Showdown Looming With Iran
Can we break the cycle of history?

By Mark H. Gaffney

For many years prior to the Bush era US foreign policy drifted toward a debacle in the Middle East. Under the present administration the drift became a rush toward unparalleled catastrophe. Can we avert an explosion that will shake the world? The coming days will demand all of our strength, courage, and commitment to peace. Even so, we will probably fail without a flowering of openness and self-criticism unprecedented in American life.
If there is a silver lining to the continuing US military occupation of Iraq it is that the unfolding disaster has weakened President Bush, who today is in no position to launch another Middle East crusade. In a recent poll Bush's approval rating had dipped to 29%, a historic low. On this basis it would seem logical to think that the likelihood of a US attack on Iran's nuclear sites has receded. Unfortunately, while Bush ought to feel constrained, the Democrats have proven so inept, so incapable of mounting a principled opposition, that Bush remains, as Seymour Hersh has observed, "strangely undiminished." The present reality defies logic and shows how deceptive the US political landscape has become. Some have even likened current America to the fools paradise of the Weimar republic. We are certainly living a page out of Orwell. It's a surreal moment in which almost anything can happen.
George W. Bush's frequent assertions that Iran poses a security threat to the United States are so absurd they would be laughable under other circumstances. I agree with those who argue that, so far, Iran has done nothing more than demand its right under Article IV of the nonproliferation treaty (NPT) to develop nuclear power, a treaty provision, bear in mind, that was originally drafted in Washington, not by some foreign government. But then, our president has shown a perverse delight in shredding America's treaties. Bush's unilateral abrogation of the antiballistic missile (ABM) treaty in 2002 has had the consequence, which many predicted, of making the world a more dangerous place, though, ironically, as I will discuss later, not in the way expected.
Witness also Bush's nuclear deal with India signed last March, which gave the appearance of rewarding Delhi for developing nukes outside the NPT. The deal not only erodes the nonproliferation treaty, it will have the effect of weakening Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf, another US ally. Pakistan also developed nukes outside the NPT, following the lead of rival India, and, recall, only a few years ago the two nations came within a whisker of war over disputed Kashmir. Fortunately, a nuclear disaster was narrowly averted during that crisis; but Kashmir remains a chronic problem, one that could flare up at any time. By strengthening India Bush's new deal could destabilize the still tense and fragile standoff on the Indian subcontinent. Musharraf already faces enormous problems at home, largely because his alliance with the US is unpopular in predominantly Muslim Pakistan. If he falls the world could wake up one morning and discover nuclear-armed Islamic radicals in control of Islamabad. What was George W. thinking, last March? Obviously, he wasn't.
Bush also gets credit for scuttling the most recent NPT review conference, held in May 2005 at the UN. Bush accomplished this by sending a budgetary request to Congress that same week for nuclear bunker busters. Bush's timing signaled his contempt for the treaty and surely was no coincidence. The funding request was in breach of Article VI and so flagrant that days later the review conference collapsed in disarray. Its failure was also assured by US attempts to manhandle the event by limiting the agenda to dealing with "rogue" states, i.e., Iran and North Korea. Previous NPT review conferences -- they are held every five years -- had always managed to find at least some common ground. Compromise remained possible so long as the non-nuclear states retained at least a modicum of faith that the nuclear powers, especially the US, were serious about nuclear disarmament. But those days are gone. The last hopes began to fade in 1999 when the Republican-controlled US Senate refused to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTB). That was a poke in the eye and under Bush whatever remained of US credibility has evaporated.
A Flawed Treaty
I agree that the NPT was fatally flawed from the start, but this does not justify Bush's selective interpretation, which amounts to a unilateral revision. The NPT's promise to make nuclear power available to signatories was actually a promise to deliver electricity for economic development. Since we now understand that for many reasons nuclear is the wrong way to achieve this -- wrong for every nation, not simply Iran -- the US should set an example by turning away from nuclear and moving rapidly to develop abundant clean energy alternatives. These are within reach. Economies of scale could be achieved, and costs reduced, by making these technologies available to the world, including Iran. What has been lacking is the leadership and political will to make it happen. But this is another discussion. At the moment our top priority must be to avert the next Mideast war.
Today, with the US engaged in the most sweeping modernization of the nation's nuclear force structure since the Cold War -- by the way, another gross violation of the NPT -- Bush is in no position to preach nonproliferation. Indeed, why would any world leader of substance follow, trust, or even listen to this man, who brandishes nuclear first-use as if it were a divine right? If Bush succeeds in imposing on Iran his selective interpretation of the NPT ("Do what we say -- or else"), an interpretation with no substantive basis in the treaty language, it could mark the end of the nuclear nonproliferation regime. Some think it has come to this, already.(Source: <
For all of these reasons the central issue today is not Iran but US hypocrisy. Most people on the planet already understand this. It's only here in America that the problem remains largely invisible, thanks to a slavish US press that mindlessly parrots whatever self-serving rhetoric issues from the White House. As a result, the American people remain mostly uninformed, hence, oblivious to their own peril, which was never greater during the depths of the Cold War. When will our countrymen awaken to the fact that we cannot lead the free world through hypocrisy ("Do as we say, not as we do"), but only by setting an example worthy of the high principles we supposedly stand for? Nor are those who would follow us through fear or to curry favor worthy allies in any event.
The Case of the 500 Pound Gorilla
Iran's nuclear ambitions are a serious long-term concern for the Middle East. No one wants to see the Mullahs armed with nukes. At present, however, there is only one state in the region with nuclear weapons, namely, Israel, and therefore the status of Israel ought to be a part of the ongoing discussion. In fact, one would have to be blind not to see the connection, since a genuine solution will require the participation of both Iran and Israel in the creation of a nuclear weapons free zone (NWFZ) for the Middle East. Yet, Bush continues to single out Iran as the sole problem, meanwhile, affording our ally Israel the same exemptions from oversight and accountability the US normally reserves for itself. Israel's bomb continues to be the 500 pound gorilla in the oval office that no one can talk about.
Denial may rule in Washington, but the people of the Mideast view it very differently. They are under no illusions because they live in the long shadow of Israel's arsenal of 200-400 nukes. Israel's supporters, of course, make a practice of downplaying all of this. They rationalize the shocking fact that Israel has targeted a large swathe of humanity with annihilation by arguing that Israel's WMD are not a concern since Israel has neither used its nukes nor threatened to use them; and anyway the arsenal is necessary for Israel's survival in a tough neighborhood. But no matter how often these phony arguments are repeated the facts cannot be made to support them. If Israel possessed a few atomic weapons of last resort the Samson option might be reasonable. But the vast size of Israel's weapons arsenal, the strong likelihood it includes hydrogen bombs, tactical nukes including neutron weapons, and a multiple array of advanced delivery vehicles, including nuclear-armed cruise missiles, not to mention chemical and biological weapons, indicates that Israel's policy cannot be primarily defensive in nature. The large size is probably due, in part, to the technological imperative. Israel's war economy developed a momentum of its own. But this is a flimsy excuse, and no justification. Israel's WMD clearly are meant to project power and to this extent they have already been used. One need not pull the trigger of a revolver to use it, and the same is true of the bomb.
Last September Baruch Kimmerling, a professor at Hebrew University, conceded in a thoughtful article in Ha'aretz what scholars have long known: that the country's nuclear weapons are linked to Israel's illegal military occupation of the Arab West Bank. As Kimmerling phrased it, Israel's nukes "in the basement are a guarantee that no pressure, foreign or domestic...can force Israel into genuine territorial concessions." Clearly, for many years Israel's nuclear monopoly has tempted the nation's leaders to forego negotiations and simply to impose their will upon the neighborhood. This explains the expanding settlements, the security wall, the cantonization of the West Bank, and the recent unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. And why else would Israel dismiss a 2002 Saudi peace initiative that offered not just recognition but full normalized relations, including full trade, economic ties, cultural exchanges, in short, an end to the conflict, if Israel would abide by UN Security Council resolutions on Palestine? The Saudi peace offer may have been a trial balloon, but it had broad support in the Arab world. It had been drafted at an Arab League summit shortly before being announced. (For the text go to <>) All of this suggests that Israel's nukes are less about survival than serving the colonial interests of Zionism.
For many years the shared wisdom was that nuclear weapons might be justified in Israel's case, due to the country's unique security problems, having to do with Israel's small size. Nukes might be acceptable, so the thinking went, because Israel would then feel secure enough to negotiate a lasting peace settlement. But it hasn't worked that way. It turned out that a strong Israel had no incentive to negotiate, period. And it's clear -- to this writer, at least -- that there will be no diplomatic solution on Iran, nor on the peace front, so long as Washington views Israel's nukes as a non issue, the underlying assumption, of course, being that Israel needs them to survive. Others pooh-pooh the matter but in my opinion this is the crux of it. We therefore need a rude awakening and let us pray it doesn't come in the form of a war. The truth is that Israel's nukes are weapons of mass destruction, pure and simple, whose very existence is a moral obscenity, just like all such weapons, an affront to God and every living thing on this planet; and we need to start thinking about them in these terms.
Of course, this perspective hasn't yet reached Washington. Bush, Cheney and most of the US Congress still think some nukes (ours) are good or at least acceptable while other nukes (theirs) are bad. Israel's fall into the former category, and evidently are viewed as an extension of US power in the region. But if this is true it is a dangerous policy, given Israel's past record of looking out for number one. Although it seems almost inconceivable that Israel would launch a unilateral attack on Iran, i.e., without the knowledge and/or approval of the White House, not even this can be ruled out. Israel's leaders have repeatedly warned that they will not allow Iran to develop nuclear power, not even for peaceful use, and given Israel's past record the threat must be taken seriously. In fact, the Israelis began to press Washington for a "preventive" war against Iran as soon as the smoke cleared after the first Gulf war, which greatly weakened Saddam Hussein. At that time the Israelis switched and began to view Iran as their primary foe. Their full court press for war has continued, ever since. (source: Israel Shahak, Open Secrets, chapter 4, <>)
In October 2004 the German magazine Der Spiegel reported that Israel had completed plans for a raid on six Iranian nuclear sites, all of which would be attacked simultaneously. The plan was said to be "complex, yet manageable." The target sites probably include the Bushehr reactor, a large nuclear facility at Esfahan, and the uranium enrichment plant at Natanz. Last March the London Sunday Times aired a similar report, which claimed that former Israeli PM Ariel Sharon had approved plans for such an attack. <,,2089-1522978,00.html>
The Israeli Air Force has 25 F-15 fighter-bombers, supplied by the US, with sufficient range to target Iran. Also, in 2004 Israel acknowledged purchase of 500 conventional BLU-109 bunker-buster bombs, again, courtesy of the US. The bombs can penetrate seven feet of reinforced concrete and probably are intended for use against hardened Iranian nuclear sites. But to reach them the Israelis must fly over Iraqi airspace, now controlled by the US Air Force.
(source: <>)
Serious doubts remain, however, about the effectiveness of conventional weapons against deeply buried sites. Obviously, for this and many other reasons the Israelis would much prefer that the US take the lead in mounting such an attack; and they may get their wish. In a chilling report in The New Yorker this past April Seymour Hersh described the debate then underway in the Bush administration about the use of tactical nukes against Iran's hardened nuclear sites. Evidently, US war planning has reached an advanced stage.
The Iraqi government has made it clear that it does not support an attack on its neighbor, nor will it allow such an attack to be staged from bases inside Iraq. If the US attacks anyway, in defiance of the Iraqi government, or allows Israel to fly over Iraq, it will give the lie to every statement Bush has ever made about fostering democracy. The whole world will instantly know the truth and the US will once again find itself isolated, with no allies other than Israel and, possibly, a bedraggled Tony Blair.
The latest US position, much publicized, came after an Iranian request for direct negotiations. Washington responded by agreeing to talks, but cited a precondition: Iran must first permanently cease uranium enrichment. As I write a package of goodies is being offered, and we can hope it persuades the Iranians to halt uranium enrichment, at least temporarily, allowing talks to occur. That would be an important breakthrough. Nonetheless, there's a high chance that direct talks will ultimately fail, because in my opinion the Bush administration will never grant Tehran the security pledge it seeks; and without a security pledge the Iranians have no incentive to surrender their nuclear options for the future. Nor will the UN Security Council impose sanctions, as Russia and China do not support them. The only remaining possibility is military force.
What I find shocking about all of this is the complacency in the US press. From the articles I've seen, and I read all that my strained eyes can stand, there has been almost no serious reporting or analysis about the possible consequences of US military action. Indeed, there is a bizarre incuriosity. Between the lines one may also discern the tacit assumption that an attack, if it comes, will be a replay of Yugoslavia. Everyone agrees that the US military is stretched too thin to put boots on the ground in Iran. But no matter, the US still has the means to bring a stubborn foe to terms. We control the skies, after all. Shock and awe will have their effect. This is the prevailing view.
Last year, when I investigated this question of what could happen I was appalled by what I learned. Nor have events altered my opinion that a US air offensive probably will not unfold in the expected manner. Even if the US relies on conventional weapons, such an attack carries a high risk of bringing us to the nuclear brink, within days or even hours. This is also why the peace movement must emphasize prevention. Protesting the next war after it starts will probably come too late to matter.
The Iranians have stated repeatedly that they will defend themselves. Yet, incredibly, here in the US many people don't seem to believe it. The Iranians have warned also that if they come under attack they will strike at Israel, and this too remains a possibility. However, I believe the primary target will be US forces in the Gulf. In recent years Russia and China stepped up arms sales to Tehran, obviously part of a containment strategy meant to deter further US aggression in the region. In the event of war, therefore, US forces will face an array of Russian-made weapons more advanced than anything they encountered in Iraq. The stakes have risen considerably.
What US Forces Could Face in the Gulf
Today the Russian army is a shadow of its former glory and the Russian navy rusts in port. Nonetheless, Moscow remains the leader in several key areas of military hardware, including the important field of cruise anti-ship missile technology. Although Russian anti-ship missiles have never been used in combat, they are so formidable they have already altered the balance of naval power. The Russian Sunburn missile, for example, has been called "the most lethal anti-ship weapon in the world." It flies at mach-2, can hit a squirrel in the eye, and has a range of 130+ miles. (see <>)
The newer Yakhonts missile is even more capable. It flies at mach-2.5, is just as accurate, and has a range of 185 miles. (see <>)
Assuming the Iranians have acquired these weapons, there will be no place of safety in the entire Persian Gulf in the event of war. Every part of the Persian lake will be within range of the Iranian coast. This means that every US naval vessel on patrol in the Gulf, i.e., the entire 5th fleet, will be exposed to counterattack.
The Sunburn is a sea-skimmer. It was designed to defeat the US Navy's Aegis radar defense system by cruising just above the water, i.e., below radar. In its final approach the Sunburn also makes violent end-maneuvers to defeat close-in defenses. American sailors who are unfortunate enough to be in harm's way will probably never see these weapons coming. One Sunburn missile can sink or disable any ship in the US Navy, and the Yakhonts reportedly has been optimized for use against our large carriers. If the Iranians have these weapons in sufficient numbers they can stage a massed attack and saturate US defenses. In which case the Gulf will become a shooting gallery. Thousands of US sailors will die gruesome deaths at sea.
At the start of the 1982 Falklands war Argentina had only five French-made Exocet anti-ship missiles, yet managed to sink two British warships. With enough of them the Argentines might have sunk the entire British fleet. Yet, the Exocet is primitive by comparison to the latest Russian missiles. Has Iran acquired them? According to various reports the Iranians were in Moscow as early as 2000 shopping for Sunburns and Yakhonts, among other items. Although the details of the subsequent arms deal were never disclosed, it's a safe bet the Russians did not say "Nyet." Missile exports are a cash cow for Moscow, generating much-needed hard currency; and oil-rich Iran certainly has the cash. (source -- scroll down at <>)
The above analysis is not just one man's opinion. In recent years a number of papers and studies have all agreed that the US Navy has only limited defenses against the latest Russian anti-ship missiles; and, according to a 2000 GAO report, which was based on the US Navy's own data, our most vulnerable vessel is the pride of the fleet, i.e., the flagship, the behemoth carriers. This is why some have described them as floating death traps and have called for their retirement. The GAO report also stressed that there will be no silver bullet. The US Navy will continue to be vulnerable for years to come. Yet, the average American remains clueless.
Last year when I posted my research about this on the web I was surprised by the lack of interest. (see <>) Not even one person asked to see the documentation, some of which is available on line. At the conclusion of this article the reader will find links to two key papers. By all means, check out the documents and draw your own conclusions. Don't take my word for it.
Understand, I am not saying that the US has been eclipsed as the world's lone superpower -- far from it. In fact, the US edge in nuclear weaponry has widened since the end of the Cold War. In a recent paper in Foreign Affairs two professors argued persuasively that the former balance of nuclear forces has swung so decisively in favor of the US that Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is no longer operative. They think the US has come close to, and may already have achieved, a first-strike nuclear capability against China and Russia. The prospect is frightening, and, if true, probably accounts for Bush's shift to a policy of nuclear first use. This would also explain Bush's abandonment of the ABM treaty, and his decision to develop the star wars defensive shield. Critics have observed that the inherently limited effectiveness of star wars makes it a poor defensive weapon and, in fact, one that only makes sense as part of an offensive first strike capability. The Cold War was bad enough, but at least the parity of nuclear forces fostered stability.(source: <
This is my point, exactly. We are living in an unstable historical moment, which is why the next war will be so dangerous. Cruise anti-ship missiles are simple, effective, and relatively inexpensive. A single missile costs no more than a fighter plane, yet can sink a billion dollar warship. No wonder that cruise missile technology is spreading rapidly. At last count more than 70 nations had acquired them, and at least a dozen were producing them. If the Sandinistas had possessed even a few of these weapons during the Contra war they might have deterred the US from mining Nicaragua's harbors. So we see that far more dangerous than any Iranian threat is the substantial risk that the Bush administration, in its hubris and gross incompetence, will overreach. The pentagon surely knows the score and the risks, but given the recent purging of dissent within the US military what general today will stand up to Rumsfeld? Even if one does, the White House will simply sack the brave soul and reach down the chain of command to a servile individual who will do its bidding.
Nothing More Dangerous...
In all of this world there is nothing more dangerous than a wounded superpower. Imagine the reaction here at home should Iran manage to sink even one US warship in the Persian Gulf, causing the death of a thousand American sailors. The pertinent fact that the Iranians were defending themselves will matter not at all. Suddenly every super patriot and demagogue in America will be hysterically screaming in unison for revenge. Jingoism and war fever will grip the land, all fueled by the US media. The phrase of the hour will be: "Victory at any cost!" In such a mood the peace movement will have little chance to influence events. The pressure to punish Iran will grow by the hour, pressure that a president with a policy of nuclear first-use may find irresistible. How ironic that a US air campaign launched for the said purpose of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons will have brought the world to the brink of their use.
Should the US cross the nuclear threshold in the Gulf all bets are off concerning our future. It would be like opening Pandora's box. If other states come to Iran's defense we will suddenly find ourselves in the tightest spot since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Even if we are lucky and avoid this, within days or weeks the exodus of governments from the NPT will likely become a stampede. A world wide scramble will be on to acquire the means to deter US aggression. Industrial countries like Japan and Germany could probably field nukes in a matter of months. As the world rearms the ugly mood will make current anti American sentiment seem mild, by comparison. Bush's use of nukes would also set the stage for another 911, possibly involving nuclear terrorism, with a predictable result: Overnight, America will become a police state. In such a world, chaotic beyond anything we've known, the peace movement's only recourse will be street action, huge demonstrations, and civil disobedience on a massive scale. But will it come too late? (See the Ellsberg interview at <>)
A Containment Strategy for Prevention
For all of these reasons, it is imperative that we prevent the next war. The US peace movement continues to grow, but to stop Bush we need a containment strategy of our own. This means reaching out beyond our shores. Due to Bush's profligate military spending, today the White House can only wage war by borrowing money. Why not appeal to the creditor governments of Japan, China, and even Saudi Arabia, among others, in the interests of peace? We should urge them to inform Bush they will not extend credit if the White House pursues another military adventure. This strategy might not work, but we will never know unless we try. One of our neighbors, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, has already warned Bush that the consequence of an attack on Iran will be an immediate spike in the price of oil. We should urge Chavez to send an even stronger message. If Bush and Cheney understand that they face a cut off of Venezuelan oil, so crucial to the US economy, perhaps they will think twice.
A final thought: After 911, though US military spending soared, our security became more elusive than ever. How can this be? The answer, if we were truly serious, would involve a candid look at the US role in world affairs: an unprecedented national debate about US foreign policy. Such a debate has never occurred in our nation's history, not even after the disastrous experience in Viet Nam. In fact, this is why we are in Iraq, today, and why even worse trouble looms ahead. It is a hackneyed cliché, but no less true, that when the lessons of history are not learned we are doomed to repeat them. Our problem in 2006 is that the world can no longer afford even a single miscalculation, lest we become irradiated flakes of ash on the wasted winds.
We must break the cycle of history, and with God's help we will succeed.
Mark Gaffney's book Dimona The Third Temple? (1989) was the first to explore the case of Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli nuclear whistleblower. Mark's latest is Gnostic Secrets of the Naassenes. Mark can be reached for comment at
For further lite reading:
US General Accounting Office (GAO): Comprehensive Strategy Needed to Improve Ship Cruise Missile Defense, GAO/NSIAD - 00 -149, July 2000. The entire report may be viewed at <>
Lt. Col. Phil Tissue et al, "Attacking the Cruise Missile Threat," Joint Forces Staff College, Joint and Combined Warfighting School, 8 September 2003. For download go to <




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