After the Embassy Attack: Are Iran and the West Lurching Toward War?

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Iranian riot police stand guard as protesters gather outside the British embassy in Tehran on November 29, 2011. (Photo: Att Kenare / AFP / Getty Images)

The prospect of Iran and its Western adversaries stumbling into a military confrontation that neither side wants seems worryingly less improbable by the day. And if they do, each side will have plenty of evidence at hand to blame the other for instigating the conflagration. The latest round of brinkmanship, this week, came in the form of dramatic piece of political theater in Tehran: A group of radical activists on Tuesday stormed the British Embassy in in protest against that country’s support for sanctions designed to throttle the Iranian economy. Unlike the invasion of the U.S. embassy in the same city 32 years ago, this time there were no hostages and Iranian police eventually ejected the invaders, some of them carrying off choice bits of booty such as a framed poster of a gun-toting John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson depicted in the movie Pulp Fiction. The Iranian foreign ministry condemned the action, which would likely have required at least a nod and wink from Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, as “unacceptable behaviour by a small number of protesters”, although other elements within the regime loudly supported it.

Britain responded as expected, by withdrawing its embassy staff and ordering the Iranians to vacate their London embassy, while Germany, France and the Netherlands all recalled their Iran ambassadors for consultations and Norway closed its embassy.

The diplomatic skirmish was yet another sign that the larger strategic battle over Iran’s nuclear program is heating up. European Union member states are to hold previously scheduled talks on Thursday to discuss new sanctions aimed at breaking Iran’s defiance of Western demands on its nuclear program, with France and Britain reportedly pushing for action against Iran’s oil exports and its central bank — i.e. seeking to choke the life out of the Iranian economy until Tehran’s leaders cry uncle. Legislation to similar effect is currently making its way through the U.S. Congress with strong bipartisan support.

(PHOTOS: Iranian students storm the British embassy.)

But like the perennial threat of  military action by either the U.S. or Israel, the latest sanctions talk could also be designed to intimidate the Iranians or scare up support for a lesser escalation of sanctions from many of Iran’s key trading partners who remain skeptical of the U.S.-led campaign.

After all, taking Iran’s 2.5 million barrels a day off the world oil market would raise prices enough to tip the fragile global economy into recession.  If Iran treated a blockade on its central bank as an act of war, its retaliation could include using military force to close the Strait of Hormuz through which most Gulf oil (some 40% of global output) passes on its way to market.

The arguments against military action within the Western strategic establishment are more forceful, of course: U.S. Defense Secretaries past and present have warned that there is no military solution to the standoff, because air strikes would, at best, simply delay Iran’s progress by one t0 three years, but would make a nuclear-armed Iran a more likely. Even such stalwarts of Israel’s strategic establishment as former Mossad chief Meir Dagan warn of the strategic folly of a course of action that would initiate a costly regional war from which Israel could not easily extract itself.

Still, none of that logic appears to have restrained the enthusiasts on both sides of the Iran-Western divide, who for geopolitical or domestic political reasons appear to be deliberately creating a sense of crisis, believing they can control such escalation to avoid lurching into a military confrontation, but at the same time force the other side to back down. That’s a very difficult game to get right, especially given the limited extent of communication between the two sides.

Outgoing Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen warned last December that “We’ve not had a direct link of communication with Iran since 1979. And I think that has planted many seeds for miscalculation. When you miscalculate, you can escalate and misunderstand.” He noted that even at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. maintained channels of communications with Moscow that allowed both sides to avoid a catastrophic confrontation. “We are not talking to Iran, so we don’t understand each other. If something happens, it’s virtually assured that we won’t get it right — that there will be miscalculation which would be extremely dangerous in that part of the world.”

And, of course, even as debate rages in the West over escalation to economic blockade and direct military action, a covert war against Iran has been underway for some time and is clearly intensifying through the bombing of military facilities, the assassination of scientists and cyber warfare. Mindful that those among its enemies who seek Western military action would likely prefer to be able to claim that Tehran had initiated hostilities, Iran’s leaders have largely refrained from retaliating for the covert attacks. But the anger within the core constituencies of Iran’s regime has been building.  The attack on the British Embassy may have been a symbolic gesture of retaliation allowed or even encouraged by Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei to vent frustration at the mounting campaign of attacks. It also appears to have been the work of conservative opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, calculated to embarrass him ahead of the next round of nuclear talks his government had requested with Western powers, and to burnish their own credentials ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for next spring.

Symbolic humiliation of Britain may be even more popular in America-bashing in an Iranian political culture with a long memory of Western malfeasance, and the campaign to downgrade diplomatic ties with London was spearheaded by parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, a fierce opponent of Ahmadinejad. While Larijani defended the embassy sacking, Iran’s foreign ministry condemned the assault and the Ahmadinejad allied police chief vowed to pursue the perpetrators through the courts. “The opponents of Mr. Ahmadinejad hope to get rid of him by creating a foolish foreign crisis without realizing how costly it can be at a time when Iran is under huge international pressure,” a Tehran political analyst told the Financial Times (subscription required).

But if some of Iran’s most powerful factions see their political interests served by escalating the crisis with the West, there are many in Western capitals seeking to do the same, believing only the threat of an economic blockade or war might prompt Iranian retreat on the nuclear front—even though the nuclear program appears to be a point of pride across Iran’s political spectrum.

The latest IAEA report on Iran published earlier this month failed to live up to its hype by Western officials as a “game changer” because it, for the first time, suggested that Iran may have (mostly between 1998 and 2003) engaged in research work on the construction of nuclear warheads. But the report contained little that was new —offering no evidence of any current effort to build nuclear weapons —and failed to win over the majority of governments outside of the Western alliance who remain skeptical of the U.S.-led effort to isolate Iran.

The case being made by the U.S. and its allies that Iran’s nuclear program represents a threat to global security rests more on what Iraq might do once it acquires the technical means to produce nuclear weapons, rather than anything it is currently doing. (Western intelligence agencies concur that Iran’s leaders have not, in fact, taken a strategic decision to build nuclear weapons, but are using the cover provided by a civilian nuclear energy program to assemble the capability to do so should Ayatullah Ali Khamenei—or any successor —reverse his August 2005 fatwa declaring that the production or use of nuclear weapons is “forbidden under Islam”.)

No new U.N. sanctions appear likely to result from the IAEA report, which is why the U.S. and its European allies are now seeking new unilateral measures, and hoping to use their own economic muscle— particularly in respect of banking sanctions —to force compliance by reluctant third parties. Israel, meanwhile, threatens military action within the next year if it is not convinced that the sanctions imposed by Western powers will be sufficient to break Iran’s will, although some doubt remains over whether the Israelis would act alone—and how effective such action would be, given Israel’s limited (in comparison to the U.S.) capability to project air power over such a great distance in an operation that could take many days.

Still, the world is watching a geopolitical game of chicken: Western powers are raising the stakes, threatening economic warfare and even kinetic military action unless Iran backs down; Iran believes it can withstand whatever the West and Israel is plausibly going to throw at it, and is firing symbolic warning shots of its own. To avoid an escalation that could lead to war, both sides would have to be offered acceptable off-ramps. But that takes diplomacy, which isn’t exactly in vogue in Western relations with Iran, right now.