Global Policy Forum

Experts Predict US Attack on Iran

Democrat's Diary
October 7, 2005

On the same evening that the UK Foreign Office announced its belief that Iran had been behind all the British troop deaths in Iraq this year, a talk was given in London on the subject of whether a US attack on Iran is in prospect. The following is as full an account as possible of that talk Given the now widespread acceptance that the invasion of Iraq has been a disaster, and the political crises now surrounding the Bush Presidency, you may be surprised by what you read here; and alarmed, given the credentials of the speakers. They were:

Dan Plesch: a former Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies and regular interviewee providing political and military analysis for the BBC, CNN, ITN and other news media.

Scott Ritter: ex of the US Marine Corps and former chief UN Weapons Inspector in Iraq between 1991 and 1998

Fred Halliday: Professor of International Relations at LSE

Participating chair: Ewen MacAskill, Diplomatic Editor, The Guardian

Dan Plesch began by saying that the question posed in the description of the talk, "is Iran heading ineluctably towards a military confrontation with the United States", should have been put the other way around. It is the US that is heading for confrontation with Iran. This time as last, war fever will be based around the issue of WMD; here Iran's supposed nuclear weapons programme. Today's announcement will fit into the general build-up. In truth, Iran's involvement in southern Iraq can hardly come as a surprise to the UK since it delegated authority in that part of the country to militia's armed and trained by the Iranians some time ago.

Will Iran ‘do a Libya' and give up any WMD programme for the commercial and diplomatic benefits of a new relationship with the west? Probably not. Will the US/UK accept a continuation of Iran's current defiance on its right to civilian nuclear technology? Probably not. Hence military action will follow. Such action would not involve a full ground invasion since the US doesn't have enough troops available. The more likely course of action is a set of air strikes on military and political targets throughout the country.

Would this be electoral suicide? The Reagan government had two maxims: firstly, always have a bad guy, and secondly, when in trouble change the subject. Its attacks on Libya and Grenada fit this approach. So, in the current political circumstances, would an attack on Iran. Its also worth noting that US defence spending, whilst vast, is still at a relative low as a percentage of GDP, by US standards. The argument from military Keynesianism – ie using a state of real or perceived conflict to boost the economy through military spending into the technology sector; the ‘Pentagon subsidy' – therefore applies. As for political opposition, there's little chance of the Democrats standing up for Iran (as any opposition would be portrayed) and in the UK, probably only a Tory government under Ken Clarke would oppose an attack, and that could split his party.

Scott Ritter said that most people see foreign relations, e.g. the build up to the Iraq war, as having to do with legitimate security concerns. This notion needs to be abandoned. US foreign policy has nothing to do with national security and everything to do with the domestic position of the neo-conservative officials in the White House. Going back to their earliest incarnation in the Republican administrations of the 1970s, people like Cheney and Rumsfeld saw the Cold War as a "good guy/bad guy" narrative that could be used to shut off political debate, wherein any opponents could be accused of treachery. This modus operandi was employed in the case of Iraq – as it had to be since the case wasn't based on fact - with Saddam playing the role of the bad guy. It will be used again here, just as it has been used in exploiting 9/11, to pursue a policy of perpetual conflict with global hegemony as its goal. This was explicitly spelled out in the National Security Strategy of 2002, which stated bluntly that the US would tolerate no rival to its power anywhere on the planet.

Ritter was unequivocal. This will happen, he said. The US has all the troops it needs: air crews for its bombers. Events will unfold in a familiar pattern. First, the deception, based around talk of a security threat. Remember that there is no proof of Iranian violations of the NPT. Iran is in full compliance. Second, confrontation in the field of international diplomacy. The ‘EU3' (UK, France, Germany) have essentially been duped by the US into involving themselves in negotiations that it has no intention of allowing to succeed. When the impasse reaches the UN the US will challenge the international community to act. When the non-existent case is rejected, as the US hopes it will be, the air strikes will follow.

Ritter stated categorically that planning for these attacks is taking place "right now". After the air strikes, four divisions of US troops will invade through Azerbaijan, heading straight for the Iranian capital, Tehran. The aim will be to create the conditions for a civilian uprising to emerge and depose the regime. ‘Usable nuclear weapons' ("and the thing about ‘usable nuclear weapons is, they're usable") will be retained as an option. Of course none of this will work. It will lead to another disastrous military defeat. Further, any use of nuclear weapons will "uncork the genie", with terrible consequences. Ritter finished by urging everyone present to press their government to prevent this from occurring.

Fred Halliday said that recently an Iranian diplomat told him, "we won!" Now there is no more Taliban, no more Saddam, two regional rivals defeated, and Iran effectively controls southern Iraq. Iran, the diplomat told him, is now the indispensable regional power. This fits into a historic patter of Iran overestimating its strength. One example is the decision, pushed by the Revolutionary Guard, to continue the war against Iraq in 1982, after Saddam had moved to negotiate.

Iran's policy at present appears to be one of "nuclear ambiguity", as pursued by Israel and South Africa in the past, ie a nuclear energy programme accompanied by the presence of at least a suspected weapons capability. This has the advantage of substituting for larger conventional forces and enhancing Iran's status and bargaining power on the international stage. There are also regional security concerns sending Iran in this direction. Israel has nuclear weapons, as do Russia, India and Pakistan. Saudi Arabia is reportedly developing a capability with Pakistan's assistance, both of them US allies. In addition, it seems clear that if Saddam had had nuclear weapons Iraq would not have been invaded.

It was also worth noting that, like many revolutionary regimes, the Iranians tend to romanticise the notion of a nuclear deterrent. Leading on from this Dan Plesch pointed out that disarmament through diplomacy is proven to work in countering proliferation, e.g. the USSR. If we genuinely worry about new countries like Iran developing nuclear weapons there's much we can do about it - aside from the fraudulent US/UK manoeuvrings. The mechanisms are there in shape of the many disarmament and non-proliferation treaties drawn up between the mid-80s and the mid-90s. We can contribute something concrete and positive to the coming debates by advocating a proactive stance on global disarmament through genuine international diplomacy.

Continuing, Fred Halliday said that there is a new mood of nationalism in Iran. This is partly a reaction to the perceived external interference of international nuclear inspections. There is also a sense of resilience, born of 3,000 years watching western imperial adventures come and go over the centuries.

Iran is controlled, less by the clergy, and more by officials with links to the military and the security forces; the people that fought Iraq in the 1980s. These people are confident to the point of belligerence. They also believe they will have a long term close ally in Iraq. Moreover, the government has popular support, which will put up a fight against any aggression. There'll be no ‘Orange Revolution' in Iran.

In Washington in 2003, the modish phrase was, "wimps go to Baghdad, real men go to Tehran". There's a grudge here going back to the Iranian hostage crisis over 25 years ago. But this is really about who holds regional power: the US (and its allies Israel and Saudi Arabia) or Iran.

Finally, we should note that we cannot isolate ourselves from events in the greater Middle East. Suez was one of the great British post war political disasters. Conflict in Algeria hastened the collapse of the French Fourth Republic. The USSR's collapse was at least related to its defeat in Afghanistan. President Carter was severely damaged by his failure to handle the hostage crisis, as was Reagan's government by the Iran/Contra scandal.

Ewen MacAskill had just arrived from hearing the aforementioned announcement from a "senior source" at the Foreign Office. He expressed belief that any British involvement in an attack on Iran would split the cabinet and cause the Labour Party to haemorrhage support. That said, MacAskill claimed to "know" that Blair fully supports Bush on the issue.

As for Iran, it has its international involvements, for example its deals to supply energy to China, its involvement in Iraq and Lebanon, so it is in a fairly strong position the global stage.

Ultimately, given the mess Iraq is in, MacAskill said he thought it unlikely that there would be any attack on Iran.

Responding to this, Scott Ritter said that the US was "already committing acts of war on a daily basis" against Iran, including cross border operations, reconnaissance missions and so on, all of which are violations of Iran's sovereignty.

Fred Halliday said it was worth noting the significance for Iran of its close neighbours India and Pakistan gaining their own nuclear capabilities in 1998. Additionally, there is much merit to the argument put forward by Scott Ritter with regard to the machinations of US domestic politics, and Noam Chomsky has written a great deal on the role of military Keynesianism in stimulating the economy. However, the part played by events in the Middle East is also significant. Iran certainly has its own regional ambitions. It has challenged the US in the past and Washington has not forgotten this. The debate for the Iranians at the moment, according to Halliday, was "how long do we let the US bleed in Iraq before we kick them out?" It was also worth noting that Iran would be "no angel" as a regional power.

Dan Plesch pointed out that the US was not in any way constructively engaged with the negotiations over Iran's nuclear capability fronted by the EU3. He described one of the offers made to the Iranians that he'd been informed of by people involved in the discussions. In return for Iran promising never to pursue any nuclear capability, civilian or military, the UK and France (not anyone else) would promise not to use nuclear weapons against Iran in any conflict. Hardly a sign of serious dialogue taking place.

Questions were than taken from the audience.

How credible is Israel's threat to attack Iran, and what would be the consequences of that threat being carried out?

Dan Plesch said that the US/UK planned to play the role of responsible nations acting to prevent this disaster by attacking Iran themselves.

Scott Ritter said that the Israeli lobby is the most powerful in Washington in the field of foreign affairs, embodied by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which no politician dares to stand up to. Israel will not tolerate so much as an Iranian civil nuclear energy program. He said he was told by the Israelis in 1996 that they had a plan in place for any future attack on Iran. The plan for specific strikes in the near term is being drawn up now, but the US wants to pre-empt this by attacking first. Originally this was scheduled for June 2005, but when the nomination of the neo-con John Bolton to the post of US Ambassador to the UN stumbled in Congress the plans had to be postponed. Bolton is central to the diplomatic side of the US strategy.

Fred Halliday said that Israel's real concerns were related to Iranian support for the Palestinians, in the form of Lebanese Hizbollah and Islamic Jihad, rather than with the issue of nuclear warheads.

Thinking particularly about the Shia communities around the world, how might a US assault on Shia Iran play out, other than in the military sphere?

Scott Ritter said that the neo-cons are aware of the potential for Shia unrest all across the region that could be triggered by an attack on Iran. They just weren't overly concerned by it. The Iranians, by contrast, are counting on a reaction from the wider community to play a part in any response, should they survive the initial attacks.

Fred Halliday, looking more broadly at the possible implications in the region, pointed out that Afghanistan, which neighbours both Iran and US ally Pakistan, could be destabilised by any US-Iranian conflict. Iran has its links to the wider Muslim community for example in that it is committed by its constitution to help the world's Muslims, but there are limits to this in the military sphere. The Iranians haven't invaded a country since 1736.

Mention of oil has been conspicuous by its absence. What is the role of oil here?

Dan Plesch said that oil is the reason that the greater Middle East is significant in world affairs. Currently the US, Russia and China are in fierce competition over access to and control over energy reserves throughout Central Asia. Elsewhere, given global shortages and peaking demand, many people - NGOs, some governments – are asking how we can wean ourselves off oil, and how fast.

Scott Ritter said that when considering the question of oil the US had, in the past, engaged with the realities of the region. The neo-cons see things differently. For them, realities are there to be subordinated to their will, as they seek control of oil and other essential resources as part of their wider strategy of dominating the globe.

Fred Halliday said that if the US interest in Iraq had been purely about access to oil it could have done a deal with Saddam. The concerns of hegemony and credibility were also factors.

The Iranians are part of the problem in Iraq, so aren't we justified in retaining the threat of force when dealing with them?

Scott Ritter answered that Iraq is our disaster. We decided to invade based on a case for war that was entirely devoid of fact. Now Iraqis are attacking our troops, not Iranians. This is a problem of our own making so the solution can only come from us, and that solution is to withdraw, not to try and shift the blame onto Iran.

On the subject of Iraq, Fred Halliday said that we have to consider, now that we are there, what the least irresponsible thing to do by the Iraqis would be. The last time we cut-and-ran in the Middle East was in 1948, and the consequences were dire. But Dan Plesch did not agree: "‘I mugged you and broke your leg, and I now demand the right to set it in plaster for you?' I don't think so".

How can accusations of WMD proliferation be made with any credibility after Iraq?

Scott Ritter said simply, "no problem". Those who lied their way to war paid no serious political price for doing so. Bush has been exonerated in several inquiries on the subject. At least as far as the non-existent Iraqi WMD is concerned, they got away with it.

There would be serious logistical difficulties with invading Iran, particularly the circumstances on the ground post-invasion. How would the US control such a situation?

Scott Ritter, again, was completely unequivocal. We can discuss the feasibility of a military operation for as long as we want but the fact is that it is happening, right now. You can test this by checking the deployment of US National Guard units internationally. You'll find them concentrated round the Caspian Sea area, in particular Azerbaijan where they'll back up the four infantry divisions who'll be launching their drive to Tehran from there. The military strike will come in three stages. Firstly, air strikes. Secondly, pressure on the regime from ground troops around its borders and encircling Tehran. Thirdly, the Iranian people will rise up and overthrow the regime themselves. And yes, this last part at least is total fantasy. But fantasy is reality in the neo-con's Washington.

The evening finished with a warning from Dan Plesch to those intending to engage in political activism to avert any possible attack on Iran: don't wait for the Labour left. Scores of backbenchers wrote to Kofi Annan saying that Blair should be tried for war crimes, but when it came to doing anything about him themselves they spurned the opportunity. Plesch and others had put together a case to impeach Blair for misleading the country into war. MP's from almost every political party signed up, including Tory QCs and former cabinet ministers. Not one Labour MP, including those due for retirement, joined the campaign, and its in no small part because of them that we are where we are now.

More Information on Empire?
More General Analysis on the Threat of US Intervention in Iran
More Articles on Iran
More Information on Iraq


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.