IN THE U.S., in Europe, even in Israel, military and intelligence officials agree: The Iranian government doesn't have a nuclear weapon. It doesn't have a program to make nuclear weapons. It hasn't even made a decision to pursue such a program sometime in the future.
But leaders of the U.S. and Israeli governments are pressing for drastic sanctions and threatening war against Iran because of…its nuclear weapons program.
The surreal fabrications and rank hypocrisy on display would be good for a laugh if the risk of a new round of war and devastation in Middle East wasn't deadly serious. As longtime antiwar activist author Phyllis Bennis wrote:
It is tempting to think this time will be just like previous periods of saber-rattling against Iran. But there are significant new dangers. The Arab Spring, Israel's position, changes in the regional and global balance of forces, and national election campaigns all point to this round of anti-Iranian hysteria posing potentially graver risks than five or six years ago.
You can turn on any network or cable TV news program for a sample of the hysteria–journalists and commentators alike talk as if Iran's nukes are an imminent danger.
But since at least 2007, every report of the International Atomic Energy Administration (IAEA) and every National Intelligence Estimate compiled by U.S. spy agencies have confirmed that Iran abandoned its program in 2003 when it was still years away from building a nuclear weapon–and it has made no move to restart it in the decade since.
Iran's behavior is a stark contrast to Israel, the only country in the Middle East that actually has nuclear weapons–though you won't hear wild scare-mongering about thatin the mainstream media.
The "hawks" in Israel and the U.S. want military action. Meanwhile, the "moderate" position represented by President Barack Obama is that air strikes might be premature, but it's entirely appropriate to impose the most punishing set of international sanctions since those used against Iraq after the first Gulf War–at a cost of more than half a million Iraqi children under five dead.
Since there is no hard evidence that Iran is building nuclear weapons or planning to do so, the grim fact is that the U.S. and its allies are inflicting the collective punishment of sanctions on the Iranian population because the government refuses to halt a civilian nuclear power program.
Obama may warn against "bluster" about war, but the U.S. is already in what commentator Juan Cole referred to as "full-sanction, soft-war mode."
The West's new confrontation with Iran is being driven by both brinksmanship among political leaders competing to "look tough" against the supposed "nuclear threat" from Iran–but also by shifting power relationships in a region where U.S. imperialism has been weakened by military setbacks and the upheavals of the Arab Spring over the past year.
No one should underestimate the potential for this confrontation to spiral into outright military action–with terrible consequences for the populations of Iran, of the wider region and of the whole globe.
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THE LATEST ramped-up rhetoric against Iran coincided with a visit to the U.S. this week by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the international political figure most associated with the drive to go to war on Iran.
According to some media accounts, sections of the Israeli military and political establishment are worried about the consequences of air strikes on Iran. But Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are gung-ho. In fact, the former Mossad chief Meir Dagan claims he and other top officials barely headed off an attempt by Netanyahu and Barak to order air strikes in 2010.
Israel has been pressing the U.S. government on Iran, its main rival in the region, for years. But the new urgency is also shaped by the changing situation in the Middle East. The U.S. withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq last year left the government in the hands of parties aligned with Iran. Plus, the revolution in Egypt toppled the main ally of the U.S. and Israel among Arab regimes.
The conservative Shia Islamists who dominate Iran's government are no friends of the Arab revolutions. They are repressing a pro-democracy movement inside Iran, and their closest ally in the region is the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, which is waging an all-out civil war to crush a popular uprising. But with Mubarak gone and the U.S. pushed out of Iraq, Iran is in a stronger position today.
If Netanyahu and Barak want to maneuver the U.S. into backing a "pre-emptive" military attack on Iran, they have willing American accomplices in the Republican Party–especially among the reactionaries running for the GOP presidential nomination.
These bigots will say anything, no matter how distorted or racist, to smear Barack Obama. Thus, Newt Gingrich declared that the Iranian government was "playing us for fools"–and Mitt Romney raved, in response to a question from an 11-year-old boy, "If Barack Obama gets re-elected, Iran will have a nuclear weapon."
But the saber-rattling crosses party lines–because no member of Congress wants to appear soft on the "nuclear threat." Thus, in mid-February, 32 senators from both parties introduced a Senate resolution that "urges the president to reaffirm the unacceptability of an Iran with nuclear-weapons capability and oppose any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat."
This was a repeat of what took place in December, after the release of another IAEA report that confirmed there was no evidence after 2003 of an Iranian weapons program. But the media's deceptive reporting implied the opposite, and members of Congress from both parties backed legislation to impose new sanctions on Iran. The White House initially opposed the measure, but Obama caved and signed the bill into law just before the year ended.
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THIS WAS telling evidence of the two-sided attitude of the Obama administration–and of which side wins out when push comes to shove.
Because it would be responsible for actually carrying out a military attack on Iran, the administration reflects the hesitations of the foreign policy and especially the military establishment about escalating the "soft war."
The Pentagon is still paying the price for an invasion of Iraq that was justified with false claims about weapons of mass destruction. Even after withdrawal from Iraq, the military is stretched thin–while administration officials and Pentagon brass talk about the need to expand operations to prepare for conflicts in Asia.
Thus, at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington, D.C., this week, Obama said that "there is too much loose talk of war…For the sake of Israel's security, America's security, and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster."
Yet Obama went on to do precisely that–bluster about the lengths he would go to in order to confront Iran. "I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon," Obama said. "And as I've made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests."
Obama's speech shows that the U.S. could be drawn into military action against Iran, even if administration officials and the analysts who advise them don't think war is the best option right now. The president may want to "give sanctions time to work"–but various events could drive the U.S. to join in an attack on Iran, and possibly even initiate one.
Short of launching air strikes, Israel's policy has been aimed at provoking a response from the Iranian government that could justify escalating the hostilities. That's the purpose behind the assassinations of scientists associated with Iran's nuclear program, as well as a wider sabotage campaign that has been even more deadly.
Plus, the threat remains that Israel will launch military action, even over the objections of the U.S. In February, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the Washington Post that he thought a likely window for an Israeli attack on Iran would be between April and June. Some media reports speculate that an assault is more likely in September or October, shortly before the presidential election.
In either case, Obama would be under enormous political pressure to commit U.S. forces to another military conflict in the Middle East. Anyone who thinks Obama would never capitulate to hysterical rhetoric from Republicans about standing with Israel needs to take a closer look at his record over the past three years.
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THE MEDIA speculation about whether Israel will launch unilateral air strikes or if the U.S. will commit to military action misses an important reality–both governments are already complicit in acts of war against Iran.
For one thing, the murders of the Iranian scientists are clearly the result of covert operations involving Israel, and possibly the U.S. Officially, both governments claim they aren't involved. But Israeli officials reacted to these terrorist assassinations with barely disguised triumph that even mainstream journalists took to be a tacit admission of their role.
Then there's the economic war being waged on Iran. The new sanctions law signed by Obama late last year is aimed at Iran's financial system and has put further pressure on the country's currency, which has plunged in value.
Even more damaging is the European Union's (EU) decision in January to ban oil imports from Iran. Previously, Italy and Spain–Iran's biggest customers in Europe–were able to resist U.S. pressure for Europe to join in the sanctions on Iran. But the debt crisis in those countries and the continent-wide economic slump has brought the EU into line.
The sanctions have pushed an already slumping economy deeper into crisis. According to Juan Cole, Iran is starting to have difficulty importing wheat from Ukraine and India, leading to food shortages combined with rising prices. The threat, says Cole, is that sanctions "could kill thousands of people by provoking a food famine."
This will sound familiar to anyone who remembers the genocidal sanctions on Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, imposed by the United Nations under pressure from the U.S. Countless items were banned from Iraq because of an alleged "military use"–including chemicals and supplies needed to rebuild sanitation systems, for example. Epidemics of cholera and typhoid followed.
The impact of sanctions fell most heavily on ordinary Iraqis–and least of all on Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi regime, the supposed targets of the blockade. As Noam Chomsky wrote in a commentary for In These Times, "The Iraq sanctions devastated the population and strengthened Saddam Hussein, probably saving him from the fate of a rogues' gallery of other tyrants supported by the U.S.-U.K."
The same will be true in Iran. The conservative regime survived the 2009 upsurge of the "green movement" by carrying out a savage crackdown. But the hardliners have been able to rebuild some popular support, in part by posing as defenders of the nation against the escalating imperialist attack. Sanctions will allow the regime to further shift blame for the economic crisis off its program of privatization and austerity.
In the end, the escalating tensions and threats of war are certain to continue–no matter how obvious it becomes that the supposed "nuclear threat" from Iran isn't a threat at all.
That's because U.S. imperialism is determined to dominate the Middle East in order to control the flow of the world's most precious commodity, oil, from the Persian Gulf–and this inevitably means more conflicts with Iran.
The U.S. is struggling to recover from setbacks in the region–from the loss of the dictators it backed in Egypt and Tunisia to its failure in Iraq that forced the withdrawal of U.S. troops–that simultaneously resulted in greater influence for Iran. Washington will have to take a more aggressive posture against Iran, whatever the Obama administration's attitude toward calls for a military attack.
The West's ratcheted-up rhetoric and escalating sanctions aren't about making the region or the world safer from nuclear weapons. On the contrary, they will make war and suffering more likely, not less.