Bombing Iran Would Bring More Conflict and More Repression
The medium of popular song has thankfully been relatively untroubled by US politicians since John Ashcroft’s saccharine rendition of “Let The Eagle Soar”. John McCain, however, proved a recent exception to this rule. When asked for an “airmail message” to send to Iran, the presidential hopeful subverted the Beach Boys’ hitherto innocuous “Barbara Ann”, singing to its tune, “Bomb bomb bomb bomb bomb Iran”.
The amusement that followed McCain’s ditty has no doubt dissipated as the threat of a US strike on Iran continues to march down the path from ‘possible’ to ‘likely’. One expects such cries from neoconservative outriders such as former UN ambassador John Bolton, who recently told a Tory fringe meeting that there was no alternative but to bomb. But more crucially, in recent weeks influence has shifted away from more conciliatory figures such as defence secretary Robert Gates and towards the hawks coalescing around Dick Cheney.
The whispers that the recent Israeli air raid on Syria was preparing the ground for an attack against Iran, remind us that Israel can go it alone if required, as it did in a 1981 strike on an Iraqi reactor. Adding to a deadly cocktail of woes, the apparent nonchalance of President Ahmadinejad and the mullahs in the face of the growing threat, means they are more likely to stumble into a conflict.
An attack on Iranian nuclear facilities could act as the spark for a regional conflagration. An Iranian retaliation would probably target Israel as well as US forces in Iraq and in the Persian Gulf. Expect last summer’s war between Israel and Hizbullah to resurface in a more potent form. Moreover, any strike would deliver an adrenaline shot to the most reactionary and theocratic forces within Iran. The Iranian government, which many who favour a strike claim to oppose so strongly, could indulge in bouts of national grandstanding with the demagogic Ahmadinejad rallying the masses to the state’s defence. It would also heighten the brutal crackdown on dissidents; the threat of external aggression remains the surest pretext for internal repression.
The increased intimidation, which has seen reformist newspapers and websites shut down and 64 executions since July, has particularly targeted the heroic student opposition. Significant numbers of Amirkabir University students have now been expelled or suspended, and in several cases violently assaulted and tortured. When he visited the university last December, Ahmadinejad was confronted with cries of ‘Death to the Dictator’ and burning portraits of himself. His later response that, “Everyone knows the real dictator is America and its servants”, was telling. Few in Iran doubt that the danger of a US attack provides the political context for the acceleration of abuse, and this remains the primary reason why the principal dissident groups oppose any US action.
Those who argue from this that forcible regime change should accompany a military strike, would do well to remember that the best hopes for change continue to lie within Iran rather than outside it. Unlike its partners in the original ‘axis of evil’, Ba’athist Iraq and the Stalinist rump of North Korea, Iran’s more eclectic system retains some democratic space for manoeuvre. Ahmadinejad’s allies were rebuffed in the first key city council elections under his leadership, which also saw a shift towards born-again reformist Hashemi Rafsanjani. With Ahmadinejad currently undermined by rampant inflation, we must hope for a return to the incremental progress under his predecessor Mohammad Khatami.
The US can speak with little moral legitimacy when it lambasts Iran’s nuclear programme with one hand, while supporting the nuclear weapons of Israel and India, neither of whom have ever signed the non-proliferation treaty, with the other. There is still understandable suspicion and justifiable grievance against the US in Iran. The US, along with much of the west, armed and financed Saddam’s Iraq, as the ‘lesser evil’, during the Iran-Iraq war from 1980-88. Before that, in 1953 the Eisenhower administration orchestrated a CIA coup against the democratically-elected government of Mohammed Mosaddeq. A military strike would entrench grievance for a new generation, hindering the chances of future reform.
For Iran to join the shameful roll call of nuclear-armed states would do no good. The danger of regional proliferation, particularly in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, would follow. Yet as Libya has shown, states can be persuaded to relent on weapons programmes. Certainly a prolonged period of diplomacy remains the least worst option.
That we have been in the dog days of the Bush administration for some time only adds to the risk. War and bombing has often been the recourse of the unpopular or exposed leader. As Benjamin Disraeli once sardonically remarked, you can tell a weak government by its eagerness to resort to strong measures. With little to lose and a desire to avoid accusations of ‘unfinished business’, there is every risk of the Bush administration plunging the region into a disastrous conflict.
Published in the Warwick Boar, 09/10/07