If you ask Iranians, they will tell you that the war against Iran has already begun. Some will take you back to 1953, when the US fired its first shot across the bow, taking out a democratically elected government in a CIA coup. Others will point to the political and financial subvention given to Saddam Hussein by the Atlantic states and the Gulf emirs to invade Iran and crush the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Millions died in that futile war, whose conclusion left a battered Saddam turning to the Gulf Arabs, an unpaid bill in hand. It was the Gulf Arab reticence to pay up that led to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and the full-scale entry of US troops into Saudi Arabia (which enraged Osama Bin Laden and his minions) and into a decades long war against Iraq (1991-2011). This is all true as context: there has been a long-standing animosity between the Atlantic powers and Iranian democratic ambitions.
Iran’s democratic heritage extends backwards to its great Constitutional Revolution (1905-06) that raised the spirits of a resurgent Asia. The British and the Russians signed an entente to strangle the revolution. The British Ambassador to Tehran, Sir Cecil Spring Rice wrote to the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, “We are regarded as having betrayed the Persian people.” That assessment remains to this day.
More recently, the Atlantic world has conducted a war against Iran on three fronts:
Diplomatic. Having knocked out Iran’s two neighboring adversaries (Saddam Hussein and the Taliban) by 2003, the United States delivered Tehran with an enormous gift. The new regimes in Kabul and Baghdad had close ties to the Iranians, and the latter were prepared to exert themselves to help bring some measure of stability to their neighbors. But the Bush administration would have none of it. It saw Iran through the eyes of Tel Aviv, as the Great Satan to be given its deliverance. To that end, the Bush administration began a diplomatic campaign to isolate Iran.
What this required was to try futilely to shut out the Iranians from their neighbors. It also required that Iran be isolated from the Global South. The lever there was to break India’s close solidarity with Iran. In 2005, Condoleezza Rice traveled to India to offer to bring New Delhi out of the nuclear cold and recognize its nuclear program if India voted with the United States in the International Atomic Energy Agency meetings against Iran. Not being a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and having conducted an “illegal” nuclear test in 1998, India had been boxed into automatic sanctions. The US deal was tremendous: it not only ended the sanctions but enabled India to secure a “legal” stream of uranium from the Nuclear Suppliers Group. India voted against Iran, and the US signed a strategic alignment treaty with India. These two gestures isolated Iran in the Non-Aligned Movement (where India continues to hold sway) and created tensions between India and Pakistan (which was carrying the heavy water for the US in the Afghan War and saw this new treaty as a betrayal by the US). In its determination to isolate Iran diplomatically, the US raised the tension level in South Asia.
“Through the power of our diplomacy,” Obama said in his 2012 State of the Union address, “a world that was once divided about how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program now stands as one.” A caged lion is not necessarily pacified.
Economic. Sanctions by the Atlantic powers against Iran are not new, but the newest sanctions by the US (signed by Obama on Dec. 31) and by the Europeans (signed by EU foreign ministers on Jan. 23) are designed to bring the Iranian economy to its knees. The Iranian Rial dropped its value against the Dollar by over seventy percent this month. A currency trader in Tehran told Reuters, “The rate is changing every second. We are not taking in any Rials to change to dollars or any other foreign currency.” Imports have slowed to a trickle, and with the European oil sanctions to set in it is likely that exports will also decrease. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé pretended that the sanctions are a means to forestall war, “To avoid any military confrontation, which could have irreparable consequences, we have decided to go further down the path of sanctions.” Just over eighteen per cent of Iranian oil exports go to Europe.
As if by clockwork, oil prices began to rise against the dollar. But oil analysts know that this is not a long-term problem. Samuel Ciszuk of KBC Energy Economics notes, “Volumes from Iraq should be up significantly, Libya is doing very well and Saudi Arabia will increase production to compensate for some of the lost Iranian barrels.” NATO’s wars have turned the pipelines of Iraq and Libya toward Europe and the United States. They will more than compensate for lost Iranian oil. The rise in price will continue (four month Brent hovers at $110 a barrel) not because Iranian oil might be off-line but because the US Fed keeps the greenback weak and so allows dollar-denominated commodities such as crude oil to be cheaper for those who buy it in Euros or Yen. Oil prices are up for speculative reasons, not because of geo-politics. But the economic sanctions against Iran are painful nonetheless, destroying the ability of the people to survive at the levels to which they have become accustomed.
Covert. Since 2010, four nuclear scientists in Iran have been mysteriously killed. In January 2010, explosives stashed in a motorcycle exploded as Professor Masud Ali Mohammadi of the Department of Physics at the University of Tehran left his house in the Gheytarieh neighborhood. He was an expert in quantum field theory and elementary particle physics. In November 2010, Professor Majid Shahriari, who worked at the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran was killed when motorcycle-riding assassins attached magnetic bombs to his car. A separate attack that day injured Professor Fereydoon Abbasi, now head of the Atomic Energy Organization). In July 2011, Dariush Rezaeinejad was shot dead as he waited to pick up his child from daycare. He worked at K. N. Toosi University of Technology in electrical engineering as well as the Atomic Energy Organization. Finally, on January 11, 2012, a motorcycle-riding assassin attached a magnetic bomb to the car of Mustafa Ahmadi Roshan, a scientist at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility.
It was the killing of thirty-two year old Roshan that raised the eyebrows of the UN’s Ban Ki-Moon who told the press in Beirut, “Any terrorist action or assassination of any people, whether scientist or civilian, is to be strongly condemned. It is not acceptable. Human rights must be protected.” Emphasis should be on the words, of any people; after all, what is being denied is that people like the Iranians have rights in any shape or form.
Four days after Roshan’s assassination, the Sunday Times (London) reported that these killings are part of “Israel’s secret war.” One Israeli source told the reporters, Uzi Mahnaimi and Marie Colvin, “The killings were merely a precursor to a military strike, not merely an alternative, to make it more difficult for Iran to rebuild facilities if they are bombed.” The US and Israel, it has been alleged, attacked Iranian computer facilities in 2010 with the Stuxnet worm, a cyberweapon that disabled the centrifuges that Iranian scientists use to enrich uranium. Ralph Langner, the scientist who identified the Stuxnet, said in February 2011, “My opinion is that Mossad is involved but that the leading force is not Israel. The leading force behind Stuxnet is the cyber superpower – there is only one, and that’s the United States.”
The war is on, and as pressure on Iran mounts, there is a temptation for the Iranians to lash out, to close the Straits of Hormuz for instance. If they do so, the Atlantic powers, the Israelis and the Gulf Arabs will take this as a casus belli. It will be enough to power up the cruise missile delivery systems. The political benefits for the US and Israel of such an attack are great. As Rami El-Amin puts it, “An attack or possible war on Iran would have the added effect of derailing the Arab revolutions and revolts and justify the continued presence of a large US military force in the oil-rich region.”
If a shooting war begins, establishment intellectuals will return to the television sets, long faces and small mouths telling us about the warlike culture of the Arabs and the Persians. Trans-Atlantic accents will tickle the sensibility of the listener who is comforted to hear that the Arabs and the Persians are not prepared for democracy; give it to them and their inner hate will erupt in theocracies that threaten the “only democracy in the Middle East,” Israel, whose longevity is to be guaranteed by F16s and an exclusive nuclear umbrella. Since Arabs are congenitally undemocratic, it will be acceptable to laud the emirs of the Gulf for their judicious stewardship of an overly emotional people.
Fears in the capitals of China, India and Russia have begun to grow. To break the sanctions, both Beijing and New Delhi have offered to buy Iranian oil and pay for it in gold (or in Yen). The Russians indicated that they would offer Iran a defensive shield against a full-scale attack. These are not reliable friends. India has already voted against Iran in the IAEA, and China and Russia have gone along with sanctions when they have been pressured by the US.
Iran’s response to these provocations has been remarkably sober. As a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran can legally develop a nuclear energy program. It has been reasonably open to investigations by the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose strongest note in its November 2011 report was that “Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device.” This is not a smoking gun. On January 8, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta mused, “Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability, and that’s what concerns us.” But a “nuclear capability” is not outside what is permissible for a NPT member state.
There is no hope that Iran will voluntarily curtail its nuclear ambiguity. The first reason is that it lives in a neighborhood with Israel, which is reported to possess two hundred nuclear warheads, a stash that is part of its illegal nuclear program that is outside IAEA scrutiny – but no one seems abashed by the hypocrisy. The second reason is that nuclear ambiguity gives Iran a measure of insurance. “The Iranians have no doubt taken note of two recent and relevant case studies: North Korea and Libya,” writes Ahmed Moor. “Kim Jong-Il died of natural causes. Muammar Gadaffi did not.” North Korea is a nuclear-weapons state; Libya gave up its nuclear program in 2004. Pressure on Iran absent a drawdown of the US’s aggressive military posture will not result in an end to the Iranian nuclear program. To demand it is tantamount to goose-stepping to war.
When there will be a shooting war, it shall not be a mistake nor shall it be out of necessity. It will be calculated and vicious, and the onus for it shall rest as it often does…on Washington.
VIJAY PRASHAD is Professor and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT. This Spring he will publish two books, Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press) and Uncle Swami: Being South Asian in America (New Press). He is the author of Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (New Press), which won the 2009 Muzaffar Ahmed Book Prize.