War on Iran in 2012?

By Eric Hooglund, Editor, Middle East Critique and Professor of Iranian Studies, Lund University

This essay appeared first on www.Jadaliyya.com

President Barak Obama’s triumphal proclamation of a US military victory in Iraq upon the withdrawal of all US armed forces from that country in December has made it possible for the unelected makers of American national security policy to focus attention on Iran, a nation high up on any list of US enemies since 1979. Indeed, the rhetoric of senior political leaders in both the United States and Israel about Iran’s alleged efforts to develop a nuclear weapon has fueled a frightening depiction in the mainstream media of an Iran that poses an existential threat to Israel and to ‘vital’ US interests (i.e., oil) in the Persian Gulf region. Various analysts and pundits have stoked fears by calling for or cautioning against a bomb attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Given this atmosphere, it is prudent to assess the likelihood of such an attack and its consequences for Iran and the wider Middle East.

Despite their public rhetoric to the contrary, senior political and military leaders in both Washington and Tel Aviv know that Iran has not diverted any of its enriched uranium for manufacturing a nuclear weapon. They know this because Iran voluntarily submits to very intrusive IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities and allows IAEA inspectors to put all the low-grade uranium it enriches under IAEA seals. Presumably, Iran tolerates these measures to demonstrate that it is NOT developing a nuclear bomb. As long as Iran continues this cooperation with IAEA inspectors, it is not crossing the often mentioned but never defined ‘red line’ that likely would trigger the constantly threatened air strikes by Israel or the USA.

The US and Israeli public preoccupation with an imagined nuclear weapons program in Iran is a cover for Washington’s real political objective: regime change in Tehran. This goal has been implicit policy at least since 1993, when the Clinton administration inaugurated its dual containment policy of Iran and Iraq, and it has been an explicit policy since 2002, when George W. Bush named Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, as members of an ‘axes of evil’ in his State of the Union Address. Although some key Bush administration officials may have seen the invasion of Iraq as prelude to an assault on Iran, the post-invasion insurgency in Iraq effectively derailed any military plans for Iran. When the Obama administration acceded to power in January 2009, it initially used more diplomatic language about Iran than its predecessor had done, but as we now know from the State Department documents released by WikiLeaks in 2010, its use of a softer tone was a calculated strategy to lure allies, such as Canada and the European Union, into adopting tougher policies against Iran. The EU’s recent implementation of wide-ranging economic sanctions, including a ban on imports of Iranian oil, demonstrates the success of this policy.

It has been obvious since November that US official rhetoric about Iran has become unambiguously hostile. The more strident tone is a direct consequence of the reinvigoration of the US national security ideology, which in turn is a result of perceived victories against Al-Qaida and in Iraq. This development has introduced unpredictable psychological elements and power calculations into US Iran policy. This is a time of grave concern, for whenever a mindset of invincibility is operating at the highest decision-making levels, it becomes easier to choose military options rather than diplomatic solutions.

The capability to launch an air assault against Iran has been readied: there is a flotilla of over a dozen US, UK and French naval vessels in the Persian Gulf and the adjacent waters of the Arabian Sea. This armada includes ships carrying fighter aircraft and guided missiles, and it is supplemented with drones, one of which crash-landed in Iran in late November. This display of force is intended to intimidate Iran, but miscalculation and misinterpretation could lead to conflict. If a strike against Iran were to take place, its military does not have the capability to retaliate directly against the United States or its European allies, but it does have the ability to inflict substantial damage on local US allies such as Qatar and the UAE—a war consequence that rarely is discussed in the media, and it can disrupt the passage of oil tankers out of the Persian Gulf way beyond the few weeks that Western hubris claims it would take its mine sweepers to counter. A prolonged disruption of oil exports from the region would have dramatically negative consequences for the economies of southern Europe and Asia.

The only way to avoid blundering into a conflict with catastrophic regional consequences is to engage Iran in serious negotiations over its policies that the United States perceives as regional threats. In early 2003, the Iranians actually offered to enter into unconditional negotiations with Washington on all issues, including Israel and Palestine, but Bush administration officials rejected this offer, confident of their impending victory in Iraq and then being able to effect regime change in Iran. Although it may be implausible in 2012 to use the rejected 2003 memorandum as a basis for talks with Iran, there is one way to initiate negotiations: For the Obama administration to announce unambiguously that it rejects the notion of regime change in Tehran. Treating Iranian diplomats with the same respect given to Arabs, Israelis, and Turks also would facilitate this process.

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