Sunday, February 04, 2007

The War on Iran By Stephen Gowans

By Stephen Gowans

The war has already begun and it has nothing to do with nuclear weapons and threats against Israel and everything to do with who rules America.

According to US economist Jeffrey Sachs, “Bush recently invited journalists to imagine the world in 50 years…he wanted to know whether Islamic radicals would control the world’s oil.” Sachs pointed out that stoking fears over who will control the world’s petroleum reserves is not new to the Bush administration.

In the lead up to the Anglo-American war on Iraq, US vice president Dick Cheney made the ridiculous claim that Saddam Hussein was assembling a massive arsenal of WMD “to take control of a great portion of the world’s energy supplies.” “Perhaps though, Saddam was too eager to sell oil concessions to French, Russian and Italian companies rather than British and US companies,” Sachs observed. (“Fighting the wrong war,” The Guardian, September 25, 2006) Strip away the fear-mongering, and what Bush and Cheney are really saying is that a resource as lucrative as petroleum won’t be allowed to remain in the hands of its true owners. It will be stripped from them, by force if necessary.

In the Bush administration’s assessment “Iran sees itself at the head of an alliance to drive the United States out of Iraq and ultimately out of the Middle East,” (New York Times, January 28, 2007) forcing the US hand from the world’s oil spigot. Like Iraq, which was said to be a WMD threat, Iran is portrayed as being on the verge of making a nuclear breakthrough. But the fears over Iran’s nuclear program are contrived. “Despite being presented as an urgent threat to nuclear non-proliferation and regional and world power…a number of Western diplomats and technical experts close to the Iranian program (say) it is archaic, prone to breakdown and lacks the material for industrial scale production.” (Observer, January 28, 2007)

The mistake is often made of assuming the absence of overt hostilities amounts to peace. War, however, can have various faces. It’s not only missiles crashing into buildings, tanks advancing across international borders, and troops smashing down doors. It can be economic strangulation (blockades and sanctions); funding and training dissidents; military threats, to cow an enemy into submission or bankrupt its economy (as it tries to keep pace.) By these criteria, the US is at war with Cuba, north Korea, Zimbabwe, Belarus and Iran. War need not be Sturm und Drang. Diplomacy, in the age of imperialism, remarked R. Palme Dutt, is simply war by other means. Sanctions, the funding of civil society to bring about color revolutions, war games along an enemy’s borders -- are as much manifestations of war, as overt military intervention. And sometimes, they’re just as devastating. The sanctions on Iraq in the 90s – what some regarded as a pacific alternative to war -- killed hundreds of thousands.


The US has established new offices in the State Department and Pentagon to build an opposition movement in Iran to topple the government. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked the US Congress a year ago for $75 million to supplement $10 million already allocated to underwriting the activities of dissidents in Iran and to expand Voice of American broadcasts. (Los Angeles Times, May 19, 2006) The CIA’s budget for programs aimed at bringing about regime change in Iran is probably many times larger.

Financial Isolation

Last September, the new US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson (as chairman of the New York investment firm Goldman Sachs he amassed a personal fortune of $700 million in a career than has seen him move between the Nixon administration, the Pentagon and the world of high finance) announced that Iran needed to be isolated financially, in the manner of north Korea. North Korea’s foreign trade was disrupted when the US sanctioned a Macau bank. Wary of being cut-off from the US financial system, other banks, seeking to avoid the example of Banco Delta Asia, have steered clear of transactions with north Korean enterprises. As a result, the DPRK finds it difficult to export to other countries to earn the foreign exchange it needs to import vital goods.

In Paulson’s view, Iran is still a major player globally, and needs to suffer the same pariah treatment. (New York Times, September 17, 2006) In October, US Treasury Department officials banned US banks from facilitating transactions involving Iran’s state-owned Bank Saderat. In January, the ban was widened to include another Iranian bank, Bank Sepah.

When Iran sells oil to a customer in Germany, the German customer asks a European bank to deposit US dollars into an Iranian bank account. The European bank then arranges for the transfer of US dollars from a US bank to an Iranian bank account in Europe. Paulson’s ban prohibits US banks from transferring funds if Bank Saderat and Bank Sepah are involved. (New York Times, October 16, 2006) With oil sales denominated in US dollars, the aim is to impede Iran’s ability to sell oil. The way around the US manoeuvre is to sell oil in Euros, something Iran has already begun to do. (New York Times, January 10, 2007)

This would seem to be a simple enough way of beating the US at its own game. It also raises questions about the prudence of compelling Iran to switch to Euros, since a change to Euros, if adopted by a number of oil-exporting countries, would push down the value of the US greenback. US investment banker John Hermann, a comptroller of currency in the Carter administration, wonders whether the US is shooting itself in the foot. (New York Times, October 16, 2006)

On the surface, these are valid concerns. But Paulson’s aims are broader. In September he let the world banking community know that it should stop doing business with more than 30 named Iranian enterprises. Behind the request lay a veiled threat. Banks that deal with Iranian businesses run the risk of jeopardizing their future access to the US financial system. Already, a number of European banks have taken heed, scaling back their dealings with Iranian banks and businesses. Credit Suisse and UBS in Switzerland, ABN Amro in the Netherlands and HSBC in Britain are starting to steer a wide berth around Iran.

Economic Warfare

Additionally, Washington is pressuring Europe to curtail exports to Iran and to block transactions with Iranian companies. (New York Times, January 30, 2007) For its part, Israel is campaigning to isolate Iran economically. Israel plans to apply pressure to “major US pension funds to stop investment in about 70 companies that trade directly with Iran, and to international banks that trade with the oil sector, cutting off” Iran’s access to hard currency. “The aim is to isolate Iran from world markets in a campaign similar to that against South Africa at the height of apartheid.” (The Guardian, January 26, 2007)

To win support for its campaign, Israel will argue that Iranian president Mohamed Ahmadinejad is working to acquire nuclear weapons to carry out a systematic extermination of the Jews and will pursue the Iranian leader in international courts “under the 1948 UN Convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, which outlaws ‘direct and public incitement to genocide.’” (The Guardian January 26, 2007) Former US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, has already filed suit against Ahmadinejad at the International Court of Justice, claiming the Iranian president is inciting genocide. Additionally, Bolton charged Ahmadinejad with “making numerous threats against the United States,” a claim so risible as to mark Bolton as a man whose chutzpah is limitless. (The Guardian, December 13, 2006) Both Bolton’s trip to the ICJ, and Israeli’s plan to pursue litigation against Ahmadinejad, are mischievous. Ahmadinejad hasn’t called for genocide but for the replacement of Israel as a Jewish state by a multi-national democratic state based on equality among the peoples of historic Palestine. What matters for Israel, however, is not so much winning a conviction but incessantly repeating the lie that the Iranian leader is a new Hitler. Who’s going to object to sanctions on a country whose president Israel’s ambassador to the UN Dan Gillerman describes as “saying, ‘There really was no Holocaust, but just in case, we shall finish the job.’”? (Los Angeles Times, January 27, 2007)

The Israeli campaign, if successful, will add to sanctions the United States has already imposed under the Iran Non-proliferation Act, passed by the US Congress in 2000. The US sanctions prohibit trade with companies that sell goods to Iran that could be used to build missiles or weapons of mass destruction. Foreign firms that trade with Iran run the risk of getting caught up in the sanctions and losing their access to the US market. Since 2000, 40 companies have fallen afoul of the US law, including Russian, north Korean and Cuban firms. (New York Times, August 5, 2006) Since any of a number of goods that have non-threatening uses could conceivably be used in the manufacture of missiles and other weapons, the effect of the sanctions is to isolate Iran economically by discouraging companies from trade with Iran. A company that sells chlorine for water treatment, for example, wouldn’t want to be accused of supplying Iran with the means of manufacturing chemical weapons and lose its access to US customers. As a consequence many companies tend to give Iran a wide berth, making it difficult for the country to import the goods it needs.

In recent weeks, Washington has opened yet another front in its war on Iran: driving down the price of oil to reduce Iran’s revenue. The US can’t affect the price of oil itself, but it can pressure Saudi Arabia to increase output to bring prices down. In January, Ali al-Naimi, the Saudi oil minister, vetoed an emergency meeting of OPEC to discuss cutting production after oil dropped below $50 a barrel. The Saudis have signalled that they’re committed to keeping the price of oil hovering around $50 a barrel, down $27 a barrel from the summer. From Washington’s perspective, the high prices allow Iran (and another US bete noire, Venezuela) to export “radical agendas,” (New York Times, January 28, 2007) or more directly, to mount a threat of self-defense.


It’s unclear whether elements of the Israeli ruling circle are preparing to attack Iran or whether they’re simply engaged in a campaign of psychological warfare, seeking to unnerve Tehran by threatening war. The press is full of warnings of an imminent Israeli attack. “Two Israeli air force squadrons,” warned The Guardian (January 7, 2007) are training to use nuclear ‘bunker busting’ bombs to demolish Iran’s heavily guarded enrichment program.” (The Guardian, January 7, 2007.) The Independent (January 22, 2007) concluded that “senior Israeli politicians and analysts appear to be preparing the public for military conflict with Iran” and (January 25, 2007) “Israeli military officials warned … that Israel – acting alone or in coordination with the US – could launch pre-emptive military strikes against Iran before the end of this year.” The warnings were described by a senior British military source as “watering the turf.” Iran, the source said, “is not under enough pressure.” (The Independent, January 25, 2007.)

In early January, the Pentagon deployed a second aircraft carrier, the USS John Stennis to join a battle group led by the USS Dwight D Eisenhower, stationed menacingly close to Iran. (The Independent, January 14, 2007.) Britain also beefed up its complement of ships in the region (New York Times, December 21, 2006.) At the same time, the Pentagon dispatched a 600-strong Patriot anti-missile defense system to the Middle East. Asked to explain why the anti-missile defense system was being deployed, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a press conference that “We are simply reaffirming…the importance of the Gulf region to the United States and our determination to be an ongoing strong presence in that area for a long time into the future.” (Globe and Mail, January 15, 2007) US officials would later say the building naval presence was intended to deter Iran from trying to dominate the region.


US troops raided an Iranian diplomatic office in Ebril on January 11, detaining six Iranians working inside. Despite the apparent breach of diplomatic immunity, the incident was greeted with supreme indifference by the Western media, which, some two and half decades ago, howled in outrage at Iranian radicals overrunning the US embassy in Tehran and seizing US diplomats, an event since seared into the US collective conscience as “the hostage crisis.”

Military Industrial Complex

Elevating Iran to a threat comes in handy in justifying extravagantly high military expenditures, incurred, not to build a legitimate national defense, but to soak up surplus capital and provide influential corporations with a boost to their bottom lines. The wars on Iraq and Afghanistan help. “The steadily rising cost of the Iraq war will reach about $8.4 billion a month this year…as the price of replacing lost, destroyed and aging equipment mounts.” (Reuters, January 19, 2007) Manufacturers of helicopters, airplanes and armoured vehicles -- among the largest and most influential corporations – will rake in loot hand over fist replacing worn out and destroyed military equipment.

British prime minister Tony Blair is proposing to spend $40 billion to buy a new generation of submarines to carry nuclear warheads. Blair says the expenditures are needed to counter “the desire by states, highly dubious in their intentions, like north Korea and Iran, to pursue nuclear weapons capability.” (New York Times, December 5, 2006)

His reasoning is chock full of holes. First, there’s no evidence Iran is producing a nuclear weapons capability. Second, if Iran did develop one, it would be dwarfed by Britain’s existing capability. Iran’s arsenal would be so small and rudimentary to be nothing more than defensive -- a way of deterring the British and American habit of busting down the doors to take whatever they like rather than a way of presenting an offensive threat. Third, Blair talks as if Britain hasn’t a massive deterrent capability already.

The United States is also planning to spend over $100 billion to replace its own nuclear arsenal, despite a study that says its existing warheads can be expected to work reliably for a century or more. (New York Times, January 7, 2007) This suggests the real purpose of the program has little to do with self-defense. Massive expenditures on weapons – which distributes income upward through the transfer of tax dollars from working people to the owners and high-level executives of arms-producing corporations – is an ongoing US practice, and has been since the Himalayan military expenditures of WWII dragged the US out of the Great Depression. It has been evident in ruling circles since that without large military expenditures to soak up surpluses, the US economy teeters on the brink of stagnation. Having a stable of demons that can be trotted out whenever necessary to justify frivolous military spending is a necessary part of keeping the profits rolling in.

The Class Basis of US and British Foreign Policy

The foreign policy of capitalist countries, including that of the US and Britain, is driven to secure investment opportunities for the high-level executives, bankers and hereditary capitalist families that have capital to invest and need places to invest it in. By virtue of their wealth and their ownership and control of major enterprises, they are able to dominate public policy and shape it to their own interests.

Two important ways in which this class secures opportunities for the profitable investment of its capital is by shaping foreign policy to dominate other countries in order to secure access to their natural resources, markets, and other assets and by providing opportunities for profitable investment in the production of arms and the machinery of war. Both imperatives necessitate a third: to invent threats to national security to justify massive military expenditures, to provide the basis for the deployment of military forces abroad to protect existing overseas investments, and to furnish a plausible reason for wars of conquest to pry open nationalist, socialist or communist economies to investment.

Here’s how it works. I have idle capital I need to put to work. I loan part of my capital to the US government by buying bonds. The government sells bonds to raise money to finance government programs, including military and weapons programs, and pays interest to me on my investment. I also invest part of my capital in companies that have secured contracts with the US government to supply the Pentagon with tanks, helicopters, bombers and missiles. Thanks to these contracts, I receive dividends from my investments on the profits these companies make. In effect I’m loaning my capital to the government to spend on companies I have investments in. Moreover, the military equipment I’ve profited from (through interest on the bonds I’ve bought and dividends from the defense contractors I have a stake in) will be used to deter foreign countries in which I’ve invested from confiscating my capital through programs of nationalization and may be used to pry open economies currently off-limits to my capital.

I use part of my capital to buy lobbyists and help fund think-tanks and foundations to press the government to change policies I dislike – not only in my own country, but in other countries as well. I press for the opening of investment opportunities that are closed to foreign investment (in the oil industry in Iraq, for example), for the removal of restrictions on investments overseas, and for the improvement of conditions for the profitable investment of my capital. To pre-empt opposition to policies that enlarge my capital, I buy public relations expertise, fund university chairs, employ sympathetic researchers and buy media outlets to make the case that policies beneficial to me are natural, desirable, necessary and ultimately advantageous to all.

To ensure the public policy prescriptions formulated by the think-tanks and foundations I support are implemented (and which in turn are promoted by the public relations network I underwrite) I put part of my capital to work by contributing to the major political parties. I also hand out high-paying corporate and lobbying jobs to ex-politicians who have looked after my interests while in office. In this way, I send a message to those who hold public office today that if they play their cards right, they’ll be rewarded. I support the candidacies for public office of promising high-level executives in companies I have major investments in and the high-level operatives of the think-tanks and foundations I support. In this way, those who implicitly share my values and understand my objectives are placed in positions in which they can shepherd public policy through the executive and legislative branches of government to facilitate my profit-making activities.

The Real Reason for War by Other Means

The US, Britain and Israel are at war with Iran. The war is not conducted, at the moment, anyway, through missile strikes, bombing campaigns or land invasion, but by intimidation, provocation, subversion, and economic warfare. While the war is being justified as a necessary response to a growing threat of nuclear proliferation and to counter the alleged existential threat to Jews living in Israel posed by the president of Iran, the real reason for the war is to be found in the domination of public policy by the owners and high-level executives of banks and large corporations and in the directions in which the logic of capitalism pushes them to shape foreign policy.

Iran is not a nuclear threat. Its nuclear program is oriented to civilian uses, and even then is “archaic, prone to breakdown and lacks the material for industrial scale production.” Moreover, the country vehemently denies it is seeking nuclear weapons, and no one has produced a shred of evidence to say it is. All we have are the unsubstantiated claims of a Bush administration notorious for sexing up intelligence and lying about its reasons for going to war. What’s more, even if Iran managed to produce a nuclear weapon, it would be rudimentary and incapable of presenting an offensive threat against the much bigger arsenals of the US, Britain and Israel. At best, it would create a threat of self-defense.

The president of Iran, no matter what he thinks of the truth or scope of the systematic extermination of Jews by Nazi Germany, is not an existential threat to the Jewish inhabitants of Israel, though he is unquestionably an implacable anti-Zionist. Anti-Zionism, however, is not equivalent to hating Jews, and nor is the promotion of anti-Zionist aims equivalent to inciting genocide.

Iran is not a threat to anyone in the West, but is an irritant to a tiny stratum of the population with capital to invest and a need, driven by the logic of capitalism, to find places to invest it in. Iran’s economy is in large part state-owned, inclined to attach conditions to foreign investment, and competes with US enterprises (Iran has its own automobile industry, for example, and has invested in automobile factories in Syria and Venezuela.) From the perspective of the US capitalist class, an Iran that limited itself to oil exports (preferably with plenty of scope for US investment), recycled petrodollars through New York investment banks, and worked with the Pentagon to crush the resistance in Iraq, would be preferable to the current economically nationalist regime that bristles at the idea of throwing its doors wide open to US domination and has too many ties to Europe.

As for the Israeli ruling class, its aims are to facilitate US foreign policy as a condition of continuing to receive the US military and economic aid and diplomatic support it needs to remain viable to pursue the Zionist project of dispossessing the rightful inhabitants of historic Palestine. To secure the consent of the Israeli population for the sacrifices of a potential war on Iran, and to play the role of potential victim of Iranian aggression to justify an Anglo-American naval build up in the Gulf, Israel’s ruling circles liberally employ the arts of public relations to bamboozle Israelis, and the rest of the world, into believing Iran is working toward the revival of the Nazi project of exterminating the Jews. Iran’s pursuit of civilian nuclear energy becomes a secret program to build a nuclear bomb to wipe Israel off the face of the map. Ahmadinejad’s anti-Zionism becomes an insane anti-Semitism headed toward a nuclear confrontation with Israel.

My Enemy’s Enemy

“The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend,” intone those too unwilling, too frightened, too unprincipled, or too comfortable, to rouse themselves to defend Iran. (By defend Iran I mean doing what one can to thwart the de facto war against the country, even if it only means challenging the deceitful pretexts used to “water the turf”.) While it may be that my enemy’s enemy is not always my friend, this has nothing to do with the reasons why the US, Britain and Israel are locked in a war (by other means) with another oil-rich Gulf state. Powerful countries driven by the expansionary logic of capitalism have always sought, in various ways, to dominate other countries for the purposes of opening new opportunities for the profitable investment of capital. Imperialism is carried on independently of whether the dominated countries are ruled by the friends of progressives in the West, or their enemies. The Iranian government needn’t be your friend to recognize why a war on Iran is being carried out, whose interests it serves, and that it doesn’t serve yours. On the contrary, it detracts from them.

Peek below the surface, and the hostility to our own interests of the recurrent pattern of capitalist-driven expansion at the expense of the sovereignty of other countries becomes evident. Who pays the taxes to pay the interest on bonds sold to investment bankers and hereditary capitalist families to refurbish nuclear arsenals that don’t need refurbishing, to replace tanks, armoured vehicles and helicopters lost in the wars that should never have been fought, and to build war machines to outrage the sovereignty of other countries? Who foots the bill for lucrative defense contracts to make the machinery of war? Who carries the ball to finance the programs of subverting democracy in other countries? Who sacrifices their limbs, eyesight, hearing, sanity and lives to fight wars to secure profitable investment opportunities for the super-rich? In this system, the bulk of us are exploited, while a tiny minority reaps the benefit of monstrous profits. We are the cannon-fodder, the vote-fodder, the tax-fodder that allows the system to run and the super-rich get super-richer. True, the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. But we should be clear on who – and what -- the enemy is, who the victims are, and how the victims have a common interest in challenging their common enemy