In my last post, I argued that the release by the U.S. military of nine Iranians, including two of the five officials seized in Irbil last January, suggested that Pentagon chief Robert Gates and the administration’s “realist” wing was making progress in wresting control of Iran policy from resurgent hawks led by Vice President Dick Cheney. In addition to the release, I cited as evidence the public assessments by Gates and senior military officers that the alleged flow of EFP’s (explosively formed projectiles) and other weapons from Iran to Shiite militias in Iraq had declined in recent months. Now comes the estimable Financial Times with a front-page article and a thorough back-page analysis that strengthens the case, quoting, among others, Centcom commander Adm. William Fallon at length as to why war with Iran is not an attractive option. It even quotes Patrick Clawson of the hawkish Washington Institute on Near East Policy (WINEP) — the same group that last month provided the forum for Cheney’s strongest war hoop against Iran — who is close to Cheney’s national security adviser, John Hannah, as saying: “The national intelligence director is saying we have time before the Iranians get the bomb, the secretary of state is saying diplomacy still has a chance, the secretary of defence is saying the military is at breaking point and the [White House] political advisers are saying another war would probably not be a good idea.”
I would add that the last week’s events in Pakistan — not to mention the continuing rise in oil prices and rapid decline in the U.S. dollar — have also probably set back the hawks’ hopes of confrontation with Iran. Not only is the crisis necessarily displacing Iran in the media spotlight, but it is also diverting the time and energy of key policymakers within the administration, including the vice president’s staff and deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams, who is also in charge of the White House’s badly tattered “Global Democracy Strategy.” And it gives Iran another card to play in the high-stakes regional poker game that is being played out. I personally don’t know whether long-standing reports of covert U.S. support for Iranian Baluch nationalists in Iran are true or not, but impoverished Pakistani Baluchistan (whose capital, Quetta, serves as the headquarters of the Afghanistan’s Taliban under the protection of Pakistan’s military) has long been restive. Indeed, riots broke out 15 months ago after the death of an important Baluch leader, Nawab Mohammed Akbar Khan Bugti, in a battle with federal forces. If Tehran wishes to add to Washington’s regional headaches in Afghanistan and Iraq, Baluchistan offers it a new opportunity (although one that could easily blow back across the border, too). In any event, nuclear-armed Pakistan’s suddenly apparent fragility once again underlines the importance of Iran as both a relatively tranquil island in an expanding sea of turbulence and as a potentially critical player in determining whether the region stabilizes or explodes further.