Stopping the War on Iran, Before It Starts

I have thought for a long time now that the U.S. would attack Iran. I know that the experts have said this simply isn’t possible so long as the U.S. is bogged down in Iraq, and that Jack Straw has stated pretty clearly that Britain won’t be on board if the U.S. decides to use its “military option.” U.S. domestic opposition to the war on Iraq has slowly risen to about 55%, and there is no groundswell for a third war in Southwest Asia. But the U.S. has for several years called openly for “regime change” in Tehran, and while early on during the Bush administration Colin Powell’s State Department opted to court reformers in the Iranian government, the neocons in power have long since put their bets of the underground opposition. They don’t negotiate with evil, as they like to say; they plan to defeat it.

Condi Rice has once again denounced the Iranian regime as bent on “political subversion, terrorism, and support for violent Islamist extremism,” and (as the neocons always do) depicted Iran as “a strategic challenge” not just to the Bush administration but to “the world,” “the international community.” U.S. arm-twisting of the IAEA has paid off to the extent that the agency has found Iran “in non-compliance” with the Non-Proliferation Treaty and seems poised to “report” or “refer” Iran to the UN Security Council for some sort of action next month. To the chagrin of many (including myself) the Indians, Russians and Chinese caved in to the tendentious, selective statement on Iran earlier this month, joining forces with the U.S. and lending credence to the Bushites’ depiction of Iran as a lawless loner defying the whole of respectable humanity. Whatever happens in March, Bush will be able to use as political capital the September and February IAEA statements as he goes to the American people seeking support for some further action.

Just as it built the case against Iraq, the administration has tirelessly prepared its brief against Iran, discarding no exile’s report nor putative terror link as implausible, no assessment of nuclear capability as alarmist. It’s rushed to make bold charges (about traces of enriched uranium on centrifuges purchased from Pakistan) that it has had to quietly drop. Washington obviously wants to find reasons to attack Iran, and would be delighted to discover a full-fledged illegal nuclear weapons program buried in the bowels of the Islamic Republic. That’s why the Iranian nuclear program is all over the front pages, and why the embedded press has taken to alluding matter-of-factly to “Iran’s nuclear weapons program.” (As though it, in its journalistic objectivity, knows there is such a thing, and that that the journalist’s job is to encourage anxiety about it!)

There’s surely enough material to fill up another hour of the UN’s time should Rice decide to follow Colin Powell’s act in February 2003 and ask the “international community” to validate another criminal assault on a sovereign state. All of this vilification of Iran has to be leading to something. But to what? A Security Council debate producing sanctions against Iran? That’s apparently John Bolton’s optimal scenario. It seems unlikely, given Russian and Chinese veto threats, but the representatives of both these countries caved in unexpectedly at the last IAEA vote. The Security Council may well deliberate, keeping the Iranian “threat” in the news, but deadlock over any action, allowing Bush to declare, “We tried to get the UN to act rationally, to confront the clear danger from Iran, but some nations putting narrow selfish interests first have proved unhelpful. Therefore we must again act with a coalition of our friends to do what needs to be done to meet this terrorist threat.”

Were there nothing to gain from this procedure, the U.S. wouldn’t be working overtime to bring Iran before the Security Council. There must be some game plan to activate once the UN ritual’s done. Perhaps a couple game plans whose advocates quietly tussle behind the scenes in the highly secretive Bush White House and Pentagon. Scott Ritter suggested last June that the U.S. would use air and land forces based in Azerbaijan and “the coastal highway running along the Caspian Sea from Azerbaijan to Tehran” in an attack on Iran. Another script involves the seizure of the ethnically Arab and oil-rich province of Khuzestan. A “shock & awe” hit on Iran’s dispersed nuclear facilities is apparently part of any plan, although some plans leave this mission up to the Israelis and their U.S.-supplied bunker-busters. In any U.S. operation the Mujahadeen Khalq would be deployed to engage in what Washington would in other contexts surely describe as “terrorist” actions.

All these possibilities seem so stupid from the vantage point of the imperialists’ own interests that one is tempted to dismiss them. How can they afford to provoke Shiite outrage in occupied Iraq, where their troops are both hated and overextended as it is? How can they risk the massive expansion of hostilities on Israel’s northern border? How can they imagine that an attack would meet with popular enthusiasm, and produce from out of nowhere a pro-U.S. regime—rather than unite civil society behind the Ahmadinejad and the mullahs? It just wouldn’t make sense.

But is all the administration’s rhetoric, growing shriller by the month, so much sound and fury, signifying nothing? That wouldn’t make sense either. My best bet is that failing to force through a resolution imposing sanctions on Iran, Washington will bully its allies, who a year ago traded grudging U.S. support for the “E3”-Iran talks for the European promise to support punitive sanctions should Tehran continue to insist on its right to enrich uranium, into applying such sanctions. Iran will then settle comfortably enough into an axis of convenience involving China, the number one customer for its oil, and Russia, its key partner in nuclear technology.

Why would Europe comply with a scheme that would raise its petroleum prices and threaten its considerable investments in Iran? Perhaps it sees such sacrifices as the price for healing the rift that opened as the U.S. prepared its aggression against Iraq. Perhaps it surmises that the U.S. is in decline, and that the dollar will weaken and the euro strengthen as Iran sets up its euro-based petroleum exchange. Perhaps it is responding to quiet threats from the notorious Ambassador Bolton. In any case, if the goal is to cap these many months of bluster with some concrete bullying achievement paving the way for further action down the line, a sanctions regime imposed not by the “international community” but merely by the U.S. and its allies might be the best the neocons can do for the time being.

Failing, for a second time, to validate Washington’s regime change plans in the region, the UN will draw the administration’s fire. The neocons will accomplish one of their central goals by effectively crippling the international body, while continuing to posture as the tribune of the “international community.” These thugs care nothing, of course, about global public opinion. But they are keenly interested in shaping U.S. opinion and acquiring the freedom to move forward with whatever strategy for empire opportunity might afford them down the road. If an Iraq-style invasion isn’t yet in the cards, at least a UNSC debate would as reported through the corporate press show the American people who “their” friends are and make a future attack seem more palatable. If discussion results, as expected, in one or more “no” votes, the administration will say that its friends are on one side (Good), Iran and its friends on the other (Evil), and the UN unwilling to take sides “irrelevant.” Posing as chiefs of the camp of the Good, the unilateralist neocons having shuffled off the coil of international accountability will do whatever they think necessary to control the Middle East.

Meantime, as the UN showdown approaches, and as the rumors of war proliferate, the antiwar movement ought not assume that the mad is entirely out of the question. Cheney asked Stratfor last summer to draw up a plan for a large-scale air assault on Iran, employing both conventional and tactical nuclear weapons, to be immediately implemented in the wake of a terrorist attack (of any origin) on the U.S. If he is imagining the unimaginable, so must we if we want to prevent it.

Belatedly, an organization specifically formed to oppose war on Iran has been announcing itself through mass emails soliciting endorsements., noting that “Just as in the case of Iraq, none of the claims made by the U.S. government stand up to unbiased scrutiny,” and urges “an immediate end to Washington’s campaign of sanctions, hostility, and falsehood against the people of Iran.” It opposes “any new U.S. aggression against Iran.” The group is international, its statement initially endorsed by Ramsey Clark, Howard Zinn, George Galloway, Tony Benn, Harold Pinter, and Margarita Papandreou among others. While all paying attention puzzle about the possible outcomes of the U.S.’s anti-Iran campaign, I urge everyone with a conscience to sign this statement.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

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Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: