Obama’s Inaugural and the Danger of an Iran War

President Obama addressed the big issues of war and peace in his inaugural address, and despite the vagueness of some of his pronouncements, they contain strong clues to his foreign policy agenda in the Middle East. His announced policy will be one of ending US military engagements abroad, multilateral cooperation with allies to face security challenges, negotiation, and avoidance of further military entanglements in the Middle East. In other words, Syrians are on their own, France can have Mali, and Iran is probably not going to be bombed.

Unfortunately, Obama’s stated vision and commitments are open to revision by reality. George W. Bush campaigned in 2000 against nation-building exercises, then took on two countries’ worth of them. Obama’s extreme sanctions against Iran, which are already denying children needed medicine and consist of a kind of blockade (a legitimate casus belli in international law), could well blow up in his face in ways he does not now anticipate.

He said on Monday:

“This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience. A decade of war is now ending. An economic recovery has begun. America’s possibilities are limitless. . .

We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war. . . we are also heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war, who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends, and we must carry those lessons into this time as well.

We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law. We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully – not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear . . . We will support democracy from Asia to Africa; from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.”

Obama has already fast-tracked the end of active US war-fighting in Afghanistan to this spring, and for the next 18 months or so the main activities of US forces in that country will be training troops of the Afghanistan National Army and providing them logistical help and back up in their own fights with insurgents.

What this decision of Obama means is that as of some point this spring, the US will no longer be at war for the first time since September, 2001 (though some fighting may occur in support of Afghan units). And within two years, the US will be largely out of Afghanistan. It is possible and perhaps likely that the US subsidiary drone war in the north of Pakistan will be mothballed as full sovereignty returns to Afghanistan (I certainly hope so).

By his slamming of “perpetual war” (a conception typical of some of the Neoconservatives and former VP Dick Cheney), Obama is anticipating an era of peace and prosperity.

So we may conclude that he has no intention of bombing the Iranian nuclear enrichment research facilities at Natanz near Isfahan in Iran.

Some people will be disappointed at Obama’s diction here. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been jumping up and down until he is blue in the face demanding a US attack on Iran and threatening to do it himself if Washington won’t. I have all along maintained that Netanyahu lacks the capacity to attack Iran, and that the Department of Defense does not want him cowboying that way in the sensitive Persian Gulf. The Department of Defense is aware that the thousands of US personnel at the US embassy in Baghdad (can you say, huge enormous Benghazi?) are vulnerable to attacks by the Mahdi Army if Israel bombs Iran, as are US facilities in the Gulf such as the al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar and the US naval base in Manama, Bahrain. That is, there is no such thing as a unilateral Israeli military action against Tehran. Any such strike would immediately cause attacks on US facilities in the region and bring the US into the war. Therefore, the DoD and the top brass have repeatedly told Netanyahu not to dare act out.

All the Israeli leadership had been left with was wishful thinking, as with President Shimon Peres’s recent expression of confidence that if all else fails (i.e. if Iran cannot be deterred from its enrichment activities), he is sure that Obama will attack Natanz.

Likewise, the American right wing, whether militarists such as Sen Lindsey Graham or the Neoconservatives in Congress (e.g. Michelle Bachmann, Eric Cantor), are spoiling for a fight with Iran. The arms manufacturers and the thousands of subcontractors to the Pentagon are facing penury in the absence of a new war, unless they find other things to do. (I’ll bet you they can make less expensive, more efficient solar panels if they try.) With the planned reductions in the war budget, which could be quite steep, the US may finally get the ‘peace dividend’ it was promised but never could collect when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Defense-related industries are very inefficient means of creating jobs, and almost anything else they turned their talents to would produce more jobs for less investment. There are going to be enormous demands for more efficient energy storage, inexpensive desalinization, and other tasks related to climate change, to which electronics firms could well make key contributions. They’ll just have to do that instead.

Obama had already signaled his determination not to be pushed into war by the Israel lobbies through his nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense. The shameful and outrageous attacks on Hagel by lowlifes such as Elliot Abrams (who should be in jail for lying to Congress and involvement in Iran-Contra and Nicaragua) as an “anti-Semite” have crashed and burned, perhaps forever blunting this sleazy tactic deployed by Jewish nationalists against their critics.

Obama also spoke of reviving multi-lateral institutions for confronting joint security challenges. It is not clear what he meant by that– perhaps reforms to NATO?

There are three dark clouds over Obama’s vision of peace and prosperity.

The first is America’s drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Any time you are dropping bombs on people, whether from an airplane or via a drone, you risk escalation to war. Yemen has too few developed resources to be at risk from an American occupation under ordinary circumstances. But there are things that radical Yemenis could do that would force Obama’s hands, not least an attack on the US embassy. If Obama really wants an era of peace and prosperity, he has to end the drone wars and hand security tasks off to allies.

The second danger is the Israeli Likud government’s final destruction of any two-state solution and permanent denial to millions of Palestinians of the rights of citizenship. Permanently stateless Palestinians will be an element of disorder that is unpredictable, and the near term and medium term actions of their supporters among governments and peoples are likewise impossible to guess at. But this final denial of hope to the Palestinians by Netanyahu is unlikely to pass without incident, and any incident is likely to draw in the US, willy-nilly.

The third danger, more consequential, is the unanticipated outbreak of hostilities with Iran. The financial blockade that the US Congress and the US Treasury Department has imposed on Iran has cut Iran’s petroleum exports by 40% in the past year. It probably does not threaten the stability of the government, and the ayatollahs will find ways of protecting themselves even as the subaltern social classes feel the real pain. But the unilateral interference with Iran’s legal commerce in petroleum, far beyond what UNSC resolutions foresaw, could provoke Tehran to do something stupid. The US financial and, in 1941, petroleum blockade of Japan provoked the Pearl Harbor attack (Japan wanted to break out toward the oil in the Dutch East Indies and resources in British Malaya, were afraid the US would try to stop them, and so wanted to neutralize the US fleet).

The rationale for the extreme US sanctions is that Iran is attempting to construct a nuclear warhead, which is not a proven proposition and against which there is a lot of evidence. Iran once again recently underlined the fatwa or religious ruling by chief theocrat Ali Khamenei that the construction, stockpiling and use of nuclear bombs is strictly forbidden in Islamic law.

Iran could well get desperate this year. An aide to Khamenei, the Iran supreme leader, has announced that the removal of Bashar al-Assad in Syria is an unacceptable “red line.” It would make it impossible for Iran to continue to stretch a security umbrella over Lebanon, protecting it via Hizbullah rockets from Israeli expansionism, since Iran’s land bridge to Beirut through Iraq and Syria would be cut off. An Iran without a pro-Tehran government in Damascus would be much diminished in the Middle East.

The survival of the Nouri al-Maliki government in Iraq in the medium term is also not assured, and if (admittedly this is unlikely) a Sunni Arab- Kurdish- Secular Shiite coalition could be forged, the pro-Iran Shiite religious parties could lose control of the Iraqi parliament in the 2014 elections. If Iran lost both Syria and Iraq, it would be effectively contained for the first time since 2003.

Saudi Arabia seems likely to win out over Iran in Bahrain, as well.

Add to all that Iran’s economic woes, imposed by the US Department of the Treasury and by Neocons and Tea-Partiers in the US congress, and the more adventurous elements of the Iranian military and para-military could be provoked to unwise action.

In short, Iran’s leaders may feel as though they are being drowned and about to be snuffed out by geopolitical reversals and American blockade. Obama has Iran in an imperfect stranglehold, the most dangerous possible posture. His theory may be that if Iran’s leaders feel sufficient pain, that will bring them to the negotiating table. If so, he needs to set talks in motion immediately. Allowing the current financial blockade to fester is an enormous risk.

Wanting an era of peace and prosperity and getting one are not the same thing, and everyone in Washington should remember the law of unintended consequences.

32 Responses

  1. Obama all but declare (new) USA Independence. Now it is up to all of us to go to the (new) 4th-of-July.

  2. Obama has never been in a stronger negotiating position with Iran. It looks right now like that position will be strengthening. He has beaten back neoconservative/Israeli obstructions to negotiations; he probably wants a de-escalation, having no fundamental beef with Iran, and Iran is probably more ready to deal to eliminate the boycott if US shows a reasonable negotiating position. A Syria and Lebanon de-coupled from Iran is no guarantee they will be any more supportive of Israel. On the contrary, the institution of a democracy in Syria could be very bad for Israel. Look for Obama to surprise everyone by entering into serious negotiations with Iran.

    • 1. Iran does not want to negotiate. MANY religious authorities inside Iran have issued ‘Fatwas’ making an ‘islamic nuke’ a religious duty.

      Israel wants only that Iran not shoot nukes at Israel or arm terrorists with nukes. Negotiations and anything elsde that will accomplish this are very welcome. However, no person paying attention to the last 15 years of Iran’s nuke program and what happened with North Korea believes negotiations will accomplish anythings towards minimizing nuclear proliferation (a longtime American policy goal).

      2. Lebanon and Syria will, of course, not be ‘supportive of Israel’. This is a religious war. But removing Iran as the orchestrator of policy and funder/trainer/supplier of terrorism will lower the level of friction. Israel wants Syria and Lebanon to be for Syria and Lebanon and not tools/puppets of Iran.

      3. My gosh, so many words about WWII Japan. Does anyone remember that Japan was a war-momgering bunch of war-criminals at that time ? Does anyone remember the ‘rape of nanking’, cannibalism in the Phillippines, the Burma road, medical testing on POW’s, etc, etc.

      Many hold Japan worse than Nazi Germany. They murdered millions and millions.

      • Ajnn:

        “1. Iran does not want to negotiate.”

        A more accurate statement would be like -“I ran does not want to negotiate what is living up to their potentials”

        Oh wait, but then again no other sane country would wanno do that.
        Never mind.

        Faramarz Fathi

      • The issue is, sir, did the US bungle negotiations with Japan by threatening to destroy it with sanctions?

        But that’s likely to be over your head, so how about why fascists came to power in Germany and Japan?

        1. “Liberal” Britain and France enslaved vast tracts of Africa and Asia for their elites to exploit; Germany and Japan got in too late and were prevented from getting the really juicy pieces.

        2. The democratic Japan of the ’20s was humiliated by the US passing an immigration law that treated Japanese as an inferior and undesirable race (because IQ tests are infallible, you know), and the Washington Naval Treaty that required Japan’s navy to be 60% the size of either the US and UK.

        3. The Great Depression, caused by runaway capitalist speculation in the US, went global because of a trade war the US helped provoke with tough tariffs. This destroyed both Germany and Japan’s export-driven economies, while the US, Britain and France exploited their colonial empires and satellites.

        You right-wingers always start every timeline where the people we raped start fighting back, not where we raped them. But then, to paraphrase a famous bank robber, most nations are enslaved with a corporation, not a gun.

    • Since the Lebanese Civil War in the 1970s, the Shi’ite political fortunes in that nation have steadily risen, initially through the Amal Party and militia, led by Nabih Berri, and later through the extremist Islamic fundamendalist Hezbollah Party and militia headed by Hassan Nasrallah. This has been aided by the Assad regime in Damascus both militarily and via its intelligence operatives within Lebanon assasinating various Christian and Sunni political leaders over the years. Also the birth rate among Shi’ites in Lebanon was significant higher than other groups within that nation – giving a gradual population percentage increase to Shi’ites.

      The Israeli occupation following the 1982 Operation Galilee that ended in 1999 served to crystallize support for Hezbollah in South Lebanon and resulted in Hezbollah becoming a major political force within Lebanon, holding numerous seats in the Lebanese parliament. Nasrallah emerged a national hero following the 2006 Second Lebanon War; the Lebanese Christian president had announced during that conflict, Hezbollah was fighting the IDF with the full support of the Lebanese government.

      However, the pendulum can only swing so high and the decline of the Baathist control over the Syrian government may diminish the fortunes of Shi’ites – especially Hezbollah within Lebanon. Military supply lines to Hezbollah may be interrupted by a new regime in Damascus.

    • In both 2001 (after 9/11, particularly at the Bonn Conference) and 2003 (after the US invaded Iraq), Iran showed a clear willingness to enter meaningful negotiations with the US. In both cases, it was the US, working from neocon-type reasoning, that shunned Iran. Therefore, when the US later did send positive signals toward Iran, Iranian leaders didn’t trust the US. (It should not be hard to understand that Iran has conflicting groups in its leadership. Thus when the US shuns Iranian overtures, those elements seeking better relations with the US are compromised.)

      Iran needs some clear, tangible gestures from the US such as an easing of sanctions. Then, Iran will also require to have its legitimate security needs in the Gulf region respected. Once such moves are made there is a real possibility for better relations.

      Iran is not Saudi Arabia. Iran has a flawed democracy, rights for women, and an impressive scientific community. Its revolutionary days are long gone. If the US is looking for long-term allies in the Gulf, Iran is a good choice.

      In fact, when Israel finally gives up its abhorrent goal of Greater Israel (and much that goes with it), Iran is a natural ally for it as well. Israel and Iran “have not always been rivals, nor are they natural competitors. They do not have territorial disputes. They do not compete economically. They have traditionally maintained distinct regional zones of interest (the Eastern Mediterranean for Israel and the Persian Gulf for Iran). Their shared geopolitical interests led to years of cooperation before and even after Iran’s 1979 revolution. Arab governments have regarded both countries with great suspicion, while both viewed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as the greatest obstacle to their national security interests.” link to detailedpoliticalquizzes.wordpress.com

  3. The sanctions show the ruthlessness and lack of respect for human life by Israel and the Israeli lobby.We only have to look at the boycott of the Gaza where food and medicines are rationed, causing near starvation coupled with unnecessary deaths to the Palestinians…all laid at the doorstep of the radical Zionist and supported by useful idiots like Lindsey Grahams in the senate and house.

    I would like to see Obama follow in Nixon’s footsteps. When Nixon visited the communist, human rights violator China, he made history. Obama should be able to extend an olive branch to Iran by visiting the country and having direct negotiations about their nuclear ambitions. Just to see the reaction from FOX NEWS would be worth the effort.

    • Prez Obama is not about substance; he’s simply trying to get another Nobel Prize with that speech.

      Recall the number of US forces in Afghanistan when he took office, and compare it to the number today.

      Recall how many nations were under drone attack 4 years ago, versus today.

      Look up how many nations in Africa had US troops in an active military posture (as opposed to attaches at Embassies) then and now.
      Make the same comparison for Asia.

      Whatever the rhetoric, this Administration thrives on “all war, all the time.”
      And let’s not get started on “rule of law.”

  4. it would be interesting to read your ‘why’ as to the Russian and Chinese support of Assad & Co. and where you see that going. Have I missed in your archive, or ?

  5. A very interesting piece.

    I don’t see how Obama’s speech supports the idea that “Syrians are on their own.” You mention both the “multilateral cooperation with allies to face security challenges” and “We will support democracy from Asia to Africa; from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.” Both of these doctrines are completely in line with, for instance, our role in the UN mission over Libya, and can apply to Syria, too.

    I find the claim that the targeted strikes against al Qaeda could lead to war with Somalia, Pakistan, or Yemen highly implausible. The governments in all three of those countries – such as they are – are supportive of those strikes. In Pakistan, it’s the strikes against the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban – the large, local militias – that are controversial.

    If you’re not talking about those states going to war against us, but rather the underground terrorists themselves, I’m afraid that horse is out of the barn. They are already at war with us, to the extent they can be, and have been for at least a decade and a half. Since Obama ramped up the campaign of targeted strikes, their capacity to wage that war has been decimated. In 1999, they very nearly sunk an American warship. In 2001 – well, we all know what happened in 2001.

    • Do we? There is a lot of disagreement on the perps, but nobody with any power of thought could be surprised at the response and the terrible consequences. US policy has been able to destroy countries for decades, and the excuses change, but the violence extends.

  6. obama, like all presidents, is the pr frontman for business as usual ..

    do you think the usa powers behind the scenes are going to let china have afghanistan’s mineral wealth?

    do you think usa powers behind the scenes are ready to let israel grow up?

    i don’t

  7. Can someone please explain to me what is meant by “Saudi Arabia seems likely to win out over Iran in Bahrain, as well.”?

    • Bahrain is ruled by a Sunni monarchy. Sunnis’ are a minority in Bahrain, Shiites are the majority. When the Shiites rebelled a short time ago they were accused of being a cat’s paw for Iran. They were brutally suppressed by the monarchy with help of the Saudi military. The US said little and probably approved the operation. Our base remains secure for the time being.

  8. Still, there is a geopolitical and psychological momentum that has been building toward “DOING something” with Iran. Against which you have an informed Obama and who appreciates how others have been bamboozeled into such foolishness, and the military bureaucracy, which knows better.

    This momentum exists as a force in its own right, and its relentlessness will, at least, outlast Obama’s remaining years, and he’s just one man; what about the Congress, and, as you point out, what is essentially the blockade we are now managing against Iran. Add to that the reality of how an un-neutered Iran, i.e. nuclear latent at a minimum, will hamstring Israel’s freedom of action and the mindset that has become increasingly belligerent since 1948.

    There really is no telling precisely how “something” will happen with Iran, but happen it will, and the pace of likud needs is such that its hard to imagine things going another 4 years before they “find” a way to “do something.” There does to appear to be a good chance it will not happen in the legalist way they these things are usually managed by the US to unfold, but happen it will.

  9. When Pres Obama spent a while making his decision regarding extension of the war in Afghanistan it seemed to me that the Presidency in the US isn’t as strong a position as people think it is. It is as though certain warmongering elements have to be appeased — and that includes a certain segment of the population which will never learn anything.

    Also,as a veteran of the Iraq Occupation I realize that the US will never come to grips with what we did to Iraq .

  10. I have repeatedly made clear my opinion that the nomination for defense of Hagel, known as a man who prefers to avoid war when possible, COULD be the opportunity for a debate over the fundamental nature of U.S. foreign policy. It COULD be the time for denouncing the perilous Neo-Con path of wars of choice, preventive wars, and empire-building. It COULD give Obama a historic legacy.

    However, Obama’s remark that “this generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience” sounds more like the words of an empire-builder than a reformer. What the test of the past 15 years really showed was that Americans like war and are very willing to give up democratic liberties when a war president tells them to. It also showed the tight linkage between a foreign policy based on violence and a domestic policy based on financial corruption by the super-rich to defraud the American public. The crises of the past generation were mostly “made in America” and showed how frail life as we know it really is. It is time we woke up, but Obama’s smooth words seem designed to keep us asleep.

    So, I think the Obama Administration is at a crucial tipping point. To push him where he says he wants to go will require the firm leadership of the new progressive senators, making the case for a government dedicated to international compromise and domestic democracy.

  11. Curious, what do thousands of staff do at the US embassy
    in Bagdad? That sounds like a lot more than just
    processing visa applications.

    • The biggest embassy of embassies in the world.
      My demented mind tells me it is reaping the crop time

      Faramarz Fathi

  12. I think it odd that your dark cloud on the horizon is the potential for “unwise” decisions by the Iranians.

    America has a four front war going against Iran: economic (sanctions), technical (Stuxnet), diplomatic (international non-recognition of Iran) black-ops (assassinations and explosions), and you see the threat as “unwise” Iranian response?

    More to the point, where is your analysis of Saudi Arabia and its constant support of Salafi elements, especially in Egypt, Pakistan, and the Horn of Africa. As long as the US supports the expansion of Saudi Arabian fundamentalism and Israeli territorial expansion (both of which it currently covers) then expect the unexpected, but don’t blame the Iranians for it.

  13. “The US financial and, in 1941, petroleum blockade of Japan provoked the Pearl Harbor attack (Japan wanted to break out toward the oil in the Dutch East Indies and resources in British Malaya, were afraid the US would try to stop them, and so wanted to neutralize the US fleet).

    Two points regarding the above-cited statement.

    A. In July 1941, the United States imposed a freeze on Japanese financial assets and an oil embargo on Japan. It was not a blockade.

    B. The imposition of the freeze on financial assets and the oil embargo probably accelerated the timing of the attack on the US at Pearl Harbor, but a wealth of Japanese archival material suggests that Japan was committed to knocking out the US Pacific fleet in any case. Japan’s military leaders were convinced the US would enter the war once they executed their “Strike South” strategy, which Japanese naval commanders had already decided would include the Philippines, at the time a US dependency.

    • Sounds like you have read David Bergamini’s book. Unfortunately, a lot of important archival material was destroyed by Japanese authorities before the US occupation. If you haven’t read it, I suggest Blix’s Hirohito biography.

  14. Headline from today’s Common Dreams:

    “Keystone XL decision will show if Obama’s climate promises are real or just rhetoric: President’s inaugural delivers fine words on meeting the challenge of global warming, but action needed and fast by Jon Queally – link to commondreams.org

    Same goes for his other promises.

  15. Unfortunately, I think , Afghanistan and Pakistan, especially Pakistan, will continue to be problematic.

    Do not see Pak’s authorities abandoning the extremist militant infrastructure or tackling it sincerely or seriously.

    link to tribune.com.pk

  16. Despite the caveats from Professor Cole, this is the most hopeful development in at least the last 12 years in US foreign policy. His remarks regarding Iran were especially heartening.

  17. “The second danger is the Israeli Likud government’s final destruction of any two-state solution and permanent denial to millions of Palestinians the rights of citizenship….”

    No surprise here. Thomas Friedman in his book “From Beirut to Jerusalem”, published in the late 1980s, had indicated that the status quo of indefinite occupation by Israeli Defense Forces and a “Civil Administration” is something that Likud Party leadership revels in as the Arab residents in those areas have no voting rights or real civil liberties consonant with a constitutional democracy; and they can never have an meaningful political influence within Israel. This status quo can be perpetuated and consolidated by the establishment of Jewish settlements.

    The Scholars For Peace in the Middle East, an international pro-Israel group with a significant presence on major American universities, including University of Michigan, have pointed out that the American public favors Israel over Palestinian interests by a 3-1 margin in public polling and as long as that support continues, they can count on U.S. foreign policy being friendly to Israel. With U.S. diplomatic support on the U.N. Security Council, Israel is virtually untouchable for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other blatant violations of international law – as was proved by the inaction of the Security Council following issuance of the 462-page Goldstone Commission Report finding credible proof of various atrocities by the Israel Defense Forces.

    The Palestinian Diaspora that commenced in 1948 exists to this day and manifests itself in the multiplicity of refugee camps, stateless persons in Gaza, de facto discrimination within Israel of Arab Israeli citizens, and the dispersal of Palestinians throughout the world.

  18. Not quite sure why the loss of a ‘land bridge’ to Lebanon would mean the end of Iran’s influence there. They never had one before since Saddam wasn’t exactly friendly and I imagine they have enough pull with the Lebanese government to be able to fly weapons there directly. Hezbollah is not exactly a proscribed organization in Lebanon.

    • Because of the increased importance of rockets; they can’t be sent in to Lebanon by air or sea, since Israel controls those avenues.

  19. If we believed in any of the things we say we do, we would brand Saudi Arabia one of the worst tyrannies on Earth, one of the greatest human rights violators on Earth, and one of the greatest supporters of terrorism on Earth. Definitely the greatest exporter of Islamist extremism on Earth. All in all a far worse country than Iran.

    But Saudi sells us oil, then takes our dollars and re-invests them in the US to prop up the value of the dollar. And it is willing to avoid direct confrontation with Israel to make us happy.

    And that’s all that matters to the government and to ordinary Americans.

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