the surge, iran, iraq and middle east extremism

Iraq: an interview with Dr. Stephen Zunes is the source of this posting

Dr. Stephen Zunes is a Professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco. He has written extensively on a range of foreign policy issues, from Afghanistan and Iraq to Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, non-violent struggle and nuclear proliferation.

1. The “surge” has led to a sharp increase in the number of internally displaced refugees and has failed to cut attacks on civilians. How can it be that some people are touting it as a success?

Basically, General Petraeus and the Bush administration manipulated the numbers. Figures released by the Bush administration purporting to cite a decline in sectarian killings appear to be based on some rather arbitrary calculations, including a determination that being shot in the back of the head is a sectarian attack whereas being shot in the front of the head is a criminal act, even in cases where eyewitnesses indicated the frontal killing was indeed sectarian in motivation. All car bombings, even those apparently sectarian in motivation, are also excluded from Bush administration calculations.

If indeed there actually has been a slight decline in sectarian killings in Baghdad over the past six months, it could be attributed to the hundreds of thousands of Sunnis and Shiites who have fled mixed neighborhoods — at a rate of over 50,000 per month — into segregated enclaves, many with concrete walls erected around them to keep out militants from the other side. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office on the situation in Baghdad noted how “The average number of daily attacks against civilians remained about the same over the last six months; 25 in February versus 26 in July.” The Iraqi Interior ministry also confirmed that there has been no drop in civilian deaths.

Claims by President Bush of an improvement in a decline in violence outside Baghdad also have little relation to reality. This may be in part because the administration’s figures purporting to show a decline in sectarian violence exclude such tragic mass killings as the slaughter of 322 Yazidi Kurds in northern Iraq in August or the growing violence in Basra, Karbala and elsewhere in southern Iraq between rival Shiite factions. Estimates based on records from Iraqi morgues, hospitals and police headquarters around the country reveal that the numbers of civilians killed daily is almost twice as high as last year’s level. Six out of ten Iraqis in a recent poll indicate that their security situation has worsened since the surge began and only one out of ten say that it has improved. Seven out of ten believe that the surge has “hampered conditions for political dialogue, reconstruction and economic development.”

2. Why is the Bush administration so hostile towards Iran? How would an attack on Iran serve U.S. interests, or even just U.S. elite interests?

Iran has a repressive regime which imposes a reactionary form of Islam on its population, but they are not nearly as bad as U.S. ally Saudi Arabia in this regard. They have backed extremist groups, some of which have engaged in terrorism, but they have cooperated with the United States – more than has Saudi Arabia – against Al Qaeda, by far the biggest threat in this regard.

So, while there are many bad things to say about Iran’s clerical regime, their real crime in the eyes of Washington has been their refusal to cooperate with America’s strategic and economic designs in the region. Iran is a target as a result of the doctrine of full spectrum dominance – that is, the refusal of the United States to allow any regional power to challenge U.S. hegemony. Iran, along with Iraq, is the only Middle Eastern country which combines a sizable educated population, enormous oil resources and an adequate water supply so to be able to develop a foreign and domestic policy without having to succumb to the demands of the United States, other Western powers and international financial institutions. Iran has the desire and the ability to be an important economic, political and military player in the region, which is seen as unacceptable. As a result, as with Iraq under Saddam Hussein, cruder forms of pressure may be deemed necessary.

3. Is Iran responsible for the deaths of U.S. soldiers in Iraq? If so, would that legitimise an attack on Iran?

Virtually all attacks against U.S. forces over the past couple of years have come from Baathist, Sunni, and other anti-Iranian Iraqi insurgent groups, which get their outside support from private sources in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. Similarly, of the more than 10,000 suspected insurgents arrested in U.S. counter-insurgency sweeps, the relatively few foreigners among them have been Arabs, not Iranians. It makes little sense, then, that the Bush administration has depicted Iran as the principal foreign threat to U.S. forces in Iraq. The National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, compiled by America’s sixteen intelligence agencies and issued last February, downplayed Iran’s role in Iraq’s ongoing violence and instability.

There are serious questions as to whether the explosively formed projectiles increasingly found among the improvised explosive devices targeting U.S. forces indeed have come from Iran as the Bush administration charges, given that they could be made by anyone trained on a munitions lathe. (Indeed, it is rather bizarre that the same U.S. administration that insisted just five years ago that Iraq was technologically advanced enough to produce long-range missiles and was on the verge of developing an atomic bomb is now claming that Iraqis are incapable of developing an effective roadside bomb.) In any case, there is a huge black market in various explosive devices in Iraq, so it would not be surprising to find components from any number of countries and, given the lack of security along the long Iranian-Iraqi border, it would not be difficult to smuggle weapons across the frontier without the knowledge of either government. Furthermore, despite its repressive theocratic orientation, the Iranian regime is hardly monolithic. Even if some of these devices were of Iranian origin, it is far more likely that they entered Iraq through the machinations of individual Iranian officers or criminal gangs rather than as a result of orders from the “highest levels of the Iranian government,” as alleged by the Bush administration.

It is true that there are elements of the Iranian government backing radical Shiite militias, some of which have engaged in death squad activities. But much of the death squad activity, however, has come from the Badr Brigades, the militia of the largest party in the U.S.-backed Iraqi government, which has received thousands of U.S.-made machine guns, grenade launchers and high-mobility vehicles – not to mention hundreds of thousands of AK-47 rifles – courtesy of the American taxpayer. The Badr Brigades were organized and trained in exile by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, so the U.S. and Iran have mostly been backing the same groups. The greatest irony of the U.S. invasion was that it brought to power these pro-Iranian parties which have asked for this Iranian assistance.

Some Shiite militiamen who have received some Iranian support have probably killed some Americans at some point. And Iran is out to take advantage of the situation in Iraq in some ways that are not supportive of U.S. objectives. Iran, however, does not come close to being the biggest threat against American forces in that country, however, and it does not in any way justify military action against Iran.

4. As far as we know, Iran has no nuclear weapons and no nuclear weapons program. But if it were trying to develop nukes, would that justify an attack on it?

No. Even though Iran is in violation of a number of UN Security Council resolutions regarding its nuclear program, the UN has not authorized the use of force and – combined with the fact that Iran has not attacked the United States and is not on the verge of doing so – any military action by the United States would be a clear violation of the United Nations Charter. (Besides, Israel, India and Pakistan are also in violation of UN Security Council resolutions regarding their nuclear program, but that does not give any UN member state the right to attack them.)

Given that Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions are likely for deterrence, and they are unlikely to develop any deployable nuclear warhead until at least 2012, a negotiated settlement is still possible. For example, the United States could normalize relations and end its threats to attack Iran and efforts to overthrow its government in return for Iran ending its nuclear reprocessing and accepting other guarantees that would preclude their developing nuclear weapons. Such a diplomatic solution led to an end to Libya’s nuclear program in December 2003 and would likely be successful with Iran as well, but the United States has rejected such proposals.

A related initiative could be for the United States to end its opposition to the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone for the entire Middle East and South Asia, where all nations of the region would be required to give up their nuclear weapons and weapons programs and open up to strict international inspections. Iran has endorsed the idea, along with Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and other countries in the region. Such nuclear weapons-free zones already exist for Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, Antarctica and Latin America.

5. How much of a threat does Iran pose to the U.S. and Israel, and how much of a threat would it pose as a nuclear power?

Iran poses no military threat to the United States and, even if it had nuclear weapons, would not have delivery systems capable of reaching the United States for decades. Regarding Israel, since there are hundreds of miles and hundreds of thousands of American troops and sailors in between Iran and the Jewish state, there is no way that Iran could launch any attack against Israel by its navy, ground forces or aircraft. The only way Iran could theoretically attack Israel would be by launching medium-range missiles, to which Israel has more than enough capability to launch a massive counter-attack, not even counting the massive U.S. military operations which would certainly follow as well. In other words, Israel and the United States have more than enough firepower to deter any Iranian aggression.

Israel alone has at least 200-300 nuclear weapons along with ground-launched, sea-launched and air-launched nuclear missiles capable of reaching Iran to deter any possible Iranian nuclear attack. Though Iranian President Ahmadinejad has made some extreme and shocking anti-Israel statements, he does not have control over the Iranian armed forces, which is in the hands of the Supreme Leadership Council of clerics, who work by consensus and wouldn’t realistically launch what would certainly be a suicidal nuclear attack against Israel that would result in Iran’s utter destruction.

(Incidentally, President Ahmadinejad never threatened to “wipe Israel off the map.” That idiom does not even exist in Persian. What he said was, “Imam ghoft een rezhim-e ishghalgar-e qods bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shaved,” which directly translated means “The Imam said this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.” An extreme and deplorable statement, to be sure, but he was referring to the Israeli regime, not the nation as a whole, and it was not nearly as direct a threat as implied by the mistranslation. In any case, he was quoting what Ayatollah Khomeini had said twenty years earlier, so he wasn’t saying anything new indicating a more confrontational policy.)

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One response to “the surge, iran, iraq and middle east extremism

  1. I just checked the figures at Iraq body count. If you look at the graph of violence it certainly does look as if the surge has had an impact – although this came mostly towards the end of the surge period. There are also potentially positive signs with the recent news that two shia leaders have made an agreement to reduce intra shia violence. Then we have the Mahdi army having been stood down at least for the time being…and sunni tribes in some areas supporting the Iraqi and US forces. There is as much hope now as there has ever been that the Iraqis may find a way of the path of bloodletting that they have been on.
    What is certain is that any precipitate move to withdraw troops will not help nurture these positive signs.

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