Ervand Abrahamian: Iran: the next target?

The belief that the US cannot afford another conflict is misguided, says Ervand Abrahamian. Fuelled by mutual paranoia, the risk of war with Iran is growing

The recent pledge by Iran to “suspend temporarily” the enrichment of uranium has merely postponed a likely major collision between the Islamic Republic and America – a confrontation that could well make the Iraq conflict look like a minor mishap. The disastrous course has been set by a symbiotic relationship of mutual paranoia.

Washington is convinced that Iran is clandestinely and speedily developing nuclear weapons; that as soon as it has done this it will share them with such international terrorist organizations as al-Qaeda; and that these organizations would have no compunction in using them either on Israel or on American cities.

Tehran is equally convinced that the US is determined on a destructive course – either overthrowing the Islamic Republic and replacing it with another regime, or, if need be, by dismantling the whole of Iran. Every time Iranian leaders talk nuclear, they fuel American fears. Every time American leaders talk of “regime change”, they conjure up images of the 1953 Anglo-US coup against Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadeq.

Of course, as has often been noted, even paranoids can have real enemies.

The risk of a collision remains high, but the Iraqi quagmire has created a mood of complacency in the international community and among liberal and conservative “realists” in America about US capabilities. Conventional wisdom now argues that because the US military is overextended, its citizens are uneasy about the extent of international commitments, and its leaders have supposedly been “chastised” by Iraq, the country is unlikely to venture into new wars – especially into the vast inhospitable region of Iran.

This overlooks several counter-arguments for the likelihood of an escalation of conflict – especially those that take into account the power of ideology. The neoconservatives who brought us the Iraq conflict are more entrenched in power now than they were in 2001-2003 when more conventional conservatives could still be found in the corridors of the CIA and the State Department.

These neoconservatives do not consider the Iraq exercise to be a failure since they have achieved their avowed goal of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. They are still convinced that they have the power to change facts and create their own reality. They have been demanding the destruction of the Islamic Republic – much like the refrain “Carthage must be destroyed” – ever since Iran’s 1979 revolution. As Saddam Hussein fell, they proclaimed that everyone wants to go to Baghdad, but real men aim for Tehran.

Even before the emergence of the nuclear issue, the neoconservatives were denouncing Iran as “nightmarish”, “fanatical”, “ferocious”, “despicable”, Stalinist, Fascist, a “satanic mullahcracy”, “intolerable for American interests”, a “source of evil” and the “throbbing heart of international terrorism”. The US, in their eyes, has been at “war” with Iran ever since 1979, with a brief period of bellum interruptum initiated by that “appeaser” president Bill Clinton. In the words of their paper, the Weekly Standard, in April 2003, the US has a “blood debt” with Iran because of the events of 1979-1981 when US embassy staff in Tehran were held hostage. President George W Bush now concurs with the Israeli defence minister’s statement that “under no circumstances should Iran be permitted to possess nuclear weapons”.

Such language sounds even more ominous in the context of the neoconservatives’ talk of pre-emptive wars, “tactical” nuclear weapons, bunker busters, redrawing the map of the Middle East, undoing the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement (which effectively determined the region’s modern boundaries), subdividing countries into mini-states, waging war against evil, and launching World War IV (the Cold War being World War III).

One leading neoconservative sees himself as a reincarnation of Lawrence of Arabia. Another writes that his middle name should be “destruction”. Yet another, Michael Leeden, argues that war forges “virility”, “virtue” and “strength of character”, whereas peace leads to “effeminate behaviour”, “insolence”, “corruption”, “materialism” and “moral weakness”. Leeden also proclaims: “We Americans are a warlike people… We love war. We don’t mind casualties. What we hate is losing wars.” To European ears, this sounds less like conventional conservatism and more like the right-wing radicalism of the 1930s.

The case for war?
What is more, the neoconservatives have created a Coalition for Democracy in Iran. They openly say they would use all options available to overthrow the Islamic Republic, and are making headway in Congress to adopt “regime change” in Iran as the official policy of the US. In time, they could sell to their public the necessity for a new war by claiming that the US cannot get out of Iraq without first solving the Iranian “problem”. This would involve re-running the 1979 hostage crisis and linking Tehran to Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaeda and Sadr in Baghdad, and to the 1983 bombing of US marines in Beirut, the 1996 Kobar bombing in Saudi Arabia, and even September 11.

Even more important, they would assure the American public that a war in Iran would be a “limited” incursion into the south-western province – where the oil resources happen to be located. Such an occupation would deprive the central government of its means of support, but could be carried out mainly by the US navy and air force – which have so far watched the Iraqi war from the sidelines.

However stretched the US military might be, the neoconservatives could claim that the extra effort was needed in this life and death struggle to prevent mushroom clouds appearing over US cities. In recent days, some American generals have been arguing that their troops are not overextended and if necessary could resort to “tactical” weapons to eliminate the Iranian danger. On the slippery slope of war, such a “limited” step can turn into a major slide into the abyss, since Iran would most probably react by using all its substantial “assets” in Iraq and Afghanistan to make the intolerable situations there even more intolerable – both for the US and NATO.

Averting disaster
What can the international community, especially the European Union, do to forestall a major disaster? It should go straight to the heart of the matter by tackling the paranoia problem.

On the one hand, it should continue to do what it has been doing: assure Iran that it can carry on developing nuclear projects for peaceful purposes – which is within its international rights. In return, Iran should permit unlimited inspections to guarantee that this research is not being extended to the development of nuclear weaponry. To add to this guarantee, it should request Iran not to venture into developing long-range missiles.

On the other hand, and equally important, the international community should obtain from the US guarantees that it has no intention of invading Iran, carrying out military strikes on it and conspiring for “regime change”.

To give substance to such guarantees, the US government would have to stop financing the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO) opposition movement based in Iraq, the royalists in Los Angeles, and various irredentist groups that have suddenly appeared in Washington and are talking about rights of “national self-determination”. The MKO, which the State Department two years ago categorized as a “terrorist organization”, is now being openly touted by the neoconservatives as a movement of “courageous freedom fighters”.

One does not have to be a political genius to realize that you cannot negotiate with an adversary while insisting that your main goal is to destroy that same adversary. Instead of aiding and abetting the sworn enemies of the Islamic Republic, the European Union should openly insist that the US remove sanctions imposed on Iran and cease opposing Iran’s request for accession to the World Trade Organization. This would help the global economy, as well as Iran. The atmosphere of paranoia would also drastically diminish if the US were to assure the world openly that it had no intention of placing permanent bases in Iraq – the neoconservatives invaded that country armed with blueprints for 15 permanent military bases to be sited there. Diminishing the paranoia would not forestall the collision; it would help revive the democratic movement in Iran. It is often forgotten in the west that a major casualty of Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech, as well as of the invasion of Iraq and the establishment of US military bases in central Asia, Afghanistan, the Caucasus and the Black Sea, has been the liberal reform movement in Iran.

The Iranian conservatives’ opponents have used to the hilt the prevalent fear that the nation is in danger, that the country is under siege and that the mortal enemy is determined to undertake a 1953-style intervention. Behind the scenes they have probably also argued with the reformists that nuclear weapons are a deterrent to a US intervention – after all, they could claim, Iraq did not have nuclear weapons, but was invaded, whereas North Korea, which does have them, has been treated with kid gloves.

In this stifling and fearful atmosphere, some reformists have withdrawn from active politics by resorting to self-censorship. Others have rallied – however reluctantly – behind their conservative rivals. What politician at a time of national emergency would want to appear to be rocking the boat, acting as a “fifth column”, and seeming to help the enemy at the gates? If the United States is as concerned about the democratic movement as it claims, it can help by merely toning down its loud talk of “regime change”. It is not much to ask – after all, a basic principle of international law is that states do not subvert other states. Maybe Europe could remind America of such basic principles enshrined in the United Nations Charter.

Ervand Abrahamian
Ervand Abrahamian is a CUNY Distinguished Professor at the Department of History of Weissman School of Arts & Sciences, Baruch College, City University of New York. Among his published books are Iran Between Two Revolutions; The Iranian Mojahedin; Khomeinism; Tortured Confessions; and Inventing the Axis of Evil.