- Unless some higher wit injects sanity into the White
House and Tel Aviv, the US and Israel appear about to carry out the most
widely advertised and least called for surprise attack in history. For
months the drumbeat has risen. According to US neo-con advocates in the
Bush administration, echoed by the President himself in his State of the
Union address, Iran represents a grave danger to the Middle East and the
West. As reported by Pat Buchanan (see Hysteria at Herzliya at www.antiwar.com),
the annual Herzliya Conference on Israeli National Security in January
2007 descended into a hysterical verbal contest among attendees as to
who could state the most extreme version of the so-called Iran threat.
- But perhaps the worst Herzliya charge was made by would-be
presidential candidate Newt Gingrich who asserted, "Three nuclear
weapons are a second Holocaust..." That was supposed to imply, as
all participants seem to have agreed, that if Iran had three weapons it
would use them on Israel or the United States.
- That is a formula spun entirely out of whole cloth. First,
there is no evidence that Iran has even one weapon, let alone three. Second,
the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) has constantly reported
that Iran is not even close to mastering the fuel cycle, much less to
building a weapon. Third, even IAEA recognition that Iran has not told
them everything does not lead those experts to change their basic assessment.
Fourth, US and other experts, who assess the available facts rather than
speculative threats, have concluded that Iran, if it chose to go there,
could be a decade or more from the capability to build a weapon. Fifth,
even senior former Israeli officials have expressed the fairly widely
held view (expressed recently by France's President Jacques Chirac-although,
under Zionist political pressure, he almost immediately recanted) that
a few such weapons in Iranian hands would not be a problem.
- In the strict idiom of war and peace, at this moment
a state of war exists. The US is poised in the Persian Gulf or is bringing
to the Gulf enough naval firepower to start the war. As some have suggested,
this fleet is the material for a repeat of the fake Gulf of Tonkin incident
that led us into Vietnam. But for months the neo-cons or close in supporters
have talked about a US attack or, instead of US forces, the Israelis would
launch the attack. In recent weeks, US forces have raided an Iranian post,
a consular or diplomatic one by Iraqi government account that had been
in northern Iraq for years. Recently, by Presidential directive, orders
have been given to kill Iranian personnel in Iraq, apparently regardless
of the legal or diplomatic standing of those people or their acceptability
to Iraqi officials.
- If another government carried out any or all of those
acts against US facilities, personnel or officials in any country, the
US would consider them acts of war, and it probably would strike. The
whole concept of preemptive action in the War on Terrorism is premised
on just such a dangerous and provocative interpretation of events.
- It follows with ideologically iron efficiency that if
Iran does or is accused of doing anything to US forces, civil personnel
or facilities, those responses, however self-defensive, will be considered
acts of war. They will be used to justify the long pending assault on Iran.
And the United States, or Israel, if attacked in any way will claim to
be the injured party and will retaliate. This is an adolescent "don't
cross my line" strategy from which escalation to all out war could
- This situation is just another illustration of how warped
the US position in the Middle East has become. Saddam Hussein never once
threatened the United States. However, the Bush administration talked
itself and alarmed the American people into thinking he, meaning Iraq,
was a threat. Ignoring the facts as presented particularly by UN nuclear
experts, as well as by our own intelligence and diplomatic officials,
Bush launched war on Iraq to destroy its nonexistent weapons of mass destruction,
then did a mad scramble to find a rationale for the invasion when no weapons
materialized. That scramble still lingers as Bush and his key supporters
struggle to define "success" in Iraq in some fashion that may
be deliverable before the whole house of cards collapses.
- How big a potential challenge to American power could
Iran represent? Look at the facts. (1) Iran is a country of 71+ million
people, largely Shiites, who enjoy a per capita income of less than $9,000
a year equivalent. We consider that just slightly above the poverty line
for individuals in the United States. (2) Iran's national income is based
principally on two sectors, agriculture (the largest) and energy (about
a third of the total). (3) That means Iran has a third world economy with
at best a limited capacity to arm itself against wealthy enemies such as
the United States and Israel. (4) With energy resources the major single
source of foreign exchange income, and with those resources beginning to
decline, Iran has foreseeable need for alternative energy sources, initially
to take domestic pressure off of its principal foreign exchange earner.
(5) In its own long-term economic interests, and consistent with a global
need to reduce manmade contributions to global warming, Iran should be
working toward nuclear and other alternative power. (6) Reasonable assessments
are that Iran is in the early stages of successful uranium refining to
power production purity. Most expert opinion is that Iran, therefore, is
years from having a nuclear weapon, quite aside from the fact that it
routinely denies any such objective. (7) Iran has no delivery system capable
of reaching the United States.
- Realistically Iran does not appear to be a military threat
to anyone unless attacked. Iran's threat, if in any sense real, lies in
its habit of supporting Shiite communities in surrounding countries, and
specifically with its practice of supporting insurgent groups, Hizbollah
in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. The principal problem here is that
Iranian support for these groups interferes with Israel's plans for eventual
takeover of all of Palestine, including southern Lebanon, where most of
Hizbollah is located. The Israeli hope, probably vain, is that if Iran
can be threatened or otherwise induced to cut of aid to these groups they
will be unable to resist Israeli plans. However the demise of these groups
might come about, Israelis in general would welcome the end of the periodic
rocket attacks along Israel's frontiers with Lebanon and the West Bank
- The double standard both the US and Israel are attempting
to enforce is practically and morally unsustainable. As the standard is
designed, Israel is free to receive the most modern American weapons which,
under loose rules of "self-defense" it then is free to use to
occupy all Palestinian territory, herd the people into open prison camps,
and take the rest of Palestine away from them. Israel can bomb and strafe
Palestinian towns and villages without restraint, assassinate people it
believes might be militants capable of fighting back, and imprison without
trial any Palestinians it wouldn't like on the street.
- US/Israeli rules are that the Palestinians are not supposed
to have weapons, and no government, Middle Eastern or otherwise, is supposed
to supply them with weapons. Governments that do are roundly criticized.
The same rules apply to Hizbollah in southern Lebanon. Israel is free
to attack Hizbollah by invading Lebanon and receiving immediate re-supply
of weapons by the US during the battle, but anyone who supplies Hizbollah
is, again, roundly criticized and labeled a pariah. Because many Arabs
and others disagree with the standard, it has proven unenforceable. Iran
and Syria are recipients of the criticism in both cases. Covertly other
Arab and sympathetic countries already provide money-- that can be turned
into weapons- and are likely to continue doing so if Iran were to stop.
- The third, imaginative but illusory, threat from Iran
is alleged to be its intent to dominate the Middle East. The notion of
Islamo-Fascism-as invented by Israeli and neo-con propagandists--implies
that Shiite extremists have in mind the demise of the west and domination
of countries of the Middle East region if not of the Islamic world entire.
Even if all of Shi'a Islam were of such a mind, which is patently not
the case, the numbers realistically do not support it. Shi'a Muslims worldwide
comprise less than ten percent of the followers of Islam, a global number
amounting to less than half the US population. Iran contains the largest
number of the world's Shi'a Muslims. More that two thirds of all Shi'a
live in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and India. The largest Muslim country of
all, Indonesia, has only 100,000 or so.
- Iran is closely allied with Iraqi Shi'a for historic
religious reasons. The Iran/Iraq border was drawn without reference to
this fact. Both Iraqi and Iranian Shi'a, and Shi'a in general, revere
the holy sites in Iraq. Iran maintains ties through the Mullahs with Shi'a
communities in Lebanon, Pakistan, Canada, the US and elsewhere. But it
should be said here that in most countries, the Shi'a are minorities who
are often poor and discriminated against. Among Muslims they are doctrinally
all over the map, about as diverse in their beliefs as Baptists in the
US. Thus, the idea of a Shi'a takeover of the Middle East, militarily,
economically, or religiously, is pretty far out. But it makes scare mongering
reading in biased pro-Israeli claims touted by US media.
- The sum of those characteristics is that the alleged
Iranian threat against the United States or Israel is concocted. The prospect
is perfectly real that Iran will take steps to pursue its interests and
to support peoples it favors in nearby countries. The US usually does
that by alleged right, but it opposes the efforts of others to do so.
In reality, however, the only threat on this landscape is that Iran will
do whatever it believes is necessary to be prepared to defend its own interests
and to support Shi'a elsewhere against attacks or injustice. It is noteworthy
that the newly published National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq reportedly
makes only glancing references to any Iranian role in the current chaos.
But if the US and Israel keep up the pressure, that inevitably will bend
Iran toward greater efforts to defend itself, including pursuit of nuclear
weapons. In the present US/Israeli threat environment, Iran is being pushed
that way by default.
- In effect the US/Israeli approach to Iran is a nuclear
proliferation and war provocation strategy. Every new threat utterance
of the US or Israeli officials, every new castigation of President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad- mostly by misquoting him, every act of aggression against
Iranian officials or facilities runs the Iranian defensive compulsion a
notch higher. Recent purchases of defensive missiles from Russia are only
symptomatic. Other purchases are likely to be stimulated by the Bush State
of the Union reference to sending a second carrier group into the region.
- Some Iranian involvement with the Shi'a minorities in
many countries is customary and likely to continue. As the leading Shi'a
state worldwide, Iran is a center of Shi'a religious philosophy. It has
long standing close relations with Iraqi Shi'a, who comprise 60% of Iraq's
population. Maintaining those ties and helping Iraqi Shi'a is therefore
quite natural. In fact, the Iraqi Shi'a would never understand a failure
of Iran to support them. Recent Afghan border region attacks by Pakistani
Sunnis (the majority population) against Shi'a (20% of the Pakistanis)
may also be some concern to Iran. It may be looked to for help by the
- In a number of places, such as the emirates, the Shi'a
are minorities who are discriminated against. Autocratic governments
in Sunni majority states, meaning most of the region, may therefore have
some cause to expect at least religious and family traffic between their
minorities and Iranian Shi'a. The suggestion that such relationships would
lead to Shiite control of those states is mere rumor-mongering. To the
extent they could be a dissident element, better local treatment of Shi'a
minorities would alleviate much of the problem. However, the larger problems
for the autocratic Sunni states are their own dissident Sunni, mostly
young people and professionals who seek a more open, participatory, and
secular style of governance than either the autocrats or the mullahs would
- As Iranian leadership would see this situation, their
country is under attack by the US and Israel. The leading question is:
How can Iran arm and comport itself to limit the scope and consequences
of that attack on the Iranian people? And an important corollary question
is: How can Iran do that without giving away important national capabilities
such as the uranium fuel cycle only to get no enduring peace or international
standing in return? A treaty issue is: How can Iran politically continue
its membership in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty if the West and
Israel persist in denying it access to the fuel cycle that is provided
by the treaty?
- If, in this realistic threat environment, the US or Israel
attacks Iran, it will be a catastrophe for the Middle East, for the United
States, and in the long run for Israel. The Iraq Study Group made the
correct recommendation that both Iran and Syria be brought into the process
of taming Iraq. Both have long-standing and legitimate interests in Iraq.
Iran has deep and potentially helpful links to Iraq's majority Shi'a population.
On the other hand, if the US or Israel attack Iran, the whole of Shi'a
Islam, including the Iraqis, will be up in arms. The US will have neither
enough troops of its own nor enough allies to contain the resulting chaos.
It is simply time to approach Iran, as well as Syria, diplomatically.
It is well past time to take the threat of war off the table.
- The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer
of the US Department of State whose immediate pre-retirement positions
were as Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National
War College and as Deputy Director of the State Department Office of Counter
Terrorism. He will welcome comment at email@example.com