UFPJ Talking Points
Threats of War in Iran, U.S.-Driven Violence Surges in the Region
By Phyllis Bennis
Institute for Policy Studies
22 September 2006
- Threats of a U.S. attack on Iran continue, although the nature of a
possible attack may be different than what was earlier anticipated.
- The Bush administration seems to be shifting away from its effort to
coerce the UN Security Council to endorse harsh sanctions or even military
force against Iran, but the threat of unilateral action remains.
- New diplomatic possibilities are opening and the U.S. is increasingly
- Seven weeks before U.S. elections and following Bush's series of
rally-the-troops speeches, violence is rising across the Middle East; public
opinion is strongly against the war but the Democrats still refuse to
embrace that position, and many are afraid of the charge of "cut and run."
- Post-Lebanon war, Israel-Palestine is back on the global agenda; new
dangers are rising from renewed U.S. pressure on the Palestinians to accept
continued U.S. control of the diplomacy, even as new international
initiatives appear as possibilities.
- Renewed U.S. interest in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may
have less to do with ending Israel's occupation than with consolidating Arab
governments' acquiescence to new escalations against Iran.
Although Bush's speech at the UN General Assembly did not directly threaten
Iran or directly demand Security Council support for U.S. escalation against
Iran, military threats against Iran remain high. Last week's cover story in
Time magazine reported that U.S. naval warships including minesweepers have
been issued "prepare to deploy" orders, presumably towards the
Iranian-controlled Strait of Hormuz. And the Navy command has requested a
"new look" at plans for a naval blockade against Iranian oil ports. This
would be a very dangerous move. Even if the warships sit in the harbor
without firing a shot, a naval blockade can constitute an act of war - which
would give Iran the legal right to use military force under Article 51 of
the UN Charter (self-defense) against the United States. They wouldn't
necessarily respond militarily, but they would have that right.
The Nation details a report directly from the Pentagon's public affairs
staff of a naval "strike group" led by the nuclear aircraft carrier
Eisenhower, being ordered to the Persian Gulf, off Iran's coast. The ships
also include a cruiser, destroyer, frigate, submarine escort and more. That
means the Pentagon wants the world to know they are sending serious military
capability - whether for routine exercises or something else.
An attack on Iran is far from certain. Even faced with a military
provocation, Iran might respond in diplomatic rather than military terms,
perhaps challenging the U.S. in the International Court of Justice, or in
some other forum. The whole U.S. anti-Iran build-up may be part of an
effort to keep the "war on terror" framework and the resulting fear factor
at the top of the agenda in the run-up to the November elections. They may
be making public threats to bolster European diplomatic efforts against
Iran's nuclear program. A rise in U.S. global isolation and growing
domestic opposition to the threats of a war on Iran might lead some of Karl
Rove's acolytes to decide the political cost of such a reckless adventure is
too high. Military officials appear strongly opposed to war in Iran, and
army commanders have just announced they will have to deploy more National
Guard troops in Iraq because the army is already over-stretched. The costs
would be enormous - human, economic, environmental and much more. War with
Iran is not inevitable.
At the level of public diplomacy, the Bush administration has slightly
reduced its rhetorical temperature. Bush's UN speech did not directly
threaten Iran with harsh sanctions or military attack in response to U.S.
and Security Council demands for Iran to stop its nuclear enrichment as a
pre-condition before any talks. He also did not issue an ultimatum to the UN
Security Council as he did in the run-up to the Iraq war, threatening it
with "irrelevance" if it did not endorse the U.S. invasion.
However, we know this administration has a history of engaging in reckless
military acts, in the face of U.S. and global opposition - violating
international law in an orgy of militarized national triumphalism. The
highly public military maneuvers now underway against Iran are designed to
escalate Washington's threats; they could indicate that the Bush
administration has essentially given up on the possibility of achieving
Security Council consensus for serious sanctions. Despite its isolation, the
administration may instead already be contemplating a unilateral or
"coalition"-based assault. Congressional opposition has barely begun.
On a global level, diplomacy remains active, though the U.S. is largely
isolated from it. On September 10 the European Union's foreign policy chief
announced progress in meetings with Iran's nuclear negotiator. French
President Jacques Chirac, only hours before Bush's UN speech, announced that
he is "never in favor of sanctions" and indicated that talks with Tehran
would begin before Iran formally suspended its enrichment activities (the
U.S. demand was for suspension as a pre-condition before talks). Perhaps in
response, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced on Sept. 22 that
Iran IS prepared to negotiate with the Europeans "under fair and just
conditions" for suspension of enrichment activities.
But the Bush administration actions aimed at building support for war
against Iran remain. A senate report on Iran, drafted by a top assistant to
UN-bashing John Bolton, claimed among other things that Iran was enriching
uranium at the level of 90% -- the level needed for nuclear weapons. It was
such an egregious lie that even the usually cautious UN nuclear watchdog
agency, the IAEA, responded with a harsh rebuke, indicating that they are
watching Iran's enrichment, and that it remained in the 3.5% range needed
for completely legal nuclear power - not close to 90%.
There have been reports of Vice-President Dick Cheney's influence within the
administration waning. Certainly other voices - Condoleezza Rice and her
deputy, Stephen Hadley, among them - have emerged more strongly in the
recent period. But Cheney's bottom-line goals - unilateralism, militarized
nationalism, and power consolidated in the presidency - remain very much the
goals of the administration. (And the recent "compromise" that led to
unified Republican acceptance of Bush's torture doctrine was negotiated in
Cheney's office.) Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon has recently opened a new Iran
Directorate whose job description appears very similar to the 2002 role of
the now-closed Office of Special Plans, finding or creating intelligence
material that could be used to justify war against Iraq.
Violence is rising across the region. In Iraq the UN special investigator on
torture said torture by U.S.-backed Iraqi government police and militias is
"worse now than it was under the regime of Saddam Hussein" and is "totally
out of hand." The concentration of U.S. troops into Baghdad has not stopped
the escalation of violence; murder victims, most of them also the victims of
terrible torture, have numbered over 100 per day in recent weeks. It is
crucial that we not abandon work to end the U.S, occupation - bring home the
troops and mercenaries, shut the bases, end the economic occupation - even
as work to prevent a new war in Iran takes on new urgency.
87% of Iraqis want an immediate timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Some months ago comprehensive polls indicated 70% of Iraqis want U.S. troops
out - half right away, half within two years. Fears are rising of an
escalation of the existing sectarian violence into a sectarian civil war
(different, and perhaps worse, than the existing civil war defined as the
battle between supporters and opponents of the occupation). And while there
are certainly examples of neighborhoods where particular U.S. troops have
prevented or stopped sectarian attacks, overall there is no evidence that
the presence of U.S. troops is actually providing real protection to the
population as a whole. The occupation remains illegal, violent, and costly
(almost half a TRILLION dollars when this week's supplemental bill is
passed) in lives and vitally important social programs.
U.S. public opinion is more unified against the war than ever before - with
up to two-thirds of Americans calling for an end to the war. They are not
calling for what the Democrats are offering, a "better" Iraq war, they want
it ended. So the challenge for the anti-war movement remains how to build
more pressure for ending the war. The charge of "cut and run" must be taken
on directly. The answer is, the U.S. owes a huge debt to Iraq and Iraqis:
compensation, reparations, real reconstruction (in which Iraqis themselves
control the rebuilding). But none of that is possible until AFTER U.S.
troops are out. Those who support "staying the course" are really calling
for a "make a killing" strategy. We are not saying cut and run - we are the
ones trying to make good on our real obligations and debt to Iraq: we owe
compensation - we don't owe occupation.
The rise of public attention to the issue of torture is also serving to
build anti-war sentiment and opposition to Bush - including the short-lived
debate over Bush's interrogation techniques at secret CIA-run prisons and
the massive attention to the Canadian commission's vindication of Maher Arar
after his U.S. orchestrated year of torture in Syria. (IPS is honoring Maher
and his lawyers at this year's Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Awards) The
challenge remains how to transform that rising anti-war sentiment into
Elsewhere in the region, the Israeli assault in Gaza continues, and the
collective punishment of the entire population of the occupied territories
continues through the U.S./Israeli-orchestrated boycott of the Palestinian
Authority, withholding of aid and of tax revenues, and continued closure of
the West Bank and Gaza, turning them into open-air prisons. In this
post-Lebanon war period, the issue of Palestine and Israel's occupation is
back on the regional and global agenda, but with uncertain ramifications.
U.S. pressure on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is rising,
pushing him to stay within the confines of the so-called "roadmap"
orchestrated by the U.S.-dominated "Quartet." The goal, apparently, is to
continue pushing Abbas to accept the most stringent reading of the Quartet's
demands even while negotiations are underway towards a national unity
government (Hamas and Fatah) in the occupied Palestinian territories. At
the United Nations last week Abbas called for "unconditional resumption of
negotiations." But in the same speech he accepted each of the conditions.
The U.S.-orchestrated Quartet demands were issued only to the Palestinian
side, not to the Israelis. They call for a new Palestinian recognition of
Israel (already done in 1993, they don't specify what borders are to be
recognized since Israel has never declared its borders, and they don't
require an Israeli commitment to end the occupation), renunciation of
violence (without acknowledging Hamas' 16-month unilateral and
unreciprocated ceasefire and without requiring Israel to end its continued
attacks, siege, and violent occupation), and acceptance of all earlier
agreements (without specifying whether the Palestinians have to accept
Israel's rejectionist versions - such as Israel's 14 stated objections
within the roadmap - to qualify).
Moves towards Palestinian unity are continuing, largely under the terms
originally negotiated by Hamas and Fatah prisoners in Israeli jails some
months ago. But on the issue of "recognition" of Israel, there are
different formulations by the two sides. It is not clear if the Bush
administration and the international community are actually trying to find a
face-saving way to stop their collective punishment and end the crippling
economic boycott and political embargo imposed against the Palestinians
since Hamas won the January elections, or to use the "unity" process to
consolidate a divide and rule strategy. That is, they may anticipate that
Abbas will endorse U.S.-mandated explicit language while Hamas rejects it,
triggering a new crisis because of Palestinian suffering under the embargo.
The U.S. may hope that the result will be a new election in which
Palestinians will choose Abbas' Fatah over Hamas. Essentially this means
threatening to maintain the crippling embargo unless the Palestinians vote
for Washington's candidate - the same choice the U.S. forced on Nicaragua in
The Bush administration may believe that such a scheme could work because of
the events of December 1988, when an agreement to renew low-level
U.S.-Palestinian ties was held hostage to Arafat's agreeing to recognize
Israel. Arafat announced the recognition at a huge press conference in
Geneva, but his statement was deemed insufficient by the Bush Senior
administration, leading to the humiliating spectacle of Arafat at a second,
late-night press conference, reading the exact language dictated by
Washington from a fax sent to Palestinian officials in Geneva. Today, the
elected Hamas leadership has already agreed to clear language calling for a
Palestinian state in the territories occupied in 1967 alongside Israel, and
a long-term truce; it is unlikely that they will agree to any more explicit
recognition. The current pressure campaign will make establishing a viable
unity government even more difficult.
There is also another danger. Certainly the renewed Bush administration
attention to the Israel-Palestine conflict does not reflect a real
commitment to an end to Israel's occupation. But even the claimed support
for some form of Palestinian statehood that was reflected in Bush's UN
speech - calling a truncated set of non-contiguous bantustans a "state" -
may be false as well. This latest focus on the Israel-Palestine conflict may
in fact mirror the sequence of events of early 2003, when Bush agreed to
publicly embrace the already-troubled "roadmap for Middle East peace" at a
high-visibility ceremony in the Azores. His goal then was not to support
Palestinian statehood and an end to occupation, but to consolidate Tony
Blair's and Spanish PM Jose Maria Aznar's support for the imminent invasion
This time around the focal points may not be Britain and Spain, but rather
Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the other pro-U.S. (but increasingly
uneasily so) Arab governments. The goal would be to insure that any U.S.
escalation against Iran - military strike, blockade, etc. - would not face
more than pro-forma opposition from Washington's Arab allies. The Lebanon
War and the U.S. refusal to call for a ceasefire during Israel's devastating
assault ended Rice's goal of an "Umbrella of Arab Allies." But a renewed
U.S.-brokered "peace process" (however false) might give frightened Arab
regimes enough political capital to placate their outraged citizenries
without directly confronting Washington. (And perhaps without re-raising the
Arab League's own 2002 peace plan that starts with a full Israeli withdrawal
to the 1967 borders.)
In fact Philip Zelikow, influential Rice adviser and former director of the
9/11 Commission, said on Sept. 22 that confronting the "threats" the U.S.
ostensibly faces in the Middle East [read: Iran] requires what he called a
"coalition of the builders" - made up of pro-U.S. Arab governments. "What
would bind that coalition and help keep them together is a sense that the
Arab-Israeli issues are being addressed, that they see a common
determination to sustain an active policy that tries to deal with the
problems of Israel and the Palestinians, so that this issue doesn't have the
real corrosive effects that it has, or the symbolic corrosive effects that
it causes in undermining some of the friends we need, friends to confront
some of the serious dangers we must face together."
* * *
Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in
Washington. Her most recent book is Challenging Empire: How People,
Governments and the UN Defy U.S. Power. http://www.ips-dc.org/