The one thing you couldn’t accuse Tony Blair of -as he crawled out of his dark hole back in January to face the Iraq War Inquiry- was missing an opportunity.
With Chilcott’s level of scrutiny looking like a cosy chat next to his oddly strenuous Fern Britton interview, Blair seized the moment to spell out precisely where he thought the wind should be blowing next: Iran. He restated this fact 58 times in case anyone missed it.
Unfortunately, Blair’s pathological delusions have their counterpart in Washington, where a dangerous threat to Iran is emerging. This has potentially damaging consequences for the movement that emerged last summer during the election fall-out.
Unsatisfied with three rounds of UN sanctions, the US government has been at it again; rallying countries in the Security Council into pushing through a fourth. Despite some initial opposition, the US will try to at least force through a set of tokenistic sanctions over the coming months, knowing that anything substantial would have to come from China who have the strongest economic ties with Iran. Last week, Clinton’s second in line James Steinberg predictably got another 'no' from the Chinese.
But then again, the US has never waited for China, or for the UN for that matter. So coinciding with the UN lobbying is a more worrying development: the attempt to impose further US sanctions, unilaterally. On its way to Congress is the AIPAC designed Dodd-Shelby Iran Sanctions bill which was passed in just 5 minutes in the US Senate at the end of January. If implemented it would - by expanding the existing 1996 Iran Sanctions Act - impose further financial sanctions on Iranian businesses and “extend sanctions to Iran’s oil and gas pipelines and tankers”. Crucially, it would mean crippling Iran’s capability to refine petroleum or import it. This is highly ironic given that the US government has full knowledge that Iran’s low-level petroleum refinement capacity has always been one of its principal reasons for pursuing nuclear technology. Clearly then, the bill exposes the lie that these sanctions are aimed at Iran’s attempt to build a nuclear bomb.
Brazil’s President Lula was more lucid about the purpose of the sanctions: they would be a direct route to war. Not an unreasonable assumption if one thinks of the expansion of an already massive military and naval presence in the Persian Gulf last month -the US sent Patriot missiles to four of Iran’s neighbouring Arab countries- being accompanied by a degree of hostility from the Obama administration reminiscent of the Bush years.
John Rees joins panelists on Yvonne Ridley's programme The Agenda to discuss whether Obama's deployment of Patriot missiles in four Persian Gulf states is a defensive move or a potential threat of military action against Iran
This renewed threat of war should not be taken lightly, especially if one factors in the possibility of military intervention by Israel. Here, even US army chief Mike Mullen -opposed to war with Iran thus far- was nervous following his recent trip to Jerusalem.
Nor should the devastating impact of sanctions be brushed aside. Far from hitting those in power, sanctions -however targeted or ‘smart’- are always diverted towards ordinary citizens, increasing economic hardship for a population already under pressure from high unemployment and inflation. Sanctions don’t just hit people in their pockets: Iran’s dilapidated planes, with a number of recent devastating crashes, can be linked directly to existing US aviation sanctions. Who knows where this could lead? If the Iraq war is a measure of the consequences of military intervention, then so are the sanctions that preceded it: UNICEF estimate that half a million children have died as a result.
The backdrop to all this is a volatile domestic situation in Iran. The powerful democracy movement is under pressure following a massive crackdown on activists and dissidents. In the most recent wave, hundreds of journalists have been imprisoned. The confidence of conservatives has increased as a result of protesters being forced off the streets, with relative success, on February 11th -the anniversary of the Iranian revolution- and the movement has taken a step back and is re-evaluating tactics for the New Year. Further sanctions, in this fragile atmosphere, would deliver a devastating blow and suffocate the movement.
The set-back has encouraged some who want to demonstrate solidarity with the movement outside Iran to support sanctions, or some form of western intervention, as a solution. Sanctions aimed at the Revolutionary Guards are especially appealing and, on the face of it, for understandable reasons. The RG is a powerful political and military organisation responsible for cracking down heavily on demonstrators and control around one third of Iran’s economy. But here lies the problem. So-called ‘smart’ sanctions against them would amount to nothing more than further economic sanctions and would again make its impact felt, not on its leaders, but on those at the lower end of the organisation and those who work in or use the industries it owns or commands.
Politically, Western intervention is also damaging. The movement has demonstrated on a number of occasions the ability to win over some in the Basij, a paramilitary wing of the RG, to their side. This is significant as many Basijis often come from some of the poorest sections of society, yet are firmly nationalist. Western intervention, in the form of sanctions or anything else, allows the most conservative elements in these organizations to consolidate their ideological monopoly on anti-imperialism and would therefore make it difficult for the movement to win over those who are loyal to the regime.
Historically, the US government has never been interested in democracy in Iran. Not when they organised the coup to overthrow Mosadegh in 1953, nor when they installed and propped up the dictatorship of the Shah throughout the '70s and '80s. Neither were they interested when they backed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in a devastating war that killed half a million Iranians. Nor are they interested, as the ruins of neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan testify, in Iranian democracy today.
In reality it’s a patronizing, colonial mindset that looks to Western powers to ‘rescue’ Iranians from their government, denying them the power to bring about change when it has been precisely Western intervention which has historically restricted democracy in Iran. But it’s dangerous too, especially when those formulating these sanction bills are the very ones who advocate war with Iran. Thankfully, there are many activists, journalists and reformists inside and outside Iran who are strongly opposed to sanctions.
Whilst we must all demonstrate our solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Iran, we must step up our campaign against sanctions and western intervention if we are to allow them to fight their government without the pressures of foreign interference. Only then can Iranians have a chance of determining their own future.
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