The encirclement of Iran

Thousands of US troops are deploying to Israel. The Israeli military announced it as a major missile defense exercise with its ally. The reason for this “defense” preparation is the big, scary country on the other side of the Middle East.

CBS news reports the Israeli military as saying the drill had been long anticipated and was unrelated to recent events. The article explained the drill would take place “as tension between Iran and the international community escalates”, as if Iran is defiantly taking on the world, rather than being pummeled into submission. If we are not sure who the aggressor is in this conflict, let us review the facts.

  • Iran is, at present, surrounded by US military bases. If everyone in your neighbourhood were armed to the teeth and yelling about how dangerous you were, would you feel threatened?
  • In recent years, the US has invaded and occupied two of those neighbours, Afghanistan and Iraq, for all the same reasons it may want to occupy Iran. Iran has oil; it is strategically located; it is a manufactured enemy; Americans do not know anything about the country except that it’s evil, and will thus give the green light to their politicians.
  • Israelis have been subjected for years to media bombardment about the perils of an Ahmadinejad-led, nuclear-armed Iran. There seems to be broad consensus in the Israeli right wing and other circles that the Islamic Republic cannot wait to “wipe Israel off the map”. Again, the enemy is largely manufactured and sold by elites who want more war.

John Tirman of the MIT Center for International Studies points out the “peculiar” time for the march to war: the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Is it time for Operation Iranian Liberation? The foolishness with which the US stumbled into Iraq in 2003 is repeating itself.

Politicians in the US and Israel are screaming about the need to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities before Iran attacks the countries with the two most dangerous militaries in the world. The think tanks, who said US troops would be treated as liberators and that the oil would pay for the war, and media commentators, who did not question the government’s assessments of the threat from Iraq, are helping bring public opinion in line once again.

The US and the EU (“the international community”) are ramping up economic sanctions (but why?). Most recently, EU politicians have willingly endangered the European economy by moving toward choking Mediterranean countries’ oil supplies. Paul Stevens of Dundee University in Scotland says that Greece, which imports 30 percent of its oil from Iran, would be pushed off the cliff on which it is already perched. “It would utterly destroy the Greek economy.” Tough enough sanctions on Iran will not stop it from producing a nuclear weapon, which is, in fact, a very rational exercise for a state expecting to be attacked. (In fact, Iran has been under attack for thirty years. They may, however, repeat the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, as the sanctions on Iraq did to that country during the 1990s.

Needless to say, full-blown war with Iran would be devastating. The war on Iraq killed hundreds of thousands of people and rendered the country intractably unstable for a long time to come for no other reason than to please the Washington power elite. And what is the desired outcome? National security? Can national security ever be achieved by waging endless wars? No, suggest the history of Israel and the 9/11 attacks. The entire Middle East and Central Asia could be engulfed in war.

Warmakers are not merely shortsighted, though. They understand the consequences. More devastation, more instability, more religious extremism, more terrorism, more pain: these are all foreseen and desired outcomes. More instability in western Asia will mean two things that keep the powerful happy: higher oil and gas prices, and more enemies to fight and justify more military intervention. If the elites can benefit, the war with Iran will no longer be clandestine, and millions of people could die as a result.

The causes of 9/11

In this post, I will outline the evidence that 9/11 was an “outside job”. If that upsets you, consider the following. I do not rule out the possibility that it was also an inside job. There is evidence that it was, and it is wrong to close one’s mind to evidence. I do not know if the terrorists were found or trained or paid off by some CIA operative. Because of government secrecy, it is extremely difficult to know the complete truth. Neither am I an engineer, least of all a demolitions expert, so it is hard for me to know which engineers are right and which are wrong. This post presents the evidence that a small group of radicals swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden, believed the US and Israel were at war with Islam, and took it upon themselves to destroy a symbol of American power, hoping to lure the superpower into a cosmic war in which Islam would prevail.

Ron Crelinsten, a terrorism expert at the University of Victoria, says that terrorism is about communication. Every terrorist attack sends a message. It is important to listen to them, or else how are we supposed to stop terrorism? Terrorists are not irrational. They are not crazy. Those accusations are a smokescreen designed to make you listen to the government and Thomas Friedman for explanations rather than the terrorists themselves. But the terrorists can tell you why they are angry, and if we had listened to them, we might not have witnessed their anger in September of 2001. Let us look at a timeline of events that could have given clues to those paying attention that something was going to happen.

May 31, 1996: Four Saudi men were executed for the bombing of a US military mission in Riyadh the year before. The attacks were aimed at American “infidels”, 6 of whom died. Three of the four men executed had fought in Afghanistan, and one had fought in Bosnia. This is where you could trace their radicalisation to. They all claimed to have links to Osama bin Laden. They felt that Islam was under attack worldwide, and that they were part of what they believed was a global jihad. They had discussed the Saudi state and were disgusted that it embraced secular law, rather than Quranic law, and how the ulema, Islamic scholars supposed to be independent of lawmakers, “were conspiring with the state to undermine Islam….Saudi Arabia [was] an infidel state.” Many Saudi dissidents believe the ulema should have a strong consultative role in politics, as this would mean policies along Islamic lines.

June 25, 1996, less than a month later: In Khobar, Saudi Arabia, an explosion killed 19 Americans and wounded hundreds more in a complex that housed foreign military personnel called the Khobar Towers.

It is around this time that Osama bin Laden begins appearing in the headlines. Naturally, after the 9/11 attacks, millions of Americans asked “why us?” Bin Laden had already outlined very clearly why, and if Americans had realised that, they might have been less likely to use words like “evil” and “senseless” after the attacks.

Journalist Robert Fisk met with bin Laden three times, in 1993, 1996 and 1997.

When I met him again in Afghanistan in 1996, he was 39, raging against the corruption of the Saudi royal family, contemptuous of the West. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, Bin Laden told the House of Saud that his Arab legion could destroy the Iraqis; no need to bring the Americans to the land of Islam’s two holiest places. The King turned him down. So the Americans were now also the target of Osama’s anger.

The House of Saud invited thousands of troops to Saudi Arabia as protection from Saddam Hussein. We can identify the first two causes of 9/11 here: the corruption of the House of Saud and the American military presence in the land of the Islam’s two holiest places.

In 1996, bin Laden said

When the American troops entered Saudi Arabia, the land of the two holy places [Mecca and Medina], there was a strong protest from the ulema [the religious scholars] and from students of the sharia law all over the country against the interference of American troops… After it insulted and jailed the ulema 18 months ago, the Saudi regime lost its legitimacy….

The Saudi people have remembered now what the ulema told them and they realise America is the main reason for their problems. The ordinary man knows that his country is the largest oil producer in the world, yet at the same time he is suffering from taxes and bad services. Now…our country has become an American colony… What happened in Riyadh and Khobar is clear evidence of the huge anger of Saudi people against America. The Saudis now know their real enemy is America.

What bin Laden was saying was basically truthful. Most Saudis objected to the presence of non-Muslim troops in the land of Islam’s holiest places, even though they had been asked by the House of Saud to come to protect them from Saddam Hussein, and they weren’t actually in the holy places themselves. But by 1996, the threat from Saddam was gone. He was under sanctions, no fly zones and bombing raids. But American troops were still there, just like they are still in Germany, Spain and Japan, long after the threat from a powerful army is gone.

In 1990, there were 31,636 US troops in Saudi Arabia.

1991: 14,943 troops

1992: 4,159

1993 and 4: fewer than 2,000

1995: 2,526

1996: 7,780

2001: 12,075

By 2001, it was clear that the US had not got the message the terrorist attacks over the 1990s had attempted to convey.

In 1997, bin Laden told Robert Fisk he would turn America into a shadow of itself.

We declared jihad against the US government, because the US government is unjust, criminal and tyrannical. It has committed acts that are extremely unjust, hideous and criminal whether directly or through its support of the Israeli occupation of the Prophet’s Night Travel Land [Palestine]. And we believe the US is directly responsible for those who were killed in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq.  The mention of the US reminds us before everything else of those innocent children who were dismembered, their heads and arms cut off in the recent explosion that took place in Qana [Lebanon]…. The US government hit Muslim civilians and executed more than 600,000 Muslim children in Iraq by preventing food and medicine from reaching them….”

At a different time, bin Laden called the war and sanctions on Iraq “the oppressing and embargoing to death of millions…the greatest mass slaughter of children mankind has ever known”.

Now we are adding reasons for 9/11: support for Israel and its war in Lebanon, the sanctions on Iraq that crippled the economy and the people. I do not know if 600,000 children and millions of other people truly died as a result of these policies, but it is not truth that makes decisions but perceptions. Most Americans had no idea about any of this, and were every time misled by their representatives. For nearly twenty years after the first Gulf War, Bin Laden issued specific demands, such as “get US troops out of Arabia” and American politicians responded with “stop trying to force our women into burkas”. As a result, we have millions of people believing that “the terrorists” cannot be reasoned with and must be killed. Their solution is to escalate the wars that are, in fact, the causes of the anger and hatred that might lead to another major terrorist attack. They are wars that do not make anyone safer or freer. They kill and terrorise innocent people, including Americans, for the purpose of strengthening the US government overseas and domestically.

August 7, 1998: Hundreds were killed in truck bombs at US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. Bin Laden was then placed on the FBI’s ten most wanted list. Some other things happened in 1998.

Bin Laden issued a fatwa, a religious opinion on Islamic law by an Islamic scholar. (Incidentally, bin Laden is not an Islamic scholar and is thus not qualified to issue fatwas.) He called the US military presence in the Arabian Peninsula crusader armies spreading like locusts through the Muslim world and gobbling up its resources. “First, for over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples.” Second, he claimed that the “crusader-Zionist alliance” had killed more than a million Iraqis through war and embargo. (Bin Laden often refers to “crusaders” when talking about the US, in order to show that he sees little difference between the Crusades and current US foreign policy regarding the Muslim world. Right after the 9/11 attacks, George Bush called the War on Terror that was about to begin a crusade. Probably wasn’t the ideal choice of words for winning Muslim hearts and minds.) Third, “the aim is also to serve the Jews’ petty state and divert attention from its occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there. The best proof of this is their eagerness to destroy Iraq, the strongest neighboring Arab state, and their endeavor to fragment all the states of the region such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan into paper statelets and through their disunion and weakness to guarantee Israel’s survival and the continuation of the brutal crusade occupation of the Peninsula.”

Why did he mention Jerusalem? What is so special about Jerusalem? Jerusalem is the third holiest site in Islam, because it is where the Prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven. And many Muslims in the world consider Jerusalem and all of Palestine under occupation by foreigners, supported by the US.

In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon. Here is what bin Laden said about it in 2004.

The events that affected my soul in a direct way started in 1982 when America permitted the Israelis to invade Lebanon and the American Sixth Fleet helped them in that…Many were killed and injured and others were terrorised and displaced. I couldn’t forget those moving scenes, blood and severed limbs, women and children sprawled everywhere. Houses destroyed along with their occupants and high rises demolished over their residents, rockets raining down on our home without mercy. The situation was like a crocodile meeting a helpless child, powerless except for his screams. Does the crocodile understand a conversation that doesn’t include a weapon? And the whole world saw and heard but it didn’t respond.

He is not just making stuff up. The US has been indirectly responsible for the deaths of many innocent Muslims at the hands of Israel.

April 18, 1996: During its occupation of southern Lebanon, Israel shelled the village of Qana, killing 106 civilians and injuring around 116 others who had taken refuge there to escape the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. I’ll spare you the pictures. Look them up if you are not faint of heart.

Lawrence Wright, in his 2006 book The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, says that Mohamed Atta, one of the masterminds of the attacks, signed his will during the operation against Qana, because he was enraged and wanted to offer his life in response. So Israel was a major factor in perceptions of injustice against Muslims and desecration of Palestine and Jerusalem.

Bin Laden’s anger had foundation, and Muslims around the world knew it. Most Muslims do not support terrorism, but at least as many have the same complaints as the jihadis. For instance, though most Saudis do not like al-Qaeda, 95% of those asked wanted American troops to leave Saudi Arabia. Terrorists are supported by communities. If the communities are sympathetic to the terrorists’ causes, they will fund, shelter and supply them with recruits. People support al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and whoever else not because they are under some misapprehension but because they have seen injustices before their own eyes and they know who did it.

Also in 1998, a memo from Mohamed Atef, al-Qaeda’s military chief, said that al-Qaeda was aware of negotiations between the US and the Taliban on a UNOCAL oil and gas pipeline through Afghanistan, and that a terrorist attack would be the way to draw the US in to Afghanistan, otherwise known as the graveyard of empires. Both Clinton and Bush administrations negotiated with the Taliban. After the embassy bombings, the Clinton administration imposed sanctions and continued talking to the Taliban, mostly pressuring them to hand over bin Laden.

In another response to the embassy bombings, Bill Clinton signed off on Operation Infinite Reach, a series of US cruise missile strikes on terrorist bases in Afghanistan and Sudan. Operation Infinite Reach took place in August 1998. Does anyone remember anything else that was going on at this time? The Monica Lewinsky scandal. It has been speculated that Operation Infinite Reach was a way of deflecting attention from Clinton’s sex life and raising public opinion of him by killing terrorists. Anyway, one of the attacks destroyed al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. The US claimed the factory was making VX nerve agent and its owners had ties to al-Qaeda. The US State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research said the evidence was highly dubious. Noam Chomsky and other critics say that tens of thousands of Sudanese civilians died because they would not have the drugs they needed.

In 2000, a suicide attack on the US Navy destroyer the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen. 17 US sailors were killed and more were injured. Al-Qaeda proudly claimed responsibility. Bill Clinton declared, “If, as it now appears, this was an act of terrorism, it was a despicable and cowardly act. We will find out who was responsible and hold them accountable”. (That said, being an attack on a military target, the USS Cole bombing does not actually meet the official US definition of terrorism.) The 9/11 Commission Report says that bin Laden supervised the bombing, chose the location, and provided the money, and that an unidentified source said bin Laden wanted the United States to attack, and if it did not he would launch something bigger. (By the way, bin Laden has been indicted for the USS Cole bombing but not for the 9/11 attacks.) The Report goes on to say that he

instructed the media committee… to produce a propaganda video that included a reenactment of the attack along with images of the al Qaeda training camps and training methods; it also highlighted Muslim suffering in Palestine, Kashmir, Indonesia, and Chechnya…Portions were aired on Al Jazeera, CNN, and other television outlets. It was also disseminated among many young men in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and caused many extremists to travel to Afghanistan for training and jihad.

Things were heating up, and not just for al-Qaeda.

The Report also says that during spring and summer 2001, US intelligence agencies received a stream of warnings that al-Qaeda was planning something huge, CIA Director George Tenet saying that “the system was blinking red.” Between January and September 2001, the FBI issued 216 internal warnings about the possibility of an al-Qaeda attack.

The form it did take was a kind of suicide bombing. Suicide bombing is a pretty new phenomenon in terrorism, going back about 30 years. Why suicide bombing? Under what conditions does suicide bombing occur? Since the most visible and horrific acts of terrorism are suicide bombings committed by Muslims, it might seem obvious that Islamic fundamentalism is the central cause. But it is not. Robert Pape has compiled a database of every suicide attack around the globe since 1980.

The data [for all attacks between 1980 and 2003] show that there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any one of the world’s religions. In fact, the leading instigators of suicide attacks are the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a Marxist-Leninist group whose members are from Hindu families but who are adamantly opposed to religion. This group committed 76 of the 315 incidents, more suicide attacks than Hamas.

Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.

Nearly all suicide attacks are parts of organised campaigns; democratic states are most vulnerable to suicide terrorists; they have a strategic objective: trying to establish or maintain political self-determination by compelling a democracy to withdraw from  the territories they claim (nationalist, not religious, goals); their goals, if not necessarily their tactics (taboos on suicide exist in every culture, especially Islamic ones), are supported by the distinct national community they represent (enough people must think them worth defending that they will allow them to recruit, help them hide and consider them martyrs) (for instance, as I said, almost all Saudis want US troops out of the country); loyalty among comrades and devotion to leaders; suicide terrorism is more lethal than non-suicide attacks, which are used for a wider variety of goals; and finally, they work, at least sometimes.

To sum up the causes:

-The perceived occupation of Saudi Arabia

-The “infidel” House of Saud

-US support for Israel

-The 1991 invasion of Iraq and the sanctions that hurt Iraqi civilians

-And the conclusion from all of this that Islam itself was under attack.

Ten years ago today, these factors combined to cause the most spectacular terrorist attack in history.

Greens, nukes, fears: untangling Iran

Iran is not a place easy to explain in a few sentences, or even in a few books. As those who observe (rather than avert their eyes from) Iran can tell you, it is a land of contrasts. It is simultaneously a democracy and a theocratic dictatorship. Its Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) is highly reactionary. Its president spouts silly racist slurs against Israel and Jews while ignoring the fact that Iran’s own Jewish population is a protected minority. Naturally, Iran poses us questions many feel must be answered soon. To reduce the dangers from the falsehoods typically circulated in our media, better understanding of Iran would be beneficial.

Twelve months ago, I cautioned against too much wishful thinking regarding Iran’s election and its Green Movement. People living outside Iran, many of whom do not know anything about the country, were quick to pounce on the claim that Iran’s election was fraudulent. Not long after, two scholars went through all widely-published accusations and discredited them. As the Green Movement protesters picked up steam, many well-meaning Americans and Europeans rooted for whom the media told them were the good guys. The news from Iran was so difficult to ascertain that the hopeful relied on rumours as much as reporting. Twitter was the frequently-quoted medium that was apparently being used by the Green Movement to coordinate their actions. However, as Mehdi Yahyanejad, the manager of “Balatarin,” one of the Internet’s most popular Farsi-language websites, told the Washington Post, “Twitter’s impact inside Iran is zero…. Here, there is lots of buzz, but once you look… you see most of it are Americans tweeting among themselves.” Outsiders believed, for example, that Oxfordgirl, a Twitter profile, was, in her own words, “almost coordinating people’s individual movements” by cell phone on days of protests. She presumably hoped no one would mention that the Iranian government shut down cell phone networks on days of protests. It also made little sense for all the supposed protesters to tweet in English when they were in Iran. Oxfordgirl gained great publicity for herself, but did little to aid protesters.

The Green Movement was disappointing to those praying that Iran would collapse in on itself or undergo a democratic revolution. However, a revolution is not what all of its members were fighting for. The Greens have been better described as a civil rights movement than a revolutionary one. Siavash Saffari, a scholar at the University of Alberta, points to the various forms that protest in Iran has taken since last year’s election: a recent general strike in Iran’s Kurdish area, demands from labour organisations for rights and vigorous debate among Iranians about Iran’s direction. Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian studies at Colombia University, deplores the support the well-meaning crowd gave the Greens as typical, ignorant, self-indulgent Orientalism that is more likely to hurt relations with Iran than give the movement the support it needs. Twisted perceptions built up the Green Movement into something it was not and disillusion with it was inevitable. Only sober thinking will help us understand enough about Iran to make wise decisions regarding its nuclear programme.

Frankly, I am opposed to my having any power over another state’s goals, but the belief among Americans that the world’s business is America’s business is not about to go away. But perhaps the demonisation of Iran, its branding as a fanatical Muslim state desperate to get nuclear weapons so it can wipe Israel off the map could be dispelled with a little clarity. Iran is not Nazi Germany. It is not about to invade its neighbours or attempt to obliterate Israel. In fact, it probably could not if it wanted. In spite of its president’s posturing, Iran’s military budget is smaller per capita than any other state in the Gulf beside the UAE (an ally of the US). To whom does it pose a threat?

To Israel? To the Israeli Defense Forces, one of the best trained militaries in the world, with its nuclear arsenal and its ability to crush any military in the Middle East? I have discussed the infinitesimal likelihood Iran will attack Israel elsewhere. In my opinion, Israel is far more likely to use nuclear weapons on Iran than vice versa. Israel has been involved in numerous wars, large and small, since its founding in 1948. Iran has spent most of the last hundred and fifty years fighting colonialist oppression, and has not once in that time invaded a neighbour. Given their records, who is more likely to fire on whom?

Iran’s government is often accused of funding and supplying arms to Hamas. This support is then employed as an excuse not to talk to Iran, or Hamas as the case may be. However, former senior British diplomat Sir Jeremy Greenstock said in an interview with the BBC that Hamas is not politically tied to Iran. On a logical level, if Iran is supplying Hamas with arms, it is a sign of Iran’s weakness, not its strength. Hamas has no tanks, no aircraft, no ships, no artillery, no missiles besides Qassam rockets, which are so weak that of the nearly 10,000 fired at Israel in the past decade, just over 20 have actually killed anyone. It is well known that Iran supports Hezbollah (though that support recently came in the form of reconstruction aid, as Iran helped rebuild Lebanon after the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war), but like Hamas, Hezbollah poses little threat to Israel’s existence. Meanwhile, the Badr Corps, a key US ally in Iraq, was once part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The US government has designated the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organisation (even though it has never engaged in terrorism) and the Badr Corps a pillar of Iraq’s democracy.

In 2003, the US led an invasion of Iraq based partly on the testimony of a few exiled Iraqis and orientalist scholars who assured Americans they would be treated as liberators. Their Iranian counterparts and many of the same “experts” are providing Americans with the same lies in an attempt to lead the US into yet another foolish foreign adventure. Christopher Hitchens, for instance, who backed the invasion of Iraq, warns with his dispensable eloquence that Iran’s leaders might follow through on Ayatollah Kharrazi’s threat to establish a Greater Iran in Bahrain and the UAE. Such people have some difficulty in understanding people in other parts of the world because they are not able to put themselves in the shoes of those from other cultures. They believe that all the world’s people want democracy, which to them means political parties and a constitution. But Juan Cole, who has lived in and studied the Muslim world for many years, says that among Muslims he has met, democracy means freedom from foreign oppression. As ironic as it may seem, this revelation means that dictatorship would be viewed more favourably by Muslims than American-backed political competition. Iran, having suffered all manner of foreign intervention, is no exception.

Iran is probably developing a nuclear weapon, and its leaders will probably continue to promise violence. But a look at the evidence says there is little reason to worry that Iran’s leaders’ threats are worth heeding. What are we so afraid of? Listening to an adversary? Fortunately, the truth is available to all of us, waiting to be found, ready to disprove any of the fears that could warrant war with Iran.

Sanctions on Iran? Let’s be Daoist about it

The Menso Guide to War’s good friend President Barack is proposing sanctions on Iran. Actually, he is proposing further sanctions on Iran. The history of US sanctions on Iran goes back to the deposing of the shah and the hostage crisis of 1979. Barack thinks more sanctions would be a good way to get what he wants in the Middle East, and many Americans support him. I am afraid, however, he is wading in over his head.

The proposed bill targets Iran’s dependence on imports for gasoline. The UN Security Council has passed several resolutions condemning Iran’s enrichment of uranium, because it could use uranium to make a nuclear weapon. In fact, it may already have a nuclear weapon. More resolutions express more accepted condemnation and as such give measures like sanctions (or military action, depending what the resolutions say) more legitimacy. Iran has violated the Non-Proliferation Treaty. So sanctions are justified to make it stop enriching uranium, right?

Not so fast. Why does Barack want sanctions on Iran? Is it a punishment? My homegirl Hillary has said that, if the sanctions could just target the “relatively small group of decision makers inside Iran”, they could serve the US’s goals. True, it may weaken the regime financially but it would also hurt the people, as sanctions often do–think of the deepening of poverty in Iraq during the 1990s. For instance, the $2b in Citibank belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that the US government froze in 2008 will likely be made up from other assets the Guard own in Iran. Someone always ends up paying, and it is rarely the elites. The people would be pushed into the hands of the hardliners, as I argue they already have been for years since the demonisation of Iran began under Bill Clinton and got no better under George Bush. This outside push on Iran is why a fool like Ahmadinejad can get elected there in the first place. If history is any guide, the people will not turn on their government if threatened or impoverished but run to it for protection.

Will tougher sanctions force a change in policy? Do Iranians even have a right to nuclear technology? For years now, the Iranian government has made it quite clear that it will enrich uranium whether the outside world likes it or not. And why should it? It has become part of the status quo that India, Israel and Pakistan all have nuclear weapons, and though they (along with North Korea) are the only four states not party to the non proliferation treaty, they are allies of the US. Israel gets into wars all the time: in the 62 years since 1948, Israel has fought 7 wars and 2 intifadas. India and Pakistan are continually at odds with one another, and though I disagree with him on Iran, Christopher Hitchens believes the India-Pakistan conflict is the most likely of the world to turn nuclear. Meanwhile, the US is trying to isolate Iran in the kind of double standard that makes international politics the confusing mess it is. If anyone tries to force Iran to give up nuclear capability of any kind, they will look like bullies and hypocrites.

Barack is using a sizeable amount of his political capital in the Security Council drumming up support for sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Meanwhile, the US government talks about how much it would like to talk to Iran and gently persuade it to do the right thing, but the ayatollahs just won’t cooperate. American politicians claim to be wide open to talking to Iran but wide open to bombing it to rubble as well. These arguments play well to the same voters as believe the mindless cliche that our enemies only understand the language of force. Aside from the fact that the claim that the US government is trying to engage Iran is doubtful, how do Hillary and Barack expect the Iranians to open up when they have been pushed away for two decades? You cannot push others away with one hand and expect them to shake your other one.

There seems to be surprisingly little discussion in Washington at the moment about the consequences of putting away all sanctions on Iran. If only American political culture were less impulsive and more Daoist. Daoism considers peace first. It favours non-action, which would be a propitious innovation for a culture that feels the need to move quickly forward in any direction. Daoists remain open minded and flexible, not committed to a single way of thinking, especially after that way has failed. And it believes in relativism, that what path might be right for one may not be right for all.

Perhaps that is why the Chinese government has said that more sanctions on Iran may not be necessary right now, and that it may be prudent to wait. (In truth, I believe Chinese government ideology is pragmatism, not Daoism, but Daoism is a good way to contrast the foreign affairs of the US and China.) It has declared its preference for dialogue over punishment. The Chinese government makes a habit of stating that it is not Chinese policy to interfere in other states’ affairs. It has backed sanctions in the past because like all nuclear powers it does not want anyone new in the club. But perhaps Chinese officials have realised that there are other ways to deal with adamant people.

Why are we so afraid of a nuclear Iran? It is not as if possession of nuclear weapons makes it likely or even possible to use them. The proliferation of nuclear weapons has made them all but useless. Yet Barack has made disarmament a major part of his foreign policy.

I am looking forward to a day when Daoists run the US State Department and liberals run the Revolutionary Guard. Perhaps then we will be able to talk to each other.

The demonisation of Iran

On Thursday, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a public address that he believed Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapon. Iran’s possessing the bomb would be “potentially a very, very destabilizing outcome. On the other hand,” he said, “when asked about striking Iran, specifically, that also has a very, very destabilizing outcome…. I think it so important is that we continue internationally, diplomatically, politically — not just we, the United States, but the international community — continue to focus on this to prevent those two outcomes.”

Some people might say that the obvious course is to strike now while the iron is hot. They are wrong. The US should not be pushing for regime change in Iran, which at any rate is unlikely at this time. The answer is to engage with Iran and, over time, make it an ally.

The Islamic Republic has not always been anti-American. Those with good memories will remember that, before Ahmadinejad, Iran had two moderate, “reformist” presidents in power: Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Seyed Mohammad Khatami. They urged cooperation with the West, reconciliation with the US and domestic freedoms. Rafsanjani spoke last July in support of the pro-democracy activists, and Khatami won the 2009 Global Dialogue Prize, and officially repudiated the fatwa on Salman Rushdie.

During the 1990s, Iran’s governments were interested in improving relations with the US, but the Clinton administration pushed Iran away. Iran offered the American oil firm Conoco a contract, chosen over other foreign oil companies in order to improve ties with the US, and the Clinton administration imposed sanctions on Iran in 1995.

Oil producers do not control the US government in the way most people imagine. War and sanctions are not in many oilmen’s interest. Sanctions prevent the development of oil fields by American companies and award them to rival companies from rival countries that do not participate in the sanctions regime. While security and stability are necessary to pump and transport oil, war produces instability. Whenever the US imposes sanctions on countries such as Iran, Iraq and Libya, or goes to war with countries like Iraq, it does so counter to US oil interests, not in line with them. As could have been expected, Conoco’s parent company, DuPont, lobbied against hurting its business.

But the sanctions came along anyway. In fact, the sanctions on Iran came at the behest of the Israel Lobby, the collection of hardline, right wing, Zionist pressure groups in the US whose actions have led to numerous strategic blunders for the US, including the subject at hand. In 1994, the US’s second most powerful lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), circulated a paper called “Comprehensive US sanctions against Iran: a plan for action”. It sought to close all of the loopholes American companies squeezed through to do business with Iran. Bill Clinton, under pressure from the Israel Lobby, scuttled the Conoco deal, and banned all American oil companies from helping Iran develop its oil fields.

In Autumn 2001, Iran helped facilitate the toppling of the Taliban regime and its replacement with the friendly government of Hamid Karzai. Iranians even held candlelight vigils to commemorate those who died on 9/11. President Khatami took these moves to mean relations with the US would improve. Instead, in 2002, George Bush placed Iran in the Axis of Evil, indicating he was keen on regime change there as well.

In 2003, after the US invaded Iraq, Bush publicly pressured Syria and Iran. Neocons and the Israel Lobby, apparently under the delusion that they could rearrange the entire Middle East, began pushing for a zero tolerance policy against Iran. Neocons accused Tehran of harbouring al-Qaeda operatives, though the CIA and the State Department thought it unlikely. Norman Podhoretz, part of the Israel Lobby, wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal in 2007 entitled “The Case for Bombing Iran: I hope and pray that President Bush will do it.” John Hagee of Christians United for Israel told AIPAC “it is 1938; Iran is Germany and Ahmadinejad is the new Hitler.”Retired general Wesley Clark, when asked why he was worried the US would go to war with Iran, said “[y]ou just have to read what’s in the Israeli press. The Jewish community is divided but there is so much pressure being channeled from the New York money people to the office seekers.” He was, predictably, lambasted as an anti-Semite. But as Matthew Yglesias wrote at the time, “everyone knows [what Clark said was] true.”

George Bush said his administration was willing to go to war with Iran to protect Israel. (The Israel Lobby’s leaders were quick to distance themselves from Bush’s statements, as they did not want to seem like the cause of the US’s unilateral belligerence.) All the 2008 presidential candidates echoed Bush’s remarks. While campaigning, Barack Obama said

“There is no greater threat to Israel, or to the peace and stability of the region, than Iran…. Let there be no doubt: I will always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally Israel…. I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon… everything.”

Now, perhaps having seen the folly of this position, or perhaps because he had been speaking to AIPAC when he said it, Barack has since softened his position and extended a hand to Iran.

I believe it is unlikely that the Iranian government will be easily induced to give up its development of nuclear weapons (assuming, which we should, it is indeed attempting to produce them). Nukes are good for regimes who face an existential threat. It is understandable to prepare for war with a country like the US, which has started two wars with Iran’s immediate neighbours, and Israel, which publishes daily headlines that scream of the colossal threat posed by Tehran’s nuclear bomb and the necessity of preventing them from acquiring one. President Barack wants to eliminate them but doing so would require extremely costly incentives (eg. lots of money and security guarantees for countries like North Korea) or disincentives (eg. war). And if possessing the bomb is the best way to win a prize, what is to stop everyone from having them?

Therefore, relevant questions include the following: Will Iran use nuclear weapons against Israel or the US? I doubt it. If an Iranian missile landed on the US or Israel, those two countries together would walk all over Iran. Let them have a nuclear weapon. They will not use it.

Will it give them to terrorists who will use them on everyone? This is an unrealistic prospect. First, Iran wants to keep its foes on their toes, but does not want to destroy the world. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric is just posturing. Men love to strut and posture and look tough. Men build big guns and missiles and hold military parades to feel good about themselves. Some men will always talk tough, even if, behind the scenes, they are actually hoping they will not have to carry through.

Second, most terrorists have no ability to detonate a nuclear weapon. As John Mueller explains, a nuclear bomb is not a toy. It is very hard to assemble and use, and will not simply blow up the world if tapped with a hammer. Moreover, if Iran supplied terrorists with weapons, intelligence agencies would find out and governments would fiercely punish Iran.

It is time for the US to engage with Iran. Doing so would lead Iran’s government to assist in stabilising Afghanistan and Iraq, two unstable zones that could produce anti-Western terrorism and contribute to radicalising the Middle East and Central Asia. Indian foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon said in 2008, “Frankly, from our point of view, the more engagement there is, the more Iran becomes a factor of stability in the region, the better is is for us all.” The fact is, we need all the help we can get, and we do not need another intractable conflict. The State Department, the CIA and the US military all favour direct discussion with Iran’s leaders, as does a majority of Americans. In 2006, the Iraq Study Group urged talks with Iran and Syria, which was initially rejected by the Bush administration who thought it was doing just fine in Iraq without them.

So they continued to refer to Iran as the most dangerous country in the world. Gallup polls indicate that the percentage of Americans who believe Iran is their greatest enemy has increased every year since 2001. The reason might be that rhetoric on Iran has gone up concurrently. US and Israeli warmongerers want us to believe it to buoy support for military action. They believe that, by eliminating all enemies, they can be secure. But when we attempt to destroy all enemies, we imperil our own security most, because everyone will mistrust us, and most will defend themselves.

Talk of war tends to push the potential victims of that war into the hands of tough-talking governments. To both decry Ahmadinejad’s election and threaten Iran is to defeat one’s purpose. There are wiser solutions.

Another Gallup poll of Americans taken in 2007 showed a clear majority in favour of economic and diplomatic efforts to induce Iran to give up its nuclear program. The survey then asked those who were in favour of economic and diplomatic efforts, if such efforts failed, would you support a military strike? 55% said no. Even despite the rhetoric, even though most of them believe Iran is trying to acquire a nuclear weapon, Americans are largely not in favour of further military action against the US’s latest “enemy”.

They have probably not yet forgotten how we were all duped into supporting the war against Saddam. All the same transparent words are being used: evil, irrational, radical, WMDs and so on. Yet, aside from interfering with American wars on its borders, a rational act given that tying down the US in Iraq and Afghanistan makes it less able to attack Iran, Iran has never attacked the US or Israel. Why would it do so now?

Are we afraid because Iran’s government is a pack of religious fanatics with an apocalyptic worldview that puts them on a collision course with civilisation? People who take this view tend also to see everyone an American newspaper might call “jihadists” in the same light: ready to kill themselves and everyone else to bring on the end of the world. The differences among these groups are significant and often ignored. Iran’s Islamic revolution was a nationalist one, and though it supports other Shia groups in the Middle East against Western interests, this has been largely in reaction to isolation and demonisation by America and Israel, not to spread holy war. It does not support groups like al-Qaeda, though I am sure that if they get desperate, the Israel Lobby and Neocons will fabricate evidence that they do.

Being religious does not mean being stupid. Everyone responds to carrots and sticks. Iran’s leaders have shown they can be reasonable and even friendly to foreign interests, including those of the Great Satan, and may be again. Besides, if religious fanatics could not be negotiated with, no one would ever have approached the Bush White House.

Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett recommend Barack give up his “half-hearted” approach to diplomacy with Iran and look to Richard Nixon’s example. Nixon flew to China during the Cultural Revolution and the Vietnam War. Since then, the US has been committed to engagement with the Chinese government. Barack could be the president that flies to Tehran.

Power no longer comes from wars of words or wars of bullets. It comes from close, lasting relationships with other people and governments. The benefits to engaging Iran are a new ally, a more stable Middle East and Central Asia, and a more trustworthy nuclear partner. The benefits to castigating Iran serve only the warmongering elite. It is time to reconcile American and Iranian interests and end the demonisation of the US’s chosen enemy.

“Prohibiting a market does not mean destroying it”

It is an industry worth 15 to 20% of the world’s GDP. It boasts among the most global of operations. We see its results all around us, even in our own homes, without realising it. In these difficult economic times, this sector of the economy is thriving. We are supporting it with many of our purchases and people are dying for it on the streets. The industry in question is organised crime.

Misha Glenny’s book McMafia: a Journey through the Global Criminal Underworld is a fascinating thrill ride that traces the roots of the scourge of modern organised crime. He paints a clear picture of the origins, rapid international spread and possible solutions to the enormous problem of the illegal multinational. He begins in Eastern Europe.

As the communist world was imploding, law enforcement was going with it. In the USSR, state companies, the commanding heights of the economy, were being sold at firesale prices. The new oligarchs, as they were soon to be known, needed protection, and they found it in the ranks of the newly unemployed. (For more on the relation between unemployment and violence, see here.) Mob wars became the defining characteristic of Russia in the 1990s. The oligarchs ran complex corporations where the legal and the illegal were indistinguishable. Thousands of criminal organisations arose to work with them and kill for them. Then, they spread.

Glenny details how organised crime went everywhere in search of black markets to exploit. In Yugoslavia, a war that appeared to be tearing people apart was uniting the mafia across the new borders. Bulgarian gangsters tricked and then pimped prostitutes in Europe, Israel and beyond. He describes it as not only a lucrative business but one that pays consistent dividends. The trade in caviar from the Caspian Sea has enriched gang leaders, corrupted officials (further) and nearly depleted the sea of sturgeon. Dubai’s gleaming buildings belie its status as a hub for money laundering. Sanctions on trade with North Korea have pushed all its dealings under the table, and now a nuclear state is selling weapons to the Taliban. (See here.) British Columbia’s marijuana cultivation brings in 6% of its GDP and ecstasy production is rising and bringing Hell’s Angels with it. Sanctions and criminalisation did not end the trade in these things. This lesson, in fact, is central to Glenny’s thesis.

Innumerable women are exploited as prostitutes. They have no protection from violence or disease. Legalised prostitution would mean they have the law on their side. I have been writing for some time about why legalising drugs is the only sensible answer to the billions of dollars and no end of lives lost to fighting a problem that grows nonetheless. An estimated 70% of the global “shadow economy” is in narcotics.

Lev Timofeev, a former Soviet mathematician and analyst of the shadow economy, put it well in an interview with Glenny when he said the following.

“Prohibiting a market does not mean destroying it. Prohibiting a market means placing a prohibited but dynamically developing market under the total control of criminal corporations. Moreover, prohibiting a market means enriching the criminal world with hundreds of billions of dollars by giving criminals a wide access to public goods which will be routed by addicts into the drug traders’ pockets. Prohibiting a market means giving the criminal corporations opportunities and resources for exerting a guiding and controlling influence over whole societies and nations.” (Glenny, 225)

The idea that something is bad, therefore we must make it illegal means trying to end the economic law of supply and demand. Only market based policies will work. Everything else is doomed to fail. But public pressure is mostly conservative on the issue. (See, for instance, here.) I wrote to my member of parliament, Gary Lunn, to end drug prohibition, and he responded by assuring me that he was adhering to more of the same inept, wasteful policies.

The same simple thinking believes that restrictions on immigration can be effective ways of keeping the barbarians outside the gates. The demand for cheap labour has been rising for years, while barriers to it have been following suit. Many Americans see their country as the destination of poor workers, and while illegal immigrants face various dangers to enter and stay in the US, their counterparts all over the world are doing the same. Millions of people are trafficked to jobs under terribly hazardous conditions to wherever cheap labour is in demand. The criminals running operations kidnap the people and then beat or rape them. The free movement of labour across borders would reduce the risks of being a migrant worker. But being unwilling to embrace cultural change, not understanding interculturalism and scared of losing their jobs, people in the rich world prefer to forget about the problem and watch TV. But more attention to the trade going on under the rug would make our world safer.

The fingers of crime are in every pie, everywhere. Organised crime does not only deal in drugs and prostitutes. It corrupts police forces and governments everywhere. It sells cigarettes. Because of high taxes on cigarettes, cigarette smuggling has cost the UK alone $8b in tax revenue and fueled the brutal conflict in Yugoslavia. It sells diamonds, as we know from the movie Blood Diamond, a gripping, fictional (but true to life) story of a diamond industry that has brought down states and sold millions into slavery. It sells weapons, labourers, DVDs, gold, tin and coltan. Do you know what coltan is? It is a black ore found in almost all cell phones, DVD players, video game systems and computers. Though it is found in many parts of the world, much of it comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The mafia from all around the world have cooperated to exploit the mineral resources of the Congo, and in doing so have been fueling the world’s deadliest war since 1945. (Read more here.)

Though we cannot know the origin of everything we buy, we can choose to stop taking drugs, visiting prostitutes and consuming so much. We can lobby our governments to legalise drugs and prostitution, and loosen restrictions on migration. We can set up regimes to verify the origins of things like diamonds, gold and coltan, like the Kimberley Process has done with some success. It is time to stop standing by and letting criminals corrupt our world when some unpleasant but necessary actions could end their party. I strongly recommend McMafia. You will never look at globalisation the same again.