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Interpreting US-Iran relations

Richard Falk, TFF Associate


February 11, 2008

Originally written on January 10, 2008

An underlying tension in US/Iran relations has existed ever since the Iranian Revolution succeeded in 1979. From the outset, the two governments were hostile toward one another, and mutually suspicious when it came to intentions. This hostility has deeper roots. The United States Government is known by Iranians to have engineered via the CIA the 1953 coup that overthrew Mohammed Mosaddeq, the only truly elected democratic leadership in Iran’s history.

Supposedly, in this Cold War era the motive was to avoid the prospect of Soviet influence in a country with a strong Communist party. Many Iranians at the time, and ever since, believed the real reason for the coup that restored the Shah to power was to get rid of an avidly nationalist government that had the temerity to take over its oil industry that had been under the control of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later renamed British Petroleum). These views were reinforced by a post-coup restructuring of Iran’s oil industry that not only restored foreign ownership, but rewarded the largest American oil companies with significant shares of the whole.

Subsequently, the Shah under American guidance led Iran for the next twenty-five years in an autocratic manner that favored international capital at the expense of national entrepreneurs. The United States was believed by Iranians to have helped form the hated secret police organization in Iran, known as the SAVAK, responsible for establishing a repressive atmosphere in the country that included torture of those perceived to be opponents of the regime. American policy analysts discussing the present situation between the two countries often accuse the Iranians of being ‘paranoid’ due to this ill-disguised distrust of the United States, but given the memories of the Shah period, the threat diplomacy of the Bush presidency, and the provocative deployment of naval forces off the Iranian coast, including two aircraft carriers with only an attacking potential, the Iranian anxieties seem entirely reasonable, even inevitable.

Such a pre-war crucible of hostility is actually worse than it seems. It has been clear for the last several years, and especially since the 9/11 attacks, that American grand strategy in the Middle East included as its major goal ‘regime change’ in Tehran. Neoconservative thinking that dominated the Bush presidency always viewed the invasion of Iraq as a prelude to a wider restructuring of the region, with the grand prize being Iran. This regional plan of the American neoconservatives was strongly encouraged behind the scenes, and sometimes openly, by the right-wing leadership in Israel. Such Israeli encouragement has become passionate since the election a few years ago of Mohamed Ahmadinejad as Iran’s president.

There is little doubt that the leadership styles in both Tehran and Washington associated with Ahmadinejad and Bush have fanned these flames of conflict. The main focus of recent attention has revolved around the American contention that Iran had secretly, and in violation of its legal obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, embarked on a program to develop nuclear weapons. As Bush expressed the accusation at a press conference in October of 2007, “I’ve told people that if you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them {Iran} from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.”

This kind of attitude combined with the refusal of  American political leaders to take ‘the military option off the table’ accounts for much of the current anxiety about a possible expansion of the war zone in the Middle East to include Iran.

With this background in mind, combined with overt neoconservative agitation in Washington’s policymaking circles for a direct military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, the official US Government National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), “Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities,” exploded on the scene when the report was released in late November 2007.

This authoritative assessment of Iran’s behavior definitely threw a vat of cold water on the claims of the Bush administration that an imminent threat existed that Iran was about to join the nuclear club, or even had any intention of doing so in the future. The NIE findings, hedged with some qualification, did significantly conclude with ‘high confidence’ that Iran had stopped its efforts to develop nuclear weapons as of 2003, and that it has not as of mid-2007 resumed. Again, with the caution one expects from a government bureaucracy, the report concludes that Iran was “less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we {the United States} had been judging since 2005.”

This conclusion definitely weakens the US Government’s effort to rally international forces to impose harsher international sanctions on Iran than presently exist. President Bush has nevertheless not altered his confrontational diplomacy toward Iran, and neither has arch-hawk Vice President Cheney, but the effect of the NIE has been to isolate the United States and Israel as the only significant advocates of a hard line on Iran. This essentially unilateralist approach seems indifferent to the authority of the United Nations or the constraints of international law, and suggests the atmosphere preceding the invasion of Iraq in March of 2003.

This pessimistic interpretation is supported by some recent developments. The Israeli Government has made it very clear in that its intelligence analysts do not agree with the NIE. In a strong public statement Major General Aharon Ze’evi Farkash, former Director of Military Intelligence of the Israel Defense Forces, argues that Iran continues to pose a grave threat to the region and beyond. General Farkash points to Iran’s construction of long-range delivery system for missiles and the construction of additional centrifuges needed for producing highly enriched uranium for weapons would provide Iran with a capacity to develop a nuclear bomb as soon as late 2009. He even contends that Israeli intelligence believes that Iran’s existing missiles are presently poised to strike at Riyadh and Tel Aviv as primary targets. General Farkash acknowledges that the NIE has undermined efforts to pressure Iran via sanctions and by way of building an anti-Iran coalition among “moderate Sunni countries,” including Turkey.  Such Israeli thinking can only be understood as advocacy for military action against Iran at the earliest possible time.

Also disturbing is the treatment of an incident in early January when five Iranian armed speedboats confronted US Navy ships patrolling in the Straights of Hormuz. The American naval officers claimed that their ships were directly warned of an impending attack as the Iranian boats approached them, and were reportedly on the verge of firing, to ‘take appropriate action,’ when the boats turned away.

It is difficult to evaluate such an incident. The American account stresses the danger of violence spiraling out of control, while the Iranians played down the incident saying that it was just a routine identification check, and there are indications that the alleged threats were contrived. Worryingly, President Bush during his visit to Israel on January 9 heightened tensions by asserting that Iran is “a threat to world peace.” In language reminiscent of what was said just prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq called the incident “a very dangerous gesture” by Iran and warned of “serious consequences” if there is a repetition of what the US National Security Advisor, Stephen  Hadley, called “a provocative act” for which the Iranians will have “to take responsibility..if they do it again.”

Other states have been generally quiet about these recent developments. It seems as if Russia, especially, and the European Union to a lesser extent, welcomed the NIE as a reliable counter to the pressures from Washington to exert added pressure on Iran, and have not treated the Hormuz incident as a routine event that needs to be put aside. In contrast, Israel and United States are refusing to be reassured, apparently viewing Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory statements directed at Israel as expressions of a serious political intent to destroy Israel as a state if the opportunity arises. In this sense, Bush’s emphasis on denying Iran the ‘knowledge’ relevant to making bombs creates a dangerously vague criterion that can be invoked at any point to justify launching an attack, which certainly seems consistent with
Israel’s preferred approach.

In the background are memories of the development of security arguments for regime change in Iraq that eventually led to an imprudent and costly war. Further in the background are recollections of how the war in Vietnam was dramatically escalated in 1964 on the basis of the staged Gulf of Tonkin incident in which American naval commanders complained of harassment by North Vietnamese torpedo boats guarding the shoreline.

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Instead of seeking accommodation and reconciliation, the American-led approach again seems to be recklessly risking the outbreak of a new, extremely dangerous, and totally unnecessary war in the region. Unlike Iraq, Iran has many retaliatory options including missile attacks on neighboring countries, including Israel, blockage of the Straight of Hormuz sending oil prices through the roof and inducing a likely global recession, and letting loose hundreds of trained suicide bombers to work havoc in a series of foreign countries. Such an outbreak of violence could easily become an intra-Islamic war tragically pitting Sunni-led governments against the Shi’ite challenge.

The unlearned lesson of the Iraq War is that military superiority does not easily translate into political victory. The forces of nationalism and anti-American transnational extremism are robust enough to resist effectively a foreign military occupation. This is not just a lesson that the United States and Israel have refused to heed, but it applies equally well to others.

The mighty Soviet Union failed to exert its political will on Afghanistan in the 1980s despite a great effort. Iraq despite its great military advantage could not defeat Iran even though the Iranian Army had been substantially dissolved after the collapse of the Shah, and its effort to conquer tiny Kuwait led to a backlash that ultimately destroyed the Baghdad regime. Somewhat earlier, Indonesia had projected its military power in 1975 with great brutality to take over East Timor only to be compelled to withdraw in shame twenty-five years later.

With rare exceptions, international conflicts in the world today cannot be resolved by relying on force. Territory can be defended against attack, but the idea that a sovereign state can be occupied and politically transformed represents an extremely dangerous revival of the long discredited colonial mentality.    



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