The coming war with Iran

It's taken quite awhile, but I'm finally convinced: the Bush administration intends to attack Iran.

From the moment that an invasion of Iraq was raised, I was certain that it would happen. All the conditions were in place: the administration had carte blanche from an uncritical, nationalistic, and xenophobic American public to do as it pleased following 9/11 and the seemingly successful attack on Afghanistan. Iraq was a perfect target in the eyes of US government planners: its military was pathetically weak after over 10 years of devastating sanctions; destroying its government would eliminate one of the few in the world that still defied US hegemony and serve as a lesson to the other holdouts; it would give the USA an even tighter grip on the world's oil; and it would allow the USA to establish permanent military bases to police the Middle East now that the existing bases in Saudi Arabia were becoming a liability. Eventually Iraq and Afghanistan could serve as the launching pad for a ground invasion of Iran, which the US government all along has seen as the real threat to American control over the Middle East.

Thruout the long, drawn-out debate over whether to attack Iraq, I knew that war was inevitable. Yet I expected the American strategy of dominating postwar Iraq to be different. I thought they would follow the model established in the post-World War II occupied nations of South Korea, Japan, and Germany: execute the top leaders but restore to power the bureaucratic and business elites along with the security forces, placing an American vassal at their head.

What I didn't realize is that the administration's policymakers, led by Cheney and Rumsfeld, harbored bizarre fantasies about postwar Iraq. They really believed the Shia would welcome them as liberators and accept an American-designated puppet (probably Ahmed Chalabi) as their leader. They expected to destroy the machinery of the Baathist (ie Sunni-dominated) state and be able to fairly easily suppress the Sunni backlash. I suppose they also thought that the loyal Kurds wouldn't make any trouble either.

The Shia, however, remembered how the USA abandoned them to Saddam Hussein's vicious reprisals after they responded to the American call to rise up after the 1991 war. They remembered the sanctions decade and the horrific toll it took on them. They remembered, in a way that Americans do not, the 60-year history of US machinations in the Middle East. The Shia forced key changes in the US-designed electoral process, preventing the emergence of a government of US pawns. Instead Iraq now has a fairly representative government that is using American power to attack the armed Sunni opposition, but has no intention of ceding permanent control to the USA. The massive failure of the American de-Baathification strategy is well-known, and has put Iraq on an irrevocable path to civil war.

For the last several years I had assumed that the administration was chastened by the mockery Iraq's reality made of their dreams. I had no illusions about the administration's orientation toward Iran - I'm quite sure that covert anti-Iran operations are ongoing. Yet I thought that the military realities of having so many resources tied down in Iraq along with the realization that neoconservative fantasy-ideology was fallible would prevent an open attack.

Seymour Hersh's article in The New Yorker changed my mind. Based on a variety of sources, Hersh writes that Israel closely consulted the USA before attacking Lebanon. The Americans were very enthusiastic, Hersh reports. They expected the attack on Lebanon to pave the way for their own attack on Iran.

The Lebanon operation would serve two purposes for the Americans. First, it would weaken Hizbollah, Iran's ally, making it hard for Hizbollah to act in solidarity when Iran was attacked. Second, "it would be a demo for Iran." According to a Hersh article from last April, the Iran war was to be executed primarily thru bombing - bombing Iran's nuclear facilities (possibly using nuclear weapons to reach those deep underground), but also bombing key infrastructure and non-nuclear military sites. The Americans hoped this would humiliate and discredit the leadership and a popular uprising (including uprisings by the ethnic minorities that have been a focus of covert US organizing) would then overthrow the regime.

It seems clear the fantasies of the neocons are completely intact. As the Lebanon war demonstrated, relentlessly bombing even a highly divided society - surprise! - turns the population against the agressor and not against the supposed targets of the bombing. (And Lebanon has far greater ethnic and sectarian tensions than Iran.) As Lebanon - and every other air war in history - has shown, air power is good at destroying infrastructure and killing civilians, but not good at removing political actors from the scene. And all this doesn't even take into account the fact that bombing civilians until they do what you want - eliminate Hizbollah, overthrow the Irani government - is a war crime.

Yet perhaps the Bush administration would be satisfied with more limited gains. Setting back the Irani nuclear program, destroying large amounts of Irani military capacity, disrupting Irani influence on Iraq, crippling the Irani economy - these are all within reach. A war might also provoke the customary upsurge of mindless patriotism that could ensure a Republican win in the next presidential election. If the USA didn't get sucked into a ground war, if Iran were prevented from taking effective countermeasures like blocking shipments of oil out of the Persian Gulf, and if the rise in the price of oil that followed the war didn't send the global economy into free fall, an attack on Iran seems like a good bet from the neocon perspective. The upsurge in global anti-Americanism and further discrediting of the UN would even be plus points.

The question is whether Israel's failure in Lebanon will end the administration's slow but steady drive to war. If Hersh's sources are right, the Bush administration remains unabashed by the disaster in Iraq and the threat of overextending the military. But will the failure of what was billed as a test run for the Iran attack have a stronger effect? Early indications are that it will not. The New York Times reports that administration officials and their allies in Congress are pressing intelligence agencies to heighten their estimation of the Iran threat. Iran is standing firm against America and Europe's ultimatum that it give up its nuclear weapons program, allowing the USA to move one step closer to establishing the diplomatic pretext for an attack.

America's goals in Iran are less ambitious than they were in Iraq - crippling it (or inspiring popular rebellion) rather than occupying and rebuilding it. Because of the Irani nuclear "threat", it has greater international support. I'm now convinced that the Bush administration intends to attack Iran. Yet I do not believe the Iran war is inevitable. The American public is more skeptical now, and international support may evaporate as the American plan to attack becomes more clear. I think we can prevent this one, but the antiwar movement will have to shake off its torpor, and soon.


Patrick said...

I can't recall if Sy Hersh included this in his article, but he mentioned on "Democracy Now!" that his sources tell stories of Bush's increasing focus on Churchill - a statesman who was rejected by his own electorate right after fighting a great evil, only to be lionized by historians and even popular culture decades later. Bush seems to view this as his destiny.

As for the antiwar movement, its stance on Lebanon was disastrous. Most of the anti-Iraq-war activists suddenly muzzled themselves when it came to Lebanon, for some reasons which are obviously complex and others totally beyond my comprehension. The national networks mostly (not entirely) fell silent *even* on the purely humanitarian questions. I understand that the U.S. wasn't seen to be directly involved in Lebanon and "American boys" weren't "over there", but it's still impossible for me to not think that, if Lebanon was a trial, it wasn't only the Bush Administration that failed; the U.S. antiwar movement failed as well.

meshugah said...

one thing: in the second-to-last paragraf, you refer to Iran's "nuclear weapons" program. Outside of neocon faith-based reasoning, I think it's more accurately described as a nuclear technology program that has the potential in perhaps a decade to produce enough material for a single bomb, provided they are able to spend years importing and linking the necessary thousands of centrifuges under the IAEA's nose.

Jake said...

it's definitely true that iran is probably not nearly as close to having a nuclear weapon as the american media take for granted, but i think it's clear that iran is aiming to develop weapons. when we talk with people about this we should certainly point out how ridiculous the "iran threat" is and try to give people a more realistic understanding of iran. e.g., iran (unlike the united states) does not currently occupy the two countries on either side of its enemy, it does not currently threaten to use nuclear weapons against its enemy, and it has not invaded any other countries in the last 25 years.

but i think it's also important to make the point that as long as the USA continues to break its commitments under the nuclear nonproliferation treaty to move toward nuclear disarmament, any country it threatens is 100 percent justified in developing nuclear weapons as a defensive deterrent.

jenny said...

jake i completely disagree with your last point (comment). the hyprocrisy of the US's nuclear policy MAY be used as a rationale to build a nuclear weapons program in defense. but that doesn't make it right. deterrence doesn't work post-cold war. there is no justification for adding more nuclear weapons to the world's cache, given their potential impacts.

in a related point, i actually believe that ahmadinejad is trying to get nuclear energy, not weapons.

meshugah said...

really, jen? what do you think about north korea? ever since they proved they have nuclear-armed missiles capable of hitting major US allies (and possibly the west coast) the tenor of the administration's comments has cooled. the US envoy is back in the region at the moment asking for negotiations. meanwhile iran gets the hitler treatment. isn't that 21st century deterrence?

jenny said...

that's a good point. seems like countries need to have nukes in order to not be destroyed by the US. but i still can't agree that the world could use more nukes. while it may make sense pragmatically, it's just fundamentally a bad thing--for everyone--to have more nuclear weapons lying around. who's going to keep them all safe?

Jake said...

i don't think nuclear weapons are inherently bad. like any other tool, it depends on what they're used for. the USA uses theirs to intimidate rivals and preserve an unequal world. i think there's a lot of evidence that iran would use nuclear weapons to prevent american aggression and level the global inequality of power a bit.

as in all conflicts, i think the burden should be on the side with greater power to make concessions, especially when that side is threatening violence. i agree that the ultimate goal is clearly a non-nuclear world, but the impetus for that must come from the handful of countries that have a monopoly on nuclear weapons, especially the united states.

Patrick said...

It should be recalled, in the context of this discussion, that the obvious impetus for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons is Israel's (apparently pretty extensive) arsenal of nukes.

It's difficult to see in the media around here, but there's every indication that Iran is seeking (or at least sought) to follow a path similar to N. Korea's. Jake, you and I talked years ago about N. Korea's possible goal of becoming, at least minimally, a US client rather than just an antagonist...and it's a fact, acknowledged not just by vicious furrin agitators like Robert Fisk but also by domestic voices like Hersh, that Iran has on multiple occasions sought genuine engagement with the US (only to be repeatedly rebuffed). The prospect of a real Iranian nuclear weapons program is so distant that I have to think Iran is much more earnest about the *threat* of developing nukes, with an eye to rebalancing power in the region, than about the actual project of developing them.

On the other hand, our Iraq misadventures (and massacres) have created such potential for regional destabilization that at this point Iran is probably no more able to pursue a single unitary long-term goal than we are.