The “Iran crisis”: an interview with Dr. Stephen Zunes (part one of three)

(This is a fantastic interview with great answers, which should be read by as many people as possible. Plus, power has gone to my head! – promoted by Jay Elias)

Dr. Stephen Zunes is a Professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco. He has written extensively on a range of foreign policy issues, from Afghanistan and Iraq to Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, non-violent struggle and nuclear proliferation. He is the author of 2003’s acclaimed Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism, is a regular contributor to Tikkun magazine and the Common Dreams website, among other places. He serves as Middle East editor for the Foreign Policy in Focus think-tank and as an associate editor of Peace Review. His articles can be viewed here, and information about his books is available here.

I asked Dr. Zunes a few questions about the current ‘Iran crisis’, the situation in Iraq and the Israel/Palestine conflict. The first part of the interview, dealing with Iran, is published below. The remaining two parts will be published shortly.

1. IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei recently said, “I see war drums that are basically saying that the solution is to bomb Iran. It makes me shudder”. Is he right to be worried?

With the ongoing debacle in Iraq, any kind of ground invasion of Iran by U.S. forces is out of the question. Iran is three times bigger than Iraq, both in terms of population and geography. It is a far more mountainous country that would increase the ability of the resistance to engage in guerrilla warfare and the intensity of the nationalist backlash against such a foreign invasion would likely be even stronger.

An attack by air and sea-launched missiles and bombing raids by bombers and fighter jets would be a more realistic scenario. This would last several days and target suspected nuclear, military and government facilities throughout the country, resulting in enormous casualties and terrible repercussions for the United States. One would be in the Persian Gulf, where U.S. Navy ships could become easy targets for Iranian missiles and torpedoes and worldwide oil shipments would be disrupted, with serious economic repercussions. Perhaps more serious would be in Iraq, where American troops are currently operating against the Sunni-led insurgency alongside Iranian-backed pro-government militias. If these Iranian-backed militias also decided to turn their guns on American forces, the United States would be caught in a vise between both sides in the country’s simmering civil war with few places to hide.

A U.S. air strike would be met by widespread condemnation in the international community. It would further isolate the United States as a rogue superpower at a time in which it needs to repair its damaged relations with its European and Middle Eastern allies. Even Great Britain has expressed its opposition to military action. Pro-Western Arab states, despite their unease at Iran’s nuclear program, would react quite negatively to a U.S. strike, particularly since it would likely strengthen anti-American extremists by allowing them to take advantage of popular opposition to the United States utilizing force against a Muslim nation in order to defend the U.S.-Israeli nuclear monopoly in the region.

As a result, the negative consequences of a U.S. attack may be strong enough to convince even the Bush administration not to proceed with the military option. There have been consistent reports that most of the leadership of the U.S. armed services are strongly opposed to a military option. I would put the odds of the U.S. going to war against Iran at between 20-40%, so – while it is not probable – it is still enough of a possibility to be of serious concern. Most of the personnel and equipment to launch such an attack are already in place.

2. Why is the Bush administration so hostile towards Iran? How would an attack on Iran serve U.S. interests, or even just U.S. elite interests?

Iran has a repressive regime which imposes a reactionary form of Islam on its population, but they are not nearly as bad as U.S. ally Saudi Arabia in this regard. They have backed extremist groups, some of which have engaged in terrorism, but they have cooperated with the United States – more than has Saudi Arabia – against Al Qaeda, by far the biggest threat in this regard.

So, while there are many bad things to say about Iran’s clerical regime, their real crime in the eyes of Washington has been their refusal to cooperate with America’s strategic and economic designs in the region. Iran is a target as a result of the doctrine of full spectrum dominance – that is, the refusal of the United States to allow any regional power to challenge U.S. hegemony. Iran, along with Iraq, is the only Middle Eastern country which combines a sizable educated population, enormous oil resources and an adequate water supply so to be able to develop a foreign and domestic policy without having to succumb to the demands of the United States, other Western powers and international financial institutions. Iran has the desire and the ability to be an important economic, political and military player in the region, which is seen as unacceptable. As a result, as with Iraq under Saddam Hussein, cruder forms of pressure may be deemed necessary.

3. Is Iran responsible for the deaths of U.S. soldiers in Iraq? If so, would that legitimise an attack on Iran?

Virtually all attacks against U.S. forces over the past couple of years have come from Baathist, Sunni, and other anti-Iranian Iraqi insurgent groups, which get their outside support from private sources in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. Similarly, of the more than 10,000 suspected insurgents arrested in U.S. counter-insurgency sweeps, the relatively few foreigners among them have been Arabs, not Iranians. It makes little sense, then, that the Bush administration has depicted Iran as the principal foreign threat to U.S. forces in Iraq. The National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, compiled by America’s sixteen intelligence agencies and issued last February, downplayed Iran’s role in Iraq’s ongoing violence and instability.

There are serious questions as to whether the explosively formed projectiles increasingly found among the improvised explosive devices targeting U.S. forces indeed have come from Iran as the Bush administration charges, given that they could be made by anyone trained on a munitions lathe. (Indeed, it is rather bizarre that the same U.S. administration that insisted just five years ago that Iraq was technologically advanced enough to produce long-range missiles and was on the verge of developing an atomic bomb is now claming that Iraqis are incapable of developing an effective roadside bomb.) In any case, there is a huge black market in various explosive devices in Iraq, so it would not be surprising to find components from any number of countries and, given the lack of security along the long Iranian-Iraqi border, it would not be difficult to smuggle weapons across the frontier without the knowledge of either government. Furthermore, despite its repressive theocratic orientation, the Iranian regime is hardly monolithic. Even if some of these devices were of Iranian origin, it is far more likely that they entered Iraq through the machinations of individual Iranian officers or criminal gangs rather than as a result of orders from the “highest levels of the Iranian government,” as alleged by the Bush administration.

It is true that there are elements of the Iranian government backing radical Shiite militias, some of which have engaged in death squad activities. But much of the death squad activity, however, has come from the Badr Brigades, the militia of the largest party in the U.S.-backed Iraqi government, which has received thousands of U.S.-made machine guns, grenade launchers and high-mobility vehicles – not to mention hundreds of thousands of AK-47 rifles – courtesy of the American taxpayer. The Badr Brigades were organized and trained in exile by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, so the U.S. and Iran have mostly been backing the same groups. The greatest irony of the U.S. invasion was that it brought to power these pro-Iranian parties which have asked for this Iranian assistance.

Some Shiite militiamen who have received some Iranian support have probably killed some Americans at some point. And Iran is out to take advantage of the situation in Iraq in some ways that are not supportive of U.S. objectives. Iran, however, does not come close to being the biggest threat against American forces in that country, however, and it does not in any way justify military action against Iran.

4. As far as we know, Iran has no nuclear weapons and no nuclear weapons program. But if it were trying to develop nukes, would that justify an attack on it?

No. Even though Iran is in violation of a number of UN Security Council resolutions regarding its nuclear program, the UN has not authorized the use of force and – combined with the fact that Iran has not attacked the United States and is not on the verge of doing so – any military action by the United States would be a clear violation of the United Nations Charter. (Besides, Israel, India and Pakistan are also in violation of UN Security Council resolutions regarding their nuclear program, but that does not give any UN member state the right to attack them.)

Given that Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions are likely for deterrence, and they are unlikely to develop any deployable nuclear warhead until at least 2012, a negotiated settlement is still possible. For example, the United States could normalize relations and end its threats to attack Iran and efforts to overthrow its government in return for Iran ending its nuclear reprocessing and accepting other guarantees that would preclude their developing nuclear weapons. Such a diplomatic solution led to an end to Libya’s nuclear program in December 2003 and would likely be successful with Iran as well, but the United States has rejected such proposals.

A related initiative could be for the United States to end its opposition to the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone for the entire Middle East and South Asia, where all nations of the region would be required to give up their nuclear weapons and weapons programs and open up to strict international inspections. Iran has endorsed the idea, along with Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and other countries in the region. Such nuclear weapons-free zones already exist for Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, Antarctica and Latin America.

5. How much of a threat does Iran pose to the U.S. and Israel, and how much of a threat would it pose as a nuclear power?

Iran poses no military threat to the United States and, even if it had nuclear weapons, would not have delivery systems capable of reaching the United States for decades. Regarding Israel, since there are hundreds of miles and hundreds of thousands of American troops and sailors in between Iran and the Jewish state, there is no way that Iran could launch any attack against Israel by its navy, ground forces or aircraft. The only way Iran could theoretically attack Israel would be by launching medium-range missiles, to which Israel has more than enough capability to launch a massive counter-attack, not even counting the massive U.S. military operations which would certainly follow as well. In other words, Israel and the United States have more than enough firepower to deter any Iranian aggression.

Israel alone has at least 200-300 nuclear weapons along with ground-launched, sea-launched and air-launched nuclear missiles capable of reaching Iran to deter any possible Iranian nuclear attack. Though Iranian President Ahmadinejad has made some extreme and shocking anti-Israel statements, he does not have control over the Iranian armed forces, which is in the hands of the Supreme Leadership Council of clerics, who work by consensus and wouldn’t realistically launch what would certainly be a suicidal nuclear attack against Israel that would result in Iran’s utter destruction.

(Incidentally, President Ahmadinejad never threatened to “wipe Israel off the map.” That idiom does not even exist in Persian. What he said was, “Imam ghoft een rezhim-e ishghalgar-e qods bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shaved,” which directly translated means “The Imam said this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.” An extreme and deplorable statement, to be sure, but he was referring to the Israeli regime, not the nation as a whole, and it was not nearly as direct a threat as implied by the mistranslation. In any case, he was quoting what Ayatollah Khomeini had said twenty years earlier, so he wasn’t saying anything new indicating a more confrontational policy.)

6. Hans Blix has stated, ‘So long as any state has [weapons of mass destruction] – especially nuclear arms – others will want them. So long as any such weapons remain, there is a risk that they will one day be used, by design or accident. And any such use would be catastrophic’ In the long run, do you think a world where some countries have nuclear weapons and some don’t is sustainable, or do we face a choice between nukes for all or nukes for none?

In early 2002, Iran was listed with Iraq and North Korea by President Bush as part of “the axis of evil.” Iraq, which had given up its nuclear program over a decade earlier and allowed IAEA inspectors to verify this later that year, was invaded and occupied by the United States anyway. By contrast, North Korea-which reneged on its agreement and resumed production of nuclear weapons-has not been invaded. The Iranians may see a lesson in that.

In addition, soon after coming to office, President Bush decided to unfreeze America’s nuclear weapons production and launch a program to develop smaller tactical nuclear weapons for battlefield use. The Bush administration has refused to rule out the unilateral use of such tactical nukes against Iran, a position backed by Senator Hillary Clinton and other Democratic Party leaders. It is important to remember that the only country to actually use nuclear weapons in combat is the United States, in the 1945 bombings of two Japanese cities, a decision that most American political leaders still defend to this day. It is also important to remember that, within the past six years, U.S. forces invaded countries bordering Iran on both its east and west.

Thus far, the Bush Administration has rejected calls for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, insisting that the United States has the right to continue bringing tactical nuclear weapons into the region and to decide which countries get to have such weapons and which ones do not, effectively demanding a kind of nuclear apartheid. Not only are such double-standards unethical, they are simply unworkable: any effort to impose a regime of haves and have nots from the outside will simply make the have nots try even harder in order to deter an attack against them.

The only realistic means of curbing the threat of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East is to establish such a law-based region-wide program for disarmament, in which all countries – regardless of their relations with the United States – must be a part. And, ultimately, the only way to make the world completely safe from the threat of nuclear weapons is for the establishment of a nuclear-free planet, for which the United States – as the largest nuclear power – must take the lead.

Cross-posted at The Heathlander


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  1. …that Iran has a formidable artillery capacity, which is probably the greatest threat to American personnel in Iraq should the US attack Iran.  And there is no good way to counterbalance that threat; while the US does have a significant counterbattery capability in Iraq, they have nothing like the amount of armor it would take to control firing positions along the Iranian border.

  2. particularly:

    Iran has the desire and the ability to be an important economic, political and military player in the region, which is seen as unacceptable. As a result, as with Iraq under Saddam Hussein, cruder forms of pressure may be deemed necessary.

    Fair enough, but it seems to me that another aspect of Iran’s threat is its relative friendliness to China.  U.S. full spectrum dominance, as Dr. Zunes says, isn’t, ever, going to be threatened by Iran; it’s going to be threatened by China or some sort of Sino-Russian bloc.

    Controlling the MidEast, all of it, is key to having a strategic leash on any ambitions other large countries might have.

    This is the shape the 21st century is going to take: dwindling resources and fight for strategic control over the countries unfortunate enough to be sitting on top of them.  Iran is a pawn, here, not a king.

    • mattes on September 11, 2007 at 1:18 am

    Netanyahu: We’re in 1939

    Opposition leader says military option should be used if Iran about to get nuclear weapons

    Military action against Iran “should be used if we see that Iran’s nuclear weapons program is about to come alive,” opposition leader and Knesset Member Benjamin Netanyahu told a counter-terrorism conference in Herzliya on Monday.

    Addressing delegates at a conference organized by the Interdisciplinary Center’s Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), Netanyahu said: “The military option should never be kept off the table.” Some two and a half years remained until Iran would acquire nuclear weapons, Netanyahu said, adding: “That’s 700 days, and today is another day.”


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