President Bush's Only Achievement in the Middle East is to Increase the Power of Iran

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The Independent/UK

President Bush's Only Achievement in the Middle East is to Increase the Power of Iran

The most soaring rhetoric about democracy is swiftly choked to death by petrol fumes

by
Johann Hari

Just as we were all sighing with relief at the end of the Bush years, the lame duck President has waddled into the Middle East to remind us his beak is still nuclear-tipped. With one year to go, he is standing on the sands of Arabia to announce Iran is "the world leading state sponsor of terror" and must be confronted "before it's too late". He then quacks a few words about peace between Israel and the Palestinians and the "success" of the surge in Iraq.

So what can we really expect from Act III of Bush in Arabia? Most of us assumed the recent US National Intelligence Estimate - showing Iran stopped its nuclear weapons programme in 2003 - killed the prospect of a Bush bombing raid on Iran. But Bush knows that as it currently stands, he will be remembered as the President who emboldened and empowered the Islamic Republic of Iran. He took out the Ayatollahs' two biggest strategic enemies - Saddam and the Taliban - and helped them become gold-lined by sending oil prices soaring to more than $100 a barrel.

Today, after Bush's "re-engineering" of the region, a Shia crescent sympathetic to Iran is now rising on top of the world's oil supplies, from Saudi Arabia through Iraq. Bush may believe, in his flat and faded mind, that bombing the country is his only way to put this right: his former press secretary Ari Fleischer has been focus-grouping to find the best language to sell an attack on Iran.

If Bush can't publicly justify the attack on the basis of counter-proliferation, he may try to do it on the basis of counter-terrorism. If it's not bombs he's after, it's baddies. The President has already had the Iranian Revolutionary Guard officially declared "a terrorist organisation" - and last week, it appears the White House deliberately concocted a story that Iranian ships were attacking the US navy in international waters.

You remember the tale, featured on front pages everywhere. We were told that the day before Bush headed for the Middle East, Iranian speedboats armed with machine-guns in the Strait of Hormuz suddenly decided to charge at the US navy. They announced, "You will explode after a few minutes." The US ships thought they were being attacked; only the restraint of US navy commanders in the face of such wild provocation prevented a full-blown war with Iran. Bush used it to remind the world of the evil of Iran.

But here's a funny thing: it didn't happen. A few US ships were briefly approached by tiny Iranian vessels - but their regional commander, Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff, says his men were never perturbed. The Iranian ships had "neither anti-ship missiles nor torpedoes", he stated, "and I wouldn't characterise the posture of the US 5th Fleet as afraid of these small boats".

Nor did the Iranians say "you will explode". The US ships were in open seas, and the Navy now admits anybody within a vast radius could have broadcast this message, explaining: "We cannot make a direct connection to the [Iranian] boats there. It could have come from the shore, from another ship passing by." In the recordings, the "threat" isn't even made with an Iranian accent.

So why did Bush hype it up hysterically? There are a few possible explanations. Optimistically, he may be trying simply to hold together his shaky coalition of Arab rulers in the region, who are united by almost nothing save their fear of Iran and of their own people. Pessimistically, it may be part of a sustained PR operation ahead of his own Gulf of Tonkin.

As the gunboat-incident-that-never-was travelled across the world, the US National Archives in a sweet coincidence released new classified information about the fictitious event Lyndon B Johnson used to justify ramping up the Vietnam War. In August 1964, the US claimed the North Vietnamese navy attacked two of their destroyers. The new releases show the US knew "no attack happened that night"; they just wanted a casus beli. Incredibly, Hillary Clinton chose that very day to brag she wants to be LBJ to Barack Obama's Martin Luther King.

But at least some of us who got Iraq wrong have learnt from it. The evidence is clear today that far from damaging the despicable Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a bombing campaign may be the only thing that can save him now. Ahmadinejad is wildly unpopular with Iran's young electorate, who find his priorities - denying the Holocaust, beating couples who hold hands in public, and hanging gay teenagers - ridiculous. He looks set to lose the looming election - unless Bush bombs, causing a surge of nationalist sentiment.

Bush's curtain call looks unlikely to be any more successful in the rest of the region. I am desperate to report some good news from Iraq - but I can't pretend the surge is it. My Iraqi friends have been telling me for months why it has coincided with a fall in violence - and it's nothing to brag about.

The ethnic cleansing of Iraq is now almost complete. Sunnis have been driven from Shia areas. Shia have been driven from Sunni areas. They aren't killing each other, because they aren't near each other. The surge has simply consisted of building vast "peace walls" between the communities so they are even less likely to touch. We have turned Baghdad into Belfast-on-steroids, and called it peace.

Nor is the picture any better with Israel/Palestine. It was widely reported that Bush called for Israel to end its vicious occupation of the West Bank - but again, it's not true. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert bragged last week that Bush is "not doing a single thing that I don't agree to", adding, "He doesn't apply pressure. No, he doesn't apply pressure."

Far from advocating a return to the 1967 borders, Olmert brags that Bush did no such thing: "He thinks of the '67 borders, but he has already said '67 plus," meaning Israel could retain its favourite settlement blocks after all. He added, "He's the only President who's ever said that. And that's an amazing achievement for Israel." With these terms, no peace is possible.

So why did Bush's honeyed words end here, like this? A clue can be found in the place where Bush will end his visit in wild luxury this week - as the guest of the Saudi royal family in Riyadh. This is the most vicious tyranny in the region, a gang of torturing thugs, and Bush will literally hold their hands and whisper sweet words of love and friendship. (Oh, and sell them $20bn of arms while he's at it.) Why? One reason: they sit on the biggest pot of oil on earth. The most soaring rhetoric about democracy is swiftly choked to death by petrol fumes.

Until the United States has kicked its addiction to Middle Eastern oil, it will only ever see the region as a giant petrol station - with a friendly Israel-shaped tent looking out anxiously over the pumps.

j.hari@ independent.co.uk

© 2008 Independent News and Media Limited

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