US Iran Policy


ZNet IranWatch will be presenting some interviews on US Iran policy in the coming weeks.  This interview with Sasan Fayazmanesh, an economist at California State University, is the first of a series.

Foaad Khosmood: Since 2001 there have been mixed signals coming out of Washington regarding Iran. Undersecretary of State for non-proliferation, John Bolton, has suggested possible military action on several occasions, while deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage has taken much criticism for calling Iran a “democracy.” How can the current US policy toward Iran be described? What are the aims and reasoning behind this policy? How has this policy changed from what it was under the Clinton administration?

Sasan Fayazmanesh: This is an important question that requires some historical backtracking. So, if you don’t mind, I’ll answer your question at length.

The contradictory policy of the US toward Iran, or what you refer to as “mixed signals,” has a long history that starts well before 2001. I have analyzed the history of this policy, from its inception in 1979 to the end of the Clinton Administration, in my essay “The Politics of the US Economic Sanctions against Iran” (The Review of Radical Political Economy, Volume 35, Number 3, 2003). As I have argued in that essay, the incoherent and inconsistent policy of the US toward Iran, especially the sanctions policy, and particularly during the Clinton Administration, can be explained by the pull and push of two forces for and against economic sanctions.

The first force, pushing for sanctions against Iran, was Israel and its many lobbies in the US, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its affiliate “think tank,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. This force has been basically formulating and implementing much of the US foreign policy toward Iran, particularly the sanctions policy. For example, the first head of the Washington Institute, Martin Indyk—who was at one point the press advisor to Issak Shamir and subsequently went on to occupy powerful positions in the Clinton Administration, including the director for Middle East matters at the National Security Council and the US Ambassador to Israel—initially formulated three reasons for continued US sanctions: 1) Iran’s support for “international terrorism,” which means support for all organizations that are hostile to the Israeli occupation and answer violence with violence, namely, HAMAS and the Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian Territories and Hizballah in Lebanon; 2) opposition to the “peace process” in the Middle East, which, of course, Israel has now opposed itself; and 3) pursuit of “weapons of mass destruction,” which could mean anything, including missiles. These accusations form the backbone of the US foreign policy to this day. The second force, opposing the numerous US sanctions, consisted of the US corporations and their lobbies, particularly those associated with the oil and agricultural industries. These corporations, which, as a result of numerous sanctions had been cut off from lucrative deals with Iran, used their own lobbies, think tanks, and allies in the US government to combat the passage of more stringent sanctions against Iran. In 1997, for example, the US corporations set up a front called “USA*ENGAGE.” According to the website of the organization, this was a “coalition representing American business and agriculture” and having “670 members including 40 National and State Associations and organizations from major sectors of the US economy.” The organization’s list of members was a basic “who is who” of the US corporations, including, among others, the giant oil, agricultural, and aerospace companies. The stated chief objective of the organization was to open “a serious, bipartisan dialogue with the Congress, the executive branch and with governors, mayors and other local authorities about the limited effectiveness of these unilateral measures, their cost to the US economy, and about the importance of engagement” with countries such as Iran. Even though the US corporations made some headway in changing the US policy toward Iran in the second half of the Clinton Administration, their action was not sufficient to nullify the power of the Israeli lobby. As a result, the US foreign policy toward Iran in the last few years of the previous Administration became an incoherent and inconsistent policy, pushed by the Israelis toward confrontation with Iran and pulled by the corporation toward rapprochement with Iran. All this, of course, changed with the arrival of the new administration.

Fkh: Does this contradictory policy, which you say was mostly tilted toward Israel, explain the inability of the oil companies to export the Central Asian oil though Iran?

SF: Yes. After the breakdown of the Soviet Union, the oil companies were engaged in a feeding frenzy to export oil from the former Central Asian Republics, particularly from Azerbaijan’s Baku region. The least costly method of exporting oil from this region would naturally have involved Iran. The oil companies could have either transported oil using a pipeline passing through Iran or simply swapped the oil with Iran. Yet, the numerous US sanctions against Iran, particularly in 1995, prevented the oil companies from adopting either of the two options. As a result, the oil companies were forced to accept the much more complicated and costly way of transporting oil to Turkey’s Mediterranean Port of Ceyhan. This was, of course, one reason why the oil companies and their lobbyists fought tooth and nail to remove the sanctions.

FKh: Let us get back to what was being said earlier. How did the US foreign policy toward Iran change after the arrival of the Bush Administration?

SF: When President Bush “won” the election, the US corporations appeared to be joyous, since three of the top members of the Administration—President Bush himself, Vice President Cheney, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice—had all been affiliated with the oil industry. But these affiliations, as well as other aspects of a tentative cabinet makeup, worried the Israelis. The Jerusalem Post, for example, wrote that some “Jewish leaders are worried that many of Bush’s father’s advisers [Baker, Scowcroft, and Powell], who were not particularly warm toward Israel, will wield extraordinary influence in the administration, while the leaders themselves—many of them accustomed to having Clinton’s ear—are worried about losing their own clout” (December 8, 2000). In particular, the paper criticized Powell, because “Powell originally opposed the Gulf War, to the dismay of Israel and the pro-Israel community.” The Jerusalem Post then enumerated friends of Israel in the top echelon of the new Administration. It made references to Wolfowitz and Perle by writing: “Both Perle and Wolfowitz have been especially outspoken critics of Clinton’s policy toward Iraq and the peace process. . .

Both Perle and Wolfowitz are the type of candidates the pro-Israel lobby is pushing.” Let me point out that both Wolfowitz and Perle are on the Board of Advisors of the AIPAC affiliated think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Perle is also on the advisory board of The Jewish Institute For National Security Affairs (JINSA). Subsequently, in an article entitled “All the president’s Middle East men” (1/19/2001), Jerusalem Post prophetically wrote about the Middle East foreign policy makers: “What you will have are two institutions grappling for control of policy.” It then stated that it “is no secret in Washington—or anywhere else for that matter—that the policies will be determined less by Bush himself and more by his inner circle of advisers.” And, once again, after enumerating how many people Israel has in the new Administration, it wrote: “Paul Wolfowitz . . . The Jewish and pro-Israel communities are jumping for joy. . . He has been one of the loudest proponents of a tough policy toward Iraq focused on finding a way to bring down Saddam Hussein’s regime.” You can see how informed, insightful and prophetic Jerusalem Post articles were. They pointed out precisely what the so-called neocons, such as Wolofowitz and Perle, were planning to do with regard to Iraq. They also pointed out the divisions between these neocons and others in the Administration, such as Powell. Let me give you one example of this division. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the US State Department, led by Powell, and the Iranian government, led by President Khatami, made some overtures to improve relations between the two countries. Israel was clearly upset by this development and, with the help of the neocons in the Administration, it quickly put an end to any rapprochement between US and Iran. Now I can answer your original question concerning the different attitudes of John Bolton, the Undersecretary of State and the Administration’s senior non-proliferation official, and Richard Armitage, the Deputy Secretary of State, toward Iran. Armitage is a close associate of Powell. Bolton, on the other hand, is a well-known neoconservative. He has served on the board of advisers of JINSA and is also a former senior vice president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), another neoconservative think tank. As such, Bolton shares the neoconservative agenda. For example, while in Israel in February 2003, Bolton stated that he had “no doubt America will attack Iraq and that it will be necessary to deal with threats from Syria, Iran and North Korea afterward” (St. Petersburg Times, February 19, 2003). This must have been music to the ears of the Israeli officials. In an article in The Jerusalem Post (1/4/2002), Netanyahu wrote: “American power topples the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and the al-Qaida network there crumbles on its own. The United States must now act similarly against the other terror regimes–Iran, Iraq, Arafat’s dictatorship, Syria, and a few others. Some of these regimes will have to be toppled, some of them punished and deterred.” Similarly, in an interview with Ariel Sharon, The Times of London (2/5/2002) wrote that according to Sharon, “Iran is the center of ‘world terror,’ and as soon as an Iraq conflict is concluded, [Sharon] will push for Iran to be at the top of the ‘to do list’ . . . He sees Iran as ‘behind terror all around the world’ and a direct threat to Israel.” So the neocons, such as Bolton and Wolfowitz, are merely trying to take care of Sharon’s “to do list.” This agenda, however, is not exactly shared by all the members of the Administration. The result is a new set of incoherent and inconsistent policies that you referred to earlier as “mixed signals” to Iran.

FKh: So are you saying that the accusation that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons has to do with the Israeli agenda of destroying their enemies one after another? Is it not the case that, as the Bush Administration contends, Iran must be pursuing atomic weapons because, as a major energy producer, it has no need for nuclear energy?

SF: I have made this quite clear in a number of essays, especially in my CounterPunch articles “The Weapon of Choice” and “The Saga of Iran’s Alleged WMD.” The latter essay, in particular, which simply quotes news reports between July and December of 2003, chronicles how the holy alliance, US-Israel (USrael), is trying to use the issue of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to bring about a “regime change in Iran.” I refer your readers to these articles for details. But let me give a short answer to your question.

As I pointed out earlier, USrael has been using the accusation of Iran developing WMD for a long time to overthrow the Iranian government. The accusation has become more intense in the past few years as the neocons have taken over the US Middle East policy. Richard Perle, for example, was quoted as saying that “the best way to deal with the Iranian nuclear program would be to ‘liberate the Iranian people’” (Reuters, June 16, 2003). Similarly, John Bolton, in his position as the Administration’s senior non-proliferation official, has certainly tried his best to “deal” with the “enemies of Israel” by incessantly accusing Iran of developing WMD. The Israelis, of course, have been repeating the same charge. For example, Silvan Shalom, the Israeli Foreign Minister, said in an interview with the Russian daily Izvestia that “Iran will possess weapons of mass destruction at the end of 2005 or early in 2006” (Agence France Presse, June 5, 2003). The USraeli accusation is, of course, quite hypocritical. Both countries have nuclear weapons. Both are engaged in research and development in the area of nuclear weapons technology. Both are ready to use nuclear weapons if necessary. The US, according to the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, ElBaradei, is in violation of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (Reuters, August 27, 2003). Israel has never signed such a treaty. Moreover, US and her allies helped the Shah of Iran with its nuclear research and development in the mid 1960s. Ultimately, in the mid 1970s the Shah began building a nuclear reactor in Bushehr. In this effort, the Shah not only had the blessing of US and her allies, but was actually helped and encouraged by them. So the argument that Iran must be pursuing atomic weapons because it has no need for nuclear energy does not make any sense. Why didn’t USrael raise this issue when their ally, the Shah of Iran, was in power? Why is it being raised now?

FKh: The term “Axis of Evil” was uttered frequently by the administration during most of 2002 beginning with the State of the Union speech. What do you make of the term ? Was the expression part of the neoconservative policy? Where does it stand today?

SF: David Frum, a former speech writer for President Bush and a neoconservative colleague of Richard Perle, took credit for coining the phrase “axis of evil” and including it in President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union message. Frum, who currently writes for the neo-fascistic National Review Online, which supports everything Israel does, is one of those fellows that The Jerusalem Post declared to be Israel’s own. The paper also noted that “David Frum [is] Bush’s economic speech writer; and arguably the most influential of them all” (January 18, 2002). The expression “axis of evil” was part of the neoconservative agenda of making the world safe for Israel. But given that the war in Iraq has turned out to be a fiasco for the US, the expression has lost its luster and significance.

FKh: Do you see any US military action against Iran in the foreseeable future? If not, what will be the US policy?

SF: Although the Israeli government had Iran at the very top of the US “to do list” even before the US invasion of Iraq, the neocons did not appear to have thought that an all out attack on Iran was militarily feasible or prudent. This is even more so today, given the fact that the US is now stuck in Iraq in one of its most perilous military adventures since the Vietnam War. The neocons—who, in their push for the war, have put the economic future of this country in danger, brought it to the verge of military disaster and caused a great deal of political turmoil already—will not be able, at least in the foreseeable future, to repeat such adventures. This, of course, does not mean that Iran is safe. The US government has not ruled out surgical strikes against some of Iran’s nuclear facilities. Indeed, Israel has repeatedly threatened Iran with such strikes and, with the help of the neocons, is using every opportunity to push the US government in that direction.(1) But, for the time being, the immediate strategy is for the US to pass a resolution in the UN that would declare Iran in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This might then start a scenario similar to that in Iraq in the early 1990s, namely, the imposition of UN economic sanctions against Iran. We will just have to wait and see how successful the current USraeli campaign is in pressuring the International Atomic Energy Agency to report Iran to the UN for violating NPT.

FOOTNOTE (1): As this interview is being conducted, AIPAC is waging a campaign to blame Iran for the US military and political failures in Iraq. It writes on its website: “Sheik al-Sadr is reportedly being supported by Iran and its terror surrogate Hizballah, who are supplying money, spiritual support and possibly weapons, The Washington Times reported.” The Washington Times is, of course, one of the many mouthpieces of the neocons.

Sasan Fayazmanesh is a professor of Economics at California State University, Fresno.

Foaad Khosmood is the Editor of ZNet’s Iranwatch.

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