Shifting Targets: Iran gets a break. More and more, the specter of war (ground intervention) in the fall in Libya and Syria (Part One)
Note: This piece – slightly edited – was published at Foreign Policy In Focus
Added note: December 11, 2011 from Tunis. This piece was written some months ago. For Iran now`the break is over’, suggesting that in the minds of those running the shows in Washington and Tel Aviv that the Arab Spring has been contained and they can refocus their energies on overthrowing the regime in Iran. Once again the rhetoric has been ratcheted skyward, the economic sanctions against Iran tightened and the military saber rattling louder. Indeed, the U.S. and Israel have painted Iran with such dark colors that should they want to change gears and NOT attack Iran, they would have difficulty explaining it to their peoples who they have worked into something approaching a frenzy, especially the case in Israel, less so but still pronounced in the USA. Once again, the mainstream media of both countries bears responsibility for war-mongering. The Republican Party presidential hopeful have taken Iran bashing to new lows, but then so has the Obama Administration with its fantasies of some kind of Iranian-Mexican Mafia – Texas used car salesman plot to assassinate Saudi ambassador to the U.S. Could only be believed by a reading population already well softened up by lies.
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Section One: Invasion of Iran Put On Hold…
I’ve been mistaken about predicting war in the past although my past predictive failures are not necessarily an indication of future ones! Still, I should begin by explaining what hasn’t happened: Despite a major military build up in the Gulf that included open threats, neither the United States nor Israel has of yet invaded Iran with ground forces (although they have done everything else but that).
Several years ago, looking at the alignment of forces in the world – and the continued exaggerated role of the neo-conservatives in U.S. foreign policy combined with Netanyahu’s obsession with `taking out’ of Teheran – I feared a US led military offensive against Iran was in the making, and predicted as much on several occasions.
At times the past few years the rhetoric became more heated, the U.S. naval presence in the Gulf increased and the political deadlock over Iran’s nuclear program seemed to all converge towards war. To the above, add the near open admission of U.S. Special Forces missions in Iran and funding of the Iran opposition. Bring them all together with the usual pre-war vilification (part merited, part not) of the Iranian domestic situation and there isn’t much of a conceptual jump to war. The Iranian government’s crushing the Iranian reform movement of 2009 – a prelude to the 2010-2011 Arab Revolt – only made matters worse, weakening domestic US opposition here to military action.
It is impossible to predict the results of a U.S. led attack on Iran, but the indications are that it would not be a cake walk. To the contrary…
1. It would probably further strengthen the authority and position of the mullahs, uniting the Iranian nation against the outside aggressor (as the threats have already done) and weakening the democratic movement in the country considerably.
2. There is nothing to indicate that invading Iran – whatever shape the military action might take – would result in the collapse of the government there as it did in Iraq in 2003. Without overstating the case – the 2009 protests revealed deep fissures within the country – still, the current government in Iran has considerable mass support. It is easy to forget one of the worst wars of the 20th century – the Iraq-Iran War of 1980-1988 when Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger and the like argued that supporting Iraq would result in the collapse of the Iranian regime. Didn’t happen then; won’t now either.
3. If war did break out, it would probably not be as one-sided as the U.S. led 2003 Iraq invasion where the Iraqi military all but collapsed. Iran is in a position to hurt the U.S. and its closest allies in the region militarily and politically. A `shock and awe’ type military offensive would cause great suffering in the country, but it is doubtful such a campaign would either bring down the regime, or for that matter, eliminate its potential to strike back militarily and politically.
4. Although rarely discussed, the U.S. actually needs (and cooperates with) Iran for stability in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Any U.S. military operation against Iran would seriously undermine the U.S. position, already quite tenuous, in these two countries. The U.S. military is obviously much stronger, but in any war, you can expect that there will be serious U.S. casualties with the naval fleet in the Gulf being essentially sitting ducks. Then there are the Saudi (and Kuwaiti and Emirates) oil fields. One has to be either pretty stupid or blinded by arrogance to believe the strategic resources the U.S. military is in the Middle East to protect, would not be hit in the event of war.
5. An attack on Iran – or some kind of regional military confrontation involving Iran, Israel, the US and other regional players – would almost certainly lead to a spiking in the world price of crude oil, something which could easily cause the current very weak global economic recovery to collapse. Such price increases would seriously undermine both the European and East Asian economies that are more reliant on Gulf oil than the USA.
Once again, it is that latter day global muckraker, Seymour Hersh in another one of his pathbreaking articles in The New Yorker that helps clear the air about Iran, both in clearly denying that Iran’s nuclear program is about building weapons and also in explaining why the United States did not, in the end, invade Iran. It is not so much that Hersh’s reasons are new, it is more that he has documented with U.S. peace activists have been arguing for years.
Among the reasons:
a. Iran is not developing nuclear weapons. This has been the case since 2003 and very possibly the Iranian nuclear program was never about developing weapons’ grade uranium
b. that the United States is already militarily overextended. Hersh argues that both in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite Administration claims to the contrary, that the two wars are not going well. There is also stepped up U.S. military activity in Somalia and Yemen.
c. there would be quite active opposition to a U.S. led military intervention in Iran from Russia, China (perhaps predictably) but also from India and Japan which get oil from Iran
d. a military intervention in Iran would more than likely seriously disrupt world oil supplies resulting in unacceptable complications to the broader world economy. To think otherwise is to be somewhat out of sync with reality
Whatever, all these considerations became all that much more relevant with the advent of the Arab Revolt which spread through the region and through U.S. policy into something approaching complete disarray (at least temporarily). Washington had come to believe its own rhetoric. It was counting on a radical Islamic fundamentalist thrust which nowhere in the region played a critical role rather than a youth-secular driven movement for greater democracy and a more generalized prosperity.
With the U.S. trying to `manage’ the political changes in Tunisia and Egypt, to eliminate long term political adversaries in Libya and Syria, and to protect and defend at all costs its allies in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Emirates, the plans for military intervention against Iran have been put on the back burner.
Besides, as Hersh points out (see link above), even before Tunisian youth, Mohammed Bouazizi set himself and the whole region on fire, the Obama Administration was already seriously divided over whether to attack militarily. According to Hersh – usually an accurate source – retiring Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates was opposed as are much of the leadership of the U.S. high command.
At the least, the Arab Revolt has bought Iran time, and the more time it has to prepare, the more its ability to both defend itself in case of attack, and to hurt its adversaries militarily as well. The revolt throughout the Arab World has also, to a certain extent undermined the myth of the Iranian threat. It turns out that Iran is much less of a threat to its Arab neighbors than the Arab governments themselves. The corruption, pervasive repressive practices and the vast economic and social inequities that have characterized the largely Western allies in the Arab World turned out to be a much more salient threat, than militant Iranian Shi’sm.
Section Two: More and more, the specter of ground war in Libya and Syria
One invasion put on hold in order to prepare for another, or two others?
More and more, the specter of U.S. led ground wars in both Libya and Syria, possibly this fall, are coming into focus. Certainly some of the same themes that preceded the 2003 U.S. led invasion of Iraq are coming into focus.
- The internal contradictions in both countries – real as they are in both cases – are being exaggerated. True enough, neither Khadaffi nor Assad are innocent babes in the woods. Both regimes have used repression extensively to maintain their power base. But if both are admittedly authoritarian, there overall record (especially that of Libya) are not without economic and social accomplishments, now denied or trivialized.
- Again as with Iraq in 2003, the United States, Great Britain and France adamantly deny or downplay the strategic considerations that underlie the policy of `regime change’ (a euphemism for overthrowing governments) in Libya and Syria.
In Syria’s case, it is not so much about oil as it is a chance for the U.S. to eliminate the only Russian naval base in the Mediterranean at Tartus. Furthermore, eliminating Assad and his coterie would weaken Hizbollah in Lebanon, the Palestinian Movement and somewhat undermine Iran’s position as well.
To eliminate Khadaffi’s circle in Libya also has far reaching strategic consequences. It is rather amusing to see the arguments to the contrary being put forth (including by some liberal and left circles) minimizing or actually denying that oil is a factor in the current NATO military intervention in Libya. This line of thinking is such nonsense that it hardly deserves commentary (but yes I will do so all the same).
- It is noticeable how little is made of the fact that 60% of Libya’s oil goes to China. As in Sudan, where oil politics underline the political and ethnic considerations, oil and the wealth that comes from oil play big in the Libyan events.
- In those areas controlled by the rebels, international oil companies have already moved in to get contracts at much cheaper rates than those negotiated by the Khadaffi government. We can expect, should Khadaffi’s regime finally go the way of Saddam’s, that a new Libyan government’s oil policy would include a weakening of OPEC.
- The British-French rush to war against Libya also has an energy connection. While it is not generally advertised, with the serious reduction of North Sea oil – overdeveloped with great encouragement by Margaret Thatcher – Britain finds itself in something of an energy crunch and is looking for more stable oil sources. It sees a great opportunity in overthrowing Khadaffi.
- The French impetus is a little different but not much. The Fukushima nuclear accident – whose parameters appear to be much worse than publicized – has shaken a country where 80% of its power generation comes from nuclear energy. For France, `diversifying’ its energy sources means relying on more, rather than less, oil given its growing concerns of a Fukushima type accident.
- To the degree it can increase its Middle East oil and gas sources, it can rely on Russian sources less. Limiting its dependence on Russian oil – with its political consequences – is a key factor (not the only one) explaining the current French military aggressiveness in Libya, of course under the cover of `humanitarian’ concerns and `the values’ of the French Revolution, values that were easily forgotten as France tortured and slaughtered one million Algerians between 1954 and 1962. Is it coincidence that a week after Khadaffi, in anger, claimed he would cancel his oil contracts with French and British oil companies, that both countries discovered Libya’s humanitarian crisis?
- In a more general sense a change in Libya shifts the balance of power in the region to the right at a time when the dramatic events of the past year are shifting the balance of power in the opposite direction.
It is true that Khadaffi himself opposed the changes in both Tunisia and Egypt, fearing that once his neighbors were overthrown, it would be more difficult for him to stay in power. He too preferred a status quo he was familiar with to changes the direction of which he could not predict. In Tunisia’s case, there is some evidence that he (and his Algerian neighbors) would have liked to have stopped the Tunisian Revolution cold in its tracts. The speed of the challenges to his own power prevented him from moving effectively in this direction.
It is also the case that if in certain ways Khadaffi was a benevolent tyrant, that he is a tyrant who has always dealt with dissent harshly. In this sense he is hardly different from other regional authoritarians from Saudi Arabia to Algeria: to maintain power try to buy off the opposition first with economic and social programs. If that fails, crush the movement. In all cases, do what is necessary to maintain power.
Still, in his regional politics, Khadaffi has some genuine achievements, among them:
- it was Libya’s Kadhafi who put up some $300 million to fund the purchase of an African satelite, dramatically bringing down the cost of telephone, television, telemedicine and radio broadcasting throughout Africa. He did this while the World Bank and the IMF – and other western financial institutions refused to back such projects
- ironically the $30 billion of Libyan resources that Obama recently confiscated was not for Khadaffi’s personal use, but was earmarked to fund the African Monetary Fund (AMF). The AMF was founded at the beginning of 2011 (just prior to the uprising in Libya) with an operating capital of $42 billion with headquarters in Yaoude. It would have funded an African currency that would have replaced the CFA Franc, and African financial dependence on the French monetary system. This fund also would have replaced the IMF and World Bank – with all their now well known punitive conditions of structural adjustment – as a major funding source of African development
- Khadaffi understood and opposed the European effort to break North Africa off from the rest of Africa economically through what is referred to as the Union of the Mediterranean. He understood that for the African Union to act independently, Africa had to be independently funded..
- Khadaffi – agreed his foreign policy in record in Africa is quite mixed – still was one of the most ardent opponents of South African apartheid, a fact underlined by Nelson Mandela’s insistence on visiting Libya despite a Western embargo. Mandela went anyway in gratitude for Libya’s political and financial support for the African National Congress in the days before apartheid was overthrown
Maybe, just maybe these points help explain why the NATO military intervention in Libya is unpopular in Africa and elsewhere in the Third World? And that while Khadaffi is admittedly no angel or great democrat at home, that he is respected in the Third World for good reason and that known Third World left leaders – Castro, Chavez, Nelson Mandela – and others are not abandoning him at present.
End Part One
Deutche Welle: Rumors of US plans for Libya and Syria Cause Concern
Counterpunch: Roberts: Iran: The Next War On Washington’s Agenda