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To Understand Tensions Between the US and Iran, Follow the Money

The new US sanctions against Iran aren't about nuclear weapons as much as they're about money.

| Tue Jan. 17, 2012 2:56 PM EST

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Let's start with red lines. Here it is, Washington's ultimate red line, straight from the lion's mouth. Only last week Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said of the Iranians, "Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they're trying to develop a nuclear capability. And that's what concerns us. And our red line to Iran is do not develop a nuclear weapon. That's a red line for us."

How strange, the way those red lines continue to retreat. Once upon a time, the red line for Washington was "enrichment" of uranium. Now, it's evidently an actual nuclear weapon that can be brandished. Keep in mind that, since 2005, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has stressed that his country is not seeking to build a nuclear weapon. The most recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran from the US Intelligence Community has similarly stressed that Iran is not, in fact, developing a nuclear weapon (as opposed to the breakout capacity to build one someday).

What if, however, there is no "red line," but something completely different? Call it the petrodollar line.

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Banking on Sanctions?

Let's start here: In December 2011, impervious to dire consequences for the global economy, the US Congress—under all the usual pressures from the Israel lobby (not that it needs them)—foisted a mandatory sanctions package on the Obama administration (100 to 0 in the Senate and with only 12 "no" votes in the House). Starting in June, the US will have to sanction any third-country banks and companies dealing with Iran's Central Bank, which is meant to cripple that country's oil sales. (Congress did allow for some "exemptions.")

The ultimate target? Regime change—what else?—in Tehran. The proverbial anonymous US official admitted as much in the Washington Post, and that paper printed the comment. ("The goal of the US and other sanctions against Iran is regime collapse, a senior US intelligence official said, offering the clearest indication yet that the Obama administration is at least as intent on unseating Iran's government as it is on engaging with it.") But oops! The newspaper then had to revise the passage to eliminate that embarrassingly on-target quote. Undoubtedly, this "red line" came too close to the truth for comfort.

Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen believed that only a monster shock-and-awe-style event, totally humiliating the leadership in Tehran, would lead to genuine regime change—and he was hardly alone. Advocates of actions ranging from air strikes to invasion (whether by the US, Israel, or some combination of the two) have been legion in neocon Washington. (See, for instance, the Brookings Institution's 2009 report Which Path to Persia.)

Yet anyone remotely familiar with Iran knows that such an attack would rally the population behind Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards. In those circumstances, the deep aversion of many Iranians to the military dictatorship of the mullahtariat would matter little.

Besides, even the Iranian opposition supports a peaceful nuclear program. It's a matter of national pride.

Iranian intellectuals, far more familiar with Persian smoke and mirrors than ideologues in Washington, totally debunk any war scenarios. They stress that the Tehran regime, adept in the arts of Persian shadow play, has no intention of provoking an attack that could lead to its obliteration. On their part, whether correctly or not, Tehran strategists assume that Washington will prove unable to launch yet one more war in the Greater Middle East, especially one that could lead to staggering collateral damage for the world economy.

In the meantime, Washington's expectations that a harsh sanctions regime might make the Iranians give ground, if not go down, may prove to be a chimera. Washington spin has been focused on the supposedly disastrous mega-devaluation of the Iranian currency, the rial, in the face of the new sanctions. Unfortunately for the fans of Iranian economic collapse, Professor Djavad Salehi-Isfahani has laid out in elaborate detail the long-term nature of this process, which Iranian economists have more than welcomed. After all, it will boost Iran's non-oil exports and help local industry in competition with cheap Chinese imports. In sum: a devalued rial stands a reasonable chance of actually reducing unemployment in Iran.

 

More Connected Than Google

Though few in the US have noticed, Iran is not exactly "isolated," though Washington might wish it. Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Gilani has become a frequent flyer to Tehran. And he's a Johnny-come-lately compared to Russia's national security chief Nikolai Patrushev, who only recently warned the Israelis not to push the US to attack Iran. Add in as well US ally and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. At a Loya Jirga (grand council) in late 2011, in front of 2,000 tribal leaders, he stressed that Kabul was planning to get even closer to Tehran.

On that crucial Eurasian chessboard, Pipelineistan, the Iran-Pakistan (IP) natural gas pipeline—much to Washington's distress—is now a go. Pakistan badly needs energy and its leadership has clearly decided that it's unwilling to wait forever and a day for Washington's eternal pet project—the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline—to traverse Talibanistan.

Even Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently visited Tehran, though his country's relationship with Iran has grown ever edgier. After all, energy overrules threats in the region. NATO member Turkey is already involved in covert ops in Syria, allied with hardcore fundamentalist Sunnis in Iraq, and—in a remarkable volte-face in the wake of the Arab Spring(s)—has traded in an Ankara-Tehran-Damascus axis for an Ankara-Riyadh-Doha one. It is even planning on hosting components of Washington's long-planned missile defense system, targeted at Iran.

All this from a country with a Davutoglu-coined foreign policy of "zero problems with our neighbors." Still, the needs of Pipelineistan do set the heart racing. Turkey is desperate for access to Iran's energy resources, and if Iranian natural gas ever reaches Western Europe—something the Europeans are desperately eager for—Turkey will be the privileged transit country. Turkey's leaders have already signaled their rejection of further US sanctions against Iranian oil.

And speaking of connections, last week there was that spectacular diplomatic coup de théâtre, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Latin American tour. US right-wingers may harp on a Tehran-Caracas axis of evil—supposedly promoting "terror" across Latin America as a springboard for future attacks on the northern superpower—but back in real life, another kind of truth lurks. All these years later, Washington is still unable to digest the idea that it has lost control over, or even influence in, those two regional powers over which it once exercised unmitigated imperial hegemony.

Add to this the wall of mistrust that has only solidified since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. Mix in a new, mostly sovereign Latin America pushing for integration not only via leftwing governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador but through regional powers Brazil and Argentina. Stir and you get photo ops like Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez saluting Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.

Washington continues to push a vision of a world from which Iran has been radically disconnected. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland is typical in saying recently, "Iran can remain in international isolation." As it happens, though, she needs to get her facts straight.

"Isolated" Iran has $4 billion in joint projects with Venezuela including, crucially, a bank (as with Ecuador, it has dozens of planned projects from building power plants to, once again, banking). That has led the Israel-first crowd in Washington to vociferously demand that sanctions be slapped on Venezuela. Only problem: how would the US pay for its crucial Venezuelan oil imports then?

Much was made in the US press of the fact that Ahmadinejad did not visit Brazil on this jaunt through Latin America, but diplomatically Tehran and Brasilia remain in sync. When it comes to the nuclear dossier in particular, Brazil's history leaves its leaders sympathetic. After all, that country developed—and then dropped—a nuclear weapons program. In May 2010, Brazil and Turkey brokered a uranium-swap agreement for Iran that might have cleared the decks on the US-Iranian nuclear imbroglio. It was, however, immediately sabotaged by Washington. A key member of the BRICS, the club of top emerging economies, Brasilia is completely opposed to the US sanctions/embargo strategy.

So Iran may be "isolated" from the United States and Western Europe, but from the BRICS to NAM (the 120 member countries of the Non-Aligned Movement), it has the majority of the global South on its side. And then, of course, there are those staunch Washington allies, Japan and South Korea, now pleading for exemptions from the coming boycott/embargo of Iran's Central Bank.

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