By Robin Wright
After three decades of festering tensions, the United States and Iran are now facing off in a full-fledged cold war.
When the first Cold War began, in 1946, Winston Churchill famously spoke of an Iron Curtain that had divided Europe. As Cold War II begins half a century later, the Bush administration is trying to drape a kind of Green Curtain dividing the Middle East between Iran's friends and foes. The new showdown may well prove to be the most enduring legacy of the Iraq conflict. The outcome will certainly shape the future of the Middle East -- not least because the administration's strategy seems so unlikely to work.
The new Cold War will take center stage this week, as President Bush dispatches Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to the Middle East for a last-ditch appeal to recalcitrant U.S. allies on Iraq. Their pitch to Sunni Arab regimes spooked by the bloc of countries and movements led by Shiite Persian Iran will be simple: Support Iraq as a buffer against Iran or face living under Tehran's growing shadow.
Although the United States and Iran have been adversaries since the 1979 Iranian revolution replaced a monarchy with a rigid theocracy, Washington has felt compelled to isolate Iran more aggressively over the past 18 months, as the Middle East's strategic balance has begun to tilt in Tehran's favor.
In the Palestinian territories, the Iranian-backed radicals of Hamas won the most democratic election ever held in the Arab world in January 2006, then militarily routed their secular, U.S.-backed rivals in Fatah to seize control of the Gaza Strip. In Lebanon last summer, the extremist Shiite militia Hezbollah used Iranian weaponry to engage Israel in the longest war since the Jewish state's creation -- and fought to a draw, despite Israel's vastly superior U.S. weaponry. In Syria, Iran's closest ally lets foreign jihadists cross into neighboring Iraq, funnels Iranian arms to Hezbollah and supports radical Palestinian groups opposed to peace -- undermining Washington's top strategic goals in the region. And in Iraq, Shiite militias armed and trained by Iran have made Baghdad's streets and the fortified Green Zone unsafe, even for the U.S. military.
"The difference now is that Iran is feeling its oats because of the increase in oil prices, Iraq's weakness since the fall of Saddam, and the successes of Hezbollah and Hamas," noted Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who ran the State Department's policy planning shop during Bush's first term. "In contrast, the U.S. is feeling stretched by the very same high oil prices and its difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan."
The roots of Cold War II lie in the Bush administration's decision to remove regimes it considered enemies after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The first two targets were the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq -- coincidentally, both foes of Iran that had served as important checks on Tehran's power. The United States has now taken on the role traditionally played by Iraq as the regional counterweight to Iran.
"The Iranian coalition has gotten immeasurably stronger in the last five years as its traditional enemies -- Saddam Hussein and the Taliban -- have been taken off the playing field," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA and National Security Council official who is now at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center. "With no buffer either east or west, Tehran's influence has naturally grown -- more because of the mistakes of the Americans than any brilliant strategy of the Iranians." Iranians, he noted, now believe that the tide of history is in their favor. "There's a cockiness there," he said.
And that's all before the question of Iran's nuclear intentions -- whether it is using a legal and peaceful nuclear-energy program as cover to develop the world's deadliest weapon -- is factored in.
The Bush administration is now adapting the tactics of the last Cold War to the new one. In the 1940s, the Soviet Union lowered its Iron Curtain to shore up communism in Eastern Europe and prevent penetration from the West. The former Kremlinologists now running U.S. foreign policy, such as Rice and Gates, are trying their own version, with a Green Curtain designed to cut off the bloc of Iranian-linked radicals and protect U.S. allies in the Middle East.
In the new Cold War, the United States and Iran are using eerily familiar tools to undermine each other. Over the past 18 months, Washington has deployed a second carrier battleship group off Iran's coast; orchestrated two U.N. Security Council resolutions sanctioning Iranian financial institutions and military officials; arrested Iranian operatives in Iraq; allocated $75 million for this year and $108 million for next year to promote democracy in Iran; and reportedly begun covert operations that included disinformation campaigns and currency manipulation.
Tehran, in turn, has allegedly increased supplies of roadside bombs, mortars and even 240-mm rockets to Iraqi militias; resupplied Hezbollah after its war with Israel; given Hamas tens of millions of dollars when international aid was cut off after its election; arrested Americans in Iran on charges of undermining Iran's national security; and reportedly provided small arms to its old Taliban enemies to use against U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
But the new Cold War won't be as clear-cut as the last one. This time, the issues are not so straightforward, and the proxies don't easily line up. "Unlike the Cold War, when there was a common frame of reference, when we and the Soviets and the residents of the Third World saw the lines drawn in the same way, we don't see the divide today in the same way as many in the Middle East," said Paul Pillar, a former senior Middle East analyst at the National Intelligence Council who is now at Georgetown University.
Added Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy: "Where that Green Curtain goes is at the heart of the problem."
In the Palestinian territories, Washington hopes to bolster President Mahmoud Abbas and isolate the Iranian-backed Hamas. Pro-U.S. Arab regimes also want to bolster Abbas -- but so that he can reconcile with Hamas.
In Lebanon, the United States wants to see Hezbollah defanged so that it can no longer threaten Israel or pro-U.S. factions in the Lebanese government. But public opinion polls show that most Lebanese see Hezbollah as a legitimate force defending their country from Israel.
On Iraq, Rice and Gates will have a hard sell, particularly with Saudi Arabia. "Iranophobia will not be enough to get the Saudis to back Iraq," said Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service. "We're saying they need to support Iraq's unity government as a brake on Iran," but the Saudis think the U.S.-backed government of Nouri al-Maliki is helping Iran's fellow Shiites in Iraq while hurting the Saudis' Sunni brethren.
The basic U.S. premise -- isolating regional foes behind the Green Curtain -- is in trouble even among Washington's closest allies. "The United States is trying to define the main line of confrontation as the extremist camp versus the camp of moderation, a division which does not exist," Pillar said. "It may be reflective of our rhetoric and the way Americans see the world, but it is not reflective of the realities in the Middle East."
The geography of Cold War II is also not as neat as that of Cold War I. Some of Iran's proxies (such as Hezbollah) operate in pockets within countries (such as Lebanon) whose governments are aligned with the United States. "The problem with the administration's portrait," Riedel said, "is that it would take multiple Green Curtains."
Those differences aside, there may be at least one striking similarity between Cold War I and Cold War II: the long-haul time frame required to get results. "The idea that it's a Cold War means that the U.S. can't and won't win anytime soon," reflected Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Beirut office. "It involves a long-term policy of containing or undermining enemies -- the model that held between the U.S. and the Soviet Union for 40 years."