Options on the table

In Washington a remarkable and ominous campaign is under way to “contain Iran,” which turns out to mean “containing Iranian influence,” in a confrontation that Washington Post correspondent Robin Wright calls “Cold War II.”

The sequel bears close scrutiny as it unfolds under the direction of former Kremlinologists Condoleezza Rice and Robert M Gates, according to Wright. Stalin had imposed an Iron Curtain to bar Western influence; Bush-Rice-Gates are imposing a Green Curtain to bar Iranian influence.

Washington”s concerns are understandable. In Iraq, Iranian support is welcomed by much of the majority Shia population. In Afghanistan, President Karzai describes Iran as “a helper and a solution.” In Palestine, Iranian-backed Hamas won a free election, eliciting savage punishment of the Palestinian population by the United States and Israel for voting “the wrong way.” In Lebanon, most Lebanese see Iranian-backed Hezbollah “as a legitimate force defending their country from Israel,” Wright reports. And the Bush administration, without irony, charges that Iran is “meddling” in Iraq, otherwise presumably free from foreign interference.

The ensuing debate is partly technical. Do the serial numbers on the Improvised Explosive Devices really trace back to Iran? If so, does the leadership of Iran know about the IEDs, or only the Iranian Revolutionary Guards? Settling the debate, the White House plans to brand the Revolutionary Guards as a “specially designated global terrorist” force, an unprecedented action against a national military branch, authorising Washington to undertake a wide range of punitive actions.

The sabre-rattling rhetoric about “containing Iran” has escalated to the point where both political parties and practically the whole US Press corps accept it as legitimate and, in fact, honourable, that “all options are on the table,” to quote the leading presidential candidates — possibly even nuclear weapons. “All options on the table” means that Washington is threatening war. The UN Charter outlaws “the threat or use of force.” The United States, which has chosen to become an outlaw state, disregards international laws and norms. We”re allowed to threaten anybody we want — and to attack anybody we want.

Cold War II also entails an arms race. The United States is proposing a $ 20 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, while increasing annual military aid to Israel by 30 per cent, to $ 30 billion over 10 years. Egypt is down for a $ 14 billion, 10-year deal. The aim is to counter “what everyone in the region believes is a flexing of muscles by a more aggressive Iran,” says an unnamed senior US government official. Iran”s “aggression” consists in its being welcomed within the region, and allegedly supporting resistance to US forces in neighbouring Iraq. Unquestionably, Iran”s government is reprehensible. The prospect that Iran might develop nuclear weapons is deeply troubling. Though Iran has every right to develop nuclear energy, no one — including the majority of Iranians — wants it to have nuclear weapons. That would add to the much more serious dangers presented by its near neighbours Pakistan, India and Israel, all nuclear-armed with the blessing of the United States.

Iran resists US or Israeli domination of the Middle East but scarcely poses a military threat. Any potential threat to Israel might be overcome if the United States would accept the view of the great majority of its own citizens and of Iranians and permit the Middle East to become a nuclear-weapons free zone, including Iran and Israel, and US forces deployed there. One may also remember that UN Security Council Resolution 687, of 1991, to which Washington appeals when convenient, calls for “establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction and all missiles for their delivery.”

Washington”s feverish new Cold War “containment” policy has spread even to Europe. The United States wants to install a “missile defence system” in the Czech Republic and Poland that is being marketed to Europe as a shield against Iranian missiles. Even if Iran had nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, the chances of its using them to attack Europe are perhaps on a par with the chances of Europe”s being hit by an asteroid. In any case, if Iran were to indicate the slightest intention of aiming a missile at Europe or Israel, the country would be vaporised.

Of course Vladimir Putin is deeply upset by the shield proposal. We can imagine how the United States would respond if a Russian anti-missile system were erected in Canada. The Russians have every reason to regard an anti-missile system as part of a first-strike weapon against them. As is well known, such a system could never impede a first strike, but it could conceivably impede a retaliatory strike. On all sides, “missile defense” is therefore understood to be a first-strike weapon, eliminating a deterrent to attack.

Even more obviously, the only military function of such a system with regard to Iran, the declared aim, would be to bar an Iranian deterrent to US or Israel aggression. The shield, then, ratchets the threat of war a few notches higher, in the Middle East and elsewhere, with incalculable consequences, and the potential for a terminal nuclear war. The immediate fear is that by accident or design, Washington”s war planners or their Israeli surrogate might decide to escalate their Cold War II into a hot one.

There are many nonmilitary measures to “contain” Iran, including a de-escalation of rhetoric and hysteria all around, and agreeing to negotiations in earnest for the first time — if indeed all options are on the table.