Why a war with Iran is the real threat
The war drums are beating. Yesterday’s announcement that the EU has formally adopted an oil embargo against Iran, follows the news that Britain, America and France are sending six warships led by a 100,000 ton aircraft carrier through the highly sensitive waters of the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran had threatened to close in response to growing sanctions, including a partial freeze on assets held by the Iranian Central Bank in the EU.
The strategic importance of the Strait of Hormuz, located between Iran and western ally Oman, cannot be overstated, nor can the clear signals being sent by this unified show of force. Tankers carrying 17 million barrels of oil pass through this waterway every day, accounting for 35 per cent of the world’s seaborne crude shipments. And the “naval exercises” being undertaken there by both parties are no practise mission. Earlier this month, General Ataollah Salehi, commander of Iran’s armed forces, threatened to respond with “full force” if any US carrier ventured into the region’s waters, stating: “We don’t have the intention of repeating our warning, and we warn only once.” Meanwhile, Iranian nuclear scientists have been murdered in less than mysterious circumstances, as the US sent its military chief General Martin Dempsey to Israel on Friday, to urge the country “to keep the channels of communication open with Washington,” amid concerns the Jewish state could launch a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, a concerning scenario given its 300 actual, not potential nuclear warheads. The hawks who pushed for the invasion of Iraq are hankering after a repeat scenario in Iran, while the sequels are still festering next door…
In his Cairo address in 2009, Obama assured the Muslim world, “I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.” But the actions of Obama’s government have been anything but a new beginning. In fact, his current policies on Iran in particular are an extension of initiatives begun under the Bush administration and which regard Iran as a threat to America’s strategic interests – read control – over the region. In March 2011, General Petraeus, of Iraq infamy, informed the Senate Committee on Armed Services that “the Iranian regime is the primary state-level threat to stability”, to which academic Noam Chomsky wryly commented that the term “stability” could be translated as “firmly under US control.”
Current tensions are really just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The US has a long and established presence in the Middle East, with military bases in more countries than you can shake a stick at. In fact, if you joined the dots, you could draw a fairly tight circle around Iran, something the Iranians are not blind to. Meanwhile, as the Arab revolutions throw out, or attempt to throw out, traditional US allies in the form of longstanding despots, a new leadership is trying to emerge, one which will seek alliances most conducive to national interest. And while the despots looked to the US as an ally, unsurprisingly, the US is not viewed particularly favourably amongst the Arab people, suggesting truly democratic governments might not provide the sort of regional cooperation the US has long been accustomed to. In a 2011 poll, in five out of the six Arab countries surveyed, the U.S. was viewed less favourably than Turkey, China, France—or Iran.
Far from seeing the U.S. as a leader in the post-Arab Spring environment, the countries surveyed viewed “U.S. interference in the Arab world” as the greatest obstacle to peace and stability in the Middle East, second only to the ongoing Palestinian occupation. And whilst Iran is not viewed particularly positively either, polls indicate that when Arabs were asked questions about Iran or its nuclear program, and the U.S. and its threats of sanctions or military action were a part of the question, Arabs would indicate strong support for Iran and its defiance on nuclear issues. Current sanctions are likely to bolster support for Iran in the region and crucially, reduce support for America and its allies.
Though the nuclear threat posed by Iran is held to be the imperative for current action, a military and intelligence reports to Congress in April 2010 [Lieutenant General Ronald L. Burgess, Director, Defense Intelligence Agency, Statement before the Committee on Armed Services, US Senate, 14 April 2010; Unclassified Report on Military Power of Iran, April 2010; John J. Kruzel, American Forces Press Service, “Report to Congress Outlines Iranian Threats,” April 2010] makes clear that the Iranian threat is not military. Iran’s military spending is “relatively low compared to the rest of the region,” (around 1/80th of US military spending) and its military doctrine is strictly “defensive, … designed to slow an invasion and force a diplomatic solution to hostilities,” with only “a limited capability to project force beyond its borders.”
On the thorny nuclear issue, the report states that “Iran’s nuclear program and its willingness to keep open the possibility of developing nuclear weapons is a central part of its deterrent strategy.” Whilst this is hardly reassuring, the most recent report by IAEA officials in November of 2011, suggests that development of this ‘deterrent’ has yet to be actualised. In other words, despite the breakdown of talks between Iran and the EU in Turkey last year, there is still time for a diplomatic resolution. Particularly since in recent weeks, EU officials say the Iranians have been sending signals about resuming talks.
Surrounded by US military bases, locked in a cold war of its own with the US, and all too aware of military incursions into neighbouring countries, Iran is seeking a deterrent to ensure its national sovereignty. The fact that a poll in September 2010 by the International Peace Institute found that 71 percent of Iranians favoured the development of nuclear weapons, suggests the government is not alone in its concerns. And it certainly doesn’t escape attention that the US has favoured dialogue rather than military action against other US nemesis, nuclear weapon holder North Korea…
So if Iran doesn’t yet pose a nuclear threat, nor is its impetus for seeking a nuclear deterrent beyond a diplomatic resolution, is an oil embargo the best way to proceed?
It is worth remarking at this point, the real cost of these sanctions to our economies, not to mention to poverty stricken Iranians, 10 million of whom live under the absolute poverty line (according to 2010 official figures) and for whom sanctions have already made imports 24% more costly. Iran has experienced sanctions since the 1979 revolution but the current oil ban is the most significant toughening to date. Europe accounts for around 20% of Iran’s oil exports and with European economies struggling, a hike in oil prices is the last thing our sluggish economic recovery needs. Despite suggestions that the beacon of human rights that is Saudi Arabia is prepared to fill the void, the impact felt will be dramatic. And for what? Critics suggest the measure will do little to change the course of the Iranian nuclear program and the embargo could end up hurting the EU more than Iran. “I don’t know why Europe is going along with this. (…) [Joining the embargo] will backfire,” says Iraqi Manouchehr Takin, a senior oil markets analyst with the London-based Center for Global Energy Studies. Cynics can now look to Libya, where conveniently, production by European oil companies is increasing and offering an alternative source to help quell demand…
And if you thought the rest of the world agreed with us on this embargo, you’d be wrong – Japan, China and India have all baulked at the proposal, suggesting it would be ineffective and damaging to the global economy. What this lack of consensus means concretely, is that any loss in sales for Iran from Europe will be offset by the hike in the cost of crude, compensating for any loss of revenue. At whose cost? Why yours of course.
The current upsurge in tensions is a reflection of a poorly played diplomatic card.Threatening Iran through so-called ‘hard power diplomacy’ is not diplomacy – it’s just threatening. The spread of nuclear weapons is a significant cause for concern and commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) treaty essential. However, while Nuclear powers continue to ignore Article VI of the treaty which “obligates the nuclear weapons states to liquidate their nuclear stockpiles and pursue complete disarmament,” other states concerned about their national sovereignty will continue to view nuclear weapons as one of the only ways to ensure their national sovereignty.
Isolated, marginalised and defensive, current sanctions do little to foster the only possible solution to this crisis, the creation of a more trusting atmosphere where Iran is not backed into a corner where it feels nuclear weapons are its only and last means of self-defence. Historical precedents indicate that sanctions have little to no effect on Iran’s political decisions – instead, the latest oil embargo is guaranteed to make life harder for average people both in Iran and Europe. This collective punishment will do little to convince Iranians that the West isn’t “the great Satan” and is sure to bolster support for Iran in the Arab world where it will be viewed as the underdog. Europe needs to take the lead and move away from an over-emotional US led discourse which allows skewed ideological imperatives to trump national interests and global stability.