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Tomgram: Michael Klare, The Road to Hell in the Middle East

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

It's already long forgotten here, but the theocratic regime in Iran was really our baby. After all, in 1953, the CIA and British intelligence engineered a coup to replace a democratic government in Iran with the autocratic Shah and so gave Iranians just what they didn't want (including his creepy secret police, the Savak). In those days, however, blowback from such American acts didn't arrive with the speed of the Internet. It took a quarter of a century for our man in Iran to go down and the theocrats to rise. They were, of course, born of us (as in the U.S.), but no one talks about that anymore.

Then Washington switched partners. The administration of Ronald Reagan found someone else in the region we could really admire, another strongman by the name of -- does this ring a bell? -- Saddam Hussein. He ruled Iraq, not Iran, and like the Saudis of today (and the Israelis of just about any time), he wanted to take out the Iranian theocrats. (How familiar does that sound now that Donald Trump has done his best to smash the Iran nuclear deal?) In 1980, Saddam launched a war of aggression against that country. As the U.S. military now helps the Saudis with targeting intelligence and weaponry in their brutal war in Yemen, so it then helped Saddam, targeting Iranian military contingents, even knowing that Saddam's troops were likely to use chemical weapons against them. Five hundred thousand or so Iranians died in that invasion and the eight-year disaster of a war that followed. Then, in another curious reversal, Saddam suddenly became "Hitler," the ultimate evil one. In 1990, the U.S. military (and its allies) drove his troops out of Kuwait, and in 2003 the administration of George W. Bush took him out completely. And just in case you've forgotten that "mission accomplished" moment, let me remind you that, like so much else the U.S. has done in the region in these years, it didn't exactly work out splendiferously.

Now, as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare points out, we seem to be on a path to a Third Gulf War. Once again, Iran is the enemy. Once again, as in 2003, a president is surrounded by bellicose advisers intent on just such a war and looking for the right excuse to launch it. And if this doesn't seem eerily repetitive to you, well, what can I say -- except that this little history gives grim new meaning to the adage, often credited to philosopher George Santayana, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Tom

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Gearing Up for the Third Gulf War
Will Washington, Tel Aviv, Riyadh, and Tehran Face Off in a Future Cataclysm?
By Michael T. Klare

With Donald Trump's decision to shred the Iran nuclear agreement, announced last Tuesday, it's time for the rest of us to start thinking about what a Third Gulf War would mean. The answer, based on the last 16 years of American experience in the Greater Middle East, is that it won't be pretty.

The New York Times recently reported that U.S. Army Special Forces were secretly aiding the Saudi Arabian military against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. It was only the latest sign preceding President Trump's Iran announcement that Washington was gearing up for the possibility of another interstate war in the Persian Gulf region. The first two Gulf wars -- Operation Desert Storm (the 1990 campaign to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait) and the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq -- ended in American "victories" that unleashed virulent strains of terrorism like ISIS, uprooted millions, and unsettled the Greater Middle East in disastrous ways. The Third Gulf War -- not against Iraq but Iran and its allies -- will undoubtedly result in another American "victory" that could loose even more horrific forces of chaos and bloodshed.

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Like the first two Gulf wars, the third could involve high-intensity clashes between an array of American forces and those of Iran, another well-armed state. While the United States has been fighting ISIS and other terrorist entities in the Middle East and elsewhere in recent years, such warfare bears little relation to engaging a modern state determined to defend its sovereign territory with professional armed forces that have the will, if not necessarily the wherewithal, to counter major U.S. weapons systems.

A Third Gulf War would distinguish itself from recent Middle Eastern conflicts by the geographic span of the fighting and the number of major actors that might become involved. In all likelihood, the field of battle would stretch from the shores of the Mediterranean, where Lebanon abuts Israel, to the Strait of Hormuz, where the Persian Gulf empties into the Indian Ocean. Participants could include, on one side, Iran, the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and assorted Shia militias in Iraq and Yemen; and, on the other, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). If the fighting in Syria were to get out of hand, Russian forces could even become involved.

All of these forces have been equipping themselves with massive arrays of modern weaponry in recent years, ensuring that any fighting will be intense, bloody, and horrifically destructive. Iran has been acquiring an assortment of modern weapons from Russia and possesses its own substantial arms industry. It, in turn, has been supplying the Assad regime with modern arms and is suspected of shipping an array of missiles and other munitions to Hezbollah. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have long been major recipients of tens of billions of dollars of sophisticated American weaponry and President Trump has promised to supply them with so much more.

This means that, once ignited, a Third Gulf War could quickly escalate and would undoubtedly generate large numbers of civilian and military casualties, and new flows of refugees. The United States and its allies would try to quickly cripple Iran's war-making capabilities, a task that would require multiple waves of air and missile strikes, some surely directed at facilities in densely populated areas. Iran and its allies would seek to respond by attacking high-value targets in Israel and Saudi Arabia, including cities and oil facilities. Iran's Shia allies in Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere could be expected to launch attacks of their own on the U.S.-led alliance. Where all this would lead, once such fighting began, is of course impossible to predict, but the history of the twenty-first century suggests that, whatever happens, it won't follow the carefully laid plans of commanding generals (or their civilian overseers) and won't end either expectably or well.

Precisely what kind of incident or series of events would ignite a war of this sort is similarly unpredictable. Nonetheless, it seems obvious that the world is moving ever closer to a moment when the right (or perhaps the better word is wrong) spark could set off a chain of events leading to full-scale hostilities in the Middle East in the wake of President Trump's recent rejection of the nuclear deal. It's possible, for instance, to imagine a clash between Israeli and Iranian military contingents in Syria sparking such a conflict. The Iranians, it is claimed, have set up bases there both to support the Assad regime and to funnel arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon. On May 10th, Israeli jets struck several such sites, following a missile barrage on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights said to have been launched by Iranian soldiers in Syria. More Israeli strikes certainly lie in our future as Iran presses its drive to establish and control a so-called land bridge through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. Another possible spark could involve collisions or other incidents between American and Iranian naval vessels in the Persian Gulf, where the two navies frequently approach each other in an aggressive manner. Whatever the nature of the initial clash, rapid escalation to full-scale hostilities could occur with very little warning.

All of this begs a question: Why are the United States and its allies in the region moving ever closer to another major war in the Persian Gulf? Why now?

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The Geopolitical Impulse

The first two Gulf Wars were driven, to a large extent, by the geopolitics of oil. After World War II, as the United States became increasingly dependent on imported sources of petroleum, it drew ever closer to Saudi Arabia, the world's leading oil producer. Under the Carter Doctrine of January 1980, the U.S. pledged for the first time to use force, if necessary, to prevent any interruption in the flow of oil from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to this country and its allies. Ronald Reagan, the first president to implement that doctrine, authorized the "reflagging" of Saudi and Kuwaiti oil tankers with the stars and stripes during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War that began in 1980 and their protection by the U.S. Navy. When Iranian gunboats menaced such tankers, American vessels drove them off in incidents that represented the first actual military clashes between the U.S. and Iran. At the time, President Reagan put the matter in no uncertain terms: "The use of the sea lanes of the Persian Gulf will not be dictated by the Iranians."

Oil geopolitics also figured prominently in the U.S. decision to intervene in the First Gulf War. When Iraqi forces occupied Kuwait in August 1990 and appeared poised to invade Saudi Arabia, President George H.W. Bush announced that the U.S. would send forces to defend the kingdom and so played out the Carter Doctrine in real time. "Our country now imports nearly half the oil it consumes and could face a major threat to its economic independence," he declared, adding that "the sovereign independence of Saudi Arabia is of vital interest to the United States."

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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 (more...)
 

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