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Iran and the United States

Escalating Threats

Friday 16 February 2007, by Phyllis Bennis

Even the New York Times has editorialized that the Bush administration is "bullying" Iran. Noting that "the one tactic the administration is refusing to consider is diplomacy," the Times warned that Bush "could end up talking himself into another disastrous war, and if Congress is not clear in opposing him this time, he could drag the country along." The temperature of anti-Iranian rhetoric is escalating rapidly, particularly since Bush’s January speech on Iraq and his State of the Union address. While U.S. antagonism towards Iran is an old story, the particular timing of the current escalation is linked to the ever-clearer failure of U.S. strategy in Iraq.

The framework for the current drumbeat is the claim that Iran is at the center of the bad-guy side of the new Middle East divide allegedly pitting the "moderates" (read: the good guys - the absolute monarchs, flawed "democracies" and military dictatorships of the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, etc.) against the "extremists" (read: the bad guys - Iran, Syria, al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah…). The framework is sometimes overlaid with Washington’s "good Sunnis, bad Shi’as" grid for dividing regional political forces (the opposite of how they view the Iraqi situation). But even regionally that doesn’t work since neither Syria nor Hamas are Shi’a-dominated, and Hezbollah’s Shi’a base is allied with a host of Christian, secular and even a few Sunni forces. And the Sunni leadership of al-Qaeda, of course, are anti-Shi’a in the extreme.

U.S. interest in controlling Iran, or at least undermining its independence, sovereignty and potential power, is not a new phenomenon. The U.S. overthrew the democratically elected Iranian leader Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953; installed, armed and protected brutal dictatorships (the Shah of Iran); cut off diplomatic relations and imposed tight economic sanctions (the Islamic Republic from 1979); and provided seed stock for biological weapons, targeting information for chemical weapons, and financial backing for Iran’s enemy (Iraq) throughout the years of the Iran-Iraq War(1980-1988).

The reasons have not changed. Iran is one of only two countries in the Middle East that contains the three prerequisites for indigenous power: oil/wealth, water, large land and population. The only other country is (or was…) Iraq. Iran and Iraq traditionally competed for territory, oil rights, military control, and regional influence; this competition was always that of national interests - economic, military, influence. The two nation-states competed - not because Iran was Shi’a and Iraq’s government privileged its minority Sunnis and was allied with largely Sunni Arab regimes, but for the same reason that Germany and France or Argentina and Brazil historically fought regional wars -for territory, money and power.

Later the U.S. moved strategically to prevent either regional power from challenging overall U.S. domination of the Middle East. It was on that basis that the U.S. backed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq throughout the Gulf War - because Iran was stronger, so the U.S. weighed in on the side of the weaker competitor to keep the war going and encourage both regional challengers to waste their blood and treasure fighting each other, rather than turning on the U.S. So U.S. interest has always been in controlling Iran’s oil (less for direct access, which was never a real necessity or real problem, than for control of pricing and supply, and to be able to act as guarantor of access for Washington’s allies and now competitors such as China and India) and suppressing its regional influence.

Washington’s current anti-Iran campaign has pushed Arab governments towards a much harsher stance against Iran. The same regional competition that once led to the Iran-Iraq War is already resulting in a new regional contest between Iran and a Saudi-led (and U.S.-backed) consortium of Arab governments. Saudi Arabia is not an indigenous regional power either on its own or even backed by the other weak and legitimacy-challenged states in the area, and the current conflict is unlikely to lead to an "Iran-Arab" war. But the new U.S.-backed high profile of the Saudi king (in negotiating the recent internal Palestinian ceasefire, for instance) must be seen in the context of Washington continuing to encourage regional competitors to challenge Iran.

What’s wrong with a U.S. attack on Iran?

Bush administration claims that negotiations are their first choice. But they have gone to war based on lies before, and there is no reason to believe that they are telling the truth this time.

Iran does not have nuclear weapons, and has not threatened the United States. Under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the U.S. is absolutely prohibited from using - or even threatening to use - nuclear weapons against Iran, a non-nuclear signatory of the NPT. But the Bush administration has threatened exactly that, specifically by circulating calls for use of nuclear "bunker-buster" bombs to destroy hardened sites attached to Iran’s nuclear power program. According to the National Academy of Sciences "the use of such a weapon would create massive clouds of radioactive fallout that could spread far from the site of the attack, including to other nations. Even if used in remote, lightly populated areas, the number of casualties could range up to more than a hundred thousand…"

Any U.S. military strike on Iran - ANY strike - would be a violation of international law prohibiting preventive war. And George Bush now admits that "preventive war" - not only his earlier claim of pre-emptive war - is indeed his strategic doctrine. According to the International Court of Justice, even threatening to use nuclear weapons is a violation of international law - and the Bush administration is threatening to use nuclear "bunker-buster" bombs to attack Iran.

The Bush administration seems to have recognized that their efforts to win public support (in the U.S. and internationally) for a preventive attack on Iran on the basis of Iran’s alleged but never seen nuclear weapons program have failed. Too many people, in the U.S. and globally, remain suspicious because of the legacy of the administration’s false claims regarding Iraq’s alleged WMDs. As a result, new rhetorical accusations - similarly unproven - are now being floated, claiming that Iran is directly responsible for "killing American troops" by providing bomb equipment to Iraqi insurgents. The heated language is clearly designed to mobilize "protect the troops" sentiments and to galvanize Americans’ anger, regardless of whether the claim is true. And members of Congress including some Democratic opponents of the Iraq war are asserting that regarding Iran, "all options must remain on the table."

U.S. policy towards Iran now is going far beyond rhetorical accusations. Current
U.S. strategy in Iraq calls for "dual escalations" - not only an escalation in troop numbers inside Iraq itself, but a geographic escalation of the war from Iraq to Iran. That strategy has had visible military components. A second aircraft carrier group is en route to the Persian Gulf, joining the first carrier, with its partner ships, bombers and fighter-planes, already in place. The U.S. has kept a carrier group off the Iranian coast since about 1980; sending a second represents a significant escalation. Months ago, the Pentagon also sent minesweepers to the Strait of Hormuz. This was widely viewed as a pro-active move in the expectation that Iran would respond to any attack by blockading the Straits, through which a huge percentage of Middle East oil flows to the rest of the world.

In some of the most provocative actions, the U.S. command announced its intention to "seek out and destroy" Iranian networks found in Iraq, and U.S. troops have already raided sites in Iraq where Iranian diplomats, legally present in Iraq with the permission of the Iraqi government, were working. A number of Iranians were arrested, of whom several are still being held despite calls from both Tehran and Baghdad for their release. And the Bush administration continues to pressure the United Nations to expand the sanctions imposed on Iran despite the IAEA having found no evidence of illegal nuclear weapons in Iran.

In other actions, Bush appointed as the new chief of Central Command, Admiral William Fallon. He will oversea the two massive ground wars in landlocked Afghanistan and almost-landlocked Iraq, even though he is a Navy pilot. It was widely assessed as a sign that future expansions would be looking to naval and air power, rather than "boots-on-the-ground," with Iran as the most likely candidate. CNN has reported that Bush has asked Strategic Command - which oversees the U.S. nuclear arsenal - to prepare plans for a possible U.S. attack on Iran.

And new reports are emerging indicating that neo-conservative analysts inside the Bush administration and in right-wing think tanks influential in the White House, are actively promoting Iranian exile leaders and especially the Mujahideen el-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian opposition guerrilla cult once backed by Saddam Hussein and listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department.

We must include in our opposition an understanding of "even if" rules. All evidence points to the likelihood that the Bush administration is lying, that there is no actual evidence to support the recent allegations. But even if Iran was trying to build a nuclear weapon for some time in the future, even if Iran was sending some weapons into Iraq, there is no military necessity, no legal or moral justification for a preventive U.S. attack.

What kind of threat does Iran pose?

Iran is not a threat to the U.S. As a non-nuclear signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it has the right (like all the 185 or so such signatories) to build and use nuclear power plants, and to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. (We may believe this to be a huge problem for the NPT, since the technology for nuclear power is essentially the same as that required for nuclear weapons, but nonetheless it is the law. And in the context of our own government’s refusal to abide by its own disarmament obligations under the NPT, American officials are particularly ill-placed to deny Iran’s right to enrichment technology.) The UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has expressed concern over some lack of transparency in Iran’s program, but it has found no evidence of a nuclear weapons program.

The U.S.-led demand that Iran give up its enrichment activities is not based on even a claimed Iranian violation of the NPT. Rather, it is simply a U.S. declaration that it "does not trust" Iran, and that therefore the UN Security Council should agree to enforce an Iranian halt in enrichment. The demand has no basis in international law or the terms of the NPT.

Shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran proposed a comprehensive "grand bargain" with Washington. It reportedly offered more stringent IAEA inspection of Iran’s nuclear activities, acceptance of the 2002 Arab League proposal that would allow normalization of relations with Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from all the 1967 occupied territory, ending material support to Hamas from Iran, and providing the U.S. with names of al-Qaeda operatives in Iranian custody. In return it asked for the U.S. to go after the anti-Iranian Mujahideen el-Khalq. But the U.S. government never took the offer seriously.

It has been known for years that what Iran wants, beyond the specifics, is a security guarantee from the U.S. - giving up "regime change" or other efforts to attack or undermine Iran. Such a guarantee cannot be offered by the UN, the European Union, or any other country, only by the world’s sole military superpower. But the U.S. has never been prepared to offer such a guarantee.

The Bush administration is now focusing on the claim that Iran is responsible for the deaths of U.S. soldiers inside Iraq. But the February 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) makes clear that Iran’s involvement in Iraq "is not likely to be a major driver of violence" there. The February 11, 2007 press conference in Baghdad that purported to "prove" that the highest levels of the Iranian government were providing bombs to Iraqi insurgents simply showed the weapons, "without providing direct evidence," as the New York Times reported. Two days later, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, said he saw no evidence that the Iranian government was actually involved in arming militias in Iraq.

In London’s Independent, the respected Middle East analyst Patrick Cockburn wrote, "the evidence against Iran is even more insubstantial than the faked or mistaken evidence for Iraqi WMDs disseminated by the United States and Britain in 2002 and 2003. The allegations appear to be full of exaggerations. … It implies the Shiites have been at war with the U.S., when in fact they are controlled by parties which make up the Iraqi government."

Aside from the problem of lack of proof, there is a huge problem of hypocrisy in the
U.S. making threats against Iran for ostensibly supporting militias, given that the U.S.-backed Iraqi government is itself inextricably bound up with support for various Iraqi militias. Further, even as it continues threatening Iran and accusing it of "meddling" in Iraq, Washington officials are publicly weighing the efficacy
and advantages of shifting their current support for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to support instead the leader of the most pro-Iranian party in Iraqi politics, SCIRI. And there is the overarching hypocrisy of the U.S. - which illegal invaded, bombed, and continues to occupy the entire country of Iraq from 8,000 miles away-threatening war against Iran on the grounds that Iraq’s next-door neighbor is the one "meddling" in Iraq’s affairs.

The Bush administration continues to reject any diplomatic solution in Iran. It has ignored recent developments that should have led to significant easing of U.S. anti-Iran hysteria, including the new assessments indicating that Iran’s nuclear enrichment program is facing serious technological hurdles and is not progressing well; and that Iran is opening its Isfahan nuclear site to IAEA diplomats (even if not yet to a new team of IAEA inspectors) and journalists. Even more crucial, the U.S. continues to ignore the fact that in elections following the deliberately provocative Holocaust-denial conference sponsored by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the struggling president’s party suffered a serious electoral defeat.

Is there really a serious possibility of a U.S. attack on Iran?

The Bush administration has proven its willingness to ignore public opinion, run end-runs around Congress, violate international law, and engage in the most reckless, dangerous foreign policy disasters. An attack on Iran would be just as illegal as the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Although some of the leading neo-con forces key to the Iraq war are now outside of the administratio(Wolfowitz, Feith, Libby, Perle, others), and those who continue to call for "regime change" in Iran face some louder challengers inside the administration, they remain a potent and influential force in Washington.

An attack using nuclear "bunker-buster" bombs would be explicitly a violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a signatory, and which prohibits any attack with nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear weapons state. The U.S., in threatening to use nuclear weapons against Iran, is directly undermining the no-first-use assumptions that have prevented nuclear war for more than half a century. In fact, the International Court of Justice has ruled that for a nuclear weapon-state such as the U.S. to even threaten to use a nuclear weapon against a non-nuclear signatory like Iran is a violation of the NPT. Iran is, even according to U.S. officials, at least four years and more likely closer to ten years from having the capability of making a nuclear weapon, even if it chose to do so. The U.S. remains in violation of the NPT’s requirement (in Article VI) that it, along with the other four recognized nuclear powers, move towards full and complete nuclear disarmament. An attack on Iran would be far more dangerous even than attacking Iraq. Militarily,Iran remains a strong regional power; although Iran’s military is not close to the capacity of the Pentagon, it has not been destroyed by a dozen years of crippling global sanctions as Iraq was. Iran remains influential in the region, and the consequences of an attack would be felt far beyond Iran’s own borders.

Like the situation in pre-invasion Iraq, Americans have little familiarity with the
people, culture and country of Iran, and the demonization of all things Iranian that began in 1979 with the overthrow of the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran has continued. Many members of Congress, even those strongly opposed to an attack on Iran, have little understanding of the dangers, of what might happen "the day after" a U.S. attack.

Although no one is calling directly for an invasion of ground forces into Iran, the threat of a U.S. airstrike against Iran - "surgical" or otherwise - could well bring swift Iranian counter-attack, in self-defense (which much of the world would recognize as authorized under UN Charter Article 51 allowing self-defense after attack) or retaliation. Iran’s actions could include a direct attack on U.S. troops in Iraq, or in other neighboring countries including Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Djibouti, or elsewhere. It could attack U.S. interests through proxies, particularly in Iraq. It could destabilize Iraq even further, while uniting Iraqis (and Arabs across the region) even more strongly against the U.S. Iran might attack Israel, particularly if the U.S. claimed that its attack on Iran was somehow tied to "protecting" its Israeli ally. And it could use the oil weapon - manipulating prices or supplies, or even more dangerously, Iran could sink a ship to block the strategic oil waterway, the Strait of Hormuz.

What is Israel’s connection to the U.S. escalation against Iran?

Israel’s role, and the role of the pro-Israeli lobbies (both the traditional Jewish organizations and newer right-wing Christian Zionist groups) in pressing for a military strike against Iran are much stronger than they were during the run-up to war in Iraq. (In that period the main pro-Israeli forces weighed in strongly to support war in Iraq largely after the decision had already been made for the war.) Many Israeli officials have long viewed Iran as a much greater threat than Iraq, and the recent leak to the British press regarding detailed Israeli preparations for a strike on Iran was clearly orchestrated to ratchet up the threat.

However, Israel holds the fourth most powerful nuclear arsenal in the world, and its conventional military is by far the most advanced in the region even without its strategic alliance with the Pentagon. As a result, there are divisions even among Israeli elites, and some key sectors, particularly some in the military, do not share the government’s obsession with an alleged Iranian "threat."

The problem here in the U.S. is that among government, policy and media elites, it is taken as a matter of unchallengeable "fact" that Iran IS a threat to Israel, that all threats Israel claims are real, and that any threat to Israel is necessarily a threat to the United States. Because this view is predominant in Congress, the involvement of Israel in any way with a U.S. attack on Iran - whether to support an attack carried out by the Israeli military itself, or conducted by the U.S. ostensibly because of a concocted claim that Iran is threatening its Israeli ally - would seriously undermine Congressional opposition. As a result, those advocating for such opposition must be prepared to confront members of Congress, their staff, newspaper editorial boards, etc., with the reality that not every rhetorical attack against Israel reflects an actual, let alone an existential threat, and that not every threat against Israel represents a threat to the U.S. They should also be reminded, particularly recognizing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s penchant for ugly anti-Jewish rhetoric, that he is not the only power center in Iran (he is particularly less than all-powerful in the military), that his party suffered a serious electoral defeat after the Holocaust-denying conference, and that U.S. threats against Iran only serve to strengthen his sector of Iran’s elite.

What is the regional and international reaction?

Washington is attempting to win Arab government support for a U.S. or perhaps U.S.-backed Israeli attack on Iran, through two strategies. One involves the claimed concerns about an "extremist" or "rising Shi’a threat" to the region, in which the Bush administration wants to win "moderate" Arab governments to an anti-Iranian position. Its claimed basis is Iran’s support for anti-government forces in Lebanon (Hezbollah), Palestine (Hamas), and even Iraq (with several Shi’a militias, despite their strong backing from parts of the government and the parliament). There even seems to be some interest in trying to divide Syria from Iran.

The other strategy is reflected in the recent Bush administration moves to renew Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, including Condoleezza Rice’s trip to the region and the convening of the so-called "Quartet." The resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks (made more feasible after the Fatah-Hamas unity process in the recent Saudi-brokered Mecca Accord), however inconclusive, will allow Washington to push Arab governments to accept a U.S.-backed anti-Iran escalation on the grounds that Arab public opposition will fade because of a new initiative on Israel-Palestine. It is not likely to work, but weak and U.S.-dependent Arab regimes, still facing their own crises of legitimacy, may feel they have no choice but to comply.

The escalating threats against Iran are taking place at a moment in which failures
in Iraq are more obvious than ever, and in which the U.S. is again increasingly isolated internationally. Germany and Italy have issued arrest warrants against dozens of CIA agents involved in the kidnapping and "extraordinary rendition" of European citizens sent to be tortured around the world. Canada’s right-wing prime minister and former Bush-backer Stephen Harper publicly excoriated the White House for keeping Canadian citizen Maher Arar on the U.S. "no-fly" list despite Arar’s absolute exoneration (complete with official apology and an $8.5 million settlement) by Canada. Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned as "very dangerous" what he called Washington’s "unconstrained hyper-use of force." And even in loyal Britain, Tony Blair’s heir-apparent Gordon Brown has made clear he is considering a very different relationship with Washington than that of "Bush’s poodle." It is possible we are seeing the rise of a new incarnation of the anti-war "Old Europe" of the months before Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In Congress, there are a number of bills pending, including those by Republican former war-supporter-turned-critic Republican Congressman Walter Jones, and the courageous California Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who have introduced bills that take steps towards prohibiting a U.S. attack on Iran. While neither would absolutely prohibit any attack on Iran, both take significant steps towards using Congress’ Constitutional power of the purse to prohibit funding for "regime change" efforts and other attacks. Either of these bills could emerge as the new "Boland Amendment" for Iran - reclaiming the role of the 1982 bill that prohibited the Reagan administration from using U.S. funds in its covert contra war against Nicaragua. While the original Boland Amendment did not unequivocally cut off funds, it did capture the breadth of both public anger and congressional opposition to the war, forcing the administration to do an illegal end-run around Congress to continue funding the contras, ending up in what quickly became known as the "Iran-contra scandal" that nearly brought down the administration.

What does the peace movement need to do and to demand?

· Peace activists face a huge challenge of expanding our work - to challenge the possibility of a new war in Iran, without abandoning the on-going work to stop the war in Iraq. The peace movement must challenge both escalations now underway in Bush’s war: the so-called "surge" in Iraq, and the geographic expansion to Iran while continuing to call for a complete and immediate end to the entire war.

· No military attack on Iran - "even if" Iran sent some weapons into Iraq, or some day in the future decided to build a nuclear weapon, that does not justify a military attack.

· We should demand a Congressional "Boland Amendment" for Iran to preempt any funding for any attack on Iran. None of the current resolutions provide an absolute prohibition, but any of them could emerge as more politically powerful than their actual language.

· There must be diplomatic, not military engagement with Iran. Iran is not a threat to the U.S., so any attack would represent a preventive war, illegal in
international law.

· We need to build people-to-people ties between Americans and Iranians, including
work with the Iranian community in the United States. We must fight against the demonization that has historically allowed U.S. policy to impose crippling economic sanctions against the people of countries whose governments Washington opposes.

· In the long-term, we should support calls that have come from the Middle East for more than a quarter of a century to create a WMD-free or Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone
throughout the Middle East, including an end to Israel’s nuclear arsenal and a prohibition against U.S. nuclear-armed submarines or other nuclear weapons in the
area. We should demand that the U.S. implement its own 1991 call for a WMD-free zone, found in Article 14 of UN Security Council resolution 687 that ended the 1991
Gulf War.