When tracing US policy toward Iran, keep one eye on the aircraft carrier groups and one eye on the gas pump.
Last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had this to say about Iran:
Gates said he had told the leaders of U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar that the Iranians “believe they have the United States at some disadvantage because of the situation in Iraq.”
“To be precise, I told them both that I thought the Iranians were overplaying their hand and that one of the consequences of that is that they have raised real concerns on the part of a number of countries in the region and beyond about their intentions,” he told reporters…
With regard to U.S. failure thus far to achieve stability in Iraq, Gates said, “I think that our difficulties have given them (the Iranians) a tactical opportunity in the short term, but the United States is a very powerful country.”
Asked about the prospects for military conflict with Iran, whose nuclear program is seen by the Bush administration as a growing threat to U.S. interests, Gates said, “There are many courses of action available that do not involve an open conflict with Iran – there’s no need for that.”
Gates said that although he had publicly advocated negotiating with Iran as recently as 2004, he now advises against that.
“Right at this moment, there’s really nothing the Iranians want from us,” he said. “And so, in any negotiation right now we would be the supplicant,” asking Iran to stop doing such things as enriching uranium for its nuclear program.
“We need some leverage, it seems to me, before we engage with the Iranians,” Gates added.
Gates has come around to the Caspar Weinberger school of dealing with Iran. In the 2004 report of the Council on Foreign Relations Iran Task Force that Gates co-chaired with Zbigniew Brzezinski, the proposal to engage Iran prompted Weinberger protégé and Task Force member Frank Carlucci to offer a “dissenting view” (published as part of the report, page 49):
While I agree with the main thrust of the report I do not agree that the U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan may offer Iran new incentives to open a mutually beneficial dialogue. On the contrary, I believe Iran has few incentives for dialogue. They are convinced we intend to overthrow them, and they believe we are bogged down in Iraq and have lost what support we had in the Arab world. From their perspective, it is better to wait and let us stew in our own juice. Overtures on our part, under these circumstances, are likely to be interpreted as a sign of weakness…
Hence, the Gates quest for “some leverage.”
Sometimes leverage comes in the form of aircraft carriers like the USS John C. Stennis.
The deployment of the USS John C. Stennis to the Middle East will put two U.S. aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf region for the first time since the 2003 Iraq invasion, in a clear response to Iran’s aggressive posture in the region…
“This demonstrates our resolve to do what we can to bring security and stability to the region,” Cmdr. Kevin Aandahl of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain said Tuesday…
A second U.S. carrier will significantly boost U.S. air power in the region and serve to remind Iran of American firepower. Its arrival will give the Pentagon two carriers in the region for the first time since 2003, Aandahl said.
After departing Tuesday from its homeport of Bremerton, Wash., the Stennis will stop in San Diego to pick up an air wing of more than 80 planes, including F/A-18 Hornet and Superhornet fighter-bombers, the Navy said…
The Stennis and its 3,200 sailors lead a strike group consisting of the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam, three Navy destroyers – the USS O’Kane, Preble and Paul Hamilton – the submarine USS Key West, the guided-missile frigate USS Rentz, as well as the supply ship USNS Bridge, the Navy said.
Diplomatic Dead Ends
In addition to the naval buildup in the Gulf–and the troop surge in Iraq–there are the more “diplomatic” forms of leverage.
Columnist Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post reports that the search for leverage will not focus on the United Nations:
While Rice was traveling in the Middle East and Europe last week, American allies were being told that Washington would not seek new and tougher Security Council sanctions against Iran, as has been widely expected…
Russia’s unexpectedly strong opposition even to weak sanctions adopted only after months of debate has deepened Bush’s growing disillusionment with President Vladimir Putin.
The American leader is determined not to get caught in “a dead end” at the United Nations, according to U.S. officials. Bush is said to feel that Putin went back on personal pledges to support meaningful U.N. action in return for Bush’s committing to diplomatic efforts last June.
According to Hoagland, the key plan for developing “leverage” in the Gulf depends on the Saudis and oil leverage.
Instead of returning to the United Nations for a new resolution, the administration has launched a broad effort to assemble an economic coalition of the willing to confront Iran. Trade, investment and the price of oil are the primary targets Washington chose for this coalition.
The idea of trade and investment “sanctions” have long been championed by Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
But the oil leverage is the central strategic element in the new “campaign” for leverage.
The campaign received a big boost last week when it became clear that Saudi Arabia is finally worried enough about Iran to use oil as a weapon against the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Saudi oil minister Ali Nuaimi publicly opposed Iranian calls for production cuts by the OPEC cartel to halt a decline that has taken crude oil from $78 a barrel in July to just above $50 a barrel last week.
The Saudis have enough reserve production capacity to swing OPEC prices up and down at will. Their relatively small population gives them a flexibility in postponing revenue gains that populous Iran lacks. Nuaimi’s pronouncement, although cast as a technical matter that had nothing to do with politics, seemed to give teeth to recent warnings issued in private by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi national security adviser, that the kingdom will now respond to Iranian hostility with its own confrontational tactics.
High oil prices have always benefited Iranian leverage in the region. Saudi leverage has always stemmed from its ability to flood the market and wait for other oil exporting countries to cry uncle.
The role of Bandar in this campaign is crucial because it goes to the heart of a long-term factional fight within the House of Saud, as Hoagland well understands.
Divisions within the Saudi royal family over how to handle Iran also should be handled with care, not bluster, by Washington.
Recall that the divisions within the Saudi royal family recently surfaced in late November with the publication of an op-ed by Nawaf Obaid. Obaid explicitly endorsed the oil threat and seemed to claim to speak for Bandar:
Major Saudi tribal confederations, which have extremely close historical and communal ties with their counterparts in Iraq, are demanding action. They are supported by a new generation of Saudi royals in strategic government positions who are eager to see the kingdom play a more muscular role in the region…
[Saudi King] Abdullah may decide to strangle Iranian funding of the militias through oil policy. If Saudi Arabia boosted production and cut the price of oil in half, the kingdom could still finance its current spending. But it would be devastating to Iran, which is facing economic difficulties even with today’s high prices. The result would be to limit Tehran’s ability to continue funneling hundreds of millions each year to Shiite militias in Iraq and elsewhere.
Until recently, King Abdullah and oil minister Ali Nuaimi (also, Ali Naimi) have been seen as supporting the oil price spike. But Naimi, in particular, might have been “moved” by recent chatter about a cabinet shuffle that would remove him from the oil ministry.
Perhaps the goal, in this quest for leverage, is to establish the preconditions for engagement with the regime.
For now, the folks like Richard Perle, still hoping that US leverage would be used to destabilize the regime itself, appear frustrated with the Bush administration.
Perle expressed astonishment at the lack of support granted by the West to Iranian opposition movements who wish to overthrow the regime of the Ayatollahs.
“I’m not convinced that we have a lot of time. Given the peril that would result, its astonishing to me that we do not now have a serious political strategy with Iran,” he said, adding he thought regime change is “the only significant effective way” to deal with the Iranian threat.
“If we continue on our current course, we have only a military option. So what I’m urging, and this should have happened a very long time ago, is that we make a serious effort to work with the internal (Iranian) opposition,” Perle said.
Any “leverage” that Gates can find may make Perle’s case for him. The internal opposition is showing some early signs of renewed activity.
[UPDATE: those hoping to exacerbate tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran can only be pleased by the confrontation playing out on the streets of Lebanon.
The clash over Lebanon may represent one locus of disagreement within the Saudi royal family. Saudi King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal have both worked hard to heal the breach between Hezbollah and the Saudi-backed Hariri/Siniora crowd in Lebanon. Meanwhile, over at the Telegraph Bandar is mentioned as a link between the Saudis and CIA efforts to undermine Hezbollah.]