Revolution #51, June 18, 2006
A World To Win News Service Examines…
Potential U.S. Scenarios to Attack Iran
As we go to press, George Bush is announcing that Iran has “weeks not months” to comply with U.S. demands for international inspection of its nuclear facilities, and that if Iran did not suspend it’s current research and development of nuclear technology, “there must be a consequence.” “We have given the Iranians a limited period of time, weeks not months,” said Bush.
Last week, Revolution ran an analysis by Larry Everest of the Bush regime’s announcement that they were open to negotiations with the rulers of Iran (see “New U.S. Maneuvers on Iran: Tactical Shifts, Escalating Threats and the Continued Danger of War,” Revolution #50, June 11, 2006). In that article, Everest noted:
A recent Wall Street Journal editorial by Robert Blackwill, Bush’s former deputy national security adviser and presidential envoy to Iraq (June 1), spelled out an imperial understanding of the necessities facing the empire in Iran: “The case against using U.S. military force to set back Iran’s nuclear weapons program is impressive,” he begins. “Iran would retaliate strongly in Iraq, in Afghanistan and perhaps against the U.S. homeland. The effect in the Muslim world could be volcanic. Terror against America would increase. Islam could be further radicalized. Oil prices would skyrocket with damaging effects on the international economy, even if Iran did not interrupt its supply. The people of Iran would probably fall in behind the mullahs. Global public opinion would further shift against the U.S.”
But then he makes what he sees as a more compelling case for action from the imperialist standpoint: “The use of American military force against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would obviously carry great risk. But acquiescing in an Iranian nuclear weapons capability would be deeply dangerous for the U.S. and like-minded democracies for decades to come. It would be regarded by the entire world, friend and foe alike, as a strategic defeat for the U.S., and produce a major shift toward Iran in the balance of power in the Greater Middle East… John McCain sums it up: ‘In the end, there is only one thing worse than military action, and that is a nuclear-armed Iran.’”
And, Everest argued, “People should consider this analysis by a former major figure in the Bush regime very seriously and very soberly.”
A World To Win (AWTW) News Service recently sent out an analysis of what forms US aggression against Iran might take. The article, the second of a three-part series on “Iran—the threat of another war,” is titled, “Possible US tactics to serve its strategic goals in Iran.” Following are excerpts from that article:
No one should mistake the latest American offer of direct negotiations with Tehran as an indication that the US has decided not to take that route. Whether or not talks between Iran and the US eventually take place, and without being able to predict the results, it can be said with certainty that a unilateral act of war against Iran would require a previous process of diplomacy to create the necessary political conditions, both in terms of preparing public opinion at home and abroad, and bargaining with and strong-arming the other big powers.
In an article examining why the US made the offer, the New York Times (2 June) explained, “Few of his aides expect that Iran’s leaders will meet Bush’s main condition”: that Iran, alone among all the countries on Earth, accept the US imposition of a total ban on enriching or reprocessing uranium, even under international inspection. This would amount to explicitly surrendering national sovereignty to the US. Bush might as well have offered the Iranian regime a chance to lick his boots in public and commit political suicide—”an offer intended to fail,” the newspaper continued. As for the US’s real intentions, an insider source was quoted as saying, “If we are going to confront Iran, we first have to check off the box of ‘trying talks.’”
BBC analyst Paul Reynolds (2 June) suggested a blunter explanation: “The hawks in Washington have gone along with the move in the belief that an offer of direct talks now will improve their arguments for military action later. It also helps to keep Russia and China on board… When [the talks break down], they would then press for a mandatory Security Council resolution ordering Iran to suspend enrichment, and then, if Russia and China blocked sanctions, they would call for unilateral measures by the US and its allies. If that failed, then eventually there would be discussion of a military strike.”
The US at first held off on asking the UN Security Council to apply diplomatic and economic sanctions against Iran, largely because of Russian and Chinese opposition. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tried to sound reassuring in March when she stated “Nobody has said that we have to rush immediately to sanctions of some kind.” But this is the road the US set out on, and, in fact, the US seems to have had its own timetable all along. By early June, Rice felt ready to announce, “We really do have to have this settled in a matter of weeks, not months.”
Although details are still secret, reportedly some initial sanctions were agreed to at the 1 June Vienna meeting between the US, the other four UN Security Council members (the UK, France, Russia and China), Germany and the European Union diplomacy chief. According to news reports, Russia and China agreed that even if they don’t approve of sanctions, they will not block them. The “menu” of penalties if Iran does not agree to accept the US-led ultimatum range from travel bans for Iranian officials to an arms embargo. Such an embargo could conceivably mean drawing an armed ring around Iran. In this scenario, step by step, sanctions could set the conditions for war, even if other powers involved were reluctant or opposed. Looking back at the US-led war against Iraq, it is clear that diplomacy, sanctions, manoeuvring in the UN Security Council, etc., did not prevent war but paved the way for it to happen. The US plan this time, set by Rice, is to try and minimize big power public squabbling along the way.
An arms embargo would greatly reduce the Iranian regime’s ability to defend itself, since the country imports much of its advanced weaponry from Russia and China. More generally, the Islamic Republic of Iran is extremely vulnerable to outside pressure because its economy is so closely linked to the world market. The huge increase in oil prices over the last decade has not made Iran more economically independent, but rather much more reliant on oil exports. Iran’s oil revenues have nearly tripled since 1997. They now amount to at least three-quarters of the government’s income. Further, a blockade of imports, including machinery and technology, could cripple Iran’s entire economy quickly. This disruption alone would greatly weaken the regime’s military capabilities, not to mention the consequences for its political stability. While Russia and China have resisted agreeing to sanctions that would stop them from buying Iranian oil, American and European gunboats in the Gulf waters might persuade them otherwise.
When enforced by guns, an embargo turns into an act of war. That’s why economic embargoes have a way of turning into military actions overnight. In World War I, Germany attacked US ships defying a ban on shipments to Britain, thus providing the US with an excuse to enter the war when it was ready. In World War 2, a US blockade of oil shipments to Japan provoked the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. The decade-long embargo against Saddam Hussein’s regime weakened it so much economically and militarily that Iraq was ripe for defeat even before the US invaded. The embargo was the US’s first (but not only) weapon of mass destruction. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the US would sit through another decade of embargo this time.
Military Options: Occupation
If the US does decide to move militarily against Iran, the form of attack would depend on many factors, including the differences among the big powers, mass opposition to the war and the political situation in general, and American military capabilities…
The US military is bogged down in Iraq and faces increasing difficulties in Afghanistan. At this point and in the near term, at least, the American military finds itself overstretched just trying to avoid complete loss and final failure in Iraq…
Furthermore, Iran is a much larger country than Iraq, with three times the population. Its uneven terrain would provide obstacles for American tanks and other US military machinery. Even in the more favourable terrain of Iraq, US armour has proved quite inefficient in fighting against the kind of war that resistance forces are waging.
If, as many American military analysts say, the US would need three times the number of soldiers it currently has in Iraq to go from occupation to real control of the country, then extrapolating this to Iran, it would seem that the US just doesn’t have what it would take to directly achieve its aims in Iran, despite the Bush regime’s arrogant threats.
In a major appeal to his fellow American imperialists entitled “Do not attack Iraq” (International Herald Tribune, 26 April), former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski warned, “While America is clearly preponderant in the world, it does not have the power—nor the domestic inclination—to both impose and then sustain its will in the face of costly and protracted resistance. This certainly is the lesson taught both by its Vietnamese and Iraqi experiences.” If the US went ahead and attacked Iran anyway, he warned, “the era of American preponderance could come to a premature end.”
To understand Brzezinski’s perspective, it should be recalled that during the Iranian revolution of 1979, he was an “advocate of the iron fist” who urged the Shah to “crack down” and kill as many people as necessary to stay in power. (See The Iranian Revolution: An Oral History, by Henry Precht, the US State Department’s Iran Desk chief at that time). Brzezinski took that position in large part because of US interests in using the Shah’s regime to help contain the Soviet Union. His position on Iran today is no less motivated by his conception of the overall interests of the US empire.
Brzezinski’s concern with the question of “domestic will” seems to be a reference to the need for massive conscription in the US to double, triple or more the number of troops. This could trigger an enormous shift in the domestic political situation faced by the Bush regime. While recognizing that would be politically very difficult right now, Brzezinski himself points to a possible solution to this problem: “If there is another terrorist attack in the United States, you can bet your bottom dollar that there will be also immediate charges that Iran was responsible in order to generate public hysteria in favour of military action”…
A Military Strike Against Iran
Another option publicly discussed in the US is a military strike on Iranian nuclear sites and selected military and political targets. That, incontestably, is within the capacity of the US, despite its weaknesses. It would be the kind of war the US likes to fight, relying on economic/technological power (“death from above”) in extremely unequal combat. The question is, what would be gained politically and militarily by such an action?
Many imperialist strategists say it would be easy to deal a devastating setback to the Islamic regime’s nuclear programme using missiles and/or aircraft alone. But, first of all, that programme is not the US’s main concern. Secondly, even if that concern were real, the US knows quite well that Iran is not anywhere near producing nuclear weapons. This kind of strike might inflict military and political blows on the Iranian regime, but would probably not directly achieve American objectives in Iran and the region. The idea that it might help topple the regime seems unrealistic. In fact, it could help Iran’s ruling circles close ranks. Such an attack might help the isolated regime gather more popular support on a nationalist basis.
Further, what was intended to be a limited action might not necessarily remain limited, because the US might have to face Iranian regime retaliation in other areas. For example, it might seek to block the straits of Hormuz through which the region’s oil passes every day, or fire on US bases in the region, or try to strike back through its allies in Iraq, Afghanistan or Lebanon. An air attack on a few targets might well expand into a full military conflict between Iran and the US. Even worse for the US, it might inflame the whole Middle East, creating a situation well beyond the US’s military capacity to deal with—although, again, it could be argued that for the US, seizing hegemony in the region is an “all or nothing” proposition.
Finally, a limited strike against Iran—as opposed to a decisive blow—might increase the tension between the imperialists. There has been disagreement among the big powers on whether, when or how to attack Iran. In the case of the Iraq war, opposition by the European ruling classes was silenced when the US launched a full-scale invasion, forcing the other powers to accept American domination as an accomplished fact. In addition, while the military and political gains of a more limited attack on Iran might not achieve US aims, its outcome would likely include an enraged mass opposition on a world scale. As in the run-up to the Iraq war, this could interact with the efforts of the other imperialist powers to pursue their own interests as long as the question of who controls Iran remained unsettled.
Apart from the above options, there are other possible forms of US intervention not as widely talked about. One is the invasion of a part of Iran in an attempt to sever it from the rest of the country. In that scenario, Iran’s southern province of Khuzestan could be the most likely US target. Most of Iran’s oil resources are located in Khuzestan. During the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, seizing Khuzestan was Saddam’s strategic goal—and one the US encouraged.
Khuzestan has important advantages for the US from a military point of view. It has a long border with Iraq, and the terrain is flat, so an American military invasion could be mounted and carried out relatively swiftly. It is a short drive from Basra, the main city in southern Iraq, to Ahvaz, the Khuzestan capital. The US could carry out this kind of partial invasion in the name of “stabilizing” Iraq. To reduce the political cost of such a move, the US is already building a case against Iran for intervening in Iraq’s affairs. (No matter that the Iraqi Shia parties promoted by the Islamic Republic of Iran are all members of the US-installed occupation government. The US even accuses Iran of “arming the terrorists” in Iraq, although there is no evidence or even logic to that claim. It is inconceivable that the Iranian Shia regime would give any support to the anti-occupation Sunni forces.)
An American occupation of Khuzestan province would do more than inflict severe economic pressure on the Iranian regime, possibly paralysing it and accelerating its downfall. It might also work as an opening wedge in the cracks created by ethnic oppression in all corners of Iran. About half of the country’s population is made up of nationalities oppressed by the central government that mainly represents the dominant Persian nationality. The US could justify an invasion by claiming it was helping the province’s largely ethnic Arab population, who would be said to have “invited” the US to come to their aid.
In his New Yorker article on US preparations to invade Iran (17 April 2006), journalist Seymour Hersh wrote, “I was told by the government consultant with close ties to civilians in the Pentagon, the units were also working with minority groups in Iran, including the Azeris, in the north, the Baluchis, in the southeast, and the Kurds, in the northeast.” The inflammable character of Iran’s minority nationalities was brought out again in May by mass protests that exploded in Azerbaijan province in response to newspaper cartoons depicting Azeris as stupid cockroaches. There have also been incidents in Baluchistan over the last few months. Already some Iranian Kurdish forces are setting out on the path taken by Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, the Iraqi Kurdish leaders who have become the most reliable US allies in Iraq. These Iranian Kurdish leaders have been visiting the US regularly and taking part in discussions at American foreign policy think tanks.
Ahvaz has seen disturbances for more than a year. Undoubtedly there has been genuine mass protest against the Tehran regime’s oppressive measures, but bomb explosions in crowded urban areas raise questions about the nature of the perpetrators. The Islamic regime has accused the US and UK of involvement. The fact that Hersh’s American government informants don’t discuss Iran’s Arab minority does not mean that the US is not working on this front as well.
If an invasion were limited to Khuzestan, it might not require such a large military force. But it is not clear whether the US is capable of deploying even that many additional soldiers. Further, it is impossible to predict exactly what might follow an occupation of that region. It might still pull the US into the kind of unfavourable circumstances it is seeking to avoid.
Is the Use of Nuclear Bombs Against Iran Just an Empty Threat?
The revelation that the US military is discussing the use of “tactical” nuclear weapons against some targets in Iran alarmed and shocked the world when the Hersh piece was published. The article also disclosed that “US carrier-based attack planes have been flying simulated nuclear-bomb runs within range of Iranian coastal radars.”
Some people dismissed this as only an empty threat. Jack Straw, the UK Foreign Minister at that time, called the whole idea simply “nuts.” But insane or not, the discussion is real enough so that even some imperialist politicians such as American Senator Edward Kennedy publicly demanded that the US use only conventional weapons and not nukes against Iran… George Bush has very pointedly refused to promise that the US won’t do so. As the UK Guardian reported (4 May), “When asked last month whether U.S. options regarding Iran ‘include the possibility of a nuclear strike’ if Tehran refuses to halt uranium enrichment, Bush replied, ‘All options are on the table.’”
When US imperialism deliberately bares its teeth, that should be taken seriously. Faced with a contradiction between its desperation to advance towards its objectives in the Middle East and its inability to deploy enough troops to do so, it might seek to resolve this problem in the most dangerous manner imaginable. Nukes are an “option,” nukes are “on the menu”—imperialist strategists use harmless-sounding words for great crimes. Certainly at least some forces in the Bush regime and more broadly in the US ruling class see America’s nuclear arsenal as the way to overcome their limitations and reassert their strength as a superpower. The outcome could be immediate death for hundreds of thousands of people and slow death for many more. But the US rulers have shown over and over again, from Hiroshima to Vietnam to Iraq, that there is no amount of bloodshed they fear if they believe it necessary to attain their objectives and serve their interests. Bloodshed is what they do best. In fact, the arrogance of US civilian and military officials about their capacity to crush the Iranian regime is based on at least the possibility of a nuclear attack—as Bush himself plainly says.
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