Negotiators for Iran, the U.S., Britain, China, France, Russia, and Germany are to meet in Turkey this Friday, face to face, for the first time in more than a year. There are small signs of possible future compromise on both sides when it comes to Iran's nuclear program (and a semi-public demand from Washington that could be an instant deal-breaker). Looking at the big picture, though, there's a remarkable amount we simply don't know about Washington's highly militarized policy toward Iran.
Every now and then, like a flash of lightning in a dark sky, some corner of it -- and its enormity and longevity -- is illuminated. For example, in 2008, the New Yorker's indefatigable Seymour Hersh reported that the previous year Congress had granted a Bush administration request for up to $400 million "to fund a major escalation of covert operations against Iran," including "cross-border" operations from Iraq. Just recently, Hersh offered a window into another little part of the U.S. program: the way, starting in 2005, the U.S. military's Joint Special Operations Command spent years secretly training members of M.E.K., an Iranian opposition-group-cum-cult that's on the State Department's terror list, at a Department of Energy site in the Nevada desert.
Similarly, from time to time, we get glimpses of the U.S. basing and naval build-up in the Persian Gulf, which is massive and ongoing. As for the skies over Iran, last year the Iranians suddenly announced that they had acquired -- downed, they claimed (though this was later denied by the Americans) -- an advanced U.S. spy drone, the RQ-170 Sentinel. Indeed, they had the photos to prove it. Until then, there had been no publicity about American drones flying over Iranian territory and initially the U.S. military claimed that the plane had simply strayed off course while patrolling the Afghan border.
Last week, however, a range of typically anonymous officials leaked to Washington Post reporters Joby Warrick and Greg Miller the news that the CIA's drone surveillance program over Iran was more than three years old, large-scale, and itself just part of an "intelligence surge" focused on that country. According to their sources, "The effort has included ramped-up eavesdropping by the National Security Agency, formation of an Iran task force among satellite-imagery analysts, and an expanded network of spies." In addition, under former CIA Director Leon Panetta, "partnerships" were built "with allied intelligence services in the region capable of recruiting operatives for missions inside Iran."
Such reports and leaks give us at least the bare and patchy outlines of a concerted military, covert action, spying, surveillance, and propaganda program of staggering proportions (and that's without even adding in the Israeli version of the same, which evidently includes the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists). All of this, we have to believe, is but part of an even larger set of intertwined, militarized operations against a modest-sized regional power with relatively limited military capabilities. It's a program that we're sure to know less about than we think we do, filled with what former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld would have called "known unknowns" as well as "unknown unknowns."
TomDispatch regular Juan Cole, who runs the always invaluable Informed Comment website, does a remarkable job of offering us a full-scale picture of the complex economic underpinnings of the present Iran-U.S.-Israeli crisis and the unnerving dangers involved. But for the full, grim story of Washington's campaign against Tehran, we are reliant either on the next Bradley Manning, a future WikiLeaks, or declassification of the necessary documents in time for our grandchildren to grasp something of the folly of our moment. (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Cole discusses the consequences of sanctions on Iran, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom
Why Washington's Iran Policy Could Lead to Global Disaster
What History Should Teach Us About Blockading Iran
By Juan Cole
It's a policy fierce enough to cause great suffering among Iranians -- and possibly in the long run among Americans, too. It might, in the end, even deeply harm the global economy and yet, history tells us, it will fail on its own. Economic war led by Washington (and encouraged by Israel) will not take down the Iranian government or bring it to the bargaining table on its knees ready to surrender its nuclear program. It might, however, lead to actual armed conflict with incalculable consequences.
The United States is already effectively embroiled in an economic war against Iran. The Obama administration has subjected the Islamic Republic to the most crippling economic sanctions applied to any country since Iraq was reduced to fourth-world status in the 1990s. And worse is on the horizon. A financial blockade is being imposed that seeks to prevent Tehran from selling petroleum, its most valuable commodity, as a way of dissuading the regime from pursuing its nuclear enrichment program.
Historical memory has never been an American strong point and so few today remember that a global embargo on Iranian petroleum is hardly a new tactic in Western geopolitics; nor do many recall that the last time it was applied with such stringency, in the 1950s, it led to the overthrow of the government with disastrous long-term blowback on the United States. The tactic is just as dangerous today.
Iran's supreme theocrat, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has repeatedly condemned the atom bomb and nuclear weapons of all sorts as tools of the devil, weaponry that cannot be used without killing massive numbers of civilian noncombatants. In the most emphatic terms, he has, in fact, pronounced them forbidden according to Islamic law. Based on the latest U.S. intelligence, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has affirmed that Iran has not made a decision to pursue a nuclear warhead. In contrast, hawks in Israel and the United States insist that Tehran's civilian nuclear enrichment program is aimed ultimately at making a bomb, that the Iranians are pursuing such a path in a determined fashion, and that they must be stopped now -- by military means if necessary.
Putting the Squeeze on Iran
At the moment, the Obama administration and the Congress seem intent on making it impossible for Iran to sell its petroleum at all on the world market. As 2011 ended, Congress passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that mandates sanctions on firms and countries that deal with Iran's Central Bank or buy Iranian petroleum (though hardship cases can apply to the Treasury Department for exemptions). This escalation from sanctions to something like a full-scale financial blockade holds extreme dangers of spiraling into military confrontation. The Islamic Republic tried to make this point, indicating that it would not allow itself to be strangled without response, by conducting naval exercises at the mouth of the Persian Gulf this winter. The threat involved was clear enough: about one-fifth of the world's petroleum flows through the Gulf, and even a temporary and partial cut-off might prove catastrophic for the world economy.
In part, President Obama is clearly attempting by his sanctions-cum-blockade policy to dissuade the government of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu from launching a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. He argues that severe economic measures will be enough to bring Iran to the negotiating table ready to bargain, or even simply give in.
In part, Obama is attempting to please America's other Middle East ally, Saudi Arabia, which also wants Iran's nuclear program mothballed. In the process, the U.S. Department of the Treasury has even had Iran's banks kicked off international exchange networks, making it difficult for that country's major energy customers like South Korea and India to pay for the Iranian petroleum they import. And don't forget the administration's most powerful weapon: most governments and corporations do not want to be cut off from the U.S. economy with a GDP of more than $15 trillion -- still the largest and most dynamic in the world.