Revolution Online, October 6, 2008

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7 Sept 2008

Some Comments and Observations on "An Assessment of the Momentum Towards War Between the United States and Iran"

I just had a chance to read through this paper one time. I found it very interesting – in terms of approach, method of analysis and conclusions.

Here are some comments/observations which are not any kind of structured analysis nor necessarily in order of importance.

***Obviously one big change since the paper was written are the recent events in Georgia. This is both a sign of a leap in Russia’s determination to assert itself, and it has implications for what is happening around Iran. Could Iran join the SCO? What would that mean?

One related note to that: I have seen analysis which say that the actual goal of Russia’s policies vis a vis Iran is to both prop up Iran (give it some backbone versus the US) as well as at the same time going along with the US to a degree in relation to the idea that Iran has no right to enrich. But the overall goal of this policy is to help bring about a US attack on Iran which some think could be Bush’s (ie. US-imperialism’s) Waterloo. There could be something to this.

1. I agree with a central point of the paper: the WOT (used to mean the US offensive for world hegemony) does not make sense and, as it is presently conceived, probably cannot succeed without some form regime change in Iran. This is a very powerful compulsion to attack. At least Bush and his close circle still appear committed to this idea.

QUESTION: Are the neo-cons right when they claim that only regime change in Iran can bring about a situation in which the US can reshape the region to suit the goals of the WOT?

2. Question: why does the report say in point 2 at the top of page 4 that there are two approaches, and that one of them basically rules out a military attack? My impression was that Bush et. al. favor an attack now or relatively soon, and that the other approach (“new approach”) hopes to achieve its ends without this, but does not rule it out in the long run.

3. One question is how much of a red-line for both Bush and Israel is Iran acquiring the knowledge and technology to enrich (not necessarily making a bomb). There are a number of aspects to this. For example, hype aside, how close is Iran to actually having this? More fundamentally, it is very true that the Israeli nuclear monopoly in the Middle East is very important for both Israel and the US. It would be a very major problem if Iran were to actually deploy nuclear weapons along with effective delivery systems for their use. Not because Iran would ever contemplate first use of these weapons (that would be suicide), but because it would create a major deterrent element that would undoubtedly have a serious limiting effect on both the bullying and intimidation that the US and Israel can do in the region and even on the actual military options they could call upon. This would, under current circumstances, be an unacceptable shift in the balance of power in the region as far as the US and Israel are concerned. If you want to do what the US wants to do in the Middle East, you cannot live with an Iranian bomb. This seems at this point in history to be a truth.

At the same time, it is also a fact that having enrichment technology and capability is not the same thing as having actually built a working nuclear weapon. The imperialists and the Zionists say publicly that it is, but this is not true. It is still a leap to go from low- enriched to highly enriched uranium, and then you have to go from a critical mass of fissionable material to a weaponized device. Remember, when the North Koreans tested their device, US spokesmen were very careful not to call it a “bomb” (they would only call it a device). This is not nitpicking. It is one thing to be able to build something that will produce a nuclear chain reaction. It is something else to make it small enough to be carried on top of a missile, or even by an airplane.

In addition, it is not possible to use the same centrifuges to do low-level enrichment and high-level enrichment and hide this from inspections. Even the current level of inspections would reveal this almost immediately. That means that unless the Iranians have separate enrichment facilities that are not being inspected, they cannot even produce fissionable material without it becoming quickly known – well before even a single bomb could be built.

I raise this because of the “threshold question.”  Is it really true as the Zionists say, that there would be no way of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons once they have mastered the enrichment process? In their public statements this is what they are constantly saying. Bush also says things that are very similar, although I am not sure that he actually says that this would be the point of no return as the Zionist do.

However, in thinking about this point more, I have come to the (current) conclusion that this is not true (at least as far as I understand it right now). If it is not true, then it is also not objectively true that you either strike now or face a nuclear-armed Iran in the near future. This does not seem to be a minor point in terms of the imperialists’ room to maneuver. For even if Iran gets advanced enrichment capability, if you overthrow current regime at a later date (or make some kind of historic compromise) and install a pro-US regime, you can dismantle the nuclear capabilities (see South Africa, Libya, etc.). Looked at in this fashion, it does not appear that from a weapons technical point of view there we are approaching some kind of absolute deadline.

To put it another way, if what is written above is correct, then there is in fact the possibility of adopting a strategy which says that the US should back off from an attack now, carry out further economic, political, diplomatic and destabilization activities, try to gather more public and international support, stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan and then push things to a show down – including military attack if necessary.

Now, you can from an imperialist point of view make a lot of arguments against doing this, but it would seem that the argument that Iran is about to get the bomb is not really one of them – it is not a necessity that the imperialists are currently facing. If it were, then their objectively existing options would be a lot more limited.

My impression is that the longer-term approach is the one that the Obama team is currently pushing. This does not mean that even if Obama gets elected (which to me right now looks like the most likely result), that he will not be forced by circumstances and events to escalate on a faster track. I am talking here about how I read their present comments. Overall, the line his camp seems to be running right now is that to win the WOT some shifts and realignments are necessary – including escalating in Afghanistan and expanding into Pakistan. (As a side-note: I do not see how – as long as they do not make a deal with the Taliban – they can accomplish much militarily against the Taliban if they do not expand their operations into Pakistan in a major way. Of course this brings all kinds of dangers with it as well.)

In light of what has happened in Georgia and the failure (at least for now) of the US to be able to do anything about it – including being unable to rally the major West European powers to its position on this (with the exception of the UK), you can make the case that the window of opportunity for cementing a US dominated unipolar world is closing and therefore immediate action must be taken. But that is an argument and not a proven irrefutable fact.

4. Does a cohesive alternative to the Bush vision have to exist in order for there to be enough ruling class opposition to an attack Iran so that it can be stopped? In other words, even if you do not currently have such a strategy, if you are convinced that an attack on Iran is certain disaster, is that enough for an imperialist “hasten and await” mode to be able gain the upper hand in today’s context?

5. There is no united European position on Iran (and in that statement I include Russia as being part of Europe). There is also no united EU position on this, nor a united NATO position. From an overall point of view, with the exception of the UK, I cannot see how it is in the interests of any major European power for there to be US controlled regime change in Iran and especially if that is to come through a major military action. I believe this is a geo-political fact of life. Of course a Middle East in which Iran is a major regional power is also not their idea of a perfect world. But which is better/worse: dealing with Iran as part of the equation in a multi-polar world, having a US dominated uni-polar world order for the foreseeable future, or having years or even decades of chaos in the Middle East which is constantly spilling over into Europe?

Through a combination of bribes and threats it may be possible for the US to get some others in Europe to actively support its approach, but it will be very hard to achieve even this (again I am talking about the major powers and not Poland, Sweden, Netherlands, etc.).

-- Germany’s current position is that “there is no military option”. This policy was first enunciated by Schröder while he was still in office, and it remains the stated policy. If Merkel tried to change this, her government would probably fall. As a side note: contrary to what is often written in the US press, Merkel is not a strong Chancellor. In fact, she is the weakest Chancellor since before Willy Brandt, and possibly the weakest in post-war history. She does not have a majority in her own cabinet (it is split evenly between the her party, the CDU/CSU, and the SPD – no previous Chancellor failed to have a cabinet majority). In a parliamentary system, this means she can do nothing without the SPD going along. More importantly, I think the German position on Iran described most corresponds to the interests of German imperialism at this time. That makes it hard to change even if she wanted to. This does not mean that Gemany can actually do anything drastic to stop such an attack – it can’t. But it is fairly certain that it will not actively support it – not even politically. This does not necessarily mean a joint press conference with Putin to denounce it however. It does mean that Germany is trying to do all it can through diplomacy and other maneuvers to prevent such an attack, which is widely viewed here as a recipe for disaster.

More fundamentally, Germany is opposed to a US dominated unipolar world order. In a recent op-ed piece, Schröder wrote: “With the end of the Cold War and bi-polarity we experienced a transitional phase of American dominance. Now the world is searching for a new order, and everything is pointing to a future in which world politics will have a number of poles. Along with the USA the global importance of Russia, India and China is growing. Whether a united Europe will have the strength to develop into a significant actor in world politics remains open. Current events and setbacks still give no grounds for optimism.” (Die Zeit, 17.7.08).

Notice he refers to “American dominance” in the past tense (“experienced”). This has an element of wishful thinking, as in reality it is still not a settled question. However, at the same time, he seems to be saying to the ruling class in Germany that a multi-polar world is where things should go, and where in his opinion they are most likely to go. Therefore, from his point of view, Germany should work toward this and base its strategy on that. This is, of course to a certain extent, a polemic against some of the things Merkel says at times – he claims that she just does not “get it”.

Unnamed German officials have stated that, from their point of view, if there was a settlement in which Iran got security guarantees, an end to sanctions, etc. and in return gave up any nuclear weapons work (should it exist) as well as large scale enrichment, support for Hezbollah/Hamas, etc, then there could also be some continued symbolic small scale enrichment so that Iran would not have to formally give up its rights under the NPT. Germany considers this a good deal and as far as I can tell Iran has offered to do something along these lines. Of course the US has not been willing to accept such a thing so far.

-- Currently both Spain and Italy seem to share Germany’s opinion.

-- Up until recently, the German position has also been the position of France as well. Chirac even went so far as to say that it would not be such a big deal if Iran got a few warheads. Since Sarkozy caem into office there has been a lot of talk about France making some kind of basic realignment in its foreign policy. I am skeptical of this. If this is true, where is the hard policy evidence for this (not Merkel-style atmospherics)? More importantly, what changes have taken place in France’s basic geo-political/geo-strategic position that would necessitate/allow such a basic shift? Schröder says the US offensive is failing, if he is right why would someone want to jump onto a sinking ship? It is possible that the US has offered France a bigger piece of the spoils, but is that enough? What if the whole thing backfires and all hell breaks out – not just in the Middle East, but in Europe as well. This is a complaint of the Germans – the US unleashes chaos and then the Europeans have to suffer the consequences.

As for Sarkozy’s statement “bomb Iran or an Iranian bomb” and Koucher’s “prepare for the worst” – why does this necessarily mean that France supports a US attack on Iran? Could it not be just a statement of fact, and a waning that everyone in Europe who does not want to see war should pull together to try to force Iran to back down? Also, there is the loose canon element with both Koucher and Sarkozy. They took office with the idea that they were going to shake everything up, but it is not necessarily as simple as that. If the policies they are promoting do not actually best advance France’s interests, they will have a hard time organizing enough ruling class support so as to be able to actually implement them. (For example: at the end of last week Koucher said that sanctions against Russia would be considered at the EU summit that took place this past Monday. The next day the Russian foreign minister Lavrov said this was a “sick” idea. A day later Koucher said that sanctions would not be considered and they weren’t. I would not be surprised if between these two statements one or more phone calls from Berlin got Koucher’s attention that he needed to back off that kind of talk.)

Look at Berlusconi: he was part of the coalition of the willing in his first term, and now he is essentially backing Russia in Georgia.

The overall point here is that imperialist support in Europe for an attack on Iran is very limited. It is true that all the big powers in Europe are united in being against Iran getting the bomb, and they are also united around being able to dictate who can have enrichment technology (essentially they all agree the NPT should be torn up and since there is currently no way to do this diplomatically, it should just be done through bullying and intimidation). But most of the major powers do not currently want to achieve that goal if it means risking total chaos for a result whose world strategic aims are not in line with how they perceive their own best interests.

All of this adds an additional measure of uncertainty to launching such an attack. What if it fails, destabilizes the whole Middle East and pushes a number of Europe’s major powers even closer to Russia? I believe there are important forces in the US ruling class who see this and this adds to their apprehension about such an adventure.

6. The US currently has 20 operational B2 bombers, not 200 as is stated in the text. Maybe this was just a typo*. The basic point about Statcom etc. is nevertheless correct in my opinion.

7. Related to point 6: it is possible that as a prelude to an attack the US will actually pull its aircraft carriers out of the Persian Gulf. They can operate effectively from outside the range of Iranian anti-ship missiles. It is possible that right now there is only one or maybe even no carriers in the Gulf. The point about losing a capital ship to create opinion for war is well taken – also to justify using nukes.

8. There is a lot to the observation that the results of the WOT so far have shown that – and contrary to what Rumsfeld and some others thought – if the US holds to the volunteer army model, the WOT cannot be successful without using at least tactical nukes. Iran could be the place to make that statement in practice. They will say that such weapons are small and less destructive than certain conventional weapons (or less destructive than the massed use of conventional weapons) and point to some to their own crimes in WWII (Hamburg, Dresden, etc.) and Vietnam and then say that using these small “precision nukes” is “more humane”.

9. On the timing question: the observations about the last days of the Bush regime, the shuffling of top generals and the strategic importance of the Israeli nuclear monopoly in the Middle East (both for Israel and the US) are in my opinion all correct. They point to a heightened danger of this attack taking place before Bush leaves office (if I had to guess right now I would say that the preferred timing would more likely be after the election, but before the end of the year).

This does not mean that it actually will happen. It is not that simple. There are those voices who are calling for a strategic pause in the offensive, a re-grouping and re-assessment etc. As the paper also points out, within the military – and more broadly in the government – there are those who are very much against such an attack and think it will have dire negative consequences for US imperialism’s worldwide position. Do they have enough institutional strength to hold off the Bush/Cheney clique (and Israel)? Could there be some major fissure/eruption due to this contradiction?

The ground component of the US military is severely strained. They are now trying to increase the active force by 100,000 in the next few years. The Reserve is also being expanded by 75,000 or so. Even then, they will have a hard time maintaining the current pace of operations. There are all kinds of equipment, maintenance and training issues. As the paper points out (and as the events in Georgia helped show), this strain has weakened their ability to deal with contingencies in other parts of the world. The articles from Woodward’s new book also point to what seems to be a widespread opinion among the top ranks of the US military that the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have weakened the US’s overall strategic position and essentially tied up its strategic ground component (maneuvering force). Such weakness will only embolden those who would challenge the US.

What would the response be among different sections of the population if the draft were reactivated? Of course they would probably use some kind of real or manufactured crisis to do this, but still¼ More strategically, they are holding on to the all-volunteer model for as long as they can. It has some important advantages for them, but weaknesses as well. The biggest weakness is that if you get into a situation where large numbers of ground forces are needed, you just don’t have them readily available. If you train people that they do not have to sacrifice for the common cause (Bush’s famous call for people to do their part in the WOT by going shopping at the mall), then it is hard to change this without a lot of fallout. I suspect that this is at least one contributing factor to the “complacency” component that is now being observed among the US population (not solely or even mainly, but this is undoubtedly part of it). That is one reason why they want to hold onto to it. An attack on Iran that misfires or opens up widespread fighting across the region might force their hand on this question.

This again raises the question of opposition to a near-term attack on Iran from within the military. Such opposition is clearly present at the highest levels. As the paper points out the Bush clique has made important moves to push such people aside¼ but have they done enough to really clear the deck?

During WWII Hitler was constantly moving generals around and playing them off against one another to get people who would carry out his plans into key positions to do this. So it is certainly no small matter that these things are happening – along with pushing the whole Christian fascist thing within the military. I might also add, that in order to get the High Command to go along with invading the Soviet Union he distorted some intelligence reports so that the High Command thought the Soviet Army was preparing to invade Romania (which it was not). He told them that protecting the Romanian oil fields was crucial to the German war effort (it was), so that they had no choice but to strike first in order to preserve control over this source of oil. This is what seemed to have broken the institutional opposition to a possible two front war and opened the way for Operation Barbarossa to be launched.

Could some of the talk about being vigilant during the transition also be a way of talking about the need to prevent the Bush clique from pulling the trigger on Iran during that period? From what the paper says, it doesn’t look like it. On the other hand, Fallon turned out to be opposed even though Bush apparently thought he supported this course, so who knows for sure? Also, people can change their minds based on events and developments.

As far as I can tell, McCain supports an attack now and Obama’s people, while supporting the WOT overall (or at least its strategic aims), seem to lean toward no attack now, regime change through other methods with maybe an attack later – if necessary – with better preparation.

I believe it is true that Bush thinks that god has anointed him to overthrow the regime in Iran before he leaves office – but does that mean that he absolutely will try through means of a massive military assault? More importantly, if he does not or cannot, will that mean the end of US-imperialism’s WOT? More broadly, is it possible that the US imperialists could be forced to accept that the WOT has failed to achieve its grand aims and that they have to readjust to something less overarching? Even if they do not like this, is it absolutely unacceptable? Would they rather blow the top off the Middle East and see where the pieces fall then face up to such a conclusion? I would be careful about formulating “absolutes” in regards to questions like this.

8. I am not certain what the results of the “surge” in Iraq show: if “surge” is taken to mean all the things the US has done since announcing the build-up in Jan. 2007. I am not sure if this was an integrated strategy or some different pieces that happen to have come together, not all of which were planned or intended from the start.

On the military side, I have seen no evidence that outside of Baghdad the additional US troops made any kind of qualitative difference (and I cannot see how they could have). The US has achieved a huge drop in its casualties and a significant drop in Iraqi puppet casualties as well. But this appears to be the result of 2 main developments:

1. Moktadar has called and basically enforced a cease-fire since May 2007. This may be a result of pressure from Iran and/or a deal with the US, but it was not because his forces were defeated on the field of battle.

2. The US shifted from supporting Maliki and opposing the Sunni insurgents to supporting both! This looks from here to be an approach aimed at forcing Maliki, the Supreme Council and the other Shiite forces aligned with them to accept some kind of power sharing with the Sunnis, and maybe also as a lever to pry these same forces away from Iranian influence. At the same time it also represents at least a de facto recognition that Iran currently exercises significant influence in Iraq and the US cannot change this short-term or just within the confines of Iraq itself.

It is still far from clear if this is actually going to work out. In any case, while bringing more relative stability, fewer causalities, etc. it also at the same time undermines the Maliki government and its authority. There is still not an effective comprador regime (or army) in Baghdad that exercises central power in the Arab sections of Iraq. This approach may be consciously based on getting some temporary stability to prepare conditions for an attack on Iran and then finishing the job in Iraq when that has been accomplished: a kind of imperialist “survival pending counter-revolution” approach. But that is different from having made lasting and decisive gains. All the talk about “fragile” and “reversible” gains and the debate in the Bush regime about pulling some more troops out of Iraq (although still not returning to pre-surge levels) points to this as well.

As for fragility: it would seem that Moktdar can change course at any time of his choosing and a recent article by Biddle said that the US had signed 200 local agreements with various Sunni forces in order to get their “Sons of Iraq” thing to the point where it is now. The US is paying these people and giving them local authority where they operate. It also promised to integrate them into the Iraqi security forces. Maliki on the other hand, is talking about disarming all and even arresting some of the “Sons of Iraq”. How long can that last?

I see where the paper quotes the neo-cons who think that on the whole things are not going too badly with the WOT. I do not doubt that they say such things, but are they in a parallel universe or what? See my point 7 about the strains on the US military. This looks like a crisis – and one that is intensifying. How far can this be pushed before there is some kind of leap and things start breaking down in major ways? A military confrontation in some other region of the world – especially one where the availability of ground troops plays an important role – would likely bring this too a breaking point very quickly.

I don’t think there can be any doubt that Maliki was trying to help Obama when he started talking about timetables for withdrawal. To me it looked like the Iranians are trying to meddle in US politics in a fashion similar to what the Vietnamese did with the Tet offensive. I don’t think the US will go for some fixed timetable – that seems completely out of the question at the current time. But the show Maliki is putting on, along with Moktadar’s talk of disbanding the Mehdi army, sure look like a conscious strategy to help the Democrats and maybe even try to maneuver the US into committing to a full withdrawal. That would be a huge Iranian victory.

I tend to think that under present circumstances if Maliki pushes this too far there will be a US sponsored coup of some kind (probably military).

9. What would happen if Obama wins the election and then before the inauguration Bush launches an attack? How will Obama respond? Will he be forced to support it or will he say that while everyone must stand behind the troops, this was a hasty and dangerous act and try to roll it back? What will the masses (in the US and internationally) think? If Obama does not clearly support it, it will look like Bush wanted to push his agenda even though the voters chose something else – i.e. he subverted “democracy”? What would that mean for public opinion/mood? If Obama does not oppose it, will it then look like he has capitulated, is a liar or both?

Final Note: The danger of an attack on Iran is real. This could be by design or by miscalculation or accident. This is something we need to make people aware of, build opposition to and prepare for. At the same time I think it such an attack in the near term is far from certain. This is also something we need to be aware of and take into account.

The Bush/Cheney clique seems to want to go that way before he leaves office. Other ruling class forces seem to be pushing back against this. The neo-cons record so far has been one of one miscalculation after another. I do not see any good case that can be made to the contrary. In Neo-Con world they may think they are succeeding, but how many ruling class figures and operatives – both in and out of government – actually believe this? The offensive strategy around which the Bush/Cheney-clique is united gives them certain cohesion and weight vis a vis those who oppose an attack on Iran right now. But can one say that under present circumstances and in light of current difficulties this is enough to be able to go ahead and carry such an attack out?

Finally, is it really true that the US cannot achieve it main goals in the WOT if there is not regime change in Iran? Is it certain that some kind of “grand compromise” would not fit the bill? If Iran agreed to stop supporting Moktadar, stop all other meddling in Iraq, stop support for Assad, Hezbollah and Hamas and anti-Karzai forces in Afghanistan, do no high-level enrichment and re-instate intrusive sanctions, give the US preferential access to Iranian energy reserves – if they did all these things, then wouldn’t that be enough? And if not, if that is the best the US can get right now without initiating a military confrontation, could the US agree to this for now? I think if they could get all that right now, it would be a good deal for them.

If the Iranian regime gave all that and in return got an end to sanctions and hard security guarantees, would that not have some attraction for them? I think it would have to. Now maybe some forces in Iran would say that making such a deal would weaken and ultimately fatally undermine the legitimacy of the regime¼ but that is an argument and not a proven fact. They could also argue that it would represent giving up too much in a situation in which the US is not strong enough to carry through its threats. How the other big imperialist powers act – especially Russia – will influence this calculation for the Iranian rulers. Again, I would be careful about absolute formulations around these questions – it doesn’t seem to work that way. Also, this is not like the run-up to the invasion in Iraq. There things got fairly locked in months ahead of time and it would have taken some major unforeseen event to have thrown that train off the tracks – although even in that case, this was not impossible.

There is necessity and accident. The main actors in this drama will make evaluations and decisions based on a myriad of factors which in my opinion are still too much in flux to make a hard and fast prediction about – except to say that things like this are right now very unpredictable.


*Note from Working Group: Thanks for catching this.  The “heart of STRATCOM” is 200 strategic bombers (meaning they can reach anywhere in the world from US bases), but they are not all B2's.  This fleet includes B1, B2, B52 and F117A planes.[back]

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