A Dangerous Escalation Toward a Showdown

The West’s continuing confrontation with Iran took a bizarre turn on Feb. 14 when a house inhabited by a group of Iranian men in Bangkok, Thailand, was demolished by an explosion. The group in Thailand was apparently preparing its own “sticky” car bomb attack in a copy-cat reprisal for a series of assassinations in Teheran. The Bangkok attacks seem to have been meant to coincide with a similar attack against an Israeli diplomat in New Delhi, India, and an attempted attack in Tbilisi, Georgia.

A new covert effort by Iran may represent its response to the assassinations of its nuclear scientists, widely attributed to Israel intelligence. The unexpected escalation could not have come at a worse time, as the media in the United States and Israel grimly assess the likelihood of a military confrontation with Iran and as members of Congress from both parties continue a drumbeat for war. Adding nuclear fuel to the fire was an Iranian announcement on Feb. 15 of a series of research “achievements,” including a 50 percent increase in its uranium enrichment capacity.

“We’re not on an inevitable track to war,” said Paul R. Pillar, a professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies, “but with this recent escalation the danger of war is greater now than at any time I’ve seen in the last couple of years.” Pillar worries that there is now a “substantial” threat of an incident in the covert war between Israel and Iran “spinning out of control beyond the intentions of either side.” And the busy shipping lanes of the Persian Gulf, now regularly used by U.S. warships and Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboats and navy frigates, likewise offer another arena where an incident could lead to open conflict.

Pillar believes the Obama administration does not want the confrontation with Iran to escalate into open warfare, nor does he think the administration is set on regime change in Iran as its only option for turning aside Iranian nuclear ambitions. There is a better way ahead, he says. “We can negotiate, and we can negotiate like we really mean it and we take the most recent communication [from Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili] and run with it.” In a recent letter to a European Union official, Jalili suggested that Iran was ready to negotiate a “spectrum” of issues with the West.

Openness on the part of U.S. negotiators to a “wide range of issues” that divide Iran from the West is key, says Pillar. Part of that openness, he argues, is that U.N. and U.S. negotiators must be ready to accept Iran’s right to pursue peaceful nuclear research, this time under the careful supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Election year politics and the intentions of the Israelis remain the wild cards in the conflict, according to Pillar. “But I think a formula can be found,” he said, that would satisfy all parties ahead. The cost of further escalation would likely prove too high for all sides. A substantial interruption of oil exports out of the Persian Gulf may be more than the shaky U.S. and European economies can stand; and the potential human and environmental impact of a regional war between Iran and its surrogates and Israel, with or without the United States, could be devastating. Conflict, he adds, would be a setback for relations between the Western and Islamic worlds that could last for generations.

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