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Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett: Playing for Time on Iran

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Recently, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta finally said it.  The U.S. is "fighting a war" in the Pakistani tribal belt.  Similarly, observers are starting to suggest that "war" is the right word for the American air and special operations campaign against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in southern Yemen.  (There have already been 23 U.S. air strikes there this year.)  Call that a war and you're already up to three, including the Afghan one.

But consider the possibility that a fourth (partial) American war is underway in the shadows, and that it's in Iran.  This seems more evident today because of a recent New York Times report on the release of Stuxnet, the advanced cyberworm President Obama ordered sent to destroy Iran's nuclear centrifuges.  Since the Pentagon has defined such a release as an "act of war," it's reasonable to suggest that the U.S. is now "at war" with Iran, too.

In fact, you could say that, since at least 2008, when Congress granted the Bush administration up to $400 million "to fund a major escalation of covert operations against Iran," including "cross-border" operations from Iraq, war has been the name of the game. Meanwhile, U.S. special operations forces were secretly training members of M.E.K., an Iranian opposition-group-cum-cult that's still on the State Department's terror list, at a Department of Energy site in the Nevada desert; the CIA was running a large-scale drone surveillance operation against the country -- and that just touches on the shadowy American (as well as Israeli) state of war vis---vis Iran.

Having relabeled those conflicts, it might also be worth considering the way we describe our ongoing nuclear mania about Iran.  After all, the world is already chock-a-block full of nuclear weapons, including the thousands the U.S. and Russia still possess, as well as those of Pakistan, a country we seem intent on destabilizing.  And yet, the only nuclear weapon that ever seems to make the news, obsessively, repetitively, is the one that doesn't exist -- the Iranian bomb.

In times long gone, when a Chinese dynasty took over the "mandate of heaven," one of the early ceremonies carried out by the new emperor was called "the rectification of names."  The thought was that the previous dynasty had fallen into ruin in part because the gap between reality and the names for it had grown so wide.  We are, it seems, now in such a world.  Some renaming is surely in order.

This, in a sense, is the task Iran experts Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, who run the Race for Iran blog, take on in their first appearance at TomDispatch.  They remind us, among other things, that an American president did once decide to bring names and reality back together when it came to another rising regional power (which actually had nuclear weapons) -- and he traveled to China to do it, startling the world.  Unfortunately, though our planet has its surprises, it's hard to imagine that a second-term Obama or a first-term Romney would be among them when it comes to our country's Iran policy, which, in terms of reality, is the saddest story of all. Tom

Deep-Sixing the China Option: How the Obama Administration Is Stalling Its Way to War with Iran 
By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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Since talks with Iran over its nuclear development started up again in April, U.S. officials have repeatedly warned that Tehran will not be allowed to "play for time" in the negotiations.  In fact, it is the Obama administration that is playing for time.

Some suggest that President Obama is trying to use diplomacy to manage the nuclear issue and forestall an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear targets through the U.S. presidential election.  In reality, his administration is "buying time" for a more pernicious agenda: time for covert action to sabotage Tehran's nuclear program; time for sanctions to set the stage for regime change in Iran; and time for the United States, its European and Sunni Arab partners, and Turkey to weaken the Islamic Republic by overthrowing the Assad government in Syria.

Vice President Biden's national security adviser, Antony J. Blinken, hinted at this in February, explaining that the administration's Iran policy is aimed at "buying time and continuing to move this problem into the future, and if you can do that -- strange things can happen in the interim."  Former Pentagon official Michèle Flournoy -- now out of government and advising Obama's reelection campaign -- told an Israeli audience this month that, in the administration's view, it is also important to go through the diplomatic motions before attacking Iran so as not to "undermine the legitimacy of the action."

New York Times' journalist David Sanger recently reported that, "from his first months in office, President Obama secretly ordered increasingly sophisticated attacks on the computer systems that run Iran's main nuclear enrichment facilities, significantly expanding America's first sustained use of cyberweapons" -- even though he knew this "could enable other countries, terrorists, or hackers to justify" cyberattacks against the United States.  Israel -- which U.S. intelligence officials say is sponsoring assassinations of Iranian scientists and other terrorist attacks in Iran -- has been intimately involved in the program.

Classified State Department cables published by WikiLeaks show that, from the beginning of the Obama presidency, he and his team saw diplomacy primarily as a tool to build international support for tougher sanctions, including severe restrictions on Iranian oil exports.  And what is the aim of such sanctions?  Earlier this year, administration officials told the Washington Post that their purpose was to turn the Iranian people against their government.  If this persuades Tehran to accept U.S. demands to curtail its nuclear activities, fine; if the anger were to result in the Islamic Republic's overthrow, many in the administration would welcome that.

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Since shortly after unrest broke out in Syria, the Obama team has been calling for President Bashar al-Assad's ouster, expressing outrage over what they routinely describe as the deaths of thousands of innocent people at the hands of Syrian security forces.  But, for more than a year, they have been focused on another aspect of the Syrian situation, calculating that Assad's fall or removal would be a sharp blow to Tehran's regional position -- and might even spark the Islamic Republic's demise.  That's the real impetus behind Washington's decision to provide "non-lethal" support to Syrian rebels attacking government forces, while refusing to back proposals for mediating the country's internal conflicts which might save lives, but do not stipulate Assad's departure upfront.

Meeting with Iranian oppositionists last month, State Department officials aptly summarized Obama's Iran policy priorities this way: the "nuclear program, its impact on the security of Israel, and avenues for regime change."  With such goals, how could his team do anything but play for time in the nuclear talks?  Two former State Department officials who worked on Iran in the early months of Obama's presidency are on record confirming that the administration "never believed that diplomacy could succeed" -- and was "never serious" about it either.

How Not to Talk to Iran

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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