The West’s new confrontation with Iran

January 9, 2012

Alan Maass explains why the U.S. and its allies are again trying to bully Iran.

TENSIONS ARE escalating in the Persian Gulf region because of Western military and economic threats against Iran over claims about alleged Iranian efforts to use a civilian nuclear power program to build weapons.

Punishing new sanctions signed into law by Barack Obama are aimed at further undermining Iran's already shaky financial system, and the European Union (EU), the second-largest customer for Iranian oil after China, is preparing to impose an embargo on oil imports by the end of the month.

Speculation also continues about a military strike against Iran's nuclear program, despite a lack of evidence that the government is attempting to build weapons. The case for military action has been pushed most loudly by the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Now, though, Republican presidential contenders, looking for an opening to attack the Obama administration on foreign policy, are joining the chorus.

Analysts rightly point out that there is significant opposition within the U.S. political and military establishment to imminent military action against Iran. But the Democratic Obama administration is under pressure to "stand up to Iran"--and it has a three-year record of conceding to Republicans on just about any issue.

The USS John Stennis, recently deployed to the Persian Gulf
The USS John Stennis, recently deployed to the Persian Gulf (Kenneth Abbate)

More broadly, the U.S. defeat in Iraq, where it was forced into a complete withdrawal of its military forces after nearly nine years of occupation, is driving Washington to take more aggressive action to defend its dominance in a region where its main rival is Iran.

The stepped-up hostility in the U.S. and Europe has drawn a predictable response from Iran--a show of military force and vows to resist the pressure.

As in the past, Western sanctions and war threats have given the conservatives who dominate the Iranian government an opportunity to appear as defenders of the nation against imperialism--and shift domestic attention away from the worsening economic crisis caused by their neoliberal policies and the ongoing discontent with the state's repression of all opponents, from establishment figures to working-class and radical organizations.

The new confrontation increases the potential for further wars and suffering in an area already upended by two catastrophic American occupations and many other imperialist interventions, from North Africa to central Asia.

U.S. and Western leaders claim both the risk of a military conflict and the certainty of further economic misery inflicted on ordinary Iranians by sanctions are necessary to contain an Iranian regime bent on aggression.

But it is Washington and its allies that have relied on war, repression and neoliberalism to pursue their goal of controlling the flow of oil, no matter what the consequences for the people of Iran and the whole Middle East.

THE LATEST round of Iran-bashing in the media continued into the new year following Iranian military maneuvers designed to underline the threat that the country's Navy could close the Strait of Hormuz, the entrance point to the Persian Gulf through which one-sixth of the world's oil exports are transported.

Iran's military carried out tests of medium-range missiles aimed at targets in the Gulf, and country's top Army general, Ataollah Salehi, warned the U.S. not to send an aircraft carrier battle group back into the Gulf, or risk attack.

Meanwhile, the media furor over Iran's supposed nuclear weapons program was stoked by an announcement that Iranian scientists had built the country's first uranium fuel rod, a necessary component of nuclear reactors--something Western scientists believed Iran was incapable of producing.

But despite how the U.S. media portray it, the escalation isn't one-sided.

On December 31, Barack Obama signed into law a new round of sanctions that targets banks settling oil trades with the Central Bank of Iran. The measure was blamed for a new plunge in the value of Iran's currency, the rial, to an all-time low last week.

Potentially even more damaging is a looming EU blockade on Iranian oil. European officials claimed an agreement had been reached to ban imports from Iran, and would be finalized by the end of the month. Iran's biggest European customers for oil are Spain, Greece and Italy, and they have resisted sanctions in the past. But all three are under financial pressure because of the debt crisis, and that has apparently come along with political pressure to get in line with France and Britain's drive to punish Iran.

The stated reason for the sanctions is a report released by the International Atomic Energy Administration (IAEA) in December that supposedly accuses the Iranian government of trying to develop a nuclear weapons program.

In November, Obama used the imminent release of the report as an excuse to link arms with France's right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy about "the need to maintain unprecedented pressure on Iran to meet its obligations." A few weeks later, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared that "the regime in Tehran remains a very grave threat to all of us."

In reality, the hype around the IAEA report's conclusions is manufactured. As Chris Toensing, editor of the Middle East Report, wrote: "The report contains evidence that Iran looked at military applications of nuclear research up to 2003, but no proof of similar efforts since then, and certainly no indication that Iran has nuclear weapons capacity or could have it soon."

In an alarming echo of the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, U.S. political leaders deliberately distorted the content of the IAEA report--and the American media machine ate it up. For example, as the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting documented, the New York Times erroneously reported "a recent assessment by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran's nuclear program has a military objective."

The U.S. position stinks of hypocrisy. America is, after all, the only country to have used nuclear weapons in a military conflict, yet it dares to lecture Iran on the issue.

But even leaving that aside, as Toensing points out, nothing could be more certain to push Iran toward trying to build a nuclear bomb than the continual threats of military action by the U.S. and its allies--particularly Israel, Washington's watchdog in the region and the only government in the Middle East that actually does possess nuclear weapons.

IRANIAN FEARS of a Western attack are well-founded, as a recent article by Gareth Porter of the Inter Press Service shows. Porter contends that right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is attempting to maneuver the Obama administration into backing an Israeli "pre-emptive" strike on Iran.

Last year, a former Israeli intelligence chief, Meir Dagan, revealed that he and other top officials barely blocked an attempt in 2010 by Netanyahu and his Defense Minister Ehud Barak to carry out such an attack. "It is generally agreed that an Israeli attack can only temporarily set back the Iranian nuclear program, at significant risk to Israel," Porter wrote. "But Netanyahu and Barak hope to draw the United States into the war to create much greater destruction and perhaps the overthrow of the Islamic regime."

Citing news reports of a White House discussion with top Pentagon brass last November, Porter concluded that the Obama administration opposed any immediate attack on Iran. However, Porter wrote, Obama apparently stopped short of explicitly warning Netanyahu against launching a strike on Iran, to the disappointment of Pentagon brass.

The Pentagon, overstretched by the continuing war in Afghanistan and still recovering from its setback in having to withdraw fully from Iraq, has good reason to fear being drawn into an escalating war with Iran if Israel launches an attack.

But that's no guarantee against just such a scenario taking place--especially with U.S. officials ratcheting up their own rhetoric. For example, Panetta used a recent Pentagon press conference unveiling a new U.S. strategy based on a leaner and more mobile U.S. military force to identify Iran blockading the Strait of Hormuz as the kind of future crisis Washington will need to respond to.

For her part, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been an especially hostile critic of Iran, declaring in 2010, when a previous set of U.S. sanctions were imposed, that Iran was "moving toward a military dictatorship." The irony of that comment was that Clinton was speaking in Qatar--yet another U.S. ally in the region run by a repressive monarchy, in contrast to Iran, which does, in fact, hold elections.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration's alternative to an immediate military strike is far from peaceful.

One aspect is arming U.S. allies in the region. At the end of December, U.S. officials announced a $30 billion deal to supply the dictatorial regime in Saudi Arabia with 84 new state-of-the-art warplanes, along with the munitions, spare parts and training needed to maintain them. "This sale will send a strong message to countries in the region that the United States is committed to stability in the Gulf and broader Middle East," senior State Department official Andrew Shapiro told reporters.

Plus, the ever-tightening sanctions on Iran are taking an economic toll--and as in Iraq before it, the brunt will be borne by ordinary Iranians.

Iran's economy is in crisis. According to the Guardian's Simon Tisdall, "Food prices are soaring, dollars are being hoarded, and Iran's currency, the rial, has fallen in value by 40 percent in recent weeks." The new sanctions--especially the looming EU oil embargo--will further this downward slide.

But the experience of sanctions in other countries shows that the main people hurt by them aren't the rulers and the generals, but ordinary people. In Iraq, for example, the U.S. government got the United Nations to impose the strictest economic blockade in history following the first Gulf War in 1991. Saddam Hussein survived and so did the regime, but ordinary Iraqis paid a horrific price, including half a million children under the age of 5 dying as a direct consequence, by the UN's own statistics.

ALSO LIKE in Iraq, sanctions will inevitably benefit the conservative elite that dominates the government in Iran, despite a mass movement for democracy following fraud-riddled elections in 2009.

The regime led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad survived the 2009 upsurge because of a crackdown on supporters of the "green movement" led by his main rival in the vote, former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Mousavi. Each new expression of the desire for democracy in Iran--including demonstrations earlier this year in solidarity with the Arab Spring rebellions across the Arab world--has been met with an iron fist.

Nevertheless, the regime is fearful about elections at the beginning of March--not least because Iran's economic crisis is hitting hard, and millions blame the status quo. The conservatives could face a boycott that exposes the vote as illegitimate or a reemergence of the movement in the streets, according to writer Yasmin Alem: "In the wake of the Arab uprisings, the clerical regime is seeking to project an image of its power and popularity. If the election becomes a dismal affair, however, it will have the reverse effect."

In this context, the West's war threats, sanctions and frantic denunciations of Iran are a gift to conservatives as they seek to deflect discontent. When the U.S. imposed an earlier round of sanctions in 2010--with the "green movement" uprising even fresher in's Lee Sustar wrote:

Sanctions on Iran would likely have a similar effect [to the economic blockade of Iraq in the 1990s], as Ahmadinejad could use economic difficulties as a cover for his ongoing program of privatizing state enterprises to enrich his cronies, while reducing the living standards of workers. The U.S. would get the blame--and the opposition would be attacked as Washington stooges.

Still another factor needs to be taken into account in understanding the West's new confrontation with Iran.

At the same time as the economic crisis and political discontent is taking a toll domestically, Iran's position within the region has been greatly strengthened--because of the U.S. government's effective declaration of failure in Iraq, with a complete withdrawal of military forces.

The Shia-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, propped up by the U.S. for so long, used the occasion of the pullout to turn on Sunni political figures and parties that collaborated with it. The conflict raised the specter of a renewed civil war--but also underlined the fact that Iran's influence over Iraq and its political future are stronger than ever.

As author Michael Schwartz said in an interview with, the U.S. retreat from Iraq means that:

Iran becomes more and more important, not because the Iranian regime is as powerful and aggressive as the U.S. says it is, but because Iran constitutes the pole around which a geopolitically independent Middle East can congeal. That's what the U.S. refuses to let happen.

So the need to counter Iran's spreading influence--now by challenging it throughout the region, rather than mainly contesting its role in Iraq--is another factor driving the stepped-up tensions in the Persian Gulf region.

The U.S. is scrambling to maintain its dominant position in controlling the flow of Middle East oil, despite the setback in Iraq--and that demands a more aggressive posture against Iran, whether or not the Obama administration wants to avoid a military attack.

What happens next is impossible to predict. But this much is clear: The escalating hostilities--driven above all by the U.S. and the West trying to impose their will on the region--are making a new war more likely, not less.

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