The cold war between the US and Iran just warmed up

Here is a translation of my column that appeared in Portuguese on January 13, 2012, in O Globo newspaper of Brazil:

RASHEED ABOU-ALSAMH

The announcement by Iran earlier this month that it could close the Strait of Hormuz, was an aggressive reaction to the new US law signed by President Barack Obama on the last day of December, which says the US may impose sanctions on any country in the world having financial dealings with the Iranian Central Bank.

Soon after the EU announced it would impose sanctions on Iranian oil imports to the continent. Both actions were seen in Tehran as a declaration of economic war against the Islamic Republic. A few days earlier, just before Christmas, the United States announced the sale of a package of F-16 fighter planes to Saudi Arabia and other weapons worth a fantastical $30 billion, part of a wider arms sale of $60 billion to the kingdom.

That was not by chance. For decades now a permanent Cold War of containment between the US and Iran has been taking place in the Persian Gulf and the greater Middle East with the Gulf Arab countries always in the forefront of this battle.

The conflict between the West, the Sunni Arab kingdoms of the Gulf, and Iran has been ongoing for 33 years, ever since the Islamic revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini toppled the pro-American dictatorship of Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979. Since the beginning of the rule of the ayatollahs, Iran has tried to export its Islamic revolution to the rest of the Middle East. This led Iranian pilgrims to hold annual anti-American and anti-Israeli demonstrations during the Haj in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, beginning in 1981. They culminated in a deadly confrontation with Saudi security forces in 1987, which left 400 pilgrims dead and thousands wounded. After this tragedy, Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic relations with Iran for several years, and relations have been rocky ever since.

Iranians have always had a predilection of wanting to help their co-religionists and the weak in the Middle East, leading Iran to support economically, diplomatically and morally the Shiite Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, and even the Sunni Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip. But this has led to a frontal collision with American and Saudi interests in the region.

The Iranian nuclear program, which was started in the 1950s by the Shah with American aid, and resumed in the 1980s by the ayatollahs, which even received technical assistance from Argentina, is the pivot of the latest confrontation between Iran and the West. The US, France, Britain and Germany have accused Iran of developing nuclear energy to make atomic bombs, a charge Tehran vehemently denies.

The reality is that Iran needs nuclear power to produce electricity to meet the needs of its nearly 74 million citizens. Even the UAE and Saudi Arabia announced last year the beginning of civilian nuclear energy programs worth billions of dollars with support from the US and South Korean and French companies. All these countries are embarking on the wave of nuclear power to release valuable oil reserves, now used to generate electricity for their people at subsidized prices, for export.

Although Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta admitted in an interview with CBS television this month that the Iranians are not trying to develop a nuclear weapon, but a nuclear capability, the beaters of the drums of war, unfortunately, seem to have the advantage for now in Washington.

It is ironic that a Democratic president, Obama, has been far more belligerent towards the Iranians than the Republican President George W. Bush was. But the problem here is that the US is sending mixed signals, claiming that it wants a dialogue with the regime of Mahmoud Ahmajinedad, while threatening Iran with a possible attack on its nuclear facilities if it does not stop trying, allegedly, to develop a nuclear weapon.

Observers in the region have said they do not think Iran will block the Strait of Hormuz, as they would be the biggest losers, given that their biggest buyers of oil are India and China. In any event, the UAE are almost ready with their pipeline that bypasses the Strait of Hormuz and, when ready in June, will carry oil from Abu Dhabi directly to the Gulf of Oman. Saudi Arabia has a ready network of pipelines that could carry crude oil to the Eastern Province ports on its western Red Sea coast.

The West along with Israel, which has felt threatened by Iran ever since Ahmajinedad said some years ago that he wanted to push the Jewish state into the sea, are undertaking a subversive war against the Iranian nuclear program with a series of murders of Iranian nuclear scientists, the latest this Wednesday, and the introduction of viruses to sabotage Iranian computers.

Everyone knows how disastrous to the whole world a war between Iran and the West would be, but still there are many in the US government who want to bet on tightening sanctions on Iran so strongly that it would lead to regime change in Tehran. But Iran has survived more than 30 years of economic sanctions and a bloody eight-year war with Iraq. The Iranian people see their nuclear program with nationalist pride, so any attack on Iran would strengthen popular support for the regime.

What the world needs urgently is the intervention of regional powers like Brazil and Turkey in order to defuse the tension between the West and Iran, which if ignored will possibly lead to a disastrous and totally avoidable war.

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