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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 46

A New Crisis Looming?

Tuesday 4 November 2008, by Apratim Mukarji

There is increasing disquiet in the international community about a probable air strike on Iran toward the end of this year. Speculation is growing in Russia and various other countries, including the USA, about an enhanced probability of such an act of aggression by either Israel or the USA taking off from Georgia.

Not surprisingly, the first official pronounce-ment on the line of these speculations has come from Russia, with a senior Russian diplomat recently mentioning Russian intelligence to the effect that Washington has launched active military preparations on Georgia’s territory for an air strike on Iran. Moscow had earlier alleged that the USA had been landing military equipment in Georgia in the name of humanitarian aid following the brief war with Russia in August.

Earlier, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told a German TV channel that American military advisers were present along with Georgian troops when the assault on South Ossetia began on the night of August 7. This indicated that the USA was not even bothered about hiding its involvement in Georgia.

Scholars in the USA see the fast growing American involvement in Georgia as a major part of the Bush Administration’s determination that the resurgent Russia must be thwarted at once before it becomes more powerful. The “encirclement” of Russia that began with the NATO air attacks on erstwhile Yugoslavia following the enlargement of the NATO Charter under President Bill Clinton’s initiative has since then been carried forward to a steadily expanding frontier by President George W. Bush.

One major factor that led President Clinton to determine on the NATO attacks on Yugoslavia in 1999, till then unprecedented in the history of the military alliance, was President Slobodan Milosevic’s refusal to allow the permanent establishment of an American missile base in his country. Before Milosevic turned down Clinton’s proposal, Washington was busy cultivating him as a potential ally against the Russian Federation. But after the refusal, Milosevic was not only discarded but punished for his temerity. This time, however, President Bush’s choice of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as a major facilitator of his determination to advance the “encirclement” of Russia has proved to be the right one.

While the severity of the Russian response to Georgia’s misadventure in South Ossetia was condemned in the West, the international community did not fail to comprehend the message that Moscow sent out loud and clear. Along with Georgia, the USA was warned that Russia would resist with its full might any further American move to expand its policy of “encircling” the former Cold War-era rival.

The Bush Administration, however, decided to apparently ignore the significance of the Russian message and is pushing forward with its military mission in Georgia. If the Russian pronouncement mentioned above and continuing speculation in the international community are considered, the American pressure on Russia shows no sign of abating.

It is at this juncture, in the aftermath of the Russian onslaught (and perhaps to somewhat blunt the impact of the Russian response to the Georgian folly), that the probability of an attack on Iran appears to be growing stronger.

Observers have even ventured into speculating on the probable timing of the speculated attack. Israel or the USA may utilise the interregnum between the US presidential election in November and the assumption of the office of the Presidency by President Bush’s successor in late January 2009 to hit at Iran.

ACCORDING to those who subscribe to this line of thinking, President Bush is witnessing the collapse of all his major foreign policy initiatives, with the possible exception of the civilian nuclear deal with India, in his last days in office. To him, the most unaffordable failure is in the war against terror with Osama bin Laden with the Al-Qaeda unmistakably regaining their once-collapsed position. Eastern and southern Afghanistan are certainly being increasingly sucked into an expanding battlefield for terror and mayhem.

Even more worrying for the USA and the war on terror campaigners is the rapid deterioration of the law and order situation in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan. It is confirmed that the Pakistani Taliban are now in full control of all the seven tribal agencies comprising the FATA. The reign of terror let loose in the NWFP is also spreading fast, and neither the growing American military forays managing to kill more civilians than terrorists nor the seemingly confused Pakistan Army strikes punctuated with ceasefires are helping to improve the situation. The anti-terror campaign is being further compromised by the open quarrel between Washington and Islamabad over the best way to fight the Al-Qaeda and Afghan and Pakistani Taliban operating in the Afghan-Pakistan border areas.

This situation has already led to Pakistan’s increasing inability to render the kind of assistance that the war on terror demands of the country; an immediate concern for the Afghan Government, American and allied NATO forces is the growing threat to an uninterrupted flow of civilian supplies and logistical supplies through Pakistan for civilian use and military and allied operations in Afghanistan. In fact, the Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda operations in southern and eastern Afghanistan during the last one year are aimed precisely at endangering and eventually cutting down the supply routes, apart from destabilising the administration in the affected provinces.

Even Iraq, which is relatively speaking settling down to near-normality in the wake of the severely heightened allied military operations against domestic and foreign militants and should have justified President Bush’s suspect claim of success in that country, now presents him with a different but potentially more damaging problem—the Shia-led government’s growing signs of independence. Perhaps the unkindest cut that Iraq has delivered to the Bush Administration to date is by inviting China’s National Petroleum Corporation to develop an oilfield, a contract that should have gone to an American oil company considering the main purpose of the US intervention in the country. Besides, the growing influence of Iran in Iraq clearly facilitated by Baghdad is further evidence of the latter’s determined bid to break away from the American embrace.

It is in the context of these developments highlighting the lengthening list of American foreign policy failures that speculations about a probable assault on Iran, more likely by Israel than by the USA, persist. Both Iran and Russia appear to be fairly convinced that such an attack is being actively considered.

There is yet another ground for apprehending such a turn of events which would be nothing short of a catastrophe for the world. Observers of international relations are increasingly talking about a return of the Cold War after more than two decades of the so-called unipolarity. When we talk of the US-led Western move to “encircle” the Russian Federation in a bid to thwart its growing power and of Moscow’s firm---almost belligerent---response, we are in effect talking about a return to the atmospherics of the Cold War era.

A further evidence of an approaching confrontation between the USA and Russia over Iran is the rapid military build-up by the latter in Syria. In the aftermath of the Russia-Georgia war in August, Moscow and Damascus entered into a military agreement allowing the former to expand the ship-handling capacities of two Syrian ports. Preparations are underway to make these ports a major base for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. When we note that Iran and Syria are close allies, the context of the Russian build-up in Syrian waters becomes discernible.

The author is a commentator on Central and South Asia.

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