By David Ignatius
Sunday, September 16, 2007
Overarching the Middle East like a dark canopy is the growing confrontation between the United States and Iran. The test of wills is sometimes obscured by the daily war news from Iraq, but it has become the main event in the region -- carrying dangers of wider war and also some new opportunities for creative diplomacy.
The spillover of U.S.-Iranian tension was evident this summer when Israeli intelligence detected signs that Syria was mobilizing its military. The Israelis put their own forces on heightened alert. They also contacted Damascus through intermediaries to warn against miscalculation.
The surprising return message from Damascus was that the Syrians feared a chain of escalation that would begin with a U.S. attack on Iran. Damascus anticipated that Iran would retaliate by ordering its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, to launch rocket attacks on Israel; the Israelis in turn would attack Syria, which provides military and political support for Hezbollah. Israeli officials are said to have concluded that Damascus's war mobilization, while worrisome, was basically defensive.
Israel's volatile relationship with Syria was illustrated by reports that on Sept. 6 the Israelis bombed targets in northeastern Syria, possibly because they suspected the Syrians were importing nuclear materials from North Korea.
The most dangerous flash point is still Iraq. Military forces are engaged -- America's openly, Iran's clandestinely -- in a battle for influence over the shattered remnants of the Iraqi state. Indeed, now that the United States has co-opted Iraq's Sunnis, the new American priority is to prevent Iranian hegemony over Iraqi Shiites. U.S. officials say they have tried to reassure Iraqis that they won't fight a proxy war against Tehran on Iraqi territory. But that's precisely what has been happening in recent months.
This intensifying U.S.-Iranian confrontation was highlighted by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker in interviews at The Post last week. Petraeus said U.S. troops had captured Qais Khazali, a leader of the "special groups" of the Mahdi Army, which is trained by the elite al-Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guard. According to Petraeus, when interrogators asked Khazali if he could have conducted his deadly attacks without Iranian support, the Shiite fighter responded, "Of course not!" Crocker said he has warned Iran's ambassador to Baghdad that "no Quds Force officer is going to be safe in Iraq."
So what are the diplomatic opportunities that might defuse this growing state of tension? I count four, and each of them would require the Bush administration to conduct more aggressive diplomacy in the Middle East:
The United States and Iran are playing a game of "chicken" in the Middle East. A collision would be ruinous for both. Each side needs to be careful to avoid miscalculation and to act in ways that avert a crackup.