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The US: Between Iran, Iraq, and a hard place


Sometime at the height of the Cold War, the American satirist-singer Tom Lehrer, in one of his many mock apocalyptic songs, mused about nuclear proliferation in a number titled Who's Next? After ridiculing the original sinners, Lehrer took a shot at prospective candidates for the atomic bomb. Then Indonesia claimed that they/ Were gonna get one any day/South Africa wants two, that's right /One for the black and one for the white/ Who's next? he lampooned, before turning to the Middle East.

Egypt's gonna get one too/ Just to use on you know who/ So Israel's getting tense/ Wants one in self defense/ "The Lord's our shepherd, " says the psalm/ But just in case, we better get a bomb!"

Perceptive though he was about the overall subject of proliferation, Lehrer got some countries, and the sequencing, wrong. India and Pakistan were not on his list, nor was North Korea. Indonesia didn't go near the bomb and South Africa wound up its weapons program. In the Middle East, Egypt's nuclear quest faded after Nasser's exit, and Israel (unofficially) beat everyone else to the punch fearing that if the Arabs got there first, they would have a finger on the annihilation button. To confirm the dictum that there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics, geo or otherwise, Egypt, Israel's sworn enemy, made peace with Tel Aviv in the late 1970s around the same time that Iran, till then Israel's only friend in the region, was overcome by Islamic fervour, and turned against a country it was actually supplying oil to!

That's correct - you read that right. Till much of the 1970s, Iran, under its Shah, was the crutch the US and Israel used for a foothold in the Middle East cauldron, where Tel Aviv was surrounded by Arab enemies such as Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Iraq. Persian Iran did not share the same pathology that other Arab regimes had towards Israel;in fact, Persian-Jewish ties dated back to Biblical times when Cyrus the Great permitted Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. The goodwill continued well into modern times when Iran became one of the first Muslim-majority countries to recognise Israel as a sovereign nation;Israel, in turn, saw Iran as a non-Arab ally on the periphery of the Arab world.

Heck, their ties were so close - mostly kept secret and under the radar - that Iran supplied Israel with oil after the Six-Day War with the Arabs and the two sides even undertook a joint military project (code-named Project Flower) to develop a missile on the lines of the US Harpoon.

How the relationship withered and was subsequently torpedoed despite the benevolent eyes of the United States over the two current sworn enemies brings us to the late 1970s. Iran erupted against a tyrannical Shah, seen, like many other despots then and now, as a US puppet. Iranians in the millions, swept up by Islamic fervour that the secular Shah had kept at bay, welcomed Ayatollah Khomeini from exile (largely in Iraq and later a few months in France) in 1979. This was soon after the Shah himself left the country - to the United States - in the face of continuing unrest. Within months, the mood, the discourse and the policy changed. Khomeini began chastising the United States as the "Great Satan" and Israel as the "Little Satan" for their dalliance with the Shah and their denial of Palestinian rights. The new revolutionary Islamic government cut off all ties with Tel Aviv and there were calls for Israel to be wiped off the map.

On November 4, 1979, Islamist students and militants took over the US Embassy in Teheran and held 53 Americans hostage for the next 444 days. Washington's attempt to rescue them with a military mission (under President Carter) failed miserably, resulting in the death of eight American servicemen and two destroyed helicopters;it was the worst moment of humiliation for the US after the Vietnam withdrawal. Thirty years has not erased that trauma and much of US views and policy towards Iran is dictated by that incident - and the existential threat to Israel.

While all this was happening, India was muddling through Mrs Gandhi's Emergency and the Janata government with its shambolic finale. New Delhi had no particular dog in the scrap. Although the spectre of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran was worrisome, both the United States and Iran had supported Pakistan in the 1971 war and Washington's continued emphasis on corralling India's nuclear program, even during Jimmy Carter's visit to India in 1978, was irksome to New Delhi. Israel was not even on India's radar till 1977, when the Janata government made the first covert overtures, resulting in the secret visit to India of Moshe Dayan, one of Israel's most colourful figures who was the country's defense minister and later foreign minister. After Mrs Gandhi returned to power in 1980, there were reports in 1982 (never fully corroborated) that Israel sought refueling rights in India to knock out the Pakistani nuclear facility in Kahuta in the same manner it had destroyed the Iraqi nuclear programme the previous year and set it back by decades. Mrs Gandhi is said to have demurred;India had too much stake in the Middle-East energy mix - and it did not particularly see Pakistan as a major threat at that time, just a decade after it had been humiliated in war. Bad mistake, in hindsight.

While all this was happening, Israel and Iran, even under Khomeini's Islamist dispensation, continued below-the-radar contacts, including Tel Aviv supplying weapons to Tehran during the initial days of the Iran-Iraq war while destroying Iraqi nuclear facilities. (Some American pundits believe but for that act of the Israelis, Saddam would have had a nuclear bomb, defeated Iran, annexed Kuwait, and pretty much have had the Middle East eating out of his hand). The US meanwhile played both sides, winking at Saddam Hussain's attack against Iran (which led to a decade-long Iran-Iraq war) to avenge the hostage humiliation and at the same time secretly facilitating arms sale to Iran in violation of an embargo in what came to be known as the Iran-Contra affair (because Washington was funding Nicaraguan contras with the money).

The lesson in all this for New Delhi is an old, old one: There are no permanent friends or enemies in the world;only permanent interests - a dictum that the US, Israel, and every country worth its salt in the world follows. India needs Iran for its energy security and the US and Israel for its technological boost. The US wants New Delhi to play a key role in Afghanistan (especially after it pulls out) and be a counterweight to China in Asia and across the world. India's route to Afghanistan goes through Iran (because Pakistan will not allow it land access ); and ceding Iran as an energy source at US/Israel bidding will leave the field open to China. Washington's quixotic wishes, Israeli existential insistence, and growing Iranian isolation - and a Middle East in turmoil. That's the tricky lay of the land and sea New Delhi has to negotiate in the coming weeks and months.

The US itself has no good options other than letting the Israeli's take care of Iran and risk a conflagration in the Middle East - quite possible given the sudden spurt in attack against Israeli interests across the world. Exhausted by the war in Iraq, enervated by the scrap in Afghanistan, debilitated by the economic crisis at home, and conscious of an upcoming political season, Washington is searching for answers, giving New Delhi some wiggle room. It's a tough world, but India has lived through tougher times.


To say that the geopolitics of the Middle East is complex would perhaps rank as the world's most trite understatement. An explosive mix of religious and ethnic differences, clashing ideologies, military adventurism, exteremism and the world's largest accumulation of energy reserves have each contributed to turning this part of the world into its most volatile neighbourhood. TOI-Crest attempts to map some of these faultlines



Israel, which fi rst invaded Lebanon in 1982 to fight a PLO-led rebellion, has battled Hezbollah over the last decade;2006 saw a limited war
Its Palestinian territories, like Gaza, are now controlled by the radical Hamas, which receives copious Iranian aid, in spite of being a Sunni group
Currently the region's only nuclear power



Iran's sabre-rattling, radical president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has repeatedly called for Israel's 'elimination'
Hezbollah, a prominent Shia militia in Lebanon that is currently Israel's principal bugbear, is widely assumed to be funded by Iran
Syria (which is still 'at war' with Israel) is a major benefi ciary of Iranian oil and weapons aid, and is Iran's link to Hamas and Hezbollah



A hotbed of Sunni Wahabbi radicalism, the country supports Hamas. Saudi money is also believed to be fuelling other insurgencies
Chafes at the prospect of an Iran-led sphere of Shiite infl uence (so-called Shiite Crescent) which includes its own eastern region
Now fears a revolutionary Shiite takeover of Iraq, backed by Iran, as Iraq has a Shia majority



America has offered Israel unstinting support (military, diplomatic and moral) since 1967, and is an important presence in the region
Key US allies in the region include Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan. Qatar and Bahrain host huge US military bases
The 2003 Iraq invasion has brought that country into America's sphere of influence, in some form.

Reader's opinion (3)

Karwanyun.surendranath Feb 25th, 2012 at 19:11 PM

I agree that situation is very complex and there is no easy solution e.g. while India imports 10% of its oil from Iran, obtains latest technologies like AWACS from Israel.US has supported India in getting clearance at various levels despite not having signed NPT.

Madhuri GuptaFeb 23rd, 2012 at 12:06 PM

Before confronting Iran directly or through Israel, the US is fighting a proxy war with Iran in Syria, and the outcome of its being between Iraq, Iran and a 'hard' place depends on the outcome of this proxy war.

Bharat ShethFeb 18th, 2012 at 14:31 PM

It would be better for United states to let Israel and iran take care of each other while keeping himself out. Because it is hard to choose between a loyal but not much use friend and a group of people which will have much weight in future

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