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Iran in the crosshairs again

Sabre rattling against Iran is nothing new, but that doesn’t mean the threat of war isn’t real. Phyllis Bennis analyses the situation in the wider Middle East

March 2, 2012
13 min read


Phyllis Bennis is Red Pepper’s United Nations correspondent, and a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.


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Here we go again with the Iran hysteria. It is tempting to think this time will be just like previous periods of sabre rattling against Iran. But there are significant new dangers. The Arab Spring, Israel’s position, changes in the regional and global balance of forces, and national election campaigns, all point to this round of anti-Iranian hysteria posing potentially graver risks than five or six years ago.

We have seen all this before. The US ratchets up its rhetoric, Israel threatens a military attack, escalating sanctions bite harder on the Iranian people, Iran refuses to back down on uranium enrichment. But at the same time, top US military and intelligence officials actually admit Iran does not have a nuclear weapon, is not building a nuclear weapon, and has not decided whether to even begin a building process.

In 2004 Israel’s prime minister denounced the international community for not doing enough to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon. In 2005 the Israeli military was reported to ‘be ready by the end of March for possible strikes on secret uranium enrichment sites in Iran’. In 2006 the US House Armed Services Committee issued a report drafted by one congressional staffer (an aide to hard-line pro-war John Bolton, then US ambassador to the UN), claiming that Iran was enriching uranium to weapons-grade 90 per cent. That same year a different Israeli prime minister publicly threatened a military strike against Iran. In 2008, George W Bush visited Israel to reassure them that ‘all options’ remained on the table.

The earlier crisis saw a very similar gap between the demonisation, sanctions, threats of military strikes against Iran, and the seemingly contradictory recognition by US, Israeli, United Nations and other military and intelligence officials that Iran actually did not possess nuclear weapons, a nuclear weapons programme, or even a decision to try to develop nuclear weapons.

The 2005 US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) determined that even if Iran decided it wanted to make a nuclear weapon, it was unlikely before five to ten years, and that producing enough fissile material would be impossible even in five years unless Iran achieved ‘more rapid and successful progress’ than it had so far. By 2007, a new NIE had pulled back even further, asserting ‘with high confidence that in fall 2003 Tehran halted its nuclear weapons programme … Tehran had not started its nuclear weapons programme as of mid-2007’. The NIE even admitted ‘we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons’. That made the dire threats against Iran sound pretty lame. So maybe it wasn’t surprising that Newsweek magazine described how, ‘in private conversations with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last week, the president all but disowned the document’.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA – the UN’s nuclear watchdog) issued report after report indicating it could find no evidence that Iran had diverted enriched uranium to a weapons programme. The UN inspection agency harshly rejected the House committee report, calling some of its claims about Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons activities incorrect, and others ‘outrageous and dishonest’. And outside of the Bush White House, which was spearheading much of the hysteria, members of Congress, the neo-con think tanks, hysterical talk show hosts, and much of the mainstream media went ballistic.

Then and now

All of that sounds very familiar right now. Military and intelligence leaders in Israel and the US once again admit that Iran does not have nukes. (Israel of course does, but no one talks about that.) Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta asked and answered his own Iran question: ‘Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No.’ Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, Jr. admitted the US does not even know ‘if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons’. The latest 2011 NIE makes clear there is no new evidence to challenge the 2007 conclusions; Iran still does not have a nuclear weapons programme in operation.

According to the Independent, ‘almost the entire senior hierarchy of Israel’s military and security establishment is worried about a premature attack on Iran and apprehensive about the possible repercussions.’ Former head of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said ‘it is quite clear that much if not all of the IDF leadership do not support military action at this point.’

But despite all the military and intelligence experts, the threat of war still looms. Republican candidates pound the lecterns promising that ‘when I’m president…’ Iran will accept international inspectors – as if the IAEA had not maintained an inspection team inside Iran for many years now. We hear overheated rumours of Iranian clerics promising nuclear weapons to their people – as if Iran’s leaders had not actually issued fatwas against nuclear weapons, something that would be very difficult to reverse.

Some strategic issues are indeed at stake, but the current anti-Iran mobilisation is primarily political. It doesn’t reflect actual US or Israeli military or intelligence threat assessments, but rather political conditions pushing politicians, here and in Israel, to escalate the fear factor about Iranian weapons (however non-existent) and the urgency for attacking Iran (however illegal). And the danger, of course, is that this kind of rhetoric can box leaders in, making them believe they cannot back down from their belligerent words.

Israel at the centre

One of the main differences from the propaganda run-up to the Iraq war is the consistent centrality of Israel and its supporters, particularly AIPAC in the US, in this push for war against Iran. Israel certainly jumped aboard the attack-Iraq bandwagon when it was clear that war was indeed inevitable, but US strategic concerns regarding oil and the expansion of US military power were first and primary. Even back then, Israel recognised Iran as a far greater threat than Iraq. And now, Israelis using that alleged threat to pressure US policymakers and shape US policy – in dangerous ways. During this campaign cycle, Obama is under the greatest pressure he has ever faced, and likely ever will face, to defend the Israeli position unequivocally, and to pledge US military support for any Israeli action, however illegal, dangerous, and threatening to US interests.

Iran simply is not, as former CIA analyst and presidential adviser Bruce Reidel makes clear, ‘an existential threat’ to Israel. Even a theoretical future nuclear-armed Iran, if it ever chose that trajectory, would not be a threat to the existence of Israel, but would be a threat to Israel’s longstanding nuclear monopoly in the Middle East. That is the real threat motivating Israel’s attack-Iran-now campaign. Further, as long as top US political officials, from the White House to Congress, are competing to see who can be more supportive of Israel in its stand-off with Iran, no one in Washington will even consider pressure on Israel to end its violations of international law and human rights regarding its occupation and apartheid policies towards Palestinians. Israel gets a pass.

Israel is more isolated in the region than ever before. The US-backed neighbouring dictatorships Israel once counted on as allies are being challenged by the uprisings of the Arab Spring. Egypt’s Mubarak was overthrown, the king of Jordan faces growing pressure at home, and the threats to Syria’s regime mean that Israel could face massive instability on its northern border – something Bashar al-Assad and his father largely staved off since Israel occupied the Syrian Golan Heights in 1967.

Syria’s two struggles in one

The calamity underway in Syria is also directly linked to the Iran crisis. There are two struggles going on in Syria, and unfortunately one may destroy the potential of the other. First was Syria’s home-grown popular uprising against a brutal government, inspired by and organically tied to the other risings of the Arab Spring, and like them calling first for massive reform and soon for the overthrow of the regime. Syria is a relatively wealthy and diverse country, in which a large middle class, especially in Damascus and Aleppo, had prospered under the regime, despite its political repression. As a result, unlike some other regional uprisings, Syria’s opposition was challenging a regime which still held some public support and legitimacy.

The regime’s drastic military assault on largely non-violent protests led some sectors of the opposition to take up arms, in tandem with growing numbers of military defectors, which of course meant waging their democratic struggle in the terrain in which the regime remains strongest: military force. The government’s security forces killed thousands, injuring and arresting thousands more, and in recent weeks even the longstanding support for Assad in Damascus and Aleppo began to waver. Simultaneously, attacks against government forces increased, and the internal struggle has taken on more and more the character of a civil war.

The further complication in Syria, and its link to Iran, is that it has simultaneously become a regional and global struggle. Syria is Iran’s most significant partner in the Middle East, so key countries that support Israel’s anti-Iran mobilisation have turned against Syria, looking to weaken Iran by undermining its closest ally. Perhaps because the Assad regimes have kept the occupied Golan Heights and the Israeli-Syrian border relatively quiet, Israel itself has not been the major public face in the regionalisation of the Syrian crisis. But clearly Saudi Arabia is fighting with Iran in Syria for influence in the region. The Arab League, whose Syria decision-making remains dominated by the Saudis and their allied Gulf petro-states (such as Qatar and the UAE), is using the Syria crisis to challenge Iran’s rising influence in Arab countries from Iraq to Lebanon. And of course the US, France and other Western powers have jumped on the very real human rights crisis in Syria to try to further weaken the regime there – in the interest again of undermining Iran’s key ally far more than out of concern for the Syrian people.

Diminishing US power

Facing economic crisis, military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the loss or weakening of key client states in the Arab world, the US is weaker and less influential in the Middle East. But maintaining control of oil markets and US strategic capacity are still key regional goals for the US, which means that military power remains central. The nature of that military engagement is changing – away from large-scale deployments of ground troops in favour of rapidly expanding fleets of armed drones, special forces, and growing reliance on naval forces, navy bases and sea-based weapons.

Thus the US backs Saudi intervention in Bahrain to insure the US Fifth Fleet maintains its Bahraini base; Washington’s escalating sanctions give the West greater leverage in control of oil markets; the Iranian rhetorical threat to close the Strait of Hormuz (only in desperation since it would prevent Iran from exporting its own oil) is used to justify expansion of the US naval presence in the region. Along with the possibility of losing Syria as a major military purchaser and regional ally, concerns about those US strategic moves played a large part of Russia’s veto of the UN resolution on Syria.

In Iran, the pressure is high and the sanctions are really starting to bite, with much greater impact felt by the Iranian population, rather than the regime in Tehran. The assassination of Iranian nuclear experts, particularly the most recent murder of a young scientist which was greeted by Israeli officials with undisguised glee and barely-disguised triumph, are more likely aimed at provoking an Iranian response than actually undermining Iran’s nuclear capacity. So far, Iran has resisted the bait. But if Israel makes good on its threat of a military strike – despite the virtually unanimous opposition of its own military and intelligence leadership – there is little reason to imagine that Iran would respond only with words. The US and Israel are not the only countries whose national leaders face looming contests; Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and its president face huge political challenges as well.

The consequences of a strike against Iran would be grave – from attacks on Israeli and/or US military targets, to going after US forces in Iran’s neighbours Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait, to attacks on the Pentagon’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, to mining the Strait of Hormuz … and beyond. An attack by the US, a nuclear weapons state, on a non-nuclear weapons state such as Iran, would be a direct violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran might kick out the UN nuclear inspectors. The hardest of Iran’s hard-line leaders would almost certainly consolidate ever greater power – both at home and in the Arab countries, and the calls to move towards greater nuclearisation, perhaps even to build a nuclear weapon, would rise inside Iran. Indeed, the Arab Spring’s secular, citizenship-based mobilisations would likely lose further influence to Iran – threatening to turn that movement into something closer to an ‘Islamic Spring’.

Nuclear weapons-free zone

At the end of the day the crisis can only be solved through negotiations, not threats and force. Immediately, that means demanding that the White House engage in serious, not deliberately time-constrained negotiations to end the current crisis – perhaps based on the successful Turkish-Brazilian initiative that the US scuttled last year. That means that Congress must reverse its current position to allow the White House to use diplomacy – rather than continuing to pass laws that strip the executive branch of its ability to put the carrot of ending sanctions on the table in any negotiations. And it means an Iran policy based on the real conclusions of US intelligence and military officials, that Iran does not have and is not building a nuclear weapon, rather than relying on lies about non-existent nuclear weapons, like the WMD lies that drove the US to war in Iraq.

In the medium and longer term, we must put the urgent need for a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East back on the table and on top of our agenda. Such a multi-country move would insure Iran would never build a nuclear weapon, that Israel would give up its existing 200 to 300 high-density nuclear bombs and the submarine-based nuclear weapons in its arsenal, and that the US would keep its nuclear weapons out of its Middle East bases and off its ships in the region’s seas. Otherwise, we face the possibility of the current predicament repeating itself in an endless loop of Groundhog Day-style nuclear crises, each one more threatening than the last.

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Phyllis Bennis is Red Pepper’s United Nations correspondent, and a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.


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