Can war with Iran be prevented?

“Obama Signals a Shift From Military Might to Diplomacy” was the headline of a report in the New York Times on Tuesday, following the “first step” agreement reached with Iran over the prior weekend.  That says a lot: that the U.S. is resorting to diplomacy, the normal currency of foreign relations for most other countries, is front page news -- how different our government is from the rest of the world, and how much more we in the United States have to fight in order to prevent war.

And prevention is the only way.  By the time there were more than 20 million people in the streets worldwide against the planned invasion of Iraq, it was too late. And once these wars get started, they are very difficult to stop. Afghanistan is now the longest war in U.S. history. 

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The media is largely ignoring the obvious here, but we wouldn’t have any deal with Iran if Obama had been able to go ahead with his plans to bomb Syria.  We would have been lucky to avoid a massive conflagration in the region. So we can thank the “war-weary” American people, as the press calls us, and especially the organized among us – including the 8-million-member Moveon.org – for preventing Congress from supporting President Obama’s war campaign. And we can thank the organized anti-war movement in the U.K., for forcing Cameron’s hand and leaving Obama even more isolated internationally than George W. Bush was when he prepared to invade Iraq.

It’s ironic, because all we hear in the news is that the Iranian people’s desire to get rid of the U.S.-led sanctions, and their election of Rouhani, were the impetus for the breakthrough. But it helps to look at the other side of the equation.  It was not long ago that the Obama administration was preparing the ground for the next president to go to war with Iran, just as the Clinton administration created the conditions for Bush’s Iraq war:  with crippling sanctions, threats of illegal military actions, and perhaps most importantly, a PR campaign to convince Americans of the outright falsehood that this faraway nation with relatively little military capability posed a threat to their security.

But now, the New York Times tells us, “‘Regime change,’ in Iran or even Syria, is out; cutting deals with former adversaries is in.”  This would certainly be an historic change if it were true, as well as a better-late-than-never delivery on Obama’s 2008 campaign promise.

But the War Party still has a lot of clout:  Israel’s Netanyahu may seem isolated internationally, but his allies still own a sizeable chunk of the U.S. Congress.  There was a serious attempt in the Senate to sabotage the latest talks by imposing new sanctions on Iran, which Democratic majority leader Harry Reid (Nev.) was able to postpone until after Saturday’s agreement was reached. And the French government also tried to torpedo the agreement, creating a new competition for who could be the most war-seeking government in the world.

The U.S. and its allies have successfully demonized Iran in the eyes of the Western world,  so most of the discourse we read is about whether Iran can be trusted. But let’s step back and look at this from the other side for a moment.  Writing in the most recent issue of the Washington establishment journal Foreign Affairs, Akbar Ganji notes that in the eyes of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, "despite [then Iranian President Mohammad] Khatami’s willingness to compromise, his kind words for Americans, his cooperation in toppling the Taliban and in the subsequent Bonn negotiations to install a pro-American government in Afghanistan, U.S. President George W. Bush had still included Iran in his ‘axis of evil.’"

And Iran had previously suspended its enrichment of uranium for two years and gotten nothing for it, not even the lifting of any sanctions. Furthermore, Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi had dismantled his whole nuclear program – and, it may be added, went so far in his co-operation as to torture suspected terrorists that Washington “renditioned” to him.  Yet NATO participated in his overthrow. For much of the world, this was seen as a grim message that you could do whatever Washington wanted, and they would still destroy you if they saw an opportunity.

So there is “trust-building” needed on both sides.  The ultimate constraint on the Washington side is public opinion at home, where the latest polling this week shows that only 20 percent would support a military strike if the talks fail.  “War-weary” Americans will have to be vigilant, and anti-war organizers active and strong, if the long-threatened war with Iran is to be prevented.

Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. He is also president of Just Foreign Policy

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