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The confrontation is coming

Friday 2 March 2007, by SAMAN SEPEHRI

WHAT WAR with Iran would look like,” reads the cover of the September 25 Time magazine. In the cover story, Michael Duffy writes, “A flurry of military maneuvers in the Middle East increases speculation that conflict with Iran is no longer so unthinkable.” Citing Iran’s recent month-long military exercises, and the United States’ hasty deployment to the Persian Gulf of the Eisenhower aircraft carrier group-“The Ike Strike”-a full month ahead of schedule, both the Time article and Dave Lindorff of the Nation have raised the possibility of a military confrontation with Iran. This would be just in time for Iran’s dossier to surface in the United Nations Security Council in late October, as the United States and Britain yet again try to force through sanctions against Iran for failing to end its uranium enrichment program.

Accused of developing nuclear weapons under the veil of a civilian nuclear energy program, Iran has been threatened with sanctions through the United Nations, and given several direct ultimatums by the United States to stop its uranium enrichment and nuclear development program.

While negotiations have officially been going on, the United States and its ally Israel have been making plans for possible strikes against Iran’s nuclear sites, and a possible invasion, for months. As far back as January 2005, Seymour Hersh, writing in the New Yorker, detailed the plans and preparations by the United States for an attack on Iran, revealing that American commandos had already been conducting secret reconnaissance missions inside Iran. And the London Times exposed training exercises by Israeli military commandos at a mock-up of Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment site and other nuclear facilities.

Then in April 2006, Seymour Hersh’s follow-up article in the New Yorker highlighted the discussions within the administration in which they were weighing the possible use of small tactical nuclear weapons to destroy Iran’s nuclear research facilities.

On the other hand, some in antiwar circles, including figures such as Noam Chomsky, have been somewhat skeptical that the U.S. is in any position to strike Iran, given its troubled occupation of Iraq. Despite detailed plans and the stated intent of the Bush administration to overthrow the Iranian regime, multiple deadlines set by the administration have passed and the “impending invasion” has been postponed repeatedly. In effect, these discussions have taken on a “boy who cried wolf” character.

Does this lack of resolve signal that the United States will not carry through with their plans to attack or change the regime in Iran? Not likely. These delays, however, do reflect real difficulties for the U.S. in carrying out such a campaign, as well as the divisions among American rulers about the feasibility and success of launching such an attack.

Why is Iran important?

Iran is central to U.S. plans for reshaping the Middle East. It possesses a combination of energy resources, strategic location, economic potential, and political weight (as witnessed recently by its support of Hezbollah during the war on Lebanon) that no other country in the region can match. The architects of the Bush Doctrine have set as their goal prevention of any competitors (i.e., Europe, China, Russia, or Japan) from rising to a level to challenge U.S. hegemony in the future. An important part of this project is the control of strategic resources such as oil and natural gas, which the U.S. can use as a chokehold on its competitors.

According to Oil and Gas Journal, Iran sits on top of the second largest untapped oil reserves in the world, 125.8 billion barrels [after Saudi Arabia (260 billion) and ahead of Iraq (115 billion)], and also the second largest natural gas reserves (with Russia having the largest reserves). It has a capacity to almost double its present oil production with some investment in its oil industry, and 80 percent of its gas reserves are untapped.

But to focus on Iran’s energy resources is to miss its broader strategic importance in the area, and globally. With a population of seventy million, nearly three times that of Iraq or Saudi Arabia, a highly developed infrastructure, an educated and technically proficient population, and sizable armed forces, Iran is the dominant regional power in the Persian Gulf, where two-thirds of world’s oil reserves lie.

Despite years of pressure by the U.S. and until recently limited foreign investment, Iran has developed an economy that is larger than Israel’s and twice the size of Egypt’s or Pakistan’s. Buoyed by high oil prices, Iran’s economy has been growing at a robust rate of 7 percent over the past several years; the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increasing by 60 percent over just four years.

European economies (notably France and Germany), China, and Japan have developed extensive ties with Iran, where recent privatization and joint ventures have created opportunities for investment. For example, French automakers Renault and Peugeot, Japan’s Nissan, and Germany’s Mercedes Benz have production lines in Iran, and are expanding operations to not only fulfill Iran’s domestic market, but for exports to Asia, Africa, and Western Europe. Iran is also involved in joint auto ventures in China and Venezuela, and is expected to start auto exports to Croatia and Latin America next year.

It is therefore no surprise that some of the European allies of the U.S., as well as China and Russia, are less enthusiastic about U.S.-peddled sanctions on Iran. The Wall Street Journal, in a September 21 article, highlighted Iran’s trade ties, showing how any sanctions pushed by the U.S. would greatly affect Washington’s European and Asian competitors:

Through July of this year, the U.S. imported a minuscule $99 million of goods from Iran, while shipping to Iran $55 million of goods…. The other Security Council members have seen their business with Iran increase. Their total trade with Iran is on track to top $22 billion this year, up from $18 billion in 2005.

While part of the growth reflects the higher cost of Iran’s oil, the trade is broader: Iran buys German steel, French cars, Russian armaments and Chinese air conditioners. The European Union accounts for more than a third of Iran’s total trade with the world. China’s exports to Iran have tripled in four years.

While the U.S. would face little economic loss from sanctions on Iran, the cost would be far higher for other major powers. This year, China’s exports to Iran are up 25 percent. Chinese companies shipped nearly $400 million of air conditioners, engines, washing machines and other such machinery to Iran in the first six months of 2006, as well as $300 million in tractors, trucks and other vehicles. Dozens of Chinese construction companies are engaged in Iran, on work ranging from Tehran’s transit system and power plants to merchant ships.

Meanwhile, in the first half of this year, energy-hungry China imported $5.16 billion of oil from Iran, a 56 percent increase from the pace of imports in 2005…Germany is Iran’s largest supplier of foreign goods, with exports last year of more than $5.4 billion.

What concerns Washington is not only Iran’s economic ties with U.S. competitors, but the way in which those ties are helping Iran to secure its role as a key regional power in the Middle East outside Washington’s control. In February 2000, Iran set a goal of “Cooperation among Iran, Russia, India and China to confront the hegemonic policies of America,” and it has implemented this foreign policy with economic, energy and military deals.
Today, Russia is building Iran’s Bushehr nuclear plant in the south and developing the security and defense systems for not only the Bushehr plant, but for all of Iran’s enrichment facilities. China is not only a major trading partner and importer of Iranian oil and natural gas, but in 2004 China signed a deal with Iran worth as much as $100 billion, to buy Iranian oil and help develop Iran’s giant natural gas fields. India is developing long-term energy ties with Iran, and helping upgrade Iran’s military. In January 2005, Gas Authority of India, Limited (GAIL) signed a thirty-year deal worth $50 billion, which includes transfer of liquified natural gas as well as development of Iranian gas fields.

More importantly, Iranian, Indian, and Pakistani officials are discussing a $4 billion pipeline project which would take Iranian gas via Pakistan to India, a real coup in relations between India and Pakistan-two long-term adversaries. Furthermore, India, has agreed to upgrade Iran’s Russian-made MiG fighters and Kilo class submarines. India and Iran also held their first ever joint naval exercises in September 2004.

The United States is trying to break this cooperation with the offer of nuclear energy assistance to India, under its new program of promoting nuclear energy in developing countries, called Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). This cooperation is designed to stop India’s gas deal with Iran, and move India away from the developing China-Iran bloc.

This deal has effectively rewritten the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by offering assistance to a non-signatory, India, which is prohibited under the NPT, while the U.S. is pursuing Iran for supposed violations of the same treaty.

The lies and deception of the U.S. campaign about Iran’s nuclear program have also escalated. An August 23 staff report of the House of Representatives Committee on Intelligence falsely reported that Iran was currently enriching “weapons grade Uranium” and removing International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors. These accusations provoked the IAEA to send an unprecedented letter to the U.S. Congress “taking strong exception” to the House of Representatives report on Iran’s nuclear activities for containing “erroneous, misleading and unsubstantiated information” and “outrageous and dishonest” suggestions.

Though Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction were a greater mirage than Iran’s nuclear program, most reports put Iran years away from producing a nuclear weapon. The U.S. is using the nuclear issue as a pretext for ratcheting up hostilities or launching an attack. Moreover, while the U.S. is happy to have nuclear allies such as Israel and India, it is none too happy with the prospect of a nuclear-capable adversary like Iran.

This is all the more important since not only has Iran become a focal point of resistance to the U.S. in the Middle East, but it has also developed closer relations with those challenging U.S. hegemony globally. Iran enjoys close ties with the Hezbollah in Lebanon and has substantial influence with Iraq’s Shiite parties, which is of great concern to the U.S. occupying forces in Iraq.

Iran has also found a partner in challenging the U.S. in Venezuela. The previous administration of Iran’s reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, and Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela, forged close economic ties. Iran is investing in auto parts production, oil exploration and processing in Venezuela, and has also become a conduit for Chinese investment in Venezuela’s oil industry.

More importantly, Iran has teamed up with Venezuela’s Chávez and Cuba to publicly challenge U.S. imperialism. Iran’s current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, spent several days in Caracas before traveling to Cuba with Chávez to attend the conference of the Non-Aligned Movement, and then the opening of the United Nations general session. Their speeches and promotion of the Non-Aligned Movement as a voice for the Third World in the United Nations and against imperial powers was well rehearsed, highly coordinated, and effective.

Ahmadinejad and Chávez repeated the same themes in their speeches at the UN: Confronting U.S. and Great Britain, building the resistance of the poorer Third World nations of the “South” against the imperial “North,” condemning the “special privileges” of the permanent members of the Security Council which make them and their close allies immune to international law, reforming the UN to make it egalitarian and not just a tool of imperial powers (like inclusion of permanent members on the Security Council from the Third World). When Ahmadinejad addressed the UN General Assembly in September, he said:

The question needs to be asked: if the government of the United States or United Kingdom who are permanent members of the Security Council commit aggression, occupation and violation of international law, which of the organs of the UN can take them to account? Can a council which they are privileged members address their violations? Has this ever happened? In fact we have repeatedly seen the reverse. If they have differences with a nation or a state they drag it to the Security Council, and as claimants arrogate to themselves simultaneously the role of prosecutor, judge and executioner.

Their speeches received a warm reception but also set the stage for a challenge to any possible resolutions that condemn or try to impose sanctions on Iran, should they get past Chinese and Russian opposition and European apprehension, on the grounds of the undemocratic nature of the UN Security Council.

Far from being isolated, Iran is becoming a focal point of opposition to the U.S. and an ally of its potential challengers. The U.S. will not settle with a negotiated resolution of the conflict it has raised over Iran’s nuclear program, because its goal ultimately is regime change.


The war on Lebanon was a dress rehearsal for the coming confrontation with Iran. As a Jordanian intelligence officer told Ted Koppel writing for the New York Times: “The United States is already at war with Iran; but for the time being the battle is being fought through surrogates.”

The U.S. and Israel hoped to secure Israel’s northern border and neutralize the threat of Hezbollah, which they saw as a possible way Iran could retaliate in case of a U.S.-Israeli attack. They hoped to hand Iran a defeat by showing it cannot protect its regional allies, Hezbollah and Syria, in the process prying away Syria from Iran.

Israel’s attack on Lebanon tested the relative strength of U.S. and Israel against Hezbollah and gave them a chance to try out their tactics and weapons, such as the bunker-buster bombs that were rushed to Israel to be used against Hezbollah’s underground fortifications.

Weapons and tactics that did not work had to be reevaluated for the replay-the conflict with Iran. The air campaign has to be rethought, and weapons upgraded. Given the ineffectiveness of U.S. bombs against Hezbollah installations, even the debate about using small nuclear bunker busters as the only effective weapon against Iran’s nuclear installations may be reopened.

The Israeli-U.S. war on Lebanon had a number of effects, none of which were good news for Israel or the United States:

1) Resistance of Hezbollah to the Israeli war machine did great damage to the myth of Israeli invincibility, and gave credence to the idea that Israel and the U.S. can be defeated. In this Hezbollah succeeded where all Arab governments had failed, and most Arab national movements had floundered.

2) This resistance captured the imagination of the people of the region-the so-called Arab street-and launched Hezbollah to the forefront of resistance in the area against U.S. domination (with Hamas being the second front).

3) The support for Hezbollah-a Shiite party-cemented the unity of Sunni and Shiites, cutting against the divisions that sectarian violence in Iraq has fomented (at the height of the Israeli slaughter in Lebanon, even a majority of Lebanese Christians, usually hostile to Arab nationalism and friendly to the West, supported the resistance of Hezbollah as a national cause).

4) The fact that this unity was brought about under the flag of a Shiite party-with demonstrations of support in Sunni streets of Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine-was also significant.

Even after the ceasefire, when George Bush was droning on about how it would become clear that this was a defeat for Hezbollah, and the Israeli government was teetering on the edge of scandal and collapse, Hezbollah traded their guns for shovels overnight and started the task of digging out and reconstruction. And while international aid for Lebanon was being debated by the great powers of the West, Hezbollah, likely with Iran’s help, announced an aid package pledging to pay for a year’s worth of housing for families who had lost their homes to Israel’s bombs. No doubt all this has helped raise the stature of Iran in the minds of those opposed to U.S. Imperialism and Israeli domination in the region.

Iran is the main threat to U.S. and Israeli hegemonic control in the Middle East. This has nothing to do with the lies and rhetorical hyperbole about how Iran is about to wipe Israel off the map. Israel has the fourth largest armed forces in the world, possesses a robust and not-so-secret arsenal of more than 200 nuclear weapons, and is fully backed by the United States. The danger comes from the ascendancy of the Iranian regime, which has bucked the United States, and has successfully challenged its power.

Arab-Israeli alliance?

The United States has in the past been the conduit for coordination of policies between its Arab allies-Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan-and its watchdog Israel. There have even been tense relations (and wars) between these Arab and Israeli allies in the past. But in the face of Iran’s ascendance, Israel is today making a direct appeal for alliance to these Arab regimes. Speaking during the war on Lebanon to the Council on Foreign Relations, the Labor Party’s Shimon Peres spelled this out:

There are clearly two trends, one run by Iranians to introduce a Muslim hegemony of their taste, a Shi’ite one; and the Arab countries, who want to remain in charge of the Middle East. They think it’s their region; it’s not a Persian region, it’s an Arab region. And they think this may put an end to their character, to their destiny...
Iran wants also to change the character of Syria even to the point of they want to convert the Syrians from being Sunnites to become Shi’ites, and clearly, they have an eye on Iraq as well. If they will win, it will be catastrophic all over the world…. Probably then, you have many of the Arab countries for the first time that are supporting an Arab struggle or a Lebanese struggle. Among them is Saudi Arabia, which feels that if Iran will win, they will lose.

The lines drawn by Peres are clear: Israel has common interest with, and is a defender of Arab countries against the Persian (Iranian) menace and a defender of Sunni Arabs, against Shiites. The Wall Street Journal reported on October 3, “Israel’s outreach to moderate Arab states gained momentum last month when during the United Nations meeting in New York Israeli officials held private meetings with officials from Persian Gulf countries regarding Iran,” though Israel refused to name the states since it has no official relations with most Arab countries.

The way forward

The relative victory of Hezbollah and Iran, the bloodied nose of Israel and the United States, and the strengthening of Iran vis-à-vis the U.S., Israel, and the pro-U.S. Arab regimes (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia) cannot be a stable and acceptable long-term arrangement to the United States. Iran’s gains have exposed the difficulties in facing off with Iran, causing divisions within the U.S. ruling class about how to proceed. But they have also made it imperative to the U.S. that Iran’s gains be reversed.

Yet if there are divisions about how to proceed, there is unity about the necessity of curbing the Iranian regime. Different wings of the current administration, the Pentagon, the State Department, the CIA, the office of the Vice President (where much of the hawkish posturing originates); both the Republican Party and the Democrats, from Barack Obama to Hillary Rodham Clinton, are all united on the “necessity” of curtailing Iran’s growing influence.

They all agree on a few things: the Iranian regime is the biggest obstacle to the interests of the United States and its surrogate Israel, in their plans to control the Middle East; since the invasion of Iraq, Iran has grown stronger, more influential, and more entrenched in the region, and has become the focal point of resistance to U.S. hegemony; the immense strategic importance of the Middle East, means the U.S. cannot simply retreat or in Republican lingo “cut and run”; and finally, there is no alternative but to “deal with” the Iranian regime.

On the other hand, if the U.S. is successful in regime change, given Iran’s strategic and economic weight, a U.S.-friendly regime in Iran could become the anchor of U.S. control of Middle East oil resources, economies, and markets.

The U.S. plan was to use the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as stepping stones helping to make the job of regime change in Iran easier. But the resistance in Iraq to the U.S. invasion and spiraling violence, the resurgence of violence in Afghanistan, and the resistance of Hezbollah to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, have all made the U.S. position less tenable. The U.S. administration is less credible and in a weaker position than it was a year or two ago.

However, the fact that things have not gone according to Washington’s plans, has not diminished the importance of curtailing, weakening, and changing the regime in Iran. Iran’s relative strengthening has made it more urgent-more difficult, but also more urgent-for the United States to deal with the Iranian regime. This is reflected in the divisions between those in the administration and the United States’ ruling class, who emphasize the difficulties and the need to “get it right,” and those (Cheney’s office and cronies) who emphasize the urgency and are pushing for a more aggressive posture. And it might take the Democratic Party to finish the job of confronting Iran if the Republicans are unable to do so.

There is no alternative for the United States. The U.S. cannot just concede the Middle East. Whatever the difficulties, it will not walk away from the most important strategic area in a world economy defined by greater energy needs.

The United States is not out of options in its dealings with Iran. There is still a possibility of pushing through certain scaled down resolutions through the UN Security Council to force other countries to curb trade with Iran (if we can’t have Iran-you can’t either), cutting Iran’s economic ties, and weakening its economy. There is the possibility of using such UN resolutions as a fig leaf (just like in the invasion of Iraq) for more aggressive tactics when the time comes-such as harassment, ship searches, and a blockade of goods traveling into Iran’s ports with the excuse of stopping military and nuclear shipments. This would certainly bottle up the Iranian navy, and prevent the possible closing or mining of the Strait of Hormuz by Iran in retaliation for a U.S. attack-a serious concern since about half of the world’s oil exports travel through this twenty-mile wide waterway. This “soft blockade” could also provoke an “incident” which could be used as a pretext to launch wider assaults.

And finally, taking a page out of the Iraq playbook, the United States has already started a campaign of destabilization through fomenting ethnic unrest. There have already been a series of explosions and bombings targeting mostly civilians, in Khuzestan and Kurdish cities bordering Iraq, and raids on government vehicles and even civilians in Baluchestan, on the Pakistani border, by small groups which have surfaced calling for independence. Given the Iranian regime’s history of repression, the demands for autonomy and independence, especially in Kurdistan, can actually strike a chord and mesh with real grievances. This crisis may take time to develop. Or an incident in the Persian Gulf may accelerate the pace of events. But the confrontation with Iran will come. It will be our job in the U.S. to organize a movement against yet another U.S. military adventure in the Middle East.

Siaman Sepehri is author of “The Geopolitics of Oil” (ISR 26, November-December 2002) and “The Iranian Revolution” (ISR 9, August-September 2000).