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Walking Into Iran's Trap

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, meet in Tehran on Oct. 16.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, meet in Tehran on Oct. 16. (By Sajjad Safari -- Associated Press)

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By David Ignatius
Sunday, October 28, 2007

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- Is the United States going to war with Iran? That's what a Lebanese businessman here wants to know from a visiting American. If it's war, he doesn't want to make a big new investment in the region.

You hear versions of this same question throughout the Middle East, as Washington and Tehran escalate their campaign of threats and counter threats. President Bush's loose talk of World War III doesn't seem to be deterring the Iranians, but it's scaring the heck out of America's allies in the region. Some talk as if war is almost inevitable.

Slow down, everybody. The Bush administration should stop issuing warnings and ultimatums that could force military action. Iran should get the message that the West -- including Russia -- is serious about stopping Iran from producing nuclear weapons.

This isn't a Tehran intersection, where drivers can go full tilt because they know someone will stop at the last minute. This confrontation could actually result in a crackup because of miscalculations and misunderstood signals.

If we look at what's going on behind the scenes in the two capitals, we can begin to disentangle the strands of this crisis. First, the military option: Despite all the saber rattling from Bush and Vice President Cheney, the United States doesn't have good military choices now -- and the Iranians know it. That's one reason they are being so provocative; they believe that a U.S. military strike would hurt America more than Iran.

Here's how one Gulf official sums up the problems with use of force against Iran: "When you look at it seriously, what's the objective and what are the consequences? People talk about a bombing campaign, but in six weeks of bombing in the Gulf War in 1991, you didn't take out the [Iraqi] Scud missiles. If the Iranians fire a missile across the Gulf, what happens to the price of oil? Or suppose they sink a tanker in the Gulf. And then they have Hezbollah, they have sleeper cells. What is your target?"

Many Arabs argue that the Iranians actually want America to attack. Politically, that would help the hard-liners rally support. And militarily, it would lure the United States onto a battlefield where its immense firepower wouldn't do much good. The Iranians could withdraw into the maze of their homeland and keep firing off their missiles -- exacting damage on the West's economy and, most important, its will to fight.

That's the lesson for Muslim warriors of the Iraq and Lebanon wars: Draw your adversaries deep into terrain that you control; taunt them into starting a war they can't finish. I'm told that the Syrian military, for example, is now changing its doctrine to fight an asymmetric guerrilla war against Israel that it can win, Hezbollah-style, rather than a conventional war it would certainly lose.

Behind the scenes in Tehran, another drama is playing out, as rivals jockey for control of the Islamic Republic. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad makes the most noise, so people wrongly tend to assume he's in control. In fact, he faces growing resistance, starting with former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Sources tell me that Rafsanjani's allies have been advising officials in Europe and the Middle East that Ahmadinejad is weak and vulnerable. The hard-liners have counterattacked by installing a new head of the Revolutionary Guard Corps who has written on revitalizing the Islamic revolution worldwide. In another dangerous move, the Guard's militant al-Quds Force was recently given responsibility for defending much of Iran's coastline.

The Bush administration's announcement last week of sanctions against the Revolutionary Guard was America's version of asymmetric warfare. By using its control of global finance to exacerbate the split in Iranian politics, the United States is wielding its strongest weapon to challenge its adversary at the weakest spot.

Bush administration officials, for all their bellicose rhetoric, still hope that diplomatic pressure -- backed by ever-tighter economic sanctions -- will persuade Iran to compromise. The key to this diplomatic campaign is Russia, which still seems to be playing a positive role. According to an informed source, during President Vladimir Putin's visit to Tehran this month he told the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that Russia supports the Security Council demand that Iran stop enriching uranium. Putin sketched a proposal for "serious negotiations on a long-term settlement," the source said. Khamenei, in response, "promised to look at this thoroughly."

Military action would be irrational for both sides. But that doesn't mean it won't happen. I wish the Bush administration could see that with each step it takes closer to conflict, it is walking toward a well-planned trap.

The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.


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