Notes From the Margins…

Hormuz: Iran in the Gunsights

  • June 16, 2019
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If US and British intelligence services are to be believed, Iran has just attacked two tankers at the crucial Strait of Hormuz choke point.  So far the only evidence to support this allegation is a video that apparently shows Iranian naval commandos removing a limpet mine from the hull of the Kokuka Courageous tanker.

It’s not clear whether the patrol boat is simply removing a limpet mine that it found there – or what Iran would gain from attacking a Japanese tanker at precisely the moment when the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was visiting Tehran.

To some extent we’ve been here before.   Some of you may remember the ‘tanker war’ of the 1980s when the US effectively took Iraq’s side in the Iraq-Iran war in order to protect Kuwaiti tankers. Others may remember the refrain ‘real men go to Tehran’ that circulated through neocon circles shortly after the Iraq War in 2003.

At that time, Iran was on the Bush administration’s ‘axis of evil’ and there were those who wanted the US to extend the regime change program to Iran.   This didn’t happen, partly because of the Iraq insurgency and the failure of the United States to achieve its political objectives in Iraq.   In effect, the Iraq invasion actually empowered Iran, by extending the Shia sphere of geopolitical influence into Iraq, and producing governments that had more in common with Iran than they did with the United States.

The strategic failure of the US in Iraq was also a setback for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf autocracies, which was subsequently compounded by the failure to topple Assad in Syria.  Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – with their arsenals flush with American, British and French weapons, then attempted to defeat the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen.

Once again they failed – though not without reducing much of Yemen to ruins.

Against this background of failure, powerful forces both inside and outside the United States have consistently tried to provoke the US into a fullscale war with Iran.  Supporters of this option generally do not admit to the geostrategic motives behind this policy.

Instead, we have heard repeatedly that Iran is a ‘mad’ state that promotes terrorism and wants nuclear weapons in order to annihilate Israel.  Back in 2006 the historian Niall Ferguson suggested that the Iranian government and its people wanted nuclear weapons because Iran actually wanted to be destroyed with nuclear weapons.

Why?  Because Iran is Shi’ite and the Shia are crazy people who all want martyrdom, according to Ferguson – in slightly more intellectual terms.  In 2012, Ferguson was at it again, urging Obama to join Israel and carry out missile strikes against Iran – something he described as ‘creative destruction’.

That same year Melanie Phillips similarly argued that ‘the Iranian regime is impervious to reason. Educated, intelligent and cunning they may be but they are religious fanatics driven by an entirely different set of considerations. ‘ In August 2006 the esteemed Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis told the Wall Street Journal that Iranian president Mahmood Amadinejad was preparing for the return of the twelfth Imam that month and intended Iran to begin producing nuclear weapons on that date.

In this context, Lewis insisted, Mutual Assured Destruction would have no impact since Iran was only interested in ‘ the final destination of the dead as hell for the infidels, and heaven for the believers’.

If Iranians were fanatics intent on mass suicide, they were also inveterate terrorists.  In October 2011 Saudi Arabia even suggested that Iran had tried to murder its ambassador in the United States through an improbable plot involving Hizbullah, the Mexican Zetas, and an Iranian car salesman – all of which proved, according to the former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal, ‘official Iranian responsibility for this. Somebody in Iran will have to pay the price.’

In the end Iran didn’t pay the price, because the plot was blatant nonsense.

In 2012, Benyamin Netanyahu attempted to blame Iran for botched attacks on Israeli diplomats and officials in India, Georgia and Thailand, which he claimed were carried out by ‘ Iran and its protege, Hezbollah’ proved that Tehran was ‘the largest terror exporter in the world.’

In 2015 a US establishment chastened by its reversals in Iraq and Afghanistan finally backed away from war and came up with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA), which proposed a series of measures to restrict Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for ending sanctions.  So – who would have thought? – Iran was not lusting after martyrdom after all, and many people breathed a sigh of relief that diplomacy had prevailed, because it is not necessary to endorse the Iranian regime to point out that many of the regimes wanting to topple it are no better – not to mention the horrific consequences of military action for the Iranian people and the region.

But that was then, and now we have a very different set of parameters.  First of all we have a tempestuous and erratic US president who knows nothing and understands nothing, and is incapable of thinking beyond his last tweet or the last person he spoke to.  Last year Trump pulled out of the JCPA, effectively wrecking all the diplomatic work of his predecessor and ushering in a new era of confrontation.

His national security advisor John Bolton, is a longterm proponent of regime change in Iran, who has spoken at MEK events in support of this policy.  Trump’s head of the CIA Mike Pompeo is cut from the same cloth, and opposed the Iran nuclear agreement in 2015.   In 2017 the Trump administration signed one of the largest arms deal in history with Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis are not winning their Sunni-Shia confrontation, and no one will be surprised that Saudi Arabia agrees with the US that Iran is responsible for the tanker attacks and wants a ‘swift and decisive’ response to them.  Saudi Arabia may not be able to win in Yemen, and they may be prone to carving up political dissidents in their own embassies,  but they will be clearly hoping that US weaponry and support will make up the difference in Iran.  In Israel, Netanyahu cannot form a government and faces the prospect of prison time for fraud and bribery charges.

In the UK we have a broken government and a Tory Party in meltdown, desperate to gain credibility and distract attention from its monumental failings.  In addition, the UK will be desperate for a trade deal if Brexit goes ahead, so if the US and Saudi Arabia say they want a war with Iran there will not be a millisecond of hesitation.

So this is a dangerous situation, which could very easily turn into another war and a regional conflagration.    There are those who actually want this, and there is no reason to believe that they did not set this up.

We shouldn’t let them get away with it.   Because even now, when so much is falling apart, the world does not need a war with Iran, after Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen, and we should do everything we can to make sure it doesn’t happen.


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  1. Nik

    18th Jun 2019 - 6:40 pm

    This man will explain to you what has to be done, Matt! Watch and learn!!

  2. Nik

    18th Jun 2019 - 6:42 pm

    Note* Skip to 2:48

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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