Alarm bells have been ringing, left and right. John Pilger, the radical journalist, wrote an article, Iran: The War Begins (New Statesman, 3 February), warning that a US air attack on Iran was imminent.
The US journalist, Seymour Hersh, reported that Bush had ordered the Pentagon to draw up plans for air strikes against Iran, and special US forces were already carrying out undercover operations inside Iran. (Guardian, 26 February) At the same time, the veteran cold-war warrior, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was warning the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) of a “plausible scenario for a military collision with Iran”. (1 February)
Aggressive propaganda from the Bush regime, backed by the deployment of a second US aircraft-carrier battle-group in the Persian Gulf, were widely interpreted as the prelude to a US – or US-backed Israeli – attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Bush appeared to be preparing the ground for a pre-emptive strike against Iran to counter its alleged intervention in Iraq and pre-empt its emergence as a nuclear power. Bush seemed to be defying overwhelming opposition in the US to escalation in Iraq and to extending the war to Iran.
Then, the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, announced (27 February) that the US, together with the other four UN Security Council powers, would be participating in two Middle East regional meetings on Iraq – involving both Syria and Iran. Bush officials acknowledged there would be informal ‘corridor talks’ between US and Iranian representatives.
Vice-president Cheney, leader of Washington’s increasingly isolated neo-con hawks, chorused ‘all options are still on the table’. But Rice claimed the meetings were a ‘new component’ in US diplomacy. Is this a U-turn for Bush, a retreat from confrontation? Or a diplomatic camouflage for military strikes? Or a combination of military threat and diplomacy?
Bush has undoubtedly stepped up the pressure against Iran in recent months, claiming that the Iranian regime has been supporting the insurgency in Iraq. Six Iranian diplomats were detained by US forces in Iraq, and Bush highlighted ‘intelligence’ that Iran is supplying sophisticated explosive devices to the Iraq insurgency – on the authority of Iran’s top leadership. The US, proclaimed Bush, would “interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria” and “seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weapons and training to our enemies in Iraq”.
Testifying to the foreign relations committee, Brzezinski, former national security adviser to president Carter, warned that elements in the Bush regime could be preparing a ‘provocation’ to justify a ‘defensive war’ against Iran. Members of the Washington foreign policy establishment, including James Baker, who led the Iraq Study Group inquiry, more far-sighted representatives of the ruling class than the Bush clique, warned the White House against another disastrous military adventure.
A senior member of the committee, Republican Chuck Hagel, warned Rice that the administration should not attempt another ‘Cambodia’. He was referring to Nixon’s adventure at the end of the Vietnam war, when he denied sending forces into Cambodia while in fact doing so. Hagel called Bush’s plan “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam… The kind of policy that the president is talking about here, it’s very, very dangerous”. (CNN News, 11 January)
Such action, Brzezinski warned the senators, would plunge “a lonely America into a spreading quagmire eventually ranging across Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan”.
The neo-con hawks aimed to use US imperialism’s overwhelming military power to strengthen its hegemony over the Middle East, and secure control of the region’s oil reserves. They boasted that regime change in Iraq would be the first step in a democratic transformation of the Middle East, code for installing compliant, pro-US regimes in major Arab states. Instead, Bush’s adventure in Iraq has revealed the limits of US power, creating a far more volatile situation. Representatives of Washington’s foreign policy, intelligence and military establishment are desperately seeking a way, in spite of Bush, of salvaging US power and prestige from the neo-con quagmire.
Most establishment strategists believe an attempt to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities would rebound on the US. The Iranian regime has learned the lesson of 1981, when the Israeli state bombed Saddam’s nuclear reactor at Osirak (shortly before it was due to become operational). Iran’s nuclear facilities have been dispersed, protected in underground sites. The US would have to target a dozen sites, which would cause horrendous casualties and destruction of the civilian infrastructure.
Frank Barnaby, a nuclear scientist now working for the Oxford Research Group, estimates that even such strikes would only set back Iran’s programme by about two years. In his ORG report, Would Air Strikes Work? (March 2007), Barnaby writes that, while Iran has undoubtedly been developing uranium enrichment facilities and research and development into the production of nuclear weapons, “there is no evidence to suggest that Iran has embarked on production engineering – putting in place the technical facilities needed to build a bomb – and it is known that it is some way off being able to produce the amount of fissile material needed to produce a nuclear weapon”.
US military attacks on Iran, however, would transform the situation: “If Iran’s nuclear facilities were severely damaged during an attack, it is possible that Iran could embark on a crash programme to make one nuclear weapon. In the aftermath of an attack, it is likely that popular support for an Iranian nuclear weapon capability would increase; bolstering the position of hardliners and strengthening arguments that Iran must possess a nuclear deterrent. Furthermore, Iran has threatened to withdraw from the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty] and, should it do so post-attack, would build a clandestine programme free of international inspection and control”.
An attack would unite the population against the US, strengthening the hard-line, nationalistic character of the regime. In spite of Sunni-Shia tensions and other ethno-religious conflicts (involving Baluchis, Turkomen, Kurds, etc), there would be an eruption of mass fury against US imperialism throughout the Middle East.
The survival of the US-British occupation forces in Iraq depends on the collaboration of the coalition government (currently headed by Maliki) dominated by the Shia parties, which have close links with the Iranian regime. If Tehran pushed for an all-out Shia offensive against the occupation, the position of the US and other imperialist forces would soon become completely untenable.
In the event of a US attack on Iran, regional conflicts would explode volcanically, particularly given the links between Hezbollah, Hamas and the Iranian regime. There would most likely be an increase in terrorist attacks against the West. By choking off oil exports to the west, Iran could provoke a world economic crisis.
The Iraq syndrome
Even some OF Bush’s top military commanders have publicly disassociated themselves from Bush’s threats against Iran. The commander of US forces in Iraq, General Peter Pace, “would not say” Iran’s leadership was directing attacks on US forces in Iraq by Iranian elements. He also told reporters, “we can take care of the security of our troops by doing the business we need to do inside Iraq”, that is, without intervention in Iran.
Bush’s ‘intelligence’ is now tainted by the ‘Iraq syndrome’. “The spectre of the war in Iraq – a war that the Bush administration denied it was planning, supported by evidence that turned out to be forced – looms large over administration policy towards Iran”. (Scepticism Over Iraq Haunts US Iran Policy, Washington Post, 15 February) After the phoney weapons of mass destruction (WMD) intelligence conjured up to justify the war against Iraq, there is almost universal scepticism about current intelligence claims.
According to the Bush camp, Iran is on the verge of completing large-scale production facilities for weapons-grade fissile material. Recalling the misinformation of US intelligence services regarding Saddam’s alleged WMD, “much of the intelligence on Iran’s nuclear facilities provided to UN inspectors by American spy agencies has turned out to be unfounded, according to diplomatic sources [IAEA officials] in Vienna”. (US Intelligence On Iran Does Not Stand Up, Guardian, 23 February) Most experts, however, including IAEA head, Mohamed ElBaradei, consider that Iran is at least five, and possibly ten, years away from the reprocessing of plutonium or enrichment of uranium necessary to produce even a small nuclear arsenal.
By joining talks on Iraq that include Syria and Iran, Bush, Rice and company appear to be adopting the Iraq Study Group’s position, ‘discussing with the US’s enemies’. Nevertheless, the threat of US imperialism’s force is still there. The presence of two major aircraft carriers in the Gulf shows that the US has the potential to launch air strikes against Iran at any time.
Moreover, in a change of tactics, the Bush regime has now decided to boost its support for the region’s Sunni regimes, particularly Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan. The neo-cons’ ‘democratic transformation’ of the region has been abandoned and, on recent trips to the Middle East, Rice has made no mention of ‘promoting democracy’. On 20 February, Rice met in Jordan with the intelligence chiefs of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE in a meeting widely seen in the region as preparing the ground for a new US-Sunni alliance.
Alarmed by the strengthening of Iran and the region’s Shia forces since the overthrow of Saddam’s regime, the Saudi monarchy has been deploying its enormous resources to mount a counter-offensive against Shia power. This undoubtedly includes support for right-wing Islamic groups using terrorist tactics.
US imperialism is playing a very dangerous game. An unintended outcome of smashing Saddam’s regime has been the strengthening of Iran’s regional power and influence. Now, despite facing a mainly Sunni insurgency in Iraq, the US is stepping up support for Sunni regimes that sponsor right-wing Sunni forces throughout the region. This can only inflame tensions, already rising, between sectarian forces throughout the region. Most of the anti-Shia groups, moreover, are also fanatically anti-US imperialism from their own right-wing, Islamist standpoint. Like US support for the mujaheddin in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Bush tactic is likely to rebound on the US in the future.
An Israeli attack?
The Bush regime, it seems, is now leaning towards diplomacy. Despite the continued threat of force, US air attacks on Iran do not seem the most likely course at present. But given the extreme tensions in world relations, it would be unwise to completely rule out military action by Bush.
Yet it would be disastrous for the US to bomb Iran, even from the standpoint of US imperialism. By invading Iraq, the Bush regime has already defied strategic rationality. Establishment figures like Brzezinski and Hagel fear that Bush will compound his mistakes on Iraq with an even more disastrous adventure against Iran.
The same applies to Israel. “An Israel air strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities”, commented the Financial Times (22 January), “would be a disaster of disasters”. Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has said he believes that international sanctions and financial measures against Iran are effective: “I think that the Iranians are not as close to the technological threshold as they claim to be and, unfortunately, they are not as far as we would love them to be”. (Financial Times, 5 March)
Following the defeat of his barbarous military attack on Lebanon last year, however, Olmert is under tremendous pressure from the Israeli right to act against Iran. For instance, Benyamin Netanyahu, Likud opposition leader, has used Ahmadinejad’s provocative attacks on Israel and his hosting of a holocaust-denial conference last year, to accuse the Iranian president of preparing a second holocaust in the region. Moreover, after recent elections, Olmert had to bring into his government Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the ultra-rightwing Our Home Israel Party, which stands for a greater Israel state excluding all Arab citizens.
The Israeli right claims that the very existence of Israel is threatened by Iran’s nuclear capacity – even though Israel has an enormous nuclear arsenal compared to Iran’s embryonic facilities. In this desperate situation, can it be excluded that Olmert, or another leader, could attempt to escape from a political crisis by recklessly attacking Iran?
Provocative, nationalistic statements from the president of Iran, Ahmadinejad, and his sponsorship of the notorious holocaust-denial conference, have given the impression that the Iranian regime is intransigent when it comes to security, ruling out any discussions about its nuclear processing programme. However, there are rival centres of power within the regime.
A section of the regime’s clerical wing, represented by figures like Rafsanjani, have powerful positions in leadership bodies. Rafsanjani favours a shift towards neo-liberal economic policies, which would require an accommodation with the US and an opening up to the world economy.
The ‘supreme leader’, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, holds the balance between rival factions. He evidently fears that Rafsanjani’s neo-liberal policies could erupt in social crisis. On the other hand, he has disassociated himself from some of Ahmadinejad’s confrontational rhetoric against US imperialism and the Israeli state.
The Iranian regime has embarked on a nuclear programme, almost certainly with the intention of developing the capacity to produce nuclear weapons, in response to threats of regime change from the US. While rejecting demands that they should abandon nuclear processing as a precondition for talks, the leadership might be ready to suspend the nuclear programme in return for a comprehensive deal with the US and other western powers. This would mean the abandonment of regime change by the US and the normalisation of Iran’s political and economic relations with the outside world.
Even if the US and Iran engage in bilateral negotiations, agreement would not be assured. Nevertheless, a tentative accommodation could emerge, as with the US and North Korea recently. Any deal would inevitably be extremely fragile. Leaving aside possible upheavals within Iran, the unresolved conflicts of the region, Israel-Palestine, Lebanon, etc, could erupt at any time, with new wars and civil wars, shattering any agreement between imperialism and regional regimes.
There has always been a cycle of events in the Middle East, alternating between armed conflict and ‘peace talks’. But there can be no lasting peace or harmonious cooperation between states within the crisis-ridden framework of imperialism and capitalism.
This is the editorial from the latest issue of Socialism Today