The United States is stepping up its plans for military attacks on Iran, the British press reported this weekend. A confrontation around Iran’s nuclear energy and possible nuclear armament has apparently moved closer over the last week and a half, with potentially huge global repercussions.
The preparations of the US military are "more than just standard" and have "taken on much greater urgency in recent months", a senior Pentagon told the Sunday Telegraph. "Central Command and Strategic Command planners are identifying targets, assessing weapon-loads and working on logistics for an operation", the paper reported.
If such an airborne attack was carried out, up to 10,000 people could be killed, warned the Oxford Research Group in a new report - this is the same group which gave out warnings before the war in Iraq.
A year ago, the American journalist Seymour Hersh predicted that Iran would be the next target for the Bush administration. He had interviewed Bush’s top officers, who also said that the US would go through the UN this time.
Senator John McCain, lining up for the next presidential election, has already advocated a military attack on Iran as a "last resort". Top Democrats have given their support. Bush himself has not excluded an armed attack. The notorious Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, increased the heat in January by naming Iran as a "main sponsor" of terrorism. It is clear that a nuclear-armed Iran is felt as a threat against the hyper-power and its interests in the Middle East.
The US has the resources to attack, with hundreds of military fighter planes on carriers and bases such as the Diego Garcia. They could also use B2 bombers flying the whole way from Missouri.
An Islamic bomb?
Even if the Bush administration would want to attack, what are the political conditions? The world situation provides a number of restraining considerastions for Washington.
The occupation of Iraq has totally failed. The US troops have become rapidly demoralised, the resistance is increasing, oil production is lower than in 2003 and the promised democracy is a farce.
The election victory of Hamas in Palestine and the violent reaction against the Mohammed cartoons underlines the widespread hatred against imperialism, particularly the US, in the Middle East. There is a layer in Iran who previously had illusions in a US intervention, but opinion polls show that 80 per cent now support the right of Iran to develop nuclear power.
Bush is under pressure, however, not only from instability in the Middle East and public opinion against the war, but also from growing problems in the economy, not least in connection with high oil prices. World capitalism is dependent on Iran, the fourth biggest global oil producer.
War hawks say the "Islamic bomb" has to be stopped. But they avoid mentioning the Islamic regime in Pakistan, which has nuclear arms and was forgiven by the US since it joined the "war against terrorism". In addition, the nuclear technology that may be in use in Iran has been bought from the Pakistani nuclear bomb exporter, Abdul Qadeer Khan.
The farce is that the International Atomic Energy Authority, IAEA, since the inspections started three years ago, has failed to find any proof of Iran preparing a bomb. Even the CIA says it would take 5 to10 years if Iran starts now, and the British Institute for Strategic Studies says at least three years.
IAEA and the UN
From 3 to 4 February, the IAEA’s 35-member board decided to report the issue to the Security Council of the UN. Three governments - Cuba, Venezuela and Syria - voted against.
Russia has recently sold arms to Iran to the value of $1billion and is trading both oil and petrol with Tehran. Iran is China’s biggest contributor of imported oil. Yet both Russia and China voted in favour, following hard pressure from the US and because the regime in Tehran did not follow their advice to back down.
The decision still kept the door open until 6 March for Iran to retreat. And in the Security Council, it is still unlikely that China and Russia would vote for sanctions and even less for military action.
The issue of a possible nuclear weapon became hot when the US in 2003 got hold of evidence that uranium was being enriched at a plant in Natanz. A year earlier, George W Bush had named Iran as part of an "axis of evil" together with North Korea and Iraq. The enrichment in Natanz was confirmed by Tehran, who claimed it was for nuclear power, not arms.
Washington at that time discussed military options, but the ‘EU3’ - Britain, France and Germany - started negotiations with Iran. The EU3 opposed even enrichment of uranium for civilian use. Iran accepted an Additional Protocol to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) in November 2004. The Additional Protocol allows IAEA inspections in principle at any time and for any length of time, including in Natanz.
Since his election last year, the Iranian president, Ahmedinejad, has sharply attacked the US and Israel verbally - in the latter case including outright anti-Semitism. This as an attempt to increase support for the regime in a situation where discontent and workers’ struggle are increasing by the day.
In line with this, Ahmedinejad restarted the enrichment process in Natanz in January. Publicly he declares that the Western powers are imperialist and anti-Islam, trying to whip up a mood of "national pride" over the nuclear programmes.
In parallel, in January, the IAEA suddenly had new reports about "Green Salt", a name for uranium processing, in a project on missiles and high explosives. IAEA representatives close to the US also leaked an older document on nuclear weapons to the media.
This secured a majority for the US on the IAEA board. Russia, however, still maintains some hope that Tehran will agree to use uranium enriched in Russia. But Iran wants to continue with research, something the US claims is a cover-up for learning to produce a bomb.
Advocates of a military assault have made comparisons with Israel’s air strike that destroyed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear plant in Osirak in Iraq in 1981. But the circumstances today are completely different. Even the new boss of US intelligence, John Negroponte, has warned that a conflict could rapidly spread outside Iran. The increasing support for Hizbollah in Lebanon and for Hamas are pointing in that direction. Iran’s influence in Iraq, with a Shia Muslim majority, is already increasing. Iran is in fact a moderating factor for the resistance against the US-led occupation in Iraq.
Therefore, in the immediate perspective, the most likely perspective is that the US will not launch an attack, but rather hope that pressure can create splits in the Iranian regime.
After a period of "UN failure", an airborne assault - so far few have spoken about ground troops - is not ruled out, in an attempt to block an Iranian bomb and to save the prestige of US imperialism. But even militarily there is reason to doubt that the US can achieve its aim. Iran has spread its nuclear plants and facilities to up to 450 different places, many deep underground. Iran has also bought long distance robots for possible retaliation against US allies. In addition, the effects on the environment could be devastating if nuclear facilities are destroyed.
Even if the Bush administration is prepared to act, it is not certain that it can find a coalition of the willing for an assault. Japan and India have as big oil interests in Iran as China. The Japanese state oil company, Inpex, controls 75 per cent of the field in Azadegan, while China and India have 50 and 20 per cent respectively in Yadavaran. Those fields are among the biggest unexploited oil fields globally. The EU governments, on the other hand, want to maintain their trade with Iran and avoid disturbances, including possible terrorist attacks in their neighbourhood.
The Iranian government is banking on the US being weakened, and has seen that North Korea’s tough negotiating tactics, including nuclear threats, have put Washington under pressure. But the regime in Tehran deserves no support from anti-imperialists internationally. It is a brutal dictatorship oppressing workers and women. A military attack from the US, however, would not represent a rescue for them; it would temporarily strengthen the regime and create a second Iraq, accompanied by mass misery and terror. The only way out for the working class is through socialist struggle - against imperialism in the West and the present autocratic regime in Iran.