Monday, December 12, 2011

Are we drifting toward war with Iran?

Quite few smart commentators fear that the lunacy of a political season in which completely irresponsible Republicans push a weakened President Obama to prove his warlike bonafides toward the government in Tehran has the United States drifting toward just such a folly.

Writing at the Middle East Research and Information Project, Farideh Farhi carefully describes how both the United States and the Iranian government have taken to whining "we tried" when questioned about the drift toward open conflict. The article is an informed, balanced look at the behavior of both governments

And, in addition to trying to force the rest of the world to adopt more and more stringent economic sanctions in response to an effort to build a nuclear weapon that our own spooks don't think is taking place, the United States is already engaging in covert operations that target Iran. Here goes another fantasy of war on the cheap. On December 6 Al Jazeera reported on a U.S. drone aircraft shot down over Iran.

Harvard Professor of International Relations Stephen Walt is worried about where this kind of adventure leads.

It appears that we have gone beyond just talking about military action to actually engaging in it, albeit at a low level. In addition to waging cyberwar via Stuxnet, the United States and/or Israel appear to be engaged in covert efforts to blow up Iranian facilities and murder Iranian scientists. ...

... waging a covert, low-level war is not without risks, including the risk of undesirable escalation. No matter how carefully we try to control the level of force, there's always the danger that matters spiral out of control. Iran can't do much to us militarily, but it can cause trouble in limited ways and it could certainly take steps that would jack up oil prices and possibly derail the fragile global economic recovery.

Moreover, if some U.S. operation misfired and a couple of hundred Iranians died, wouldn't the revolutionary government feel compelled to respond? If U.S. or Israeli operatives are captured on Iranian soil, will pressure mount on us to do more? (Just imagine what all the GOP candidates would start saying!) Such developments may not be likely, of course, but it would be foolhardy to ignore such possibilities entirely. Nor should we ignore the possibility that others will learn from this sort of "unconventional" campaign and one day use similar tactics against U.S. allies or the United States itself.

Foreign Policy

In Time World, Tony Karon focuses on how the Israel lobby -- AIPAC -- has successfully egged on both Republicans and Democrats to demand that the U.S. use its banking clout for what amounts to economic war on Iran. When AIPAC says "jump", politicians of both parties are conditioned by years of political threats to respond: "how high"? Karon is worried.

The Administration has warned that using the banking system to block Iran from selling oil could trigger a sharp increase in global oil prices, threatening the U.S. and world economy’s fragile recovery — even without such measures, tensions with Iran are already steadily pushing the price up. And Iran has previously warned that it would treat any attempt to bar its ability to sell oil as an act of war. But the legislators are hanging tough. ”The goal … is to inflict crippling, unendurable economic pain over there,” explained New York Democrat Representative Gary Ackerman. “Iran’s banking sector — especially its central bank — needs to become the financial equivalent of Chernobyl: radioactive, dangerous and most of all, empty.”

But it’s not only Iran that could be antagonized by the new legislation. The U.S. and its partners do very little business with the Islamic Republic today; the purpose of the new measures is to punish those who do. The Western powers have failed to persuade many of Iran’s key trading partners — China, Russia, Turkey and India, among others — to voluntarily support new sanctions, which they believe are neither justified nor likely to produce a positive outcome. The new measures envisioned by Congress use the centrality of the U.S. banking system in the world economy to strong-arm reluctant partners into complying with Western sanctions. ...

There may also be a deeper, unspoken concern, behind the Administration’s hesitation over putting Iran’s economy in a chokehold at this point: it could prove to be a not easily reversible step on the path to confrontation. If such sanctions are adopted as the only alternative to war, as the current debate frames them, their (likely) failure to bring Iran to heel renders armed conflict inevitable — at least as long as the logic that “the only thing worse than bombing Iran is Iran getting the bomb” prevails in the Washington conversation.

Escalation could even happen relatively quickly. Most states would treat an effective economic blockade that imposed “crippling, unendurable pain” as an act of war, and if Iran responds militarily, directly or via proxy forces or terror attacks, the two sides could find themselves quickly locked into potentially disastrous war. Yet, the domestic political dynamic in both Washington and Tehran raises the cost for leaders in both capitals of restraining the momentum towards confrontation.

Once upon a time, we had a notion in the United States that citizens ought to have a say when their leaders led them into war. These days, the country seems to be drifting closer and closer to yet another futile failed adventure in south central Asia after no sensible public discussion at all.

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