“All options, including the military one, are on the table.”
– US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

“I announce, officially, that dear Iran has joined the nuclear countries of the world.”
– President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, saying on Tuesday that Iran had successfully enriched uranium for the first time, a landmark step toward its quest to develop nuclear fuel.

The ominous signs are “on the table” for all to see. The Pentagon has its Long War, the rebranded “war on terror” that Vice President Dick Cheney swears will last for decades, a replay of the war between Eastasia and Oceania in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

President George W. Bush issued a “wild speculation” non-denial denial that the US was planning strategic nuclear strikes against Iran, but Iran considerably upped the ante on Tuesday with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s announcement that Iran had enriched uranium for the first time. In a nationally televised speech, Ahmadinejad urged the West to stop pressuring Tehran, saying that Iran was seeking to develop nuclear energy only for peaceful purposes.

Iranian nuclear officials say the country has produced 100 tonnes of uranium gas, an essential ingredient for enrichment. The United Nations Security Council has demanded that Iran stop all uranium-enrichment activity by April 28. Iran has rejected the demand.

From the point of view of the Pentagon’s Long War, a strategic nuclear attack on Iran can be spun to oblivion as the crucial next stage of the war on “radical Islam.” From the view of a factionalized European Union, this is (very) bad business; the Europeans prefer to concentrate on the factionalized nature of the Iranian government itself and push for a nuclear deal.

Iranian government officials claim that the Germans and the Italians – big trade partners with extensive economic interests in the country – are pushing for a deal more than the French and much more than the British. As much as the EU cannot possibly agree on a unified foreign policy, Europeans in fact reject both sanctions and/or a possible US military strike.

Hitler meets Iraqification

The demonization of Ahmadinejad in some quarters in the US as the “new Adolf Hitler” is beside the point. As Asia Times Online has shown (The ultimate martyr, April 12), all crucial decisions in Iran remain with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ahmadinejad has been downgraded by the leader to play a “domestic” president’s role.

His vocal, nationalist defense of Iran’s civilian nuclear program follows the leader’s script, and is met with approval because virtually all Iranians regard the issue as a matter of national right and pride.

According to a late-January poll by the Iranian Students Polling Agency, 85.4% of Iranians are in favor of continuing with the nuclear program. More than 80% feel the country needs nuclear energy. And about 70% regard the European negotiation side as “illogical.”

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, issued a fatwa in the 1980s declaring that production, possession and use of nuclear weapons was against Islam. Russia, China and India still take him at his word.

For the Iranian government, the nuclear program is a powerful symbol of independence with regard to what is perceived as Anglo-Saxon colonialism. The view is shared by Iranians of all social classes and education backgrounds. Moreover, Iran is pushing for a leading role in the Non-Aligned Movement, stating that every country has the right to a peaceful nuclear program. What Iran officially wants is a nuclear-free zone in West Asia, and that includes Israel, the sixth nuclear power in the world with more than 200 nuclear warheads.

But the issue itself may be beside the point. What’s really at stake is that while the occupation of Iraq might be downgraded, the “invisible” US military bases will consolidate the US presence in Iraq and the Persian Gulf region. Ahmadinejad in this scenario is the perfect Hitler; US troops – and bases – must remain on the ground to prevent Iran from going nuclear and to prevent Iran’s influence in Iraq’s “Shi’iteistan.”

Meanwhile, Washington’s avowed initiative of financing groups to provoke “regime change” from within is widely viewed in Tehran as a joke. What Iranians – both in government and in the bazaars and tea shops – take very seriously is the US lending a hand to Israel squeezing Palestine even more – a development also spun in Washington as part of the war on “radical Islam.” The Quadrennial Defense Review – the Pentagon’s strategic document calling for the Long War against terror – can be easily interpreted as a call for a war on Islam.

The first steps towards war

A war on Iran could involve many military scenarios. Iranian officials are aware that the US may go for an initial “shock and awe.” But they play down the possibility of a street revolution toppling the nationalist theocracy, as Washington hopes; the regime controls everything, and in the event of a foreign attack, virtually the whole population would rally behind the government. They also exclude attacking Israel, because they know Israel may respond with a nuclear strike. But they do not rule out the possibility of the US dropping nuclear bombs on Iran.

Iran’s current demonology instrumentalizes the UN Security Council, in the name of “peace” and nuclear non-proliferation. But Iranian officials keep complaining that the country’s official nuclear proposal was never examined in full by the EU. It included a provision that Iran would continue to negotiate with the EU-3 (Germany, France and Britain) on uranium enrichment for two more years, and would resume enrichment only if negotiations failed. The next step in the Security Council may be the imposition of “intelligent sanctions” – an oxymoron. In practice, that would mean a partial trade embargo on Iran, excluding food and of course oil and gas. Oil and gas are once again the heart of the matter. A recent energy conference in Tehran (In the heart of Pipelineistan, March 17) made it clear that Iran is a crucial node of a proposed Asian energy-security grid, which includes China, Russia and India. This grid would bypass Western – especially US – control of energy supplies and fuel in a real 21st-century industrial revolution all across Asia. It’s no wonder that many analysts view the war on Iran in essence as a war of the United States against Asia.

The ultimate prize

As was the case with Iraq, Iran is being sold as a threat to world peace (it may be pursuing nuclear weapons). Bush – at least vocally – hopes diplomacy will prevail. But the decision to attack may have been made already, just as it was taken regarding Iraq way before March 2003.

Iraq had signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but was accused of possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMD). UN weapons inspectors were expelled on the eve of the 2003 war. Iran has also signed the NPT, but is being accused of pursuing a nuclear-weapons program. UN weapons inspectors still work in the country on and off – but for how long?

In 1995, Iraq told UN inspectors, via Saddam Hussein’s brother-in-law Hussein Kamel, about a secret nuclear-weapons program, which had just been scrapped. This did not prevent the regime from being accused of concealing WMD just before the March 2003 invasion. In 2002, Iran told the UN that it had a secret nuclear program – not a weapons program. This did not prevent Iran from being accused four years later by the EU-3 of “concealment and deception.”

In November 2002, the US threatened to strike Iraq unless it cooperated with UN inspectors. The US invaded Iraq anyway, without Security Council backing. In January, the EU-3 called for Iran to be referred to the Security Council. Sanctions may be applied. If no diplomatic solution is found, the Pentagon may find the opening it seeks for the next stage of its Long War.

Iran is not to be easily intimidated. Few in Tehran take the threat of oil sanctions seriously. Iranians know that even if the US decided to bomb the country’s nuclear sites, they are maintained by Russian advisers and technicians; that would mean in effect a declaration of war against Russia. Russia recently closed a US$700 million deal selling 30 Tor M-1 surface-to-air missiles to Iran – very effective against aircraft, cruise missiles and guided bombs. The missiles will be deployed at the nuclear-research center at Isfahan and the Bushehr reactor, which is being built by Russia.

Iranians know Shi’ites in the south and in Baghdad would turn extreme heat on the occupation forces in Iraq. Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, on an official visit to Iran, according to his spokesman, said that “if any Islamic state, especially the Islamic Republic of Iran, is attacked, the Mehdi Army would fight inside and outside Iraq.”

Iranians also know they can bypass any trade sanctions by trading even more with China. Anyway, Mohammed-Nabi Rudaki, deputy chairman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, which sits at the majlis (parliament), has already threatened that “if Europe does not act wisely with the Iranian nuclear portfolio and it is referred to the UN Security Council and economic or air travel restrictions are imposed unjustly, we have the power to halt oil supply to the last drop from the shores of the Persian Gulf via the Strait of Hormuz.”

Up to 30% of the world’s oil production passes through the strait. Were Iran to block it, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait would not be able to export their oil. The Pentagon may eventually get its Long War – but not exactly on its terms.