• Threats of a U.S. attack on Iran continue, although the nature of a possible attack may be different than what was earlier anticipated.
  • The Bush administration seems to be shifting away from its effort to coerce the UN Security Council to endorse harsh sanctions or even military force against Iran, but the threat of unilateral action remains.
  • New diplomatic possibilities are opening and the U.S. is increasingly isolated.
  • Seven weeks before U.S. elections and following Bush’s series of rally-the-troops speeches, violence is rising across the Middle East; public opinion is strongly against the war but the Democrats still refuse to embrace that position, and many are afraid of the charge of “cut and run.”
  • Post-Lebanon war, Israel-Palestine is back on the global agenda; new dangers are rising from renewed U.S. pressure on the Palestinians to accept continued U.S. control of the diplomacy, even as new international initiatives appear as possibilities.
  • Renewed U.S. interest in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may have less to do with ending Israel’s occupation than with consolidating Arab governments’ acquiescence to new escalations against Iran.

Although Bush’s speech at the UN General Assembly did not directly threaten Iran or directly demand Security Council support for U.S. escalation against Iran, military threats against Iran remain high. Last week’s cover story in Time magazine reported that U.S. naval warships including minesweepers have been issued “prepare to deploy” orders, presumably towards the Iranian-controlled Strait of Hormuz. And the Navy command has requested a “new look” at plans for a naval blockade against Iranian oil ports. This would be a very dangerous move. Even if the warships sit in the harbor without firing a shot, a naval blockade can constitute an act of war – which would give Iran the legal right to use military force under Article 51 of the UN Charter (self-defense) against the United States. They wouldn’t necessarily respond militarily, but they would have that right.

The Nation details a report directly from the Pentagon’s public affairs staff of a naval “strike group” led by the nuclear aircraft carrier Eisenhower, being ordered to the Persian Gulf, off Iran’s coast. The ships also include a cruiser, destroyer, frigate, submarine escort and more. That means the Pentagon wants the world to know they are sending serious military capability – whether for routine exercises or something else.

An attack on Iran is far from certain. Even faced with a military provocation, Iran might respond in diplomatic rather than military terms, perhaps challenging the U.S. in the International Court of Justice, or in some other forum. The whole U.S. anti-Iran build-up may be part of an effort to keep the “war on terror” framework and the resulting fear factor at the top of the agenda in the run-up to the November elections. They may be making public threats to bolster European diplomatic efforts against Iran’s nuclear program. A rise in U.S. global isolation and growing domestic opposition to the threats of a war on Iran might lead some of Karl Rove’s acolytes to decide the political cost of such a reckless adventure is too high. Military officials appear strongly opposed to war in Iran, and army commanders have just announced they will have to deploy more National Guard troops in Iraq because the army is already over-stretched. The costs would be enormous – human, economic, environmental and much more. War with Iran is not inevitable.

At the level of public diplomacy, the Bush administration has slightly reduced its rhetorical temperature. Bush’s UN speech did not directly threaten Iran with harsh sanctions or military attack in response to U.S. and Security Council demands for Iran to stop its nuclear enrichment as a pre-condition before any talks. He also did not issue an ultimatum to the UN Security Council as he did in the run-up to the Iraq war, threatening it with “irrelevance” if it did not endorse the U.S. invasion.

However, we know this administration has a history of engaging in reckless military acts, in the face of U.S. and global opposition – violating international law in an orgy of militarized national triumphalism. The highly public military maneuvers now underway against Iran are designed to escalate Washington’s threats; they could indicate that the Bush administration has essentially given up on the possibility of achieving Security Council consensus for serious sanctions. Despite its isolation, the administration may instead already be contemplating a unilateral or “coalition”-based assault. Congressional opposition has barely begun.

On a global level, diplomacy remains active, though the U.S. is largely isolated from it. On September 10 the European Union’s foreign policy chief announced progress in meetings with Iran’s nuclear negotiator. French President Jacques Chirac, only hours before Bush’s UN speech, announced that he is “never in favor of sanctions” and indicated that talks with Tehran would begin before Iran formally suspended its enrichment activities (the U.S. demand was for suspension as a pre-condition before talks). Perhaps in response, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced on Sept. 22 that Iran IS prepared to negotiate with the Europeans “under fair and just conditions” for suspension of enrichment activities.

But the Bush administration actions aimed at building support for war against Iran remain. A senate report on Iran, drafted by a top assistant to UN-bashing John Bolton, claimed among other things that Iran was enriching uranium at the level of 90% — the level needed for nuclear weapons. It was such an egregious lie that even the usually cautious UN nuclear watchdog agency, the IAEA, responded with a harsh rebuke, indicating that they are watching Iran’s enrichment, and that it remained in the 3.5% range needed for completely legal nuclear power – not close to 90%.

There have been reports of Vice-President Dick Cheney’s influence within the administration waning. Certainly other voices – Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley, among them – have emerged more strongly in the recent period. But Cheney’s bottom-line goals – unilateralism, militarized nationalism, and power consolidated in the presidency – remain very much the goals of the administration. (And the recent “compromise” that led to unified Republican acceptance of Bush’s torture doctrine was negotiated in Cheney’s office.) Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon has recently opened a new Iran Directorate whose job description appears very similar to the 2002 role of the now-closed Office of Special Plans, finding or creating intelligence material that could be used to justify war against Iraq.

Violence is rising across the region. In Iraq the UN special investigator on torture said torture by U.S.-backed Iraqi government police and militias is “worse now than it was under the regime of Saddam Hussein” and is “totally out of hand.” The concentration of U.S. troops into Baghdad has not stopped the escalation of violence; murder victims, most of them also the victims of terrible torture, have numbered over 100 per day in recent weeks. It is crucial that we not abandon work to end the U.S, occupation – bring home the troops and mercenaries, shut the bases, end the economic occupation – even as work to prevent a new war in Iran takes on new urgency.

87% of Iraqis want an immediate timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops. Some months ago comprehensive polls indicated 70% of Iraqis want U.S. troops out – half right away, half within two years. Fears are rising of an escalation of the existing sectarian violence into a sectarian civil war (different, and perhaps worse, than the existing civil war defined as the battle between supporters and opponents of the occupation). And while there are certainly examples of neighborhoods where particular U.S. troops have prevented or stopped sectarian attacks, overall there is no evidence that the presence of U.S. troops is actually providing real protection to the population as a whole. The occupation remains illegal, violent, and costly (almost half a TRILLION dollars when this week’s supplemental bill is passed) in lives and vitally important social programs.

U.S. public opinion is more unified against the war than ever before – with up to two-thirds of Americans calling for an end to the war. They are not calling for what the Democrats are offering, a “better” Iraq war, they want it ended. So the challenge for the anti-war movement remains how to build more pressure for ending the war. The charge of “cut and run” must be taken on directly. The answer is, the U.S. owes a huge debt to Iraq and Iraqis: compensation, reparations, real reconstruction (in which Iraqis themselves control the rebuilding). But none of that is possible until AFTER U.S. troops are out. Those who support “staying the course” are really calling for a “make a killing” strategy. We are not saying cut and run – we are the ones trying to make good on our real obligations and debt to Iraq: we owe compensation – we don’t owe occupation.

The rise of public attention to the issue of torture – including the short-lived debate over Bush’s interrogation techniques at secret CIA-run prisons and the massive attention to the Canadian commission’s vindication of Maher Arar after his U.S. orchestrated year of torture in Syria – is also serving to build anti-war sentiment and opposition to Bush. The challenge remains how to transform that rising anti-war sentiment into political power.

Elsewhere in the region, the Israeli assault in Gaza continues, and the collective punishment of the entire population of the occupied territories continues through the U.S./Israeli-orchestrated boycott of the Palestinian Authority, withholding of aid and of tax revenues, and continued closure of the West Bank and Gaza, turning them into open-air prisons. In this post-Lebanon war period, the issue of Palestine and Israel’s occupation is back on the regional and global agenda, but with uncertain ramifications.

U.S. pressure on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is rising, pushing him to stay within the confines of the so-called “roadmap” orchestrated by the U.S.-dominated “Quartet.” The goal, apparently, is to continue pushing Abbas to accept the most stringent reading of the Quartet’s demands even while negotiations are underway towards a national unity government (Hamas and Fatah) in the occupied Palestinian territories. At the United Nations last week Abbas called for “unconditional resumption of negotiations.” But in the same speech he accepted each of the conditions.

The U.S.-orchestrated Quartet demands were issued only to the Palestinian side, not to the Israelis. They call for a new Palestinian recognition of Israel (already done in 1993, they don’t specify what borders are to be recognized since Israel has never declared its borders, and they don’t require an Israeli commitment to end the occupation), renunciation of violence (without acknowledging Hamas’ 16-month unilateral and unreciprocated ceasefire and without requiring Israel to end its continued attacks, siege, and violent occupation), and acceptance of all earlier agreements (without specifying whether the Palestinians have to accept Israel’s rejectionist versions – such as Israel’s 14 stated objections within the roadmap – to qualify).

Moves towards Palestinian unity are continuing, largely under the terms originally negotiated by Hamas and Fatah prisoners in Israeli jails some months ago. But on the issue of “recognition” of Israel, there are different formulations by the two sides. It is not clear if the Bush administration and the international community are actually trying to find a face-saving way to stop their collective punishment and end the crippling economic boycott and political embargo imposed against the Palestinians since Hamas won the January elections, or to use the “unity” process to consolidate a divide and rule strategy. That is, they may anticipate that Abbas will endorse U.S.-mandated explicit language while Hamas rejects it, triggering a new crisis because of Palestinian suffering under the embargo. The U.S. may hope that the result will be a new election in which Palestinians will choose Abbas’ Fatah over Hamas. Essentially this means threatening to maintain the crippling embargo unless the Palestinians vote for Washington’s candidate – the same choice the U.S. forced on Nicaragua in 1990.

The Bush administration may believe that such a scheme could work because of the events of December 1988, when an agreement to renew low-level U.S.-Palestinian ties was held hostage to Arafat’s agreeing to recognize Israel. Arafat announced the recognition at a huge press conference in Geneva, but his statement was deemed insufficient by the Bush Senior administration, leading to the humiliating spectacle of Arafat at a second, late-night press conference, reading the exact language dictated by Washington from a fax sent to Palestinian officials in Geneva. Today, the elected Hamas leadership has already agreed to clear language calling for a Palestinian state in the territories occupied in 1967 alongside Israel, and a long-term truce; it is unlikely that they will agree to any more explicit recognition. The current pressure campaign will make establishing a viable unity government even more difficult.

There is also another danger. Certainly the renewed Bush administration attention to the Israel-Palestine conflict does not reflect a real commitment to an end to Israel’s occupation. But even the claimed support for some form of Palestinian statehood that was reflected in Bush’s UN speech – calling a truncated set of non-contiguous bantustans a “state” – may be false as well. This latest focus on the Israel-Palestine conflict may in fact mirror the sequence of events of early 2003, when Bush agreed to publicly embrace the already-troubled “roadmap for Middle East peace” at a high-visibility ceremony in the Azores. His goal then was not to support Palestinian statehood and an end to occupation, but to consolidate Tony Blair’s and Spanish PM Jose Maria Aznar’s support for the imminent invasion of Iraq.

This time around the focal points may not be Britain and Spain, but rather Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the other pro-U.S. (but increasingly uneasily so) Arab governments. The goal would be to insure that any U.S. escalation against Iran – military strike, blockade, etc. – would not face more than pro-forma opposition from Washington’s Arab allies. The Lebanon War and the U.S. refusal to call for a ceasefire during Israel’s devastating assault ended Rice’s goal of an “Umbrella of Arab Allies.” But a renewed U.S.-brokered “peace process” (however false) might give frightened Arab regimes enough political capital to placate their outraged citizenries without directly confronting Washington. (And perhaps without re-raising the Arab League’s own 2002 peace plan that starts with a full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders.)

In fact Philip Zelikow, influential Rice adviser and former director of the 9/11 Commission, said on Sept. 22 that confronting the “threats” the U.S. ostensibly faces in the Middle East [read: Iran] requires what he called a “coalition of the builders” – made up of pro-U.S. Arab governments. “What would bind that coalition and help keep them together is a sense that the Arab-Israeli issues are being addressed, that they see a common determination to sustain an active policy that tries to deal with the problems of Israel and the Palestinians, so that this issue doesn’t have the real corrosive effects that it has, or the symbolic corrosive effects that it causes in undermining some of the friends we need, friends to confront some of the serious dangers we must face together.”

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies where she directs the New Internationalism project. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer and more recently Ending the Iraq War: A Primer.

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