Is it the fault of the US and its junior partners, which merely wishes to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? Is it the fault of Iran, which argues that its nuclear program is for non-defense purposes and that the US has been silent about Israel that actually possesses nukes? Is it a case of Iran filling the regional power gap that the US has left now that its troops are out of Iraq and plan to withdraw from Afghanistan (by 2014?), thus the US must make sure to keep Iran weak?
Is it a case of Iran refusing to submit to the political, economic and military might of the West, preferring instead to cut deals with a number of countries individually, especially China and Russia, so that it can enjoy its national sovereignty? Is it a case of Iran posing a threat to: a) Israel's security; b) regional security, given that the pro-West Arab countries are adamantly against Iran having a hegemonic role; c) representing a rogue state and/or supporting 'terrorism' - as the US and its partners define the subjective political term?
The reality is that the US is now willing to destabilize Iran and along with it the world economy by confronting this country with new sanctions, which have some impact on the national currency and national economy, but mostly a devastating impact on the very fragile world economy. Iran supplies one-sixth of the world's oil, but China and Japan rely on Iran and the Straits that Iran threatens to close for most of their energy sources. PETRO-China, whose combined worth is the largest in the world, at an estimated $1 trillion that is more than several Dow-30 companies combined, has absolutely nothing to gain and everything to lose going along with the US sanctions.
What is the US hoping to achieve, and what can it really achieve that it has failed to do so in the past three decades in Iran?
1) Geopolitical goals include a non-nuclear Iran that can be checked by Israel which possesses nuclear weapons. - Possibility of achieving the goal? Very slight, because eliminating the nuclear facilities will only delay the country before it begins again to rebuild.
2) Economic goals that include integration under the traditional patron-client model - the same one the US has been relying on to deal with the rest of the Middle East, Latin American, and African countries that open their markets and accommodate foreign capital investment at the expense of national capitalism.Very slim possibility of achieving this goal, for it would in essence mean going back to the Shah era.
3) Political goals that include becoming a more pluralistic society, respect human rights, and allow minority voices to be heard so that there is no strong dominant political group controlling the state. Very slim possibility this will be realized with external force, but much more likely from internal public pressure.
4) Foreign policy goals that include rapprochement with Israel and the pro-US Arab states, going along with US operations intended to fight Islamic terrorism, and allowing the US the pre-1979 Revolution role of determining the regional balance of power. The only way to achieve this goal is regime change, as is the ultimate goal of the US.
Are the four goals I have listed above worth the cost to the rest of the world, especially since it is highly unlikely the US can succeed? The US knows that:
1) Iran is the only country in the world the supplies all of Southern Europe with crude oil on credit. Southern Europe is suffering a very serious sovereign debt crisis and is under voluntary or IMF-EU-imposed austerity. If the US-Iran diplomatic conflict escalates, Iran will cut off countries that do not have the cash for crude oil and the price of crude will rise sharply, thus derailing the already recessionary world economy.
2) Iran controls the passageway where more than two-thirds of China and Japan's energy flows, and that destabilizing Iran necessarily entails undercutting East Asian economy and thus the world economy. As the world's second and third largest economies, China and Japan cannot contribute to global growth if oil prices spike upwards and supply is short. While China and Japan want lower energy prices, they have no guarantees that the US sanctions will somehow benefit them long-term.
3) Sanctions have never worked no matter how tough, and in this specific case, the US destabilization efforts only strengthen the regime that the US wants undermined. Although in recent weeks some Iranians have been going to the banks converting their cash into foreign reserve currencies or gold, they will come together behind their government when the entire country is under attack merely because it is pursuing a nuclear energy program that the US wants destroyed.
4) Closing the Straits of Hormuz would be an act of war, as far as the US is concerned, but would the US go to war to enforce sanctions at the risk that somehow this would modify Iran's conduct, even if that means negotiating on the nuclear energy program as the US, France and Germany wish, purchasing the equipment from their companies and operating under their watchful eye? Obama has been truing to convince Japan and China of the wisdom of going along with the new round of sanctions because Iran will have to yield to such pressure sooner or later. However, Iran has survived under great pressure in the past 32 years and this round is unlikely to have any lasting impact, given that sanctions cut both ways and Iran has always found ways to secure supplies by circumventing sanctions.
5) alarmist propaganda by all sides has momentum of its own and can lead to low-level conflict that may escalate into a broader conflict, unless Russia and China step in forcefully to deescalate the impending conflict before it starts. However, neither China nor Russia are willing to risk their economic and political relations with the West to save Iran, if it comes down to a war scenario. Iran fairly isolated would be even more dangerous than if it has China and Russia as its supporters containing it in a manner that the US cannot.
There have been reports that John Yoo, the infamous Justice Department official who authored memos (2002) to redefine torture and to advocate torture of adult detainees and their children, has been advising Republican presidential candidates to be prepared to confront Iran militarily, directly or through Israel. Yoo has argued that there are 'legal grounds' to engage in military strikes against Iran that plans to become a nuclear power, thereby threatening America's ability to self-defense and threatening regional security, namely Israel that wants Iran hit no matter the cost to the rest of the world. One must remember that Yoo is the same extreme right-wing ideologue whose definition of torture was never accepted by most legal definitions anywhere else in the world.
Yoo is not the problem, for he is merely a well-paid right-wing populist lackey advocating destabilizing Iran, and by implication the entire world. The problem is the Obama administration facing a tough election and its need to appear tough on foreign policy. Iran is an easy target for the US, because no one would object if the US went all out on this one.
As Colin Powell warned his boss George Bush who wanted US invasion of Iraq, if the US goes to war, then it has to accept the consequences- all of them, at home, in Iraq, regionally and globally. And those who have studied the Middle East East know that Iran, unlike Iraq, is the regional superpower. If the US could only destroy Iraq only to have a regime now that is friendlier to Iran than it was under Saddam Hussein, what is the goal of destabilizing Iran? Is this about the waning power of Pax Americana trying to project power that it simply does not have?
I am optimistic that China and Russia may be pressuring Iran to cut some kind of deal, to make some concessions to satisfy the US for now, to make Obama appear that his grandstanding paid off politically. After all, he needs something to make him appear strong and resolute during this mean election season that will be difficult given that unemployment remains at historically high levels and incomes at historically low levels. If Iran takes the American 'destabilizing' bait and does not back off on some issues to give the world's waning superpower the face-saving dignity it needs, Iran will suffer, but so will the rest of the world in a year that the IMF has warned will be very difficult for growth and especially for employment, all of which translates into greater sociopolitical instability.