A New Cold War

There was something odd about the “final pullout” of United States troops from Iraq as the last military convoy crossed the border into Kuwait. Addressing a group of returning soldiers at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, a few days before, President Obama hailed it as an “historic” moment after nine years of conflict, proclaiming it a “success.” He said, “We are leaving a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.” Obama’s claim is questionable in every respect. Let us not forget he once called it a “dumb war.” In Fallujah, once an insurgent stronghold and a target of major American offensives in 2004, where the anti-American sentiment still runs deep, people burned U.S. flags. In Baghdad, a trader expressed his fear of terrorists coming back.

The American military involvement in Iraq has wound down after nine years. But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has reaffirmed America’s determination to maintain its military presence in the region. As the West and its regional allies increase the pressure on Syria, close to civil war, and the brinkmanship with Iran continues, Russia announced that it was sending warships to its naval base in Syria, in a demonstration of support for Damascus. Russia and China look determined not to allow NATO to launch a Libya-style intervention in another country under the United Nations Security Council’s mandate. On matters of war and peace, the Security Council has become deadlocked, such is the loss of trust.

What does all this mean? A little more than twenty years after U.S.-Soviet hostilities ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, we are in the midst of a new cold war. The term is not used widely yet, for many twenty-first century conflicts in South and West Asia, and Africa, are being fought in the name of the “war on terror” or “humanitarian intervention.” However, the true characteristics of these interventions are becoming clear. The current hostilities involving the West and its allies––and the rest––in many of the same arenas where the last cold war was fought amount to a new cold war.

The primary objective of Western powers is two-fold: to secure the energy resources and markets in dollar-rich oil exporting countries, and to see that those owning strategic resources do not become too independent of the West. The challenge to the West this time comes not from one superpower like the defunct USSR. The challenge comes from Russia, China, India, South Africa and Brazil, South America’s economic giant.

The twentieth-century Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West was for the spoils left after the defeat of Germany and Japan in the Second World War. The devastating defeat of the Axis Powers and the emergence of two ideologically opposite superpowers in 1945 meant that the world map was ready to be redrawn.

That the United States and the Soviet Union became locked into hostilities for control of resources after 1945 was no surprise. The surprise was how short-lived the Soviet-U.S. Cold War was, lasting just about four decades. And how rapid was the collapse of the USSR, the other superpower that had fought so gallantly against Hitler’s army and looked invincible merely a decade before its demise in late 1991.

Events since then, particularly in the last decade, illustrate certain characteristics of imperial behavior. Imperial powers do not disarm willingly. Either the presence of rivals is a reason to stay ahead in the race or to catch up. Or the ambition to expand the empire for resources and markets, and grandiose delusions, are powerful incentives to continue militarization. Imperial decline occurs only when forced by events.

During the Cold War in the last century, wealth was concentrated in the capitalist West. The Soviet Union made an historic blunder in investing disproportionately vast resources in the military-industrial complex and weaponization instead of uplifting the people’s living standards and encouraging them to create wealth.

The new century is very different. The United States has the largest and most destructive arsenal in the world. But it is because too much of the dollar money earned by the people goes to America’s military-industrial complex. Of the total military expenditure worldwide, the United States, a country under enormous debt, spends nearly 43 percent on defense. It is six times greater than China and twelve times more than Russia. The cost is gigantic, $698 billion in 2010. Others must pay the price.

In a distorted capitalist system, workers are jobless, or on depressed wages, in increasing numbers. Wealth inequalities, already alarming, continue to widen. Businesses close and unemployment rises. Public services are cut, productivity sinks and, most crucially, access to higher education becomes more and more difficult. It all points to a bleak future.

The new cold war is unlike the twentieth-century U.S.-Soviet hostilities, for there is not one power challenging America’s global supremacy, but many disparate forces. One significant factor responsible for the new cold war is the movement of economic power from the West to countries like China, Russia emerging as an energy giant, and India with its vast young population. Another is that the West finds itself up against ideological challenges from an array of nationalist forces, religious and secular, from Asia to Africa and South America.

One of the main differences between the West and the rest is that while the United States has become prone to waging wars, the others do not display the same readiness to go to war. They are more tactical. The former indicates the thinking in the West that time is limited to reverse the tide, which can only be done by military interventions. The latter is a more artful approach based on the foundations of patience and strategic collaboration. Remember the words of Confucius: “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”

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Iran, the Revolution and the Language of War

The Palestine Chronicle, 12 December, 2011

A few days ago, I revisited a lecture given by Fred Halliday, FBA, an intellectual giant among scholars of Middle East and Cold War history, at the London School of Economics in 2009. His topic was “The Islamic Republic of Iran After 30 Years.” For nearly a quarter century, Halliday was professor of International Relations at the LSE and recognized worldwide as a leading expert in the study of Islam, the Middle East and great power relations in the region.

He died just over a year ago, but for more than three decades before that he was also in great demand in media outlets, including the BBC World Service at Bush House, my professional base next door to the LSE. He often came to take part in World Service programs and I came to regard Fred as a friend. Watching him interpret the Iranian Revolution thirty years after was an enlightening experience once again.

An important lesson I have learned in my life is to engage the best when in doubt. For me, going back to Fred Halliday was prompted by a recent experience during an exchange about an article I had written on Iran. My exchange was with an editor. Young, bright and overbearing on this occasion, he thought I was giving Iran a mild treatment, otherwise widely denounced these days as a “dictatorship” representing dark ages and which threatens the world.

Needless to say, I am one of those who do not subscribe to this version of history, past or present. The world is much more complex. It is tempting and easy to grab a news agency copy and throw it at someone to prove our own view of events, based on a narrow interpretation of recent knowledge and conventional wisdom of the present time that is temporary by its nature. It is worse when the agency report thrown at the person contains claims made on a website by one side about casualties at the hands of the other, with no way of checking independently. Anyway, I moved on without rancor on my part.

To recognize, indeed to reflect with caveats, the significance of propaganda war is one thing. It is quite different to be blown away by a current political storm when the objective is to attempt a serious historical analysis.

Halliday had a remarkable capacity to interpret. He used to speak of similarities between the world’s major revolutions in the twentieth century: the Russian (1917), the Chinese (1949), the Cuban (1959), the Nicaraguan (1979) and the Iranian Revolution in the same year. It is a mistake to regard the point in time of a revolution as “Year Zero” and insist that all bad things follow. Neither the claim that “everything has changed” nor that “nothing has changed” is correct. The culture of a country that undergoes a revolution does not change at once.

The truth is very different. As Halliday would say, revolutions are extremely messy phenomena. They involve great chaos, cruelty and generosity. That chaos and cruelty precedes revolutionary upheaval, as well as follows. Revolutions represent dreams, hopes and disappointments. However, they occur because of the fragmentation of societies and exclusion of important sections of populations. There are both internal and external factors responsible for revolutions. Often, the outcome is a realignment of forces. Beneficiaries of the past become losers; victims, at least some of them, gain.

No revolution, as far as I know, has achieved all that it promised. A revolution is a response, rather than a solution, to the problems that triggered it.

In Iran’s case, there had been years of repression under an absolute monarch who was installed by external powers following an Anglo-Soviet invasion in 1941; an Anglo-American intelligence plot that overthrew an elected government in 1953; gradual fragmentation of a traditional society and exclusion of important sections thereof, the clergy and the traders in particular; severe restrictions and coercion directed at the opposition; the offense and the suffering caused by the Shah’s dreaded secret police SAVAK (1957–1979), establishment by the United States Central Intelligence Agency and Israel’s Mossad.

Suppression of liberals and others on the Left, like the Tudeh (party of the masses), had gone on under the monarchy in Iran. Tudeh supported the 1979 revolution while others on the Left opposed it. However, the alliance between the Tudeh Party and Iran’s emergent ruling clergy collapsed in the early 1980s. Then it was back to the past. For the leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the United States was the “Great Satan,” and Iran had to follow a course that was neither East (meaning Russia) nor West. America was held responsible for what went wrong in Iran in the decades before the overthrow of the Shah. And the fact about the Soviets having invaded Iran could not be forgotten.

We are into the fourth decade since the founding of the Islamic Republic. It has been a long period of crisis between Iran and the West, with some notable exceptions: the Iran-Contra affair involving the Reagan administration flirting with the Iranian regime to facilitate arms sales to its military to fund Nicaragua’s rightwing Contra guerrillas in the 1980s while the United States was also supporting Iraq that had invaded Iran; during the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and for a short period thereafter; and Iran’s acquiescence to getting Shia militias to cease fire in the Iraqi conflict. Each time, hopes of reconciliation between the two bitter enemies were dashed. We are now at a point where war clouds are looming.

Despite all that is said about the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, it was, in fact, a very modern revolution. It was a populist response to an unpopular ruler. Nothing illustrates it better than the way the Shah’s armed forces collapsed in the end. More than thirty years on, we see men and women mixing in Iranian society at the workplace and in the streets. Women learn and teach with men at co-educational institutions. Iranian scientists are engaged in research in medicine, other scientific and technological fields and, more controversially, in the nuclear program.

Is Iran a dictatorship? Power certainly resides in Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Guardian Council, the president, the Majlis (parliament) and institutions like the judiciary. It is more dispersed than we are led to believe. There are instances of strong-arm tactics against some opponents and publications regarded as “outside the system,” for instance during and after the 2009 presidential election. But other critics have a surprising degree of freedom to express dissent––more than in some neighboring countries in the region.

Have miscalculations and errors of judgment been made? Sure. The Carter administration’s support in the late 1970s until the very end of the Shah’s regime was one such error; and the American hostage crisis (November 1979–January 1981) at the U.S. embassy in Tehran was a miscalculation which sealed the fate of Carter’s presidency, ensuring the victory of Ronald Reagan and all that followed in the 1980s. Opportunities have presented themselves in the last thirty years for Iran and the West to improve relations, only to be lost.

Where is Iran’s nuclear program going? I do not know. Nor do in my view most other people who talk endlessly in the media about the Iranian threat and how to deal with it. Despite the amount of coverage, Iran’s nuclear program remains a subject of inference, speculation and conspiracy theories. The Iranians have before them examples of China, North Korea, India and Pakistan. They know realpolitik. A nuclear power has a greater sense of security and others look up to it. Given the past and the present, the idea of their country having nuclear weapons is popular among Iranians. If one were to make a guess, it would be that Iran would probably want to acquire the capacity to make the bomb, but would not actually go ahead unless it was felt in Tehran that external events warranted that step.

As the governments in London, Paris and Washington continue to play the game of brinkmanship, wiser heads have warned against the current dangerous path and have advised engagement with Iran. At a recent conference at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, former British ambassador and one of the foremost Iran experts, Sir Richard Dalton, was very critical of the West’s policy on Iran, in particular of the British foreign secretary William Hague. Lord (Norman) Lamont, former Conservative chancellor of the exchequer, agreed. But in the light of escalating rhetoric and military maneuvers, the prospects of the situation taking a ruinous turn are real.

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A Persian Response to Brinkmanship

CounterPunch, 5 December 2011

Perils of brinkmanship with Iran are now on open display. As Libyans struggle after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, and the rebellion against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria continues, the campaign of sanctions against Iran has triggered events which echo the 1980s crisis between post-revolution Iran and the West. The recent International Atomic Energy Agency report, a controversial document censoring Iran, Britain’s decision to severe links with Iran’s central banking system and further sanctions by France, Canada and the United States were all too much.

The Iranian parliament retaliated by downgrading relations with the United Kingdom and told the new British ambassador to leave. Soon after, angry protesters stormed two British embassy compounds in Tehran. Property was damaged and documents were reported to have been taken away. What secrets they may contain is a matter of speculation. They are likely to fuel the Iranians’ anger and may cause embarrassment to the British government if revealed.

Aware of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the Iranian foreign ministry expressed regret and promised to protect the British diplomatic staff. But Ali Larijani, speaker of Iran’s parliament, said that the student protesters’ action reflected the anti-British sentiment in Iran. Other Iranian MPs expressed similar views. The British government had little choice but to withdraw its staff and order the closure of the Iranian embassy in London within 48 hours.

Britain’s announcement falls short of a complete break, but relations between the two countries have surely sunk to the lowest point in more than three decades. The British Foreign Secretary William Hague says that he wants to remain engaged with Tehran on the nuclear issue and on human rights, an astonishingly hypocritical statement to make.

Iran is no longer the same country as it was just after the overthrow of Shah Reza Pahlavi, America’s close ally and widely detested by his own countrymen. There is not the same religious fervor in Iranian society. The structure that now rules Iran has evolved over three decades. No doubt there are factions and power struggles, but the hierarchy of clerics led by Ayatollah Khamenei and an elected president, parliament and the judiciary, brings some stability in the country.

Violence during and after Iran’s disputed presidential election in 2009 showed that the regime can use considerable force when faced with a serious challenge. Accusations of Western powers backing opposition forces appear to unite the country’s ruling structure. At the same time, Iran has emerged as a major power in a predominantly Sunni region which is led by Saudi Arabia.

Pressures over centuries have made the Iranians rather like the Chinese. They can wait for a long time before giving a typically Persian response. Last month’s IAEA report accusing Tehran of operating a nuclear weapons program began the latest escalation. The timing of the report looked expedient, coming immediately after the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and at a time when the conflict in Syria was intensifying.

More punitive sanctions followed, triggering an ominous chain of events. The French president Nicolas Sarkozy, not to be outdone, called on European governments to stop buying Iranian oil, a self-destructive proposition. Britain, too, pushed for an oil embargo on Iran, but the idea failed to gain wide agreement within the European Union. There were wiser heads than those of Sarkozy and Hague.

As the Middle East threatens to explode and the crisis between Iran and the West escalates, one question which policy makers in London and Washington do not seem to ask themselves is: What lies behind Iran’s deep suspicion of the West? Writing in the Independent, Robert Fisk reminds us of the essential answer. A country humiliated and pushed again and again is a country radicalized and distrustful.

Iranians have been repeatedly humiliated, their resources stolen and they blame the West. In 1941, the British and Soviet armies invaded the country for oil and a supply line to the Allied forces in the Second World War. Then a plot by the British intelligence agency MI6 and the American CIA overthrew Iran’s elected government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq in 1953.

For more than a quarter century thereafter, the West enabled Shah Reza Pahlavi to rule the country with an iron fist. He was finally deposed in the 1979 Islamic revolution. The West then helped Iraq’s Saddam Hussain, who invaded Iran, in a war in which as many as a million Iranians died or were wounded and chemical weapons were used by the Iraqi army on Iranian troops.

More than two decades on, we know where the recent sanctions are coming from. Killings of scientists and academics and mysterious explosions in different parts of Iran are much more difficult to explain. In Britain, the regulators have threatened Iran’s Press TV broadcasts with closure whereas the Chinese and Russian channels operate freely. Iran’s national character has been shaped by many traumatic experiences for which the country holds the West responsible.

Explosive drivers in international relations such as these have a high price tag. Many diplomats seem to know it, politicians do not. The world after the Cold War is driven by crises largely because skilled diplomacy has been sidelined by rough politics. We live in a world where leaders are many, but leadership is scarce. Having spent their moral and material capital, war is an increasingly desperate option for declining powers. History of savage conflicts follows an all too familiar pattern. Leaders who do not heed what happened before is to guarantee childish decision making.

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