IRAN'S (COSTLY) WAR ON AMERICA or (There's been a war all along)
by Amir Taheri
May 16, 2006 & May 17, 2006

ALTHOUGH "silly season" is still several weeks away, the media are al ready in frenzy about a new war in the Middle East - this time involving the Islamic Republic of Iran.

A few American "investigative reporters," quoting anonymous sources, even insist that the war has already started, with U.S. Special Forces operating "deep inside Iran" since last summer. One "expert" who had fixed the date for a U.S. invasion of Iran for June of last year has just provided a new date: June of this year.

Well, there is not going to be a war involving Iran. As for The New Yorker's report of U.S. Special Forces operating in Iran, it is unlikely that the Islamic Republic has not found any of them after nearly 14 months.

And the Iran-U.S. war is not going to start in June - because it started on Nov. 4, 1979, when a group of "students" raided the American embassy compound in Tehran and seized its diplomats hostage. By any standards, that was a clear causus belli. It did not lead to a straightforward war because the American side chose not to treat the embassy raid as an act of war.

Apart from a brief moment in which the Reagan administration tried to wage a low-intensity war against the Islamic Republic, successive administrations in Washington adopted President Jimmy Carter's policy of "patience and forbearance" vis-?is Tehran.

The Islamic Republic, however, consistently maintained its war posture vis-?is the United States all along. In 1984, Muhammad Khatami, then minister of Islamic Orientation, wrote that the Islamic Republic was waging war "against Global Arrogance led by the United States" on behalf of mankind as a whole. In 1986, Hashemi Rafsanjani, then speaker of the parliament, went further: "We are at war with the United States - a war which must end with the victory of Islam over the Infidel led by America."

Perhaps Khatami and Rafsanjani were merely repeating the regime's mantra and did not really seek full-scale war against the United States. But anyone familiar with the history of the last two decades would know, whenever and wherever possible, that the Islamic Republic has waged a low-intensity war against the U.S. since 1979.

All along, the Iranian regime was content with small and incremental successes, taking care not to provoke a major confrontation that might force the Americans to hit back with any degree of determination. The idea was to wear the United States down with an endless campaign of small-scale violence and terror aimed against its citizens and allies.

The American policy of absorbing the small shocks administered by the Islamic Republic allowed Tehran to maintain its anti-U.S. posture at minimal cost to itself. But the policy was not cost free. Washington's refusal to recognize the Khomeinist regime as a legitimate member of the international community has cost Tehran dearly. For almost three decades, Iran has been shut out of the global capital market and prevented from normal access to the fruits of scientific and technological progress. The Islamic Republic's persistent economic failure must, at least in part, be imputed to the U.S. boycott.

Nowhere is the cost of the so-called "War against the Infidel" more apparent than in Iran's oil industry. Projections made in 1977 envisaged the Iranian oil off-take to reach a daily capacity of 6.5 million barrels, with another 1.5 million available as emergency reserves. The capacity of the Kharg terminal, the chief export facility for Iranian oil, was increased from 5.5 million barrels a day to 8 million.

But lack of investment, and the virtual impossibility of accessing highly complex technology, has meant a steady decline. Today, the Islamic Republic produces something like 3.8 million barrels a day - a level Iran had surpassed in 1973.

Worse still, Iran has become an importer of petroleum products. Because the Islamic Republic failed to build enough refining capacity, it is now forced to secure nearly half of the nation's needs in gasoline and special fuels through imports. So nearly 30 percent of Iran's income from oil exports is spent on imports of petroleum products.

Iran's gas industry is in even poorer shape. Projections made in 1977 saw Iran emerging as the world's largest exporter of liquefied natural gas by the year 2000. Iran owns the second-largest deposits of natural gas in the world, after Russia, almost 20 percent of the global reserves. Yet it is importing natural gas from Turkmenistan to feed the country's only gas-turbine power station (at Neka on the Caspian Sea).

And Oil Ministry officials say much worse is yet to come. Last month, the ministry unveiled invitations for investments worth more than $100 billion in Iran's oil and gas industries. Part of those investments is needed to prevent the total collapse of some of the country's largest oilfields (including Bibi Hakimeh, Maroun and Ahvaz), which now produce 25 to 30 percent less than in 1971.

Against that background, it would not be hard to see that the Islamic Republic has been the bigger loser in the low-intensity war it has waged against the United States. The U.S. is now four times richer, in constant dollars, than it was in 1979. Iran, however, is almost 50 percent poorer.

The Islamic Republic has succeeded in securing a foothold in Lebanon, through the Hezballah, and in the Palestinian territories through Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It also has allies in Iraq, Afghanistan and among the Shiite communities in the (Persian, Mr. Taheri) Gulf. Politically and diplomatically, however, the Islamic Republic today is more isolated than in 1979.

The United States, on the other hand, has made a spectacular incursion in what could be regarded as Iran's geopolitical habitat in West and Central Asia, the Caspian Basin, Transcaucasia and the Middle East. The Americans are now militarily present in all but two of Iran's 15 neighboring countries.

In a sense, the war that the Islamic Republic says it is waging against the United States has hurt it more than its designated enemy. The recent rise in tension has helped put that issue at the center of the debate inside the Islamic Republic. This is why people like Rafsanjani and Khatami, who once took pride in describing themselves as "jihadists" against the Americans, are now publicly critical of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's more militant anti-Americanism.

In other words, the real problem is an Iranian one, not an Irano-American one. At some point, the Islamic Republic must decide whether it is in its own interest to review a policy that has produced nothing but disaster over the last three decades. Ahmadinejad may well turn out to be the man who pushed such a review into the agenda of the leadership in Tehran.

Iranian author and journalist Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.