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The Road to Tehran

AK Gupta
Date Published: 
October 01, 2006

As preparations for war against Iraq intensified in the fall of 2002, neo-conservatives in Washington were fond of remarking that “The road to Tehran runs through Baghdad.” The toppling of Saddam Hussein was to be the first step in remaking the map of the Middle East through military force with Iran as number one on the hit list.

The Bush administration has been obsessed with trying to topple Iran’s government since it came to power. According to James Bamford, writing in a July 2006 issue of Rolling Stone, “War with Iran has been in the works for the past five years.”

The debacle in Iraq postponed those plans, but they gathered steam after the 2004 US presidential elections, which Bush famously called an “accountability moment” that ratified his Iraq policy. In January 2005, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh wrote that a “former high-level intelligence official” said that after Iraq, “we’re going to have the Iranian campaign... This is the last hurrah—we’ve got four years, and want to come out of this saying we won the war on terrorism.”

Fast-forward to July 2006. Even as Israeli air power decimated Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure and much of Beirut and South Lebanon, the real target was said to be Iran, not Hezbollah. Hersh once again weighed in, writing in The New Yorker that the Bush administration “was closely involved in the planning of Israel’s retaliatory attacks...(in part) as a prelude to a potential American preemptive attack to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations.”

Despite myriad reports of a planned US attack on Iran—including many warnings from Scott Ritter, the former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq—the Islamic Republic remains untouched. This is the Bush administration’s fundamental foreign policy contradiction. It wants to overthrow Iran’s government; finds itself handcuffed by its own political and military bungling; and yet, still might pursue another poorly thought-out war.

The White House has tried to publicly define the conflict as being over Iran’s nuclear energy program, but some analysts suggest the ulterior motive is to gain control of Iran’s massive oil reserves.

Bogged down

There is also the issue of Iran’s regional influence, which has been enhanced by the “war on terror.” In the four major conflicts convulsing the Middle East—Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon—Iran has benefited from each. In Afghanistan, Iran was a mortal enemy of the Taliban and backed the Northern Alliance, which the United States brought to power in 2001. In Iraq, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which Iran created during the Iran-Iraq war, is one the major powers in the Iraqi government and SCIRI’s militia, the Badr Brigade, essentially controls Ministry of Interior security forces. Iran also backs Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army, which takes a more confrontational position than SCIRI with US and British forces. In Lebanon, Iran is Hezbollah’s patron, and it is also backing Hamas in Palestine. Thus, while neo-conservatives in the Bush administration have Iran in their sights, the real effect of their policies has been to give Iran more political and diplomatic breathing room.
If there’s one reason why the Bush administration has been unable to attack Iran it would be because of Iraq.

Three-and-a-half years after the invasion, the US military is bogged down there because of problems largely of its own creation: a guerrilla war in western Iraq and a civil war in central Iraq. With 135,000 US troops in Iraq and another 22,000 in Afghanistan, the Pentagon is overstretched. Army officials and congressional members told the press on August 1, 2006, that “two-thirds of the active Army’s brigades are not ready for war” and less than one-third of the Army National Guard’s 34 brigades were “combat ready.”

The sputtering US military machine has not lessened the Bush administration’s desire for regime change in Iran. Neither, apparently, has Israel’s failed war against Hezbollah, which was seen as both a test run against Iran and a chance to eliminate a force that could attack Israel in retaliation for a US strike against Iran. Israeli officials claimed initially that an air campaign would destroy the Shiite guerrillas, but the aerial bombardment was ineffective against a disciplined and motivated force trained in the use of sophisticated anti-tank weaponry.

The outcome of Israel’s most recent attack on Lebanon is a historical earthquake. By fighting Israel to a standstill, Hezbollah has captivated the Arab public, which was despairing of Israel’s military dominance and the subservience of their governments to the US. Arabs and Muslims have a charismatic hero in Hassan Nasrallah. Hezbollah has shown itself to be far more capable than the Lebanese state in military terms and by taking the lead in reconstruction with financial support from Iran.

For the US, broader ramifications include a final discrediting of its policy in the region. The US sacrificed its poster child for democratization, Lebanon’s “Cedar Revolution,” for a war that backfired. US-allied Sunni Arab regimes in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia ended up looking like puppets. They all criticized Hezbollah after it abducted two Israeli soldiers but were forced to salute its prowess, leaving them weakened in the eyes of their publics. But for Iran, all of this increases its prominence. Iran benefits from its economic and military support of Hezbollah by positioning itself as leading the Muslim world against the US and Israel.

Deja vu

Never deterred by reality, however, the neo-cons still want to attack Iran. According to Hersh, one source claimed, “There is no way that Rumsfeld and Cheney will draw the right conclusion” about Israel’s failed air war. “When the smoke clears, they’ll say it was a success, and they’ll draw reinforcement for their plan to attack Iran.” Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their underlings are the main proponents of doctrines such as preemptive war and bombing the Middle East into “democracy.”

One analyst, Tom O’Donnell, a physicist at the University of Michigan, argues that the White House might still launch an assault against Iran even though the military is stuck in Iraq. Writing in the June 2006 issue of Z Magazine, O’Donnell suggests that the US would first try to cripple Iran’s air force, making Iran “susceptible to ground incursions by various forces hostile to the regime. These might include Kurdish, Azerbaijani and other nationalist separatist forces, which have long fought against Iran’s central government.” He argues, in essence, that the Bush administration might opt for a Contra-style war against Iran that would require few US ground troops.

But there is another factor that is holding back the United States: the price of oil. Since the spring of 2003, the price of oil has tripled, hitting a peak of $78 a barrel this past August. While the US economy has been able to absorb much of the shock, high energy prices are starting to take a toll both on consumer spending and by feeding inflation. Attacking Iran would remove its exports from the markets. While Western countries could use their national petroleum reserves to make up the difference, the oil markets would be spooked, probably resulting in oil hitting $100 a barrel. That would send the US and global economy into a recession, leading to a Bush administration under siege militarily, economically, politically.

There is a sense of deja vu. The campaign against Iran seems to be a replay of the Iraq war: attack a reactionary Middle East regime with vast oil reserves over the issue of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism; pressure or bribe other countries and international institutions to join in the campaign; talk diplomacy but place intolerable conditions that doom any negotiations; and all the while, prepare for war.

The maneuvering against Iran is part of a larger neo-conservative project to ensure US global supremacy for the 21st century. The plans have been kicking around since 1992 when then-Defense Secretary Cheney oversaw Wolfowitz in drafting a Pentagon planning document that stated, “In the Middle East and Southwest Asia, our overall objective is to remain the predominant outside power in the region and preserve US and Western access to the region’s oil.”
The larger goal was to prevent the emergence of a “new rival” on the scale of the Soviet Union or even significant regional powers. After being formalized as the Project for a New American Century in 1997, the plan was put into action after the September 11 attacks.

Peak oil

Tom O’Donnell, who studies the “globalized oil order,” says the reason a conflict with Iran is coming to a head now is because “there is a shortage of capacity in the oil sector and that can only be made up by the Gulf States in the Middle East, and Iraq and Iran are way below potential.” O’Donnell says that the International Energy Agency estimates that by 2020 the world will need a three-quarter increase in pumping capacity over 2001 to meet growing demand, and big oil projects “take seven to ten years to come online.” Hence, the urgency felt by the US government to deal with Iran now.

Even today, as evidenced by record-high oil and gasoline prices, the world is facing limits on crude oil production. This is not due to “peak oil”—the idea that there are present-day geological limits to production—but rather US foreign policy. The Middle East contains about two-thirds of the world’s known liquid crude oil reserves. After Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran are numbers two and three in the region and world, but have seen their oil industry hobbled by US policy.

For Iraq, sanctions kept oil exports under 2 million barrels a day after the oil-for-food program was established in 1997 and virtually nothing for the six years prior to that. Iraq was also thwarted from making basic repairs to its oil industry. From 1998 to 2001, Iraq applied to purchase some $2.5 billion in spare parts for the oil industry allowable under the sanctions, but received only $953 million in goods. Even with oil shipments coming back on line in Northern Iraq, it is barely matching pre-war export levels.

In terms of Iran’s oil industry, US policy has been to throttle its development. On March 15, 1995, President Clinton issued Executive Order 12957, which banned US companies from investing in Iran’s oil and natural gas industries. This was followed up two months later by another executive order forbidding all US trade and investment with Iran. Then in December 1995, Congress passed the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which threatened punishment against any foreign company investing more than $20 million in Iran’s energy sector in a single year.

O’Donnell says few foreign companies are willing to make substantial investments in Iran’s energy sector because of the US sanctions and recent threats by the Bush administration to penalize banks that provide financing to Iran. But “everyone is clamoring for investment, including American companies,” he adds.

The Bush administration won’t allow Iran’s oil production to grow under the clerical regime, argues O’Donnell, because that will allow them to use oil as a weapon. Iran pumps 3.8 million barrels of oil a day, but it only exports 2.7 million. In an interview with Reuters Television on April 19, International Energy Agency Executive Director Claude Mandil underscored why Iran is currently unable to use oil as a weapon. Mandil said, “if we have to offset Iranian exports... we have kept over 4 billion barrels (of stocks), which can last several years.”

Iran has offered repeatedly to give up uranium enrichment almost completely as part of a “grand bargain” with the United States. In return, Iran wants a security guarantee that it will not be attacked and sanctions lifted on its energy sector. After the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, Iran offered the Bush administration a “respectable effort to lay out a comprehensive agenda for US-Iranian rapprochement,” the Washington Post reported on June 18. Iran “suggested everything was on the table—including full cooperation on nuclear programs, acceptance of Israel and the termination of Iranian support for Palestinian militant groups.” Flush with victory, however, the Bush administration spurned the proposal.

Trump card

As a precursor to negotiations, the Bush administration is demanding that Iran suspend all enrichment activity. In return, it is offering Iran spare parts for aging airliners (from Boeing), support for entry into the World Trade Organization, and light-water reactors. Iran has turned down the offer of light-water reactors, however, noting that it would be required to import enriched uranium to fuel them, leaving the country vulnerable to political pressure. Light-water reactors are also less efficient at producing plutonium than heavy-water reactors, one of which Iran has at Arak. Abundant in natural uranium, the Iranian government says the issue is its legal right to enrich uranium for whatever type of reactor it employs.

By giving up Iran’s one trump card—uranium enrichment—this deal would leave Iran with almost no bargaining power, no security guarantee, and no lifting of sanctions. The United States is essentially making an impossible demand on Iran, says O’Donnell, “because they want to inflame the conflict. They want to do it over nuclear weapons because it would look bad to do it over oil.”

At the same time, Iran’s ruling elite, often referred to as hardliners, as opposed to the opposition labeled reformists, also benefits from the confrontation with the United States. Faramaz Farbod, a native of Iran and an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Moravian College, explains that President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad is “a second generation revolutionary, a throwback to the 1979 era.” During the Islamic revolution in the late seventies, the hardliners used the hostage crisis to sweep away dissent. Now, says Farbod, “some would probably welcome a limited US attack. It would allow them to get rid of all their opponents. Even short of a military confrontation, the present political confrontation also helps the hardliners in repressing dissent.”

“These guys are not Saddam Hussein,” says Farbod, “they have a social base, albeit probably a shrinking one.” He describes the hardliners’ base as the domestic petite bourgeoisie, while their discourse is aimed at the poorer classes. Ahmadenijad’s government promises them “cheaper bank loans and tapping into oil reserve” funds to prop up the system of food and fuel subsidies.

Economic crisis

If Ahmadenijad “can’t remove the US sanctions on Iran he can’t deliver on these promises,” says Farbod. “This is one of their goals [in trying] to remove US sanctions with the bargaining chip of uranium.”

Iran is an economic crisis that will only worsen, says Farbod. “The official unemployment rate is 15 percent. To keep pace with this rate, the government needs to create about 700,000 jobs a year. Most economists point to the fact that the government can produce only half of this. With unemployment we have the problem of poverty. The population in Iran has doubled since the revolution. The economic situation is worse than in the late nineties. Many people have two jobs, three jobs.”

There are three facets to the economic crisis, explains Farbod. The first is the “petroleum curse, which makes for laziness on the side of the economic sector of countries that rely on petroleum.” About half of Iran’s governmental budget comes from oil and gas exports.” The second is “the massive control that secretive foundations have over the economic lifeline of the republic, which are unaccountable. The third aspect is the US sanctions, which “have limited the amount of direct foreign investment.” The sanctions also negatively impact “the climate of domestic investment by increasing the general insecurity of economic activity.”

Ahmadenijad came to power following the failures of the reformists under former President Mohammad Khatami. Stymied by conservative factions, Khatami was “more interested in maintaining the regime of clerical power than reforming it.” Farbod says during the 1990s “the whole dominant political discourse inaugurated by Khatami was on social freedoms, on social democracy, participatory democracy, religious democracy and civil society.” These themes have now been supplanted by “the economy, security, nuclear development.”

But, Farbod adds, “these are code words. Ahmadenijad has introduced this discourse of independence that goes in part to the 1979 Revolution as well as to the early 1950s when Iran’s popular Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq nationalized the oil industry, took on the British empire, and gained tremendous popular respect at home. The regime’s focus on security and nuclear development is aimed at least in part at reproducing this legitimizing discourse.”

Iran is clearly in a fix. The mullahs are loath to capitulate to US demands as this would imperil their rule at home. At the same time, the United States has succeeded in uniting all the major capitalist powers behind it. Even Russia and China have demanded that Iran suspend uranium enrichment. Having had numerous chances to resolve the conflict peacefully, the Bush administration seems eager for war. An attack against Iran may come this fall, in an attempt to influence congressional elections, but even if it doesn’t, the Bush administration still has two-and-a-half years left to stir up trouble.


A.K. Gupta is a former editor of the Guardian Newsweekly, which published from 1948-1992. He is currently a member of the collective that produces The Indypendent, the bi-weekly newspaper of New York City Indymedia, and is a regular contributor to Z Magazine and Democracy Now!