Confronting Iran: Warmongering in the Middle East

The last time Iran attacked a neighbour was over 200 years ago, so what is the problem with the country going nuclear?

Iran is a sovereign country that hasn’t attacked a neighbour in over 200 years, so why is it not ‘allowed’ by the international community to have it’s own nuclear programme like so many other nations? [GALLO/GETTY]

Santa Barbara, CA – The public discussion in the West addressing Iran’s nuclear programme has mainly relied on threat diplomacy, articulated most clearly by Israeli officials, but enjoying the strong direct and indirect backing of Washington and leading Gulf states. Israel has also been engaging in low intensity warfare against Iran for several years, apparently supported by the United States, that has been inflicting violent deaths on civilians and disrupting political order in Iran.

Many members of the UN Security Council, along with the membership of the European Union, support escalating sanctions against Iran, and have not demurred when Tel Aviv and Washington talk menacingly about leaving all options on the table, which is “diplospeak” for their readiness to launch a military attack. At last, some signs of sanity are beginning to emerge to slow the march over the cliff. For instance, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, commented harshly on this militarist approach: “I have no doubt that it would pour fuel on a fire which is already smoldering, the hidden smoldering fire of Sunni-Shia confrontation, and beyond that [it would cause] a chain reaction. I don’t know where it would stop.” And a few days ago even the normally hawkish Israeli Minister of Defence, Ehud Barak, evidently fearful of encouraging international panic and perhaps worrying about a preemptive response by Tehran, declared that any decision to launch a military attack by Israel is “very far off”, words that can be read in a variety of ways, mostly not reassuring.

It is not only an American insistence, despite purporting from time to time to prefer a diplomatic solution, that only threats and force are relevant to resolve this long incubating political dispute with Iran, but more tellingly, it is the underlying stubborn refusal by Washington for more than three decades to normalise relations with Iran along with its failure to disclaim support for beating the Israeli war drums. If the United States is to be credible about its preference for a diplomatic solution it must move at long last to accept the verdict of history in Iran that the revolution was a setback for Western strategic ambitions in the country and the region, but not an occasion for permanent estrangement.

So far, the United States has shown no willingness despite the passage of more than 30 years to accept the outcome of Iran’s popular revolution of 1978-79 that non-violently overthrew the oppressive regime of the Shah, and this must change if there is to be any hope for peaceful conflict resolution. We need also to remember, as certainly the Iranians do, that the Shah was returned to power in 1953 thanks to the CIA in a coup against the constitutional and democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadeq, whose main “crime” in Washington’s eyes was to nationalise the Iranian oil industry. This intervention produced intense resentment among many Iranians that reached its climax with the seizure of the American embassy in November of 1979, holding its staff, including the ambassador, hostage for more than one year, and was renewed by Pentagon encouragement given to Saddam Hussein’s aggression against Iran in 1980 that cost both sides in the war an estimated half million lives.

Conflict-oriented mentality

This prolonged American unwillingness to have normal diplomatic contact with Iran has proved to be a perfect recipe for enmity and misunderstanding, especially taking into account the background of American intervention and consistent support given to Iran’s regional enemies. Although not often acknowledged, as well, is the thinly disguised American interest in recovering access to Iran’s high quality oil fields for Western oil companies. This reliance by the United States over the decades on a negative hard power diplomacy in dealing with Iran encapsulates the unlearned lessons of past failures of American foreign policy, dating from at least the Vienam War. We need to look no further than Iran to gain an understanding of America’s decline as world leader.

This conflict-oriented mentality that has “occupied” the White House and Pentagon is so strong in relation to Iran than when others try their best to smooth diplomatic waters, as Brazil and Turkey did in the May 2010, the United States angrily responds that such countries should stop their meddling. This is an arrogant reprimand, especially when given the fact that Turkey is Iran’s next door neighbour, and has the most to lose if a war results from any further bungling of the unresolved dispute involving Iran’s contested nuclear programme. It should be recalled that in 2010 Iran formally agreed with leaders from Brazil and Turkey to store half or more of its then stockpile of low enriched uranium in Turkey, materials that would be needed for further enrichment if Iran was ever become truly determined to possess a nuclear bomb at the earliest possible time.

Iranians react to proposed EU sanctions

Instead of welcoming this constructive step back from the precipice, Washington castigated the agreement as diversionary, contending that it interfered with the mobilisation of support in the Security Council for ratcheting up sanctions intended to coerce Iran into giving up its right to a complete nuclear fuel cycle. Such criticism of Turkey and Brazil for its engagement with peace diplomacy contrasts with its simultaneous tacit endorsement of the Israeli recourse to terrorist tactics in its efforts to destabilise Iran, or possibly to provoke Iran to the point that it retaliates, giving Tel Aviv the pretext it seems to be waiting for, to begin open warfare and exert pressure on the United States to join in a common effort.

Iran is being accused of moving toward a “breakout” capability in relation to nuclear weapons, that is, possessing a combination of knowhow and enough properly enriched uranium to produce nuclear bombs within a matter of weeks, or at most months. Tehran has repeatedly denied any intention to become a nuclear weapons state, but has insisted all along that it has the same legal rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 as such other non-nuclear states as Germany and Japan, and this includes the right to have a complete nuclear fuel cycle, which entails enrichment capabilities and does imply a breakout capability. In the background, it should be realised that even the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons contains a provision that allows a party to withdraw from the obligations under the treaty if it gives three months’ notice and “decides that extraordinary events… have jeopardised its supreme national interests”. (Article X)

Such a provision, in effect, acknowledges the legal right of a country to determine its own security requirements in relation to nuclear weapons, a self-help right that the United States has exercised for decades with stunning irresponsibility that includes secrecy, a failure to pursue nuclear disarmament as it is obligated to do under the treaty, and a denial of all forms of international accountability. Israel, while not a party to the non-proliferation treaty, pursues a parallel path based purely on its belief that nuclear weapons contribute to its national security.

Threat of a hypothetical bomb?

The real “threat” posed by a hypothetical Iran bomb is to Israel’s regional monopoly over nuclear weapons, which means that there is no deterrent available in relation to Israeli’s projections of force beyond its borders. As three former Mossad directors have stated, even if Iran were to acquire a few nuclear bombs, Israel would still face no significant additional threat to its security or existence, as any attack or even threat by Iran would be manifestly suicidal, and Terhan, despite some abysmal behaviour at home, has shown no such disposition toward recklessness in its foreign policy.

To be dispassionate commentators, we need to ask ourselves whether Iran’s posture toward its nuclear programme is unreasonable given this mix of circumstances. Is not Iran a sovereign state with the same right as other states to uphold its security and political independence when facing threats from its enemies who happen to be themselves armed with nuclear weapons? When was the last time that Iran resorted to force against a hostile neighbour? The surprising answer is over 200 years ago! Can either of Iran’s main antagonists claim a comparable record of living within their borders? Why does Iran not have the same right as other states to take full advantage of nuclear technology? And given Israeli hostility, terrorist assaults and military capabilities that includes a stockpile of sophisticated nuclear warheads, delivery style and a record of preemptive war making, would it not be reasonable for Iran to seek, and even obtain, a nuclear deterrent? True, the regime in Iran has been oppressive toward its domestic opposition and its president has expressed anti-Israeli views in inflammatory language (although exaggerated in the West), however unlike Israel, without ever threatening or resorting to military action.

It should also be appreciated that Iran has consistently denied an intention to develop nuclear weaponry, and claims only an interest in using enriched uranium for medical research and nuclear energy. Even if there are grounds to be somewhat skeptical about these Iranian reassurances, given the grounds for suspicion that have been ambiguously and controversially validated by reports from International Atomic Energy Agency, this still does not justify a campaign of punitive sanctions, much less threats backed up by deployments, war games, projected attack scenarios and low intensity warfare.

So far, no prominent advocates of confrontation with Iran have been willing to take its account the obvious relevance of Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal. Is not this actuality of unacknowledged nuclear weaponry possessed by Israel (200-300 warheads), which is being continuously upgraded, and is coupled with the latest long distance delivery capabilities, the most troublesome threat to regional stability and peace? At minimum, are not Israel’s nuclear weapons highly relevant both for an appraisal of Iran’s behaviour and for the wider agenda of regional stability? The United States and Israel behave in the Middle East as if the golden rule of international politics is totally inapplicable: in effect, that you can demand from others, what you are unwilling to do yourself!
Consulting the recent history bearing on the counter-proliferation tactics relied upon in recent years by the United States gives rise to additional concerns. Iraq was attacked in 2003 partly because it did not have any nuclear weapons, while North Korea has been spared such a comparably horrific fate because it possesses a retaliatory capability that if used would inflict severe harm on neighbouring countries. If this experience relating to nuclear weapons is reasonably interpreted, it could dispose governments that have hostile relations to the West to opt for a nuclear weapons option as a prudent move so as to discourage attacks and interventions.

Where is reason?

Surely, putting such reasoning into practice would not be good for the region, possibly igniting a devastating war, and almost certainly leading to the spread of nuclear weapons to other Middle Eastern countries. Instead of moving to coerce, punish and frighten Iran in ways that are almost certain to increase the incentives of Iran and others to possess nuclear weaponry, it would seem prudent and in the mutual interest of all to foster a diplomacy of de-escalation and de-nuclearisation, a path that Iran has always signaled its willingness to pursue. And diplomatic alternatives to confrontation and war do exist, but their plausibility requires a turn of the political imagination that seems totally absent in the capitals of hard power geopolitics that seem entrapped in their military boxes.  

Israel seems abnormally willing to go to war with Iran over ‘hypothetical’ nuclear weapons [GALLO/GETTY]

It should be obvious to all but the most dogmatic warmongers that the path to peace and greater stability in the region depends on taking two steps long overdue, which have not up to this point even been widely debated in the media or in Congress: first, establishing a nuclear-free Middle East by a negotiated and monitored agreement that includes all states in the region, including Israel and Iran and is coupled by a mutual pledge of non-aggression and commitment to collective security in the region; secondly, an initiative promoted by the United Nations and backed by a consensus of its leading members to outline a just solution for the Israel/Palestine conflict that is consistent with Palestinian rights under international law, including the Palestinian right of self-determination, which if not accepted by Israel (and endorsed by the Palestinian people) within 12 months would result in the imposition of severe sanctions.

Not only would such initiatives promote peace and prosperity for the Middle East, but such uses of diplomacy and law would serve the cause of justice both by putting an end to the warmongering of recent years and to the totally unacceptable encroachment upon the rights of the Palestinian people, a process that goes back at least to 1947, and has been since 1967 intensified by the oppressive occupation of East Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza.

These manifestly beneficial alternatives to sanctions and war is neither selected, nor even considered in the most influential corridors of opinion-making. Explaining this core dysfunctionality is simple: World order continues to be largely shaped by the rule of power rather than the rule of law, or by recourse to the realm of rights, and nowhere more so than in the Middle East where the majority of the world’s oil reserves are located, and where an expansionist Israel rejects a diplomacy of peace, while subjugating the Palestinian people to an unendurable ordeal. Unfortunately, a geopolitical logic prevails in world politics, which means that inequality, hierarchy and hard power control the thought and action of powerful governments and a compliant media and citizenry whenever toward strategic interests are at stake.

Perhaps, a glance at recent history offers the most convincing demonstration of the validity of this assessment: Western military interventions in Iraq and Libya, as well as the intimidating threats of attacks on Iran, the only three states in the region that have extensive oil reserves and regimes unfriendly to the West. Egypt and Tunisia, the first-born children of the Arab Spring, were undoubtedly politically advantaged by not being major oil producing states, although Egypt is not as lucky as Tunisia because Israel and the United States worry that a more democratic Egyptian government might abandon or modify the 1978 Peace Treaty with Israel and show greater solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. Such fears, whether well-grounded or not, lead external political actors to do what they can to prevent Cairo from moving in such anti-Western directions.

Disastrous effects of ‘macho diplomacy’

Fortunately, there is a growing, although still marginal, recognition in Washington that despite all the macho diplomacy of recent years, a military option is not really viable, and would have disastrous side effects. It would not likely achieve its objective of destroying Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and it would actually push Iran toward removing any doubt about its intention to work toward the acquisition of nuclear weapons as the only way to keep their country from facing future military attacks. Beyond this, attacking Iran would almost certainly unleash immediate retaliatory responses, possibly blocking the Straits of Hormuz, which carry 20 per cent of the world’s traded oil, and possibly leading to direct missile strikes directed at Israel and some of the Gulf countries. Given such prospects, there is beginning to be some slight evidence that the West is at long last beginning to think that there might exist better alternatives than launching a hot war with Iran. But thinking outside the military box is still not very influential, and is belied by the new escalation of sanctions that commit the members of the European Union to boycott Iranian oil or face punitive consequences.

In three decades, the US has not normalised diplomatic relations with Iran [GALLO/GETTY]

But so far, this realisation war is not the right answer is leading not to the pursuit of peaceful initiatives, but to a reliance on “war” by other means. The long confrontation with Iran has developed its own momentum that makes any fundamental adjustment seem politically unacceptable to the United States and Israel, which their policymakers believe to be an unacceptable show of weakness and geopolitical defeat. And so as the prospect of a military attack is temporarily deferred for reasons of prudence, as Barak confirmed, but in its place is put this intensified and escalating campaign of violent disruption, economic coercion and outright terrorism.

Such an ongoing effort to challenge Iran has produced a series of ugly and dangerous incidents that might at some point in the near future provoke a hostile Iranian reaction, generating a sequence of action and reaction that could plunge the region into a disastrous war that was never really intended but which would lead to a worldwide economic collapse as well as cause much suffering and devastation.

The main features of this disturbing pattern of low intensity warfare are becoming clear, and are even being endorsed in liberal circles as “a lesser evil”. This belligerent course of action that operates below the radar of public awareness is seen as less harmful to Western interests than an overt military attack, relying on a faulty Western consensus that are no better alternatives than confrontation in some form. Israel, with apparent American collaboration, assassinates Iranian nuclear scientists, infects Iranian nuclear centrifuges used to enrich uranium with a disabling Stuxnet virus worm. There are documented reports that Mossad agents have even been posing as American covert operatives so as to recruit Iranians to join Jundallah, an anti-regime terrorist organisation in Iran, to commit acts of violence against civilian targets, such as the 2009 attack on the mosque in Zahedan that killed 25 worshippers and wounded many others.

Peaceful alternatives?

The New York Times in an editorial (January 13, 2012) describes these tactics dispassionately without ever taking note of their objectionable moral or legal character: “An accelerating covert campaign of assassinations, bombings, cyber attacks and defections – carried out mainly by Israel, according to The Times – is slowing… [Iran’s nuclear] program, but whether that is enough is unclear.” The editorial observes that “a military strike would be a disaster”, yet this respected, supposedly moderate, editorial voice only questions whether such a pattern of covert warfare will get the necessary job done, of preventing Iran from possessing a nuclear option sometime in the future, and never even alludes to Iran’s sovereignty or rights under international law.

It should be obvious that if it was Iran that was engaging in similar tactics to disrupt Israeli military planning or to sabotage Israel’s nuclear establishment, liberal opinion makers in the West would be screaming their denunciations of Iran’s barbaric lawlessness. Such violations of Israel sovereignty and international law would be certainly regarded in the West as unacceptable forms of provocation that would fully justify a major Israeli military response, and make the outbreak of war seem inevitable and unavoidable. Without mutuality there is no law, and certainly no justice!

And when Iran did recently understandably react to the drive to impose new international sanctions prohibiting the purchase of Iran’s oil with a warning that it might then block passage of international shipping through the Straights of Hormuz, the United States reacted by sending additional naval vessels to the area and informing Tehran that any interference with international shipping would be crossing “a red line” leading to US military action. It should be the occasion for moral trauma to realise that assassinating nuclear scientists in Iran is okay with the arbiters of international behaviour, while interfering with the global oil market crosses a war-provoking red line. Such self-serving distinctions are illustrative of the dirty work of geopolitics in the early 21st century.

To be sure, there are some lonely voices beginning to call for a nuclear-free Middle East and a just settlement of the Israeli/Palestine conflict, but even with credentials like long service in the CIA or US State Department, these calls are almost totally ignores the mainstream discourse that sets the boundaries of policy debate in the United States and Israel. When some peaceful alternatives are entertained at all it is always at the margins of influential opinion and within an apologetic argument that seeks to dissuade Iran from doing what it seems entitled to do, but sensibly trying to find a way out of the crisis other than war. I am afraid that only when and if a yet non-existent Global Occupy Movement is fully mobilised and turns its attention to geopolitics will the peoples of the Middle East begin to have some reason to hope for a peaceful and promising future for their region.  

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has authored and edited numerous publications spanning a period of five decades, most recently editing the volume International Law and the Third World: Reshaping Justice (Routledge, 2008).

He is currently serving his third year of a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights. 

Follow him on Twitter: @rfalk13

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.