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Is Bush Iraq-ing Iran?
By Pham Binh, Monthly Review
U.N. sanctions. Talk of military action. Two aircraft carriers moved into the Persian Gulf. F-16s deployed to bases in Turkey. A public relations offensive to terrorize Americans into thinking a nuclear 9/11 is around the corner.
It's déjà vu all over again.
Is the Bush administration Iraq-ing Iran? Are they so stupid, arrogant, and insane that they would start another unwinnable war in the Middle East midway through the first one? Are they dusting off the pre-war script for Iraq, crossing out the Q's, and inserting N's instead?
To answer these questions, we have to understand that "war is a continuation of politics by other means."1 The politics of the Iraq war was "regime change," meaning the goal of the war was, and is, to establish a pro-U.S. government in Iraq, thereby securing U.S. control over the world's second largest oil reserves and establishing large, permanent military bases in the heart of the Middle East. From this position, the U.S. would threaten regional enemies Iran and Syria militarily and economically. By getting the new Iraqi puppet government to increase oil production, the U.S. could depress the price of oil, causing a major crisis for the Iranian government since half of its revenue comes from oil sales.2
Thanks to the Downing Street memo, we now know that the Bush administration made the decision to forcibly overthrow Iraq's government by July 2002, if not earlier. The memo noted that "Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."3 In other words, the corporate media's focus on WMD, intelligence estimates, U.N. weapons inspectors, and international law in the lead-up to the war was a smokescreen to deceive the public and had nothing to do with the decision to go to war. Facts and intelligence, like the war itself, were subordinate to, and a continuation of, the politics of regime change.
Given that war is a continuation of politics, Iraq-style regime change in Iran is simply not in the cards. Not because the Bush administration lacks the desire, but because it lacks the means. The U.S. has no forces left for any major ground wars because the war in Iraq has tied down roughly 140,000 U.S. troops continuously for almost four years. Sending 20,000 more troops to Iraq only makes the troop shortage worse and the prospect of regime change next door even less likely.
So what is the politics of the increasing conflict between Washington and Tehran? What are the Bush administration's political goals? The goals become evident when we examine the means used to achieve them.
On the military front, a naval armada is now stationed off the coast of Iran. F-16s have been stationed in Turkey. An admiral with experience running bombing campaigns during Gulf War I has been put in charge of all U.S. military operations in the Middle East. The day after Bush's surge speech, the U.S. arrested a handful of Iranian officials in Iraq. Patriot missiles are being stationed in the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia to protect them against incoming Iranian missiles. And now Bush has given U.S. forces permission to capture or kill Iranian officials in Iraq.
As alarming and provocative as these moves are, what the U.S. is doing on the economic front is more important. The Treasury Department has declared Bank Sepah, Iran's fifth-largest bank, off-limits for U.S. banks. Thanks to American pressure on Iran's trading and investment partners, Germany's second-largest bank has announced it will no longer handle Iranian dollar-currency transactions, other European banks have scaled back their investments, and a $5 billion Japanese deal to develop Iran's oil and gas sector is on hold because the Japanese are nervous about the country's political future.4
Even more damaging to Iran's economy is the state of the world oil market. In the last six months, the price of oil has tumbled from $78 to $50 a barrel, significantly reducing Iran's income. If prices fall to $35 or $40 a barrel, the government will be operating at a deficit, a situation made even more difficult by the hesitancy of European banks to extend new loans to a nation in the shadow of the American war machine.5
Behind the fall in oil prices stands Saudi Arabia, and behind Saudi Arabia stands the U.S. The New York Times revealed in December 2006 that Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah told Vice President Dick Cheney of a plan to damage Iran's economy by raising Saudi oil production, forcing prices down.6
These economic pressures are taking their toll. Housing prices in Iran have doubled since last summer and vegetable prices have tripled in the last month, with some vegetables like tomatoes quadrupling in price from .33 cents a pound to $1.50. According to unofficial estimates, both inflation and unemployment stand at about 30 percent.7
The squeeze on ordinary Iranians has led to political discontent. President Ahmadinejad's conservative allies suffered heavily in December's local elections, and he is being attacked on both his left and right flanks for failing to live up to the populist rhetoric that got him elected. On January 14, 150 legislators sent an open letter to him, criticizing him for failing to present a budget on time and blaming him for rising inflation and high unemployment. A newspaper owned by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused Ahmadinejad of using the nuclear issue as a distraction from the country's economic troubles and urged him to "speak about the nuclear issue only during important national occasions, stop provoking aggressive powers like the United States and concentrate on the daily needs of the people, those who voted for you on your promises."8
Iran's new-found influence in Iraq and its nuclear program are the two flashpoints in the conflict with the U.S. Allegations that Iran is supporting terrorism or is developing nuclear weapons are as fact-based as the claims that Iraq had WMD. Once again, facts and intelligence are being fixed around the policy. The publication of supposedly irrefutable evidence of Iran's evil deeds in Iraq has been delayed twice because the evidence is non-existent.9 Perhaps the CIA is hard at work manufacturing another "slam dunk" case.
The fact that Iran is winning the war in Iraq is what really angers Washington. The attempt to seize control of Iraq has, paradoxically, ended up putting pro-Iranian parties (both Shia and Kurd) in power and allowed Iran to become one of Iraq's largest trading partners. In 2005, Iraq imported $1 billion of Iranian goods.10 Every day, Iran provides 20 percent of Iraq's cooking gas and 2 million liters of kerosene. Thanks to a free-trade zone in the southern Iraq, Iran exports electricity and plans to quadruple the current amount with new projects, which is incredibly important since Iraq's electricity output has yet to approach pre-war levels.11
In response to the deployment of a second carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf, Iran announced it would open a national bank branch in Baghdad and increase aid to the Iraqi military.12 Bush's reply to this move was: "If Iran escalates its military action in Iraq to the detriment of our troops and, or, innocent Iraqi people, we will respond firmly."13 Bush followed up on this threat when the U.S. ordered the Iraqi military to seize one of Iran's highest diplomatic officials as he returned to their embassy from the opening of their new national bank branch on February 7.
The Bush administration's goal is to roll back and contain Iran's influence in the Middle East. Military encirclement, saber-rattling, veiled threats, diplomatic isolation, provocations, and economic pressure are all means to this end.
So if regime change is not the aim, is war with Iran on the agenda?
Yes. The very success of the Bush administration's aggressive rollback and contain policy is what might lead to war. This requires some explanation.
We have to begin by examining the second flashpoint of the Washington-Tehran conflict: Iran's nuclear energy program. Iran's rulers are determined to develop nuclear power, even at the expense of U.N. sanctions and at the risk of a devastating U.S./Israeli attack. Why?
They are not pushing ahead with it because a confrontation with the U.S. over the issue is an easy way to rally the population behind the regime. A bombing campaign would seriously damage Iran's nuclear facilities, its military and economic infrastructure (including its oil fields), kill thousands or tens of thousands of people, and create major political instability in Iran and the entire region. The regime would not risk so much for so little.
Nor is Iran on the verge of developing nuclear weapons. Before the escalation of anti-Iran rhetoric, the National Intelligence Estimate calculated that Iran would be unable to produce a nuclear weapon until 201514 because of serious technical problems, such as the explosion of 50 centrifuges at its key nuclear facility Natanz15 and its inability to remove the element molybdenum from its uranium deposits, rendering them unusable for enrichment. Ahmadinejad's announcement in 2006 that Iran had joined the nuclear club was misleading -- it appears that the uranium used in the enrichment cycle was imported from China in 1991 because that was their only source of molybdenum-free uranium.16
In fact, Iran may never develop nuclear weapons. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini recently issued a religious edict declaring the production and use of nuclear weapons un-Islamic. Engaging in any of these un-Islamic activities would be very difficult to justify for a self-proclaimed Islamic state.17
The U.S. government's hysteria about Iran's nuclear program is the height of hypocrisy. While Iran has fulfilled all of its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Washington has nonetheless pushed for and won the imposition of U.N. sanctions in response to Iran's legal refusal to suspend uranium enrichment. The U.S. also recently decided to help India with its nuclear program despite the fact that it never signed the NPT, and the U.S. funds the only nuclear power in the Middle East, Israel, to the tune of billions of dollars every year. The U.S. negotiated with certified "Axis of Evil" member North Korea, who withdrew from the NPT in 2003 and began testing nuclear weapons, and recently decided to give the regime millions of dollars in fuel aid in exchange for the phased dismantling of the North's nuclear program. The U.S. did not insist that North Korea stop enriching uranium as a precondition for negotiations yet continues to do so with Iran.
The reality is that Tehran is pushing for nuclear power because, if present trends continue, it will have no oil left for export by 2015. Iran's oil production is in a long-term decline; thirty years ago, Iran produced double the 3.7 million barrels of oil per day it produces today. Even this amount is 300,000 barrels short of the quota set for Iran by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries -- a $5.5 billion a year loss of income for the government. Oil production is projected to fall about ten percent every year if present trends continue while oil consumption will only grow.18 As Mohammed Hadi Nejad-Hosseinian, deputy oil minister for international affairs, admitted: "If the government does not control the consumption of oil products in Iran. . . and at the same time, if the projects for increasing the capacity of the oil and protection of the oil wells will not happen, within 10 years, there will not be any oil for export."19
Without any oil to sell for export, the government would go bankrupt. This would produce a major social upheaval, and possibly a full-blown 1979-style revolution, because food and fuel would be unaffordable for most of the population without the government's massive subsidies. Energy subsidies alone amount to 15 percent of Iran's entire GDP, a figure one expert called "mind-boggling."20 Fear of upheaval underlies the resistance of the Ahmadinejad government to cutting these subsidies despite repeated calls to do so by many powerful Iranian politicians who would like to use the money to modernize the country's oil facilities.
Even if Iran put a "for sale" sign on every single oil field tomorrow and foreign investors responded and bought them all, it would take years, perhaps even a decade, to plan, construct, and modernize its oil facilities to the point of being able to reverse the decline in oil production. As one Iranian petroleum geologist put it: "You need billions of dollars invested in order to stand still -- to avoid a decline."21
Nuclear power is the only way out of this dilemma . This is why no section of Iran's ruling class is for halting its nuclear work and opening up negotiations with the West, which would create a climate conducive to foreign investment by removing the threat of a U.S. attack.
For the Iranian regime, nuclear power is a matter of life and death. Cutting off foreign investment and deflating oil prices will only deepen the crisis that is propelling Iran to develop the nuclear power the U.S. has forbidden them from having. Inevitably, the U.S. will respond to Iran's refusal to halt uranium enrichment by saying diplomacy has failed and that there is "no choice" except for military action.
Unless Iran miraculously finds another source of energy, or if the U.S. even more miraculously decides to live with a nuclear-powered Iran, war is inevitable. The question is not if, but when and how.
Fundamentally, the conflict between the U.S. and Iran is not about the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons, its fictitious support for terrorism, or its opposition to the state of Israel. One European diplomat involved in the nuclear negotiations explained the real reason for the conflict: "This is much more than a nuclear issue. That's just a rallying point. . . . The real issue is who is going to control the Middle East and its oil in the next 10 years."22
The occupation of Iraq has opened up contradictions in the Middle East that the U.S. can't overcome in the near future. That doesn't mean it won't try, given the geo-strategic importance of the region and its enormous energy reserves. This is why Bush was right (for once) when he said "this business about graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all."23 Unlike Vietnam, the U.S. is not contemplating any kind of exit, disgraceful or otherwise, because the goal of the war was and is to strengthen U.S. hegemony in the region, no matter how many lives are lost, whether they are Palestinian, Iraqi, Iranian, or American.
Yet an immediate exit from Iraq and the Middle East is the only way to avoid the wars to come as the U.S. tries to sustain its unsustainable dominance in the region despite dramatically rising costs, increasing instability, and dwindling returns.
1 This is the argument of famous Prussian soldier and military theorist Karl Von Clausewitz.
2 "Iran Oil Revenue Quickly Drying Up, Analysis Says," Associated Press, December 26, 2006.
3 David Manning, "The Secret Downing Street Memo," The Sunday Times, May 1, 2005.
4 Amandeep Sandhu, "Iran Being Hit in the Pocket," Asia Times Online, January 23, 2007.
5 Anatole Kaletsky, "New US Strategy on Iran Emerges from Davos," Times Online, January 25, 2007.
6 Hassan Fattah, Rasheed Abou al- Samh, Helene Cooper, "Bickering Saudis Struggle for an Answer to Iran's Rising Influence in the Middle East," New York Times, December 22, 2006.
7 Ali Akbar Dareini, "Iranians Displeased With Ahmadinejad," Associated Press, January 17, 2007.
8 Peter Symonds, "Iranian President Faces Mounting Internal Opposition," World Socialist Web Site, January 24, 2007.
9 Maura Reynolds, "U.S. Can't Prove Iran Link to Iraq Strife," Los Angeles Times, February 3, 2007.
10 Lionel Beehner, "Iran's Involvement in Iraq," Council on Foreign Relations, January 31, 2007.
11 Joshua Partlow, "Tehran's Influence Grows As Iraqis See Advantages," Washington Post, January 26, 2007.
12 "Iran Plans to Expand Ties with Iraq: Tehran Envoy," Reuters, January 29, 2007.
13 Tabassum Zakaria, "Bush Warns Iran against Fueling Violence in Iraq," Reuters, January 29, 2007.
14 Dafna Linzer, "Iran Is Judged 10 Years From Nuclear Bomb," Washington Post, August 2, 2005.
15 Ali Akbar Dareini, "Iran Said to Install Uranium Centrifuges," Associated Press, January 15, 2007.
16 Jonathan Marcus, "Iran Enrichment: A Chinese Puzzle?" BBC News, May 18, 2006.
17 "Iran: Nuclear Pact May Be Finalized Soon," Associated Press, November 8, 2004.
18 "Iran Oil Revenue Quickly Drying Up, Analysis Says," op. cit.
19 Kim Murphy, "U.S. Puts Squeeze on Iran's Oil Fields," Los Angeles Times, January 7, 2007.
20 Murphy, op. cit.
21 Murphy, op. cit.
22 Seymour Hersh, "The Iran Plans: Would President Bush Go to War to Stop Tehran From Getting the Bomb?" The New Yorker, April 9, 2006.
23 Bill Nichols and Barbara Slavin, "Don't Start Planning 'Graceful Exit,' Bush Says," USA Today, November 30, 2006.
Pham Binh is an activist and recent graduate of Hunter College in NYC. His articles have been published at Asia Times Onlineand MRZine. He edits Traveling Soldier, a newsletter for anti-war military personnel. His website is www.politicsofhypocrisy.com and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.