By Juan Cole
President Barack Obama addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference on Sunday, warning against loose war talk regarding Iran but also threatening violence against that country to stop it, he said, from getting a nuclear weapon ( not an ambition in evidence). The speech is here. Obama has ratcheted up US financial sanctions against Iran to the point where US policy may be a casus belli or a legitimate grounds for war, in a quest to punish Iran for its civilian nuclear enrichment program.
The United States has been down this squalid road before, in regard to Iraq, and it doesn’t end well for America.
Obama was made to trek to AIPAC (which should have to register as the agent of a foreign state) because it is a very effective lobby and raises money for political campaigns, as well as raising money to punish politicians that do not toe its line on knee jerk support of Israeli policy.
We saw this with Iraq, and now it is the same with Iran. A weak, ramshackle, ineffectual bogeyman is set up, like Saddam Hussein or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Americans are kept talking about the “threat” emanating from that country. It isn’t a real threat. It is manufactured by the Israeli intelligence agencies and promoted by their cells in the US.
With regard to Iraq, we were told that it had among the more powerful armies in the world, that it possessed frightening weapons of mass destruction, that it was a threat to Europe and the United States. None of these things was true.
Here are the top drawbacks to vigorous sanction regime against another country, as demonstrated by Iraq and Iran:
1. One basic problem with a dire sanctions regime like that imposed on Iraq, and now on Iran, is that it can kill a lot of innocent civilians, including children. Because the US interdicted chlorine exports to Iraq and had knocked out its electricity and water purification plants in the Gulf War, it is estimated that the US/ UN sanctions killed about 500,000 Iraqi children in the 1990s. Infants are especially vulnerable to dying of diarrhea and dehydration from gastrointestinal diseases.
2. In turn, this killing of so many children made other Arabs and Muslims angry at the US, and these deaths were also cited by Usamah Bin Laden as one of the reasons he sought to attack the United States. That is, the human toll of sanctions can cause the sanctioning country to suffer reprisals.
Obama’s sanctions on Iran are beginning to have a human toll, making it increasingly difficult for Iran to import wheat from the Ukraine and India. The Obama sanctions are turning into collective punishment of civilian populations, which is illegal. If Obama miscalculates, he could kill thousands of people by provoking a food famine. The resentments of Washington that step would incur, in turn, very likely will hurt the US directly.
3. Onerous sanctions do not remove a regime or cause it to change policies, since the elite can cushion themselves from the effects. The Baath Party in Iraq in the 1990s squirreled away billions of dollars, even as the Iraqi middle classes were devastated and many Iraqis began living on the edge, with insufficient food and medicine.
4. In fact, as the urban middle classes decline, they lose the wherewithal to challenge the government. Authoritarianism is strengthened by sanctions, not weakened.
Iran’s middle classes are already being deeply hurt by sanctions. The idea that they will mobilize to pressure the government to give up nuclear enrichment as a result is a non-starter. Political movements and campaigns need money. In an oil state like Iran, the government gets the oil profits and so is flush. The middle classes are increasingly thrown down into poverty, so they can’t compete with government largesse.
5. A feeling of being under siege also causes populations to rally around even an unpopular government. One suspects that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s most ardent supporters took 75% of the seats in parliament in Iran’s recent election in part as a backlash against US sanctions and pressure.
6. Wide-ranging and deep sanctions can bleed over into being a sort of blockade. Blockades are a casus belli in international law, and very frequently provoke wars. FDR’s decision to stop oil sales to Japan helped precipitate Pearl Harbor.
So, sanctions start off looking like an alternative to war. But they can impose such a massive death toll on the civilian population of the targeted country as to call forth reprisals on the leader of the boycott. Or the blockade aspect can itself provoke a war.
7. Israeli agents of influence attempt to keep Americans talking about anything but Israel’s own ongoing crimes against humanity with regard to the Palestinians. They have special success if the US goes into full-sanction, soft war mode against another country on Israel’s behalf. Now, instead of talking about Israeli predations against the Palestinians, we are being led by the nose by AIPAC and its many media allies to obsess about Iran.
8. Our policy emphases are distorted by fantastic propositions, illusions really. We were told that the road to peace between Israelis and Palestinians ran through Baghdad. It was a bald-faced lie, a magician’s piece of misdirection.
How absurd and insincere the proposition was can be seen in how it immediately evaporated from public discourse as soon as the US was induced to occupy Iraq.
9. US interests are directly and very negatively affected by Washington’s collusion with Israel in keeping the Palestinians stateless and without basic human rights.
Make no mistake. It is in the US interest to resolve the Palestine crisis. Israeli occupation of and crimes against the Palestinians was among three major reasons given by al-Qaeda for their attack on New York and Washington, D.C. on September 11, and this ongoing human rights violation will make more and worst trouble for the US, Israel’s chief enabler in it, as the years go by. Imagine the cost Americans have already borne in loss of our civil liberties as a result of knee jerk support for Tel Aviv’s exploitation of Palestinians and their land.
Moreover, the US antipathy to the Palestinians will increasingly be an obstacle to good relations with countries like Egypt, where public opinion now matters in politics and foreign policy as never before.
10. Because misdirection on this very large scale is a little difficult, the US is thrown by such an endeavor into being a propaganda state, which is bad for public policy generally.
(Most Americans just don’t know the facts on the Palestinians. The Israelis expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes in 1948 and then just stole all their property, offering no compensation. Those Palestinian families have become millions of persons over time. Some 40% of the population of the Gaza Strip, which Israel has turned into a massive slum, is refugee families from what is now Israel. Israel came after them in 1967 and exploited, occupied and colonized them until 2005. Since 2007 Israel has blockaded the Palestinians of Gaza, declining to let them so much as export virtually any of their products, and strictly regulating imports into the strip. Israel has turned Gaza into an enormous outdoor penitentiary. Since Israel is the occupation power for Gaza, this collective punishment of the civilian population there is a violation of the Geneva Conventions, which were legislated after WW II to prevent a recurrence of the human rights violations perpetrated by the Nazis.
The UN estimates that 56% percent of Palestinians in Gaza are “food insecure,” that is, one step away from being half-starved. Israel apologists circulate pictures of a mall in Gaza or a nice restaurant to refute this finding. But it is mean-spirited nonsense. There are always a few well off people in a place like Gaza, and there is always some money around. The question is, how many people are being harmed by Israel’s blockade? The Israelis are eating three square meals a day and have a per capita income higher than many European countries. They are keeping the Palestinians of Gaza, most of whom are children, living on the edge of hunger. In fact, 10% of Palestinian children in Gaza are estimated to be stunted from malnutrition.
At the same time, Israel has since 1967 occupied the West Bank, and has increasingly colonized it and incorporated it into Israel, in open defiance of UN Security Council resolutions and of the UN charter, which forbids the acquisition of territory by force. Israel has stolen water, land and resources from the native Palestinians and consigned them to South Africa-style cantons reminiscent of Apartheid.
Worst of all, Israel has kept millions of Palestinians stateless, lacking citizenship in any country, and so lacking any legal protection of their rights or property. Stateless people cannot travel freely and do not have basic rights enjoyed by citizens of a state.
The far right wing government of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has committed large numbers of torts against the Palestinians. It just legalized an illegal Israeli settlement on purloined Palestinian land at the same time it is demolishing solar panels and wind turbines of Palestinian villages.
Netanyahu has authorized the building of thousands of new Israeli homes on Palestinian land in the West Bank, and just allowed another 600 deep in the occupied territory. Israeli squatters on Palestinian land are thieves on a large scale, depriving others of their rightful property, and interfering in their livelihoods. This larceny is being actively connived at and implemented by the Israeli government.
Israeli squatters are now stealing Palestinian land in Area B, in direct contravention of the Oslo peace accords, which Netanyahu has boasted of destroying.
Israeli authorities have been arbitrarily kidnapping (it is not properly called ‘arresting’) Palestinian peace activists who peacefully protest these violations of Palestinian rights, and holding them in ‘administrative detention,’ without charges and without trial. Some of these hostages have been going on well-publicized hunger strikes, forcing the Israeli authorities to release them, since there are no outstanding charges against them and their deaths would be bad publicity for Israel.)