31st October 2007

Dear David Lepper,

I am writing to you about our government’s support for the US policy towards Iran, and especially the Iranian nuclear programme. Folly would be the kindest description for it—Vladimir Putin’s recent likening of US policy to a ‘madman on the loose with a razor blade’ (we would say axe of course) seems entirely appropriate. It looks as if the UK government is (again) on course to partake in war crimes, with far-reaching consequences for all of us, which may ‘blow back’ much more quickly than the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Although my letter is longer than I would have liked, I have confined it to the bigger picture, enclosing copies of other letters that focus on different aspects of what I say here (especially, trying to understand the Iranian perspective). (You can read this and the other letters on line at https://chrisdornan.wordpress.com/, the advantage of reading them on-line being that the supporting articles are cross referenced through hypertext links).

A recently published opinion poll found that that about half of Americans support a military strike against Iran and about half think it is likely to happen before the current administration leaves office. The following extract from Arthur Herman’s article at the Britannica Blog might give a sense of how may Americans may view the situation (and it also gives an excellent insight into the way some in US [vice-]presidential intellectual circles are thinking):

Is there a military option against Iran that goes beyond bombing but does not require a Iraq-style invasion and occupation – in other words that avoids another “quagmire” in the Middle East? In fact, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, a realistic war scenario with Iran would involve an extensive air and naval campaign without a single American soldier having to set foot on Iranian soil:

1. The first step would be a United States naval blockade of the Straits of Hormuz backed by anti-missile Aegis class cruisers and destroyers, together with a guarantee of free passage for all non-Iranian oil shipping (thus reassuring the world that energy supplies will continue to flow).

2. At the same time, American Stealth fighters and bombers would target Iran’s air defense and anti-ship missile sites scattered around the Gulf, followed by what military analysts call an “Effects Based Operation,” as Air Force and Navy warplanes took out Iran’s extremely vulnerable military and economic infrastructure, including its electrical grid, transportation links, gasoline refineries, port facilities, as well as suspected nuclear sites.

3. Finally, American Special Ops and airborne forces would seize Iran’s main oil pumping station at Kargh Island and capture or neutralize its offshore oil facilities.

Far fetched?

Although the American public never noticed, the United States Navy managed to accomplish much the same thing during the so-called Tanker War in 1987-8, when Iran tried to widen its war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq by attacking foreign oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. Our navy managed both to destroy the Iranian navy and protect shipping through the Hormuz Straits in order to keep the world economy stable, while Navy Seal teams blew up and neutralized key Iranian oil platforms in the Gulf.

Fantastically expensive?

From start to finish, such an operation would probably require no more than one more carrier group than is already in the area, as well as one Airborne Brigade Combat Team and one Marine Expeditionary Brigade, combined with Special Ops units-fewer troops than reinforced General Petraeus’s current surge in Iraq. In a matter of days or weeks, the key components of the Iranian oil industry would be in American hands even as Iran itself ground to a halt. Iranian crude oil would continue to flow to the world’s economy. Foreign investors in Iran’s energy industry like Russia and China would see their investments kept safe, which would help to defuse their predictable outrage over unilateral military action against Iran. [My Emphasis]

Far from a near-universal condemnation of this other neoconservative trial balloons we hear hardly a squawk (Rowan Williams’spotentially murderous folly’ comment being exceptional). No wonder their tails are up. However, if we leave planet Neocon and return to the real world we find an ex-US Navy commander painting a different picture.

The Air Force’s ubiquitous argument against the efficacy of Navy ships operating in restricted hostile waters is that they offer relatively little striking power in return for the vulnerability they present. This is particularly true in the Persian Gulf where Iran’s naval forces enjoy significant asymmetric advantages over ours. If I’m planning a surgical strike on Iran and want to maximize force protection, I get the Navy out of the Gulf. Operating from the North Arabian Sea limits the set of targets in Iran that carrier based jets can reach, but I suspect the Air Force has plenty of manned aircraft available for missions requiring air breathing pilots, and the Navy’s cruise missiles, only having to go one way on each mission, have a sufficient un-refueled combat radius to hit whatever they have to hit.

If I’m the Navy, of course, I’m not wild about leaving the Gulf because it will look like I ran away from the fight (because, in essence, I will have.) What’s more, once I leave the Gulf and the fight starts, it may be a long time, if ever, before I can get back in, and then how will I ever justify my share of the defense budget again?

Fortunately or unfortunately for the Navy, it will probably stay in the Gulf to serve as a casus belli. A torpedo in the side of an amphibious ship carrying Marines or a destroyer losing its bow to a mine or an anti-ship cruise missile cooking off in a carrier’s hangar bay will give the Cheney gang all the justification it needs to unilaterally declare general war against Iran

You’d like to think the administration wouldn’t sacrifice an armed service that way just to enable a Dick Cheney foreign policy initiative. But look at what they did with the Army and Marine Corps in Iraq.

(About this time last year the Navy deployed a recently-refurbished USS Eisenhower to the region, but was replaced with an older carrier, Nimitz, in April; some have speculated that this may have been done to limit the damage of the above scenario.) Indeed elements inside the US military are obviously aware of the frightful risks of such an adventure and these senior commanders are probably all that has prevented the show from hitting the road already. Central Command (CENTCOM) Chief Admiral William Fallon has reported that he will resign if there is any attempt to attack Iran (the chemistry between Fallon and his subordinate, general Petraeus, commander of Iraq forces, is apparently testy, Fallon reportedly telling Petraeus that he considered him to be “an ass-kissing little chickenshit”, adding, “I hate people like that”; the American Conservative article, Sycophant Savior, sheds some more light on this), so the latest thinking is that the President will propose a limited strike in response to an attack on the Army or Marines in Iraq, which Fallon won’t be able to refuse, and the Iranian response will be used as a pretext launch the real bombardment. All the indications are that this has at least the tacit support of the UK government.

It is worth trying to understand where this situation may be taking us. In times past people used to think it was important to try and anticipate and avoid dangerous and unstable situations, but this kind of caution (except where some US naval officers are concerned) seems to no longer be the thing. A faith based approach to these matters is more fashionable where we hope it will all turn out fine. None of what I have to say may happen, but I have seen several discussions from grounded and knowledgeable people that include the following developments after an attack on Iran. Indeed everything might turn out just fine. But given that some things that I never would have dreamt of ever, ever being said by responsible people now seem to be routine fare, I am can’t be so sanguine.

The US public, or at least the roughly half of it that is keen to get on with kicking Iranian ass, is on the above fantastical Arthur Herman-type script, so, if the Iranians do succeed in reducing some or all of the 5th fleet in the Gulf to smoking ruins the shock will be profound, at which point things start to become unpredictable. The Nuclear Posture Review allows for the use of nuclear weapons to protect the military from a significant (even conventional) threat.

Alternatively, if the navy does clear out of the gulf leaving the USAF to bombard the Iranians, then there will be little to stop the Iranians taking control of the straits of Hormuz and closing it off until the world has agreed to bring the war criminals to justice. 20% of the world’s oil flows though the straits, with no spare capacity in the system. Do you remember the impact of the fuel protests in 2000? The disruption to the world economy (and the world) will be severe. What happens here is equally unpredictable; we could see an escalation that includes an intensified bombardment by the USAF to get the Iranians to back off, possibly followed by attacks on the Iraqi garrison by the Iranians, jeopardising their supply lines, again risking an American nuclear strike.

If Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other repressive American clients with overwhelmingly Muslim populations aren’t destabilised by such an assault it would be a miracle.

Nothing is more common than to read of American and British analysts sneering at Russians protests over NATO encroachment (reviving cold-war type bomber reconnaissance sorties, etc.) as a sign of strategic weakness but this is not the only reading. The end of cheap oil and gas has arrived, and Russia has huge reserves, and as the price rockets Russia’s position will strengthen. However, the Americans (and the UK),are utterly dependent on it, nearly all US strategic military deployments being an effort to try and secure the oil habit, and it won’t be so funny, with the dollar collapsing, the Chinese economy hitting the buffers and unable to finance the US deficit. Indeed the fuel bill for the Pentagon is itself enormous and this could pose some problems in itself; the US strategic petroleum reserves will be used but the shock will still be profound.

This is a kind of strength is not dissimilar to that of Saddam Hussein’s in 1990 after the end of the War with Iran, sitting astride a vast and unsustainable military machine, which to be sure can inflict immense destruction, but is actually of little constructive use to its owner, and indeed a crushing burden.

The Iranians represent no immediate threat to anybody of course. In outline, the facts are as follows.

  • The USA, UK and the Islamic Republic of Iran are signatories to the NPT which guarantees that nuclear-capable states (the USA and the UK) must assist non-nuclear signatories (Iran) to acquire uranium enrichment technology for peaceful use.
  • Iran has a strong strategic requirement to diversify its means of generating electricity, has always insisted it’s programme is peaceful, has subjected itself to the most stringent inspection regime of any IAEA member, and the IAEA director, Mohamed ElBaradei, reminded us (again) on Sunday “I have not received any information that there is a concrete active nuclear weapons program going on right now”.
  • President Ahmadinejad never said that he would ‘wipe Israel off the map’, Iran has not attacked any nation in modern history and there is no evidence that Iran poses a military threat to anyone now or in the future. Yet the most senior members of the US administration continue to misrepresent President Ahmadinejad’s October 2005 comments suggesting they have no serious interest whatsoever in finding a diplomatic solution.
  • The US government continues to feed a stream of allegations into the public domain that Iran is destabilising Iraq and Afghanistan and assisting the insurgency, yet no objective evidence to support these allegations is forthcoming. The governments of Afghanistan, Iraq and now Turkey continue to praise Iran’s constructive relationship while (especially Iraq and Afghanistan) criticizing US military short-sightedness and brutality, the Iraqi government vigorously objecting to the US military supplying arms to paramilitaries in Anbar. (The US military and the Iraqi governments have different objectives of course; when the paramilitaries in Anbar find an alternative use for their guns the US military can, if they are consistent with past behaviour, simply blame Iran. When has an army failing to defeat guerrillas ever not blamed outsiders for their woes?)

The Iranians have also finished hosting a successful Caspian Sea littoral states summit. Yet the our press continues to push this fantasy that Iran is some pariah, rogue state, a threat to its neighbours.

The Iraqi fiasco seems to have left us with a contempt for all of reality and ethics. The people who sold us the bill of goods, those responsible for the ongoing Mesopotamian holocaust, ought to be in the Hague spending more time with their lawyers, but they remain among us. The recent Chinese and Russian statements were models of good sense, that seems entirely absent inside the American imperium.

We in the West seem to have lost any sense of ourselves and continue to rely on a vast military arsenal to construct our own reality, shred treaty obligations and destroy anybody who gets in our way. (The USA, of course, spends more than a half of the combined total that the rest of the world spends on arms.) Are we like the good Germans in the 1930s “looking from the side”, our minds numbed and pickled in propaganda, with all sense of ethics and reality collectively dissolving?

President Bush is apparently confident that God speaks to him and some evangelical Christians believe that the End Times are approaching, but that when the conflagration arrives they will float up out of their clothes into heaven. Maybe. The coming times could certainly be extremely challenging, with society and the environment breaking up, the kind of times where it would be useful to have an (authentic) religious faith and practice, but it would really be much better if we could find a better way, and we surely can if choose to. There is much scope for the Iraq chaos to start spreading to consume more than just foreigners and poor kids. Are we really doing everything we can to try and minimise the chances of this happening?

Yours sincerely,

Chris Dornan