American public opinion has turned strongly against the war in Iraq. After a strong anti-war vote in the November mid-term elections, politicians from both major parties are under pressure to oppose an aggressive foreign policy.
Yet, the world still stands on the brink. The United States and Israel may be about to start a wider war in the Middle East by attacking Iran, sparking more of the violence that CIA Director Michael Hayden called "almost satanic."
After the Republican defeat at the polls last November, it seemed unlikely that President Bush would be able to escalate the wars he started. Foreign policy realists within Republican ranks seemed to win an advantage over neo-conservatives. Donald Rumsfeld was out as defense secretary; his replacement Bob Gates had advocated dialogue with Iran. The Iraq Study Group, headed by Bush family friend James Baker, advocated a steady withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq and diplomatic engagement with Syria and Iran.
Yet over the past week, foreign policy observers have been abuzz with indications that the White House may be planning an attack on Iran soon. In his prime-time speech last week, the President accused Iran of supporting attacks against U.S. forces and promised to "seek out and destroy" support networks, though administration officials have provided no evidence of this claim. Around the same time as the speech, in a raid condemned by the Iraqi government, U.S. Marines stormed an Iranian diplomatic post in northern Iraq and captured five Iranians. This could be aimed at creating an incident similar to the Gulf of Tonkin that would be used to justify war.
The President has ordered another group of warships into the Persian Gulf, specifically targeting Iran. The naval force includes anti-Patriot missile batteries, which have no conceivable use against insurgents in Iraq. Their deployment only makes sense as a defense for Arab Gulf states against missiles launched by Iran in response to an attack.
Once again, the public case for war is bogus. The CIA's best estimate is that Iran could not develop a nuclear weapon for another ten years, assuming it wants to. No evidence that Iran is providing support to Iraqi insurgents has been made public. And now it has been reconfirmed that Vice-President Dick Cheney dismissed an Iranian offer of peace in 2003, with the Iranians offering the same concessions that the White House now claims to be seeking.
Iran is not like Iraq was before the 2003 invasion. Iraq had been stripped of any ability to defend itself through war and 12 years of regular bombing and sanctions. (Those sanctions also killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis by devastating public health infrastructure.)
Iran could defend itself. Any attack from the U.S. or Israel would consist of bombing and missile attacks, rather than ground troops. The immediate number of people killed would certainly be in the thousands. Iranian retaliation could increase that number and create economic shockwaves throughout the world.
The war could easily escalate, especially if US-supported dictatorships like Egypt and Pakistan are toppled by their angry populations. Hundreds of thousands or millions more people could be killed in the regional conflagration. (Hundreds of thousands have already died in Iraq, according to the best scientific study of casualties there.)
In the face of such a threat, our movement to compel a better foreign policy, end war and recognize the sovereignty of other peoples, must build on recent victories. The protest planned for Washington, DC, on Saturday, January 27, can provide one focus of our energy. That event will include a day of citizen lobbying to confirm that we expect this Congress to fulfill the mandate given it by voters last November.
Congress is increasingly reading the writing on the wall. The day after President Bush's prime-time speech in which he threatened war with Iran, Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee took Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to task. Chairman Joe Biden said that an unauthorized attack on Iran would create a "constitutional confrontation." Republican Senator Chuck Hagel compared an attack to Nixon's invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War and condemned it.
Yet President Bush, who never has to face another election, has made it clear that he will push ahead despite Congressional opposition. So Congress must take real action to bar an attack on Iran.
Two pieces of legislation that have been introduced in the House of Representatives deserve much more support than they have so far received. Republican Walter Jones and Democrat Peter DeFazio have introduced resolutions stating that the President needs to seek congressional authority before taking military action against Iran. Grassroots pressure on Congress is needed to get more co-sponsors on both bills.
The next month or two may be crucial to prospects for world peace for decades to come. The United States, together with its ally Israel, might attack Iran, risk sparking a wider war, and fuel a cycle of violence. Or the American public, by compelling Congress to act, could prevent an attack on Iran, stop a surge of troops into Iraq, and eventually force an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Patrick McElwee is a national organizer with Just Foreign Policy and former legislative assistant at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. He can be reached at patrick (at) justforeignpolicy.org .