Believe it or not, the US-Iran face-off has nothing to do with Iran's nuclear programme. That's just a red herring. Former US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, revealed in a 2007 Washington Post op-ed that it's all about who controls the Gulf.
While "Iran has legitimate aspirations that need to be respected, those legitimate ambitions do not include control over the oil that the United States and other countries need …," he wrote. "Industrial nations cannot accept radical forces dominating a region on which their economies depend …"
US President Barack Obama has obviously been schooled in that reality during the past year. Initially, he promised to reach out to Iran, but instead he has been goading it in the way children taunt a caged bear by deploying an interceptor missile system in the Gulf and threatening that America's patience is limited.
Likewise, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has abandoned any pretence at diplomatic nicety, preferring to shoot as many barbs as he can in Washington's direction.
As the US and its western allies draft a fourth round of anti-Iranian sanctions in the United Nations, Iran's leader calls the September 11, 2001 attacks "a complicated intelligence scenario and act" that was used "as a pretext for the war on terror and a prelude to invading Afghanistan".
In December, Ahmadinejad characterised the US presence in Afghanistan as being "caught like an animal in a quagmire". Add that to his controversial views on the Holocaust and, together, they pretty much stymie any chance of the two leaders enjoying a cozy tete-a-tete any time soon, if ever.
Earlier, both sides made a half-hearted attempt at rapprochement. The Iranian leader sent a letter to Obama in November 2008, congratulating him on winning the election. Then in March, 2009, Obama released a special Iranian New Year video message committing his administration to respectful and honest diplomacy. From then on, relations between the two countries went south.
With hopes for a diplomatic solution receding, the question is: What happens next? There are basically three scenarios on the table from the US perspective, but all have severe downsides.
The first consists of punishing Iran with sanctions. However, as long as countries such as Russia, China, Brazil and Venezuela are opposed, they won't work. In any event, stringent sanctions end up hurting ordinary people more than they do governments.
While it's true that Russia may be prevaricating somewhat, China will never agree to UN Security Council (UNSC) sanctions as long as it relies heavily on Iran for its oil and is invested to the tune of billions of dollars in the Iranian oil industry. This is the reason behind US attempts to persuade Saudi Arabia to offer China increased oil supplies.
China is in no mood to throw its current supplier over for one of America's closest allies. In any case, no amount of sanctions or isolation will bring Iran to its knees.
The second option is a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. Again, this is one with little to no chance of success. Like the 2003 invasion of Iraq, any attack on Iran would not pass muster in the UNSC unless there is proof that Iran is physically aggressing another country.
The US could circumvent this obstacle by giving Israel the green light to initiate hostilities when in the event of Tehran's retaliation, America could — nay, would be obliged — to militarily intervene. The military route is fraught with unknowns and no one can predict what repercussions would ensue.
Numerous negative consequences have been mooted. These include the inability of the US/Israel to destroy all of Iran's nuclear plants, the disruption of oil supplies and the effects of conflict on fragile world economies and the destabilisation of the Middle East region. Moreover, Iran has warned that in case of attack, it would bomb US interests in the area, close the Straits of Hormuz to shipping, torch Gulf oilfields and incinerate Tel Aviv.
The third option is for the US and its western allies to accept that Iran has the right to enrich uranium under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to which it is a signatory. Washington considers this an anathema because it suspects Tehran of harbouring ambitions to build a bomb.
In reality, there is no evidence that Iran seeks nuclear weapons. But even if it possessed that capability, it would be used as a deterrent in the same way that the Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal was used during the Cold War. Nothing points to the Iranian leadership as being suicidal. Any nuclear attack on the West or Israel would be met with instant devastation.
And that, my friends, is the bottom line. Iran and the US are engaging in a hegemonic power struggle. America wants to control the oil and Iran wants to rid the region of foreign influence so that it can exert its own. Caught in the middle are Gulf states which can only watch and wait to see what their future holds.
(Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Some of the comments may be considered for publication.)