Sanctions on Iran: A prelude to war?

Are US sanctions on Iran an attempt to deter attention from economic difficulties at home?

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has criticised US sanctions [EPA]

Being in South Africa reminds me that I am in a country that resisted foreign sanctions for years. Ironically, when an oil boycott was imposed to undermine the apartheid system, the Shah of Iran sold oil to the then ostracised nation, and South Africans became dependent on Iranian oil.

Today, it is the revolution that toppled the Shah that sells oil to South Africa. But now, Iranian oil is being sanctioned by the West, with Europe and the US leaning on the “new” South Africa to cut back on its Iranian imports or face a trade cut-off. They have no choice but to comply.

Back in the 1980s Washington refused most calls for sanctions under the argument that would hurt the people the world wanted to help, not just the regime.

That was then. Now, hurting the Iranian people who are losing jobs and suffering economically doesn’t seem to factor in the current calculations as the United States and Europe escalate oil sanctions on Tehran in what many see as a prelude to an armed confrontation – if not war.

Last week, the New York Times reported, “The imposition on Sunday of new international measures aimed at cutting Iran’s oil exports, its main source of income, threatens to make the distortion in the economy even worse. With the local currency, the rial, having lost 50 per cent of its value in the last year against other currencies, consumer prices here are rising fast – officially by 25 per cent annually, but even more than that, economists say.”

The tightening of sanctions follows the unleashing of malicious software viruses, an escalation in threats in tandem with Israel, and sending surveillance drones into Iranian air space, one of which crashed and was captured.

Sanctions to what end?

What’s the goal of these tough sanctions? Is it really about Iran’s nuclear programme, or is that just a boogie man given the fact that a far more unstable government in Pakistan has nukes and no one is demanding they give them up.

 European oil embargo squeezes Iran

An opinion article on the Guardian website explains, “Such measures are largely predicated on a ‘rational actor model’ in which the west hopes Iran’s leaders will eventually find it in their own interests to give up their nuclear programme. The problem with such a strategy is not that Iran’s leaders are irrational but that such a game only works if the west knows how Iran assesses the impact.”

What many forget is that Iran has survived different forms of sanctions for 30 years, all motivated by hostility to its Islamic revolution, and all attempting to punish the government by squeezing the people, many using covert ops and black propaganda.

The Iranian government says it will not be dictated to and has not kowtowed to years under years of pressure. To wit:

• President Reagan, on October 29, 1987, issued Executive Order 12613 imposing a new import embargo on Iranian-origin goods and services. While condemning Iran, his administration sold weapons to Tehran in what was later exposed in the Iran-Contra affair.

•In March 1995, President Clinton issued Executive Order 12957 prohibiting US involvement with petroleum development in Iran. On May 6, 1995, he signed Executive Order 12959, pursuant to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (“IEEPA”) as well as the ISDCA, substantially tightening sanctions against Iran.

•Under George Bush, effective November 10, 2008, the authorisation for “U-turn” transfers involving Iran was revoked. As of that date, US depository institutions are no longer authorised to process transfers involving Iran that originate and end with non-Iranian foreign banks.

•President Obama piled on, effective September 29, 2010, the authorisation to import into the United States, and deal in, certain foodstuffs and carpets of Iranian origin was revoked pursuant to section 103 of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010.

Et cetera.

A campaign issue

If Iran responds aggressively to these latest measures, Washington could press the political fear button and claim the West is being threatened. This strategy could heighten tensions and become a campaign issue this fall with candidate Obama waving the flag and posturing as the Commander in Chief that the country must return to office to solve this artificial crisis.

Many political observers have noted that Obama has escalated foreign interventions because of the difficulties he’s had reviving the domestic economy. Pushing the public and the news media to focus on the threat from Iran will divert attention from the economic crisis.

This has all the makings of a calculated political manoeuvre.

Iran says it has amassed foreign reserves and will find ways of fighting back. They are reaching out to OPEC and planning counter measures. This is likely to lead to more confrontations, which may just be what the Obama Administration is hoping for as they know full well that squeezing Iran’s economy is a form of warfare.

Bloomberg reports: “Mahmoud Bahmani, Iran’s central bank governor, said his nation isn’t sitting by idly and has a very suitable $150bn in foreign currency reserves to help weather the latest trade and financial curbs. ‘We have programmes to fight the sanctions, and we will confront hostile policies,’ Bahmani said on Sunday, according to the state-run Mehr news agency.”

US strategists love this rhetoric. They are likely counting on Iran to try to resist the sanctions in some provocative manner, creating a pretext for them to justify even stronger action.

Already the Pentagon has let it be known that it has quietly sent “significant military reinforcements into the Persian Gulf to ‘deter’ the Iranian military.” And the New York Times reports that the US has increased “the number of fighter jets capable of striking deep into Iran if the standoff over its nuclear programme escalates.”

Notice that Washington always rationalises its interventions as defensive and protective.

Big power bullying

There is a long history of big power bullying that precedes recent events, both in Iran and elsewhere, that is rarely discussed in the media.

So what if it’s not really terrorism or a nuclear threat that worries us? What if this emerging step-by-step war scenario just needs a cover story for concealing domestic political objectives?”

To name another example, the US has imposed a blockade on Cuba for 60 years even as every expert argues it is counter-productive if the goal is to transform that country.

Furthermore, Washington knows that Iran evaluates the costs of sanctions and defying the West, suggesting that the goal may not be to reform Iran or changes its policy but rather change its government. That seems to be what’s happening in Syria, or what occurred earlier in Lebanon, where the new government installed by Western intervention is anything but stable or democratic.

The American hostility to Iran is also publicly predicated on Iran’s alleged support for terrorism. But the Iranians say that backing Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza stems from religious and political solidarity. They dispute Washington and Israel’s labelling of their stance as terrorism, and many in the Middle East agree because they see Israeli policy as the main problem. In addition, they have made their rejection of Al Qaeda and the Saudi bred Islamic ideology that inspires it clear.

So what if it’s not really terrorism or a nuclear threat that worries us? What if this emerging step-by-step war scenario just needs a cover story for concealing domestic political objectives?

Remember: All US wars are always fought to win hearts and minds first in the “homeland.”

News Dissector Danny Schechter edits He is the author of The Crime of Our Time.