When issues heat up, especially those that may involve potential armed conflict, the one thing you can count on is that reason generally goes out the window. The forces promoting conflict tend toward demonization and distortion to frighten people sufficiently so they will back military action while anti-war tend to ignore the very real concerns that might exist with the country in question, sometimes even praising those who should not be praised for “standing up to imperialism” or some other ism.
The United States’ military action in Iraq as well as the simmering conflict between Israel and Syria, the worsening situation with the Palestinians and on top of last summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah have greatly increased the instability in the never-stable Middle East. The prospect of an attack on Iran would greatly magnify the already considerable instability even by Mideast standards. Though I have never believed Iran would be attacked and still don’t, those pressing for such an attack have increased their efforts greatly, so the possibility is greater than ever. Some rational analysis of this situation is sorely needed.
Iran as a real threat
Let’s start with this: Iran is a threat. Iran has long harbored ambitions of expanding its influence in the Middle East, and the destruction of Iraq removed the biggest barrier to their goals. Iran is the leader of the Shi’ite world, a part of Islam much smaller than the majority Sunni, but also a group whose people happen to be situated in several countries (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iraq) on top of large oil deposits.
Iran’s relationships with both the US and Israel have been severely strained since the overthrow of the US-sponsored Shah in 1979. The Iranian populace is not likely to soon forget that the brutal Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was reinstated in 1953 in a CIA-sponsored coup, despite the official apology for this dastardly deed that the US issued in 2000. Iran’s anti-Zionist rhetoric as well as their support for anti-Israel militias such as Hezbollah is a fundamental part of their populist appeal in the Muslim world.
But the greatest threat Iran poses is not to the US or Israel directly but rather to the other key US client in the region, Saudi Arabia. With a majority Shi’ite population in both neighboring Iraq and in the oil-rich eastern province of Saudi Arabia, the Saudis have long feared increasing Iranian influence. Iran’s growing popularity in the region, especially as compared to the cynicism which the Saudi ruling elite inspire, makes the Saudi royal family distinctly nervous, and with good reason. While Iran cannot pose a real military threat to the US or Israel, it can do so against Saudi Arabia, especially if it can rally popular forces against the rulers. This is not an immediate danger, but it is a long term one, and one which the Saudis fear more than any other. (more…)