demands is having the opposite effect. It strengthens xenophobic and reactionary forces in Iran, and encourages the regime to crack down on democratic movements. Beneath the public bluster, this policy has a single fundamental principle: don't negotiate. One of the key reasons General Petraeus has risen so dramatically in the military hierarchy is that he shares President Bush's fervent belief in this principle.
This approach is based on the conviction that military force can change Iranian behaviour in ways diplomacy never could. In fact, the opposite is true. Attacking Iran would have devastating effects. It would set back the cause of democracy in Iran by a generation, and possibly set off an Iranian counter-attack against Israel, as well as provoking a devastating rise in anti-American violence in Iraq, a closing of the strategically vital Straits of Hormuz, and new terrorist attacks on US targets around the world and perhaps inside the US itself. Negotiating instead could produce a calmer, more cooperative Iran that would no longer threaten US interests.
Five years ago, when Iran last made a formal offer to negotiate with the US, Iranian nuclear scientists had produced about 300 nuclear centrifuges. Today they have more than 2000. Washington's refusal to open comprehensive talks with Tehran has made Iran more dangerous and the US more vulnerable.
There is no guarantee that negotiations between the US and Iran would succeed, but it is such a low-cost option that it seems mad not to try. Instead of threatening Tehran, General Petreaus should offer to go there. That might open a host of tantalizing possibilities. The confrontational policy of which he has become the most prominent advocate is pushing the two countries toward a military confrontation that would be disastrous for both.