Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 30 January 2012

Rising risk of Western war on Iran

The new year is witnessing an escalation of a Western economic blockade against Iran while a report claims Israel is preparing for a military strike.  Can a war against Iran be avoided?


The risk of the world being engulfed in a new and dangerous war is increasing.  In recent weeks, Iran has come under greater pressure over its nuclear programme, and the chances of this leading to military conflict have escalated.

A recent article in New York Times magazine revealed that senior Israeli leaders are preparing for a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities in 2012.

The United States has intensified its initiative on trade and financial sanctions on Iran.  

Republican candidates for the Presidency have been using high anti-Iran rhetoric.   And there is the possibility in a Presidential election year that the incumbent President may start a war to gain popularity.

In his State of the Union speech last week, President Barack Obama said he would take no options off the table to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

Europe has recently announced an embargo on Iranian oil.   The European Union foreign ministers decided there would be no further oil contracts between its member states and Iran, and that existing oil delivery deals would be allowed to run only until July.

These actions are purportedly aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.  But Iran has insisted its research programme is for developing nuclear power, not weapons. 

And there is no evidence that it is in fact developing or intending to develop weapons.

There is a danger of dramatic escalation of the present conflict, through one of various scenarios, such as an Israeli attack on Iran (with or without United States assistance or approval) or an incident in the Persian Gulf involving Western and Iranian ships.

The US has doubled the number of aircraft carriers near the Persian Gulf, while French and British warships recently accompanied the aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, into the Gulf.

These developments are creating the conditions for a slide into a catastrophic war.

On 25 January, the New York Times magazine carried an article, “Will Israel attack Iran?”,  by an Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, an analyst who interviewed Israel’s Defence Minister Ehud Barak, vice premier Moshe Ya’alon and others.

“After speaking with many senior Israeli leaders and chiefs of the military and the intelligence, I have come to believe that Israel will indeed strike Iran in 2012,” wrote Bergman.

This determination to strike comes despite many difficulties, listed by Bergman.  Iran has dispersed its nuclear installations throughout its vast territory, and Israel has limited air power and no aircraft carriers. Even if an attack is successful, Iran would be able to rebuild the damaged or wrecked sites.  And Iran has declared that it would strike back if attacked.  

There is of curse irony and double standards in this situation.  While Israel and the West decry the consequences if Iran obtains nuclear weapons capability, it is well known that Israel itself owns many nuclear weapons.

And while Iran is often accused by the same countries of sponsoring terrorism, Iran itself has been the victim of terrorist attacks and economic and technological sabotage. 

Bergman’s article provides many details of many of the covert actions taken by Israel against Iran.  The Israeli secret service Mossad was given “virtually unlimited funds and powers” to stop the Iranian bomb, through a five-front strategy that involved  “political pressure, covert measures, counter-proliferation, sanctions and regime change.”

The moves against Iran include boycotting of financial institutions, the use of computer viruses to disrupt the operations of the nuclear project, tampering with components and the supply of faulty parts and raw materials, explosions at various facilities, and the assassination of several Iranian nuclear scientists.

The article implies that Israel has been involved in or approves of these actions, although it does not explicitly admit to them.  

Meanwhile, Iran insists it is not intending to develop nuclear weapons, and there has been no evidence that it is doing so.

Iran’s enemies are fearful it will develop a technical capability for developing weapons, as it pursues its nuclear energy programme.

Nuclear physicist Yousaf Butt, a former Fellow in the Committee on International Security and Arms Control at the US National Academy of Sciences, and scientific consultant for the Federation of American Scientists, has said that Iran is not doing anything that violates its legal right to develop nuclear technology.

Under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, it is not illegal for a member state to have a nuclear weapons capability or option.   If a nation has a fully developed civilian nuclear sector, it, by default, already has a fairly solid nuclear weapons capability, and several countries that do not have weapons, do have this capability.

Meanwhile, Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service reported that several influential foreign policy figures in the US (who used to be Iraq war hawks) are speaking up against military action on Iran

"We're doing this terrible thing all over again," wrote Leslie Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and previously a Iraq-war hawk.   "As before, we're letting a bunch of ignorant, sloppy-thinking politicians and politicized foreign-policy experts draw 'red line' ultimatums. As before, we're letting them quick-march us off to war.”

Kenneth Pollack, whose 2002 book on Iraq was cited frequently by hawks before the Iraq invasion, argued not only against any further escalation, but also suggested that the US-EU sanctions were proving counterproductive.

Princeton University professor Anne-Marie Slaughter argued that the West and Iran were playing a "dangerous game" of "chicken" and that the West's current course "leaves Iran's government no alternative between publicly backing down, which it will not do, and escalating its provocations."

"The more publicly the West threatens Iran, the more easily Iranian leaders can portray America as the Great Satan,” wrote Slaughter, formerly director of policy planning under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "It is time for cooler heads to prevail with a strategy that helps Iran step back.”

It remains to be seen if cooler heads will indeed prevail so that a new war against Iran is avoided.