Asia Times Online
January 18, 2012
These days, with a crisis atmosphere growing in the Persian Gulf, a little history lesson about the United States and Iran might be just what the doctor ordered. Here, then, are a few high- (or low-) lights from their relationship over the last half-century-plus:
Summer 1953: The Central Intelligence Agency and British intelligence hatch a plot for a coup that overthrows a democratically elected government in Iran intent on nationalizing that country's oil industry. In its place, they put an autocrat, the young Shah of Iran, and his soon-to-be feared secret police.
He runs the country as his repressive fiefdom for a quarter-century, becoming Washington's "bulwark" in the Persian Gulf - until overthrown in 1979 by a home-grown revolutionary movement, which ushers in the rule of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the mullahs. While Khomeini & Co were hardly Washington's men, thanks to that 1953 coup they were, in a sense, its own political offspring.
In other words, the fatal decision to overthrow a popular democratic government shaped the Iranian world Washington now loathes, and even then oil was at the bottom of things.
1967: Under the US "Atoms for Peace" program, started in the 1950s by president Dwight D Eisenhower, the shah is allowed to buy a five-megawatt, light-water type research reactor for Tehran (which - call it irony - is still playing a role in the dispute over the Iranian nuclear program).
Defense Department officials did worry at the time that the shah might use the "peaceful atom" as a basis for a future weapons program or that nuclear materials might fall into the wrong hands. "An aggressive successor to the shah," went a 1974 Pentagon memo, "might consider nuclear weapons the final item needed to establish Iran's complete military dominance of the region." But that didn't stop them from aiding and abetting the creation of an Iranian nuclear program.
The shah, like his Islamic successors, argued that such a program was Iran's national "right" and dreamed of a country that would get significant portions of its electricity from a string of nuclear plants. As a 1970s ad by a group of American power companies put the matter: "The Shah of Iran is sitting on top of one of the largest reservoirs of oil in the world. Yet he's building two nuclear plants and planning two more to provide electricity for his country. He knows the oil is running out - and time with it." In other words, the US nuclear program was the genesis for the Iranian one that Washington now so despises.
September 1980: Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein launches a war of aggression against Khomeini's Iran. In the early 1980s, he becomes Washington's man, our "bulwark" in the Persian Gulf, and we offer him our hand - and also "detailed information" on Iranian deployments and tactical planning that help him use his chemical weapons more effectively against the Iranian military.
Oh, and just to make sure things turn out really, really well, the Ronald Reagan administration also decides to sell missiles and other arms to Khomeini's Iran on the sly, part of what became known as the "Iran-Contra Affair" and which almost brings down the president and his men. Success!
March 2003: Saddam Hussein is, by now, no longer our man in Baghdad but a new "Hitler" who, top Washington officials claim, undoubtedly has a nuclear weapons program that could someday leave mushroom clouds rising over US cities. So the George W Bush administration launches a war of aggression against Iraq, which like Iran just happens to - in the words of deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz - "float on a sea of oil".
(Bush officials hope, in the wake of a "cakewalk" of a war to revive that country's oil industry, to privatize it, and use it to destroy the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, driving down the price of oil on world markets.) Nine years later, a Shi'ite government is in power in Baghdad closely allied with Tehran, which has gained regional strength and influence thanks to the disastrous US occupation.
So call it an unblemished record of a kind not easy to find. In more than 50 years, America's leaders have never made a move in Iran (or near it) that didn't lead to unexpected and unpleasant blowback. Now, another administration in Washington, after years of what can only be called a covert war against Iran, is preparing yet another set of clever maneuvers - this time sanctions against Iran's central bank meant to cripple the country's oil industry and crack open the economy followed by no one knows what.
And honestly, I mean, really, given past history, what could possibly go wrong? Regime change in Iran? It's bound to be a slam dunk and if you don't believe it, check out Pepe Escobar below, that fabulous peripatetic reporter for Asia Times Online and TomDispatch regular.
Let's start with red lines. Here it is, Washington's ultimate red line, straight from the lion's mouth. Only last week Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said of the Iranians, "Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they're trying to develop a nuclear capability. And that's what concerns us. And our red line to Iran is do not develop a nuclear weapon. That's a red line for us."
How strange, the way those red lines continue to retreat. Once upon a time, the red line for Washington was "enrichment" of uranium. Now, it's evidently an actual nuclear weapon that can be brandished. Keep in mind that, since 2005, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has stressed that his country is not seeking to build a nuclear weapon.
The most recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran from the US Intelligence Community has similarly stressed that Iran is not, in fact, developing a nuclear weapon (as opposed to the breakout capacity to build one someday).
What if, however, there is no "red line", but something completely different? Call it the petrodollar line.
Banking on sanctions?
Let's start here: In December 2011, impervious to dire consequences for the global economy, the US Congress - under all the usual pressures from the Israel lobby (not that it needs them) - foisted a mandatory sanctions package on the Barack Obama administration (100 to 0 in the Senate and with only 12 "no" votes in the House). Starting in June, the US will have to sanction any third-country banks and companies dealing with Iran's central bank, which is meant to cripple that country's oil sales. (Congress did allow for some "exemptions.")
The ultimate target? Regime change - what else? - in Tehran. The proverbial anonymous US official admitted as much in the Washington Post, and that paper printed the comment. ("The goal of the US and other sanctions against Iran is regime collapse, a senior US intelligence official said, offering the clearest indication yet that the Obama administration is at least as intent on unseating Iran's government as it is on engaging with it.") But oops! The newspaper then had to revise the passage to eliminate that embarrassingly on-target quote. Undoubtedly, this "red line" came too close to the truth for comfort.
Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen believed that only a monster shock-and-awe-style event, totally humiliating the leadership in Tehran, would lead to genuine regime change - and he was hardly alone. Advocates of actions ranging from air strikes to invasion (whether by the US, Israel, or some combination of the two) have been legion in neo-con Washington.
Yet anyone remotely familiar with Iran knows that such an attack would rally the population behind Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. In those circumstances, the deep aversion of many Iranians to the military dictatorship of the mullahtariat would matter little.
Besides, even the Iranian opposition supports a peaceful nuclear program. It's a matter of national pride.
Iranian intellectuals, far more familiar with Persian smoke and mirrors than ideologues in Washington, totally debunk any war scenarios. They stress that the Tehran regime, adept in the arts of Persian shadow play, has no intention of provoking an attack that could lead to its obliteration.
On their part, whether correctly or not, Tehran strategists assume that Washington will prove unable to launch yet one more war in the Greater Middle East, especially one that could lead to staggering collateral damage for the world economy.
In the meantime, Washington's expectations that a harsh sanctions regime might make the Iranians give ground, if not go down, may prove to be a chimera. Washington spin has been focused on the supposedly disastrous mega-devaluation of the Iranian currency, the rial, in the face of the new sanctions.
Unfortunately for the fans of Iranian economic collapse, Professor Djavad Salehi-Isfahani has laid out in elaborate detail the long-term nature of this process, which Iranian economists have more than welcomed. After all, it will boost Iran's non-oil exports and help local industry in competition with cheap Chinese imports. In sum: a devalued rial stands a reasonable chance of actually reducing unemployment in Iran.