There was never any doubt that Iran would benefit from America's decisions to topple both the Taliban and Saddam. What truly amazes me still is that, having removed Tehran's worst enemies to its east and west, the Bush team somehow managed to get absolutely nothing from Iran in return.
Telegraphing their punch in early 2002 by placing Iran on the "axis of evil" list, Bush-Cheney purposely precluded any attempt to enlist Tehran's cooperation in our now-tortuous occupations of its next-door neighbors. To no one's surprise, Iran has worked diligently from the start to complicate our attempts at nation-building in both Baghdad and Kabul, taking advantage of resurgent Shiite nationalism in the region at large.
Of course, Tehran elicits our special attention by its highly publicized pursuit of nuclear capabilities, the attraction of which can hardly be denied. After all, Washington has forgiven its friends in the region for acquiring such weapons, to include Israel, Pakistan and recently India. Plus, if you're still "listed" like North Korea, it's clear that acquiring your own bomb forces the Americans to the negotiating table — to wit, Bush's recent offer to normalize relations.
By refusing direct bilateral talks until Tehran yields — unconditionally — on its pursuit of the bomb, our government signals Iran that we'll continue targeting it for regime change until it acquires a nuclear deterrent. If that Catch-22 approach strikes you as designed to force a war between now and then, you're paying attention.
This administration's slow-but-steady drumbeat on Iran began almost immediately following Bush's second inaugural in January 2005, accelerating to front-burner status in early 2006, when the White House dramatically expanded its diplomatic push to punish Iran further with UN sanctions.
That push has been complicated by Russia's desire to maintain its status as Iran's main supplier of energy infrastructure, as well as India and China's growing thirst for Iranian oil and gas. All three naturally fear being denied such access to a post-regime change Iran.
As things currently stand, the Bush administration just began talks with Iran, albeit solely on the issue of Iraq. Expect those showcase meetings to go well, with vague promises of cooperation but little actual follow-through by the Iranians, who clearly are served by the growing perception in Washington that the surge is having little sustainable positive effect.
As for the Bush administration, going through the motions of parley with Iran checks off the box that was the Iraq Study Group. By demonstrating the White House has made a good faith effort to "regionalize" a solution to Iraq, Bush and Cheney can thereupon accuse Iran of sabotaging the surge, opening the door to a simultaneous drawdown of our effort there and a build-up of military assets for strikes on Iran — the ultimate scapegoat for our failures in Iraq.
Toward that end, the White House recently initiated a covert CIA program –reported widely, of course — to destabilize the Iranian regime, and now President Bush warns ominously of a "bloody" summer in Iraq, reflecting the ramped-up activity of Tehran's super-secret "Department 9000," which funnels material support to Shiite militias operating there. Toss in our recent naval show of force off Iran's coast and the State Department's renewed efforts at stronger UN sanctions, and the stage appears prepped for the rapid redirection to Iran long predicted by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh.
Besides giving the Bush administration a defensible exit from Iraq, such a redirection meets the demands of both Israel and Saudi Arabia that America confronts and ultimately dismantles Iran's rising power — in effect, making this Tel Aviv and Riyadh's war of choice.
By adding Iran's 70 million people to the already war-torn populations of Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush's looming decision to strike militarily against Tehran's stubborn mullahs would represent a double-or-nothing bet to re-ignite the administration's strategy of re-engineering the Mideast through regime change.
With a Democrat-controlled Congress unable to yank Bush's leash on Iraq, and op-ed columnists galore pounding the Iran war drumbeat, such an end-of-term gamble seems less fantastic with each passing week.
(Thomas P.M. Barnett is a visiting scholar at the University of Tennessee's Howard Baker Center and the senior managing director of Enterra Solutions LLC. Contact him at tom(at)thomaspmbarnett.com)