[Marxism] Thomas Powers on Iran (NYRB)

Marvin Gandall marvgandall at videotron.ca
Mon Jun 30 08:44:41 MDT 2008

(Powers, a journalist and author who writes on intelligence matters,
approaches this issue as someone who "certainly share(s) the concern about
Iran and about the leadership, and I think it is very important that we
increase as much as possible the financial pressure, the diplomatic
pressure, the political pressure, and at the same time keep all the military
options on the table." His views appear to be an accurate mirror of the
anxious frustration of the foreign policy and military establishment with
the "right wing adventurism" of the Bush administration - MG)
Iran: The Threat
New York Review of Books
July 17, 2008
By Thomas Powers

At a moment of serious challenge, battered by two wars, ballooning debt, and
a faltering economy, the United States appears to have lost its capacity to
think clearly. Consider what passes for national discussion on the matter of
Iran. The open question is whether the United States should or will attack
Iran if it continues to reject American demands to give up uranium
enrichment. Ignore for the moment whether the United States has any legal or
moral justification for attacking Iran. Set aside the question whether Iran,
as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently claimed in a speech at West
Point, "is hellbent on acquiring nuclear weapons." Focus instead on purely
practical questions. By any standards Iran is a tough nut to crack: it is
nearly three times the size of Texas, with a population of 70 million and a
big income from oil which the world cannot afford to lose. Iran is believed
to have the ability to block the Straits of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf
through which much of the world's oil must pass on its way to market.

Keep in mind that the rising price of oil already threatens the world's
economy. Iran also has a large army and deep ties to the population of
Shiite coreligionists next door in Iraq. The American military already has
its hands full with a hard-to-manage war in Iraq, and is proposing to send
additional combat brigades to deal with a growing insurgency in Afghanistan.
And yet with all these sound reasons for avoiding war with Iran, the United
States for five years has repeatedly threatened it with military attack.
These threats have lately acquired a new edge.

President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are the primary
authors of these threats, but others join them in proclaiming that "all
options" must remain "on the table." The option they wish to emphasize is
the option of military attack. The presidential candidates in the middle of
this campaign year agree that Iran is a major security threat to the United
States. Senator Hillary Clinton in the last days of April threatened to
"totally obliterate" Iran—presumably with nuclear weapons—if it attacked
Israel. Senator Barack Obama dismissed Clinton's threat as "bluster" in the
familiar Bush style but agrees that Iran cannot be permitted to build
nuclear weapons, and he too insists that a US attack on Iran is one of the
options which must remain "on the table." The presumptive Republican
candidate, John McCain, takes a position as unyielding as the President's:
Iran must abandon nuclear enrichment, stop "meddling" in Iraq with support
for Shiite militias, and stop its sponsorship of "terrorism" carried out by
Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Any of these threatening activities,
in McCain's view, might justify a showdown with Iran.

Sometimes the President's threats are chillingly explicit. In April the
administration released details of the intelligence that explained an
Israeli air strike last September on a large, blocklike building in which
Syria, with the help of North Korea, had allegedly been building a nuclear
reactor. Releasing this information, Bush said in April, was Washington's
way of "sending a message to Iran and the world for that matter about just
how destabilizing nuclear proliferation would be in the Middle East."

The message to Iran was clear—stop or run the risk of a similar attack. Left
ambiguous was the question of attack by whom—Israel, which proved itself
willing with the attack in Syria, or the United States, which has more
planes and missiles at its command? The kind of attack Iran might expect has
been spelled out in news stories over the last few years. Some Iranian
nuclear research sites are buried as much as seventy meters underground, and
there are scores, perhaps hundreds of sites in all, so any serious American
effort to destroy Iranian nuclear programs would require intense and
numerous strikes by US bombers and missiles. For a time some administration
officials lobbied to include the use of nuclear weapons in the strike
options for attacking Iran's protected nuclear targets, but vigorous
opposition from the Joint Chiefs of Staff scotched that possibility two
years ago.

Yet even conventional bombing attacks are acts of war; unprovoked they are
acts of aggression. Iran has said it would respond to an attack but without
specifying how. Possible counterattacks might target shipping in the Persian
Gulf, or US forces in Iraq or Afghanistan, or something else the US has not
anticipated. Such an exchange could not long be confined to tit for tat. An
all-out American bombing program might force Iran to capitulate, or it might
not. The next step would be invasion, destruction of Iran's conventional
army, occupation of Iran's capital, and change of Iran's regime, which has
long been an openly declared policy objective of the United States.

Is there anyone outside the US government who thinks it makes sense to
invite trouble on this scale? Even some insiders are of two minds. "Another
war in the Middle East is the last thing we need," Gates said in his speech
at West Point, "and, in fact, I believe it would be disastrous on a number
of levels. But the military option must be kept on the table."

Forgive me, but why? The military option is a threat; if the threat is
carried out it promises widening war and the possibility of failure on the
scale of disaster. Why does a policy of courting disaster have to remain on
the table?

Nothing in the modern affairs of nations has been more exhaustively analyzed
and debated than the utility and dangers of nuclear weapons, and yet the
dangers posed by Iran with a bomb have been barely discussed. They are
treated as a given. The core idea is that Iran cannot be trusted because the
country is run by religious fanatics crazy enough to use a bomb if they had
one. This is not the first time such arguments have been made. Some
Americans, including Air Force generals, believed in the late 1940s that a
preemptive war against the Soviet Union was justified by the peril of Moscow
with a bomb. Twenty years later the Russians, in their turn, were so alarmed
by the prospect of Beijing with a bomb that they quietly proposed to the
Americans a joint effort to destroy the Chinese nuclear development effort
with a preemptive attack.


What US officials say, when they say anything at all, is that Tehran wants a
bomb in order to dominate the Persian Gulf region and to threaten its
neighbors, especially Israel. This is a misreading of how other nuclear
powers have made use of their weapons. As tools of coercive diplomacy
nuclear weapons are almost entirely useless, but they are extremely
effective in blocking large-scale or regime-threatening attack. There is no
evidence that Iran has a different motive, and plenty of reason for Iran to
fear that attack is a real possibility.

Indeed, the Bush administration, far from trying to quiet Iran's fears,
makes a point of confirming them every few months. These threats are not
limited to words, but are supported with practical steps—the presence of
large American armies just across Iran's borders in Iraq and Afghanistan,
and the dispatch of the world's largest fleet of warships to cruise along
Iran's Persian Gulf coastline. The Bush administration further accuses Iran
of "meddling" in the affairs of its neighbors, of supplying weapons and
training to Iraqis who kill Americans, and of being the world's principal
state sponsor of terrorism. Fear that Saddam Hussein might provide nuclear
weapons to terrorist groups was the leading American justification for the
invasion of Iraq, and the same concern is often cited about Iran.

The seriousness of American threats is confirmed by the fact that no
significant national leader in the United States has ever disowned or
objected to them in clear, vigorous, principled language. It is as if the
whole country listens to the administration's threats with breath held,
wondering if Bush and Cheney really mean to do as they say, and in effect
leaving the decision entirely to them. Americans may count on the President
to think twice, but why would leaders in Tehran, responsible for the lives
of 70 million citizens, want to depend on President Bush's restraint for
their survival and safety? Bush has a history. On his own authority, without
the sanction of any international body, he attacked Iraq five years ago and
precipitated a bloody chain of events that shows no sign of ending. It would
be natural, indeed inevitable, for any government in Tehran, seeing what has
happened next door, to ask what could save Iran from a similar fate. An
answer is not far to seek: nuclear weapons with a reliable delivery system
could do that.

The continuing military occupation of Iraq, the expansion of military
efforts in Afghanistan, the desire to carry the war against the Taliban
across the border into Pakistan, and the resort to military threats to force
the government of Iran to give up its nuclear programs all represent
examples of what has become the American approach during the Bush years to
getting what it wants in the world—relying on military force to resolve
political problems. How else are we to explain two wars and the threat of a
third? Sometime during the Clinton years a faction of the Republican Party
in exile lost patience with the accepted way of conducting foreign
relations. Talking, negotiating, proposing alternatives, cajoling allies
with economic and military aid, taking conflicts to the United Nations,
convening conferences, sitting on commissions and issuing, repeating, and
underlining warnings—in short, all the other "options on the table"—came to
be seen in certain Republican circles as time-wasting, irresolute, and
futile—a pattern of weakness that invites defiance.

The argument of the neoconservatives, stated in its nakedest form at the
outset of the Bush administration, notes that the United States is the
world's sole great power. We have a military capability that dwarfs all
others. We need not defer to weak and corrupt governments that treat us with

The change was already underway when the shock of the attacks on September
11 created something like a Dirty Harry moment—an abrupt end to patience, a
breaking with civility, a rejection of pettifogging legality, a brushing
aside of caution in the use of force, all those Aunt Sally hesitations which
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld intended to root out as part of the
Pentagon's "old think." The goal was a kind of internal liberation of the
national psyche—comfort with the word "imperial," unashamed acceptance of
power, eagerness to put "boots on the ground," plain talk with anybody who
stood in our way, prompt action if they did not step aside. Preemption was
the dominant word in the new national security strat-egy issued in 2002. At
West Point that spring the President said, "America will not wait to be
attacked again. We will confront emerging threats before they fully
materialize." The idea was in effect to clean up Dodge—to stop fooling
around, remove defiant regimes, and make the Middle East safe for America
and its friends.

Rarely has a theory been quashed by reality more abruptly. Iraq, as we
discovered after the capture of Baghdad, had in fact posed no threat
whatever, and its occupation brought a host of expensive and intractable new
problems that continue to sap American strength. In Afghanistan as well,
little went as planned. The Taliban was removed, not destroyed, and
gradually it has returned. Pakistan, once a chief American ally in the
region, now resists American pressure to pursue the Taliban into Pakistan's
tribal areas. In Iraq, most American initiatives during five years of war
have had the effect of strengthening the Shiite friends and allies of Iran.
The government in Baghdad confers often with Iran, and the influence of Iran
is heavily felt in Lebanon and Gaza. Iran dismisses all threats aimed at its
nuclear programs as if the United States and Israel were powerless.

With its time in power rapidly running out, the Bush administration is mired
in two frustrating wars, stretched thin militarily, living on borrowed
money, and exhausted intellectually. It would be hard to name a time when
the United States faced a wider range of political problems, or had better
reasons to avoid additional military entanglements. Bush and Cheney concede
nothing of the kind, but promise "serious consequences" for continued
Iranian defiance. It is a strange fact that the locus of opposition to
attack on Iran is not in Congress but in the Pentagon, where an insider told
the reporter Seymour Hersh two years ago, "There is a war about the war
going on inside the building." When the administration planned to add a
third aircraft carrier group to the Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf, the
move was blocked by the then newly promoted chief of Central Command,
Admiral William Fallon, who told friends that war with Iran "isn't going to
happen on my watch."

Until his resignation in March, Fallon often contradicted and undermined the
tough talk of the administration, speaking dismissively about the prospects
of war with Iran. "Another war is just not where we want to go," he told the
Financial Times. "This constant drumbeat of conflict...is not helpful and
not useful," he said to al-Jazeera television. In recent months Fallon also
traveled in Afghanistan and spoke at candid length with the military writer
Thomas Barnett, who was working on an article for Esquire. When the article
was ready to go to the printer Fallon invited an Esquire photographer to
Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida, to take his picture. War
with Iran, yes or no, Barnett wrote, would "all come down to one
man"—Fallon. The White House was not happy with Fallon's interference,
Barnett reported. Washington rumor said Fallon's time was short. His
removal, Barnett predicted, "may well mean that the president and
vice-president intend to take military action against Iran before the end of
this year...." A week after Barnett's piece appeared in Esquire, Gates
announced that Fallon was retiring at his own request. The Esquire article
had been the talk of the Pentagon nonstop; leaked stories were coming from
all directions. Fallon wasn't just on his way out; Gates said he would be
gone by the end of the month.

Fallon's open and outspoken resistance to the idea of war with Iran
represents something new and extraordinary—maybe. It is too early to be
sure. But beneath the surface of recent statements by Fallon, Gates, and the
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, something large
seems to be swelling up—resistance by the Pentagon to passive acceptance of
a wider war. To see the shape of the conflict one must first accept the
seriousness of both parties—the administration in making its threats to stop
Iran's nuclear program, and Pentagon officials when they say a wider war
would be practically difficult and strategically unnecessary.

This showdown—if it is truly taking place—has been a long time coming. Ten
years ago a young Army major, H.R. McMaster, published a history of American
escalation of the war in Vietnam, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson,
Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to
Vietnam. McMaster's argument, stripped to its core, was that against their
own best judgment the joint chiefs passively acquiesced to White House
pressure to expand the war. Johnson, with his eye on a second term, did not
want to be the first American president to lose a war, and the joint chiefs
did not want to run their careers aground. Despite the harshness of
McMaster's conclusion his book was widely read in the Pentagon and made a
deep impression on a generation of rising officers, many of them now of flag
rank and in positions of responsibility.[*]

When a reporter asked Gates if Fallon's departure "means we're going to war
with Iran," the secretary called the idea "ridiculous." But he didn't leave
it at that. He began his own campaign of public remarks stressing the
importance of a peaceful resolution of the challenge posed by Iran's nuclear
program. As he had at West Point, Gates held fast to the administration's
basic stance—"all options are on the table"—but he drained the pugnacity of
the claim with Fallon-like flourishes. "We need to figure out a way to
develop some leverage...and then sit down and talk with them," Gates said in
mid-May. "There is no doubt that... we would be very hard-pressed to fight
another major conventional war right now." Admiral Mullen sounded a similar
note when he recently told a television journalist in Israel that he was
"very hopeful" that the US could avoid a conflict with Iran, which he
evaluated as "a very significant challenge." Mullen added:

I certainly share the concern about Iran and about the leadership, and I
think it is very important that we increase as much as possible the
financial pressure, the diplomatic pressure, the political pressure, and at
the same time keep all the military options on the table.

Develop some leverage...sit down and talk...financial pressure, diplomatic
pressure, political pressure....

These are unfamiliar words coming from the Bush administration. They roughly
echo the approach of Barack Obama, who has said he would "talk" to the
leaders of Iran, meaning that he would commence discussion of serious issues
without first demanding con-cessions. The Bush administration rejects this
idea. A few years back, at a moment when Iran still had a relatively
moderate president and was prepared to offer major concessions to the US, it
refused to talk to Iran at all; now it is prepared to talk, but only after
Iran has suspended its uranium enrichment program. The words are slightly
altered, but the stance remains intransigent.

In his recent speech to the Israeli Knesset, Bush, without naming Obama,
denounced his approach as "this foolish delusion," discredited in the 1930s
when the British thought they could "talk" to Hitler. In the world according
to the neoconservatives no failing of character is more craven or
pusillanimous than a willingness to talk to fascists, Nazis, or dictators.
Bush plunged the rhetorical knife in deep: "We have an obligation to call
this what it is— the false comfort of appeasement."

Bush and Cheney prefer the language of flat command that implies "or else."
A long list might be appended here of their frequent warnings that the
United States does not trust Iran with the knowledge to enrich bomb-grade
uranium and will not tolerate an Iranian bomb. Many of these warnings have
been issued in the last month or two and we may expect a continuing barrage
until their final days in office. The President's frustration is plainly
evident: Saddam Hussein may be gone, but Iran remains defiant, and more
powerful than ever. The President's male pride seems to have been aroused;
he said he was going to solve the Iranian problem and he doesn't want to
back down. The intensity of Bush's desire to crush this final opponent is
evident in his words and his body language, but does he retain the power to
carry out his threats?

From one point of view the answer seems obvious. It is too late. With the
exception only of the neoconservative faithful, every close observer of the
American–Iranian standoff says that the administration's threats are empty,
that the United States does not have the military resources, or the
political support at home, or the agreement of allies abroad, to carry out a
full-scale air attack on Iran's nuclear infrastructure, much less to invade
and occupy the country. Two of the skeptics, Gates and Mullen, are running
the Pentagon, and their cautioning remarks, only a step this side of
insubordination, would seem to make attack impossible. But if attack is
impossible, why does Bush talk himself into an ever-tighter corner by
continuing to issue threats? Does he believe Iran will cave? Are these the
only words he thinks people will still listen to? Is he hoping to tie the
hands of the next president? Or is he preparing to summon the power of his
office to carry out the last option on the table? One hardly knows whether
to take the question seriously. It seems alarmist and overexcited even to
pose it when the realities are so clear. But it is impossible to be
sure—Bush has a history.

In an article I wrote in these pages in March 2003, I took up a concern that
has preoccupied me ever since—the danger that the war would spread to engulf
the region. That article concludes:

But a war to overthrow Saddam Hussein won't by itself provide a "decision
outcome" in the present case because there are two rogue states with
programs to build nuclear weapons in the Middle East. The theory says that
both have to go, and if President Bush can be taken at his word, he thinks
the same thing. To me, the implication seems clear: Iraq first, Iran next.
We're not free of this danger yet.

—June 19, 2008


More information about the Marxism mailing list