The "War on Terror": is Iran next?

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With two disastrous wars under their belt, the desperate neocons in the White House are pushing for one more throw of the blood stained dice. Lindsey German looks at their plans for another regime change, while Naz Massoumi writes about the consequences of a potential US attack.

Any faint hopes that Gordon Brown would break from George Bush over his foreign policy were dashed by his Mansion House speech to the Lord Mayor of London and assorted businessmen and dignitaries last month. Once more, wearing the white tie and tails he had specially made for the Saudi Arabian state visit, Brown declared himself a strong ally of Bush: "We will lead in seeking tougher sanctions both at the UN and in the European Union, including on oil and gas investment and the financial sector." Brown added that no one should mistake "the seriousness of our purpose".

This is of a piece with the recent claim by Bush to his ambassador in Iraq that the British were "on board" with hitting Iranian targets. The remark was reported in an article by Seymour Hersh, the highly respected US journalist, who wrote in the New Yorker magazine (8 October) about the new plans being pursued by Bush and Dick Cheney in their goal of making Iran the next victim of the "war on terror".

They have, according to Hersh, given up on gaining popular support for a major bombing campaign. Public opinion in the US is not persuaded by attempts to go to war over WMD mark 2. People also recognise that Iran is at least five years away from a nuclear bomb, so it is fairly hard to sustain the argument that it is an immediate threat. However, they see that Iran is now the main and growing regional power, thanks largely to the disastrous Western foreign policy in the region. So they have redrawn their plans of attack to focus on "surgical strikes" on Iran's Revolutionary Guard, its elite military which the US claims is behind attacks on its soldiers in Iraq.

Condoleezza Rice has now declared the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organisation, the first time part of the military of a sovereign state has been treated in this way. The guard, with 125,000 members that play a major role in Iranian society, could only be designated as such by those who inhabit the looking glass world of the White House. Yet the US has also unilaterally imposed sanctions on Iran, and is claiming that the country is interfering in the affairs of its neighbours, Iraq and Afghanistan. Even the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, was compelled to describe Bush as like "a madman with a razor blade".

This looking glass quality pervades all examination of Western strategy in the "war on terror". Russia and China are looking on with increasing dismay at the deadly game of consequences resulting from it. The instability in the whole region is now plain to see and the blame cannot seriously be laid at the door of Iran. Afghanistan's President Karzai and Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki have both denied any Iranian terrorist or military involvement in their countries.

The real problem for the West is that the occupations have failed, have bred growing resistance movements which cannot be reduced to al Qaida, as Bush always tries to do, and have developed huge levels of instability without any help from Iraq or Afghanistan's neighbours.

While it has become fashionable in certain circles to claim in recent weeks that Iraq is over, the success of the surge has been over-estimated. Repression and physical division of cities is one thing, and well within the capability of an army with the resources of the US; defeating the resistance is quite another. There is little sign that the troops are going anywhere, and that has major consequences for the US; at the time of writing its death toll for 2007 has passed 800. The fate of the average Iraqi is, of course, much more grim, with one recent survey putting deaths since the occupation at over 1 million and estimates for refugees, both internal and external, at 4 million.

Death toll

The occupation has created, among other things, a humanitarian disaster on a scale to match that in Darfur, without, of course, the calls for a Western humanitarian intervention in this case.

The death toll for British troops has been much lower, but we should remember that they have withdrawn to Basra airport and that a deal with Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi army to release prisoners and for a ceasefire was made. The scale of this defeat and retreat should not be underestimated. Richard Dannatt, the head of the British army, gave some of the game away when he said of the Iraqi resistance, "Our opponents in the main are Iraqi nationalists, and are most concerned with their own needs - jobs, money, security, hope. And the majority, therefore, I would suggest are not bad people."

Dannatt recognised what many people around the world, and especially in the region also see that simply equating those fighting the occupying troops as al Qaida, or even the Taliban in Afghanistan, does not explain the realities of the situation, or the support for those fighting which stems from wider grievances against the occupiers.

The cost of the wars and occupations launched by George Bush and Tony Blair are immense in every sense. A recent US report put the country's costs of the two wars at $1.4 trillion dollars. An average family of four in the US has already contributed $20,000 to fund these wars - a level which is estimated to rise to $46,400 per family by 2017. The human cost is shockingly obvious.

There is also the political cost. The aim of the Bush gang from day one of their administration was to take a hard line against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, which had not been defeated despite war and UN sanctions. The events of 11 September 2001 gave Bush the opportunity, even though he had to initially wage war on hapless Afghanistan before he could prepare his onslaught on Iraq. Those two wars created greater instability in the region and also confounded expectations by continuing, despite the best Western efforts, to establish pro-Western governments and draw a line beneath them.

In Iraq there were instability and resistance from day one; in Afghanistan the war has resurfaced. It is now dragging in more and more forces under the banner of Nato. Few of these national forces are willing to risk their soldiers' lives in a war of which many of their citizens know and care little. Britain is therefore under pressure to supply more troops to back up the US, as they are redeployed from Iraq. The war in Afghanistan has spread over very directly into Pakistan, both through fighting in the border areas and in the escalating political crisis there which has some of its roots in the "war on terror".

A crisis in a nuclear power such as Pakistan will affect India and China, both growing economic powers and rivals to the US. The war has now spread from south Asia, through the Middle East, to Somalia in the Horn of Africa which is suffering a US-backed proxy war by Ethiopia. The continued plight of the Palestinians remains one of the great causes in world politics, and Lebanon remains in a fragile condition with the threat of further war with Israel and a renewed civil war high on the agenda.

Bush's aim - to impose his imperialist agenda on the region, crushing those regimes and forces such as Hezbollah which opposed the US expansion - has failed. Instead he has created more wars, more tension, more threat of terrorism, and more political opposition to him around the world.

This brings us back to Iran. The US has been bitterly opposed to the Islamic republic since its inception after overthrowing the pro-Western Shah in 1979. The US backed Iraq and Saddam Hussein when he waged war against Iran during most of the 1980s. The US intervened towards the end of the Iran-Iraq war on Iraq's side, most notoriously when an Iranian civilian plane was shot down by a US ship, killing nearly 300 people.

The war against Iraq, however, changed the balance of forces in the region, strengthening Iran as a major power and one of the few which could act independently against the US. Its political influence in the Iraqi government and its development of nuclear power have led the US towards a much more confrontational stance. In one way this is contradictory. Iraq and Afghanistan are such messes that this should deter the US and its allies like Brown from future attacks.

But precisely because Iraq is so intractable, those in the US such as Cheney believe it is essential to strike against Iran rather than allow it to grow and arm itself unchecked. The problem with Cheney's approach is, of course, that any such attack could deepen the crisis in the region. It certainly will not make it more stable and peaceful.

This contradiction is being played out politically, which is why some weeks the US authorities ramp up the prospect of war with Iran, while other weeks the threat is downplayed or dismissed. Whatever decision is finally made, it is extremely finely balanced. But the decisions already made, such as the sanctions and other threats, are all making an attack more likely, just as was the case with Iraq. The consequences of these decisions may be out of the control of the US government or anyone else.

We have already seen how regional powers - Turkey against the Kurds in northern Iraq, Israel against the Palestinians and Lebanese, Pakistan entwined with Afghanistan - can become embroiled in parts of the wider "war on terror" which themselves have a logic of their own. A US attack on Iran would bring in even more of this instability.

Opposition to war has been a major feature of politics since 2001. It needs to be stepped up, not just to withdraw existing troops but to stop such an attack on Iran.

Bombers don't drop democracy

"If there was a democratic and stable regime in place," argued Tony Blair's ex-chief of staff Jonathan Powell in a repulsive defence of liberal interventionism in the Observer, "we would not object so much to a nuclear-armed Iran."

With the lack of any evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons programme, it seems now, as with Iraq's non-existent WMD, that arguments for regime change have resurfaced as justification for military (and non-military) intervention.

But as anyone who saw Gordon Brown roll out the red carpet for Saudi royals knows, the US and Britain are not interested in democracy in Iran.

It was Western intervention, in the form of a CIA-led coup, which replaced democratically-elected prime minister Dr Mossadegh in 1952 with the military dictatorship of the Shah.

It was Western intervention that backed the Shah's dictatorship (including a US nuclear deal) which led to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, one of the most democratic events in the 20th century (given its mass participation) and one of the most significant defeats for the US (given the importance of the Shah as a key ally in the region).

And it was Western intervention, in response to that revolution, which supported Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Iran and a devastating eight-year war where half a million died.

So Iranians are well rehearsed in this history of Western intervention. They remember how devastating the Iran-Iraq War was to the course of the revolution. Within a fierce nationalist atmosphere dissidents were suppressed and debate stifled - the revolution was suffocated by the invasion.

They are reminded of this, because the once vibrant democracy movement led by women and the young, epitomised by the reformist period of the late 1990s, has suffered setbacks in the current climate. The increasing threat of war, among other things, has allowed the conservatives to regain power and quell dissent.

Many dissidents, whether students, academics or labour activists, have been accused by hardliners of being US agents or receiving American funds - not surprising, given the US government's $75 million budget for Iranian democracy (read regime-change) programmes.

One leading activist of the democracy movement, Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, has endlessly pointed to the hostile atmosphere that has strengthened conservatives. "A military attack will under any circumstances worsen our situation. It'll give the government the opportunity to use defence of national security as a pretext to increase its suppression of defenders of freedom," she repeated last month.

She's not alone. Earlier this year, following powerful protests in defiance of a crackdown on International Women's Day, Iranian women activists wrote to the Financial Times opposing western threats of intervention. "The movement grows daily," they wrote, "something only a war could stop."

Indeed it would, not only because of the death and destruction it would undoubtedly cause, but because nationalist fervour would unite the country behind its government and set the movement back. As one leader of the 2006 Tehran bus workers' strike fighting for union recognition put it during an interview with the authors of Iran on the Brink, "As an Iranian, I can only say that our people has a right to nuclear power, just as we have a right to form trade unions. And as an Iranian, I will resist the enemy if he attacks."

Directly or indirectly, calls for regime change from outside of Iran come from a perspective that sees Iranians as incapable of change themselves. This is a colonial mindset, to say the least, and completely unfounded as Iran's rich history of struggle proves so well.

Those struggles will continue, but let us ensure without Western interference and without the suffocating threats of war. Whatever our views of the Iranian government, we can agree on one thing - that a war on Iran would be a catastrophe, not only for the people of the region, but for us all. Let us unite to prevent it.