Rupert Cornwell: Strange times in war-wary Washington

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The Independent Online

Please, Lee Bollinger, do not go wobbly. Mr Bollinger is President of Columbia University in New York, where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – the President of Iran and Satan, Beelzebub and the anti-Christ combined in American political demonology – is due to deliver a speech on Monday.

Despite demands from city officials that Mr Ahmadinejad be denied this opportunity to spout "hate-mongering vitriol" shortly before he addresses the UN General Assembly next week, Mr Bollinger has promised the event will go ahead, in the tradition of "robust debate" fostered by his university. We shall see. Last year, Columbia called off a similar appearance by the Iranian leader because of "security and logistical" problems. Those, not by co-incidence, were precisely the considerations that led the New York police to reject Ahmadinejad's request to lay a wreath at Ground Zero during his visit.

That pretext was instantly revealed for the sham it was, when President Bush chimed in from the White House that he fully understood that the head of a state that sponsored terror should be kept away from the site of America's worst terrorist attack – even though not even this White House has dared to suggest Iran had a hand in 9/11. In the process, however, another small potential strand of dialogue has been discarded. Yes, Ahmadinejad says crazy, offensive things. But even his effrontery would surely stop short of an offensive publicity stunt at the most hallowed site of the country that, however reluctantly, is playing host to him.

For me, the cancellation only added to a sense of foreboding. These are strange times here, our equivalent of when the dogs and birds supposedly fall silent in the moments before an earthquake. Not that America's political animals have fallen silent. The candidates to succeed Bush criss-cross Iowa and New Hampshire where the first primaries are less than four months off, holding forth on every imaginable subject. But somehow what they say matters little. Whoever wins, his or her presidency has already largely been shaped by the desperately unpopular lame duck who perforce will remain in charge of US foreign policy until January 20 2009 – and worse may well be to come.

Having entrusted the verdict on his presidency to historians generations in the future, Bush now sounds almost contemptuous of the opinions of his contemporaries. Confident that, like his role model Harry Truman, he will be vindicated 50 years hence, he openly admits that his successor (or should it be successors?) will have to find a way out of the mess left by his disastrous adventure in Iraq.

Iraq, however, may only be the start of it. The real question, the one that, spoken or unspoken, dominates every foreign policy discussion here, is another. Will Bush, now that the Iraq folly has handed Iran a massive strategic victory without lifting a finger, go double or quits by launching a military attack against Tehran?

A small industry of tea-leaf reading on Iran has grown up here. Least worrying are the incessant reports about Pentagon plans to hit dozens, hundreds, even 2,000 military and suspected nuclear targets in the country. All doubtless true, but the Pentagon also has contingency plans to invade Canada or Britain. More alarming are claims that the balance of opinion within the administration has shifted. Dick Cheney's influence, it is said, is on the rise again,while Condoleezza Rice, once champion of the diplomatic route, has now shifted to the view that there may be no alternative to force, if sanctions fail to halt Tehran's nuclear programme, and Iranian meddling in Iraq continues.

Worst of all, to borrow the line of Yogi Berra, if you listen to Bush's speeches, it's déjà vu all over again. Just as in the rollout of the Iraq war, his language is becoming increasingly strident and menacing. It would, he says, be the height of irresponsibility to bequeath to posterity the probability of a nuclear-armed Iran, and he sends carrier group after carrier group to the Gulf to underline his point.

In truth, there is no way of telling. I remain one of the minority who believe that Bush will not attack Iran, or at least not in the long premeditated, minutely orchestrated fashion that is now supposed. Naively, I believe, even Bush must realise that the disastrous consequences of any war with Iran – closure of the Straits of Hormuz, economic recession, the unleashing of terror networks across the Middle East and beyond, a huge new burden for an already overstretched US military – far outweigh any benefits.

Quaintly, I cling to the proven doctrine of mutually assured destruction, unfashionable today but which did the trick during 40 years of confrontation with the Soviet Union. Yes, the wild words of its President are scary. But Iran is governed by ultimately rational human beings who surely understand that any use of a nuclear weapon by themselves, or the merest suspicion they have provided one used by a terrorist group, will ensure that their country is a smoking hole in the ground by return of post, whether the delivery is from nuclear power Israel or the US directly.

Alas, every passing week tests my faith more sorely. Increasingly Iran and its agents are blamed for the deadly attacks on US troops in Iraq. Now US officials claim that Tehran is shipping weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is all too easy to see how, just as the neocons would like, full-scale war could be "accidentally" triggered – say, by cross-border reprisals on Iranian territory by US forces in Iraq, which Iran answers by blocking oil shipments and having Hamas and Hizbollah turn up the heat on Israel, to which the US responds by further attacks ... and so on and so on.

And talking of Israel, what to make of its mystery-shrouded attack earlier this month on a site in the north of Syria, Iran's sole ally in the Arab world? The most popular theory seems to be that the raid was directed at nuclear or chemical weapons equipment delivered by North Korea. If so, then it is impossible not to see the operation as a dry run, or at least a veiled but unmistakable warning to Iran that if US won't take out its nuclear facilities, then Israel will – with indistinguishably catastrophic consequences for everyone.

All of which, of course, is a long way from the Upper West Side of Manhattan where Ahmadinejad will face the students of Columbia University next week. But in these fraught and reckless times, every little bit helps.