The Cold War Between Washington and Tehran

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The Cold War Between Washington and Tehran

The following is an excerpt from Noam Chomsky's new book Interventions published by City Lights Books.

In the energy-rich Middle East, only two countries have failed to subordinate themselves to Washington's basic demands: Iran and Syria. Accordingly both are enemies, Iran by far the more important.

As was the norm during the Cold War, resort to violence is regularly justified as a reaction to the malign influence of the main enemy, often on the flimsiest of pretexts. Unsurprisingly, as Bush sends more troops to Iraq, tales surface of Iranian interference in the internal affairs of Iraq-a country otherwise free from any foreign interference, on the tacit assumption that Washington rules the world.

In the Cold War-like mentality that prevails in Washington, Tehran is portrayed as the pinnacle in the so-called Shiite Crescent that stretches from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon, through Shiite southern Iraq and Syria. And again unsurprisingly, the "surge" in Iraq and escalation of threats and accusations against Iran is accompanied by grudging willingness to attend a conference of regional powers, with the agenda limited to Iraq-more narrowly, to attaining U.S. goals in Iraq.

Presumably this minimal gesture toward diplomacy is intended to allay the growing fears and anger elicited by Washington's heightened aggressiveness, with forces deployed in position to attack Iran and regular provocations and threats.

For the United States, the primary issue in the Middle East has been and remains effective control of its unparalleled energy resources. Access is a secondary matter. Once the oil is on the seas it goes anywhere. Control is understood to be an instrument of global dominance.

Iranian influence in the "crescent" challenges U.S. control. By an accident of geography, the world's major oil resources are in largely Shiite areas of the Middle East: southern Iraq, adjacent regions of Saudi Arabia and Iran, with some of the major reserves of natural gas as well. Washington's worst nightmare would be a loose Shiite alliance controlling most of the world's oil and independent of the United States.

Such a bloc, if it emerges, might even join the Asian Energy Security Grid and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), based in China. Iran, which already had observer status, is to be admitted as a member of the SCO. The Hong Kong South China Morning Post reported in June 2006 that "Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole the limelight at the annual meeting of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) by calling on the group to unite against other countries as his nation faces criticism over its nuclear programme." The non-aligned movement meanwhile affirmed Iran's "inalienable right" to pursue these programs, and the SCO (which includes the states of Central Asia) "called on the United States to set a deadline for the withdrawal of military installations from all member states.1

If the Bush planners bring that about, they will have seriously undermined the U.S. position of power in the world.

To Washington, Tehran's principal offense has been its defiance, going back to the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 and the hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy. The grim U.S. role in Iran in earlier years is excised from history. In retribution for Iranian defiance, Washington quickly turned to support for Saddam Hussein's aggression against Iran, which left hundreds of thousands dead and the country in ruins. Then came murderous sanctions, and under Bush, rejection of Iranian diplomatic efforts in favor of increasing threats of direct attack.

Last July (2006), Israel invaded Lebanon, the fifth invasion since 1978. As before, U.S. support for the aggression was a critical factor, the pretexts quickly collapse on inspection, and the consequences for the people of Lebanon are severe. Among the reasons for the U.S.-Israel invasion is that Hezbollah's rockets could be a deterrent to a potential U.S.-Israeli attack on Iran.

Despite the saber-rattling, it is, I suspect, unlikely that the Bush administration will attack Iran. The world is strongly opposed. Seventy-five percent of Americans favor diplomacy over military threats against Iran, and as noted earlier, Americans and Iranians largely agree on nuclear issues. Polls by Terror Free Tomorrow reveal that "Despite a deep historical enmity between Iran's Persian Shiite population and the predominantly Sunni population of its ethnically diverse Arab, Turkish and Pakistani neighbors, the largest percentage of people in these countries favor accepting a nuclear-armed Iran over any American military action." It appears that the U.S. military and intelligence community is also opposed to an attack.

Iran cannot defend itself against U.S. attack, but it can respond in other ways, among them by inciting even more havoc in Iraq. Some issue warnings that are far more grave, among them by the respected British military historian Corelli Barnett, who writes that "an attack on Iran would effectively launch World War III."

The Bush administration has left disasters almost everywhere it has turned, from post-Katrina New Orleans to Iraq. In desperation to salvage something, the administration might undertake the risk of even greater disasters.

Meanwhile Washington may be seeking to destabilize Iran from within.2 The ethnic mix in Iran is complex; much of the population isn't Persian. There are secessionist tendencies and it is likely that Washington is trying to stir them up-in Khuzestan on the Gulf, for example, where Iran's oil is concentrated, a region that is largely Arab, not Persian.

Threat escalation also serves to pressure others to join U.S. efforts to strangle Iran economically, with predictable success in Europe. Another predictable consequence, presumably intended, is to induce the Iranian leadership to be as harsh and repressive as possible, fomenting disorder and perhaps resistance while undermining efforts of courageous Iranian reformers, who are bitterly protesting Washington's tactics. It is also necessary to demonize the leadership. In the West, any wild statement of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, immediately gets circulated in headlines, dubiously translated. But as is well known, Ahmadinejad has no control over foreign policy, which is in the hands of his superior, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The U.S. media tend to ignore Khamenei's statements, especially if they are conciliatory. For example, it's widely reported when Ahmadinejad says that Israel shouldn't exist-but there is silence when Khamenei says that Iran "shares a common view with Arab countries on the most important Islamic-Arabic issue, namely the issue of Palestine," which would appear to mean that Iran accepts the Arab League position: full normalization of relations with Israel in terms of the international consensus on a two-state settlement that the U.S. and Israel continue to resist, almost alone.3

The U.S. invasion of Iraq virtually instructed Iran to develop a nuclear deterrent. Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld writes that after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, "had the Iranians not tried to build nuclear weapons, they would be crazy." The message of the invasion, loud and clear, was that the U.S. will attack at will, as long as the target is defenseless. Now Iran is ringed by U.S. military forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey and the Persian Gulf and close by are nuclear-armed Pakistan and particularly Israel, the regional superpower, thanks to U.S. support.

As already discussed, Iranian efforts to negotiate outstanding issues were rebuffed by Washington, and an EU-Iranian agreement was apparently undermined by Washington's refusal to withdraw threats of attack. A genuine interest in preventing the development of nuclear weapons in Iran-and the escalating warlike tension in the region-would lead Washington to implement the EU bargain, agree to meaningful negotiations and join with others to move toward integrating Iran into the international economic system, in accord with public opinion in the United States, Iran, neighboring states, and virtually the entire rest of the world. 

Notes

1. See M. K. Bhadrakumar, "China, Russia welcome Iran into the fold," Asia Times, April 18, 2006. Bill Savadove, "President of Iran calls for unity against west," South China Morning Post, June 16, 2006; "Non-aligned nations back Iran's nuclear program," Japan Economic Newswire, May 30, 2006; Edward Cody, "Iran Seeks Aid in Asia In Resisting the West," Washington Post, June 15, 2006.

2. See, among others, William Lowther and Colin Freeman, "US funds terror groups to sow chaos in Iran," Sunday Telegraph, February 25, 2007.

3. For Khamenei's statement, see "Leader Attends Memorial Ceremony Marking the 17th Departure Anniversary of Imam Khomeini," June 4, 2006. http://www.khamenei.ir/ EN/News/detail.jsp?id=20060604A.

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor (retired) at MIT. He is the author of many books and articles on international affairs and social-political issues, and a long-time participant in activist movements. His most recent books include:  Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S. Empire (with interviewer David Barsamian), Making the Future: Occupations, Interventions, Empire and Resistance, Hopes and Prospects, and Profit Over People: Neoliberalism & Global Order. Previous books include: 9-11: 10th Anniversary Edition, Failed States, What We Say Goes (with David Barsamian), Hegemony or Survival, and the Essential Chomsky.

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