America’s War with Iran: A Reading List

For the United States, a pliant Iran is more important than a democratic one.

In May 2019, Donald Trump warned Iran of its “official end,” and deployed aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf. There were rumours (that have since been denied) that the Pentagon was planning to station up to 10,000 additional military personnel in West Asia. These plans were allegedly a response to what defence officials have called an Iranian “campaign” to attack Americans and their allies in West Asia. Iran, on the other hand, has accused the US of pursuing “evil desires in the region” and has threatened to shut the Strait of Hormuz, a sea route chokepoint for 17% of the world’s daily oil supply.

The US’ current aggression towards Iran can be seen as a continuation of Trump’s campaign promise of “maximum pressure.” Since Trump took office, the US has withdrawn from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal—and has reinstated economic sanctions on Iran. Further, the US enacted the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) which penalises countries, like India, which trade with nations that the US does not support. 

Allies of the US—especially the European Union (EU)—have criticised American “bullying” of Iran in its quest for a more receptive Iranian government. However, some political commentators believe that the US is currently in favour of war with Iran, and not regime change. 

Further, the Trump administration has been censured by the international community and also by his own party, for its overtures to Iran’s regional rivals, Israel and Saudi Arabia, both of whom favour military intervention. Under Trump, the US embassy in Israel has been moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the US has approved of Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights from Syria, and the pending Israel–Palestine peace plan is no longer expected to include a separate Palestinian state. Further, despite calls to boycott Saudi Arabia over the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi in the Saudi Arabian embassy in Turkey, the US, just a few weeks later, approved the transfer of nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. There have also been accusations of Trump using the office of the president to further personal business deals with the Arab kingdom. 

The current campaign to destabilise the Iranian regime has less to do with the desire for a peaceful West Asia and more with the US pursuing its own agenda in the region. Iran is currently the only country in West Asia to resist American influence, and is in a constant feud with Israel and Saudi Arabia for regional dominance. 

This reading list looks at the US’ aspirations in the region, its methods to control Iran, and makes a case for why maintaining peace in the region would be in the US’ best interests.

1) Western Imperialism in West Asia
Since the end of the cold war, the US has aimed to recreate a global empire, where it enjoys being the defacto leader. Achin Vanaik argues that the US’ vision for Iran goes beyond subverting its nuclear programme: the US wants to reverse its political–strategic defeat from the time when the Shah of Iran, a US supporter, was overthrown in 1979, and an Islamic regime critical of US foreign policy came to power in the country.

So now the US could outline a path to how it might fulfil its longer running strategic goal of undermining Iran. That path would require the following tasks to be accomplished: (a) Carry out necessary doctrinal changes in the US’ own security policies that can give it the flexibility to pre-emptively attack countries that the US considers a threat to its security …  (b) Suborn and manipulate the IAEA to push US perspectives. (c) Publicly isolate Iran from the world community at large by concocting a case with some small measure of plausibility at least so that Iran could be presented as the “principal wrongdoer” ...  (d) Just as the 2003 attack on Iraq was preceded by sanctions for many years which gravely weakened Iraq, similarly, before thinking of militarily attacking Iran in any way whether indirectly through Israel or directly by the US, Iran should be weakened and politically–diplomatically isolated.

2) The US is Adhering to its War Playbook
Zia Mian argues that a US attack on Iran would in fact adhere to its long standing policy of preemptive attacks against a possible threat. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have all been at the receiving end of this policy which blatantly flouts UN law. With the US’ long–term ambition of regime change in Iran, Mian writes that the use of the “carrot and stick” approach can be expected to force Iran to change its policies.

[The US] has bombed and invaded repeatedly without authorisation of the Security Council. The US has been, to borrow Brzezinski’s term, an “international outlaw” for a long time. The refusal to live within the law is in fact such a standard part of US foreign policy that it goes unremarked in official and elite discussions. It is now common to hear American policy-makers and pundits talk casually of using “carrots and sticks” to get other countries to change their policies, and the debate is about the proper balance between the use of bribes and threats to achieve policy goals.

3) US Aggression Will Prove to be Counterproductive
Crippling economic sanctions and calls for military assault only benefit reactionary forces in the US and in Iran. Abbas Goya writes that the US’ hostility towards Iran has provided credence to religious–nationalist forces in Iran, and has allowed Iran’s Islamic regime to suppress dissent under the broad ambit of “nationalism.” 

The supporters of the US bloc include the ultra right opposition of the IRI [Islamic Republic of Iran] and the ultra right currents in the west. This trend cares nothing about the people; it favours economic sanctions no matter if it substantially adds to the misery of millions of Iranians. It favours war; it justifies the massacres that will occur as a result of the war under the pretext of its opposition to the IRI … The US and Israel claim that they contemplate bombing to stop the IRI from having access to nuclear weapons. However, as has often been pointed out, such a bombing will inevitably turn into a large-scale war. The question then is, who benefits from it? … any military action by the Israeli government against the Islamic Republic will benefit the most reactionary currents in Israel and the west … . It would prolong the life time of all these declining currents. 

4) Indian Support to Empire–building in Asia
Between 2005 and 2009, India supported US–sponsored resolutions at the IAEA which called for an end to Iran’s nuclear programme. The Left parties attacked the then UPA government, accusing party leadership of being  a “sellout” to American ambitions. By providing aid to India’s nuclear programme, Zia Mian writes that the US wants India to do more than just counter Chinese influence.

But what would the US want for such aid to India? The clearest exposition came in testimony to Congress in support of the US-India nuclear deal by Ashton Carter, who served as assistant secretary of defence in the Clinton administration, and his subsequent article in Foreign Affairs. He offered a list: First, “Washington should expect to have India’s help in curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, even if India’s assistance would risk compromising its friendly relations with Iran.” … And, “US military forces may also seek access to strategic locations through Indian territory and perhaps basing rights there. Ultimately, India could even provide US forces with ‘over-the-horizon’ bases for contingencies in the Middle East.” 

Achin Vanaik also criticises India’s support to the US resolutions against Iran, and debunks the Indian argument that another nuclear country would make the region unstable. 

India never ever faced the kind or level of security threat and pressure that Iran is facing today—from the US and an Israel that openly threatens to bomb Iran’s nuclear reactors. In brief, India certainly has no moral right to tell any other country not to acquire nuclear weapons because they endanger the neighbourhood … The best way to put this Indian nuclear elite under some kind of moral-political pressure and to expose its obsequiousness in relation to the US and Israel is to demand of it that if it is so worried about another nuclear neighbour emerging then it should throw its weight behind the call for the immediate establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons or of all weapons of mass destruction.   

5) Iran is More Useful as an Ally
The Trump administration is egged on by Israel and Saudi Arabia, both of whom have been outspoken in their support for military action against Iran. However, Vijay Prashad writes that to achieve a political settlement in Afghanistan, the US needs Iran not only because of the close ties between the Iranian and Afghan governments, but also because Afghanistan is largely dependent on Iranian oil. Further, as a close ally of the Assad regime in Syria, Iranian diplomacy will be necessary to negotiate at the behest of the US. However, the US’ proximity to Iran’s rivals will hamper its ability to negotiate a peace treaty in West Asia. 

Iran’s two other historic enemies—Saudi Arabia and Israel—have not changed their stance vis-à-vis Tehran. For them, the destruction of the Iranian regime is their policy … Over the course of these four decades, Iran has become an important political actor in its region—not just through a politics of sectarianism (as a political centre of Shi’ism) but also through its energy diplomacy and its resolute posture against US (and other Western) intervention. 

Srinath Raghavan further emphasises the strategic importance of having Iran as an ally. While Tehran supports unsavoury groups such as Hamas and the Hezbollah—one of the US’ objections—so do other American allies in the region. Writing after the JCPOA was agreed to in 2015, Raghavan cautions against Israeli and Saudi influence in US’ political decisions. 

A US diplomatic cable of 2008 accessed by WikiLeaks famously quoted the Saudis as calling on the Americans to eschew negotiations and to “cut off the head of the snake.” … The Republicans have already attacked US President Barack Obama for having caved in. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denounced the accord and will undoubtedly crank the Israel lobby in the US into action to mobilise domestic opposition … There is nothing to be gained by the continued refusal to accord Iran its legitimate place in the regional order. If anything, persisting with this policy will only harden Iran’s resolve to play the spoiler. 

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