Friday, July 14, 2006


I don't intend to make a habit of blogging on political issues in this particular blog but I see a major omission in the current discussion of the situation in Israel/Syria/Lebanon.

The question we should be asking is whether the parties are behaving rationally or irrationally. If the parties are behaving rationally there is a very good chance of containing and de-escalating the current crisis. If on the other hand one or more of the parties are irrational we may be headed for a third major conflict in the region and civilian casualties on each side are likely to number in the thousands, tens of thousands or more.

Al Qaeda is clearly an irrational actor. The attack on the US vastly underestimated their strength, resolve and likely response. It is one thing to defeat the USSR in a conflict where even the Soviet union could not remember what their original strategic goal was, quite a different matter to defeat a superpower after an unprovoked attack on a civilian target.

Fortunately the causal nexus in the latest escalation is not Al Qaeda, it is Hezbollah which in turn is generally regarded as a front for Iran. There are two possibilities therefore: Hezbollah may be acting on behalf of Iran or it may be freelancing. In the short term we are unlikely to find out which of these is the case. If Hezbollah is freelancing it may be beyond Iran's capability to rein them in before the next escalation of the crisis tips the region into all out war.

If Hezbollah is not freelancing it is under control of Iran. Over the past five years Iran has finessed a strategically weak situation and established itself as the second regional superpower. Iran's has built this situation through tactics that are aggressive but not irrational. In particular Iran has encouraged its perceived enemies to attack each other rather than Iran.

In the wake of 9/11 the 'Axis of Evil' speech made by President Bush amounted to a statement of intent to declare war on North Korea, Iran and Iraq. At the time Iran had friendly relations with North Korea and hostile relations with Iraq. In this situation a rational course of action for Iran was to encourage the US to make war with Iraq first and collaborate with North Korea to build a nuclear deterrent.

Given Iran's previous rational behavior we should be reluctant to jump to the assumption that their current (assumed) behavior is irrational. On the contrary it is entirely rational for Iran to assume that the Bush administration will continue efforts to build a case for invasion of Iran as the 2006 mid-term elections approach and entirely rational to seek to pre-empt a pre-emptive strike against their ongoing nuclear program through the current escalation of tension in the region.

At this point the political imperative of the US establishment is to prevent an escalation to all out war in the region. If as I believe Iran is behind the current escalation they are providing a dramatic demonstration of the cost of an attack against them. The number of members of the US establishment who beleive that Iran could be attacked with impunity must have dropped significantly in the past few days.

It is now highly unlikely that the opponents of a new war with Iran are going to be intimidated as easily as the Congress was when it authorized the invasion of Iraq. It is clear that Iran has both the means and the will to retaliate.

If the Iran hypothesis is correct the key to bringing the current situation to resolution is for the US to convince Iran that any possibility of an attack on Iran has been foreclosed. Only once this has happened will Iran order its proxies to de-escalate the crisis.

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