Published on Friday, December 3, 2004 by

Geopolitics of the Iranian Bomb

by Tom Engelhardt


Sometimes it helps just to open an atlas and stare for a few moments. I did so this morning, checking out the Southwestern Asia map (#98) of the National Geographic Atlas of the World (a handsome volume, by the way). And what you see on the page is something simple indeed and yet I could hardly find it in a week's worth of reading our press on the Iranian nuclear uproar. On one side of Iran is Iraq, occupied by U.S. troops; on the other side, like two blocks set wobblingly atop each other, are Afghanistan, also partially occupied by U.S. troops, and our ally Pakistan, which, last I heard (and this is something no one writes about anymore either), was doing a pretty good job of sharing base space with our military somewhere over in the direction of the Iranian border.

The nearest I could come to any mainstream acknowledgement that, in the case of Iran (as, not so long ago, Iraq), a secret nuclear program might not be all that is at stake, or even the central issue, in the ongoing imbroglio, came in a single throwaway line in a very good Greg Miller piece in the Los Angeles Times (U.S. Lacks Reliable Data on Iran Arms) on how little the Bush administration actually knows about the nature of the Iranian nuclear program. The sentence read: "The United States has struggled to get more than glimpses and incomplete accounts of Tehran's weapons programs, [current and former intelligence officials and Middle East experts] say, despite the fact that American spy agencies are in a better position to collect information on Iran since U.S.-led invasions and occupations of two of the country's neighbors in the last three years." (Oh, and parenthetically, let me offer you the good news from Miller -- the CIA may not have had much success penetrating Iran, but the Agency has evidently done a tip-top job of penetrating an eager Iranian exile community in Southern California where Iranian Ahmed Chalabis undoubtedly await their moment in the neoconservative sun. "Indeed," Miller writes, "a secret CIA station in Los Angeles for years has cultivated contacts with members of the large Iranian population in Southern California, seeking information from those who have returned from trips to Iran or are in contact with relatives there, former CIA officials familiar with the program say.")

Of course, we know that the neocons have long been dreaming of "regime change" in Tehran and, as Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service reported recently, Frank Gaffney, a leading think-tank neocon (part of a group that seems in no hurry to leave the Washington stage), published a piece on the neocon global menu for the next four years, Worldwide Value, at the National Review on-line in perfect synchronicity with Bush's election victory. In it, he wrote, "Regime change -- one way or another -- in Iran and North Korea, [is] the only hope for preventing these remaining 'Axis of Evil' states from fully realizing their terrorist and nuclear ambitions." Note that lovely "one way or the other…"

So imagine, as they have for so long, a future in which the United States has its guys well situated in Baghdad, Kabul and Tehran -- okay, it's a bit of a faded dream right now, but you can't blame a Bushevik for dreaming, can you? -- and imagine that these three geopolitical building blocks just happen to lie at the heart of the so-called arc of instability, which is said to extend from at least North Africa to the Chinese border, and happens to hold the major oil and natural gas reserves of our planet… and imagine as well that with Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (as well as various former SSRs to the north) in hand, endless pipelines could be built that would bring Central Asian oil to market via companies we trust; not, I hasten to add, that anyone in the Bush administration is giving the slightest thought to controlling global energy resources -- otherwise we would read about it in our press, wouldn't we?…

Now stir in a little threatening language from our Centcom Commander General John Abizaid just this week aimed at Iran and the nuclear issue. ("Why the Iranians would want to move against us in an overt manner that would cause us to use our air or naval power against them would be beyond me… We can generate more military power per square inch than anybody else on Earth, and everybody knows it… If you ever even contemplate our nuclear capability, it should give everybody the clear understanding that there is no power that can match the United States militarily.")… Next, add a touch from an oldie-but-goodie Bush administration taking-our-country-to-war script… You remember, all those Iraqi mushroom clouds rising over our cities. Change just one letter in the country name and what do you have?... Iranian paranoia.

At least, that's what you have if you read a respected columnist like the Washington Post's David Ignatius in whose recent column, "Engage Iran," you'll find the following: "But if a combination of carrots and sticks can slow Iran's race to acquire a bomb, and check Iranian paranoia about the United States, that's of benefit in itself." Though calling first for European-style negotiations with Iran, Ignatius manages to end his column on these ominous, Gaffneyesque sentences: "The challenge for the Bush administration is to see if it can craft what [David] Kay [former head of the Iraq Survey Team] calls a 'yes-able proposition' for Tehran. If that initiative fails, as it may well, there will be time to contemplate grimmer options."

The least that can be said is that paranoids aren't always mistaken in their paranoia. (Not that, with all our color-coded alert upgrades and hysterical reportage on "homeland security," we Americans ever exhibit even the slightest hint of paranoia.) But I wouldn't want you to take what I've written too seriously. After all, since you can go weeks on end without reading any of the above in mainstream press accounts about the Iranian situation, maybe I'm just a paranoid.

Mending Fences

Once upon a time… as any good geopolitical fairy tale should begin… Iran was, of course, "ours." Our CIA (along with the Brits) toppled its elected government back in 1953 -- back, that is, in the days when we weren't quite so keen as now on bringing "freedom and democracy" to the benighted Middle East (where it's a well accepted fact that no one has ever had a taste of such a sweet fruit) -- replacing the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq with a most undemocratic Shah, who, as our man in Tehran, became a heavily armed regional bulwark against the Soviet menace (and oil incursions of any sort) -- until, of course, he wasn't, and the history of our encounter with Islamic fundamentalism began in the person of Ayatollah Khomeini and an embassy full of American hostages... which was how, in the roller-coaster ride that passes for history, by the mid-1980s another distinctly undemocratic guy, the later-to-be-oh-so-evil Saddam Hussein became our substitute guy in the Gulf oil lands and our replacement bulwark against Iranian Khomeini-ism, even at a time when he actually did possess and was using chemical weapons against Iranian troops and his own people -- until, of course, he wasn't… but let's not go there, shall we?

The headlines in our media these days have been about the President's efforts to "mend fences" in Europe in the New Year, in Canada now. Of course, I watched him on TV the other night in a joint appearance with Paul Martin, the Canadian PM, reaching a mending hand across the border -- possibly the Iranian border -- by publicly reaffirming that, if there was a Saddam around threatening our country, Canadians should make no mistake, our President would whack him again, whatever they or anyone else might think.

In a Wednesday Wall Street Journal op-ed ("Imperial Russia, Vassal Ukraine") former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Bzezinski wrote the following sentence, directed at the Russian leadership. "[The transformation of the Ukraine into a Russian satellite] would be a tragic setback for those in Russia who have recognized… that to be a hated imperial power is not a blessing but a historic curse." I'm for teaching Russian oligarchs that lesson, but I wonder if it doesn't have wider applicability. I suspect that the Bush administration is, at this very moment, taking that famed "global test" and failing miserably. Whatever fences are being mended in Canada (behind which embargoed Canadian cows are undoubtedly mooing madly), the Bush administration has been unmending fences just about everywhere else at a relatively rapid pace. Whatever the outcome in the Ukraine dust-up, for instance, where Bush administration former Cold War-niks can hardly resist the urge to roll Russia back to its 14th century borders, they stand to lose one of their last European "friends," as Katrina van den Heuvel writes at her Nation magazine blog (Truth and consequences in Ukraine) in a particularly savvy piece about the Ukrainian crisis. She comments: "Even apart from the possibility of civil violence, the result may be a new European divide between East and West; the end of any meaningful Russian cooperation with the US -- remember Putin has been one of Bush's leading European 'friends' since the Iraq war began; and if Ukraine is 'lost,' we may even witness the destabilization of Putin's leadership and Russia itself."

And unlike Iran, Russia, of course, does have a nuclear arsenal of monstrous proportions. As for Iran, unfortunately my sources in Southern California are much weaker than the CIA's, but given our world it would be something like a minor miracle if the Iranians weren't secretly working towards nuclear weapons. Given the symbolic value a nuclear arsenal has on this planet (see the Abizaid quote above), such an arsenal is more or less coin-of-the-realm for a state with any pretensions even to regional power. Check out, for instance, our allies Israel (with its perhaps 200 nuclear weapons, a staggering arsenal that goes largely unmentioned in pieces in our media on the nuclear issue and the Middle East) and heavily nuclear-armed, bosom-buddy Pakistan, which has actually been the planetary proliferator of proliferators in recent years, and you'll see what I mean.

Paul Woodward put the matter sanely recently at his website, "However, the big issue is not Iran -- it's nuclear proliferation," he wrote. "The administration's current policy could be described as swatting nuclear flies. It wrestles with the individual threats while attempting to do nothing more than maintain the nuclear status quo. Nevertheless, a country such as Iran sees no reason why it must be excluded from the nuclear club while Pakistan's nuclear status goes unchallenged -- even though the latter's role in proliferation is widely acknowledged. Meanwhile, America apparently has no greater ambition than to serve as a burly bouncer at the doors of the nuclear club." And a burly nuclear bouncer at that.

© 2004