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With tensions rapidly escalating over Iran’s nuclear program, and with the recent statements issued by Netanyahu in his recent encounter with Obama, the spectre of armed conflict is yet again haunting the Middle East. Having burnt their fingers in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon seems to want to avoid an armed conflict and the White House prefers the use of “diplomacy”. The Israeli government, however, has threatened targeted strikes against Iran’s nuclear sites.

The Iranian regime’s influence is strengthening within the region and despite their domestic problems, they are emboldened by the American retreat from Iraq. The uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East are shifting power dynamics across the region. But with Iran continuing to develop its nuclear program and Israel’s insistence that this program be halted, it would seem that the only possibilities on the table are a military conflict with Iran, or an embarrassing back-down from one side.

Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions

When one hears the American administration talking about Iran developing nuclear weapons, the immediate thought that springs to mind is “here we go again”. After all, in the lead up to the Iraq war we were told all the same stories. Saddam, it was said, was trying to get his hands on nuclear weapons. He posed an existential threat to Israel. He was a danger to the free world. What if one of these bombs got into the hands of – gasp – terrorists? He had to be stopped. And of course this proved to be a complete fabrication created to justify a war that they had already decided to launch. But Iran is not Iraq.

The situation with Iran is different in almost every respect. Iraq was a country that was crippled with a decade of sanctions. Their economy was in shambles. Their people were going hungry. Their military had been made impotent by arms embargos. Indeed, when the Americans rolled into Iraq, the Iraqi military melted. When push came to shove, nobody was willing to fight to defend Saddam Hussein. It was after the regime in Baghdad fell, that the real resistance began. After quickly declaring victory in Iraq, the Americans learned that there is a big difference between invading a country and occupying one, even so Iraq fell without a real fight. The same will not be true of Iran.

Iran is a major regional power. Its military is far more advanced than Iraq’s. Although there is no doubt who would be the eventual victor in a war between Iran and the USA, it is also clear that it would not be an easy fight. Iran has advanced surface to air missiles provided by Russia, meaning that for the US even control of the air cannot be immediately guaranteed. The recent downing of an American stealth drone is testimony to this. The people of Iran will fight viciously against any invader. Their military and militia number in the hundreds of thousands and they are well trained with modern weaponry. A full land invasion of Iran is therefore out of the question. And besides, which army would do it?

But is Iran really trying to build nuclear weapons? Logic says yes. From the perspective of Tehran, nuclear weapons are the best guarantee to secure the position of Iran in the region and to avoid future aggressions from imperialist powers. After all two countries on Iran’s borders are presently occupied by American troops. In addition to this, they are surrounded by nuclear powers. India and Pakistan both have nukes and of course Israel has the largest nuclear arsenal in the Middle East.

The fact that Iran has a nuclear program is disputed by no one. The question is whether this nuclear development is motivated by peaceful intentions, or military intentions. One has to wonder why a country that is so energy rich to begin with would spend hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars to build nuclear power plants that will never pay for themselves. But to the western imperialists, this question is insignificant. The fact of the matter is that any country with sufficient nuclear infrastructure in place can build an atomic weapon in short order if the need arises. So for the West, it doesn’t matter whether or not Iran has peaceful intentions; the nuclear threat remains the same. The real problem for the West is that a nuclear armed Iran would decisively shift the power dynamics in the region – and the right to bully and bomb other countries is one that the United States prides itself upon.

But for the Iranian regime, the threat of war poses a nice distraction. Only two years ago, millions poured into the streets marching against Ahmadinijad’s rigged election. The economic sanctions imposed on Iran are hurting the people. Iran’s economy is struggling. The Arab Spring is having an effect on the consciousness of the masses in the whole of the Middle East. At the same time the above factors have resulted in deep splits opening up within the ruling elite. The dictators of Tehran welcome the foreign threat as it will cut across the movement against them, at least temporarily, and create some kind of, albeit temporary, unity at the top.

American impotence

The American administration and the more intelligent people in the Pentagon want to avoid war with Iran at almost any cost. Despite recent rounds of threats and brinkmanship, the strategists of US imperialism know that the USA is in no shape to launch another war. Their military has been stretched to the limits of a volunteer army. In recent years they’ve had to impose stop-loss provisions (involuntary extension of military service) to keep their ranks full. They have had thousands of their soldiers killed in the “war on terror” and tens of thousands injured. And perhaps even more importantly, their population will not accept another war.

The limits of American imperialism are being exposed. They are finally pulling out of Iraq, having accomplished nothing except death and destruction. Soon they will face a similar embarrassing fate in Afghanistan. And what have these wars accomplished? Democracy certainly is not flourishing in either country, not that this was ever their real intention. The big winner of the Iraq war is Iran. Their influence in Iraq and the rest of the region has been greatly extended. The Iranian regime is cynically using religious animosity to bolster their own influence and they are succeeding. The Americans have been badly out-manoeuvered.

Of course there are elements within the American government and military establishment that would love to see another war. All of the Republican presidential candidates (excluding Ron Paul) are also pushing this, cynically relying on nationalism and racism to energize their bases of support. But these idiots don’t understand the implications of their demands. This is why none of the intelligent strategists of US imperialism are supporting their position.

In truth, major American involvement in a war would push the US population to the breaking point. The Obama administration knows this and wants to avoid a conflict. After years of austerity, high unemployment, cuts to living standards and a general class-war against the working and poorer classes, the American people have had enough. The Occupy Wall Street movement is an expression of this and is a sign of much bigger things to come. The present wars are now hugely unpopular. Adding another to the list, with everything that this would entail is simply not an option. The people of the United States will not accept it.

Israel divided

But the Americans may not have a choice. Israel’s government seems hell bent on launching a war against Iran. Israel may be the number one ally of the US in the region, but Israel is not a US puppet. They have shown this in the past. They are fully capable of acting independently and they are more inclined to do so knowing that America will back them if needed.

Speaking in the US yesterday, Netanyahu stated – in what is clearly a rebuff of Obama – that, “Israel has waited for diplomacy to work, we've waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer. As prime minister of Israel I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation.”He added that all options were open, but that mere “containment” was not one of them.

Almost as if to appease both the Israeli government and the more openly warmongering section of the US ruling class, represented mainly by the Republicans, Obama on Sunday stated that, “Iran's leaders should know that I do not have a policy of containment – I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I've made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.”

Netanyahu and his crowd are pushing for targeted military strikes against Iranian nuclear sites and claiming that it will be a surgical operation with very few casualties on the Israeli side. This is a lie. As we have seen in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, there is no such thing as an “intelligent” bomb or “precision” bombing. Even if they were only to hit strategic points, the Iranians will make sure that many of these are placed “conveniently” close to hospitals, schools and other civilian areas.

Any military action would trigger a response from Iran. Ahmadinejad has promised to launch 150,000 missiles into Israel in case of a military strike; this is obvious chest-thumping. In addition Hezbollah forces in Lebanon who have been re-arming ever since the end of the 2006 war, would bomb Northern Israel. But the main threat that they would pose – which is in fact the only real threat – is to close the Strait of Hormuz and to cause chaos in the Persian Gulf. The Americans cannot tolerate this. In such a case whether they want it or not, the Americans will have to join in to secure theGulf and open the Strait, through which 20% of the world’s oil is transported.

There seems to be a split between Israel’s intelligence establishment and their government on this question. While the politicians are pushing for military action, others like former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan are publically arguing against it. The press have made much about these strategic debates, but the real divisions in Israel lie deeper within society. The class contradictions within Israel are a ticking time-bomb.

Last year an unprecedented movement against rising costs of living swept Israel. Even police estimates put the crowd in Tel Aviv at over 300,000 with tens of thousands marching in Jerusalem, Haifa and other towns. Total participation in the demonstrations on September 3rd was near half a million: an astonishing number for a country with a population of 7.7 million. Though this movement has temporarily receded, none of the fundamental contradictions have been solved. It is only a matter of time before the class contradictions within Israelis society come back to the fore.

Sanctions and covert war

Over the last several months there have been a string of “accidents” in Iran. In remarkable coincidence, these accidents have all taken place at Iranian military or nuclear sites. Israeli media outlets have all but taken responsibility for the string of explosions, strongly hinting that Mossad is behind them. There is little doubt that either Mossad or the CIA, or a combination of the two, are planning these attacks. The Stuxnet virus that ravaged computers in Iran’s nuclear facilities was likely also the work of saboteurs. But this will not be sufficient to halt the Iranian nuclear program. It is only a play for time.

The Obama administration is hoping that they can slow down the nuclear program in Iran long enough for the sanctions to take effect. They believe they can starve Iran into submission. Even without being fully implemented, economic sanctions are putting massive pressure on Iran. Their currency is collapsing. But again, these measures are actually counter-productive from the stand point of US imperialism. Sanctions like these are likely to only stiffen the resolve of the Iranian regime. Rather than being a peaceful alternative, they propel each side towards war.

It is always the people who suffer most from economic sanctions. By inflicting economic strife on a nation, they inflict hunger, unemployment and poverty on its people. This will be used as a propaganda tool to strengthen the regime in Tehran. They will blame the miserable situation of the masses on the Americans and attempt to use it to whip up patriotic hysteria. Rather than destabilizing the regime, they will only strengthen it and harden its resolve.

In addition the unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States may have many unintended consequences. The American sanctions ban any entity that purchases Iranian oil from doing business in the USA. This will undoubtedly hurt many American allies who rely on oil from Iran. The Turkish government is said to be considering a request for an exemption and they won’t be the last. But another unintended consequence could be solidifying economic relations between Iran’s allies.

Russia and China

Perhaps the biggest question hanging over this whole situation is the potential reaction from Russia and China. Russia has been a strong ally of Iran for some time. They sell weapons to Iran and certainly benefit from this relationship. But at the end of the day, the only real interests the Russians have in Iran are strategic. They see the Iranian regime as a buffer against American interests in the region. They use the Iranian government, as they do the Syrian government, to extend their own influence into the Middle East. Moscow would hate to see the regime fall, but it is unlikely that they would intervene militarily to save them. The costs of such a war far out-weigh the benefits. The Russians will not have an open conflict with US and Israel.

The situation with China is more complex. China is becoming increasingly dependent on oil imports and this trend is bound to continue. Some 58% of oil imports to China are from the Middle East and of that, 400,000 barrels per day come from Iran. Furthermore, China has been inking multi-billion dollar deals with Iran to develop their oil fields and refineries over the last few years. They are building up Iran’s oil and natural gas production capacity for the simple reason that they need it. In fact, China’s quest for energy is starting to affect several aspects of their foreign policy. Their dispute with multiple countries over the oil in the South China Sea is another hot-spot to keep an eye on.

If the Chinese government believed their oil supply was under threat, they would be in a very difficult position. But this is an unlikely scenario, as any military action against Iran would be of a limited nature. The tense situation and sanctions may actually benefit China; there is speculation that China is negotiating a discount on oil from Iran. In any event, China would not risk an open war with the US either. The WWIII scenario that is being presented by some is complete fiction.

For decades, the Middle East has been wrecked by imperialist intrigues. A region so rich with resources should be a center of prosperity. This latest strife will cause nothing but further misery for the masses. Time and time again it has been shown that on a capitalist basis, there is no way forward for the working and poorer classes. But there is a giant entering the stage of history. In the last year, the revolutionary potential of the masses was put on display for the world to see. Pundits and commentators were left dumbfounded as mass uprisings swept aside corrupt regimes. The fate of Mubarak and Ben Ali is the fate that awaits tyrants throughout the region. This is the only alternative to the endless cycle of poverty, misery and war.