Next target: Iran
In the Persian Gulf, war drums are clearly audible. Tensions are set to escalate over Iran's nuclear activities and Western efforts to cow it into halting them. Iran's leaders made it clear during last week's anniversary celebrations of the Islamic Revolution that while they are open to nuclear restraint negotiations, they won't suspend uranium enrichment as a precondition. Iran won't give up its right to 'peaceful' nuclear technology even as it stays within the rules of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) and international atomic energy agency (IAEA). However, the tensions' real source is the United States' relentless military build-up in the Gulf, where a flotilla led by two aircraft carriers is being mobilised. President Bush has ordered US troops to 'seek out and destroy' Iranian 'networks' in Iraq. US strategy towards suspected Iranian agents has shifted from 'capture and release' to 'capture or kill'. The 'surge' of 21,500 US troops in Iraq will probably be directed at Iranian targets. The 'Patriot' missiles being sent are meant for Iran, not for the Iraqi insurgents, who fight with guns, grenades and improvised bombs. The US has stepped up the daily barrage of propaganda alleging that Tehran is providing Iraqi insurgents lethal weapons, in particular, "explosively formed penetrator" devices. It claims Iranian EFPs have killed 170 Americans since June 2004. Iraq's No. 2 US general says his troops have captured arms whose 'serial numbers' can be 'traced back' to Iran. This defies credulity. A country that manufactured a particular weapon need not be its provider. Iran fought an eight year-long war with Iraq in the 1980s. Iraq, unsurprisingly, has many Iranian-made weapons -- within a massively armed population. The US 'evidence' on Iran is even flimsier than the fake or 'sexed-up' 2002-3 dossiers on Iraq's nuclear weapons, which totally undermined Washington's credibility. The presumption that Iraq's Shias are at war with America is preposterous. The two main Shia militias are controlled by leading parties in the ruling pro-US coalition. It makes little sense for strongly-Shia Iran to arm Iraq's mainly Sunni insurgents. It's the Sunni militias that proactively target US troops. Meanwhile, the US is planning aggressive air patrolling along the Iran-Iraq border. All these offensive moves are calculated to provoke. Amidst Iran's own missile tests, provocations could escalate, or can be engineered into, into overt conflict. Washington's approach towards Iran is driven by prejudice and hostility, some of it rooted in the Iranian Revolution -- itself a reaction to the US's imposition of the Shah through a coup against Mohammed Mossadegh, West Asia's first democratically elected post-War II leader. The US has convinced itself that Iran wants to establish itself as a hegemonic power in West Asia by becoming a nuclear weapons-state (NWS). That's why President Bush in January 2002 called Iran an 'axis of evil' state -- despite the helpful role it played after September 11. Iran backed the US invasion of Afghanistan. It has always opposed Al Qaeda. Without Iran's mediation with the Northern Alliance -- which it backed against the Taliban -- it's doubtful, concedes the latest Newsweek, if Hamid Karzai would have become president. Yet, a week after Iran pledged $500 million to Afghanistan, Bush declared it 'evil'. The US has a paranoid, exaggerated view of Iran's nuclear activities and ambitions. Iran has at best a primitive pilot plant-scale nuclear programme based on uranium enrichment with centrifuges. It's not clear that it can graduate to industrial level. In addition to 328 centrifuges last year, Iran claims to have installed another cascade of 328 -- when several thousands are needed to make a few bombs. According to independent reports, including by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, London, Iran's basic problem lies at the pre-centrifuge stage -- converting uranium yellowcake to hexafluoride gas, at Isfahan. The gas is probably too contaminated to be centrifuged. Besides, centrifuges aren't easy to master. These delicate machines spin at ultra-high speeds like 800 or 1,200 revolutions per second. Even India -- which is technologically advanced than Iran -- has had trouble in mastering centrifuges. Besides, much of Iran is earthquake-prone. Even mild tremors can lead to centrifuge breakdowns. Iran is probably three to 10 years away from the bomb. However foul Iran's intentions and grandiose its ambitions, do any of the NWSs have honourable intentions? And whatever its record of concealment of some nuclear activities -- for 18 long years -- Iran is in no material breach of its NPT obligations. The IAEA has found no evidence of diversion of nuclear material to military uses. Indeed, it has noted an improvement in Iran's disclosure record. The international community's best bet lies in holding Iran down to its commitment to putting all its nuclear activities under strict inspections. But Bush & Co and Israel's Ehud Olmert think otherwise. They have drawn up plans for devastating attacks upon Iran's nuclear installations, and its main military facilities too. One plan identifies 400 targets. According to The New Yorker and The Sunday Times, the US and/or Israel may even use 'tactical' nuclear weapons. Bush is under strong neoconservative pressure to attack Iran -- not just to de-fang its nuclear capability, but to bring about 'regime change'. An unprovoked attack on Iran will have catastrophic consequences for the entire Middle East, indeed globally. It will set off a conflagration in the Muslim world, the like of which history has never seen. Not just Muslims, but billions of citizens the world over, will turn against the US. An attack is the surest guarantee that Iran will develop nuclear weapons and withdraw from the NPT. Bombing Natanz and Isafahan will set the nuclear programme back by five years. It won't destroy Iran's capacity to rebuild the facilities. Politically, the attack will ignite a long war between Iran and the West. Fifteen British think tanks, civil society groups and trade unions, including the Oxford Research Group and Foreign Policy Centre have produced a report "Time to Talk", which says that an attack on Iran will produce unprecedented instability. It "would be perceived by some as an aggression towards the Muslim world, fuelling anti-Western sentiment and giving renewed impetus to extremists". War on Iran will produce "havoc in the global oil market." Even Iranian threats to "attack oil transit through the Straits of Hormuz" could send "oil prices over $100 per barrel". A $10 increase in oil prices could prune Sub-Saharan African GDP by three per cent and push developing countries into 'greater poverty'. It will have grim environmental effects, including severe radioactive contamination, oil slicks and oil-well fires. The impact on Iranian civilians will be acute. "Iran's nuclear facilities are located near densely populated towns, and those living or working nearby would be at serious risk." If military assets are attacked, there could be thousands of deaths. An attack will probably further jeopardise "the prospects of peace taking root in the Middle East", especially Palestine-Israel, and severely undermine hopes for stability in Iraq. Iran can create massive trouble for the US in Iraq. An attack will bolster hardliners and set back chances of reform within Iran just when Ahmedinejad's position is getting weaker and the reformists' stronger. It's not clear if many states can and will restrain the US. But civil society mobilisation against war on Iran has become indispensable.