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Thinking about war with Iran

The real Iranian threat is not its nuclear capacity but its independence. If Iran continues to stand as a model of defiance for increasingly poverty-stricken and restless populations of family fiefdoms in the Gulf, the current US-backed setups will either fall or be forced to democratise. These potentially catastrophic losses of empire go a long way to explaining the rising beat of war drums in the region.

The United States and Israel are threatening to go to war with Iran. This threat has nothing to do with Iran's nuclear policy which is for peaceful purposes. The IAEA has found no violations of the NPT in Iran's nuclear programme. Anyone who doubts this should first read Gordon Prather's articles. The United States has been hostile to Iran since the revolution in 1979 which overthrew the compliant Shah, but the US has never actually fomented war, as they seem to be doing now. So what gives? 

President George Bush, when he lumped Iran into the 'Axis of Evil', contemplated winning easily in Iraq and moving on to Iran. Of course that didn't work out. The United States lost in Iraq and now has minuscule, if any, influence there. Our man in Iraq, Ayad Alawi, actually won the last election but without a majority. Iraq formed a government without him and shut him out. He has no cabinet positions. The huge American 'embassy' in Iraq, though filled with mercenaries protecting the embassy, will also not influence political events, for mercenaries cannot launch military actions. Iraq will go about its own business.

The United States had hoped for a permanent military presence in Iraq to replace the bases lost in Saudi Arabia whose government and people objected to these bases so close to their holy sites. Toleration of this impiety had outraged Osama Bin Laden and other Saudis and threatened to disrupt the regime. The US had planned to move their military presence to Iraq. Now that the United States has lost in Iraq it is without this military presence. Although the fifth fleet is stationed on Bahrain, it is less of a threat than it seems. Warships are obsolete and useless for modern warfare. Unstoppable missiles make aircraft carriers into big targets. The fleet is more like a chip on a shoulder that, if knocked off, will result in war. But if an aircraft carrier actually launched its planes in a military operation against a country as sophisticated as Iran, it would be sunk.

Before the Iranian Revolution, the United States had control of the Persian Gulf. The compliant Shah ruled Iran, docile royal families ruled in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Gulf kingdoms. A compliant Saddam Hussein controlled Iraq, launching the Iran/Iraq war after the revolution with US support and encouragement in the hope of toppling the Iranian regime. This control allowed American and British oil companies to exploit Middle East oil. With oil sold in dollars, 'dollar hegemony' forced the whole world to keep large dollar reserves, in effect loaning the US money it never had to pay back. The good times rolled. The United States could print money that the Middle East oil producing counties would redeem in precious oil.

With the Revolution, Iran removed itself from this system, though it still sold oil in dollars. But the US has managed to keep the rest of the Gulf states in line — until now. Until now the United States maintained close military ties with the Gulf States. In 1981, the Gulf Cooperation Council, a joint military force, was created by an agreement among Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE. The United States supplied the weapons and training, guaranteeing deep ties with the officer corps. In addition the United States had lucrative arms sales deals on the side with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States. These weapons were primarily for repression of their own populations, for, with Iraq balancing Iran, no war threatened. Since these regimes were family fiefdoms they survived primarily by force. So the dollars the Gulf States collected for their oil went to buy American arms and spy prowess. This trade kept the American arms industry healthy, the Gulf royal families in power, American control of oil secure, and dollar hegemony firmly in place.

Perhaps only implicitly, the United States held the threat of regime change over these family fiefdoms. The US had overthrown Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 because he nationalized Iranian oil. It could do the same elsewhere. Mossadegh had been wildly popular. It would be far easier to overthrow these unpopular family fiefdoms, or, more likely, replace one member of the royal family with a more compliant member from another line. American control was both a threat to the regime and support for its repression of the population.

But after the loss in Iraq both the American threat and support for Gulf state repression became far less plausible. The Iraq war was so barbaric and so bungled that almost anyone connected to the US was anathema to most Arabs. American hostility to Islam guaranteed that American involvement with a candidate damned him. Alawi's fate foretold that of many other American-sponsored candidates. Recently, the Shi'ite government put out a warrant for the arrest of Tariq al-Hashemi, the vice president and Alawi's only ally in the government. He had to flee. Any new man the US might install in power in any of the Gulf states would immediately be tainted with his US connection. His fate would be even harsher than Alawi's. Regime change was out. The US could, at best, maintain the regimes already in place.

However, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states had changed in the meantime. Whereas the ordinary Saudi citizen had lived quite well in the late nineteen seventies, the Saudi population has exploded and the income of the Saudi man in the street had plunged. The discontent that erupted during the 'Arab spring' in the Gulf states, where ever poorer populations saw the US extract their countries' wealth, is the direct result of repression becoming less tenable. With the US threat of regime change less plausible, the hold the US had on the Gulf State regimes has relaxed.

Their governments repressed the 'Arab spring' uprisings brutally. A large portion of the population is Shi'ite, and the Shi'ite population is in the oil producing regions. Without the American threat, and with Iraq now in Shi'ite control, these populations will now have a rear area in Iraq to train and, more importantly, organize. Whereas until now the Gulf regimes could pretty much repress any opposition political organization through infiltrating spies and brutal police crackdowns, that will no longer be possible. These organizations will form in exile.

These regimes must fear not only their Shi'ite populations, but their own ever poorer Sunni populations as well. They too are not happy with their lives under the family fiefdoms. If the kings have any brains they must be thinking of public works and other ways of improving the lot of their people. For it is clear that in the present situation repression will not work much longer. When repression fails, you have to share the wealth. And this seems to be what they plan to do.

Meanwhile, these family fiefdoms have no real reason to continue their obedience to the United States. The money the US wants them to spend on weapons could be better used for public works. But the United States has proved itself incapable of building. The United States rebuilt Iraq into a charnel house and a shambles. China knows how to build, but will not want dollars. China, for various reasons, is trying to slowly reduce its hoard of dollars. So the Gulf regimes must now reconsider its sale of oil for dollars. Were they to stop selling in dollars, dollar hegemony would end and all those dollars out there would seek something to buy in the US. Hyperinflation would cause United States economic meltdown that would make the current depression a walk in the park.

So American weakness in the Persian Gulf threatens loss of arms sales, loss of control of oil, the end of dollar hegemony, and a US economic crash. Shi'ite Iran and Iraq threaten the other Gulf states, not militarily, but simply because they offer support to their Shi'ite citizens. Although the Gulf kingdoms are now terrified of Iranian power, Iran has no reason to attack them unless the US and Israel attack it. This terror is, in all likelihood a cover for real fear of their own populations. Democracy is what the family fiefdoms have to fear. The real threat of an independent Iran is its independence, which will foster Shi'ite political organization in the other Gulf states. The family despotisms will find it much harder to survive under these circumstances, for, pressured by both these Shi'ites and the poor Sunni population, they will almost have to liberalize, and eventually democratize.

So, paradoxically, the United States is threatened by Iranian freedom. If Iran continues to exist, the Gulf kingdoms will either fall or democratize. In either case they will abandon their role in the American setup and the royal families will lose power. These potentially catastrophic losses of empire inflame the desire for war.

The Bush plan, to win first in Iraq and then move on to Iran, leaving favourable regime change in both and so restoring the pre-1979 situation is now clearly not possible. The US cannot possibly contemplate an Iraq-like war in Iran: the defeat in Iraq would surely be duplicated in the far more formidable Iran.

Nor will a drone war work here. This delusional strategy counts upon fomenting internal chaos that the US can exploit, but only weakens the US. What is happening in Pakistan illustrates the drone war's counterproductive dynamic. The US, in alliance with the Pakistani military and spy agencies had controlled the country, but American high-handed incursions into the country have ended US influence in Pakistan. The US had controlled Pakistan with a carrot held out primarily to these agencies, but Pakistan can now turn to China for help and even the Pakistani military is drawing away from the US. Again, the population so detests American activities that any connection a politician might have with the US taints him. US influence in Pakistan is all but gone, in large part because of the drone wars. Pakistan has refused to allow the US to resupply its army in Afghanistan.

 

But it is not only the ineffectiveness of drone wars in fomenting regime collapse the US can exploit that precludes their use in Iran. Iran has threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz and anyone who says they can't do it is stupid. A look at the map will reveal a strait with a navigable passage sometimes narrower than five miles across. Within this waterway huge slow moving oil tankers would be vulnerable to small speedboats with crews armed only with shoulder carried rocket propelled grenades. If not grenades, mines, if not mines, missiles, and if not missiles Iran can sink some of its own ships in the strait. There is no way to keep them from closing it. Twenty percent of the world's oil would stop flowing and the world economy would plunge into unrecoverable depression, for social chaos would engulf much of the developed world. In the process the US fifth fleet would be bottled up like sitting ducks. The huge American embassy in Iraq would be cut off from supplies and would probably fall.

For this reason the Gulf states are busy building pipelines to allow oil shipments to skirt the Straits of Hormuz. But Iran's most potent weapon is their ability to shut off oil exports from the Gulf. In a war they will not give it up easily, for it will be their best strategy. With Iraq no longer a buffer between the Gulf States and Iran, and without a serious American military presence in the Gulf, Iranian military forces would overrun Kuwait and Saudi Arabia even more quickly than Iraq overran Kuwait in 1991.

The puny Gulf state militaries could not stop them and the US, blocked by the closed strait, could not bring its forces, such as they now are, to bear. And even if Iran could not overrun Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, food vital to these countries cannot travel by pipeline. It must come through the strait. The food is as essential as the oil, if not more so. The only way to stop an utter debacle would be to use atomic weapons, which would likely inaugurate World War III. Any honest person trying to evaluate the trajectory of such a war would have to assume that this would happen. It is both the worst case scenario and the most likely one.

So any US war with Iran will be a nuclear war, ending the nuclear weapons taboo and plunging the world into depression. The worldwide chaos will make controlling this war impossible. World nuclear war is almost certain to follow. Such a war is suicidal madness, yet they contemplate and plan it.

 

About the author

Michael Doliner studied with Hannah Arendt on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He helped develop the honors college at Valparaiso University and taught at Ithaca College


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