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Vijay Prashad: The Iran paradox

NORTHAMPTON — United States policy on Iran faces a paradox. If the U.S. and Israel attack Iran, the government will certainly move toward a nuclear weapon shield. If the U.S. and Israel do not attack Iran, it is likely that the government will not develop a nuclear weapons program.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapons program. This is a view that is shared by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s intelligence and analysis from both its May 25 and Aug. 30 reports. In March, senior U.S. administration officials told the New York Times’ James Risen that senior Iranian officials have not given the green light for a nuclear weapons program.

“That assessment,” one official told Risen, “holds up really well.” Amos Harel in Ha’aretz found that Israeli intelligence also believes that Iran is “still mulling whether to build a nuclear bomb.” In other words, there is a consensus view in the intelligence agencies of the IAEA, the U.S. and Israel that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program.

If Iran does not have such a program, why is there talk of red lines and of a pre-emptive strike on Iran?

In mid-September, the Iran Project released a report entitled “Weighing Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran.” The report came with the imprimatur of, among others, senior Washington, D.C., politicians (former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel and former Democratic U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton), retired ambassadors (Frank Wisner and Thomas Pickering) and retired military officers (Admiral William Fallon and General Anthony Zinni).

The paper laid out the various scenarios for action against Iran.

According to the Iran Project, a U.S. strike would set back Iran’s nuclear program by four years (an Israeli strike by two years). But such an attack would signal to the Iranians that the best approach would be to hasten a nuclear weapon umbrella (following the example of North Korea). To attack, then, the Washington eminences argue, would only drive an Iran that is now not committed to a nuclear weapon into its arms.

The U.S. has tightened its economic embargo of Iran. This is not a diplomatic solution, but an act of economic warfare. The Iranian currency, the rial, has lost half its value in the past month, with food prices already skyrocketing. Riots in Iran’s bazaars threaten to bring social distress to the country.

During his Senate appearance, Intelligence Chief Clapper noted that the sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran “probably will not jeopardize the regime,” but will certainly “have greater impacts on Iran.” By “Iran,” Clapper means the 75 million Iranians. The U.S. political class now agrees, “Sanctions are working.”

But this is reminiscent of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s callous statement from 1996; when asked about the half a million Iraqi children dead as a result of sanctions, she said, “we think the price is worth it.” If military strikes are not the answer, and if sanctions will only create suffering on the ordinary Iranians, what is the nature of a diplomatic solution, which is what the Iran Project considers the “best and most permanent way” to solve the standoff?

Iran does not trust the West, and has not since the threats to modern Iran from Europe and the United States. The emblematic moment for such suspicions remains the August 1953 coup engineered by the U.S. government against the democratically elected government of Moammed Mosaddegh. When Mosaddegh came to power he nationalized the oil fields and began a process of social reconstruction. A U.S. intelligence report from January 1953 showed that Mosaddegh’s reforms had “almost universal Iranian support.”

After having removed him, the CIA’s Director Allen Dulles personally escorted the Shah of Iran onto his Peacock Throne. The U.S. provided arms and training for his massive security apparatus, the SAVAK, which rivaled that of any authoritarian regime. It was because of the brutal 30 years of this U.S.-Shah collusion that the Iranian revolution of 1978-79 delivered its mandate not only to the clerics, but also to an anti-American dispensation.

There has been no apology to the Iranian people for the 1953 coup, nor for the complicity with the Shah. Diplomacy must begin with confidence building. There can be no confidence without an acknowledgement of this legitimate mistrust.

Iran, as well, has a lot to answer for. The current president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, makes dangerous statements that threaten his neighbors, including Israel, and madcap insinuations about world history (including denial of the Holocaust).

But Ahmadinejad does not stand in for Iran. He won the elections in 2005, and then won a highly disputed re-election in 2009. This is his last term, and he will be out of office in 2013.

To build an Iran policy based on the antics of Ahmadinejad, who is unpopular in his own country, is to make a grievous error.

Iran, by dint of geography, is an important player both in Central Asia and in West Asia. Its considerable influence is necessary for stability both in Afghanistan and in Syria. To isolate Iran and threaten it will only make the caged tiger roar louder. To build confidence for a future relationship with Iran is the only way to build a stable foundation for what the Iran Project calls peace “in a permanent way.”

Vijay Prashad is the author of “Arab Spring, Libyan Winter” (AK Press, 2012) and of “Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today” (New Press, 2012). He lives in Northampton.

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