The airwaves and the headlines are full of talk of a U.S. military strike against Iran. That is as it should be - the danger of such a reckless move is real, and rising, and we should be talking about it. The Bush administration claims that negotiations are their first choice. But they have gone to war based on lies before, and there is no reason to believe that they are telling the truth this time.
They have put the military - and even, horrifyingly, the nuclear - option at the center of the table. Don’t worry, they say, even if a preventive military strike is needed, we're only talking about “surgical” attacks on Iran's nuclear facilities - no one, they say, is talking about invasion. It can’t happen, some say. The military brass knows their troops are bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, they appear to be strongly opposed to a strike on Iran.
And we know that any military strike on Iran - ANY strike - would be a violation of international law prohibiting preventive war. And George Bush now admits that "preventive war" - not his earlier claim of pre-emptive war - is indeed his strategic doctrine.
We know that according to the International Court of Justice, even threatening to use nuclear weapons is a violation of international law - and the Bush administration is threatening to use nuclear "bunker-buster" bombs to attack Iran. We don't hear much about it, but we know the National Academy of Sciences has found that "the use of such a weapon would create massive clouds of radioactive fallout that could spread far from the site of the attack, including to other nations. Even if used in remote, lightly populated areas, the number of casualties could range up to more than a hundred thousand…"
We know all that. But what if the Bush administration orders it anyway? What if they DO carry out just such a strike, nuclear or otherwise? Then what? What happens the day after?
Practically no one is talking about that. And that makes this whole threat even more dangerous. It's as if the Bush administration believes that the day after they bomb Iran, everything will be over, except maybe for the happy campers in the streets of Tehran cheering and clamoring for the U.S. to bomb some more to help them change their regime. Maybe they really do believe that. We have to assume there are plenty of Iranian versions of Ahmad Chalabi around Washington, exiles eager to return to power on the backs of U.S. tanks, urging the White House on.
But there's no reason we should believe them. Given the history of lies and deceit that underpinned the Bush administration's invasion and occupation of Iraq, we have no excuse for buying their lies once again. Fool me once…fool me twice, after all.
Let's look at reality, instead of lies, distortions and weasel-words. If the U.S. attacks Iran - with nuclear or "conventional" bombs - it is virtually certain that Iranian retaliation will be swift and lethal. Iran's surrounding neighborhood is, as the military jargon puts it, "target-rich." Iran's military strategists will have a wide choice.
A direct attack on U.S. troops in Iraq or elsewhere in the region (Oman and Qatar are both possibilities) is only the first option. Iran's military is certainly no match for the Pentagon, but serious retaliation doesn't require that; Tehran has plenty of conventional capacity to target those troop concentrations.
How about Israel? Tel Aviv has been making bellicose threats towards Iran even before the Bush administration took up the crusade, and Israel's 1981 destruction of Iraq's French-built nuclear power plant at Osirak still looms large in Middle Eastern memories. Iran's missiles can certainly reach Israeli cities. And given President Bush's statements that Iran represents a threat to Israel, and that the U.S. will do whatever is needed to "protect our ally," it is certainly possible that Iran's retaliation will target Israel, regardless of whether it is ultimately U.S. or Israeli bombers that drop their lethal payload.
Another possibility would be an attack through proxies, particularly in Iraq. Iraqi Shi'a and others, outraged by the expansion of Washington's war to Iran, could well push already unstable parts of the country over the edge. Southern Iraq could collapse into chaos and violence. (Conversely, the widely-discussed claim that Iran might retaliate against the U.S. by "turning loose" Hezbollah to commit rampant terror attacks around the world appears to be grounded less in facts than in febrile Washington imaginations. Such a scenario assumes that Hezbollah, a decades-old anti-occupation movement in Lebanon created to resist Israel's 1982 invasion, is nothing more than a cat's-paw of the Iranian regime that Tehran can deploy at will. It denies the reality of Hezbollah's independent, popular legitimacy, including its powerful representation in the Lebanese parliament, and the fact that despite long-standing Iranian support, Hezbollah's strategic imperatives are driven by Lebanese, not Iranian, realities.)
And what about the oil weapon? Iran certainly has the capacity to shut the strategic, but potentially vulnerable, Strait of Hormuz, through which a huge proportion of Middle Eastern oil flows to the rest of the world. What if the Iranian navy scuttled an oil tanker in the Strait, blocking oil traffic? What if it was a U.S. tanker?
Do we really think the Bush administration - which so far has steadfastly refused even to hint at the possibility that Iran might respond with anything other than cheers and flowers to a U.S. bombing campaign - would respond to Tehran's military retaliation politely, saying "oh of course we anticipated an Iranian strike-back, it's just tit-for-tat and now it's over"? Or do we think they will be true to form and move towards powerful retribution against Iran, possibly including the invasion by U.S. ground troops that we're being told today is not even being considered?
Some military analysts indicate Iran's troops these days are training primarily in defensive guerrilla-war strategies, seemingly aimed at overcoming a future invasion. That shouldn't surprise us. Iran, like the rest of the world, has watched the Bush administration's disparate treatment of the various "Axis of Evil" countries. It has escaped no one's notice – certainly not Iran's – that the U.S. invaded Iraq, a country that had no viable nuclear program, while quietly ignoring North Korea, understood to have at least the technical capacity to produce, and perhaps already having, an existing nuclear weapon. We can assume that other countries around the world have learned the same dangerous and tragic lesson – that Non-Proliferation Treaty or not, if you get on the wrong side of Washington only a nuclear capacity might protect you from a possible U.S. invasion.
At the end of the day Iran has been pretty clear about what it wants. It doesn't seem to want an actual nuclear weapon (both the late Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor have issued religious prohibitions, or fatwas, against such weapons) although there's little doubt that President Ahmadinejad appears to believe that posturing aggressively about "going nuclear" will help his flagging domestic ratings. (Sound familiar?) What Iran really wants, and has asked for, is serious negotiations with the U.S., based on equality, not humiliation. And at the end, a security guarantee that neither Europe nor the UN, but only the U.S. itself – the world's "sole super-power" and the only nuclear weapons state threatening to actually use its nuclear arsenal – can provide.
For all sides, talk is crucial. Nuclear weapons - in anyone's hands - are a nightmare that should be abolished once and for all, as the now-fading Non-Proliferation Treaty anticipated so many years ago. Certainly Iran should abjure any search for nuclear weapons - but that's not going to happen alone. What we need - what we ALL need - is a weapons of mass destruction-free zone throughout the Middle East. So not only no nukes for Iran, but let's be sure Israel signs the NPT and places its unacknowledged but highly provocative Dimona arsenal of 200-400 high-density nuclear bombs under international supervision, and then allows the inspectors to destroy them. Let's be sure no country in the Middle East is running a chemical- or biological-weapons program - the poor countries' nuclear weapons substitute of choice and an unfortunate inevitability as long as Israel has a nuclear monopoly in the region.
And it’s way past time for the U.S. to make good on its own NPT obligations to move towards full and complete nuclear disarmament. As long as Washington laughs off that obligation, and officially rejects it, it is hard to imagine why any other countries should take seriously a U.S. demand that take nuclear weapons off their agenda.
Ironically enough the U.S. is already on record supporting just such a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. Article 14 of UN Security Resolution 687, that ended the 1991 Gulf War and imposed crippling sanctions on Iraq, states that disarming Iraq should be viewed as part of "establishing in the Middle East a zone free of all weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to deliver them."
The language was written by the U.S. It's time we held Washington accountable to that pledge. Let's talk to Iran.
Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and works with the United for Peace and Justice Coalition. Her most recent book is "CHALLENGING EMPIRE: How People, Governments and the UN Defy U.S. Power."