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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Long Time on the Verge

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Whether the United States will attack Iran has been a favorite subject of speculation by political observers over the past few years. Following the U.S. occupation of Iraq, U.S. President George W. Bush alluded to possible moves against Iran or Syria, but nothing happened. One year ago it looked as if hostilities against Iran might be in the offing against a background of hostile rhetoric coming from both the Bush administration and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Again, nothing happened.

You would have thought that the widespread discontent over the war in Iraq demonstrated during the November U.S. congressional elections would have effectively taken the question of attacking Iran off the agenda. Furthermore, operations in Iraq have not increased U.S. military capabilities, the Washington-led coalition has weakened, and any hoped-for popular support for military intervention in Iran from Iranian Azerbaijan has not materialized.

Despite all of this, the Bush administration seems once again to be considering military action against Iran. There have been leaks to the media concerning specific targets in Iran should an attack be launched and the war of words between Washington and Tehran is heating up again.

Common sense indicates something is amiss, but common sense and political logic often have little in common. Even if most Americans oppose the war in Iran, it doesn't necessarily follow that the United States will pull out of Iraq soon. On the contrary, the White House may decide that significantly expanding the conflict will leave Bush's successor no option but to continue the war to its conclusion.

Bush's future is of little concern to anybody, including himself. Unlike Russia, nobody in the United States would dare suggest changing the Constitution to allow for a third presidential term. It is unlikely Bush would be re-elected anyway. Neither Bush nor his family is responsible for creating the policies now in place in the United States. Forces responsible for involving the country in a reckless military campaign in the Middle East are not entirely ready to admit defeat. Everyone understands that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would lead to significant political changes on the domestic front.

Even in the absence of open hostilities a conflict with Iran would raise the stakes, and the sharper the dispute becomes the more difficult it is to find a way out. And of late it appears that the Bush administration has been more focused on preventing U.S. public opinion from forcing an end to the war than on winning the war itself.

Things are not going well for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad either. His party's losses in recent local elections attest to growing dissatisfaction with his leadership. But an external threat always serves to rally citizens around their leader. For the millions of people who hate Bush and his policies, Ahmadinejad, who is willing to defy the United States publicly, would become a hero.

As Britain's Guardian newspaper recently wrote, the United States' political hawks are rapidly becoming the Iranian president's last hope, owing to his inability to reverse his country's wide scale unemployment and poverty. The flare-up of tensions with Bush serves to redirect attention away from his failed economic policies. In equal measure then, both Washington and Tehran stand to gain from a deepening of the crisis.

As long as the conflict is limited to media leaks about possible military targets, mutual threats and diplomatic posturing, there's no problem with the game in its present form. As the experience of the past two years has shown, it is possible to be on the verge of war for months -- keeping the whole world in a state of suspense -- without actually making a definite move.

The problem is that it isn't possible to maintain that stance forever. Sooner or later, the danger becomes real.

Boris Kagarlitsky is the director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.