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Ponce in the Gulf

In early July, the United States Navy moved a converted transport ship, USS Ponce, into the Persian Gulf to its temporary home off Bahrain’s waters. The Ponce is a floating forward base for military operations in the region. This ship, originally built in 1966 but now retrofitted, is a platform for U.S. Special Forces in the region. It uses an array of helicopters as well as marine divers whose putative work is to assist minesweeping ships but whose other purpose is underwater sabotage. The Ponce joins USS Enterprise and USS Lincoln, both first class warships that are supported by a considerable battle group. Alongside these vessels are the U.S. Air Force’s quotient of F-22 bombers and F-15C warplanes and the various marine and amphibious Task Forces of the U.S. Fifth Fleet based at the Naval Support Activity station in Manama, Bahrain. There is a traffic jam of American power in the Persian Gulf. The arrival of the Ponce, the first of a number of “afloat forward staging bases”, raises the capacity of the U.S. forces in the region. It can hover in international waters, housing hundreds of Special Forces troops who can be taken anywhere in the region in helicopters or on fast boats. If the al-Khalifa regime in Bahrain or the Nouri al-Maliki government in Iraq decides that it will not sanction a U.S. attack from its territory, the Ponce will become crucial. It allows the U.S. government freedom to decide when and where it will launch its next assault.

The military build-up in the Gulf comes in the context of a stalemate in the diplomatic effort and an intensified U.S.-European sanctions regime on Iran. The P5+1 (the U.S., United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany) meetings with Iran have largely collapsed through an impossible agenda: the U.S. wants maximum concessions (ending uranium enrichment to the 20 per cent level), which Iran finds unreasonable.

Meanwhile, on July 1, the U.S.-European intensified sanctions went into effect. Its immediate outcome has been a catastrophic decline of up to 40 per cent of Iran’s oil exports. Pressure on India to curtail its import of Iranian oil, if successful, would reduce Iran’s exports further. That India’s General Insurance Corporation has agreed to provide limited cover to tankers carrying Iranian oil to India is an indication that this pipeline may not be secure.

It was always going to be tough to have a genuine dialogue about Iran’s nuclear programme when the U.S. and Europe ramped up their belligerent rhetoric and consolidated their plans to isolate Iran economically. The use of various computer worms (Stuxnet and the Flame malware) combined with the assassination of Iranian scientists reduced the possibility of trust in diplomatic negotiations.

The arrival of the Ponce in the Persian Gulf is not simply about Iran’s nuclear programme. When asked to explain the endgame, a senior Defence Department official told The New York Times, “This is not about Iranian nuclear ambitions, but about Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions.” The military cognate of this statement is in a 2008 report, which notes that a U.S. military strike “would have to target not only Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, but also its conventional military infrastructure in order to suppress an Iranian response”.

The Obama administration has erased U.S. complicity with the Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali regimes, using the Arab Spring to its advantage and positioning itself as the champion of democracy, mainly through the Syrian theatre. A friendly international media enabled the U.S. to paint Iran as the deterrent to the democratic ambitions of the Arab peoples, given Iran’s links to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus. A military build-up, in this context, appears not as the authoritarian hand of U.S. power but as a mechanism to ensure “democracy” against “Iran’s regional hegemonic
ambitions”. The monarchical Gulf Cooperation Council, the so-called Arab NATO, has expanded military ties with the U.S., and its six members, along with 11 other countries, will join the U.S. in a massive military exercise off the Iranian coast in September.

Diplomacy was fated to fail. In the U.S., there is a bipartisan consensus that Iran is beyond conversation. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad provides the caricature of the Oriental despot, and Israel’s siege mentality enables grotesque exaggerations of Iranian intentions to stifle reasonable debate on U.S. policy towards Iran. Like conjoined twins, the Republicans and the Democrats battle each other to appear tougher in the fight against Iran. With the domestic economy in the doldrums, President Barack Obama is running for re-election as the more sane political choice who is tough on foreign policy (illustrated by the drones and the extrajudicial assassinations). This is a much better platform than health care or job creation. The Republican’s Mitt Romney can only tail Obama’s belligerent foreign policy. A U.S. peace bloc vis-à-vis Iran effectively does not exist.

The Gulf of Hormuz provides a theatre for U.S. power in the absence of any discomfort among the U.S. political class. It also provides the two leading political candidates a platform to demonstrate their fealty to Israel and its own ambitions in the region.

Not many people care to articulate or to understand the Iranian position on the conflict, and few realise that Obama’s rhetoric is seen amongst the Iranian intelligentsia and the ruling clerics as a sequel to the Central Intelligence Agency’s 1953 Operation Ajax, which overthrew Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. It suits the ruling clerics to maintain a level of ambiguity regarding Iran’s nuclear programme, particularly given the example before them of Libya. Muammar Qaddafi ended his country’s programme in 2004 and turned over his centrifuges and other materials to the U.S. (it was on these Iranian designed centrifuges that the U.S. scientists first tested the Stuxnet worm, used against Iran in 2011). His fate reinforces the policy of nuclear ambiguity. Many Iranians see the U.S. demands for a drawdown of its nuclear programme as precisely the first salvo in a new kind of Operation Ajax.

The Iranians do have cause for concern. Obama’s foreign policy advisers in the election campaign of 2008 (Anthony Lake, Susan Rice and Dennis Ross) made common cause with the neoconservatives on the issue of Iran. The Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy’s (WINEP) 2008 Presidential Task Force included Lake and Susan Rice and it produced an acidic report called “Strengthening the Partnership: How to Deepen U.S.-Israel Cooperation on the Iranian Nuclear Challenge”. The report cautioned that the U.S. might “be reconciling itself to the idea of ‘living with an Iranian nuclear bomb’”, and so proposed “preventative military action” to circumvent such a situation. The lessons of Iraq had not deterred the neoconservatives or the interventionist liberals. Both wanted a repeat performance in Iran.

The WINEP report appears timid beside the September 2008 Bipartisan Policy Centre report (“Meeting the Challenge: U.S. Policy Toward Iranian Nuclear Development”), which included in its drafting Obama’s close Middle East (West Asia) adviser, Dennis Ross. This report debunked diplomacy and called for a muscular, military showdown with Iran. “It must be clear,” the report noted, “that any U.S.-Iranian talks will not be open-ended but will be limited to a pre-determined time period so that Teheran does not try to ‘run out the clock’.” In other words use the time of diplomacy to hasten its nuclear programme.

Since the talks are fated to fail, the report noted, the U.S. needs to “preposition military assets” and to use these for a “show of force” in the waters around Iran. Iran’s oil exports had to be blockaded and the U.S. needed to conduct the mysteriously worded “kinetic actions”.

All this has come to pass. The oil blockade is in place, the “kinetic actions” (computer worms, sabotage, assassinations) are ongoing, and the show of force is now in the Strait of Hormuz as USS Ponce drops anchor. “We believe a military strike is a feasible option,” says the 2008 report, “and must remain a last resort to retard Iran’s nuclear programme.” The time of the “last resort” seems to have presented itself.

Vijay Prashad’s new book, Arab Spring, Libyan Winter , is published by AK Press.

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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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