Closing in on Midnight With Iran

February 12, 2010

by Pat Ryan

Like most things in the Middle East the impending train wreck in the Persian Gulf that is America’s confrontation with Iran is complicated. It is one more scenario where there are innumerable consequences to American action, or inaction, against a gathering threat.

It is a story that fans of Jack Bauer and the action-suspense TV drama “24” could well appreciate. You would have to stretch the ticking clock theme over several decades rather than a single day, but the flow is about the same. You start at hour one with a major conflict to grab your attention. With Iran it was the 1979 revolution which swept America’s secular ally, Shah Pahlavi, from power and saw the rise of a theocracy that fed on anti-Americanism – and a lingering grudge over the CIA’s role in a 1950’s coup d’etat. That November the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was overrun and the 444 day hostage saga was launched, and the relationship with Iran has been locked in alternating episodes of deep freeze and occasional hot war ever since.

The release of the hostages in 1981 ran the “24” clock up to late morning with more character development – the two sides sizing up each other’s motives and tactics. Iran was consolidating the Islamic revolution internally and fighting a very bloody border war with Iraq. The United States was focused on the Soviet Union and the threat it posed to American interests in Southwest Asia, especially in the aftermath of the Red Army’s invasion of Afghanistan. Toward noon in our drama the United States became engaged in the Iran-Iraq war, on the side of Baghdad and Saddam Hussein – which served as a bulwark against expansion of Iranian power in the Gulf.

High noon in the story was a collection of confrontations in the Gulf during the so-called “tanker war.” Attacks by both Iran and Iraq on the merchant vessels supporting each others’ side – some 500 ship attacks – meant to damage the economic lifelines of the enemy. For Iran that meant attacking oil and gas shipments from Kuwait, which was among the Gulf Arabs that were behind Iraqi war efforts against the Islamic revolution. Iraqis pressed attacks against Iranian cargoes with Mirage jets launching Exocet antipship missiles – one of which struck a U.S. frigate, the Stark, killing 37 American sailors. Nevertheless Washington authorized the reflagging of Kuwaiti tankers under the stars and stripes to permit the formidable protection by U.S. warships escorting the ships in and out of the Gulf.

The Iranians, however, were not put off by the American shield and continued to attack the reflagged merchants through a combination of mines laid in sea lanes and anti-ship missile attacks. These earned retaliation from the U.S. Navy including the largest surface naval battle America has engaged in since World War II. The closing shots of the American-Iranian drama of the 1980s was the downing of an Iranian passenger jet by a U.S. cruiser which mistook it for a threatening warplane.

The afternoon segment of our “24” clock – the 1990s – was largely a dramatic pause as the Clinton Administration probed the potential to reduce animosities between the countries and Iran caught its breath after its horrible war with Iraq. Reform minded political leaders were emerging in Tehran and some tentative steps were taken to “just get along.” But deep suspicions remained and hardliners in Iran strangled most attempts at reconciliation. A punctuation mark to that dramatic pause was the naming of unidentified Iranian officials as co-conspirators in 2001 in the bombing of a U.S. Air Force dorm in Saudi Arabia in 1996, that killed 19 Americans and wounded 372 more.

As our story unfolded, through the “early evening episodes,” we saw Iran become increasingly powerful and belligerent in the decade past. American military power succeeded in neutralizing foes on both its borders – in Iraq and Afghanistan. The American invasion of Iraq and the installation of Shia leaders – many who lived in exile in Iran during Saddam’s rule – changed the landscape and put Iran in the drivers seat to disrupt the balance of power in the Gulf, to foster terrorism and conflict in the region and to put the pedal to the metal in their quest to join the nuclear “club.” Iran did not have to be told that a nuclear weapon would not only bolster the ability to intimidate their neighbors but also would serve as the ultimate method to protect the regime – witness Iraq being dissembled by the American military, while North Korea’s demonstration of a weapon significantly reduced the potential of attack against it. Tehran continued to improve its long range missile capabilities as well as other advanced conventional weaponry.

Meanwhile Iran became more bellicose about Israel and increased its support to Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in the occupied Palestinian territories – both are terrorist organizations fighting Israel. It has a close relationship with Syria and continues to disrupt progress in Middle East peacemaking between Israelis and Arabs.

So the clock is ticking. We’re getting closer to the “24th” hour of our Jack Bauer drama. As the United States once more bolsters its forces in the Gulf we have a long list of questions and few answers. When will Iran finish work on a nuclear weapon? Will sanctions deter it? What will Russia and China do to help or impede American actions? Is Israel ready to attack Iranian nuclear sites? Is the U.S. going to preempt Iran? Would airpower succeed in destroying the nuclear program? Would American troops on the ground in Iran become necessary? What would interruption of Gulf oil supplies mean to the global economic recovery? What amount of terrorist retaliation on Iran’s behalf will America contend with? Can the U.S. afford to spend the blood and treasure needed in a third war front?

Hollywood would be hard-pressed to assemble such a complicated plot in the course of an episode of “24.” We are approaching the final hour of this “day-long” drama between America and Iran, but unlike the conclusion of a Jack Bauer day, for American interests there will be a tomorrow to sort out. It’s a drama that ends with, “To be continued.”

Pat Ryan is a retired sailor and writer. He lives in Cookeville, Tennessee

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: