Welcome to World War III

In the days after September 11, 2001, I emailed a few people in Iran telling them not to get close to any major government buildings or installations. I was convinced the United States would attack not only Afghanistan and Iraq, but also Iran. You could see and feel the desire for revenge in every aspect of American society.

At the time a friend called from London and insisted that the Americans don’t have the guts to invade any country in the region. Instead he believed they would only resort to firing missiles and carrying out air strikes, just as Clinton had done. I said listen, you have to be here to understand what I’m telling you; the Americans ARE coming. They will sweep through Afghanistan and get rid of Saddam and finally they will have their way with the Islamic Republic.

My prediction fell short. But what about now?

My feeling is that the Bush Administration has not entirely lost its appetite for war. Do not fool yourselves; be sure that many in Washington believe it’s vital for America to finish the job it started and not allow the extremist regime in Tehran remain unscathed. From this American point view, if Iran isn’t decisively challenged it would spell disaster for the U.S., Israel and every other pro-American regime in the Middle East.

Thousands of American soldiers have lost their lives and very soon the cost of the war is expected to soar to a trillion dollars (may I remind you that that is a THOUSAND billion dollars). After this astronomical investment, is the U.S. going to avoid the biggest prize of all and let the Islamic Republic continue business as usual? Taking on Iran could be decided in the White House over coffee and donuts. As simple as that. And in a matter of days, Iran’s key nuclear facilities (and probably many military and industrial targets) could be hit in strategic bombings and missile attacks.

But now you have Pakistan falling apart. Afghanistan is still unstable. Iraq is a huge mess (and splitting into three countries). Turkey is feeling the heat from Kurdish separatists. And next door, Georgia is in turmoil. And I haven’t even mentioned good old Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Now step back and look at the whole region. I’m no political analyst, but goddamn… we’re already experiencing World War III if you ask me. And as you can see, America does not appear to be winning. What we have here is a super power whose credibility has slipped to a point where it has lost much of its influence in the region. I don’t think there’s much left. Who listens to Washington these days? Who takes Bush, Cheney and Condi Rice seriously?

Under these circumstances one would think that attacking Iran and would be simply insane, especially when you don’t have a good excuse for it and you’ve been caught lying about WMDs in Iraq. Repeated accusations that Iran is seeking an atomic bomb are even less credible than the WMD charges against Iraq under Saddam. The Iraqis at one time did possess a large arsenal of WMDs and used them in the war against Iran. So Iraq was easy to frame based on its aggressive history and Saddam’s reckless adventurism, even though it turned out that the U.N. weapons’ inspectors had done their job and Iraq had complied with Security Council demands to destroy its WMD stockpiles.

I have never thought that Iran — under the Shah or the current theocracy — has been actively and systematically seeking to build a nuclear bomb. I worked for Iranian state news organizations for more than ten years after the 1979 revolution. I was a strong supporter of the Islamic Republic. But in all those years and the years since, I personally have never felt that the Iranian people or the ayatollahs in power have shown any serious interest in building or acquiring nuclear weapons. Never.

Am I being naive (as usual)? Isn’t it possible or even probable that key elements within the regime’s military establishment are on a secret mission to build nuclear weapons? After all it is a fact that Iran did obtain nuclear bomb designs from Pakistan’s A.K. Khan. Why would they? Obviously it would be easy to argue that since Israel, Pakistan, India and of course Russia (and the American armada in the persian Gulf) have nuclear arms, therefore it would be natural for the Islamic Republic to seek its own.

But even in the worst case scenario, I don’t see how a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic could be a bigger threat than any nation that already has them. Why is it assumed that Iran under the ayatollahs would be a far more dangerous threat to the world than Stalinist Russia or Maoist China? They won’t. But having the Bomb would give a sense of security to the Islamic Republic to the point where it could become ten times more belligerent than it already is. That’s what the Americans, Israelis and probably Europeans fear most.

But are these assumptions enough to wage a new, devastating war? Is it ultimately worth it to carry out massive strikes simply on the basis of what Iran MIGHT do with its uranium and plutonium enrichment facilities? Is it wise to provoke fresh anti-American feelings among 80 million Iranians who happen to be one of the very few nations in the world to have a soft spot for the U.S.., thanks to nearly three decades of harsh religious rule? An attack on Iran would undoubtedly reverse this balance and force people to react against an unjustified foreign attack and show solidarity with the regime under intense nationalistic feelings.

And that’s not all. You think the situation in the Middle East is bad now? It’s nothing compared to what WILL unfold: The Islamic Republic has threatened to retaliate in kind against American and Israeli targets. Iran does not have a strong military by any regional standard, but what it does have is the ability to mobilize millions of devout volunteers in a time of war — most likely a war of attrition that could go on for years, and provoke greater anti-Americanism not just in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan (where general populations are sympathetic to Iran), but also in the rest of the region as well as the islamic World at large. What a sight that would be…

Meanwhile we Iranians must not forget that the Islamic Republic is not blameless in the current crisis. Instead of calming fears and building confidence, its leaders routinely make incendiary remarks that do nothing other than worsening Iran’s fundamentalist image in Western countries. What is the point of calling for the destruction of Israel? What’s to be gained here? Most Iranians know full well that these are empty threats. But I’m not sure if you have noticed their impact on Israeli society. If you haven’t read Israeli newspapers recently, I strongly recommend that you search online and go through the articles. Reading them makes you think another Holocaust is just around the corner.

You and I may think that’s ridiculous, but Israel’s fear of a nuclear Iran is far greater than we imagine. What we Iranians see as mere slogans for domestic consumption, the Israelis see as a serious threat against their very existence. And that means you can be sure the Israelis are more motivated to strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities than the U.S. itself.

A few months ago I asked a prominent Israeli scholar if he thought Israel would carry out a bombing raid against Iran, just as it did against Iraq’s nuclear plant in 1981. He said no. He said in order for Israeli bombers to reach Iran, they would need clearance from the American forces in the region. To me that does not sound like much of an obstacle. But what do I know sitting here in Berkeley, California? Still it seems obvious that amidst all the chaos and mayhem it’s the the people who will suffer most while their belligerent, unimaginative and trigger-happy governments will flourish.

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