THE BLOG
07/10/2007 05:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Avoiding War With Iran

In spite of repeated Pentagon denials that a military option is imminent, the United States is again putting pressure on Iran that could easily lead to an armed conflict, a conflict that is desired neither by the American nor Iranian people. Nearly everyone agrees that it would be better if Iran were not to develop a nuclear weapon, if, indeed, that is Tehran's intention. Though modern Iran has no history of attacking its neighbors, its geography places it at the center of a pivotal region where sectarian issues loom large and could potentially impact on the energy needs of the global economy. Nuclear bombs are already in the hands of several of Iran's neighbors, and the creation of another nuclear power would increase instability and heighten legitimate concerns that such weapons could somehow wind up in the hands of terrorists. The question becomes how to stop that process if it can be stopped at all.

The White House insists that it is resorting to diplomacy with Iran, and the current negotiations are, in fact, a considerable step forward as there have been no face-to-face talks since 1979. But the admittedly only very limited discussions held in Baghdad have focused solely on the situation in Iraq in spite of the fact that since 2003 Iran has made clear that it wants to negotiate all outstanding disagreements. It is widely believed that Vice President Dick Cheney and his national security adviser David Wurmser have deliberately limited the playing field because they have no desire to engage Iran amicably and are instead fixated on regime change in Tehran as the only acceptable solution to the "Persian problem." Cheney has been ably seconded by fellow hawk Elliot Abrams at the National Security Council, who has been working to undercut Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's efforts to avoid a war. Wurmser, meanwhile, has been advising the like-minded at the American Enterprise Institute that Cheney does not believe in negotiations and has promised that the Bush Administration will deal with Iran militarily before its term of office ends.

The Cheney-Wurmser-Abrams axis is opposed to Administration figures like Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and the intelligence agency chiefs, all of whom are reluctant to do a replay of Iraq in Iran. The Iraq Studies Group (ISG) recommended engaging Iran and all other local players including Syria to help stabilize Iraq and the broader Persian Gulf region. It also recommended taking serious steps to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. As "serious steps" would consist of Washington pressuring Israel, the ISG report has been coolly received by the White House and with intense hostility by certain Congressmen who are closely tied to Israel.

Israel's friends in Congress have countered the relative thaw in relations with Iran through their recent approval of the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act of 2007. The Act disclaims any desire to "target" the Iranian people or to seek war between Washington and Tehran, but it creates conditions that could easily lead to military conflict. It sailed through the House Foreign Affairs Committee on a 37 to 1 vote on June 28th and it is expected that it will be approved by a landslide vote in the House when Congress reconvenes this week. The Act is bipartisan, having as co-sponsors Democrat Tom Lantos from California and Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen from Florida. Lantos is a Holocaust survivor who frequently confuses the Israeli national interest with that of the US. He has recently recommended that Israel be allowed to become a member of NATO. Both Lantos and Ros-Lehtinen are regarded as strong and uncritical supporters of Israel's recent series of right wing governments. Only one Congressman, Jeff Flake of Arizona, spoke up against the Act, noting, correctly, that it would be ineffective and would make it less likely to "achieve the type of multilateral sanctions that we would need..."

The Iran Counter-Proliferation Act of 2007, which would go into effect on January 1, 2008, tightens the screws on Iran's economy. It sensibly denies a nuclear cooperation agreement with the US to any country that aids Iran's nuclear program, but then it goes off the rails. It strengthens the already existing Iran Sanctions Act by closing loopholes that have permitted some international energy companies, mostly located in Europe, Russia, and China, to invest in Iran's energy infrastructure. If fully implemented, this would require the US to sanction major companies that operate internationally and to deny them access to the US market. Lantos has stated unambiguously that his intention is to achieve "zero foreign investment in Iran" while Congressman Gary Ackerman of New York was blunt in his advice to foreign companies, "Don't invest in Iran." The ban on sales to Iran would even extend to refined petroleum products and the tankers used to ship them in an effort to strangle the Iranian economy, which could almost certainly be construed as an act of war. As Iran has only limited refinery capacity and exports most of its oil, its gasoline comes from refineries located in the Persian Gulf Emirates and in India. If that gasoline were to be denied, the Iranian economy would almost certainly collapse, with dire consequences for the Iranian people. But the economic problems would not necessarily weaken the Iranian government, which could declare a state of emergency and would almost certainly become more dominated by hardliners than it is currently. Under such circumstances, the country's leadership could easily decide that a nuclear arsenal is more than ever essential to guarantee national independence and would take every step necessary either to develop or acquire new weapons. The sanctions might produce the reverse of the intended outcome and a desperate Iran might also resort to other measures, like stepping up attacks against American soldiers in Iraq.

The Act also calls on the President to name the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group and to block assets of any entity providing support to it. That is in spite of the fact that the Revolutionary Guards constitute an integral part of the Iranian government and have never attacked the United States or US citizens. It would enable the Department of the Treasury to block accounts and transactions relating to the normal operation of the Iranian government and to pressure other countries and banks to do likewise, a very dangerous step that could again escalate into something unintended, forcing Iran to react in ways that might be unpredictable.

On the Senate side, there has also been increasing pressure to go after Iran. Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut stated in an interview at the end of June and again in an article on July 6th that the Iranian involvement in Iraq means that Tehran "has already declared war on the US." It is to be presumed that Lieberman means that it is time for the United States to begin bombing. In the same June interview, Lieberman demonstrated his immense knowledge of foreign policy and defense issues by declaring that in Iraq "we've got the enemy on the run," a truly astonishing assertion that even the factually challenged Bush White House would be reluctant to make.

It might be reassuring to consider the ranting of a number of Congressmen who are joined at the hip to right wing governments in Israel as unimportant, but it would be a mistake to do so. Most of them are Democrats, the party that controls both the House and Senate currently and which is the odds-on favorite to win the Presidency in 2008. All the leading Democratic Presidential candidates have repeatedly voiced their willingness to "have all options on the table" in regard to Iran, which is taken to mean that the military option should be used if necessary. The "all options on the table" line was, in fact, coined by the Israel lobby AIPAC, which has consistently hyped the Iran threat and which believes that Tehran must be disarmed to enhance Israel's security. The American public, if it truly wishes to avoid a ruinous war with Iran, should instead insist that all options be taken off the table and that good faith negotiations begin on all the issues dividing Tehran and Washington.