International concern about the risk of US air strikes on Iranian nuclear installations, and possibly on power generation and central command infrastructures also, rises and falls as the click ticks away on the Bush-Cheney regime. Here are the main factors at work.
On the US side, there is no moral or international legal constraint against a first-strike air attack on Iran. If Bush and Cheney decide the potential benefits outweigh any risks, nothing would stop them — neither scruples about taking life and destroying property, nor respect for international law. The reported Israeli air attack on an alleged Syrian nuclear facility (all the facts here are, deliberately, still obscure) may have been a trial balloon to test international reactions.
The US has achieved its main goal in Iraq — a geostrategic military placement astride the richest oil-producing region in the world. It also has a well-placed forward base from which to dominate Middle Eastern commercial oil flows and even in extremis to try to commandeer those flows or impede oil supply to the US's main potential antagonist, China. As long as the oil keeps flowing under US protection major Iraqi death and destruction and some US casualties are acceptable collateral damage for Bush and Cheney. The only irritant to complete success in Iraq is the growing Shia Iraqi guerilla resistance to US military dominance in Iraq, and the so far secure rear supply base that Iran provides to this increasingly effective resistance.
Significantly, the war has changed character over the past year. The US occupation is now increasingly siding with Sunni Iraqis, and most American casualties are now being inflicted by Shia operations.
But lashing out at Iran is risky. The US would not send US land forces into Iran, obviously, but precision bombing is in a direct sense risk-free. However, air attacks would enrage Iran and would energise the present low-level war in Iraq. This could inflame the whole Middle East, threatening pro-American regimes. Sabotage and hostage-taking could become a major issue in Arab countries where the US has a commercial presence. Iran could stress the NATO military operation in Afghanistan to breaking point, and the shaky Musharaf regime in Pakistan could fall. Russian and Chinese reactions are unpredictable but could be serious. Competent policy planners in Washington would still conclude these are unacceptable risks, and would recommend against US air strikes.
In the present power game, each side is blustering to keep face. Neither is giving ground. Iran insists — and may be telling the truth — that it has no interest in developing nuclear weapons but wants to secure its energy supplies after oil by developing an independent domestic nuclear industry. Iran has that right under the NPT to which it adheres. Iran is in dialogue with the IAEA — the proper body — on some issues relating to its adherence to NPT safeguards.
The US claims that Iran is clandestinely developing nuclear weapons. It is following the Goebbels maxim that if you repeat a claim loudly and often enough, most will eventually believe it. However the recent history of false US claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction have damaged US credibility. Many in the international community do not believe US claims on Iranian nuclear weapons intentions.
The US, by threatening air attacks on Iran, hopes to keep a lid on the Shia insurgency in Iraq. This is the most rational interpretation of the present US stance.
The UN Security Council arena is problematic. Having recently lost Tony Blair as their European Union cheerleader — Gordon Brown would have no truck with any unilateral strike on Iran outside UNSC authority — Bush and Cheney have a new recruit, French President Sarkosy: a man with the same high opinion of his diplomatic skills in riding the Washington tiger as Blair had in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Sarkosy is playing a subtle game, trying to steer the US back to the UNSC while publicly siding with them. He may find, as Blair did in 2003, that in the end Bush and Cheney will do exactly what they want.
The next year will be scary. The world may be subjected to a lot of anti-Iran propaganda to condition us to the necessity of a US attack. There can be no guarantee that the present uneasy face-off, the war of words but not bombs, will continue until Bush's term ends. People with the kind of world view Bush and Cheney have, their propensity to recklessness, and the war-initiating powers they have, can do irrational and dangerous things.
Iran is also the test case for the US-led nuclear suppliers group initiative, under which the decaying Non-Proliferation Treaty system — which allows sovereign states to develop civilian nuclear industries under IAEA safeguards against clandestine nuclear weapons development — would be supplanted by a new regime of the great-power nuclear weapon states leasing nuclear materials to other countries, thereby maintaining control over the enrichment, reprocessing and disposal of those materials. This would perpetuate the nuclear monopoly of the present nuclear weapons states and favoured allies (India, Israel). Iran rejects that ideology. A lot of other countries are watching to see who wins.
What should Australia do? This will test an incoming Australian government. I think we should keep a safe distance from any US war-planning that may be happening. We should also seek diplomatic dialogue with Iran and the interested major powers — the UK, France, Russia, China — and with the IAEA and the UN Secretary-General. We do not want our country to be dragged haplessly into what may be Bush's Last Great Adventure.