US and Israeli leaders are talking themselves into a disastrous conflict that will make Iranian nuclear weapons a certainty
After a decade of calamitous western wars in the wider Middle East, the signs are becoming ever more ominous that weÂre heading for another.
And, hard as it is to credit, the same discredited arguments used to justify the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan Â from weapons of mass destruction to sponsorship of terrorism and fundamentalist fanatics Â are now being used to make the case forÂ an attack on Iran.
War talk about Iran and its nuclear programme has been going on for so long it might be tempting to dismiss it as bluster. The mixed messages about Iran coming from the US and Israeli governments in recent weeks have become increasingly contradictory and bewildering. Maybe itÂs all a game of bluff and psychological warfare. Perhaps IranÂs offer of new talks or this weekÂs atomic energy inspectorsÂ visit might lead to a breakthrough.
But the mood music has become more menacing. US defence secretary Leon Panetta has let it be known there is a Âstrong likelihoodÂ Israel will attack Iran between April and June, even as Barack Obama says no Israeli decision has yet been taken. US officials told the Guardian last week they believed the administration would be left with Âno alternativeÂ but to attack Iran or watch Israel do so later this year.
Meanwhile, a US-Israeli stealth war is already raging on the ground, including covert assassinations of scientists, cyber warfare and attacks on military and missile installations. And Britain and France have successfully dragooned the EU into ramping up sanctions on IranÂs economic life-blood of oil exports as a buildup of western military forces continues in the Gulf.
Any of this could easily be regarded as an act of war against Iran Â and Iranian retaliation used as the pretext for a more direct military assault, as the risk of escalation grows. But instead of challenging what is a profoundly dangerous path to full-scale regional conflict Â with or without western intervention in IranÂs ally, Syria Â the bulk of the western media and political class is busy softening up the public to accept another war as the unfortunate consequence of Iranian intransigence.
When it was reported that British officials expected the Cameron government to take part in a US attack on Iran, it passed with barely a murmur. In a parliamentary debate on Monday, only six votes were mustered to press for the threat of attack on Iran to be withdrawn. The Times claimed yesterday it to be Âbeyond doubtÂ that Iran Âis trying to develop a nuclear weaponÂ, even though neither the US nor the IAEA has managed to prove any such thing.
And even when US and British leaders have called for Israeli restraint, as William Hague and US joint chiefs of staff chairman Martin Dempsey have done in recent days, the issue is only one of timing. Military force would,Â they say, be ÂprematureÂ and unwise ÂatÂ this pointÂ.
If an attack is launched by Israel or the US, it would not just be an act of criminal aggression, but of wanton destructive stupidity. As Michael Clarke, director of the British defence establishmentÂs Royal United Services Institute, points out, such an attack would be entirely illegal: ÂThere is no basis in international law for preventative, rather than pre-emptive, war.Â
It would also be guaranteed to triggerÂ a regional conflagration with uncontrollable global consequences. Iran could be expected to retaliate against Israel, the US and its allies, both directly and indirectly, and block the fifth of international oil supplies shipped through the Strait of Hormuz. The trail of death, destruction and economic havoc would be awesome.
But while in the case of Iraq an attack was launched over weapons of mass destruction that didnÂt in fact exist, the US isnÂt even claiming that Iran is attempting to build a bomb. ÂAre they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No,Â Panetta said bluntly last month. Israeli intelligence is said to be of the same view. Unlike Israel itself, which has had nuclear weapons for decades, it believes the Iranian leadership has taken no decision to go nuclear.
The issue, instead, is whether Iran Â which has always insisted it doesnÂt want nuclear weapons Â might develop the capability to build them. So Iran Â surrounded by US bases and occupation troops, nuclear-armed states from Israel to Pakistan and Gulf autocracies beggingÂ the Americans to Âcut off the head of the snakeÂ Â is threatened with a military onslaught because of a future potential the aggressor states have longÂ ago turned into reality.
Such a capability wouldnÂt be the Âexistential threatÂ Israeli politicians have claimed. It might, of course, blunt IsraelÂs strategic edge. Or as Matthew Kroenig, the US defence secretaryÂs special adviser until last summer, spelled it out recently, a nuclear Iran Âwould immediately limit US freedom of action in the Middle EastÂ.
Which gets to the heart of the matter: freedom of action in the Middle East is the prerogative of the US and its allies, not independent Middle Eastern states.
But if the western powers and Israel are really concerned about the threat of a nuclear arms race in the region, they could throw their weight behind negotiations to acheive a nuclear-free Middle East Â which most Israelis favour.
What is clear, as both US and Israeli officials acknowledge, is that neither sanctions nor war are likely to divert Iran from its nuclear programme. Military attack can set it back Â along with the prospects for progressive change in Iran Â but would offer the strongest incentive possible for Iranian leaders to take the decision they havenÂt yet done and develop nuclear weapons.
Obama has every interest in heading off an Israeli attack on Iran that would draw in the US, until at least until after the presidential election. But as the sabre-rattling, crippling sanctions and covert attacks increase, so do the risks of stumbling into an accidental war. A military confrontation in the Strait of Hormuz in the next two or three months is now Âquite likelyÂ, Clarke believes: Âwestern policy towards Iran is a slow-motion road accidentÂ.
There is another factor driving towards war. The more they talk up the supposed threat from IranÂs nuclear programme and the military option, the more US and Israeli leaders risk undermining their own credibility if they end up doing nothing.
A potentially catastrophic attack isnÂt inevitable, but itÂs becoming perilously more likely all the time.
February 27, 2012
The Guardian,Â UK