RFE/RL: In a report in the "New Yorker" magazine, Seymour Hersh writes that the United States is increasing its clandestine activity in Iran and that, despite advocating diplomacy in public, it is thinking of military strikes. Given that the United States has always said that the military option is on the table as a last resort if Iran pursues its nuclear ambitions, does Seymour Hersh's report break any news?
Halliday: It's not news that the Americans have an option of attacking Iran, because they've been talking about this for some years. I doubt very much whether the American generals are involved, in terms of using ground troops, because I think this would be madness and the Americans know it. What is most important is whether U.S. air-force officers are continuing attacking [sic] Iran and whether the Pentagon has authorized that. I assume that all the contingencies are being looked at and I certainly don't exclude an American air attack on Iran in the coming months, although I think at the moment that is improbable.
RFE/RL: Russia and China oppose sanctions against Iran. Could the talk of a military strike be a means of bringing them to the negotiating table to discuss a non-military solution?
Halliday: I think that you are right to say that all military matters -- whether it is Iran's nuclear program, or America's response, or Israel's response -- have to be seen in a political context. The ultimate goal of America is to contain Iran's power in the Middle East because Iran and the United States have been competing with each other in the Middle East ever since the Iranian Revolution and I think that is the underlying issue in Iraq, beneath the issue of terrorism. So, if by threatening military action they can get Russia and Chine to be more distant from Iran -- in other words, to isolate Iran -- that would be a very important reason for threatening military action. But there is also the fact that Russia and China are against America's greater involvement and probably won't help it very much.
The Role Of Iraq
RFE/RL: Could the United States' new activities within Iran be a response to Iran's recent military exercise in the Persian Gulf?
"The real core issue -- the driving issue -- is Iraq."
Halliday: America's been concerned about Iranian power in the Middle East for some time and, of course, this is particularly so because of the increase in Iranian power in Iraq, but also the consolidation of Iran's position in Lebanon and now the Hamas victory in Palestine, which also gives Iran greater influence. So I think that all these factors contribute and, if there is a Persian Gulf factor, it would only add to it. But the real core issue -- the driving issue -- is Iraq.
RFE/RL: You mentioned Iraq. America wants to talk with Iran about Iraq and some discussions are under way. Do you think military option is being discussed because those negotiations are deadlocked?
Halliday: It's too early to say where the United States and Iran have got to in talks. I think it's more a matter of putting pressure on Iran. The Americans want to use the nuclear confrontation with Iran as a way of putting pressure on it to limit is influence in Iraq. I think this is a waste of time because Iran's influence -- politically, militarily and, to some extent, economically in Iraq -- is now so strong that there's nothing the Americans can do. The Americans have lost Iraq and Iran may win it. If there's a terrible civil war in Iraq, nobody will win. But, if the political process can be saved, then Iran will be the winner.
A Unilateral Strike?
RFE/RL: Jack Straw has vehemently denied British involvement in this plan and called it 'inconceivable' at this stage. Do you think the United States would go ahead and attacked Iran without its closest ally?
"The possibility of an attack on Iran without British agreement is quite strong."
Halliday: Yes, the United States is perfectly capable of attacking Iran without British agreement and this administration is a unilateralist administration. It doesn't believe that its allies count for much. I think this is evident from the number of British troops in Iraq compared with the number of American troops. So in that sense I don't see any problem with America attacking Iran on its own, just as America has a different policy from Britain on Cuba, or a different policy on Israel, or a different policy on China. So I think the possibility of an attack on Iran without British agreement is quite strong.
RFE/RL: Antonio Martino, the Italian defense minister, recently said in an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's correspondent in Rome that the world cannot wait to sustain damage and then react. Does this mean that the EU is in support of military action against Iran?
Halliday: No, the EU doesn't support military action against Iran. In fact, the EU thinks both that this would not have the desired military effect but will also cause enormous political damage throughout the region, especially in Iraq and in Lebanon -- and don't forget that the Iranians have given Hizbullah missiles with which they can hit any city in northern Israel. So all that having been taken into account, I don't think that the EU wants to see an attack on Iran at all.
Economic sanctions could further undermine Iran's already shaky economy (Fars)
MOVING TOWARD SANCTIONS: If the United Nations Security Council imposes sanctions on Iran, domestic support for Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad will wane, according to ALEX VATANKA, Eurasia editor for Jane's Information Group.
Vatanka told a February 24 RFE/RL briefing that "economic sanctions will hurt the average Iranian" and, consequently, many "will blame the ruling clerics" for making life difficult and "impairing the country's long term development."
Vatanka said sanctions would be a serious challenge to the Iranian government. If harsh economic sanctions were imposed, Iran's poorest population will be hurt the hardest -- and might react "as they did in the 1970s and protest in the streets." Sanctions on travel, Vatanka said, would hurt a many Iranians because "Iran is a nation of small traders" who depend on the ability to travel to earn an income. According to Vatanka, unemployment in Iran is estimated at 30 percent, "so small trading is essential to survival." Although current U.S. sanctions "haven't worked," he said, "Iranians fear an oil embargo." He stressed that "oil revenues are a major part of the economy, so it is critical to look at this sector."
Should negotiations with the European Union and the UN fail, Vatanka believes that Iran would follow a "North Korea model," since Ahmadinejad's base of support among the "Islamist militias" has been "urging withdrawal from the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty]." The Iranian government's "tactic" so far, Vatanka said, is governed by the belief that "by shouting the loudest, you'll get concessions [from the West]."
Listen to the complete panel discussion (about 60 minutes):
THE COMPLETE STORY: RFE/RL's coverage of the controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear program.
CHRONOLOGY An annotated timeline of Iran's nuclear program.