“This notion that the United States is getting ready to attack Iran is simply ridiculous. (Short pause) And having said that, all options are on the table.” (Laughter) George Bush – press conference, Brussels, 22 February 2005
During the UK election campaign many of New Labour’s supporters have stressed that the issue of the war in Iraq, whatever one’s view of the government’s conduct, belongs firmly in the past. Columnist Polly Toynbee has said that to cast an anti-war vote against the government would be to take “revenge for a war that will never be repeated“. Former New Labour minister Robin Cook, who resigned in the run-up to the Iraq war, said that “it is not going to happen again..No 10 knows perfectly well that it cannot repeat the controversy over Iraq“. But the case for optimism is tenuous. To present the Iraq war as a unique and unrepeatable event is to fundamentally misrepresent the current global picture and the UK’s place within it. In fact Britain could well be involved in further US military action in the near future, perhaps in an assault on Iran as early as next month.
For sixty years Britain’s foreign policy has been all but inextricably linked with that of the senior partner in our most significant international alliance; the United States. The nature of US power has tremendous bearing on the fate of the UK. Understanding that power, its motives and our government’s relationship with it are essential if we are to properly judge the prospect of the Iraq disaster being repeated.As US dominance has increased in the post Cold War era, the nature of our closest ally has been changing accordingly. Now in the early 21st century we are faced with an ambitious, militaristic and aggressive hyperpower – one that accepts no limits and tolerates not even the slightest challenge to its dominance. In his recent book “The New American Militarism“, Andrew J. Bacevich, West Point Graduate, Vietnam veteran and Professor of International Relations at Boston University, describes these cultural shifts. Bacevich says that American militarism is “a passion pursued in utter disregard of any consequences that might ensue” and in the absence of “dissent offered by any political figure of genuine stature“.
The new American militarism manifests itself in a number of ways. Firstly in its scope: “the United States spends more on defense than all other nations in the world together. By 2009 [the Pentagon] budget will exceed the Cold War average by 23 percent — despite the absence of anything remotely resembling a so-called peer competitor. The primary mission of America’s far-flung military establishment is global power projection“. Secondly, in the mindset of the military: “the services have come to view outright supremacy as merely adequate and any hesitation in efforts to increase the margin of supremacy as evidence of falling behind“. Militarism also manifests itself “through an increased propensity to use force, leading, in effect, to the normalization of war. During the entire Cold War era, from 1945 through 1988, large-scale U.S. military actions abroad totalled a scant six. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, they have become almost annual events. Altogether, the tempo of U.S. military interventionism has become nothing short of frenetic“. The use of force is now seen as a facet, not a failure of diplomacy. Vice-President Dick Cheney says that force “makes your diplomacy more effective going forward, dealing with other problems“. America no longer fights defensively, nor as a last resort.
Accelerating the new American militarism still further are the neo-conservative officials in charge of the White House’s middle east policy; men that, according to Ray McGovern, a CIA analyst for 27 years and former editor of the President’s Daily Brief, were routinely referred to in high circles in Washington during the 1980s as “the crazies“. McGovern recently warned that these officials, whose value system amounts to ‘might makes right’, are “now focusing on Iran, which they view as the only remaining obstacle to American domination of the entire oil-rich Middle East. They calculate that, with a docile, corporate-owned press, a co-opted mainstream church, and a still-trusting populace, the United States and/or the Israelis can launch a successful air offensive to disrupt any Iranian nuclear weapons programs – with the added bonus of possibly causing the regime in power in Iran to crumble“.
The malignant neo-conservative influence should not be underestimated. Andrew J Bacevich argues that “one aspect of the neoconservative legacy has been to foster the intellectual climate necessary for the emergence of the new American militarism.” Their task is “spelling out an ‘imperial self-definition’ of American purpose“. He identifies the five founding convictions of this, the dominant ideology of the US government. First, the certainty that American global dominion is benign. Second, that failure to sustain this imperium would inevitably result in global disorder. Third, that domination is best secured by force. Fourth, a commitment to enhancing American military supremacy. Fifth, and most troubling of all, a hostility toward realism, whether manifesting itself as a deficit of ideals or an excess of caution. These are the core beliefs of the government of Britain’s closest ally. Even after four years of the Bush presidency it seems that Britain’s political classes have failed to grasp the implications this holds for the future of our country.
Why should the US administration now turn its attention towards Iran? Beyond the general drive for ever-greater supremacy lie two specific, pressing concerns; nuclear power and oil. The Iranian government has been pursuing a nuclear fuel drive which it officially maintains are for non-military purposes but which the US and Israel suspect will culminate in Tehran possessing atomic weapons. Iran is Israel’s principle strategic rival in the Middle East and Tel Aviv views any challenge to its military dominance (which includes its own significant nuclear capability) as unconscionable. Israelis are now claiming publicly that Iran could have a nuclear weapon within six months, and Israeli officials have been pressing the issue with the US for the past year and a half. According to some defence experts, several of the Iranian facilities are still under construction and there is only a narrow “window of opportunity” to destroy them – a window that will begin to close this year.
But the primary reason for any future military action is the same reason that western powers have always had for their interest in the affairs of Iran: its stupendous reserves of oil and natural gas. Michael T. Klare, professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, recently set out the significance of this factor in current decision making: “Iran houses the second-largest pool of untapped petroleum in the world. With this much oil – about one-tenth of the world’s estimated total supply – Iran is certain to play a key role in the global energy equation. And it is not just oil that Iran possesses in great abundance, but also natural gas….approximately 16% of total world reserves. Iran also sits athwart the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway through which, daily, 40% of the world’s oil exports pass. In addition, Iran is becoming a major supplier of oil and natural gas to China, India, and Japan, thereby giving Tehran additional clout in world affairs. It is these geopolitical dimensions of energy, as much as Iran’s potential to export significant quantities of oil to the United States, that undoubtedly govern the administration’s strategic calculations. When considering Iran’s role in the global energy equation, therefore, Bush administration officials have two key strategic aims: a desire to open up Iranian oil and gas fields to exploitation by American firms, and concern over Iran’s growing ties to America’s competitors in the global energy market“.
The emergence of new economic competitors, the impending peak in world oil production and the added importance peak oil production gives to control over supply all lend added impetus to Washington’s plans. But western interest in Middle Eastern energy reserves is nothing new and certainly not something that need be the subject of speculation. The US State Department, in 1945, viewed Middle Eastern oil as “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history“. British planners in 1947 concurred, describing “a vital prize for any power interested in world influence or domination“. In 1956 UK Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd said “We must at all costs maintain control of this oil“. And in 1999 Dick Cheney told the Institute for Petroleum that “Oil is unique in that it is so strategic in nature. We are not talking about soapflakes or leisurewear here. Energy is truly fundamental to the world’s economy. The  Gulf War was a reflection of that reality“.
Indeed it was the promise of this “stupendous source of strategic power” that inspired the US and the UK fifty years ago to topple Iran’s parliamentary government and install the dictatorship of the Shah. Tehran had upset the British by nationalising the oil industry, having taken the view that Iran, not the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later BP) should be the primary beneficiary of its reserves. Winston Churchill’s British government continued covert operations begun by the previous Labour administration to organise a coup with the help of the CIA in 1953. The new US/UK friendly administration was savage in the extreme. Amnesty International reported in 1976 that the Shah’s Iran had the “highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture” which was “beyond belief“. In Iran “the entire population was subjected to a constant, all-pervasive terror“.
Returning to the present day, moves toward a US attack on Iran have already begun. Details emerged first in an article by award-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh for the New Yorker and later in the Washington Post. Unmanned surveillance drones have been entering Iranian air-space to search for nuclear facilities and test air-defences since at least late December 2004, as have US Special Forces. Both The Times in London and the Jerusalem Post have reported that either the US, Israel in coordination with the White House, or both governments are planning air attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities as early as June 2005. Its often argued that the US infantry is too stretched by its commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan for a new occupation to be contemplated – but in any case a ground invasion is not on the agenda. Instead the right-wing hardliners in the US and Israeli governments imagine that a massive air assault on Iran will precipitate regime change from within. John Pike of globalsecurity.org sets out the thinking in stark terms: “they think that they can just blow up what they want to blow up and let the ant-heap sort itself out afterwards“.
What will be the UK’s role in any future attack on Iran? Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has said that the prospects of such an attack occurring are “inconceivable“. As we have seen, the prospects are eminently conceivable, but we can hardly take Straw’s words at face value in any event. This was demonstrated last weekend, when his involvement in formulating the WMD pretext for toppling Saddam Hussein was revealed in a leaked minute of a Downing Street meeting held on 23 July 2002. That meeting acknowledged that the US had already decided to invade Iraq, that Downing Street “should continue to work on the assumption that the UK would take part in any military action“, and that this left only “the legal issues” to be resolved. Straw said that case was thin. “Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea, or Iran“. Nevertheless, he continued: “We should work up an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force“.
The UK government has shown time and again that it is prepared to plumb the depths of cynicism to an extraordinary degree in order to stand shoulder to shoulder with its US ally. The obvious policy alternative would be to oppose US aggression, and decline to offer the UK’s assistance. But this legitimate stance, when taken by France, was denounced in shrill tones by Tony Blair as “pathetic” and “dangerous“. We need hardly entertain the idea that this “pathetic” and “dangerous” stance is one Blair will adopt in the event of any future US military action against Iran or any other state. The UK has been America’s most willing ally for 60 years, and never more so than under New Labour. Even if the political costs were to preclude the direct involvement of UK armed forces, we can certainly expect our government to lend logistical support, as was the case in the Vietnam war, and diplomatic support, at which New Labour excels, to the extent that the Wall Street Journal was moved to describe our Prime Minister as “America’s chief foreign ambassador“.
Several key factors should lead us to conclude that UK support for US military aggression is far from over. These include the emerging nature of US militarism, the acceleration of this aggressive outlook by a neo-conservative administration, the motives for attacking Iran, the history of US/UK involvement in that country, the plans already being made for such an attack, and the extraordinary depths of London’s subservience to Washington. Votes cast in tomorrow’s UK elections will not only deliver a verdict on the last war – they will also indicate how easy it will be for New Labour to get involved in the next one.