Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Hiroshima: 63 years on

"Even without the atomic bombing attacks, air supremacy over Japan could have exerted sufficient pressure to bring about unconditional surrender and obviate the need for invasion. Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey's opinion that ... Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated."

United States Strategic Bombing Survey, 1946. Quoted by John Pilger, "The lies of Hiroshima live on..."

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Friday, August 01, 2008

George Monbiot on a nuclear Iran

George Monbiot had a good article on the Iran nuclear issue in the Guardian earlier this week, wherein he identified the bottom line: that if Iran does want nuclear weapons, the reasons will most likely have to do with the clear security threats that it faces. Aside from the existence of Israel's nuclear weapons and those of the UNSC P5, who are obliged to disarm under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (the same treaty they wave at Iran) but refuse to do so, Monbiot could also have mentioned that Iran has Pakistan and India's weapons in its neighbourhood as well, plus US bases/allies in practically every neighbouring country and US warships in the Persian Gulf. Plus the US has invaded and occupied two of Iran's neighbours, justifying those actions with similar accusations to those now made against Tehran. And Israeli and US politicians continue to implicitly or explicitly threaten to attack Iran militarily (threats of force being illegal under the UN charter).

But I appreciate that newspaper columnists have to work within the constraints of space, and Monbiot’s article was focused on upholding the international mechanisms for non-proliferation and reminding us of Britain's own flaunted obligations in that regard. So the above isn't a criticism, more an addition to the point he was making in the article.

While I wholly agree with the main thrust of the article, I’d respectfully take issue with a couple of points Monbiot makes within his argument. He tries to portray his position as being on a sensible middle ground between Western governments who say Iran definitely does and “some anti-war campaigners” who say it definitely does not have a nuclear weapons program. But in fact he offers no challenge to the position of the former group; only to the latter. He actually seems pretty certain such a program exists, and that's a highly problematic stance.

Personally, I don’t say unequivocally that Iran does not want the bomb. I note for example Israeli historian Martin van Creveld's statement that, given the security threats mentioned above, Iran would be "crazy" not to build a nuclear weapon. But nor do I think we can state unequivocally that Iran does have a nuclear program, or even say (as Monbiot seems to) that we can pretty much assume that it does. Its important (a) to acknowledge that we don't know one way or the other, and (b) to also note the evidence that and reasons why Iran might not have such a program. These remain just as significant as the evidence that and reasons why Iran would have a weapons program. And one can't overstate the importance of looking at this particular topic in as balanced and accurate a way as possible, given what's at stake.

Monbiot accuses some anti-war folk of “clutching” at the recent US National Intelligence Estimate's (the consensus opinion of all US intelligence agencies) conclusion that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program. He points out that the NIE also said that Iran’s uranium enrichment activities are such that if it decided to start a weapons program it could do so quite swiftly. Fair enough. But its hardly valid to skip lightly over the difference between having a weapons program and not having one (but being able to start one quickly) as though the difference between the two doesn't exist at all. Moreover, Monbiot is failing to join the dots between this and his overall argument (that Iran wants the bomb as a deterrent). Whether the difference between Iran having a peaceful nuclear program and having a weapons program is a substantial one or not depends on the security environment. To the extent that the West continues to start wars all over the Middle East, fill the region with troops, military bases and aircraft carriers, arms its allies to the teeth and threaten war on anyone who challenges its hegemony, then yes, it becomes increasingly likely that the difference between a peaceful and a non-peaceful Iranian nuclear program will be an academic one. Monbiot could have drawn this into his overall argument if he'd seen what appears to me to be a fairly obvious connection.

Monbiot says that the International Atomic Energy Agency has many questions outstanding in relation to Iran's activities. But he should also have mentioned – because (as I point out above) it is not exactly irrelevant - that the IAEA has also said there is no evidence of a weapons program existing. What we cannot do is, to use Hans Blix's memorable phrase, turn question marks into exclamation marks in respect of this issue. That takes us into the same territory of false logic as the pre-Iraq war US and UK governments and the 9/11 conspiracy theorists. People are not convicted on suspicion; there’s a very good reason why the burden of proof is on the party making the accusation and not on the party being accused.

(It is also, I regret to say, a little cheap of Monbiot to declare – with an adjective substituting for a properly functioning argument - that people citing a strong source of evidence that Iran has no nuclear weapons program – the NIE - are in some way desperately “clutching” at something flimsy. When the IAEA and the NIE both tell us that Iran is not making nukes, that has a good deal of authority, and for Monbiot to challenge this he needs to offer better arguments than these)

Monbiot says, rightly in my view, that "those of us who oppose an attack on Iran are under no obligation to accept [Iranian President] Ahmadinejad's claims of peaceful intent". However, as Juan Cole has pointed out, "the [Iranian] Supreme Jurisprudent has given a fatwa against having or using nuclear weapons as illicit in Islamic law. You can't acknowledge that Iran is a dictatorial theocracy and then turn around and say that his fatwa is irrelevant."

Recall that it is the Supreme Jurisprudent, not Ahmedinejad, who in ultimate charge of Iranian government policy. Note also that Khamenei's power is not simply material; it also rests on his credibility as an Islamic cleric. To flagrantly breach his own explicit ruling would clearly diminish his clerical and therefore his political standing, and that's something he'd have to take into account if he decided that Iran should have the bomb. That's not to say he would never do it, but its a non-trivial barrier for him to overcome, which may mitigate against it happening. Again, this is not something we can simply ignore.

Monbiot asks "Why would a country with such reserves of natural gas and so great a potential for solar power suffer sanctions and the threat of bombing to make fuel it could buy from other states, if it accepted the UN's terms?" There are three answers to this.

First, it would clearly make far more economic sense for Iran to maximise the amount of oil and gas that it can sell on the international markets rather than hand out at subsidised rates to its own people. That's should be fairly plain. Yes, it could (and should) address this via renewable energy. But Iran's hardly the only nation on the planet that's woefully behind the curve on that issue.

Second, Iran may want to assume the position of "nuclear ambiguity": not having the weapons, but being in the position where its enemies are aware that it could assemble them in short order, and are deterred from attacking it as a result.

But third, and perhaps most importantly of all, the Iranian ruling class are highly ambitious; aspiring to the status of regional power in accordance with their nation's historic role. Iran's willingness to stare down the West and insist on nothing less than its entitlements under the NPT needs to be seen in that context. If you look at the rhetoric, you see a recurring theme of Iran insisting on its "rights". This subtext is key, in my view. What Tehran is really insisting on is its desired status as a serious player on the international stage. Using solar power does not offer Iran the opportunity to make this sort of a stand. The NPT does.

So I would caution against ascribing a very high degree of probability to the idea that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. Absent any certain knowledge, and with evidence pointing in both directions, Monbiot’s approach needs to be more circumspect. Those best placed to judge say there is no evidence of such a program, and much of the Iranian behaviour which Monbiot cites as indicating the existence of that program can be plausibly explained in another way. I should neither be surprised nor unsurprised to learn for certain that Iran is trying to build a bomb. The fact is that we don't know, and in my view we can't call this in either direction with any serious level of confidence. Given the dangerous nature of the current stand-off between Iran and the West, a high degree of circumspection is essential to keep the temperature of this issue at a non-threatening level.

I should conclude by saying that I acknowledge Monbiot’s sound intentions to prevent a war with Iran (which would make the bloodbath in Iraq look like a tea party) and to hold our own governments to account for their role in nuclear proliferation. But I feel that his speculation on current Iranian activities leaves a little bit to be desired. He may actually be undermining his own aims by propagating the myth that Iran definitely or almost certainly does have a nuclear weapons program. It is important to fully acknowledge the fact that this accusation is a long way from being proven; not least because many thousands of lives may depend on how that question is answered.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Jonathan Freedland on Iran

This letter to the Guardian was sent yesterday. Didn't get published.


Understanding the perceptions of the protagonists in a dispute is crucial to any progressive approach to security issues. To explain an actor's behaviour is not to excuse it but to gain the insights we need in order to be able to prevent the worst outcomes.

Sadly, in his article on the threat of an Israeli attack on Iran, Jonathan Freedland did not take this approach ("The West Has to Tackle Iran", Guardian, 25 June 2008). Freedland should have reviewed both the Iranian and the Israeli perspectives, and critically analysed both against the known facts. Instead, he took an indulgent view of Israel's perspective and ignored the Iranian view entirely.

The threats perceived by Iran are real enough. It is bordered by two nations recently laid waste by US regime-change. It is surrounded by US bases, forces and allies. Three of its close neighbours (Pakistan, India and Israel) have US-indulged nuclear weapons capabilities outside of international jurisdiction. And US backing for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war is very much within living memory. Moreover, the US rejected without consideration Iran's 2003 offer of a grand bargain for peace including removal of support for Hezbollah and Hamas and support for the Arab peace plan (i.e. the two-state solution accepted by the entire world bar the US and Israel).

These are several reasons for Iran to think itself in need of nuclear weapons to deter a grave and apparently implacable threat. They are reasons that have nothing to do with Islamist extremism or the wretched Ahmedinejad's denial of the holocaust. Yet this crucial context is omitted from Freedland's article. Instead, even the most preposterous of Israeli fears are taken at face value. For example, Freedland apparently takes quite seriously the idea that an Iranian regime pragmatic enough to collaborate with the US over Afghanistan and with Israel itself over Iran-Contra is also irrational enough to commit collective suicide by attacking Israel for no reason.

Is the view of Iran as a "suicide nation" not best left to maniacs like Alan Dershowitz, rather than the Guardian's leading op-ed writers?

Freedland also makes some important omissions and employs occasionally alarming forms of logic. For example, he says that the intelligence consensus that Iran has no nuclear weapons programme will be viewed with suspicion in Israel because the Yom Kippur war came as a result of Israel underestimating the Arab threat. This sounds rather like Dick Cheney's "One Percent Doctrine", which says that if there is a one percent chance that a threat exists then the US should act as though it definitely does exist. Thus evidence and rationality are dispensed with, and replaced by fantasy and innuendo. Not the best way to make judgements that could lead to the incineration of innocent Iranian men, women children. Furthermore, it ignores the fact that Egypt attacked Israel in 1973 after several diplomatic offers of peace on the basis of Israel returning stolen Egyptian territory were summarily ignored, just like Iran's peace offer to the US and Israel in 2003 was rejected without consideration.

But perhaps the most serious omission was the very idea that Israeli "fears" may be less than are claimed. It is only 5 years since the US launched a war of aggression aimed at securing strategic advantage in the Middle East under the cloak of a manufactured "threat". By now, it should be no more than routine in any serious analysis of a US-alleged "threat" for that "threat" to be examined for the possibility that it has been inflated or manufactured for political ends. Less sane elements within the Israeli and US governments have every reason to create a pretext for knocking-out a strategic rival in the region. Indeed, this is where Cheney's "One Percent Doctrine" comes in, with its obviation of the need for proof when making allegations that excuse aggressive war.

It is extraordinary that such questions can be ignored only five years after the WMD fiasco in which, lest we forget, uncritical writing in Western newspapers played a central part. Not least since, unlike the notion of Iran committing suicide, these threats exist in the real world.

Freedland's focus is all on what the West can do about the threat others pose to us. With one in five Iraqis a refugee and one in twenty-five a corpse, perhaps a more relevant question is the threat that we pose to others. A more balanced view would have been more informative for your readers and more productive in terms of promoting peace.

Yours sincerely

David Wearing

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

US u-turn on Iranian nuclear weapons

A couple of points about this week's US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) - a report from all the US government spy agencies - which said that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons programme.

Firstly, note that this simply echoes what the International Atomic Energy Agency has been saying for some time, only to be ignored by Western policymakers, commentators and the media. That there was a "threat" from an Iranian nuclear weapons programme remained the conventional wisdon across the political spectrum until the US government said otherwise. This tells us a great deal about the discipline and respect of authority that runs right through mainstream politics.
You would think that the US government was a neutral assessor of the truth, whose judgements were in no way coloured by its own interests. You would think that the IAEA inspectors were peripheral, ignorant, hopelessly biased or irrelevant. You would think that the Iraq WMD fiasco never happened; an instance where Western governments and spy agencies colluded to distort and lie about the information available while the international bodies stuck by the truth and were vindicated in their judgement. Government's should take heart from this. Iraq changed nothing. If you want to nominate an official enemy as a "security threat" simply say the word and the echo chamber will do the rest, until you say otherwise.

The second point concerns the state of play in Washington at the moment. As I say, the NIE is not a neutral assessment. Its a political assessment made by an actor with its own interests. The question then is, why is it now decided in such a high-profile, high-level fashion that saying Iran has a nuclear weapons programme no longer suits US interests? Remember that two years ago the NIE said with equal "high confidence" that Iran did have such a programme, which the spys now say was actually abandoned in 2003. So why the U-turn?

The answers to those questions mostly come down to who's in the driving seat in Washington at the moment. What we seem to be seeing now is the neo-cons around Cheney being eclipsed by the "Realists" around Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

In 2002 those pushing for war on Iraq (the neo-cons) were in the ascendency. They could ensure that an NIE emerged which suited their purposes in respect of its assessment of Iraq's WMD capabilities. Things are very different now. Cheney and Bush may want war but Gates and Rice do not, and it seems the the intelligence and defence bureaucracies are aligned with the latter camp. Neo-cons Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, Perle etc are all gone, so the Realists' hand is strengthened. Gates' apparently played a big part in getting this NIE published, and he will have been helped by an intelligence bureaucracy that contains many who actively loathe Cheney and his neo-con "crazies" (as the Realists call privately refer to them). For them, this will be revenge for the way the neo-cons bullied them to come up with the "right answers" over Iraq.

The NIE doesn't give the definitive assessment on the available evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons programme. That's given by the IAEA. What the NIE gives is an indication of what Washington wants at the moment. Those able to define what Washington wants are by definition those in the political ascendency. An NIE that says Iran has no nuclear programme is an indication that the neo-cons are routed and the Realists are in command. The Realists understand that an attack on Iran would elicit a response that would make Iraq look like a tea-party. So they have removed Cheney's major casus belli.

Make no mistake, this is an almighty kick in the nuts for the Vice President. And indeed for Bush whose statements after the NIE have been humiliatingly incoherent even by his standards. Its possible that neither man will recover from what has effectively been a miniature bureaucratic coup.

Time precludes me from writing more about this, but the best place to go for more info and comment on this will certainly be Paul Woodward's indispensible site War in Context. For more background on Western-Iran relations, see my article "The Iran hostage crisis in context" or listen to my interview on Nadim Mahjoub's show "Middle East Panorama".

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Iran threat - exchange with George Monbiot

My email to George Monbiot:

George - thank you for an excellent piece in today's Guardian drawing attention to the great unmentionable in respect of WMD in the Middle East: Israel's nuclear weapons.

Given how important it is for this subject to be raised prominently in a mainstream newspaper, I'm reluctant to find fault with what you've written. However, there are a couple of aspects of your piece which I think will counteract what I suspect is your aim, i.e. to help the campaign against a war on Iran. I refer to instances where you reinforce some of the erroneous assumptions upon which the drive to war is based.

First, you say that "I believe that Iran is trying to acquire the bomb". May I ask what the basis of this belief is? Do you think that reliance on "belief" can be an adequate position for anyone – especially a Western newspaper commentator - to take on such a serious issue? Given the potentially cataclysmic dangers inherent in any US-Iran war, should we not confine ourselves strictly to the facts and, where there are gaps in our knowledge, admit to our ignorance rather than filling the gaps with "belief"?

The limits of our empirical knowledge of Iran's nuclear program are set by the findings of the IAEA. The agency has, after several surprise and intrusive inspections consistent with the NPT (it is the Additional Protocol, not the treaty, that Iran has withdrawn co-operation from) stated in its latest report (as it has many times previously) that it has no evidence of the "diversion" of enrichment activities towards a weapons programme.

I refer you to this informative commentary from Farideh Farhi on the dissonace between what the IAEA report said and how the media have been reporting it.

Second, it should be noted (though it never is) that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued a religious ruling banning the construction and stockpiling of nuclear weapons.

Now of course, Khamenei, like any other powerful person, is perfectly capable of telling untruths. But when a person whose authority flows from his religious piety issues a ruling that impacts on his own behaviour he stakes not only his credibility but his power on his adherence to that ruling. Few people have ever accused members of the Tehran regime of being indifferent to personal power. So one has to admit that the existence of this explicit fatwa at the very least reduces by a significant degree the likelihood of Khamenei subsequently authorising an Iranian nuclear weapons programme.

This highlights a further point, scrupulously ignored by those who favour war: that it is Khamenei, not Ahmadinejad, who is in ultimate charge in Iran. It is he who has the last word on foreign and security policy. Indeed, one might well argue, with reference to Iran's complex political hierarchy, that Ahmadinejad is not even second in command.

Yet in your article, you say: "Yes, Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a dangerous and unpredictable state". It is by no means true that Iran is "under" Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad does not have the power to start wars, for example.

You go on to say that "The president is a Holocaust denier opposed to the existence of Israel." Of the problematic turns of phrase in your article, this is possibly the most serious. I'm sure you're aware that Ahmadinejad never threatened to "wipe Israel from the map", as the hawks often claim. But your choice of words - in its formulation of an Iranian nuclear threat - is functionally identical to that disproven "wiped off the map" claim.

Let us be clear. Ahmadinejad - odious Holocaust denier though he undoubtedly is - has never threatened or advocated the physical, violent destruction of Israel. He has advocated the dissolution of what he views as an unjust regime, similar to the dissolution of the Shah's regime in Iran and the Soviet regime in Russia, neither of which resulted in either of those countries being "wiped off the map". He has advocated a single democratic state for Jews and Palestinians on all of mandate Palestine. You imply (whether you mean to or not) that he threatens a holocaust to destroy Israel. In reality, he calls for an election to dissolve it and effect a one-state solution. Believe him or don't. View his idea as foolish if you like. But lets at least acknowledge the facts.

Two more things should be mentioned on this point. First, even if we dismiss the available evidence and believe in the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, do we really suppose that Iran would consider for a moment the idea of initiating a war against an Israel armed with x amount of warheads and therefore also against the US with its many thousands of warheads? By what rationale do we argue that the Iranian regime wishes to commit suicide?

Secondly, noting that it is Khamenei that runs Iranian foreign policy, not Ahmadinejad, should we not acknowledge that Khamenei was "
directly involved" in formulating and proposing a comprehensive peace deal to the US and Israel, including acceptance of a two-state solution?

You see, then, why I believe these turns of phrase in your article to be problematic. Iran has no proven nuclear weapons programme, and is governed ultimately by a man who has forbidden the construction of nuclear weapons and who has offered to accept a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict. Yet your article gives the impression that Iran has an active nuclear weapons programme and is run by a man who may wish to use the weapons he is constructing to destroy Israel.

Any hawk would be delighted that even The Guardian's George Monbiot is prepared to give this impression to his readers - and that’s a big shame given the excellent points you make in your article regarding Israel's nuclear weapons.

As you know, it is when someone at your end of the spectrum accepts the claims of power that those claims pass from points of view or allegations into accepted and unquestionable truths. Its a sad irony that I should be making this point in respect of this article, since your aim was plainly to challenge some of the received wisdom on this issue. However, unfortunately, you have reinforced many other aspects of the received wisdom in doing so. I wonder - is there any chance of your offering a corrective in a future piece?

I hope you accept these criticisms in the constructive and fraternal spirit in which they were intended. Because the issues raised deserve airing beyond private correspondence I am publishing this email on my website. I look forward to any reply from you and would be happy to post that on my site as well, with your permission.

Best wishes

David Wearing

Reply from George Monbiot:

Hi David, thanks for your message. No time for long reply, but v briefly:

[dw - George quotes my original email]

"First, you say that "I believe that Iran is trying to acquire the bomb". May I ask what the basis of this belief is? Do you think that reliance on "belief" can be an adequate position for anyone - especially a Western newspaper commentator - to take on such a serious issue? Given the potentially cataclysmic dangers inherent in any US-Iran war, should we not confine ourselves strictly to the facts and, where there are gaps in our knowledge, admit to our ignorance rather than filling the gaps with "belief"?"

Well, what do you think is going on? Why the insistence on enriching uranium? Why the long drawn-out dance with the IAEA? What do you think this is about (from latest IAEA report):

"Contrary to the decisions of the Security Council, Iran has not suspended its enrichment related activities, having continued the operation of PFEP and FEP. Iran has also continued the construction of the IR-40 and operation of the Heavy Water Production Plant."

Given the huge diplomatic and economic costs of Iran's nuclear programme, it looks to me as if it intends to derive a major benefit from it. Generating electricity does not seem to me to be sufficient, given that it has other readily available means (some of the world's largest natural gas reserves). I can't prove that it's seeking to develop a bomb, but I believe it is.

[dw - again, Geroge quotes my original email]

"You go on to say that "The president is a Holocaust denier opposed to the existence of Israel."

Of the problematic turns of phrase in your article, this is possibly the most serious. I'm sure you're aware that Ahmadinejad never threatened to "wipe Israel from the map", as the hawks often claim. But your choice of words - in its formulation of an Iranian nuclear threat - is functionally identical to that disproven "wiped off the map" claim.

Let us be clear. Ahmadinejad - wretched Holocaust denier though he undoubtedly is - has never threatened or advocated the physical, violent destruction of Israel. He has advocated the dissolution of what he views as an unjust regime, similar to the dissolution of the Shah's regime in Iran and the Soviet regime in Russia, neither of which resulted in either of those countries being "wiped off the map". He has advocated a single democratic state for Jews and Palestinians on all of mandate Palestine. You imply (whether you mean to or not) that he threatens a holocaust to destroy Israel. In reality, he calls for an election to dissolve it and effect a one-state solution. Believe him or don't. View his idea as foolish if you like. But lets at least acknowledge the facts."

I'm well aware that "wiped off the map" was a mistranslation. But if we are to use Juan Cole as our source, look at his translation of the same passage:

"The Imam said that this regime occupying Jerusalem (een rezhim-e ishghalgar-e qods) must [vanish from] from the page of time (bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad)."

Does that not suggest that Ahmadinejad is opposed to the existence of the state of Israel? What other regime did he have in mind? Of course, being opposed to the state doesn't mean he intends to destroy it.

See these too, which I am sorry to say come from Wikipedia:

"A synopsis of Mr Ahmadinejad's speech on the Iranian Presidential website states:

He further expressed his firm belief that the new wave of confrontations generated in Palestine and the growing turmoil in the Islamic world would in no time wipe Israel away.[23]

The same idiom in his speech on December 13, 2006 was translated as "wiped out" by Reuters:

Just as the Soviet Union was wiped out and today does not exist, so will the Zionist regime soon be wiped out.[24]"


"In a speech given on 14 December 2005 in the city of Zahedan, and carried live on Iranian television, Ahmadinejad made the following comments:Why have they come to the very heart of the Islamic world and are committing crimes against the dear Palestine using their bombs, rockets, missiles and sanctions. [...] The same European countries have imposed the illegally-established Zionist regime on the oppressed nation of Palestine. If you have committed the crimes so give a piece of your land somewhere in Europe or America and Canada or Alaska to them to set up their own state there. Then the Iranian nation will have no objections, will stage no rallies on the Qods Day and will support your decision.[64]"

I think you would have to stretch things somewhat to argue to MA is not opposed to the existence of Israel.

We are both against an attack on Iran. But I do not understand how the case against an attack is strengthened by seeking to whitewash the Iranian government.

With best wishes, George


My response:

Hi George. I'm grateful for your response. Thank you.

Let me address your last paragraph first, where you say

"I do not understand how the case against an attack is strengthened by seeking to whitewash the Iranian government"

I'm tempted to now write a long paragraph in flowery language listing and denouncing the many crimes of the Iranian government in order to prove my moral decency. But there is no need for this because the question of my "seeking to whitewash the Iranian government" does not arise, and there is no basis - none - for your suggesting that it does. What I have done is simply to insist on the facts. The factual record by itself condemns the Tehran regime to hell and back several times over. There's no need for anything else.

You've noticed that my position on this issue is informed greatly by Juan Cole. When discussing the "wiped off the map" issue, Cole said: "I personally despise everything Ahmadinejad stands for, not to mention the odious Khomeini, who had personal friends of mine killed so thoroughly that we have never recovered their bodies."

Despite these personal circumstances, Cole still absolutely insists on the facts regarding Iran, however those individual facts happen to reflect on the Iranian government. I think that sets a fine example to the rest of us.

It would be nice if you could retract your statement about my "seeking to whitewash the Iranian government".

Does Iran have a nuclear weapons programme? There are good reasons for believing it may do. Iran lives in the neighbourhood of a nuclear Israel, Pakistan and India. A nuclear armed United States is committed to regime change in Tehran. The US has occupied Iran's neighbours Iraq and Afghanistan. There are also US forces and allies surrounding Iran in the Gulf, the Emirates, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Pakistan. The last time the current ideological trend was in the White House they backed Saddam in war that nearly destroyed Iran. If Iran wants nuclear weapons in those circumstances, then we hardly need fantasies about Iran wishing to commit collective suicide by launching a pointless attack on Israel (and therefore de facto the US) to explain the reasons why. Iran has very compelling reasons indeed for starting a weapons programme.

However, there are also compelling reasons for believing it may not have such a programme. Like the fact that the Supreme Leader has effectively staked his religious credibility and therefore the essence of his power on their not building nuclear weapons. Like the fact that the empirical evidence points to there not being a weapons programme.

Why insist on enriching uranium when you're rich in gas and oil? Well why squander that wealth in domestic consumption when oil prices are astronomically high? Sensible economics would surely dictate that you maximise the amount of oil and gas for sale on the world market, no?

Why insist on enrichment in defiance of the UNSC? Well why wouldn't any small country insist on their rights under the NPT if it felt it could (Tehran seems to be banking, perhaps overconfidently, on Moscow and Beijing's eternal backing)? Why instead accept being walked over by the permanent nuclear states? Maybe this is just a state seeking to maximise its utility in the normal course of things.

Why the "long-drawn out dance with the IAEA"? Well ask North Korea. After a lot of bluster, Washington was finally forced to do a deal with Pyongyang. Iran tried to do a deal with the US in 2003. A generous deal from the Iranian point of view. The US responded by chastising the Swiss diplomat who brought them the letter from Tehran. Well now Tehran has a lot more bargaining chips, and its not giving them up lightly. That's a possible interpretation. You don't need actual nuclear weapons to be taken seriously on the world stage - just the threat that you might get them soon unless people play nice with you.

So there are many strong reasons to suppose that there is and that there isn't an Iranian nuclear weapons programme. My point is simply that it is not remotely adequate to skip lightly over all this complexity and just say you "believe" the programme exists. What's more, given the real threat of war, doing so is highly irresponsible - especially from someone in your position. Why not just acknowledge the fact that we don't know whether Iran is aiming to build nuclear weapons? That's not "whitewashing". Just a fair reflection of reality.

On Israel, you say:

"Of course, being opposed to the state doesn't mean he intends to destroy it."

This is precisely my point. Ahmadinejad's cretinous utterences on the Israel-Palestine issue are irrelevant to the question of Iranian nuclear weapons. You referred to his position specifically as constituting a threat to Israel. This is silly. Ahmadinejad has not threatened to destroy Israel. He and the Iranian government government have repeatedly said that they do not intend to attack Israel. Iran has offered to accept the Arab plan for a two state solution. Ahmadinejad does not even run Iranian foreign policy. And even if none of those things were true, by what rationale are we to suppose that Iran wishes to commit suicide by pointlessly attacking Israel (which would mean de facto attacking the US)?

You say:

"I think you would have to stretch things somewhat to argue to MA is not opposed to the existence of Israel."

I argued nothing of the kind. And you did not simply argue that MA is opposed to the existence of Israel. You went far beyond that, suggesting that he was a threat to Israel's security. This is doing the war-party's job for it. I know that was the opposite of your intention with yesterday's article, which is why I thought it worth mentioning it to you.

Again, I'm very grateful for your response and would more than welcome any further reply. Since you didn't say otherwise when I asked, I'm assuming you have no objections to my making this exchange public on my website.

Best wishes



Reply from George Monbiot:

Dear David,

"And you did not simply argue that MA is opposed to the existence of Israel. You went far beyond that, suggesting that he was a threat to Israel's security."

Where and when?



My response:

Hi George

You said:

"Yes, Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a dangerous and unpredictable state involved in acts of terror abroad. The president is a Holocaust denier opposed to the existence of Israel."

Is the second sentence not intended to support the statement that Iran "under Ahmadinejad" (which it isn't - its "under" Khamenei, if anyone) is "dangerous"?

If not, I think it this part of the article could have been better expressed.

Best wishes


p.s. it really would be nice if you could retract your statement that I am "seeking to whitewash the Iranian government", unless you can point to where and when I've done this of course.

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Friday, October 26, 2007

"Israel’s foreign minister: Iran nukes pose little threat to Israel"

Yes, you did read that right

Israel’s foreign minister: Iran nukes pose little threat to Israel

By Gidi Weitz and Na’ama Lanski, Haaretz, October 25, 2007

"Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said a few months ago in a series of closed discussions that in her opinion that Iranian nuclear weapons do not pose an existential threat to Israel, Haaretz magazine reveals in an article on Livni to be published Friday."

"Livni also criticized the exaggerated use that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is making of the issue of the Iranian bomb, claiming that he is attempting to rally the public around him by playing on its most basic fears."

Of course, we don't need Livni to tell us that the idea of Iran being able to wipe Israel off the map is a ridiculous fantasy. In the article linked to in my last post on this blog, Fareed Zakaria illustrates the essential ludicrousness of that idea.

But if true, these revelations show the depths the Israeli state is prepared to sink to for its own end. For has not the spectre of Israel's nuclear annihilation been linked implicitly and explicitly to the horrors of the Nazi holocaust? And if those who raise such fears know themselves that they are unfounded, is this not the most cynical exploitation of one of the greatest tragedies in all history? Does this not expose the idea that the Israeli state is the sole defender of world Jewry as an obscene sham? Can one imagine a more eloquent expression of sheer contempt for Hitler's victims, a more brazen assault on their memory, than to make political use of their corpses?

As to the implications for political debate in the west, Paul Woodward of the excellent "War in Context" site comments:

"While George Bush warns the world that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons could lead to World War III, Israel’s foreign minister says, behind closed doors — in other words in a situation where she means what she says — that Iranian nuclear weapons would not pose an existential threat to Israel."

"This should be banner headline news. The Washington press corp should be hounding administration officials, demanding an explanation for this utterly glaring clash of perspectives. Instead, what do we get? Silence."

"This is what things have come down to: We live in a state where the dissemination of information is controlled much more efficiently than it was in the Soviet Union. At least the Russians understood they were being lied to. Most Americans, on the other hand, are completely ignorant of the incestuous relationship between the press and the government. In this system shaped by unspoken agreements, there is no need for some clumsy Ministry of Information. All the managing editors of the major outlets can be relied upon to shape their products (within an acceptable latitude) in alignment with political and commercial power — even when that means that they knowingly makes themselves instruments of an altogether avoidable disaster. They will plead that they are merely messengers, yet they are no less culpable than the lunatics in political office. They choose what to report and what to ignore."

And so, with the truth in clear view for anyone that wants to see it (or report it), we inch closer to the only catastrophe that was ever really on the cards: a US war on Iran.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The End of the World is Nigh

Fareed Zakaria writes in Newsweek:

"At a meeting with reporters last week, President Bush said that "if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing [Iran] from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon." These were not the barbs of some neoconservative crank or sidelined politician looking for publicity. This was the president of the United States, invoking the specter of World War III if Iran gained even the knowledge needed to make a nuclear weapon."

"The American discussion about Iran has lost all connection to reality. Norman Podhoretz, the neoconservative ideologist whom Bush has consulted on this topic, has written that Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is "like Hitler … a revolutionary whose objective is to overturn the going international system and to replace it in the fullness of time with a new order dominated by Iran and ruled by the religio-political culture of Islamofascism." For this staggering proposition Podhoretz provides not a scintilla of evidence."

"Here is the reality. Iran has an economy the size of Finland's and an annual defense budget of around $4.8 billion. It has not invaded a country since the late 18th century. The United States has a GDP that is 68 times larger and defense expenditures that are 110 times greater. Israel and every Arab country (except Syria and Iraq) are quietly or actively allied against Iran. And yet we are to believe that Tehran is about to overturn the international system and replace it with an Islamo-fascist order? What planet are we on?"

Read the rest here. If you're yet to be persuaded that the purpose of this increasingly hysterical rhetoric is to prepare the ground for a possible war, you may be interested in this interview in Esquire:
"Two former high-ranking policy experts from the Bush Administration say the U.S. has been gearing up for a war with Iran for years, despite claiming otherwise. It'll be Iraq all over again."

"In the years after 9/11, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann worked at the highest levels of the Bush administration as Middle East policy experts for the National Security Council. Mann conducted secret negotiations with Iran. Leverett traveled with Colin Powell and advised Condoleezza Rice. They each played crucial roles in formulating policy for the region leading up to the war in Iraq. But when they left the White House, they left with a growing sense of alarm -- not only was the Bush administration headed straight for war with Iran, it had been set on this course for years. That was what people didn't realize. It was just like Iraq, when the White House was so eager for war it couldn't wait for the UN inspectors to leave. The steps have been many and steady and all in the same direction. And now things are getting much worse. We are getting closer and closer to the tripline, they say."
Read the rest here. And see my earlier posts giving background on the Iran situation here, here, and my radio interview on the subject with Nadim Mahjoub here.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Still Time For War With Iran

Monday’s Guardian cites Washington sources who believe that military action against Iran is still being given serious consideration by the White House. It had been thought that administration figures such as Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Defence Secretary Robert Gates had persuaded President Bush to put less emphasis on the military option. Today’s report suggests that the pro-war camp, led by Vice-President Dick Cheney, is now winning the internal argument.

It would appear that reports of the
death of the Bush/Cheney Presidency have been greatly exaggerated. The world has eighteen months of this administration left to endure and little reason to assume that the incumbents intend to go quietly.


This latest report comes after news last week that a third US aircraft-carrier battle group – led by the USS Enterprise - is now on its way to the Persian Gulf

As the
Guardian reported, "The Fifth fleet battle group will join what is already the US Navy's biggest show of force in the Gulf since the Iraq war began in 2003."

If this looks like sabre-rattling, that's because it is. The US Navy says that ""[The carrier] Enterprise provides navy power to counter the assertive, disruptive and coercive behaviour of some countries".

"Some countries", meaning Iran?

""These operations are not specifically aimed at Iran ... we consider this time unprecedented in terms of the amount of insecurity and instability in the region," Denise Garcia, a navy spokeswoman, said, citing Somalia, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan."

Well since Somalia, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan all have US backed regimes in place, I think we can safely assume that the US doesn't see any of them as countries that need aircraft carrier battle groups on their doorstep to curb their "assertive, disruptive and coercive behaviour". In fact, we might almost take Washington’s bothering with no more than a derisory, half-assed denial as tantamount to confirmation that this show of force is indeed aimed at Iran. One thing we know about this administration is that when it really wants to
lie about something, its prepared to make a considerable effort.

The Pentagon says that the Enterprise is being sent as a replacement for one of the carriers currently stationed in the Gulf, and that there will be no overlap where there are three carriers off the coast of Iran simultaneously. But of course, the fact that the Enterprise is now heading to the Gulf means that precisely such an overlap will become an option for the US in the very near future.

There had also been talk of a third carrier battle group arriving in the Gulf earlier in the year but, according to historian and analyst
Gareth Porter, the idea was stamped on by Admiral William Fallon, then Bush's nominee to head the Central Command (CENTCOM) region which includes the Middle East. According to Porter's sources Fallon "vowed privately [that] there would be no war against Iran as long as he was chief of CENTCOM".

Porter continued: "Fallon's refusal to support a further naval buildup in the Gulf reflected his firm opposition to an attack on Iran and an apparent readiness to put his career on the line to prevent it. A source who met privately with Fallon around the time of his confirmation hearing and who insists on anonymity quoted Fallon as saying that an attack on Iran "will not happen on my watch".

Asked how he could be sure, the source says, Fallon replied, "You know what choices I have. I'm a professional." Fallon said that he was not alone, according to the source, adding, "There are several of us trying to put the crazies back in the box.""

The problem is that "the crazies" include
Cheney, perhaps the most powerful vice-president in US history, probably more powerful than Bush, certainly more powerful than Fallon, and a law completely unto himself. The recent sight of Cheney standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier 150 miles from the Iranian coast, bellowing threats at Tehran, need not be seen as a display of over-compensation for strategic impotence, as Iran takes advantage of Western blunders to extend its power across the region. Don't imagine for a moment that Cheney will tolerate the Iranian advance, or that he won't be prepared to consider extreme measures (even, according to Seymour Hersh, the nuclear option) to either put Tehran back in its box or even to topple the government there altogether. Regime change in Tehran is a long-standing mission of Cheney's cabal, and the urgency of that task from their point of view has increased massively in recent years, in direct proportion to Iran’s regional empowerment.

Imperial credibility

Recall that the neo-conservative plan was to forge a new Middle East settlement on the anvil of US military power. Iraq was to be a demonstration act (in that sense, a classic case of terrorism) with those who failed to collapse at the masters feet, quivering with "shock and awe", to be dealt with in subsequent exertions of industrial-scale violence. The result was to be a region transformed into one populated entirely by client states and dotted with US military bases. China, India and other global powers would be left having to accept access to desperately needed energy reserves on Washington's terms, and global dominance would be secured for a “
New American Century”.

Instead, the invasion of Iraq has been a demonstration, not of America's power but of its impotence, with the greatest military machine in all history humiliated by a few thousand tribesmen and ex-Iraqi Army personnel, augmented by a small but lethal cadre of foreign fanatics and armed only with improvised explosives and relatively light arms. To suffer defeat in such circumstances is no small matter for a global hegemon. Power after all depends on "credibility", that is to say, others believing in your readiness and ability to subject them to your will, brutally if necessary.
Michael Ledeen – a scholar close to the Bush administration – is reported to have put it this way: "Every ten years or so the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business". After Iraq, Cheney et al must be more conscious than ever of the need to send such a message to the world.

Washington's thinking in the wake of 9/11 provides an illuminating precedent.
Mark Danner notes that "Henry Kissinger, a confidant of the President, when asked by Bush's speechwriter why he had supported the Iraq war, responded: "Because Afghanistan was not enough." The radical Islamists, he said, want to humiliate us. "And we need to humiliate them."

In other words, the presiding image of the war on terror — the burning towers collapsing on the television screen — had to be supplanted by another, the image of American tanks rumbling proudly through a vanquished Arab capital."

So what of the current image: of countless US soldiers "
burning in their tanks" to borrow the sinister phrase of the long forgotton Ba'ath propagandist "Comical Ali"? What of the image of an imperial hyperpower so unable to effectively subjugate a crippled third world country than it now finds itself trying - and failing - to re-conquer the capital city, over four years after President Bush declared “major combat operations” to be at an end? What new image, in the minds of statesmen like Kissinger and Cheney, will be needed to replace these in the interests of maintaining imperial prestige and “credibility”? “Shock and awe” in Tehran?

They wouldn’t, would they?

In arguing that such a move is unlikely, three principle arguments tend to be made. The first is that the US is tied down in Iraq with barely enough troops to lose that war, let alone start another. But from what is known or reasonably suspected of the
Iran plans, there is no suggestion of a major troop deployment, much less a boots-on-the-ground occupation. The US Army may be tied down in Iraq, but the Navy and Air Force are not, and it is they – it is said – that will lead the assault, in the hope that the ensueing chaos will prompt US-friendly elements within Iran to rise up and remove the leadership. Recall that it was mainly US air power and Special Forces, allied to local elements, that overthrew the Taliban in the autumn of 2001.

Secondly, it is argued that with Iraq forcing Bush’s poll ratings to historically low levels the White House could not possibly sanction another war. But Bush and Cheney are not up for re-election, so unpopularity can do little more than hurt their feelings. Furthermore, when the Republicans got a thumping in the congressional elections of November last year – which was widely understood as a message from the voters to draw down or end altogether the US involvement in Iraq – the White House responded by increasing troop numbers. This is an administration quite happy to do as it pleases. US casualties in any air war on Iran are likely to be low. And
leading Democrats may well support air strikes. So the political fallout is likely to be minimal.

Thirdly and finally, it is noted that a naval build-up in the Gulf does not in itself constitute the commencement of war. The intention may simply be to make a show of force that will incentivise Iran to “
change its behaviour” (a threat of violence which, as well as being a form of terrorism, is also illegal under international law). This is true, but there is also no guarentee that the US – especially the current White House administration - is capable of both escalating and controlling these tensions. The level of instability in the Middle East now is comparable to that in Europe in 1914. Now, as then, one unforseen incident could ignite a chain-reaction through various inter-linked crises and conflicts that leads to a generalised disaster. The US naval build up increses not only the temperature in the region but the liklihood of such a scenario occuring, whether intentionally or not.

Of course, none of this proves that war will occur. But it does show, as I argued
two years ago, that a US attack on Iran remains a distinct possibility; one not to be idly dismissed. That being the case, the sensible thing would be to start looking at possible consequences and asking ourselves, ‘what if the worst came to the worst?’

Consequences of a war

An authoritative
joint report produced last year by 15 organisations - including think tanks, aid agencies, religious groups and trade unions – warned that the consequences of a war would not be constrained by Iran’s borders. As well as resulting in large civilian casualties within Iran itself, Iranian allies in places like Iraq and Lebanon could retaliate against various targets, thus escalating various existing crises and raising the spectre of a regional war. The situation in Iraq in particular could markedly deteriorate even from its current state.

Iran has said that it could launch missile strikes on
600 Israeli targets in the event of Israeli involvement in any attack. The irony is that an Iranian-instigated offensive war on Israel, for all the Western propaganda, remains inconceivable while Israel retains its formiddable nuclear arsenal. But subjected to an aggressive war, Iran could hit Israel with devastating consequences. So much for the purported neo-conservative claims to want to defend the Jewish state.

Within Iran, Tehran hardliners would be strengthened rather than weakened as Iranian nationalism surged. After all, why should the White House believe that what worked for them post-9/11 – when political dissent in the US was practically suspended as the country rallied round the flag - wouldn’t work for Iranian President Ahmedinejad in the event of a US assault? This would only set back the chances of serious democratic reform in Iran. In fact, crackdowns are
already occuring, as the hardliners seize the gift handed to them by Washington.

It is unlikely that the consequences of a war would be restricted even to the Middle East. Disruption to the flow of the
twenty per cent of global oil supply that comes out of the Gulf via the straights of Hormuz (once described by the former Iranian Shah as “the West’s jugular vein”) could send inflationary shockwaves right through the world economy, with unpredictable and possibly severe consequences playing out on a global scale. And this is before we consider the substantial boost to international radical islamist terrorism that a new US imperial war in the Middle East would represent.

It is fair to say that, factoring in its regional and global implications, an attack on Iran could make the disaster of Iraq look like a relatively tame affair by comparison. There’s no way of knowing whether that’s the road we’re heading down, but there are many reasons to believe that it remains a realistic possibility.

The spear-carrier's role

For those of us in Britain, its worth noting that for all the talk of a fresh start on foreign policy under Gordon Brown’s premiership, UK involvement in any attack is far from unthinkable. Two years ago the then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said that military action against Iran was “inconceivable” (whether he meant it or not is another matter). The
Financial Times reports that Brown’s new Foreign Secretary David Miliband “repeatedly refused to repeat this statement” in an interview with the paper last week.

Though it is perhaps unlikely that British armed forces would be involved in the front line of any action, the UK can be expected to play the important political, diplomatic and military support role that it performed during Israel’s savage pounding of
Lebanon last summer. Britain’s involvement in that war was strongly opposed by the public. In the eventuality of a new war against Iran, that opposition will have to be turned into effective political action if vast new horrors are to be averted.

[For more background on Western-Iran relations, see my recent article "
The Iran hostage crisis in context" or listen to my interview on Nadim Mahjoub's show "Middle East Panorama".]

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Trident - email your MP

There's a vote in Parliament today on the renewal of Britain's nuclear capability. There's still time to email your MP and get them to vote against it. Here's what I wrote:

"Keith - I write as one of your constituents on the issue of the renewal of Trident.

The bottom line on the Trident debate is that renewal would be extremely damaging to our national security.

Today's nuclear weapons are many, many times more powerful than those that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 60 years ago, causing scenes that have been seared into our collective consciousness. There are thousands of these devices throughout the world, and many of them are on automatic trigger systems (often in a serious state of disrepair, as in the case of Russia). This means that once the launch sequence is begun, whether in error or otherwise, a human being has mere seconds to intervene before a holocaust ensues.

Close calls have occurred on
numerous occasions, most famously in the Cuban missile crisis but there have also been examples since the Cold War ended. Given the stakes, humanity does not have the luxury of waiting for an accident to occur before learning the lessons.

There are two ways in which this 'sword of Damocles' type situation can play out. One is that states will retain or enhance their nuclear capabilities. At best this will mean that the danger continues at its current level. But more likely it will lead to a chain reaction of proliferation materially increasing the danger of what Robert McNamara calls "
apocalypse soon". The other route is the NPT. The global deal of the NPT is that the nuclear states will completely disarm themselves of their nuclear weapons (not merely reduce their stockpiles) in return for the non-nuclear states never acquiring nuclear weapons themselves. The converse scenario is obvious. If the nuclear states show no sign of ending their capabilities, proliferation will increase and the thread the sword hangs by will continue to fray.

The case for Trident is often made by those who would assume the role of sober, hardheaded realists driven by pragmatic national security concerns. This is an unlikely stance, to put it mildly. Few things could be more damaging, even potentially disastrous for our security, than the renewal of Trident. Please vote against it today.

Best wishes
David Wearing
More info and campaigning material at CND.