Rising confrontation with Iran: Is Bush spoiling for a fight?
There are ominous and rapidly multiplying signs that United States President George W Bush's administration is preparing to confront Iran, and possibly to launch military strikes against it, in order to achieve a range of goals which go beyond limiting Tehran's influence in Iraq or crippling its nuclear programme.
A military confrontation with Iran, amidst the grave and steadily worsening crisis in Iraq and the ever-more volatile situation in West Asia, will have unspeakably disastrous consequences for the world. They will be nothing short of catastrophic if the US, singly or jointly with its close ally Israel, uses tactical nuclear weapons to attack and destroy Iran's nuclear installations, as reports suggest might happen.
At least six such dangerous signs are now visible. First, Bush's 'surge' strategy, of raising the number of US troops in Iraq from 140,000 by up to 21,500. This is unlikely to make a material difference to the military balance on the ground or the US's ability to put down the Iraqi insurgency by military force. At least 300,000, if not half a million, troops would be needed to 'stabilise' Iraq, according to military strategists.
The much smaller addition contained in the 'surge' plan - which is advocated by US neo-conservatives, especially in the American Enterprise Institute, but rejected by responsible military commanders in Baghdad -will in all probability be directed at Iran.
Bush himself hinted at this in the speech he made on expanding the US military presence in Iraq. He said: 'We are also taking other steps to bolster the security of Iraq and protect American interests in the Middle East. I recently ordered the deployment of an additional carrier strike group to the region. We will expand intelligence sharing - and deploy Patriot air defence systems to reassure our friends and allies. We will work with the governments of Turkey and Iraq to help them resolve problems along their border. And we will work with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating the region.' Bush has also said: 'And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.'
It makes sound logical sense to interpret this as signifying an intention to attack Iran, which has been accused by Washington of being part of, and leading, such 'networks'. The US might undertake such an attack on its own or jointly with Israel, which has been pressing for a military assault (and might carry out one on its own, as we see below).
Secondly, Bush has ordered two aircraft carriers, leading a flotilla of 50 ships, into the Persian Gulf, right in Iran's vicinity. Many European officials and diplomats see this as an indication that 'the clock is ticking... Military action has come back on to the table more seriously than before. The language in the US has changed.' (The Guardian).
The paper has quoted diplomats in Brussels and Vienna as saying that 'a fissure has opened up between the US and Western Europe' on three crucial aspects - the military option; how and how quickly to hit Iran with economic sanctions already decreed by the UN Security Council; and how to deal with Russian opposition to action against Iran through the Security Council. 'There's anxiety everywhere you turn,' The Guardian quoted a diplomat as saying. 'The Europeans are very concerned the shit could hit the fan.'
Third, the kind of weaponry the US is deploying points towards plans to attack Iran or Iranian 'targets'. For instance, it makes no sense to deploy the Patriot anti-missile missile against the Iraqi insurgents, who have no missiles and who typically fight with automatic guns and improvised bombs. The Patriots are meant to shoot down Iranian missiles.
Similarly, aircraft carrier groups, which combine air and naval power, cannot possibly be deployed against localised targets in Iraq. US naval forces have also trained to counter or pre-empt Iran's likely move, in case of a military attack on it, to block oil shipments passing through the Straits of Hormuz.
Fourth, the US has stepped up propaganda about Iran's involvement in arming Iraqi militants with powerful weapons to kill American troops. According to US undersecretary of state Nicholas Burns: 'We have picked up individuals who we believe are giving very sophisticated explosive technology to Shia insurgent groups who then use that technology to target and kill American soldiers... And the message from the US is, Iran should cease and desist.'
At the end of January, Lt Gen Raymond Odierno, the No. 2 US commander in Iraq, told USA Today that 'we have weapons that we know through serial numbers... that trace back to Iran', including the RPG-29 (rocket-propelled grenade), Katyusha rockets, and powerful roadside bombs. Bush has also been threatening a crackdown on those supplying arms to the insurgents: 'We'll deal with it by finding their supply chains and their agents and... arresting them... In other words, we're going to protect our troops.'
A key element in his new 'surge' offensive is to 'counter Iranian and Syrian action that threatens the coalition forces'. Bush recently told National Public Radio: 'If Iran escalates its military action in Iraq to the detriment of our troops and/or innocent Iraqi people, we will respond firmly.'
However, it is far from clear if the Iranians are really involved in arming the Iraqi insurgents. Various independent investigations have failed to turn up evidence of such arms supplies. Even General Peter Pace, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that no such evidence exists. The main militias that target US troops are Sunnis, who have no love lost with Iran. Equally important, Iran's semi-clerical Shia regime is deeply antipathetic towards al-Qaeda. Typically, the Shia militias attack US troops in Iraq only in retaliation.
Yet, one thing is crystal-clear: the bellicose US campaign to blame 'Iranian agents' and 'networks' in Iraq for attacks on American troops, and to militarily target them, sounds dangerously akin to the build-up of the rhetoric against Saddam Hussein that culminated in the war on Iraq. Even US denials of plans to attack Iran bear the same hallmark as its denials regarding Iraq in 2002 - even as Washington then invented all manner of lies about Saddam Hussein's efforts to build 'weapons of mass destruction'.
'Kill or capture' policy
Fifth, Bush has 'authorised the US military to kill or capture Iranian operatives inside Iraq as part of an aggressive new strategy to weaken Tehran's influence across the Middle East and compel it to give up its nuclear programme, according to government and counter-terrorism officials with direct knowledge of the effort,' according to the Washington Post.
The paper reported: 'For more than a year, US forces in Iraq have secretly detained dozens of suspected Iranian agents, holding them for three to four days at a time. The "catch and release" policy was designed to avoid escalating tensions with Iran and yet intimidate its emissaries.'
But recently, says the Post, 'senior administration officials decided that a more confrontational approach was necessary, as Iran's regional influence grew and US efforts to isolate Tehran appeared to be failing.' So there's now a new 'kill or capture' programme.
According to senior administration officials, the 'kill or capture' policy 'is based on the theory that Tehran will back down from its nuclear ambitions if the US hits it hard in Iraq and elsewhere, creating a sense of vulnerability among Iranian leaders'.
This seriously misjudges the mood in Tehran as well as the strength of the prevailing popular anti-American sentiment, and the ability of the US to cow Iranian leaders into submission. The 'kill or capture' policy will only strengthen hardliners in Tehran and reinforce the determination of the Iranian regime to resist Washington's bullying.
Sixth, Bush's latest cabinet reshuffle involved the demotion and marginalisation of Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, who was known for his sober assessment of Iran's nuclear enrichment capacity and played down threats from it. Last April, Negroponte said: 'Our assessment is that the prospects of an Iranian weapon are still a number of years off, and probably into the next decade.' Many neo-cons, including leading figures in the Project for the New American Century, demanded that Negroponte be sacked.
Bush's decision to move Negroponte is in keeping with the statements of several senior Bush administration officials which indicate a hardening of the US line towards Iran. Indeed, they say Bush has opened a 'third front' in the Middle East in addition to 'chasing down insurgents and al-Qaeda in Iraq, and tamping down sectarian warfare.' (New York Times). That front is Iran.
Recently, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described what she called an 'evolving' US strategy to confront 'destabilising behaviour' by Iran across the region. Bush's national security adviser, Stephen J Hadley, said that the US was resisting an Iranian effort 'to basically establish hegemony' throughout the region.
All this suggests that the US strategy involves much more than neutralising Iran's role in Iraq. The aim is to contain and weaken Iran as a regional power. Vice President Dick Cheney said: 'If you go and talk with the Gulf states or if you talk with the Saudis or if you talk about the Israelis or the Jordanians, the entire region is worried [by Iran's behaviour]... [The threat from Iran is] multidimensional, and it is, in fact, of concern to everybody in the region.'
The New York Times quotes 'senior members' of the Bush administration as making it 'clear that their agenda goes significantly further' than 'preventing Iranians from aiding in attacks on American and Iraqi forces inside Iraq' and towards 'foiling Iran's dream of emerging as the greatest power in the Middle East'.
In addition to US contingency plans for an attack on Iran, Israel too is reported to have made elaborate military preparations to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities, possibly with nuclear weapons (The Sunday Times, London, 7 January). The same paper in 1986 had exposed the existence of a substantial nuclear arsenal in Israel, quoting nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu.
Vanunu was soon abducted by Israeli agents and tried and sentenced in Israel to 18 years in jail for disclosing state secrets. Vanunu's punishment only confirmed what was long known: Israel has had a nuclear weapons programme since the 1950s. It is now believed to have between 200 and 300 nuclear weapons.
In its latest story, The Sunday Times has alleged that Israel has drawn up plans to attack at least three sites in Iran, Natanz, Arak, and Isfahan, possibly with tactical nuclear weapons. These are the locations, respectively, of Iran's uranium enrichment plant, heavy water reactor, and a uranium gas-conversion facility. The paper also says that Israeli Air Force pilots have flown to Gibraltar in recent weeks to train for the 2,000-mile round trip to the Iranian targets.
When asked whether the Air Force was training for an attack against Iranian nuclear facilities, the Israeli Army declined comment. But former Israel Air Force commanders say Israel has contingency plans for such attacks, and have trained for long-range strikes for many years.
Whether Israel attacks Iran on its own, or in collaboration and airspace coordination with the US, or at Washington's behest, or whether the US acts on its own, the possibility -one is tempted to say, probability - of an attack on Iran can no longer be dismissed. If such an attack is to take place, it will probably happen before September/October when the core of a civilian nuclear power reactor, being built by the Russians at Bushehr, is loaded with nuclear fuel.
After it is loaded, and goes critical, bombing the reactor risks causing a Chernobyl-type disaster to occur, with devastating consequences which won't be confined to the Middle East. Some analysts believe that the attack could take place even sooner, in April/May. Some others forecast an even earlier date.
For instance, the Kuwait-based Arab Times says the attack will take place before the end of April. And the Bulgarian official news agency has reported: 'American forces could be using their two US Air Force bases in Bulgaria and one in Romania's Black Sea coast to launch an attack on Iran in April.'
Noteworthy here is the assessment of Dan Plesch, formerly of BASIC (British-American Security Information Council), and now with the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, that Bush is planning to wage war on Iran. He says: 'Donald Rumsfeld and the American Enterprise Institute have developed a strategy for regime change in Iran that does not involve a ground invasion. Weapons of mass destruction will provide the rationale for military action, though it won't be limited to attacks on a few weapons factories. It will include limiting Iranian retaliatory capability, using bombers to destroy up to 10,000 targets in the first day of any war, and special forces flying in to destroy anything that's left.'
'In the aftermath,' adds Plesch, 'the US will support regime change, hoping to replace the Ayatollahs with an Iran of the regions. The US and British governments now support a coalition of groups seeking a federal Iran. This may be another neo-con delusion, but that may not be the point. Making Tehran concentrate on internal problems leaves it unable to act elsewhere.'
The objective of an attack on Iran cannot possibly be limited to destroying the country's nuclear facilities alone. They must include all important military targets too - to prevent Iranian retaliation against American and Israeli targets. According to the independent Oxford Research Group, such attacks even with conventional weapons will produce 'thousands' of military deaths. 'Civilian deaths would be in the many hundreds at least.'
There will be many, many more deaths if tactical nuclear weapons or atomic 'bunker buster' bombs are used. Their use will break a global taboo against the use of nuclear weapons that has held since 1945. Such a break will have terrible consequences for the prospect of nuclear proliferation and will bestow respectability on the discredited and utterly egregious notion of nuclear war-fighting.
A war against Iran will have a powerful unifying effect in rallying the Iranian people behind the regime and against the West. It will provoke mass-scale revulsion everywhere, and especially in the Muslim world. It will be seen by large numbers of people all over the globe as a confirmation of the West's visceral hostility towards Islam and its prejudice against the Third World, which it seeks to re-colonise and dominate. It will produce a conflagration in the entire Middle East, of a kind the world has not even imagined so far.
Combination of motives
What explains the motives behind the US or US/Israel plans to contain and attack Iran? A mix seems to be at work: entrenched resentment and prejudice against Iran because of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which led to the humiliating detention of 50 American diplomats in Tehran for 444 days; Iran's re-emergence as a mid-sized and important military power after its eight-year-long war with Iraq; its growing political, economic and strategic weight in the Middle East thanks to high oil and gas prices in recent years; the Israeli misadventure of last summer in Lebanon, which weakened Israel's position politically and strengthened what is wrongly seen as 'Shia power' (on the assumption that Hizbollah is just a cat's paw of Iran); hype about Iran's 'destabilising' role in Iraq and Afghanistan; and exaggerated and paranoid fears about Iran's nuclear programme, capability, and intentions.
All these taken together, and fused into the premise about Iran being a 'rogue state' and an 'Axis of Evil' power, produce a deadly combination. The combination is made all the more lethal by the neo-con project to dominate the world by prolonging and perpetuating the 'unipolar moment' which was created by the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It is not difficult to see the profound irrationality of the premises and presumptions underlying all this. To start with, US policy-makers totally fail to comprehend the historical roots of the Islamic Revolution, some of which lie in the CIA's overthrow in 1953 of the nationalist Muhammed Mossadeq government - the first elected regime in West Asia after World War II - and US support for the hated and despised Shah.
So deep is the anti-Iran sentiment that runs in Washington that the US has spurned every single move by Tehran to de-escalate tensions and normalise relations - whether during the moderate Mohammed Khatami's presidency, or later. Barring the shady Iran-Contra deal of the mid-1980s, the US has not had any dealings, even covert ones, with Iran. Washington has made no effort to assess if a rapprochement with Iran is at all possible.
In January 2002, Bush declared Iran an 'Axis of Evil' state. The following year, his administration summarily rejected a 'non-paper' (diplomatese for a proposal that a government makes, but is not bound by) sent by Tehran through the Swiss embassy there, which contained positive suggestions for reconciliation. Few policy-makers in the US appreciate Iran's keenness to be recognised as a normal, law-abiding, and responsible state.
However, it is the US's paranoid and irrational approach to Iran's nuclear programme that represents the worst and most concentrated form of prejudice. It is the single most important reason why the US has consistently failed to seize opportunities for securing genuine cooperation and transparency as regards Iran's nuclear activities.
It is nobody's case that Iran has operated its nuclear programme, in particular its uranium enrichment efforts, in an exemplary or transparent manner. True, Iran hid some of its activities for 18 years from international inspections. But the nuclear weapons states, including the most powerful, the US, routinely do that - even as they continue to violate their commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)'s Article VI to undertake nuclear disarmament.
The pertinent point is that after 2003 Iran voluntarily made disclosures about its nuclear programme to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and invited its inspectors to visit its facilities, check them out and take samples from them. It suspended all its enrichment activities between November 2004 and spring last year, following an agreement with the European Union-3 (Germany, France and Britain), which promised a generous economic and political assistance package to Iran, along with security assurances, in return for observing nuclear restraint.
However, the EU-3 reneged on its offer following the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran's President. And Iran resumed its nuclear activities - openly and with the full knowledge of, and under the watchful eye of, the IAEA. And yet, the IAEA has not been able to reach the conclusion that Iran is in material breach of its commitments to the NPT and of the IAEA Charter, or that it has diverted any nuclear material from civilian to military facilities.
Iran does have a past record of non-disclosure of some of its nuclear activities. But that cannot be equated with material evidence of a breach of its NPT obligations. And the IAEA itself has repeatedly noted that Iran's disclosure record has improved and its overall attitude remains cooperative. It is ludicrous to treat Iran's nuclear activities on a par with the proliferation record of, say, North Korea or Pakistan, to which Dr Khan's 'nuclear Wal-Mart' was central.
This does not argue that Iran's intentions are wholly honourable and peaceful, and that it has forsworn nuclear weapons forever. By no means. But then, none of the existing nine nuclear weapons states (the US, Russia, the UK, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea) has shown the slightest inclination to disarm them. Iran may have, or may develop, intentions to acquire nuclear weapons. But surely that's wholly different from the reality of existence of some 27,000 nuclear weapons in nine states, 90% of them in the five countries recognised as nuclear powers by the NPT. Intention is one thing,; actual possession quite another.
What's true of Iran is that it has undertaken an activity - uranium enrichment - that potentially has military as well as civil applications. But it has also offered to place that programme under strict IAEA inspections. Such inspections, coupled with a non-punitive cooperative approach towards Iran, offer the international community the best chance of ensuring that enrichment is not used to military ends.
As I can testify, on the basis of my visit to Iran last April/May, there appears to be no consensus within the policy establishment in Tehran that Iran should pursue a dual or two-track approach, of acquiring both a weapons capability and nuclear power generation knowhow. This distinguishes Iran from, say, India. For two decades before the 1998 tests, the broad consensus in India was that the country should have and maintain a nuclear weapons capability, but should not exercise it.
In Iran, such a view has not crystallised. There is a strong consensus in favour of nuclear power - alas, without an adequate debate about its safety, environmental soundness, and its economic viability. But there is no broad agreement on acquiring a nuclear weapons capability at least in the immediate future.
Yet, if Iran is pushed to the wall, and punished merely because the US suspects its intentions, that will assuredly trigger and solidify in Tehran a determination to make or acquire nuclear weapons. A military attack can set Iran's enrichment programme back by some years. It cannot eliminate it for all time to come. A nuclear-armed Iran will become inevitable if the country is militarily attacked.
The present moment offers a unique opportunity to resolve this issue through peaceful negotiations involving multilateral institutions. Going by all informed estimates, Iran is probably five to 10 years away from producing enough nuclear fuel for a bomb. A 2005 report by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) estimates that Iran would need more than 10 years to build an industrial-scale centrifuge plant at Natanz.
At the moment, Natanz is basically a 'pilot plant', with just 164 centrifuges - when several thousands are needed to produce enough nuclear fuel for a significant or sizeable weapons programme. Iran is reportedly adding 3,000 centrifuges to its existing cascades at Natanz. But these are relatively crude machines, whose industrial-level efficiency has yet to be demonstrated.
'If and when Iran does have 3,000 centrifuges operating smoothly,' says IISS in its just-released (31 January) report, 'it would take an additional 9-11 months to produce 25 kg of highly enriched uranium, enough for one implosion-type weapon. That day is still 2-3 years away at the earliest.' (This is the most optimistic estimate anyone has so far made.)
That is not all. According to independent experts as well as an IISS assessment, the uranium hexafluoride gas produced at the Isfahan conversion facility contains high levels of impurities. This casts serious doubts over whether the gas is at all fit to be used in the enrichment process.
Uranium centrifuges spin at extremely high speeds such as 800 to 1,200 revolutions per second. They break down if there is even the slightest material imbalance and asymmetry, or poor lubrication. Even bad or faulty bearings can cause crashes. So can mild earthquakes. And Iran is a seismically highly active country. Even India's Department of Atomic Energy has had trouble stabilising its enrichment centrifuges at the Rare Materials Plant near Mysore. Iran can be expected to experience far more serious problems, being technologically and industrially less advanced than India.
Besides, it should not be presumed that Iran's policy-making establishment is homogenous or impervious to arguments favouring moderation in its nuclear stance and international relations approach, and even less that President Ahmadinejad determines, and is the sole spokesperson for, Iran's nuclear policy.
In fact, it is the 'Supreme Leader', Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is the ultimate arbiter of that policy, in the making of which Ali Larijani, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council and the country's chief nuclear negotiator, plays an important role as Khamenei's nominee.
In recent weeks, Ahmadinejad's statements have sounded out of sync with Khamenei's approach. And he has received reprimands from other religious leaders like Ayatollah Montazari and the clergy from the holy city of Qom for his hardline speeches and his seemingly inflexible, and at times provocative, stand on the nuclear question.
A particular target of attack is his dismissal of the very possibility of a security threat from the US or Israel. Even Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki has contradicted the President's assessment. Addressing the Iranian Majlis (parliament) on 23 January, he said: 'The US threats are more serious and far graver than mere psychological and propaganda campaign... It is possible that attacks, limited or extensive, take place.'
There is reason to believe that the moderates have emerged stronger after the December elections to the Assembly of Experts, during which Ahmadinejad's supporters were trounced. Led by former Presidents Khamenei and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the moderates have formed an alliance to counter Ahmadinejad. Their position will be further strengthened if the US and Israel shed their confrontationist approach and opt for serious diplomacy - as many states, including Russia, China and, to an extent, the EU, have been urging them to do.
Need for restraint
If, however, the US and/or Israel embark on a military misadventure by attacking Iran, Iran can retaliate by creating serious problems for the occupation forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and further destabilising the situation in that already inflamed region. At least some of the 'senior' Bush administration officials quoted by the Washington Post recognise that Iran 'has the means to put US citizens and national interest at greater risk in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere'. Iran's influence in Shia-majority Iraq, or in Afghanistan (especially through the Northern Alliance) must not be underestimated. If provoked, Iran can cause enormous damage to US and Israeli personnel and interests in the entire Middle East.
This makes it imperative that global pressure be mounted on the US in favour of moderating its stand on Iran. Regrettably, it is not clear if such pressure can be mounted by the major powers and other actors such as the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). NAM has reaffirmed Iran's right to uranium enrichment for peaceful purposes. Iran has invited ambassadors from the NAM countries to visit its nuclear facilities. But it is unlikely that their position will persuade the US to change its stand.
India, once a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, has taken a shamefully ambiguous, contradictory and pusillanimous stand on Iran. It twice voted against Iran at the IAEA although it admits that Iran is in no breach of its treaty obligations. The Indian government is so preoccupied with finalising its controversial nuclear cooperation deal with the US that it is in no position to resist Washington's pressure to isolate Iran.
Russia and China proclaim that they are opposed to harsh sanctions and the use of coercion against Iran. But they did not prevent Iran from being reported by the IAEA to the United Nations Security Council. Nor did they exercise the veto against Resolution 1737 of December last, which imposes stiff sanctions on Iran. It is not clear that they will resist US pressure for tough financial sanctions against Iranian banks and companies.
This makes it all the more necessary that an effort be made at the level of civil society, in all available international forums, and in countries inclined towards peace and moderation, to generate global public opinion and mount pressure on the US to restrain itself. Or else, the US/Israel will be tempted to use the military option against Iran - and the world will have an even greater catastrophe on its hands than Iraq and Afghanistan put together.