U.S. ratchets up the pressure on Iran

Lee Sustar explains how the U.S. government is using human rights as a cover for imposing a stiff new regime of sanctions against Iran.

President Barack Obama, flanked by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates (Lawrence L. Jackson)President Barack Obama, flanked by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates (Lawrence L. Jackson)

THE U.S. is preparing a new round of sanctions against Iran in the wake of the latest crackdown on the country's pro-democracy movement.

But if the Obama administration makes good on its threats to squeeze Iran economically, it will only be a gift to Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as he tries to paint the opposition as a tool of the West.

By carrying out a wave of arrests prior to the February 11 Revolution Day commemoration, the Ahmadinejad regime thwarted the opposition's plans to show its strength in the streets.

The protesters--under the umbrella of the Green Movement of Mir Hussein Mousavi, who was defeated in last June's fraudulent election--had planned to attend the official government commemoration of the revolution, and then unveil green banners. But the government was determined to prevent a repeat of December's big street demonstrations that saw opposition forces routing police and security personnel in several places.

This time, the government aggressively pre-empted protests by arresting opposition figures, journalists and other critics of the regime. The repression, along with the government's efforts to fill the public squares with its supporters three days ahead of time, made it almost impossible for the opposition to organize more than scattered protests. Security personnel even attacked the contingent surrounding Mousavi--a former prime minister--as well as other leading opposition figures.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the crackdown as a pretext for the latest U.S. campaign for sanctions against Iran because of its program of enriching nuclear fuel--an effort once again trumpeted by Ahmadinejad in his February 11 Revolution Day speech. On a visit to the Gulf state of Qatar, Clinton said, "Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship. That is our view."

A few days earlier, President Barack Obama made an unscheduled appearance at a White House press briefing to personally announce the latest U.S. sanctions on Iran--a move by the U.S. Treasury to freeze American assets held by a general in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, as well as four companies tied to him. The U.S charges that the Iranian official is involved in an effort to develop weapons of mass destruction.

But this is a small maneuver intended to prepare the ground for a much bigger economic squeeze on Iran--one that will be backed, the U.S. hopes, by the United Nations. "We have the support of everyone from Russia to Europe," Vice President Joe Biden said February 14 on NBC's Meet the Press. "And I believe we'll get the support of China to continue to impose sanctions on Iran to isolate them, to make clear that in fact they cannot move forward."

To get China on board, Clinton will pressure Saudi Arabia to make up for any disruption caused by sanctions in Iran's oil shipments to China, the Financial Times reported.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Moscow to press for backing for anti-Iran sanctions--and to try to convince Russia to cancel plans to sell Iran its sophisticated S-300 air defense system. Israel has repeatedly hinted that it would launch an air attack on Iran if officials believe the country is on the brink of developing nuclear weapons.

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MOMENTUM FOR sanctions against Iran has been building in Congress for months. Last year, the House approved a bill that would impose penalties on any individual or company involved in importing gasoline to Iran, or helping it to expand its ability to refine oil. The Senate approved a similar, but even harsher, measure. Iran's latest refusal to scale back its nuclear program will be used as justification for moving forward.

In fact, Iran has offered to exchange its supply of enriched uranium for new fuel rods from other countries. But the U.S. won't take "yes" for an answer. "Iran's announcement that it is enriching uranium to 20 percent is likely to accelerate action by House and Senate lawmakers to formulate and send a final bill to President Obama targeting Iran's energy sector, but timing remains uncertain," the Voice of America reported.

The anti-Iran drive is thoroughly bipartisan. On February 11, a group of senators from both parties introduced legislation that would compel the Obama administration to draw up a list of top abusers of human rights in the Iranian government. "We will shine a light on the names of Iran's human rights abusers, and we will make them famous for their crimes," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Human rights abuses certainly exist in Iran--and they're getting worse. Since the massive opposition street rebellion following the June elections, Ahmadinejad's ruling circle has been carrying out a slow-motion coup, using arrests, torture and murder of oppositionists to try to crush any serious challenge.

In the days before the latest confrontation last week, the government executed two political prisoners, men charged with membership in a monarchist armed insurgency. Prosecutors claimed the men were put to death because of their ties to the post-election protests. In fact, the two had been arrested long before.

But their executions were an attempt to intimidate the opposition--and nine imprisoned pro-democracy activists face the death penalty if their appeals are denied.

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IN THESE circumstances, economic sanctions may be seen by those who sympathize with the opposition as a reasonable way to pressure a dictatorial regime--certainly preferable to a bloody invasion and Iraq-style "regime change." But this is mistaken, for several reasons.

First, for the U.S., sanctions, military pressure and negotiations are various means to the same end: to remove Iran as an obstacle to U.S. aims in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. Iran has a great deal of economic and political influence in both Iraq and Afghanistan, much to the consternation of Obama, like George W. Bush before him.

If Obama came into office saying he would back off of Bush's Iran-bashing, it was only because the U.S. needed to retool its image and make amends with allies in order to make sanctions stick against Iran. Now that a decent interval has passed, Obama is attempting to put together a coalition of the willing to try to knock Iran into line.

In using the crackdown on pro-democracy activists to justify sanctions, the U.S. is being "very opportunist," said Kaveh Ehsani, an assistant professor of international studies at DePaul University in Chicago and longtime Iranian-American activist:

The only thing the U.S. is concerned with is its imperial interests. It wants to turn Iran into a pliable and weak regime--a regime that's not in a position to dictate its interests in the region, and that doesn't have leverage over what is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that can't dictate economic terms by controlling the flow of oil and gas. If society is weakened as a result, so be it.

Certainly, no supporter of democracy or human rights would shed a tear for the Iranian security bureaucrats who might get stung by sanctions. But history shows that the ruling class usually forces the costs of such measures onto the backs of working people--just as U.S. and United Nations sanctions caused mass suffering among the people of Iraq in the 1990s. Sanctions that were sold as a means of weakening Saddam Hussein actually helped him consolidate his power.

Sanctions on Iran would likely have a similar effect, as Ahmadinejad could use economic difficulties as a cover for his ongoing program of privatizing state enterprises to enrich his cronies, while reducing the living standards of workers. The U.S. would get the blame--and the opposition would be attacked as Washington stooges.

As the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker group, pointed out, "Blocking Iran's gasoline imports, which it depends on to meet 40 percent of its needs, would impose hardship on ordinary Iranians and lend credence to the claim that the United States is hostile to the people of Iran."

The U.S. sanctions effort is likely to be drawn out as Obama tries to coax Russia and China into the effort. Like Washington, Moscow and Beijing don't want to see a nuclear-armed Iran upsetting the global balance of power. Yet Russia and China aren't eager to help the U.S. pursue its agenda, either.

What's likely, therefore, are protracted talks among allies about how to impose sanctions on Iran, punctuated by overt threats. Given the stakes involved and the volatility of Iranian politics, a military strike on Iran of some sort--carried out by either the U.S. or Israel--can't be ruled out.

That's why the U.S. antiwar movement needs to make opposition to sanctions in Iran a major focus. The U.S., after all, isn't interested only in keeping a grip on Iraq and Afghanistan, but entrenching itself further in an arc of military bases from the Gulf to South Asia.

Iran is a major obstacle to that plan, so it remains in the crosshairs. Concern for human rights and democracy is just Obama's cover story.