Next We Take Tehran
News: The confrontation with Iran has very little to do with
nukes—and a lot with the agenda of empire
By Robert Dreyfuss
Jones" -- -- President Bush may or may not order a
massive aerial bombardment of Iran later this year. Or he may wait
until 2007. Or he may simply escalate a risky confrontation with
Iran through covert action and economic sanctions. But whatever the
next act in the crisis, don’t be fooled by the assertion that the
problem is Iran’s pursuit of nuclear arms.
Iran is a decade away from gaining access to the bomb, according to
the administration’s own National Intelligence Estimate, and despite
all the talk about the ugliness of the theocratic regime in Tehran,
the likely showdown is, at bottom, driven by the geopolitics of oil.
With one-tenth of the world’s petroleum reserves and one-sixth of
its natural gas reserves, Iran sits in a strategic geographical
position that makes it the cockpit for control of the entire Middle
East. It straddles the Persian Gulf’s choke points, including the
Strait of Hormuz; it has important influence among Shiites
throughout Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states; and it borders
highly contested real estate to the north, from the Caucasus to the
Caspian Sea to Central Asia.
The logic of the Bush administration is inexorable. Its ironclad
syllogism is this: The United States is and must remain the world’s
preeminent power, if need be by using its superior military might.
One of the two powers with the ability to emerge as a
rival—China—depends vitally on the Persian Gulf and Central Asia for
its future supply of oil; the other—Russia—is heavily engaged in
Iran, Central Asia, and the Caucasus region. Therefore, if the
United States can secure a dominant position in the Gulf, it will
have an enormous advantage over its potential challengers. Call it
zero-sum geopolitics: Their loss is our gain.
Of course, the idea of the Persian Gulf as an American lake is not
exactly new. Neoconservatives, moderate conservatives, “realists”
typified by Henry Kissinger and James A. Baker, and liberal
internationalists in the mold of President Carter’s national
security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, mostly agree that the Gulf
ought to be owned and operated by the United States, and the idea
has been a cornerstone of U.S. policy under presidents both
Republican and Democratic. Its adherents justified it in the past,
however thinly, because of the exigencies of World War II and then
the Cold War.
But if the administration’s goals are congruent with past U.S.
policy, its methods represent a radical departure. Previous
administrations relied on alliances, proxy relationships with local
rulers, a military presence that stayed mostly behind the scenes,
and over-the-horizon forces ready to intervene in a crisis.
President Bush has directly occupied two countries in the region and
threatened a third. And by claiming a sweeping regional war without
end against what he has referred to as “Islamofascism,” combined
with an announced goal to impose U.S.-style free-market democracy in
southwest Asia, he has adopted a utopian approach much closer to
imperialism than to traditional balance-of-power politics.
By inaugurating a war of choice against a nation that had not
attacked the United States, and by justifying his actions under a
new doctrine of unilateral, preventive war, Bush shattered the U.S.
establishment’s policy consensus while alienating America’s closest
allies, angering its rivals, and provoking a storm of
anti-Americanism in the Muslim world. Now, like a high-stakes
blackjack player doubling down, the president is letting the world
know that he is ready to do it all over again in Iran.
A SUCCESSION OF U.S. presidents, from Franklin Roosevelt to Dwight
Eisenhower to Jimmy Carter to George H.W. Bush, literally and
figuratively planted the American flag at the heart of the Persian
Gulf. F.D.R., who met Saudi Arabia’s king aboard a warship in 1945,
had proclaimed two years earlier: “I hereby find that the defense of
Saudi Arabia is vital to the defense of the United States.” Carter,
in 1980, restated the doctrine even more forcefully: “Let our
position be absolutely clear. An attempt by any outside force to
gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an
assault on the vital interests of the United States.”
From the 1950s through the 1990s, the U.S. backed up those words
with muscle. Military treaties reaching into the Middle East,
including NATO and CENTO, were established. An archipelago of U.S.
military bases took form in east Africa, the Indian Ocean, and the
Gulf. Washington sent billions of dollars in military aid and arms
sales, and tens of thousands of U.S. military advisers, into the
region. The Rapid Deployment Force and then the U.S. Central Command
were created, and the U.S. 5th Fleet was assembled and based in the
tiny Gulf nation of Bahrain. All that, and more, preceded the Gulf
War in 1991, which led to a massive expansion of the U.S. military
presence in the region.
Since 2001, President Bush has radically revised the rules of the
game. From the beginning, the neoconservative architects of Bush’s
policy intended for the war that began in Afghanistan and expanded
to Iraq to go on, in a dominolike series of forced regime change,
revolution, and even war, to Iran and Syria, Saudi Arabia, and
beyond. Iran, in particular, was always seen as the next step after
Iraq. The original idea was that if the United States toppled Saddam
Hussein and installed in Baghdad a regime dominated by Kurdish and
Shiite puppets, Iran would be caught between U.S. forces to its west
in Iraq and to its east in Afghanistan. And because both Shiites and
Kurds have allies inside Iran, and because Iraqi Shiite religious
leaders have intimate connections with the ruling Iranian theocracy,
the skids would be greased for a U.S.-inspired overthrow of the
Iranian government—or so Bush and Cheney believed.
Needless to say, things haven’t exactly gone according to plan.
Still, it’s far too early to write off the impact of 130,000 U.S.
soldiers in a country the size of Iraq, backed by a president
convinced that he can still pull out a victory, especially if the
troops stay for another five years or more. And if the United States
launches the sort of bombing campaign against Iran that is being
considered—involving attacks against not just nuclear research
facilities but also airfields, command and control centers, and
other intelligence and military targets—to say that the consequences
would be unpredictable is an understatement. The administration and
many of its supporters are apparently ready to take the gamble that
after an armed confrontation with Iran, a moderate, pro-American
regime might emerge from the wreckage. Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former
CIA officer and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is
explicit on that score. “I don’t disagree [about] the convulsive
effects that a strike would have. I actually think that it would be
in the end a healthy thing for Iran internally.”
Not surprisingly, Russia and China have a different perspective.
Moscow and Beijing, neither of which wants Iran to obtain nuclear
weapons, nevertheless do not see Tehran as a threat. To them, the
country’s vast reserves of oil and natural gas make it a natural
ally. Both Russian and Chinese oil companies had enormous
development and supply contracts with Baghdad under Saddam Hussein,
deals that are worthless in an Iraq controlled by the United States.
They might be forgiven for thinking that Iran, too, would be
off-limits to them if Bush succeeds.
For China’s economic future, Iran and the region are essential. As
recently as 1992, China was an oil-exporting country, but since then
it has become a voracious importer of oil and gas. (Indeed, China’s
demand for oil is the leading factor in pushing prices from $10 to
$20 a barrel to around $75 a barrel today.) In Iran, China has
signed a series of gargantuan deals, including a 25-year contract
reported to be worth $100 billion between Iran and the Chinese
state-owned energy company Sinopec. China is also deeply engaged
with Russia’s oil industry and with Central Asian oil exporters in
constructing a web of gas and oil pipelines throughout the region.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Hu Jintao of China
have made energy the centerpiece of Russian-Chinese relations.
Russia’s Rosneft oil company and China National Petroleum Co., two
state-owned conglomerates, have negotiated plans for Russia to
supply about 10 percent of China’s oil, and the Russian gas giant
Gazprom is talking to China about building two huge new gas
pipelines with a total capacity of 80 billion cubic meters a year.
Last year, the Asia Times heralded the emergence of a strategic “new
triangle comprised of China, Iran, and Russia.”
Since 2001, Russia and China have watched America’s heavy-handed
push into the Middle East and Central Asia with suspicion and alarm.
Together, they and four Central Asian countries—Kazakhstan,
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan—have created the Shanghai
Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional security body that has
emerged as a counterweight to U.S. influence in the region. Last
July, the organization issued a declaration demanding the withdrawal
of U.S. troops from Central Asia; by the end of 2005, Uzbekistan had
kicked the United States out of its Karshi-Khanabad air base, and
soon Kyrgyzstan may evict the U.S. from its Manas air base, both
head-on challenges to the administration in countries that
Washington considers essential to its influence in Central Asia.
This summer, the SCO may agree to extend a membership offer to Iran.
Meanwhile, U.S. relations with both China and Russia are edging
toward outright hostility. With Beijing, the administration has
maintained cordial ties, in part because Big Business depends so
heavily on China. But many Bush officials have an innate distrust,
even loathing, of China, especially in the office of Vice President
Cheney, who in 2001 drew several of his top aides from the staff of
a strongly anti-China congressional committee pursuing allegations
that Beijing had stolen state secrets during the Clinton
administration. Cheney, too, is leading the charge for a more
confrontational stance toward Russia. During an overseas visit in
May that took him from the Baltic republic of Lithuania to
Kazakhstan, in the heart of Central Asia’s oil and gas fields,
Cheney delivered a series of broadsides against Moscow and warned
Putin against using “oil and gas [as] tools of intimidation or
Flynt Leverett, who worked on Middle East policy for Bush’s National
Security Council before resigning in disgust, told a political salon
in Washington recently that the U.S.-Iran conflict could end up
pushing Russia, China, and Iran closer together. “What I see as an
emerging axis of oil between Russia and China will be greatly
bolstered,” he said.
SERGEY LAVROV, Russia’s foreign minister, is Moscow’s point man for
the U.N. talks about Iran. After a U.N. meeting in New York earlier
this year, Lavrov said bluntly: “This looks like déjà vu.” Indeed,
the parallels with the year before the invasion of Iraq are
In addition to exaggerating the nuclear threat, the administration
has been accusing Iran of harboring Al Qaeda fugitives and
supporting bin Laden’s movement, though there is little or no
evidence to support these claims. As in Iraq, Washington is sinking
millions of dollars into propaganda efforts and alliances with
dubious exile groups; according to a recent State Department
planning document, the United States is busily setting up Iran
intelligence and mobilization centers in Dubai, Istanbul, Frankfurt,
London, and Azerbaijan to work with “Iranian expatriate
communities.” Elizabeth Cheney, the daughter of the vice president
and a top State Department official, is overseeing a program to
spend $85 million on support for dissidents in Iran and to pay for
anti-Iran propaganda. She has helped create a brand-new Office of
Iranian Affairs at the State Department, and she reportedly
supervises an office called the Iran-Syria Operations Group. As with
Iraq, U.S. officials—realizing that U.N. support for an attack on
Iran is nil—are talking openly about bypassing the world body and
forging yet another “coalition of the willing” to confront Iran.
And, of course, as with Iraq, there is the escalating rhetoric, the
talk of “all options” being on the table, the news of Special Forces
already operating in the country to foment civil conflict.
“If that is déjà vu, then so be it,” John Bolton, the
neoconservative saber-rattler who represents the United States at
the U.N., told reporters in March. “That is the course we are on.”
Robert Dreyfuss is the author of
Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist
Islam . He is a Mother Jones contributing writer, and his work
frequently appears in The Nation, The American Prospect, and Rolling
Click on "comments" below to read or post comments -
Click Here For Comment Policy