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The elephant in the living room

It is the US and Israel rather than Iran’s new conservative leader that threatens to plunge the region into greater turmoil argues Andy Gregg

The escalating war of words between the US and Iran shows all the signs of becoming hotter in the next few months. Iranian President Ahmedinejad has surprised the international community by announcing that Iranian scientists have successfully enriched a small amount of uranium to a level (3.5%) where they could use it to generate nuclear power. Iran is now saying that it will start to install several tens of thousands of centrifuges over the next few years and these could be used to produce enough highly enriched uranium (at 98.5%) for a nuclear bomb. Both the US and Israel are not prepared to accommodate a Shia regime in Iran that could be moving towards (but is still years away from) developing a nuclear weapons capability. President Bush has refused to rule out military action to prevent this event.

A recent article by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker claimed not only that the US has sent undercover forces into Iran but is also actively planning for a possible air strike which might even use nuclear ‘bunker buster’ bombs. In doing so he has revealed the continually bizarre thinking of the neo-conservatives. Undeterred by the shambles in Iraq they are apparently convinced that ‘a sustained bombing campaign in Iran will humiliate the religious leadership and lead the public to rise up and overthrow the government’.

More recently the Bush regime has sought to deny these leaks. However, even if the US currently feels unable to take offensive action against Iran whilst its troops are tied down in Iraq, it is quite clear that the Israelis do not feel so restrained. Israel’s determination to maintain its status as the sole nuclear power in the region is now deforming the whole discourse on ‘peace’ in the Middle East. There is a serious danger that Israel will lose patience and attack the key sites where they allege that Iran’s nuclear development programmes are located.

Such an action is unlikely to be as successful as Israel’s bombing attack on Iraq’s nuclear plant at Osirak in 1981. Iran’s nuclear facilities are dispersed across many sites, some (like the key uranium enrichment site at Natanz) are buried deep underground, others dangerously close to large centres of population. Such an attack, whether by the US and/or Israel, would prove explosive across the whole region. Iran would be likely to carry out at least two damaging retaliations.

Firstly it would attempt to blockade and mine the Straits of Hormuz through which one third of the world’s exported oil supplies have to pass. Although Iran has no comparable air power to challenge the might of the US, it has been developing rapid ‘underwater missiles’ as well as sophisticated ground-to-ship stealth missiles for exactly this eventuality. Even a limited blockade would send oil prices spiralling up. In addition Iran would instruct its Shia surrogates in Iraq and Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon to step up attacks on US and Israeli interests throughout the region. The US is currently deliberately upping the level of tension as it will conduct a substantial naval exercise in the Gulf during May entitled ‘Arabian Gauntlet’.

In addition to refusing to deny that it might use conventional weapons to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, Israel is the only Middle Eastern nuclear-armed power. In the US and Britain there is an almost total conspiracy of silence on the issue of Israel’s declared threat to use its substantial nuclear arsenal against surrounding Muslim countries if attacked or if its nuclear monopoly comes under threat. Since the 1960s when Britain secretly supplied weapons grade plutonium to Israel to help its nuclear programme get started, Israel has developed a fearsome stockpile of over 200 nuclear weapons. Unlike Iran, Israel has never even signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. As a signatory of this treaty Iran is well within its rights to join the nuclear club as long as it confines itself to civil not military developments of the technology. It is by no means impossible to monitor nuclear activities to ensure that they remain peaceful and there is every likelihood that the IAEA will continue to be allowed to perform this function in Iraq if El Baradei concedes Iran’s legitimate rights to enrich uranium for civil purposes. Ironically such monitoring was never done in the many long years when Israel was developing its huge nuclear arsenal despite valiant attempts by Mordechai Vanunu to tell the world what was going on at the Israeli’s secret facilities at Dimona in the Negev Desert.

International attempts to get the IAEA to police Iran away from proliferation whilst ignoring Israel’s substantial but still undeclared nuclear stockpile are seen as a blatant double standard. Throughout the region this is seen as direct evidence that the West is driven by a slavish obsequience to the Israeli lobby in the US supported by a poisonous confection of neo-conservative bullies and fundamentalist Christian Zionists. Coupled with the West’s blatant double standards in supporting the continuing Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories any escalation of this situation would be likely to result in riots and uprisings throughout the Middle East which might endanger some of the US’s key allies in the region. The constant stream of targeted assassinations of Palestinian militants (and frequently of entirely innocent bystanders) and the continuous humiliations of the occupation - checkpoints and house demolitions by the Israeli Defence Forces - is fuelling a growing anti- semitism on the Arab street and amongst Muslim minorities in Europe.

Attempts by the US to hobble Hamas, despite the fact that it was democratically elected are viewed as sheer hypocrisy. In contrast with the growing hatred and open condemnation of US and Israeli behaviour throughout the Middle East, in the West anyone uttering even the mildest criticism of Israel is likely to be labelled as anti-semitic. The UN is now perceived throughout the Middle East as complicit in the US’s attempts to reprimand and threaten Iran for developing a civil nuclear capability which could proliferate into a weapons system whilst refusing to acknowledge the actual existence of a comparatively huge Israeli armoury.

If the consequences of an attack on Iran are potentially so catastrophic, why is it being entertained as an option and why is there such reluctance to learn the lessons of Iraq? Two US professors, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer have recently sparked controversy by attacking the pro-Israeli lobby in the US. They argued that the influential group of pro-Israeli politicians and lobbyists steered the US into the Iraq conflict in order to advance Israeli rather then US interests. The reason for US backing of Israel they say is ‘the unmatched power of the Israeli lobby’. This same lobby is now trying to engineer increasing diplomatic and if necessary military pressure on Iran. Such a foreign policy, they argue, runs absolutely counter to the US’s real interests.

Walt and Mearsheimer claim that Israel and its US allies have skewed the national interest, inflamed Islamic opinion and endangered US policy around the world. They claim that many foreign policy experts in the US and beyond are starting to realise that continued support for Israel’s continuing repression in the occupied territories ‘is morally obtuse and a handicap to the war on terrorism’. They even go so far as to argue that the war in Iraq was motivated less by oil supplies than by ‘a desire to make Israel more secure’. Predictably they have been accused of anti-semitism and have received numerous threats following the publication of their report.

Rather than Iran being the main destabilising influence in the region it is actually Israel and its US supporters who are pushing confrontation to the brink. Their increasing pressure on Iran has already resulted not in a liberalisation of the country but the election of a hard-line President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has directly threatened ‘to wipe Israel off the map’ in retaliation for the constant Israeli threats against Iran. Whilst Iran has no powers to carry out this stupid and dangerous threat, the same is not true of Israel in respect of Iran. Diplomatic, political and now a threat of military pressure from the West is allowing the more conservative elements in Iran to retrench and consolidate their hold on power. In these circumstances the Iranian regime has resumed open attacks on dissenting students, young people, ethnic minorities and women campaigning for liberalisation after the more relaxed years under President Khatami.

After many years of watching the politics of deterrence during and after the cold war, Iran may have concluded that it will only be safe once it has obtained nuclear weapons. It has observed that the US has been unable to do anything concrete to restrain the North Koreans because they are known to actually have nuclear weapons. Of course this is exactly the same view as the Israelis have of Iranian attempts to obtain nuclear status and explains why they are so keen to maintain their regional hegemony by seeking to obstruct Iranian ambitions by any means necessary. Mearsheimer points out that the implicit aim of US non-proliferation policy is to prevent limits being placed on Washington’s freedom of action in dealing with other countries – ‘the country that acquires nuclear weapons becomes unattackable, it is precisely for that reason that it wants them’.

Given the increasing likelihood of confrontation between Iran and the US/Israeli alliance (with every probability that the UK will be in tow as usual), it is vital that we understand more about what is going on in Iran so that at least we know what we might be getting ourselves into.

Iran is a highly contradictory country. Despite appearances its form of Shia theocracy is much more liberal than the Wahhabism of the Taliban or the Saudis. The late Ayatollah Khomeini used to constantly inveigh against ‘the anti-Koranic ideas propagating the baseless and superstitious cult of Wahhabism’. Education for girls is proactively sponsored by the state (at the university level women are 60% of the student body) and whilst covering the head is still mandatory for women there is considerable genuine involvement by women in government, the professions and the judiciary (though women are not currently allowed to become judges). However there continue to be ridiculous restraints on women who, for example, are currently not allowed to watch the national male soccer side. Women are in serious danger if they are found contravening any of the many strict codes concerning adultery or pre-marital sex.

Whilst the regime is now becoming increasingly authoritarian under Ahmadinejad, the Majlis (Parliament) is still open to real and open debate. Dilip Hiro characterises it as ‘the liveliest parliamentary forum in the Middle East surpassed only by the Israeli Knesset’. Contrary to the prevalent Western view of a deeply authoritarian regime in power, ‘the Iranian constitution has more checks and balances than many of its Western counterparts’.

Many of the contradictions in Iran go back to the early days of the revolution with a still unsolved argument running throughout the political system over the primacy of Islam or democracy. The conservatives see the role and status of the Leader as deriving from God. Liberals or ‘reformists’ (including a considerable number of religious figures for whom the state should be separated from religion in line with historical Shia practice) see the leader needing legitimisation from a popular mandate. As Hiro says: ‘the issue of where sovereignty lies in a society of Muslims has baffled religious scholars for many generations’. The role of the different organs of the state are almost designed to ensure stasis with the powerful and conservative Guardian Council acting as a restraint on any real liberalisation by overturning legislation and banning liberals from standing for a place in the Majlis. At the apex of the structure is the Leader of the Islamic Republic (currently Ali Khamenei) who is Commander in Chief of the armed forces and has powers to approve Presidential candidates and appoint them after election (as well as potentially to dismiss them). The Leader has to be a senior cleric and he picks the 12 clerics who make up the Guardian Council.

Elected directly for a four-year term, the President has power to appoint a Prime Minister who then has to seek the endorsement of the Majlis. It was this system that effectively hobbled the attempts by President Khatami (1997-2005) to liberalise the media, and reform other political structures.

Another major societal schism is between ‘reformists’- by and large young people and the upper middle classes in the main urban areas who are broadly in favour of change and critical of the theocracy, and on the other hand the conservatives - the clerical class allied to traders in ‘the bazaar’ and other lower middle class and rural elements. Two thirds of Iran’s population are under 25 and have no direct experience or memory of the years of the Shah before 1979. Their commitment to the revolution is therefore less than wholehearted and they represent a huge challenge to the regime. Young people have ready access to information about the West and are able to use the internet and mobile phones. There is a major problem with heroin and opiate abuse as Iran straddles the drug smuggling routes from Afghanistan to Europe. On the other hand a number of petty restrictions are alienating substantial numbers of young people. They can get into trouble for attending mixed sex parties, drinking alcohol and listening to Western music in public, watching television channels via satellite or even holding hands with someone other than a marriage partner.

The Israelis often explain their behaviour by pointing to the fact that they are surrounded by enemies who are seeking to undermine them at every turn. The same argument is used with as much if not more force by the Iranians. Few Iranians forget the invasion by Iraq with massive Western backing in 1980. Over the next eight years Iran was subjected to a colossal war losing an estimated 300,000 dead by the end of hostilities in 1988. Robert Fisk gives an unforgettable eye witness account of the slaughter in his extraordinary book The Great War for Civilisation – the Conquest of the Middle East. To the north of Iran are a number of unstable Caucasian and Central Asian states as well as Russia with nuclear weapons. To the east is Pakistan (potentially unstable and mostly Sunni with nuclear weapons) as well as war-torn Afghanistan with its numerous US bases. Beyond these are China and India – both nuclear states. To its West is Israel with nuclear weapons as well as Iran’s traditional enemy Iraq and Turkey (a leading NATO ally). To its south is an unstable Saudi Arabia and a number of other Gulf states which have a long history of enmity with Iran that is complicated by the Sunni/Shia and Arab/Persian divides. Turkey, Saudi and other Gulf States are also home to massive stockpiles of US nuclear armaments at its many navy, air force and army bases. Iran is also in easy striking distance from Diego Garcia, the massive US air base in the Indian Ocean.

Dilip Hiro in his recent book Iran Today concludes that any military strikes by Israel or the US would merely delay Iran’s nuclear programme, not eliminate it. ‘They would alienate Washington’s allies in the West and the Muslim world and turn many Iranians who dislike the theocratic regime into America’s enemies’. In the event of prolonged hostilities, Iran would be very unlikely to collapse in the face of a US and Israeli onslaught in the way that the Iraqi army did initially. The culture of Shia martyrdom and the 425,000 strong Islamic Revolutionary Guards (in addition to a regular army of around half a million volunteers and conscripts) would mean that there would be a fight to the death. Meanwhile every threat from the US and Israel strengthens the hand of the hard-liners at the expense of reformists and moderates. A military intervention by the US or Israel would turn even the severest Iranian critics of the current regime (whether resident in Iran or part of its very substantial diaspora in the West) into implacable opponents of the US. The consequences at a military, economic and humanitarian level would dwarf the situation in Iraq.

Instead of Iran it is actually Israel that is the elephant in the living room. A continuing attempt to attack and undermine Muslim Iran without even mentioning Israel’s flagrant contravention of international convention, nuclear proliferation agreements, UN resolutions and so on is not even in the interests of the US itself. For Britain to be dragged into such a mess even as a passive supporter would be a further blow to our relations throughout the region and beyond it. Although far-fetched it could be that a serious attempt by all powers to negotiate and then impose a nuclear free zone in the Middle East (including Israel) would represent the only safe and sensible way forward.

Iran Today by Dilip Hiro, Politicos £12.99

The Great War for Civilisation by Robert Fisk, Fourth Estate £25