War on Iran? I Don’t Know

Commentators whom I respect are saying, with conviction, that there’s no way the U.S. is going to attack Iran. Jim Lobe and Tom Engelhardt, for example, say no. Others whom I equally respect predict the opposite. Gordon Prather, Ray McGovern, Scott Ritter and Justin Raimondo say yes, it’s going to happen. Those proffering the comforting message that further insanity is not on the immediate horizon argue that the U.S. is overextended in Afghanistan and Iraq, that the military brass opposes an attack, and that the Condoleezza Rice faction of “realists” in the State Department is heading off Vice President Cheney and the neocons. They point to the presence of Undersecretary of State R. William Burns at the recent six-nations talks with Iran, and talk of opening a U.S. interests section in Iran. They note the furious denunciations of Rice in the Weekly Standard, presumed to articulate Cheney’s views, and suggest that the rage results from a sense of political defeat.

Those predicting an assault point to the incessant propaganda campaign against Iran, abject Congressional complicity in that campaign, military preparations in the U.S. and Israel, the recent flurry of U.S.-Israeli military contacts, the power of AIPAC and Israel in U.S. politics and specifically their influence on the impressionable mind of President Bush. They point to the sidelining of mainstream intelligence reports that declare Iran has no active military program, and to the nearly identical rhetoric from Bush, McCain and Obama about how that (probably non-existent) program poses an “existential threat” to (nuclear) Israel. They suggest Burns’ recent step and other small diplomatic initiatives are really cover, merely designed to convince the world that the U.S. is exhausting diplomacy before the bombing starts.

Having predicted a U.S. attack on Iran for several years during which it’s failed to materialize, at this point I think it’s a toss-up. I believe that the president’s cabinet is, as Lenin would put it, “the executive committee of the bourgeoisie” of this country. It mainly represents and is answerable to a ruling class. Bush made it clear in the 2000 presidential race that the billionaires are “my social base.” Obviously oilmen Bush and Cheney would love to secure U.S. control over the petroleum resources of Southwest Asia and establish military bases throughout the region in preparation for future rich man’s wars. But on the other hand, U.S. capitalists and oil execs in general do not seem enthusiastically united in favor of the expansion of the conflict and the destabilization of regimes (like the Saudi) that they’ve profitably worked with for decades. The Wall Street Journal editors might be agitating for an attack on Iran, but the U.S. ruling class is in fact deeply divided on how to proceed.

When the Iranian regime in the summer of 2003 delivered a message to the Bush administration via the Swiss ambassador to Tehran, proposing talks towards a comprehensive settlement of issues between the U.S. and Iran, Colin Powell’s State Department first responded positively. But Cheney’s team contemptuously dismissed the overture, sabotaging a positive response. There’s been a “two-line struggle” underway at the highest levels: on the one side are the Cheney-neocon faction, a mix of anti-China geopolitical strategists and extreme Zionists, on the other the “realists” who doubt the benefits of the ongoing military engagements in Southwest Asia and feel alarmed by the prospect of a spreading war in the region.

It’s not at all clear that what government officials always term “the interests of United States” (in reality, the interests of the corporate elite and those of U.S. imperialism) would be well-served by an attack on Iran. The blowback could actually be disastrous for the whole system. But Dick Cheney, wielding unprecedented power as a vice-president, may think that a go-for-broke assault on Iran, Syria and Hizbollah in southern Lebanon is perfectly rational. It would if successful complete the U.S. colonization of Southwest Asia, end the emerging alliance between Tehran’s mullahs and the al-Maliki regime in Iraq, place more resources of the region under U.S. hegemony, and allow further “containment” of emerging rival China. Meanwhile Cheney’s busy foot soldiers, the neoconservatives, obsessed with the destruction of Arab or Muslim regimes that maintain a hostile stance towards Israel, are driven by the conviction that American power must be used NOW, by this unprecedentedly pro-Israel administration, to destroy the Iranian regime to save Israel from a “nuclear holocaust.”

We’re talking about the government of an imperialist country taking action that, in the judgment of its more rational agents and former officials like Brent Snowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski wouldn’t serve the interests of the state and its ruling class. (Not that they’d put it in those words, of course.) It’s action urged by a faction of the ruling class of Israel, a small country founded as a settler-state and at war with its Arab neighbors for sixty years. Such appeals are echoed by the second largest and most effective lobbying organization in the U.S., backed up by seemingly limitless funding and the support of the maybe 25% of Americans whose religious beliefs incline them towards unswerving support for Israel.

The personality of the president could be key here. George Bush is the representative of his class, but he is also a failed businessman, and someone easily influenced by advisors taking advantage of his ignorance of the world and general inattention to details. He has a cruel streak; recall his enthusiasm for the death penalty as Texas governor and his sickening mockery of a woman who had appealed for clemency (“Please,” he mimicked her, pursing his lips in mock desperation in 1999,” don’t kill me!”) Alongside that cruel streak, and indifference to human suffering so evident in the Hurricane Katrina episode, is a self-righteous religiosity; recall his comment to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in 2003 that “God told me to smite [Saddam Hussein]. And I smote him.” Perhaps he really believes God talks to him. Perhaps the neocons (cynical secularists for the most part) skillfully play upon such delusions.

The personality of the vice president is also a potentially decisive factor. He well exemplifies the mentality of the Bush aide (Karl Rove?) who in a conversation with Ron Suskind in 2004 mocked “the reality-based community,” comprised of people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” No, he argued: “That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” Cheney’s angry reaction to the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program produced by the collective U.S. intelligence community in November 2007 is telling: having delayed its release, he rejected it out of hand because it contradicted the disinformation campaign in part conducted out of his highly secretive office. He has never dropped his assertion that Saddam Hussein was working with al-Qaeda. He is not only not a “realist;” he is Machiavellian comfortable with lies, and enormous power to influence policy justified by lies.

Bush’s cabinet is the executive committee of the U.S. ruling class, but that cabinet and that class are divided. So the president gets different kinds of advice and in the end, as he told Bob Windward, he “play[s] by instinct.” Thus it’s very possible that Bush will, in the near future, perhaps in a less than sober state, follow his instincts and order an attack. If it happens, it will show the triumph of a uniquely American mix of bellicose Christian Zionism and geopolitical miscalculation over mainstream Wall Street and the (rational) military and intelligence establishments.

The attack on Iraq, based on claims that it posed a looming threat to the world and had some sort of 9-11 tie, was a leap into irrationality. Most wars are justified by lies, but these lies were especially transparent even though, in the manipulated atmosphere of fear and anxiety following 9-11, they acquired traction. Nowadays the thinking population has soured on that war and its rationale and opposes any attack on Iran. A minority–the quarter or so who still believe Iraq was involved in 9-11, supports Bush and the Iraq War– believes more war in the Middle East will fulfill Biblical prophecy and pave the way for Jesus’ return. They may reliably endorse even a horrific nuclear attack.

So is it going to happen? I don’t know. The chief executive is the representative of his class, but this administration despite its unprecedented concentration of power seems to have lost the confidence and support of much of its own original base. (Hence among other things the mainstream corporate media’s enthusiasm for Obama.) There is fear within the ruling class that Bush and Cheney will hurl American and world capitalism into the greatest crisis since the 1930s, against the interests of Wall Street and the military industrial-complex, aided by a Congress filled with legislators ignorant of the basics of Middle Eastern history and culture and convinced that adhering to the AIPAC line will abet their political careers.

Bush/Cheney must know that if the U.S. attacks Iran the price of oil will skyrocket, the American people suffer, hatred for the U.S. intensify universally (except perhaps in Israel), and the Shiites of Iraq and Iran both wage a ferocious jihad against the U.S. troops in the region. They may anticipate the unraveling of NATO, the collapse of the United Nations, and the abandonment of any notion of international law. But they may really think these times of U.S. economic decline and the “existential threat” they imagine confronts Israel justify further empire-building through military terror–what the world will perceive as madness. The neocons see themselves as the Wise in the background, working through their willing, stupid agents in the foreground, steering the clueless masses through fear-mongering to support the reconstruction of the world on their terms. Maybe they’ll get their way.

They must take comfort in the fact that despite mass disillusionment with the Iraq War, voters according to polls see warmonger John McCain as better able than Obama to conduct what they still conceptualize as a “War on Terror.” They must smile at the Congressional votes endorsing their lies about Syria and Iran and signaling the administration that it’s free to attack either state at its discretion. Maybe they lose some sleep worrying that Adm. Michael Mullen and other military leaders will thwart their plans. But they know that some well-placed, well-timed editorials by the likes of Norman Podhoretz, Bill Kristol, John Bolton, and Benny Morris screaming about an impending nuclear holocaust if the U.S. doesn’t act to protect Israel impact a lot of readers. They know that Bush does not want to leave office with the Iranian regime still in power; he wants its destruction part of his legacy, to be praised from fundamentalist pulpits for years to come.

In short Bush may, as an unwitting agent of what Hegel called “the cunning of Reason,” help along a process that, were he thinking rationally from his own ruling-class point of view, he would emphatically reject: the actual decline of U.S. imperialism. My pessimism about the prospect of war is alleviated somewhat by that prospect–the arrival of a period of “creative chaos.” You may recall that Donald Rumsfeld used this phrase to refer to the havoc in Baghdad (including the plundering of the National Museum) during the U.S. invasion. I refer instead to the possibility that horrific events might produce something entirely unexpected and potentially positive. The First World War led to the Bolshevik Revolution (on the whole, a move forward for humanity in my view) and a wave of (unfortunately abortive) workers’ and soldiers’ revolutions in Europe. The “War on Terror” against “insurgents” throughout Southwest Asia could increase the disgust towards U.S. policy felt throughout the world, alienate friends and allies, strengthen the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), produce cracks in the “coalitions” fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and provoke punitive moves against the dollar while Americans struggle to cope with rapidly rising fuel and food costs. If it hurts us deeply enough, it could produce a groundswell of protest in this country–against things that are obviously intolerable and wrong–greater than anything we saw in the sixties. It could generate a revolutionary crisis.

How the people of the planet would rejoice in hearing news that the American people, rejecting imperialist war, are marching in millions, challenging their leaders, taking action towards real change! But the future is truly unclear.

Gary Leupp is a Professor of History at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu. Read other articles by Gary.

9 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Mark Konrad said on July 25th, 2008 at 8:35am #

    Relax Professor, it’s not going to happen. There has been waaay too much talking and telegraphing to actually DO anything now. The Iranians have been listening to these threats for the last five years (or more) and they would be foolish not to have prepared plans to respond to an attack during that time.

    The Iranians are not foolish.

    The United States so-called government cannot know what the totality of an Iranian response to attack will be. Since they don’t know that the more rational minds in the Pentagon and the apparatchiks in the various departments will stifle any kickoff of an overt attack on Iran, at least during the w. bush administration.

    High gasoline prices are the number one issue in the country at the moment. An attack on Iran would virtually guarantee those prices will rise dramatically. That would mean even further political purgatory for the republicans. In addition, in the event of an attack the chances increase that Obama will be elected president and the republicans could not count on him to carry on the war they started. It’s plausible Obama could simply call the whole thing off when he takes office. He might even offer to pay the Iranians reparations for damages.

    In regard to israel, al-Maliki has already stated that Iraqi airspace is off limits to israeli aircraft. The israelis could of course ignore that and fly through and refuel over Iraq anyway, but that would give the Iranians carte blanche to retaliate against U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and step up a destabilisation campaign against the Iraqi government. In other words, if the israelis made a quick in-and-out attack by flying over Iraq the Iranians would justifiably consider the Americans and the Iraqis to be participants. The israelis would fly home to safety and leave American (and Iraqi) troops, assets and interests to receive the punishment in response.

    Contrary to much media speculation, I suspect that is precisely what Admiral Mullen was telling the israelis a week or two ago: “If you start a fight with Iran then run away back home, American troops will be forced to deal with the situation you created. If you do pick a fight you had better be prepared to finish it yourselves. The United States does not want war with Iran at this time and we will hold israel responsible for Iranian attacks against U.S. troops and U.S. assets as a result of israeli actions.”

  2. Eric Patton said on July 25th, 2008 at 12:07pm #

    The biggest indicator of a potential U.S. attack on Iran is the price of oil. Right now, the speculators think we’re not going to attack, which is why oil’s price is decreasing.

    So we’re probably not going to attack. Yet. But stay tuned for further details. And watch the price of oil.

  3. bozhidar balkas said on July 25th, 2008 at 1:04pm #

    iran, i deduce, knows s’mthing we don’t. it probably can retaliate to the degree to alarm/alert many nations into acting to protect their interests.
    serious dsiruption in oil flow/delivery will surely make some nations/empires very angry/desperate.
    but these lands may turn their rage on US/EU/IOF and not on iran.
    so, again, what is iran know? well, we don’t know! perforce, we guess.
    UN diplomatic/military intervention is a possibility. or russia/china supply iran w. wmd to use against israel.
    we can also conjecture that iran will be merely bombed. it can take it for decades.
    if my analyses r ab correct, then obviously this analogy had been educed by US/EU/Russia/iran. thanx
    thank u

  4. Sam said on July 25th, 2008 at 3:54pm #

    An attack on Iran could be used to cancel the November “election” and keep Bush/Cheney in the White House.

    Frankly, I don’t think Bush/Cheney have any intention of going anywhere in January. I’ve thought this since the night of the Judicial Coup of 2000. These people think they are above the law without any consequences.

    I’ll be surprised if they leave, unless they have been well assured by neocons Obama/McCain that the Bush Crime Family neocon agenda will continue.

    An attack on Iran could lead to Bush declaring a “state of national emergency” where Bush declares this is not the time to change “leaders.”

    It seems to me that these people didn’t put Directive 51 in place just so it could collect dust sitting on the table over in the corner. It was put in place for a reason.

    None of this would surprise me if it happened. And there would be no consequences to any of it happening.

    No one can force Bush/Cheney to leave. The Bush-enabling Dems with their “yes” votes helped install Roberts and “Unitary Executive” Alito to the Supreme Court.

    Most of the “Dems” in congress would declare their unconditional support for Bush/Cheney staying on, slap them on the back and tell them, “we’re awfully glad you’re staying on, we were hoping you wouldn’t have to go, and we’ll continue to do whatever you want us to do for you as we have been for the last 8 years.”

    And most of the “Dems” in congress would rally and stand behind Pelosi (who would be standing in front of a wall of flags) when she spews this drivel:

    “I ask that the American people stand with me united behind George W. Bush at this very critical juncture in our nation’s history.”

    And then the woman would end her speech with the required “god bless america” tag line.

  5. Sam said on July 25th, 2008 at 4:17pm #

    I remember trying to talk with acquaintances before Bush’s terrorist attack on Iraq.

    Just mentioning in passing that an attack was going to happen. Acquaintances and business clients told me it would never happen. That said in a very patronizing and condescending way to me, “Relax Sam, Bush is not going to attack Iraq. He’s not about to do that! Where do you get your information? You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”

    Well, we see how that turned out don’t we?

    An attack on Iran would be continuing the neocon Project For the New American Century agenda.

  6. Eloi said on July 25th, 2008 at 5:12pm #

    Viva Global Socialism!
    At a joint press conference with P. Putin held in Russia on July 15, 2006, G.W. Bush said: I talked about my desire to promote institutional change in parts of the world like Iraq… The Ex-undersecretary of state and current U. S. ambassador at the U. N. John Bolton told Israeli officials that after defeating Iraq, the U. S. would “deal with” Iran, Syria, and North Korea. (New York Times, March 18, 2003).

    When G.W. Bush was told by CIA Director George Tenet that if he really wanted to take on the countries that supported or harboured terrorists, he’d be facing a “sixty country problem”, the president replied “we’ll pick them off one at a time”, (B. Woodward, Bush at War, p. 49).

    More than 15 years earlier, Dick Cheney as the G.H. Bush defence secretary in a document known as the Defence Planning Guidance argued “that the U. S. should be prepared to use force if necessary to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons… and should maintain U. S. military primacy and discourage the emergence of a rival power” (M. R. Gordon, New York Times, January 27, 2003).

    In year 2000, the Democratic Party of U. S. called for a new doctrine of “Forward Engagement” which is not a self-defence policy. (Allen and Gellman, “Pre-emptive Strike”). As we see, pre-emptive strikes to halt the spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction, to take on the countries that supported or harboured terrorists or a desire to spread “democracy” are only scenarios to have a pretext to occupy and colonize these rich lands before the emergence of the rival powers.

    Colonization is not the desire of a president or the will of that prime minister. It is not because of the policy of this or that ruling party. It is engendered in the imperialist system itself. It has its roots in our past jungle life. Devour before being devoured. With this system, wars and human sufferings will continue and the world will become more and more a dangerous place to live.

    There is a scientific alternative to all of these human miseries: global socialism!

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  7. bozhidar balkas said on July 26th, 2008 at 7:00am #

    uncle sam needs two sons: a seemingly bad one and also a seemingly good one.
    uncle needs a sagacious/meek/gentle son and he needs the unwise/profligate/mean son.
    uncle fares a lot beter by having one goose w. two wings.
    uncle loves elections. it makes his subjects very happy. look, look, how radiant the smiles of his serfs when obama comes around w. his saintly face.
    what woman cdn’t/wdn’t think of obama as the new savior that wd propel uncle’s beloved america to new heights?
    thank u

  8. Scotty Cordell said on July 26th, 2008 at 3:39pm #

    The problem with iran is that it is well documented for supp0rting every terrorist network from Iraq, to Russia and China’s breakaway republics.
    iran has been given enough uranium by Russia to power iran’s reactors until they are shut down; yet iran feels the need to run over 3000 centrifuges to make more uranium…The ONLY thing they could need it for is BOMBS… Any argument is lacking common sense…
    While other Muslim and Arab countries have nuclear programs for “protection”, iran has stated publicly that they want to start the apocalypse and bring in the final mufti. They ARE serious.
    Allowing iran to continue negates the Non Proliferation Treaty and makes a mockery of the United Nations. Mr. Bush’s mistake wasn’t starting a war; but starting a war with the only counterbalance to iran’s hegemony in the Northern Middle East… Scotty

  9. Alex said on July 28th, 2008 at 12:57pm #


    “iran has stated publicly that they want to start the apocalypse and bring in the final mufti”
    Iran is a peaceful country that has NOT invaded anyone in 250 years. While the USA (Bless my country) in its short life has started 311 or so wars of aggression, and let’s not forget Israel. What is your source for this quote? This sounds like you are buying into propaganda. I’m sure you are smarted than that.