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The US, Israel, and the War on Iran: Don’t Let Them Fool Us Again!

Rami El-Amine
Date Published: 
February 10, 2012

The end of 2011 saw the beginnings of a shift to a more overt and aggressive policy by the US and its allies towards Iran. This shift was not the result of any new threat being posed by Iran but by the need for the US to maintain a sizeable military presence in the oil rich region after withdrawing from Iraq. The Arab revolutions are also a major factor in this shift, particularly for the US’s Gulf Arab allies and Israel. Saber rattling around Iran heightens sectarian tensions in the region and, therefore, weakens the revolutionary wave which threatens the Gulf Arab monarchies. Israel, on the other hand, is leading the push for an attack because it deflects attention away from its continued denial of land and rights to Palestinians at a time when it is coming under increased international criticism.

On January 11, 2012, after the assassination of the fourth Iranian scientist in two years, the New York Times declared: “In recent days, several events have combined to create the deepest tension with the United States since the Islamic revolution in 1979…” The possibility of a US or Israeli attack on Iran is more likely today than it has been since that revolution ousted the US backed dictator, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in what was a major blow to US interests and domination of the region.

Over the past 30 years the US and its allies—particularly Israel and the Gulf Arab monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, and Qatar—have worked hard to isolate Iran. The US and the Gulf countries gave critical backing to Saddam Hussein during the Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988), a war which Saddam Hussein provoked by invading Iran in the chaotic aftermath of the Iranian revolution. In fact, he would have lost the war early on if the US had not stepped up its assistance to the Iraqi dictator in 1982.

That assistance turned into more direct US military involvement in the late 1980s and was instrumental in pressuring Iran to end what had become the longest conventional war in the twentieth century. In 1988 the US Navy attacked and destroyed two Iranian oil platforms in retaliation for Iran’s alleged mining of the Persian Gulf. Later that year, the US Navy “accidentally” shot down a scheduled commercial flight from Iran over the Strait of Hormuz, killing all 290 civilians, 66 of whom were children. By the time the war ended in 1988, more than a million Iranians and Iraqis had died.


There wasn’t anything close to a military confrontation between the US and Iran again until President George Bush included them in the axis of evil, along with Iraq and North Korea, after the September 11 attacks. He accused Iran of pursuing nuclear weapons and exporting terror. The Iranian development of a nuclear program—a right they have as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as long as it’s for peaceful purposes—made it easier for the US and its allies to spread baseless claims about the program being used for military purposes.

But Iran’s nuclear program has been going on since the early 1990s, and while President Bill Clinton tightened sanctions in 1995, they were loosened again in the late 1990s as a result of the election of Sayid Mohamed Khatami and other reformists. So why was it now suddenly a threat? Moreover, why wasn’t North Korea—which is not only in possession of nuclear weapons and the long range missiles to deliver them but has been much more aggressive towards its neighbors—being threatened in the same way?

Demonizing Iran was useful at that time, and still is today, in justifying the expansion of the “war on terror” beyond Afghanistan to other, obviously Muslim, targets that have refused to submit fully to US power. It feeds into the already heightened Islamophobia, and scares Americans into thinking that more warfare will make them safer. We saw the mainstream media happily assist with this in the lead up to the Afghanistan war with stories about the Taliban’s treatment of women, intolerance of other religions, and general bellicosity. You can’t get the same ideological mileage out of targeting North Korea.

Islamophobia or, as Vijay Prashad call it, Iranophobia, is so pervasive that presidential candidates can joke about bomb-bomb-bombing Iran without any repercussions. Part of the reason for this is that so much of the Iranophobia is state driven. It’s not just the war posturing and the fabricated assassination plots but the shutting down of Shi’a Islamic charities and spying on Shi’a mosques.

Iran is an ideal target because it’s where much of modern day Islamophobia got its start. When you mention Iran, the first thing that comes to mind for many people in the US is when US Embassy personnel were taken hostage after the revolution. Iranians were portrayed as fanatical and inhuman by the government and media. This portrayal and perception of Iranians intensified when Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a death sentence (fatwa) in 1989 against the author Salman Rushdie for desecrating the prophet Mohammed in his book, Satanic Verses. Even though Saudi Arabia and its clerics were the first to call for a ban of the book and support protests against Salman Rushdie, it was the fatwa by Khomeini which got the most attention.

Islamophobia or, as Vijay Prashad call it, Iranophobia, is so pervasive that presidential candidates can joke about bomb-bomb-bombing Iran without any repercussions. Part of the reason for this is that so much of the Iranophobia is state driven. It’s not just the war posturing and the fabricated assassination plots but the shutting down of Shi’a Islamic charities and spying on Shi’a mosques.

The media has contributed to the Islamophobia by not only portraying Iran as a nuclear threat to the world but as a haven for holocaust deniers who want to kill all Jews and destroy Israel. This is how they’ve gotten away with denying us the opportunity to see and hear from ordinary Iranians on what are essentially life and death issues for them.

Despite all these lies and hysteria, Bush and the neocons were not able to carry out an attack on Iran largely because of three interconnected reasons: 1) similar claims about the existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) used to justify the invasion of Iraq were discredited; 2) the opposition and resistance by the Iraqis to the US occupation proved to be much more significant than anticipated; and 3) the antiwar movement at home began to publicize and protest a possible attack on Iran.

Covert campaign

Instead of an outright military campaign, the US tightened up sanctions even further and outsourced the job of menacing Iran to Israel, which has long been eager to attack Iran. In 2004, the US transferred “5,000 heavy, precision guided bombs” to Israel whose purpose could only be to penetrate the uranium enrichment facilities Iran had built.

There’s even some evidence to suggest that this is when the US and Israel began the covert campaign of assassinations, bombings, technological warfare, and other methods of sabotaging Iran’s nuclear program of which we’ve recently seen evidence:

  • In June 2010, the stuxnet computer worm, which one security software lab determined had to be developed by a government, targeted and did considerable damage to Iran’s nuclear equipment
  • On November 13, 2011, a blast at an Iranian Revolutionary Guard base killed one of the top commanders of the ballistic missile program along with 16 other soldiers.
  • On December 8, 2011, Iran’s capture of one of the US military’s most sophisticated spy drones flying over Iran.
  • The assassination of an Iranian scientist on January 11, 2012, which wounded one and killed another innocent bystander, was the fifth such assassination since January 10, 2010.

Whether this covert campaign began under Bush or Obama is not clear. However, it is the kind of strategy that seems more in line with the realists behind Obama’s foreign policy. They know that a military attack now could easily escalate into a wider war that jeopardizes the flow of oil and deepens the global economic crisis.

Confrontational shift

Yet there has clearly been a shift to a more overt and confrontational approach towards Iran over the past several months. The first sign of this was the announcement by the Justice Department that they had uncovered an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the US. Despite facing skepticism from experts and a usually compliant media before eventually being thoroughly debunked, this made-for-movie plot was used by the administration to push for tougher sanctions and Congress to call for action against Iran. Ultimately, it’s not very different from the Bush administration’s story regarding the sale of uranium yellowcake by Niger to Iraq which, despite being discredited, helped make the case for war on Iraq.

Then there was the release of the much anticipated report by the International Atomic and Energy Agency (IAEA) on November 10, 2011. Despite presenting no new evidence that Iran’s nuclear program was being used for military purposes, it broke with past reports in stating that there is a “possible military dimension” to Iran’s nuclear program. This was significant because, as Farideh Farhi explains, previously “the IAEA had preferred the phrase ‘alleged studies’ to refer to charges of warhead design research and the like by Iran, because these charges are based on documents shared with the Agency by unidentified countries and the Agency was unsure of their ultimate provenance or credibility.”

With this report, those clearly identifiable countries—the US and Israel—had finally gotten the IAEA to give them the cover they needed for more overt and aggressive action against Iran. On New Year’s Eve, Obama signed into law the toughest sanctions yet, imposing an oil embargo on Iran. The European Union passed a similar law on January 23, 2012. This is, Farhi says, an act of war because an oil embargo has to be enforced militarily. He concludes that “US policy has shifted seamlessly to one of pure coercion.”

The question then becomes, why would the realists in the Obama administration go along with or even craft such a risky strategy? The answer lies, in large part, with the key role Israel has played in the covert campaign and in influencing American policy towards Iran.

In many ways, Israel is currently driving US policy on Iran, much as it does with US policy towards the Palestinians. Despite the objections of Israel’s secret service, Mossad, and its military leadership to an attack on Iran, its political leadership—led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak—are pushing ahead aggressively with plans for an attack. In response to the objections raised by the Mossad and military leaders, Barak said, “It’s good to have diversity in thinking and for people to voice their opinions. But at the end of the day, when the military command looks up, it sees us—the minister of defense and the prime minister. When we look up, we see nothing but the sky above us.”

Neocon effect

The neocons in the US, who are the key foreign policy advisers to most of the Republican Presidential candidates, are clearly in support of this hard line and have made attacking Iran a major campaign issue. With the exception of Ron Paul, the candidates have all portrayed Obama as being soft on Iran. As he has done on so many issues during his presidency, Obama has moved to the right on this issue in hopes of winning over voters. In this case, he may be right. According to a recent Pew Center poll, Americans feel that Iran poses the biggest threat to the US—more than China, Iraq, and Afghanistan—and that the US should “take a firm stand.”

As a result, the Obama administration has stepped up its rhetoric in recent weeks, echoing much of what the Israeli hawks and neocons are saying. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is now repeating Netanyahu and Barak’s claim that Iran is a year away from having a nuclear bomb.

Most significantly, the US has shifted back to the tried and true tactic of accusing its opponents of sponsoring terrorism as a way of justifying an attack. This is, after all, how the US military has been able to carry out military operations in at least half a dozen Muslim countries. At the end of January 2012, the US released an intelligence report that said that the assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador “shows that some Iranian officials…are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived US actions that threaten the regime.”

No one, Democrat or Republican, questioned the veracity of this claim, not even the media. That “intelligence” like this continues to go unchallenged is a testament to the power of Islamophobia. In what other circumstances can hundreds of thousands of people be killed and entire countries destroyed based on admittedly false intelligence and lies and then, just a few years later, can the same lies be used to justify another war.

Paper tiger

The fact is that Iran never has been nor is it now a threat to anyone. A paper published by the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies says, “missile attacks would be able to inflict only limited physical damage on Israel.” Israel’s own Institute of National Security Studies released a report written by a former chief of military intelligence, arguing that Iran “could only close the Strait of Hormuz, a key oil trading route, as it has threatened to do, for a very short time.” Even Barak has stated that Iran doesn’t pose an existential threat to Israel.

So why do the US and Israel insist that it is a threat? For the US, Iran is a paper tiger that it uses to justify its military presence in the oil rich Middle East. In addition to controlling the oil and getting favorable treatment for US corporations, a large military force is now needed more than in the past to intervene in the Arab revolutionary wave that has toppled longtime US allies in Tunisia and Egypt and threatened others in Yemen and Bahrain.

For the US, Iran is a paper tiger that it uses to justify its military presence in the oil rich Middle East. In addition to controlling the oil and getting favorable treatment for US corporations, a large military force is now needed more than in the past to intervene in the Arab revolutionary wave that has toppled longtime US allies in Tunisia and Egypt and threatened others in Yemen and Bahrain.

Another problem these revolutions pose is that, unlike the Eastern European revolutions in 1989, these revolutions are fueled in part by the failure of neoliberalism and, therefore, are critical of the Washington consensus that benefits US corporations.

For Israel, the centerpiece of American empire in the region, the focus on Iran allows it to deflect attention from its continued occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people, which has earned it more widespread criticism recently. The revolutions have made support for the Palestinian struggle and opposition to Israel public again. They have even emboldened Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza to march en masse to the Israeli border to protest Israel’s denial of their international right to return to their homes and land. Israel’s lethal response to these mass, nonviolent protests brought it further international condemnation.


For these reasons, Obama actually tried to negotiate for a larger force to remain in Iraq after the end of 2011. However, even an empire, especially a waning one, doesn’t always get what it wants. Lucky for the US, its other cornerstone of domination of the region, the puritanical Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states who make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has also been feeling threatened by the revolutions. They have been playing a bigger role politically and militarily in the region than they ever have—offering financial assistance to Tunisia’s and then Egypt’s rulers, sending troops to back the monarchy in Bahrain, intervening in Libya and Yemen, and calling for intervention in Syria—to thwart or co-opt the revolutions.

The GCC has also been raising concerns about their archenemy, majority Shi’a Iran, who has always been a useful cover for domestic repression by those GCC countries with large, restive Shi’a populations such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

However, the GCC’s US-armed and -trained militaries are incapable of intervening in another country, particularly Iran, without the support of a military power like the US.

Over the past year, the GCC’s need for a more interventionist military and the US’s need to maintain a significant military presence in the region has led them to form a security alliance  similar to NATO. While the GCC and the US already have very close military and economic ties, “the administration and the military are trying to foster a new ‘security architecture’ for the Persian Gulf that would integrate air and naval patrols and missile defense,” according to the New York Times. Fifteen thousand American troops have already been added to the small contingent in Kuwait under the plan.

The other potential benefit for the US from this alliance is financial. With the billions already spent on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (not to mention Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia), an economic crisis at home, and a mandated $450 billion cut from the defense budget, even the biggest war hawks are worried about how they would finance another war or military intervention. The capital rich GCC could indeed be the answer.

Sectarian tensions

The war posturing around Iran benefits the GCC by increasing the already heightened Sunni-Shi’a sectarian tensions in the region and, therefore, dividing opposition movements and weakening their revolutionary potential. An attack would undermine the small but significant opposition in the predominately Sunni frontline countries of the GCC (Oman, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait) as well as the more sizeable opposition movements in those further out (and less likely to be directly involved), such as Jordan and Morocco.

It would be especially devastating to the opposition in predominately Shi’a Bahrain which, being home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, would be at the forefront of any war. The fall of Bahrain’s ruling family is a big concern for the US and the other GCC countries, which sent in forces to back the ruling Sunni minority in March 2011 under the premise that the mostly Shi’a opposition was getting support from Iran. While the brutal campaign of repression against the Bahraini opposition has already set it back considerably, a war with Iran would be devastating.

An attack or war on Iran could even help reverse the gains of the “successful” revolutions by co-opting them. In Egypt, the well-financed and reactionary Salafist Nour Party—which won a quarter of the seats in the first parliamentary elections—could gain even more support by playing up the need to fight Shi’a Iran.

In Syria, the sectarianism would weaken the revolution by pulling more of the Sunni Islamist opposition to the regime closer to the GCC and pushing the Alawites and Christians closer to the regime.

How the revolution goes in Syria is especially important for Israel. Since Lebanon’s Shi’a resistance movement, Hizbullah, defeated Israel in the July 2006 war, some in Israel have come to the conclusion that it would not be able to beat Hizbullah in a direct confrontation. It could, however, easily defeat Iran and Syria, which provide critical support to Hizbullah.


It’s impossible to predict when Israel or the US would attack, but it’s clear that it is not too far off. Moreover, as Alexander Cockburn and Vijay Prashad argue, war is actually already under way. Cockburn says that the strategy is similar to that against Iraq: “to force Iran into a corner, methodically demolishing its economy by embargoes and sanctions so that in the end a desperate Iran strikes back.”

Let us not forget that between 500,000 and 1 million Iraqi children died as a direct result of the sanctions on that country and that was before the war and occupation in 2003, during which upwards of a million Iraqis were killed. This says nothing of the destruction to infrastructure that set the country back at least 20 years.

The involvement of Israel, the only country to possess nuclear weapons in the Middle East, makes this situation even more dangerous. An Israeli attack on Iran could easily lead to a regional war that would dwarf what happened to Iraq.

The fact that protests against an attack on Iran, like the ones on February 4, are already happening is a good sign. It’s important that we learn the lessons from Iraq and demand that sanctions be lifted because there is no such thing as sanctions that only target the regime. Ordinary Iranians, just like the Iraqis, will be the ones most affected by the sanctions. Moreover, as we saw in the Green movement’s protests in 2009, ordinary Iranians have the power to bring down the regime.

Finally, and most importantly, if there’s one lesson to be learned from more than a decade of the “war on terror,” it is that the key to stopping these endless wars against largely Muslim countries is to combat Islamophobia. This is what allows for the dehumanization of an entire group of people to the point that they can be imprisoned, tortured, and/or killed without widespread public outrage.

Rami El-Amine is an Arab/Muslim writer in Washington, DC. He is an editor with Left Turn.