can go to Baghdad. Real men go to Tehran."
Bush Official, May 2003
States and Israel have been itching to go to Tehran since the
Islamic Revolution of 1979. That Revolution was a strategic setback
for both powers. It overthrew the Iranian monarchy, a great friend
of the US and Israel, and brought to power the Shi'ite Mullahs,
who saw themselves as the legitimate heirs of the Prophet's legacy,
and, therefore, the true defenders of Islam.
As a result,
the Iranian Revolution was certain to clash with both the US and
Israel, as well as their client states in the Arab world. Israel
was unacceptable because it was an alien intrusion that had displaced
a Muslim people: it was a foreign implant in the Islamic heartland.
But the US was the greater antagonist. On its own account, through
Israel, and on the behalf of Israel, it sought to keep the Middle
East firmly bound in the chains of American hegemony.
hegemony over the Middle East had won a great victory in 1978.
At Camp David, the leading Arab country, Egypt, chose to surrender
its leadership of the Arab world, and signed a separate 'peace'
with Israel. This freed Israel to pursue its plans to annex the
West Bank and Gaza, and to project unchecked power over the entire
region. The Arab world could now be squeezed between Israel in
the West and Iran to the East, the twin pillars of US hegemony
over the region's peoples and resources.
Revolution of 1979 ended this partnership. At that point, real
men in Washington would have loved to take back Tehran from the
Mullahs but for the inconvenience of Soviet opposition. But great
powers are rarely stymied by any single development however adverse.
It took little encouragement from Washington to get Iraq to mount
an unprovoked invasion of Iran. In the 20th century, few Arab
leaders have seen the difference between entrapment and opportunity.
Egypt neutered at Camp David,
and Iraq and Iran locked in a bloody
war, Israel was free during the 1980s
to do what it pleased. It expanded its
settlements in the West Bank and Gaza,
destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor
at Osirak, expelled the Palestinian
fighters from Lebanon, and established
a long-term occupation over much
of Southern Lebanon. Israel was
closer to its goal of commanding
over the Middle East.
The war between
Iran and Iraq served the United States and Israel quite well.
It blunted the energies of Iran, diverting it from any serious
attempts to export the revolution, or challenging American influence
in the region. The Israeli gains were more substantial.
With Egypt neutered at Camp David, and Iraq and Iran locked in
a bloody war, Israel was free during the 1980s to do what it pleased.
It expanded its settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, destroyed
Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak, expelled the Palestinian fighters
from Lebanon, and established a long-term occupation over much
of Southern Lebanon. Israel was closer to its goal of commanding
unchallenged power over the Middle East.
The end of
the Cold War in 1990 offered a bigger opening to the United States
and Israel. Freed from the Soviet check on their ambitions, and
with Iran devastated by the war, the United States began working
on plans to establish a military control over the region, in the
style of earlier colonial empires. This happened quickly when,
with American assurance of non-intervention in intra-Arab conflicts,
Iraq invaded Kuwaiti in August 1990.
The US response
was massive and swift. In January 1990, after assembling 600,000
allied troops in Saudi Arabia - about half of them American -
it pushed Iraq out of Kuwait, and mounted massive air strikes
against Iraq itself, destroying much of its industry, power-generating
capacity and infrastructure. The US had now established a massive
military beachhead in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. It established
permanent military bases in Saudi Arabia, continued its economic
sanctions against Iraq, created a Kurdish autonomous zone in the
north of Iraq, and, together with Britain, continued to bomb Iraq
on a nearly daily basis for the next 13 years.
US had now established a
massive military beachhead in the
oil-rich Persian Gulf. It established
permanent military bases in
Saudi Arabia, continued its economic
sanctions against Iraq, created a
Kurdish autonomous zone in the
north of Iraq, and, together with
Britain, continued to bomb Iraq
on a nearly daily basis for the
next 13 years.
US beachhead in place, where did the real men in the US and Israel
want to go next? There was no secrecy about their plans. At a
minimum, the Neoconservatives in the US and their Likud allies
in Israel wanted 'regime change' in Iraq, Syria and Iran. This
would be delivered by covert action, air strikes, or invasion
- whatever it took - to be mounted by the US military. Israel
would stay out of these wars, ready to reap the benefits of their
plans were more ambitious. They wanted to redraw the map of the
Middle East, using ethnic, sectarian, and religious differences
to carve up the existing states in the region into weak micro-states
that could be easily bullied by Israel. This was the Kivunim plan
first made public in 1982. It would give Israel a thousand years
of dominance over the Middle East.
of September 11, 2001 were the 'catalyzing event' that put these
plans into motion. The US wasted no time in seizing the moment.
Instantly, President George Bush declared a global war against
terrorism. The first target of this war was Afghanistan, but this
was only a sideshow. On January 29, 2002, the President announced
his initial targets for regime change: the 'axis of evil' that
included Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
was to invade and consolidate control over Iraq as a base for
operations against Iran, Syria and perhaps Saudi Arabia. This
sequencing was based on two assumptions: that the invasion of
Iraq would be a cake-walk and American troops would be greeted
as liberators. The US invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003 and Baghdad
fell on April 9, 2003. It was indeed a cake-walk, and it appeared
to television audiences that American troops were also being greeted
as liberators. Understandably, the mood in Washington and Tel
Aviv was triumphant. The US is unstoppable: it was time for real
men now to go to Tehran.
years after the Iraqi invasion, the real men are still stuck in
Baghdad. Yes, there has been a great deal of talk about attacking
Iran: plans in place for air strikes on Iran's revolutionary guards,
on its nuclear installations and other WMD sites, and even talk
of a ground invasion. There have been reports of spy flights over
Iran and operations by special forces inside Iran. Israel too
has been goading the US to strike, and if the US shrinks from
this duty, threatening to go solo.
has been holding back the real men in Washington and Tel Aviv?
One reason of course is that the cake walk very quickly turned
into a quagmire. The apparent Iraqi welcome was replaced by a
growing and hardy insurgency, which has exacted a high toll on
US plans for Iraq even though it was led mostly by Sunni Arabs.
As a result, close to 150,000 US troops remain tied down in Iraq,
with little prospect that they can be freed soon for action against
Iran. Most Shi'ites aren't resisting the American occupation,
but they are ready to take power in Iraq, and want the Americans
Likud plans were more ambitious.
They wanted to redraw the map
of the Middle East, using ethnic,
sectarian, and religious differences
to carve up the existing states in the
region into weak micro-states that
could be easily bullied by Israel.
This was the Kivunim plan first made
public in 1982. It would give Israel
a thousand years of dominance
over the Middle East.
US cannot mount a full-scale invasion of Iran without a draft,
it does possesses the capability - despite the Iraqi quagmire
- to launch air and missile strikes at Iranian targets, using
nuclear weapons to destroy underground weapon sites. On the other
hand, despite its saber rattling, most analysts agree that Israel
does not possess this capability on its own. Unlike Iraq, Iran
has dispersed its nuclear assets to dozens of sites, some unknown.
Then, why hasn't the US mounted air attacks against Iran yet?
Or will it any time soon?
and more, as the Americans have taken a more sober reckoning of
Iran's political and military capabilities, they realize that
Iran is not Iraq. When Osirak was attacked by Israel in June 1981,
Iraq did nothing: it could do nothing. One thing is nearly certain:
Iran will respond to any attack on its nuclear sites. Iran's nuclear
program has the broadest public support: as a result, the Iranian
Revolution would suffer a serious loss of prestige if it did nothing
to punish the attacks. The question is: what can Iran do in retaliation?
CIA and DIA have conducted war games to determine the consequences
of an American air attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. According
to Newsweek (September 27, 2004), "No one liked the outcome."
According to an Air Force source, "The war games were unsuccessful
at preventing the conflict from escalating." In December 2004,
The Atlantic Monthly reported similar results for its own war
game on this question. The architect of these games, Sam Gardner,
concluded, "You have no military solution for the issues of Iran."
is the damage Iran can inflict? Since preparations for any US
strike could not be kept secret, Iran may choose to preempt such
a strike. According to the participants in the Atlantic Monthly
war game, Iran could attack American troops across the border
in Iraq. In responding to these attacks, the US troops would become
even more vulnerable to the Iraqi insurgency. One participant
expressed the view that Iran "may decide that a bloody defeat
for the United States, even if it means chaos in Iraq, is something
they actually prefer." Iran could also join hands with al-Qaida
to mount attacks on civilian targets within the US. If Iranian
losses mount, Iran may launch missiles against Israel or decide
to block the flow of oil from the Gulf, options not considered
in the Atlantic Monthly war game.
the realistic options available to the US? It could drag Iran
to the UN Security Council and, if Russia and China climb on board,
pass a motion for limited economic sanctions. Most likely, the
US will not be asking for an Iraq-style oil embargo. Not only
would this roil the markets for oil, Iran will respond by ending
inspections, and accelerate its uranium enrichment. If Iran is
indeed pursuing a nuclear program, then it will, perhaps sooner
rather than later, have its bomb. Once that happens, one Israeli
official in the Newsweek report said, "Look at ways to make sure
it's not the mullahs who have their finger on the trigger." But
the US and Israel have been pursuing that option since 1979.
one have yet remarked on
some eerie parallels between the US
determination to deepen its
intervention in the Islamic world
and Napoleon's relentless pursuit
of the Russian forces, retreating,
drawing them into the trap of the
Russian winter. It would appear
that the United States too is
irretrievably committed to pursuing
its Islamic foe to the finish, to keep
moving forward even if this
risks getting caught in a
harsh Islamic winter.
appear that US-Israeli power over the Middle East, which had been
growing since World War II, may have finally run into an obstacle.
And that obstacle is Iran, a country the CIA had returned to a
despotic monarch in 1953. Paradoxically, this has happened when
American dominance over the region appears to be at its peak;
when its troops occupy a key Arab country; when it has Iran sandwiched
between US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan; and when it has trapped
Iran inside a ring of US military bases running from Qatar, through
Turkey and Tajikistan, to Pakistan.
be that al-Qaida's gambit is beginning to pay off? It had hoped
that the attacks of September 11 would provoke the US into invading
the Islamic heartland. That the US did, but the mass upheaval
al-Qaida had expected in the Arab streets did not materialize.
Instead, it is Iran that has been the chief beneficiary of the
US invasion. As a result, it is Iran that now possesses the leverage
to oppose US-Israeli aims in the region. Al-Qaida had not planned
on a Shi'ite country leading the Islamic world.
It is possible
that the US, choosing to ignore the colossal risks, may yet launch
air attacks against Iran. President Bush could be pushed into
this by pressure from messianic Christians, by Neoconservatives,
by Israelis, or by the illusion that he needs to do something
bold and desperate to save his presidency. By refusing to wilt
under US-Israeli threats, it appears that the Iranians too may
be following al-Qaida's logic. We cannot tell if this is what
motivates Iran. But that is where matters will go if the US decides
to attack or invade Iran.
No one have
yet remarked on some eerie parallels between the US determination
to deepen its intervention in the Islamic world and Napoleon's
relentless pursuit of the Russian forces, retreating, drawing
them into the trap of the Russian winter. It would appear that
the United States too is irretrievably committed to pursuing its
Islamic foe to the finish, to keep moving forward even if this
risks getting caught in a harsh Islamic winter.
On the other hand, the Neoconservatives, the messianic Christians,
and the Israelis are convinced that with their searing firepower,
the US and Israel will succeed and plant a hundred pliant democracies
in the Middle East. We will have to wait and see if these real
men ever get to add Tehran to their next travel itinerary - or
they have to give up the comforts of the Green Zone in Baghdad.
Did Thomas Friedman Flunk History, by M. Shahid Alam.
Shahid Alam, professor of economics at Northeastern University,
is a regular contributor to CounterPunch.org. Some of his
CounterPunch essays are now available in the book, Is There
An Islamic Problem? (Kuala Lumpur: The Other Press, 2004).
He may be reached at [email protected]
Overseas readers can click
here to order a copy of the book.
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here to order a copy of the book.