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Talking Peace From Tehran to Ferguson: An Exhortation

What’s behind the threat of war on Iran and what do we need to do to stop it?

With the negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program seeming slightly more likely than not to end in the next few months without a deal, the specter of war on Iran is beginning to wheedle its way back into the consciousness of the US media, public and political class. In some fevered imaginations, that specter is more aptly a fantasy, and has been a constant companion and cherished wish.

Although these true believers are comparatively few, they wield outsized influence upon our national discourse and policy, despite having been wrong about everything else to date. And even though we now face a resurgent Sunni jihadist-terror movement spawned largely out of the chaos left in the wake of our illegal, devastating and “preemptive” war against Iraq, this neoconservative constituency remains hell-bent on following exactly the same script on Iran.

This is especially dangerous given that we as a country seem to have learned no fundamental and enduring lessons about the limits of our power or our hubris. Yes, most people now would likely agree that invading Iraq was a mistake, but nothing approaching a national reckoning and stocktaking of our wrongdoing has occurred; no one has been held to account. It is against this background that we may be rushing headlong down the road to another disastrous war.

Sooner Rather Than Later?

With the news that congressional leaders have invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of the House and Senate, it is as apparent as ever that the luminaries of the Republican Party are eager to scuttle the ongoing negotiations with Iran, if only for the purposes of attempting to discredit the president and rob him of another foreign policy achievement. Should they succeed on that score, there is little telling what will follow.

With Israeli elections slated for March 17, 2015, and Netanyahu’s visit scheduled exactly two weeks prior, it is a transparent ploy on his part to bolster his chances of victory. He has been clear in his desire for a strike on Iran, and President Obama, to his credit, has done his best to prevent it. But now, with the election approaching, could we see more than just high talk? Conventional wisdom has it that there is time yet to elapse before a strike would occur, but we should seriously consider that an attack may start much sooner than anybody reckons. If Netanyahu expects to increase his share of the vote by coming to the United States to talk tough on Iran, he must also be cognizant of the electoral bonanza he would experience should he take military action against it.

There is direct precedent for him doing just that.

In 1981, an Israeli air strike destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor. The strike was ordered by Prime Minister Menachem Begin three weeks before parliamentary elections, which he went on to win, albeit narrowly.

If Netanyahu were to launch such a strike against Iran, he would also necessarily be manufacturing a crisis that would almost certainly compel US involvement. Events would move so quickly that any rational discussion of the merits of our participation would be summarily dispensed with. Though Obama undoubtedly realizes what folly an attack on Iran would be, the political pressure on him to act should Israel strike would be immense, and we cannot take it for granted that he would be able to resist such pressure.

Furthermore, we should also consider what role Congress may play under such a scenario. Though the president as commander-in-chief has ultimate discretion as to whether to commit forces to a conflict, Congress is vested with the power to declare war. This is one that it has not officially exercised since World War II, and yet we should not think it completely beyond the realm of possibility that the Republican Congress could declare war on Iran over the objections of President Obama. It would be an unprecedented move, but the idea is not as ridiculous as it may first appear.

The Republicans have proven time and again that they have no scruples remaining, and will go to almost any lengths to 1) attempt to make Obama look weak and feckless, and 2) win the next election. By presenting him with a declaration of war and daring him to oppose it, they would seek to do just that. The leaders of Congress have already connived with Netanyahu to bring him in to speak without asking or even telling the president until after the fact. They have done this for the express purpose of trying to derail the negotiations with Iran and to help Netanyahu win his election. Is it really so hard, then, to imagine that they would attempt to force his hand in this respect, too?

The Backdrop

As the war rhetoric swirls, it is imperative to maintain a sense of perspective and reality concerning the alleged threat. It is generally taken as a given that the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran would require military action of some kind, and is presented as such by the mainstream US media and our elected representatives. A statement along the lines of “Iran having a nuclear weapon presents an existential threat to Israel and to the United States and to our interests,” has been laid on so thickly, it has become something of a truism. And it might indeed be true, if Iran were governed by ISIS, kamikaze pilots or Jim Jones. What we are really dealing with, however, is a government that, while a theocracy, is not interested in committing regime suicide. To attack Israel or the United States, both of which are mighty powers in the conventional and nuclear sense, would be to do just that.

That rationale for war also fails to take into account that it is not a foregone conclusion that Iran is attempting to develop a nuclear weapon, or will in the future. To many, this will sound like the height of naïveté and apologism; after all, this is a brutal, repressive regime; how can we possibly be sure that it will not build a bomb and attack us? We cannot be sure, but attacking will not add any measure of certainty. On the contrary, the best thing we could do to make Iran more obstinate and dangerous would be to bomb it. War is the greatest of stimulants for the most retrograde and vicious political forces on either side of a conflict. To conduct war against Iran would demolish the promise of the liberal, pro-Western elements within Iranian society, which were so in evidence during and after the 2009 election, and ensure that the fundamentalist and violent voices drown out all others.

Military action on our part would only cement the Iranian view of the United States as an incorrigible, impulsive, aggressor state that will apply military might without provocation. The invasion of Iraq was an object lesson in this, and furthermore in what can happen to a country that does not possess nuclear weapons should the United States decide to wage war against it under false pretenses. It also sees a country that conspired with Britain to deprive it of self-determination by deposing democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 and reinstalling the Shah and his dictatorial regime. Taken cumulatively, there is strong evidence that the real reason the Israeli and US governments want to keep Iran from having the capability to develop a nuclear weapon is to maintain their ability to interfere in Iran’s affairs as they see fit. It would be war, not to preserve peace, but to preserve the further ability to make war.

Even if such intervention were able to completely destroy all the facilities involved in the Iranian nuclear program in one fell swoop, what then is the plan? What is the mechanism for ensuring that Iran does not again begin what could be construed as the process of developing nuclear weapons? Nothing short of occupying the country or comprehensively bombing it every so often could accomplish that. It is a prospect so absurd and horrific as to be unworthy of serious contemplation.

None of this is to say that we should celebrate the prospect of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, or that international efforts to prevent that outcome through sanctions and diplomacy should end. Non-proliferation is a worthy goal, but just like democracy, it cannot be instituted at the barrel of a gun. In order to gain goodwill and trust, we must demonstrate goodwill and trust. We must lead not by intimidation, but by example. Thus far, though, our lack of adherence to international treaties, to nuclear disarmament, to world peace, is an example that inspires little confidence and gives little assurance that we are serious in our protestations.

Stopping the War

At present, an infrastructure, movement and base of ideas that could successfully resist the rush to war, should it come, are almost nonexistent. Certainly within the rarified confines of Congress, there is almost no one who is currently willing to stand unequivocally against the idea of military strikes on Iran. Both Republicans and Democrats have called and will call for the military option to be exercised should the sanctions and negotiations fail – even if they fail as part of self-fulfilling congressional prophecy and policy. We must depend on the citizenry to stop the war.

The peace movement in the United States has atrophied since Obama took office, under the odd impression that his kinder, gentler methods of killing people do not bear scrutiny or protest. Some core antiwar groups such as CODEPINK have been sounding the alarm about the possibility of war on Iran, but the wider silence on the issue is deafening. If war does appear on the horizon, we can expect that more citizens will speak, march and protest against it, but in what numbers and to what avail?

If we are to stand any chance of staving off an attack, what we truly need is earnest, concerted and massive public pressure and agitation before the threat appears. Of course, the same could be said of measures to forestall any number of looming crises, so what makes action on this any more possible?

Arguably the most energized social justice movement right now is Black Lives Matter. Prompted by the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and so many other black men at the hands of police, it has developed into a potent and visible force militating against the brutality with which citizens of color are so often treated. To say “Black Lives Matter,” though, is also to say that all lives have inherent worth, which a callous and violent state will no longer be allowed to snuff out with impunity. Such has been the fate not only of so many of our own, but countless men, women and children around the world who have suffered at the hands of our perpetual war machine. Such will be the fate of so many more Americans and Iranians if we do not begin to directly challenge the rhetoric and actions of the militarists. The blatant and pervasive disregard demonstrated by our government for the human costs of violence against people around the world and within our communities is precisely why the movement’s embrace of peace work, as a fundamental aspect of its efforts and close coordination with existing antiwar organizations, is to be desired.

We must never forget Martin Luther King Jr.’s indictment of our government in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” which used “massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted,” or that he held the problems of poverty, racism and militarism to be inseparable, deeming them the “triple evils,” which fed off one another.

The same sense of interrelatedness and universal concern, which was so apparent in the civil rights and Vietnam protests, must compel us to demand that just as we expect those who police our country to respect the law and the human rights of all our citizens, that if the United States must exert a role as policeman on the global level, it respect international law and the human rights of all, even those lives that so many of us hold in disdain and think nothing of obliterating. Too long has the United States operated as a rogue state, both nationally and in world affairs. The same animus that numbs us to the state-sponsored death, misery and decay within our own dispossessed communities is the one that allows us to blithely maraud around the globe invading, threatening, kidnapping and torturing.

In both our domestic and foreign affairs, we must accept a moral and judicial framework that rejects force except in service of actual self-defense, and sees human dignity as a prerequisite for peace. We must reacquaint ourselves with the simple yet elusive understanding that systemic and historic wrongs and their wages cannot be sublimated or eliminated through violence, but only through a transformational commitment to justice for all. We must be adamant in our refusal to support another war of aggression against a phantom enemy, and loudly express our disdain at the prospect. Perception alone is not a legitimate rationale for killing, and we must be as willing to apply that rule over the skies of Tehran as in the streets of Ferguson if we are to have any hope of working together toward a future where all can live.

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