Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Post #300 - This I Believe

Commemorating 300 posts on this weblog, I thought that I ought to be both introspective and forthcoming. Here, then, is a set of my beliefs pertaining to Iran and its position in the world, expecially vis-a-vis my own country, the United States. I have structured it as a series of responses to the questions raised by critics of Iran, and by sincerely concerned citizens, in hopes that the reasons behind my own stance might become more apparent. I invite comments, however negative (though I would hope my audience would maintain a modicum of civility, if they wish to have their posts published here).  [Please overlook a formatting problem with italicization of parts of the text; I'm working on it...]

"The Islamic Republic of Iran is a Shi'ite Muslim theocracy."

For the most part, this is a true statement, but it begs the question, "So what?"

If one opposes the idea of a theocracy (a nation governed by its religious establishment), then should one oppose the idea that "America is a Christian nation?" (a view that is taken by a number of the most ardent Iran critics, I might point out.) Should we dismantle Pakistan, which was established, with British and international support, as an expressly Muslim nation? Should we sever ties with Saudi Arabia, which is not only the venue for the Haj but home to a fundamentalist religious sect? Should the church and the state be separated in Denmark, Finland, Greece, Iceland, Norway or the United Kingdom?

Is it perhaps only with Shi'e Islam that you have a problem? Remember that this is the religion of the ruling majority in Iraq, which we consider an ally. And bear in mind, too, that it is not the faith of most of those who have committed terrorist acts against us. It is considered, by most scholars, as basically a more nuanced approach to Islam -- one that is more open to change and reform -- than Sunni Islam, though individual adherents obviously do not always show thi.
Or do you simply not favor any rise of Muslim power and influence? If so, that makes matters complicated, since there are now, give or take, a billion Muslims (or nearly a quarter of the world's inhabitants), and that number is growing.

The main consideration is whether the people of Iran want such a form of government.  Most polling indicates that the population could accept the form, if the substance were different -- they want a stronger economy, more freedom of movement and thought, and more interaction with the rest of the world.  Half of them being under 25 years of age makes them as eager to join the workforce, surf the web and study abroad as people in other countries of the region.

"The IRI is undemocratic."

Yes, it is...if compared with Switzerland or Canada. But, compared to many countries with which we do business every day, it compares somewhat favorably. Freedom House, which makes assessments of democratic conditions around the world, rates the following countries (some of which are US allies) equal to or lower than Iran : Afghanistan, Belarus, Burma, Chad, Cameroon, Cambodia, Congo, Cote D'Ivoire, Cuba, Ethiopia, Libya, The People's Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Yemen.

More interaction with the rest of the planet is the best way to ensure that change -- evolutionary, rather than revolutionary -- takes place.  Current sanctions make that harder, rather than easier.

"The IRI does not protect the human rights of its citizens."

True enough. It has been a rough road in Iran for gays, Baha'is, political dissidents, some Christians and individuals that the regime fears for one reason or another. Persons, both Iranian and foreign, have been jailed, tortured or even executed without due process. Anybody who seriously cares about the Iranian people wants to see this change as quickly as possible.

We were in a better position to argue the case, back when Jimmy Carter made human rights a major element of his foreign policy. Unfortunately, under his administration human rights in Iran took a back seat to other geopolitical considerations, which led to our friend the Shah being ousted and an Islamic revolutionary government taking the place of his autocratic rule. Also, it became widely known during the time of the George W. Bush administration that the American Government was prepared to use extrajudicial abductions, denial of due process and torture when it deemed such practices necessary to advance its interests. We lost some credibility that we have yet to recoup.*

America supported the International Declaration of Human Rights when it was first proposed, yet we are unwilling to support international mechanisms (such as the International Criminal Court) that might ensure its actual use, and seem to be undermining other safeguards (like the Geneva Accords) by our current policies and practices.

We should put our basic values front-and-center, instead of projecting an image of ruthless, imperial domination.

"Iran must not have nuclear weapons."

I agree that it is a bad thing for nuclear weaponry to proliferate anywhere in the world. Even if never used by those who hold them, the risk of accidents, uncontrolled sales or sabotage is too great, given the horrendous potential outcomes. And, as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran voluntarily relinquished any claim to the right to have nuclear weapons (whether developed within Iran, or imported).

Let's put this in perspective, though. Countries like our own and our European allies do not have the same sorts of strictures on them, simply because our nuclear capabilities predated the treaty. Therefore, we don't need to put up with any intrusive inspections by IAEA or risk economic sanctions if we update our stockpiles. Moreover, other countries, such as Pakistan or India do not need to fear such reprisals, either, because they never signed the treaty in the first place. Israel is "safe" because it did not sign the NPT -- in fact, it does not even admit that it has any such weapons (the most common estimate of Israel's arsenal is about two hundred warheads).

[Maybe it's good to keep in mind that Iran has previously declined to use weapons of mass destruction (as ethically "un-Islamic") -- even during the devastating Iran-Iraq War; it still maintains that such weapons would be wholly inappropriate for a state such as theirs; and no conclusive evidence exists that they have weaponized a single nuclear device. All the sanctions and other punitive measures are based on speculation, intelligence estimates and fear.**]

The NPT should be strengthened -- or, rather, implemented in a serious way.  The purpose and the letter of the pact was always that "nuclear" countries would disarm (hasn't happened), and other countries would be helped to use nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes (hasn't happened).  It's time to make both parts finally come true (and a nuclear-free Middle East wouldn't be a bad idea).

"Israel is existentially threatened by Iran."

There is no question that many of Iran's most prominent leaders have no love for the State of Israel. This puts them in the company of most of the leaders of the Middle East region. Some of them may be anti-Semites (though the Jewish population within Iran has not, over the centuries, seen as much societal rejection and persecution as Jews living in many other parts of the world, including the countries of the European Community). But the main objections they have are 1) the displacement of Arab peoples from their homes and businesses, and 2) Israel's claim that its status as a place where Jews of the world can enjoy a controlling position within the government is part and parcel of what Israel is and must remain.

I happen to feel that Israel should remain as a homeland for Jews; any other solution to the situation would be untenable, unworkable and unfair. That does not mean that I do not appreciate the extent to which Israel's establishment and its career since 1948 have been a terrible nakba for the Palestinians (both Muslim and Christian). It also does not mean that I don't condemn many of the policies and practices that Israelis have carried out in the course of their occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

At the end of the day, one must ask why this Iranian nation would ever see it in their own interest to attack Israel with a nuclear weapon (even supposing that they were trying to develop one, and that they succeeded in doing so). Surely, they would not sacrifice their own national existence just to support the largely Sunni population of Palestine (Iranians are not even Arabs). They certainly could not hope to sell more oil after attacking a country that has U.S. backing? They would not expect that the period following such as assault would be a period of growth and prosperity for Iran? What would be the motivation? I am stumped.

On the other side of that coin, what would be the motivation for Iran to change its stance vis-a-vis the rest of the community of nations?  Guarantees that it would not have to fear any more outside attempts at regime change, invasion or covert subversion would provide that motivation, many Iran experts believe.

"Iran has fomented terrorism around the world."

We have a great many allegations and suppositions regarding assassinations, bombings, supply of weapons or explosive devices. It is pretty tough for most of us to know how to evaluate the information coming out of any military command or diplomatic post to know what is valid, what is false, and what is just poorly substantiated. Let's assume for the moment that all the reports are correct: the United States is conducting covert ops and so is Iran. Israel is committing assassinations and so are the Iranians. The IRI is acting in an undemocratic way in its courts and America is doing the same at Guantanamo.  This shadow war of clandestine "hits" and cyber-attacks is one way that we could find ourselves in a major shooting war that nobody wants.  But beyond that, real people -- many of them completely innocent -- are giving their lives because our two countries cannot find a way to talk to one another that gets beyond recriminations and oneupsmanship.

What is needed is a sincere, patient and courageous move toward sustainable peace.

* Former President Jimmy Carter recently wrote on this subject in the New York Times:  

"The United States is abandoning its role as the global champion of human rights. Revelations that top officials are targeting people to be assassinated abroad, including American citizens, are only the most recent, disturbing proof of how far our nation's violation of human rights has extended. This development began after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and has been sanctioned and escalated by bipartisan executive and legislative actions, without dissent from the general public. As a result, our country can no longer speak with moral authority on these critical issues.
"Recent legislation has made legal the president's right to detain a person indefinitely on suspicion of affiliation with terrorist organizations or 'associated forces,' a broad, vague power that can be abused without meaningful oversight from the courts or Congress (the law is currently being blocked by a federal judge). This law violates the right to freedom of expression and to be presumed innocent until proved guilty, two other rights enshrined in the declaration.
"In addition to American citizens' being targeted for assassination or indefinite detention, recent laws have canceled the restraints in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 to allow unprecedented violations of our rights to privacy through warrantless wiretapping and government mining of our electronic communications.
"The detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, now houses 169 prisoners. About half have been cleared for release, yet have little prospect of ever obtaining their freedom. American authorities have revealed that, in order to obtain confessions, some of the few being tried (only in military courts) have been tortured by waterboarding more than 100 times or intimidated with semiautomatic weapons, power drills or threats to sexually assault their mothers. Astoundingly, these facts cannot be used as a defense by the accused, because the government claims they occurred under the cover of 'national security.' Most of the other prisoners have no prospect of ever being charged or tried either."

** The day after I posted this piece, Walter Pincus, writing in the Washington Post, took note of an appearance by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on CNN (July 30).  In that interview, Barak made clear that, according to Israeli intelligence, Supreme Leader Khamenei has not yet even given the order for his country's scientists and technicians to begin building a nuclear weapon.  Their theory is that the Ayatollah has not done so because he assumes that the word would leak out and Israel or the United States would take action against Iran based on that directive having started the ball rolling. 

Monday, July 30, 2012

Post # 299 - Israel, Iran and the Nuclear Menace

Those who live in Florida's district (north of Tampa on the Gulf Coast) may want to take a look at this congressional candidate's unique take on Iran, nuclear weapons and other issues facing our country:


Sunday, July 29, 2012

Post #298 - Wheels Already Invented

This article in The Daily Beast (on-line, 7/24/12) was written by the NIAC president, Dr. Trita Parsi.  It discusses the lessons to be learned from those immigrants -- particularly religious or ethnic minorities -- who have come to the American continent before Iranians:

Iranian Americans, Take a Lesson

Iranian Americans have many lessons to learn from Jewish Americans—most of them are about commitment and priorities.

In some aspects, the two communities could not be any more different. Jews have more than 2,000 years of experience living as minorities while retaining their distinct identity and culture, but have had only had episodic control of their homeland since the time of the Babylonian conquest.

Iranians, on the other hand, never truly lost their territory since the time of Cyrus the Great. And in spite of the Arab Muslim conquest of Iran, Iranians converted but did not adopt the Arab language or identity —a feat achieved by no other converts to Islam at the time.

Furthermore, until the Iranian revolution of 1979, Iranians have rarely left their plateau. And when they have it has usually taken less than three generations for their connection to Iran (the culture, language and religion) to be lost. There are no surviving ancient pockets of Iranians outside of Iran's historic boundaries, other than the Zoroastrian communities of India. But post-1979, for the first time, there is a sizable Iranian American diaspora.

The first generation of Iranian Americans focused on succeeding financially and providing their children with outstanding educational opportunities. That box is checked. And now, US Census data show that Iranian Americans are one of the wealthiest minority communities in the US when measured by income.

The next challenge is to succeed as a community. The second and third generation of Iranian Americans will face tests that determine whether they will survive as a community that retains a cultural identity, or whether they will slowly lose all tangible connections to their ancestral home and culture.

To succeed at this task, and survive and integrate as a minority, they need to learn from the best in the business—the Jewish Diaspora. And from the Jewish American community, lessons about political influence can also be learnt—which is something the Iranian American community craves and is in need of, especially because of the deteriorating situation in Iran and between Iran and the US.

With the risk of making some generalizations, I would present three key lessons Iranian Americans should learn from the Jewish American community.

1. Put your money where your mouth is

The strength of Jewish community life is directly related to the investment the Jewish community makes in its organizations and institutions. There are countless Jewish organizations and synagogues in the United States, all of which are funded mostly by Jewish money. The membership dues for synagogues are often hefty. Beyond money, countless hours are invested in the organizations, with board members often taking several days a year off from work to attend board meetings and conferences.

The level of Iranian American civic participation and investment in their organizations has grown significantly over the last ten years, but is still a far cry from its full potential. The number of Iranian American organizations—both local and national—is limited. Funding is meager. Even the time investment is sub-par.

This is not because Iranian Americans are financially weak. Indeed, the census data disproves that. Nor are Iranian Americans busier than other minorities.

This is a question of commitment and priority. There is more talking than walking in the Iranian American community. The community has not yet fully adjusted its priorities to the challenges of being a second-generation immigrant community, which differ from the challenges of the first generation. Jewish community life and the priorities of the Jewish community should constitute a source of inspiration and guidance for this adjustment.

2. Don't just preach democracy, practice it

Part of the reason for the lack of Iranian American community life is the absence of a democratic culture. While Iranian Americans maintain a strong belief in the superiority of democracy, democratic values have not fully been internalized. There is a lot of preaching about democracy, but very little conduct in accordance to democratic values.

The Iranian American media, for instance, tends to have a journalistic standard that is a mix between O’Reilly and Jerry Springer. In the absence of a sophisticated public discourse, Neo-McCarthyism rules the Iranian American ether with ad hominem attacks, character assassinations, and guilt by association serving as the standard tactics for political discourse. Rather than building unity and cohesion, these tactics have furthered the polarization and divisions that characterize the community.

Here, again, Iranian Americans can learn a lot from the Jewish community, which while divided at times, has a normative democratic framework to manage and resolve inevitable conflicts. That framework is not perfect and its implementation is not always admirable, yet it facilitates conflict resolution and enables the system of large, complex community of organizations.
3. Influence comes to those who work hard to earn it

Iranian Americans are fascinated by and at times envious of the influence and power they ascribe to the Jewish American community. (Sometimes they can even cross the border into conspiracy land). Mostly they are perplexed by how the Jewish community has succeeded where Iranian Americans (so far) have not.

The answer is simple: Within the American democracy, the influence of a group directly correlates to the extent and intensity of its participation in all aspects of the political system—everything from engagement in the public debate to volunteering, voting and political fundraising, and to running for office. The system is geared towards rewarding intense participation and punishing self-marginalization and apathy.

The participation of the Jewish community is admirable. The participation of the Iranian American community is improving, but still leaves much to be desired. At the end of the day, it all comes down to commitment and prioritization. The good news for Iranian Americans they don’t need to invent the wheel.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Post #297 - What to Make of the Shadow War

This is a report that is rather different from what the mainstream media have been offering -- an analysis of the reports of bombings and attacks in various locations around the war implicating Iran which questions the conclusions being reached:


Thursday, July 26, 2012

Post #296 - Are We in a Manipulatively-Induced Coma?

A few years ago (2009), Gen. Wesley Clark (US Army, retired) spoke at a meeting sponsored by FORA. TV. In a little-noted speech, he urged Americans to look not at the saber-rattle or fiasco of the moment, but at the strategic thinking that lies behind events and defines American foreign policy over the long-term, especially in regard to the Middle East and Southwest Asia.

Gen. Clark told of a visit he made to the Pentagon just ten days after 9/11, while one wing of the building was literally still smoldering from one of the terrorist hits. When stopping by to see an friend in the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that colleague shared with him a classified document that referred to not just a U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, but a strategy that would have seen our troops committed to effecting regime change in seven countries over a five-year period: the one mentioned above, as well as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan and Iran.

Now, a decade later, two of countries on the list have been invaded, one has fallen to an internal take-over with external assistance, one is in a state of active conflict with thousands killed, and another is being threatened. (To say nothing of Tunisia and Egypt, which must seem like "bonus" entries in the win column of the grand strategy.)

The list, and the strategy of which it was a part, were not the product of the Pentagon's own planners. Clark recalled another conversation he had had with then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Paul Wolfowitz back in 1991, when the outlines of such a series of moves were even then being formulated under the rubric of the Project for a New American Century. Wolfowitz, Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and others in what is usually called the neo-con camp, were "thinking big" about the prospects for American hegemony in a new, post-Cold War era, and they had the juice to make it happen.

Speaking as a former military man, as an erstwhile vice-presidential contender and as a citizen, Gen. Clark said, "If you are an American, you ought to be concerned about the strategy for the United States in this region. What is our aim? What is our purpose? Why are Americans dying in that region?"

Since he spoke those words, many thousands more Americans, NATO troops and indigenous residents have lost their lives, but precious little has been said about long-term intentions.

Before we go down the road to war again, shouldn't we follow Clark's prescient advice and ask some hard questions of our politicians -- including both President Obama and his would-be successor? What is the end-game? Is it world domination? If so, are we ever going to get a chance to vote on that?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Post #295 - Sport in Service to Humanity

The other day I posted a link to a webpage for Boarders without Borders.  Here is the background on that group, one of the more interesting efforts people are making to forestall war with Iran:

Breaking the Ice, by Shooting the Snow

Boarders Without Borders is a soon-to-be-shot feature-length documentary that will follow 3 professional snowboarders (including Olympic gold medalist Hannah Teter) on a journey to the little known yet world-class mountains of Iran. Over the course of the film they will be introduced to and ride with the Iranian youth and discover the uncharted Alborz Moutains. It is here where they will explore their shared passion with the Iranian youth that transcends the cultural and political divides, hopefully creating an understanding between two disparate nations, proving that we as people are not that different. We hope to shed light on a sensitive subject the media leaves out, breaking stereotypes that are portrayed on each countries people while sharing our mutual passions.

When one thinks of Iran, it is typically the political strife and unrest that is widely represented in the media. The last thing that comes to mind is 14,000-foot mountains covered in Utah-like powder, with densely populated resorts and chalets nestled at the base of the slopes.

However, with over 75% of the population of Iran aged 35 and under, counter-cultures like snowboarding are hidden sanctuaries for the youth of Iran. We will explore this unknown world on and off the slopes through the eyes of these three American riders, and experience their journey as they discover a country that has been sealed off from the West for over 30 years As their plane descends through the clouds in preparation for landing, the team of three American snowboarders – Olympic gold medalist Hannah Teter, Gabi Viteri, and (male rider TBD), get their first look at Iran, the country that drew them halfway across the globe. These three riders, all free-spirited and spontaneous, have little understanding of Iranian history or culture but are eager to dive into this odyssey with a fearlessness and sense of adventure; the same characteristics that are fundamental to their ascension in the sport of snowboarding.

Their first view of the city below marks the beginning of an epic adventure where they will rip new territory and experience this untamed counterculture that is full of surprises and sees no boundaries or limits. A voyage where they will connect with people whom, despite geographic distance and cultural differences are like-minded souls bound together by not just the love of a sport, but through the embodiment of a mentality that fills their essence. Not citizens of one nation or another – just snowboarders, looking for the next obstacle to surpass. Below them the sprawling urban landscape of Tehran extends towards the horizon and their ultimate destination, the snowy mountains of Alborz.

About the Filmmakers:

Marjan Tehrani is an independent director and producer from Berkeley, California. She received a BA in Community Studies, a major dedicated to social change, from UC Santa Cruz, and an MFA in Media Arts Production with an emphasis in documentary, from the City University of New York.
She founded the production company Tru Films, and has since directed and produced several independent documentaries. Her Israel, her debut documentary follows three women –an Israeli, a Palestinian and a Ukrainian immigrant– in Tel Aviv. Her Israel premiered on the Sundance Channel in 2004.

She also directed and produced Arusi Persian Wedding, a feature documentary co-produced with PBS about Iran/U.S. relations, explored through an Iranian-American and his bride’s journey to be married in Iran. The film premiered on the Emmy PBS Series, Independent Lens for the 2008/09 season, and toured 45 cities nationwide with PBS’s unique Community Cinemas program. 

Her latest producing credit is the documentary, P-Star Rising, a feature film that follows a young female rap star phenomenon as she fulfills her father’s deferred dreams of making it in the music business. P-Star Rising has premiered at festivals worldwide and premiered on Independent Lens during the 2009/10 season. Currently Tehrani is producing the documentary “Boarders without Borders” that is scheduled to shoot in Iran, February 2011, which follows three professional American snowboarders who join forces with three Iranian snowboarders to set aside politics and share their ultimate passion in life. She is also in the development phase for adaptation fiction film. 

Beyond her independent work, she has senior produced several original series for television, including four seasons of dLife TV on CNBC, a diabetes talk show that informs and educates a target audience of 19 million people regarding the ever-growing epidemic of diabetes; and the Emmy-nominated After School Series which broadcast on WNYE-PBS, which featured celebrity alumni such as Harvey Keitel and Tim Robbins, returning to their urban high schools as role models. She has also produced numerous cooking segments with celebrity chefs such as Michel Nischan for television and the web and created content for major commercial companies such as KRAFT, General Mills and Saatchi & Saatchi.

Through Tru Films, Tehrani is dedicated to promoting dialogue between cultures, sharing the intricate and subtle aspects of identity and capturing the transformative moments of human experience.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Post #294 - All Aboard!

Following up on an earlier post, here is a concrete proposal that has grown out of the burgeoning people-to-people initiative involving aficionados of snow-boarding:


Monday, July 23, 2012

Post #293 - One Last Shot at Sanity

In Istanbul, it is now nearly tomorrow, July 24, the day that talks on Iran's nuclear program are to continue in that city.

Istanbul is perhaps the perfect place for such a dialogue. It is literally on the cusp between Europe and Asia. It is the principal metropolis of a country that is predominantly Muslim, but which holds up the standard of westernization and modernization. Over the centuries, it has been the scene of more than one clash of civilizations -- Western Christendom rudely knocking the stuffing out of Eastern Christendom in 1204, for example. It was the center of one of the rather large empires (Iranians being descendants of another such imperial power, the ancient Persians, and we Americans being the putative current imperial power in the world).

In Greek mythology, Io was transformed into a cow and had to roam the earth until she crossed the Bosporos and met Prometheus (whose memory is now kept alive in a recent sci-fi thriller about an empire even more powerful than ours). Both East and West have been condemned to wander through a valley of fruitless diplomacy and dangerous unease since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The phrase "crossing the Bosporus" evokes thoughts of decisive movements beyond one's comfort zone; one can hope that such a spirit can infuse the parlay that will take place this week.

The spokesman for Iran is slated to be Mr. Ali Baqeri, Iran's deputy nuclear negotiator. His given name links him to the most prominent figure in Shi'ite Islam (after The Prophet); his surname marks him as "erudite" or "sagacious" -- one could almost guess that he had been born for this role. Back in January (at the last Istanbul round of talks), the chief Iranian negotiator, Jalili, was reported to have said, about the nuclear fuel deal (some sort of international exchange to give Iran what it says it needs, but without involving its gaining weaponizing capabilities), "[this] could be one of the most important areas for cooperation." After those sessions ended without much result, Press TV quoted Baqeri as saying that his country received the P5+1 proposal, but “we stressed that Iran does not need fuel swap and what prompts Iran to negotiate on the issue is cooperation and not necessity...These talks could continue in the future and there is no obstacle, but the P5+1 should be given an opportunity to reach a conclusion for cooperation.” After the last talks, he told a television interviewer, "Adopting a strategy of pressure against Iran would not be effective...the Iranian side is ready to take serious steps and welcomes a step-by-step and reciprocal approach. We are waiting for confidence-building measures.” One senses, in Baqeri, a cagey and careful representative of the IRI.

Across the table from him will be Ms. Helga Maria Schmid, the European Union's deputy head of foreign policy affairs, who met with Bageri in early May in Geneva, and later in Baghdad. Her official title is deputy secretary general for the External Action Service. It should be recalled that after being graduated from the Diplomatic Academy, her posts have included several years as public affairs office in the German embassy in Washington in the early '90s, and as head of the Political Staff of the Federal Foreign Office and Head of the Minister's Office, in Berlin in '03-05.

So, will they pursue an agreement similar to the deal brokered by Brazil and Turkey over two years ago, which was derided and scuttled by the United States, even though we had earlier signaled a desire for just such a solution? [see the text of that agreement, below]    An EU spokesman told Al-Monitor today, "The objective for the meeting...is to look further at how existing gaps in positions could be narrowed and how the process could be moved forward." That publication reported that "The meeting plans come a week after nuclear experts from the seven nations met in Istanbul...to discuss the technical details of a P5+1 confidence building proposal," which would ask Iran "to halt its 20% enrichment activities, ship out its 20% stockpile, and decommission the highly fortified Fordo enrichment facility, built into a mountain near Qom in exchange for fuel and safety upgrades for Tehran’s medical and civilian eactors and spare parts for its civilian aircraft."

Will any radically new ideas come out of this quiet, out-of-the-limelight process? Can a military "solution" be avoided? Or have things simply deteriorated too far?

We must wait with bated breath...

May 2010 Iran/Brazil/Turkey pact:

1. We reaffirm our commitment to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and in accordance with the related articles of the NPT, recall the right of all State Parties, including the Islamic Republic of Iran, to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy (as well as nuclear fuel cycle including enrichment activities) for peaceful purposes without discrimination.
2. We express our strong conviction that we have the opportunity now to begin a forward looking process that will create a positive, constructive, non-confrontational atmosphere leading to an era of interaction and cooperation.
3. We believe that the nuclear fuel exchange is instrumental in initiating cooperation in different areas, especially with regard to peaceful nuclear cooperation including nuclear power plant and research reactors construction.
4. Based on this point the nuclear fuel exchange is a starting point to begin cooperation and a positive constructive move forward among nations. Such a move should lead to positive interaction and cooperation in the field of peaceful nuclear activities replacing and avoiding all kinds of confrontation through refraining from measures, actions and rhetorical statements that would jeopardize Iran's rights and obligations under the NPT.
5. Based on the above, in order to facilitate the nuclear cooperation mentioned above, the Islamic Republic of Iran agrees to deposit 1200 kg LEU in Turkey. While in Turkey this LEU will continue to be the property of Iran. Iran and the IAEA may station observers to monitor the safekeeping of the LEU in Turkey.
6. Iran will notify the IAEA in writing through official channels of its agreement with the above within seven days following the date of this declaration. Upon the positive response of the Vienna Group (US, Russia, France and the IAEA) further details of the exchange will be elaborated through a written agreement and proper arrangement between Iran and the Vienna Group that specifically committed themselves to deliver 120 kg of fuel needed for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR).
7. When the Vienna Group declares its commitment to this provision, then both parties would commit themselves to the implemention of the agreement mentioned in item 6. Islamic Republic of Iran expressed its readiness to deposit its LEU (1200 kg) within one month. On the basis of the same agreement the Vienna Group should deliver 120 kg fuel required for TRR in no later than one year.
8. In case the provisions of this Declaration are not respected Turkey, upon the request of Iran, will return swiftly and unconditionally Iran's LEU to Iran.
9. We welcome the decision of the Islamic Republic of Iran to continue as in the past their talks with the 5+1 countries in Turkey on the common concerns based on collective commitments according to the common points of their proposals.
10. Turkey and Brazil appreciated Iran's commitment to the NPT and its constructive role in pursuing the realization of nuclear rights of its member states. The Islamic Republic of Iran likewise appreciated the constructive efforts of the friendly countries Turkey and Brazil in creating the conducive environment for realization of Iran's nuclear rights.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Post #292 - Tightening the Screws -- on Europe?

This comes from the Voice of Russia World Service about a month back (6/29/12). The author, Ilya Kharlamov, analyzes the impact of the current and expected Western sanctions regime:

The West is stepping up its efforts to tighten a grip on Iran in connection with its nuclear programme. The USA slapped sanctions on foreign state-run banks that clinched oil deals with Tehran and imposed restrictions on the operations of private financial institutions cooperating with the Islamic Republic. On 1 July, the EU’s launching an oil embargo against Iran. Such an abundance of “economic reprisals” against a major player on the world oil market could have lasting consequences. No more new oil from Iran will be available in Europe after 1 July. Countries will have to rely on the Iranian oil that they purchased under previous contracts. The EU has even banned crisis-struck Greece from importing Iranian oil on preferential terms. Washington’s restrictions on the banks that were “spotted” in partnership with Tehran pursue the same agenda… to slash Iranian oil sales.

The restrictions in question have already had a negative effect on the social and economic situation in Iran, which has seen a rise in food prices and a devaluation of the national currency. However, the embargo on Iranian oil led to an increase in oil prices throughout the EU this spring, to the disappointment of millions of European consumers. Oil prices might spike again after 1 July. The EU accounts for 20 percent of Iranian oil exports, this amounts to about 30 million tons (195 million bbl). Europe expects Saudi Arabia to fill the gap. Nevertheless, Iran has the resources to block the Strait of Hormuz, through which oil from Saudi Arabia and LNG from Qatar reaches world markets.

Yevgeni Satanovsky, of the Institute of the Middle East, said, “As for Iran, it could offset its losses by supplying oil to other countries. This means that the embargo might not prove as effective as planned. Some countries, including South Africa, have sharply increased Iranian oil imports. Consumption of Iranian oil hasn’t dropped in Turkey. South Korea cut Iranian oil supplies, but only slightly. Indian companies reduced the consumption of Iranian oil in the country’s state sector, but it’s increased in the private sector. China, even though it cut Iranian oil supplies, has exerted pressure on Iran to get it to slash oil prices so that Beijing could boost the consumption of Iranian oil for the same prices”.

Because of the embargo, Iran will lose 20 percent of the 100 billion USD (3.25 trillion Roubles. 79 billion Euros. 64 billion UK Pounds) it earns from oil exports annually. The loss is far from disastrous. In addition, sanctions will help to spur Iran’s efforts in other areas. Vitaly Bushuyev, General Director of the Institute of Energy Strategy, observed, “The role of Iran in the formation of world oil prices has been exaggerated. No radical fluctuations on the oil market have been predicted for the near future. Oil prices will range between 85 and 110 USD (2,760-3,570 Roubles. 67-87 Euros. 54-70 UK Pounds). Iran may affect that, but its influence won’t go further than causing one-time price volatility within a maximum variation of 3-5 dollars (97-162 Roubles. 2.50-4 Euros. 2-3.25 UK Pounds)”.

In other words, the western sanctions against Iran won’t trigger any upheavals on the world market or an economic collapse in Iran. Instead, they could hit the wallets of ordinary people in Europe. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that unless Iran takes specific steps to dispel the international community’s concerns regarding its nuclear programme, pressure on it will increase, and it’ll become more and more isolated. As an alternative to economic pressure, Washington might carry out air strikes against Iran’s military facilities. In this respect, attempts to exert pressure on Tehran through economic sanctions aren’t the worst option.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Post #291 - Is More More?

The article which follows was written by Natasha Mozgovaya (published 6/24/12 on Haaretz), to examine the notion that a nuclear bomb in the hands of Iranians could actually produce a better balance of power in the Middle East:

Countless articles have been written on the Iranian nuclear program and the possible ways to deal with it, with most of them focusing on whether to attack or not to attack. With the drums of war beating and Congress committees discussing the military option against Iran's nuclear facilities, the new cover issue of Foreign Affairs certainly stands out with a headline that reads "Why Iran should get the bomb."

Kenneth N. Waltz, senior research scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, argues that once Tehran gets a nuclear bomb, it will actually restore the balance of military power. 

Most of the arguments Waltz presents are familiar: the Iranian regime is not irrational and that the "perfectly sane Ayatollahs," as any other leaders, seek survival and not suicide, history shows that when countries acquire nuclear weapons, they become more responsible (there has never been a full-scale war between two nuclear states), and there is no reason to believe Teheran will share it with terrorist organizations. Waltz admits that we do not really know what the Iranian regime thinks, but reminds the readers of the incident with the Straits of Hormuz, which the Iranians did not end up closing, despite threatening to do so. "It is far more likely that if Iran desires nuclear weapons, it is for the purpose of providing for its own security, not to improve its offensive capabilities (or destroy itself)," Waltz writes.

If Israel's nuclear arsenal did not trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, "there is no reason a nuclear Iran should now." The basic premise of the author is that Israel's nuclear arsenal was the factor contributing to instability in the Middle East.

However, the expected impact of the nuclear bomb in the hands of Iranian regime does not end with crazy-case scenarios, such as Supreme Leader Khamenei rushing to the red button to precipitate the coming of Mahdi (I've heard this version from some American conservatives), or dropping the "dirty bomb" in the middle of some major city, bearing Iran’s hidden trademark. It's not even Egypt, busy with its own troubles, or Saudi Arabia, that are developing their own bomb. For Israel, Iran acquiring the bomb might mean less olim, and more Israelis leaving (according to this logic, the Palestinians should definitely welcome the Iranian bomb instead of insisting on a nuclear-free Middle East). The impact on oil prices will hardly be positive. It will definitely embolden Iran's proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, the both of which can be utterly unpleasant even with conditional weapons. It can force the Arab states to abandon any thought of reviving the Arab Peace Initiative. As for the current turbulence in the Middle East, another nuclear bomb does not seem like a recipe for peace and stability, and Israel is mostly a bystander in these events.

At the end of the day, the world might have to live with a nuclear Iran – there aren’t many options, and most range from bad to worse. But to develop a happily hopeful approach about the future benefits of the bomb seems like a serious exaggeration. 

Let's see what Waltz actually said.  First, the book he wrote with Scott D. Sagan treated the idea of nuclear proliferation generally; they were not just writing about Israel and Iran.  Second, they cite some history (notably the Cold War between the United State and the USSR) as showing that the principle has worked in the real world.  Though fighting between India and Pakistan demonstrates that it is possible for nuclear states to have a war, the "have" nations (in a nuclear sense) have been not usually done so.  Third, the point that Israel's possession of the Bomb has not led to proliferation in the region is one that Waltz's detractors have not yet rebutted.  Certainly, Israel's Arab neighbors have been as concerned about the Jewish State as they have been about Iran. 

Waltz' premise is not that "Israel's nuclear arsenal was the factor contributing to instability in the Middle East," but that having more than one nuclear power in the region might be stabilizing.

While one may or not agree that the existence of more nuclear weapons, anywhere in the world, is a "good" thing, Waltz at least opens the debate to discussion of what the West has seen as undisputed:  that an Iranian bomb spells disaster.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Post #290 - Let's Get Real

Ray McGovern is an ex-CIA analyst who writes and speaks frequently on issues related to U.S. foreign policy. He has been paying attention to Iran for a very long time.  This article, "How Iran Might See the Threats" was published June 28 of this year:

In CIA jargon, “Aardwolf” is a label for a special genre of intelligence report from field stations abroad to headquarters in Washington. An Aardwolf conveys the Chief of Station’s formal assessment regarding the direction events are taking in his or her country of assignment – and frequently the news is bad.

An Aardwolf is relatively rare and is avidly read; it is candid — and often unwelcome. (In the 2006 book, State of War,author James Risen describes two Aardwolfs sent to CIA headquarters in the latter half of 2003 by the station chief in Baghdad describing the deteriorating situation in Iraq — and angering many of his bosses.)

In nature, an aardwolf is a furry hyena of east Africa that lives in underground burrows, explaining its name which means "earth wolf" in Afrikaans.

So, let’s assume there is an Iranian Chief of Station embedded in, say, Iran’s UN representation in New York. It is quite likely that he or she would be tasked with crafting periodic Aardwolf-type assessments for senior officials of the Islamic Republic.

And in this time of heightened tensions with the United States and the West, Tehran presumably would be interested in a think piece assessing, based on the events of recent months, what the second half of 2012 might have in store on front-burner questions like the nuclear issue and the triangular Iran-U.S.-Israel relationship.

Putting oneself in others’ shoes is always of value but often avoided by American officials and journalists. It is especially difficult in dealing with not-so-easy-for-westerners-to-understand countries like Iran. Faux history further complicates things, as do unconscious blinders that can affect even “old-paradigm” analysts who try to have no agenda other than the pursuit of objective truth.

Don’t laugh. That U.S. intelligence analysts are still capable of honest, old-paradigm work can be seen in their continued resistance, so far with the full support of senior management, to strong political pressure to change their key estimate of late 2007 that the Iranians stopped working on a nuclear weapon during the fall of 2003.

Thus, let me try to put my imagination to work and see if any useful insights can be squeezed out of an attempt to “impersonate” an Iranian Chief of Station in the following notional “Aardwolf” to Tehran. Such a message might read something like this:

Nuclear Issue: What Are the U.S. & Israel Up To?

With half of 2012 behind us and the U.S. presidential election looming in just four months, I will try to be candid and blunt about what I see as the dangers facing the Islamic Republic in the coming months. Following are the key points of our mid-year assessment, more fully developed in the text that follows:

1-The Islamic Republic is viewed by most Americans as Enemy #1. How best to defeat our “nuclear ambitions” has become the main foreign policy issue in the election campaign for president. This is BIG.
2-In dealing with Iran, U.S. corporate media are behaving just as they did before the attack on Iraq. It is as though the disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq never happened. This time the Islamic Republic is in the crosshairs and some influential figures seem eager to pull the trigger. For instance, Jackson Diehl, deputy chief of the Washington Post’s editorial page, asked pointedly if it “would still be feasible to carry out an air attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities” if the U.S. gets involved militarily in Syria.
3-Within the “bubble” of Official Washington, the war in Iraq is often portrayed as a success and the pro-Israel neo-conservatives largely responsible for that catastrophe remain in very influential positions. The macho cry of the neocons — “Real men go to Tehran” — is again very much in vogue.
4-Cowardly politicians, especially in Congress, march “in lockstep” to Likud Lobby cadences. President Barack Obama privately may not wish to go along but he lacks the courage to break ranks.
5-Unlike the lead-up to Iraq, when Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld were lusting for war, this time neither the White House nor the Pentagon wants hostilities. Yet, prevalent is an awkward, helpless kind of fear that, one way or another, Israel will succeed in provoking hostilities — with little or no prior notice to its superpower “ally.”
6-As we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, the top U.S. generals are virtually all careerists, and none have forgotten what happened to Admiral “no-war-on-Iran-on-my-watch” William Fallon. He was soon a retired admiral. So, they will follow orders — legal or not — as reflexively as the Prussians of old, letting the troops and the “indigenous” people of the target countries bear the consequences. In the U.S., it is almost unheard of for a general to resign on principle, no matter how foolish the errand.
7-It is conventional wisdom here that the pro-Israel vote is sine qua non for election to the White House. Thus, Obama is acutely sensitive to the perceived need to appear no less supportive of Israel than Mitt Romney, who told an Israeli newspaper last fall: “The actions that I will take will be actions recommended and supported by Israeli leaders.”
8-Some attention has been given to public warnings by prominent Israeli political, military and intelligence officials not to attack Iran. Their outspokenness betrays how seriously they view the danger that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may embark upon an adventure that could eventually result in the destruction of the state of Israel. But Netanyahu believes he still has the initiative and holds the high cards, which is certainly true with the U.S. political system.
9-As for Israel’s generals, they will obey — like their American counterparts.
10-There is ample evidence that Netanyahu believes Obama has a deficit of spine, and that if hostilities break out with Iran before the November election, Obama will feel obliged to give Israel unconditional support, including active military involvement. In my view, Netanyahu would be correct in that calculation.
11. Israel’s strategic situation has markedly deteriorated over the past year, with former Mossad chief Meir Dagan describing it as “the worst in its history.” Israel can no longer depend on close ties with Egypt or Turkey, and is becoming isolated elsewhere, as well.  Developments in Egypt are a huge worry, with the Egyptians already having cancelled a major deal for the delivery of gas. This might increase Israel’s incentive to have a tangible demonstration that the “sole remaining superpower,” at least, remains firmly in its camp.
12-Military and intelligence ties between the U.S. and Israel are just as tight as those that enabled the successful Israeli air attack on Iraq’s nuclear installation at Osirak in 1981. Just this month, Israel’s friends in Congress beat back an effort by the Director of National Intelligence to strip the phrase “including satellite intelligence” from a list of security improvements in the U.S.-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act of 2012.
13-Starting, or provoking, hostilities with Iran would be huge, fateful gamble for Netanyahu, given Israel’s vulnerability to Iranian retaliation and Washington’s private counsels not to precipitate war. But if Israel went ahead anyway, my bet is that the U.S. military will be drawn in, even if Iran were careful to limit retaliation to Israeli targets.
14-On the nuclear issue, after the last three rounds of talks, it seems clear that the West will not even acknowledge our right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to develop, produce and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without strict conditions. Rather, the West’s “negotiating position” is almost identical to Netanyahu’s maximal demands that we abandon our project for processing nuclear materials and dismantle key facilities.
15-The larger objective seems to be regime change by threats, sanctions, covert action and cyber attack — with the prospect of worse to come.
16-To conclude, I would draw on some common American expressions: On the nuclear issue, we are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. Since there is a real chance we will be attacked at some point in the coming months, we need to batten down the hatches and keep our powder dry. It would be extremely foolish to hope for any significant break in U.S. hostility toward the Islamic Republic, at least until the very end of the year.

What Drives Israel?

I do not believe the Israelis see our nuclear program as an imminent threat, despite their having made the issue a cause célèbre, the centerpiece of their foreign policy and a live wire in today’s American politics. The question is why; at least five objectives can be identified:

1 – Overthrow of our Islamic Republic government (shades of 1953). The euphemism now in vogue is “regime change.”
2 – Create in Iran the kind of hardship, devastation or, if you prefer, obliteration that has degraded Iraq’s ability, post-invasion, to support the Palestinians. A key part of Israel’s strategy is to deplete the resources of supporters of Hezbollah and HAMAS and shut down their support systems.
Accordingly, even if hostilities resulted in something short of “regime change,” Israel’s close-in enemies would be greatly weakened and Israel would be in a strong position to dictate “peace terms” to the Palestinians — and even encourage many of them to “self-deport,” to use Mitt Romney’s euphemism for ethnic cleansing of unwanted “aliens.”
3 – Divert attention from the stymied talks with the Palestinians, as Israeli settlers proceed apace to create more and more “facts on the ground” in the West Bank.
4 – Set back Iran’s uranium enrichment program a few years; and
5 – Take advantage of a near-term “window of opportunity” afforded by an American president worried about his reelection prospects.

Rejecting Post-WWII Agreements

The Americans are fond of saying, “After 9/11 everything changed.” And so Americans took little notice when President George W. Bush, in a June 1, 2002, graduation speech at West Point, boldly asserted the right to launch the kind of preventive war banned at Nuremberg and in the U.N. Charter.

The West Point speech laid the groundwork for the attack on Iraq ten months later (and an aggressive war that was ultimately branded illegal by the UN Secretary General). But Bush’s words at West Point indicated Washington’s determination not to be bound by post-World War II treaties and other agreements.

Many in the United States and abroad gradually have grown desensitized to the principles of international law when they limit Washington’s desire to attack another sovereign state under the guise of making Americans safer. After 9/11, starting the kind of “aggressive war” that was criminalized at Nuremberg in 1945 gained gradual acceptance.

And so, most Americans accept it as a given that it would be certainly okay if Israel and/or the U.S. attacked the Islamic Republic if we were to develop nuclear weapons, even though there is no international law or precedent available to justify attacking us.

Moreover, Article 2(4) of the UN Charter expressly prohibits the threat to use force as well as the actual use of force. But that is “old paradigm” thinking. When U.S. officials, from Obama on down, repeat the mantra that “everything is on the table,” including the “military option,” that is a violation of the UN Charter, yet no one here seems bothered by that fact.

Recall Obama’s nonchalant response when asked in February if he thought Israel had decided to attack Iran. “I don’t think Israel has made a decision,” he said simply — as though the decision were about something routine — not about whether to launch the kind of “aggressive war” banned at Nuremberg.

Bottom line: International law is, as the Americans would say, “not a problem.”

The statements of senior U.S. and Israeli officials are all over the map in addressing the nuclear “ambitions” of the Islamic Republic. For example, on Jan. 8, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told a television audience: “Are they [the Iranians] trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No, but we know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability.” ["Face the Nation", CBS, Jan. 8, 2012]

Here are his comments on another Sunday talk show on May 27:

“The fundamental premise is that neither the United States or the international community is going to allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. We will do everything we can to prevent them from developing a weapon.”

Israeli leadership statements, including those by Panetta’s counterpart, Ehud Barak, are equally disingenuous, emphasizing that the U.S. and Israel are bound and determined to stop us from doing what both defense leaders have publicly acknowledged Iran is not doing. Small wonder that so many are confused.

Preventing Preventive War

The Persian Gulf would be an ideal place for Israel to mount a provocation trying to elicit retaliation from us, which could, in turn, lead to a full-scale Israeli attack on our nuclear-related sites.

Painfully aware of that possible scenario, then Joint Chiefs Chair, Admiral Mike Mullen noted at a July 2, 2008, press conference, that military-to-military dialogue could “add to a better understanding” between the U.S. and Iran. This might be an opportune time to resurrect that idea and formally propose such dialogue to the U.S.

The following two modest proposals could go a long way toward avoiding an armed confrontation — whether accidental or provoked by those who may actually wish to precipitate hostilities and involve the U.S.

1 – Establish a direct communications link between top military officials in Washington and Tehran, in order to reduce the danger of accident, miscalculation or covert attack.
2 – Launch immediate negotiations by top Iranian and American naval officers to conclude an incidents-at-sea protocol. A useful precedent is the “Incidents-at-Sea” agreement between the U.S. and the Russians, signed in Moscow in May 1972. That period was also a time of high tensions between the two countries, including several inadvertent naval encounters that could well have escalated. The agreement sharply reduced the likelihood of such incidents.

I believe it would be difficult for the Americans to oppose measures that make such good sense. Press reports show that top U.S. commanders in the Persian Gulf have favored such steps. And, as indicated above, Admiral Mullen appealed earlier for military-to-military dialogue.

In the present circumstances, it has become increasingly urgent to discuss seriously how the United States and Islamic Republic can avoid a conflict started by accident, miscalculation or provocation. Neither the U.S. nor Iran can afford to allow an avoidable incident at sea to spin out of control.

With a modicum of mutual trust, these common-sense actions might be able to win wide and prompt acceptance in the U.S. — if only as a way of reining in “Enemy #1.”

This is not for me to suggest, but I do so informally, partly because my Russian colleagues here at the UN have sought me out for discussion on recent developments on a number of occasions. And just this week Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, referring to Israeli calls for stronger action against Iran, had this to say:

“In order to settle this [nuclear] issue, it’s necessary to refrain from constant threats of using force, abandon scenarios aimed against Iran, and stop dismissing the negotiations as a failure.”
End of our imaginary Aardwolf to Tehran.

[McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He served as a CIA analyst for 27 years and now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).]

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Post #289 - Poking the Lion with a Stick

Foreign Policy in Focus (on-line) published this piece by Conn Hallinan (7/13/12), called "Iran Sanctions: War by Other Means."

Now that the talks with Iran on its nuclear program appear to be on the ropes, are we on the road to war? The Israelis threaten it almost weekly, and the Obama administration has reportedly drawn up an attack plan. But in a sense, we are already at war with Iran.

Carl von Clausewitz, the great theoretician of modern warfare, defined war as the continuation of politics by other means. In the case of Iran, international politics has become a de-facto state of war.

According to reports, the annual inflation rate in Iran is 22.2 percent, although many economists estimate it at double that. In the last week of June, the price of chicken rose 30 percent, grains were up 55.8 percent, fruits up 66.6 percent, and vegetables up 99.5 percent.   Iran’s Central Bank estimates unemployment among the young is 22.5 percent, although the Financial Timessays “the official figures are vastly underestimated.” The production sector is working at half its capacity.

The value of the Iranian rial has fallen 40 percent since last year, and there is a wave of business closings and bankruptcies due to rising energy costs and imports made expensive by the sanctions.
Oil exports, Iran’s major source of income, have fallen 40 percent in 2012, according to the International Energy Agency, costing the country nearly $32 billion over the past year. The 27-member European Union (EU) ban on buying Iranian oil will further depress sales, and an EU withdrawal of shipping insurance will make it difficult for Tehran to ship oil and gas to its diminishing number of customers. Loss of insurance coverage could reduce Iran’s oil exports by 200,000 barrels a day, or $4.5 billion a month. Energy accounts for about 80 percent of Iran’s public revenues.

Whipsawed by energy sanctions, the worst may be yet to come. The United States has already made it difficult for countries to deal with Iran’s Central Bank, and the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that would declare the Iranian energy sector a “zone of proliferation concern,” which would strangle Tehran’s ability to collect payments for its oil exports. Other proposals would essentially make it impossible to do business with Iran’s other banks. Any country that dared to do so would find itself unable to conduct virtually any kind of international banking.

If the blizzard of legislation does pass, “This would be a significant ratcheting-up of the economic war against Iran,” Mark Dubowitz told the Financial Times. Dubowitz is executive director of the neoconservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, which has lobbied for a series of economic assaults against the Palestinians, China, and Hezbollah.

But the “war” has already gone far beyond the economic sphere.

In the past two years, five Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated. The hits have been widely attributed to the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, and the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK), an organization the U.S. State Department designates as “terrorist.”

Last year a massive explosion rocked the Bid Ganeh military base near Tehran, killing 17 people, including the founder of Iran’s missile program, Gen. Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam. According to Israeli media, the camp was sabotaged by the MEK working with Mossad. Deadly attacks directed at Iran’s Revolutionary Guard have been tied to Jundallah, a Sunni group with ties to U.S. and Israeli intelligence.

It is no secret—indeed, President Obama openly admitted it—that under the codename “Olympic Games,” the United States has been waging cyber war against Iran. The Stuxnet virus shut down a considerable portion of Iran’s nuclear program, although it also infected infrastructure systems, including power plants, oil rigs, and water supplies. The virus was designed to attack systems made by the German company Siemens and has apparently spread to China, Pakistan, and Indonesia.

The United States is also suspected of being behind the Flame virus, a spyware program able to record keystrokes, eavesdrop on conversations near an infected computer, and tap into screen images. Besides Iran, Flame has been found in computers in the Palestinian West Bank, Lebanon, Hungary, Austria, Russia, Hong Kong, and the United Arab Emirates.  Because “malware” seeks out undefended computers no matter where they are, it has a habit of spreading beyond its initial target.

Most of the media is focused on whether the failure of the talks will lead to an Israeli or American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and there is certainly considerable smoke out there.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have been threatening to attack Iran for the past two years. According to Gideon Rachman, a leading columnist for the Financial Times, some Israeli officials have told him Tel Aviv will attack sometime this summer or early fall. One source told him “Israel will wait until September or October because the weather is better and it’s closer to the U.S. elections.”

But the Independent’s (UK) Patrick Cockburn, one of the more reliable analysts on the Middle East, thinks the Israeli threats are “the bluff of the century.” Cockburn argues that there is simply no reason for Tel Aviv to go to war, since the Iranian economy is being effectively strangled by the sanctions. But the saber rattling is useful because it scares the EU into toughing up the siege of Tehran, while also shifting the Palestinian issue to a back burner.

There are serious divisions within Israel on whether to go to war, with the Israeli intelligence and military generally opposed. The latter’s reasons are simple: militarily Tel Aviv couldn’t pull it off, and politically an attack would garner worldwide sympathy for Iran. Recent statements downgrading the threat of Iran by Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz suggest the Netanyahu government is finally feeling the pressure from divisions within its own ranks and may be backing off from a military confrontation.

And the United States?

According to Paul Rogers, a Department of Peace Studies professor at Bradford University and OpenDemocracy’s international security editor, the Pentagon has drawn up plans for a concentrated attack on Iran’s nuclear industry, using a combination of bombers and cruise missiles. The United States recently beefed up its military footprint in the region.

But while the possibility of such an attack is real—especially if congressional hawks get their way—the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence establishment are hardly enthusiastic about it. And in any case, the United States is carpet-bombing Iran’s economy without firing a shot or sending air crews into harm’s way.

Although Iran is generally depicted as the recalcitrant party in the current nuclear talks, it has already compromised extensively, even agreeing to ship some of its enriched uranium out of the country and to guarantee the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to all nuclear facilities. Tehran has also converted one-third of its 20-percent enriched uranium into plates, making it almost impossible to use the fuel for nuclear weapons. Weapons-grade uranium is enriched to 90 percent.

In return, Tehran is demanding the right to enrich to 3.5 percent—the level needed to power a civilian reactor—and an end to sanctions.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty does not ban enriching uranium—indeed, it is guaranteed by Articles III and IV—as long as the fuel is not weaponized. “Iran is raising eyebrows,” says Yousaf M. Butt of the American Federation of Scientists, “but what it is doing is a concern—not illegal.”

However, the P5+1—the permanent UN Security Council members, Britain, France, the US, Russia, China, plus Germany —is demanding an end to all enrichment, an Iranian commitment to ship the enriched fuel out of the country, and closure of the enrichment plant at Fordo: “stop, shut, and ship.” In return, Iran would get enriched fuel for medical use and some spare parts for its civilian airlines. The sanctions would remain in place, however, although it would open the subject up for discussion. The problem is that many of the more onerous sanctions are those independently applied by the United States and the EU. Russia and China have expressed opposition to the independent sanctions, but so far have not shown a willingness to openly flaunt them.

It will be hard for Tehran to make further concessions, particularly if there is no light at the end of the sanction tunnel. Indeed, some of the demands seem almost crafted to derail a diplomatic solution, raising the suspicion that the dispute is less about Iran’s nuclear program than a concerted drive to marginalize a country that has resisted European and U.S. interests in the Middle East. Isolate Iran enough, the thinking goes, and it might bring about regime change. Moscow and Beijing don’t support such an outcome, but they have little influence over what Washington and Brussels do independently.

There is still no evidence that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons. Indeed, the body of evidence suggests the opposite, including the 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate that Tehran mothballed its program in 2003. But evidence is irrelevant when the enormous economic power of the United States and the EU can cow the rest of the world, and force a country to its knees without resorting to open hostilities.

In short, war by other means.

[Note: We should not fail to recall that there are a number of other actions that may constitute acts of war, alleged to have been committed by both sides:

Killings: the deaths of nuclear scientists in Iran have been laid at the feet of Israeli and/or U.S. operatives; a bus bombing in Tehran was attributed to an ethnic group reputedly funded by the CIA, Iran has been accused of helping to devise or distribute IED's in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of supplying weapons to anti-Israel forces.

Cyber-war: the uxnet virus was apparently a US-Israeli project to damage centrifuges (part of Iran's nuclear enrichment program); other internet attacks occur at lower levels constantly.

Surveillance and Espionage: an American drone was downed in Iran; human intelligence sources operate within Iran, the United States, Israel, countries of Euope and elsewhere day in and day out.

Military Operations: There have been a series of provocations, near-misses and maneuvers in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz; U.S. and Iranian forces are constantly within sight of one another.

Captures: Iranian officials were abducted and held in Iraq; Tehran has imprisoned civilians on flimsy grounds.

All of these are preferable to an all-out, shooting war, but are also points of tension, where a spark can ignite a wider conflict, just as the relatively inconsequential assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Serbia is usually pegged as the start of World War I.]