We were supposed to have learned the lessons of the Iraq war. That’s what Britain’s Chilcot inquiry is meant to be all about. But the signs from the Middle East are that it could be happening all over again. The US is escalating the military build-up in the Gulf, officials revealed this week, boosting its naval presence and supplying tens of billions of dollars’ worth of new weapons systems to allied Arab states.
The target is of course Iran. Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain are all taking deliveries of Patriot missile batteries. In Saudi Arabia, Washington is sponsoring a 30,000-strong force to protect oil installations and ports. The UAE alone has bought 80 F16 fighters, and General Petraeus, the US commander, claims it could now "take out the entire Iranian airforce".
The US insists the growing militarisation is defensive, aimed at deterring Iran, calming Israel and reassuring its allies. But the shift of policy is clear enough. Last week Barack Obama warned that Iran would face "growing consequences" for failing to halt its nuclear programme, while linking it with North Korea — as George Bush did, in his "axis of evil" speech in 2002.
When Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad this week renewed Iran’s earlier agreement to ship most of its enriched uranium abroad to be reprocessed, the US was dismissive. Obama’s "outstretched hand", always combined with the threat of sanctions or worse, appears to have been all but withdrawn.
The US vice-president, Joe Biden, underlined that by insisting Iran’s leaders were "sowing the seeds of their own destruction". And in Israel, which has vowed to take whatever action is necessary to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, threats of war against its allies, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas, are growing. "We must recruit the whole world to fight Ahmadinejad," Israeli president Shimon Peres declared on Tuesday.
The echoes of the run-up to the invasion of Iraq are unmistakable. Just as in 2002-3, we are told that a dictatorial Middle Eastern state is secretly developing weapons of mass destruction, defying UN resolutions, obstructing inspections, threatening its neighbours and supporting terrorism.
As in the case of Iraq, no evidence has been produced to back up the WMD claims, though bogus leaks about secret programmes are regularly reproduced in the mainstream press. Most recently, a former CIA official reported that US intelligence believed documents, published in the Times, purporting to show Iran planning to experiment on a "neutron initiator" for an atomic weapon, had been forged. Shades of Iraq’s non-existent attempts to buy uranium in Niger.
In case anyone missed the parallels, Tony Blair hammered them home at the Iraq inquiry last Friday. Far from showing remorse about the bloodshed he helped unleash on the Iraqi people, the former prime minister was allowed to turn what was supposed to be a grilling into a platform for war against Iran.
In a timely demonstration that neoconservatism is alive and well and living in London, Blair attempted to use the fact that Iraq had no WMD as part of a case for taking the same approach against Iran. Perceived intention and potential capability were enough to justify war, it turned out. Mentioning Iran 58 times, he explained that the need to "deal" with Iran raised "very similar issues to the ones we are discussing".
You might think that the views of a man that 37% of British people now believe should be put on trial for war crimes would be treated with contempt. But Blair remains the Middle East envoy of the Quartet — the US, UN, EU and Russia — even as he pockets £1m a year from a UAE investment fund currently negotiating a slice of the profits from the exploitation of Iraqi oil reserves.
Nor is he alone in pressing the case for war on Iran. Another neocon outrider from the Bush era, Daniel Pipes, wrote this week that the only way for Obama to save his presidency was to "bomb Iran" and destroy the country’s "nuclear-weapon capacity", entailing few politically troublesome US "boots on the ground" or casualties.
The reality is that such an attack would be potentially even more devastating than the aggression against Iraq. Iran has the ability to deliver armed retaliation, both directly and through its allies, which would not only engulf the region but block the 20% of global oil supplies shipped through the straits of Hormuz. It would also certainly set back the cause of progressive change in Iran.
Iran is a divided authoritarian state, now cracking down harshly on the opposition. But it is not a dictatorship in the Saddam Hussein mould. Unlike Iraq, Israel, the US and Britain, Iran has not invaded and occupied anybody’s territory, but has the troops of two hostile, nuclear-armed powers on its borders. And for all Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory rhetoric, it is the nuclear-armed US and Israel that maintain the option of an attack on Iran, not the other way round.
Nor has the UN nuclear agency, the IAEA, found any evidence that Iran is trying to acquire nuclear weapons, while the US’s own national intelligence estimate found that suspected work on a weapons programme had stopped in 2003, though that may now be adjusted in the new climate. Iran’s leadership has long insisted it does not want nuclear weapons, even while many suspect it may be trying to become a threshold nuclear power, able to produce weapons if threatened. Given the recent history of the region, that would hardly be surprising.
For the US government, as during the Bush administration, the real problem is Iran’s independent power in the most sensitive region in the world — heightened by the Iraq war. The signals coming out of Washington are mixed. The head of US National Intelligence implied on Tuesday there was nothing the US could do to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons if it chose to do so. Perhaps the military build-up in the Gulf is just sabre rattling. The preference is clearly for regime change rather than war.
But Israel is most unlikely to roll over if that option fails, and the risks of the US and its allies, including Britain, being drawn into the fallout from any attack would be high. As was discovered in the case of Iraq, the views of outriders like Blair and Pipes can quickly become mainstream. If we are to avoid a replay of that catastrophe, pressure to prevent war with Iran will have to start now.
Seumas Milne is a Guardian columnist and associate editor. He was the Guardian’s comment editor from 2001-7 after working for the paper as a general reporter and labour editor. He has reported for the Guardian from the Middle East, eastern Europe, Russia, south Asia and Latin America. He previously worked for the Economist and is the author of The Enemy Within and co-author of Beyond the Casino Economy.