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Gareth Porter: Obama cannot keep the US out of a war if Israel strikes Iran

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. Tension is being ratcheted up on Iran by the United States, Israel. And now the European Union has announced that in principle E.U. countries will not import Iranian oil. We’ll see how significant those measures really turn out to be. The Iranian navy ran operations in the last couple of weeks to show that they can block the Strait of Hormuz if they need to. They say if they are attacked, they will defend themselves. That includes dealing with the stopping of most of the oil from the Middle East that travels by boat through the Strait of Hormuz. All of this is being justified based on the recent IAEA report, which some people are suggesting has the IAEA saying that there is a nuclear weapons program or evidence that suggests one in Iran. And in this interview we’re not going to get all into that again. You can watch the other interviews we’ve done on this. But let me just say that all the experts we have talked to say this report proves nothing of the sort. And you will get the argument for that down here below this video player, or if you click on the link up there, and you will see some of the reports we’ve done, including with ex-IAEA inspectors. Now joining us to unpack the current moment we’re in is Gareth Porter. Gareth is a historian and investigative journalist and an often-contributor to The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us, Gareth.


JAY: So first of all, let’s just quickly catch up on what’s been happening. So let’s start with the American—the new American sanctions. How significant are they? What will they do?

PORTER: Well, first of all, it’s important to understand that this whole idea of sanctions that are against the Iranian central bank, as well as the oil export sector of Iran, was really an idea that came directly from the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his American allies, extreme right wing pro-Israeli neoconservatives clustered around the organization called the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy. They are the ones who put forward the specific proposal which was shopped to the Obama administration, as well as to the U.S. Congress, back in November. And the idea was very explicitly that what would happen is that the central bank of Iran would be considered to be a black mark against any financial institution that imports oil. And if you had any business to transact with the Iranian central bank, you would not be able to do so without being punished by the United States government. And that meant that all countries that import Iranian oil would not be able to use the Iranian Central Bank for their payments. And, of course, the idea was indeed to cut off, insofar as is possible, all imports of Iranian oil from as many countries as possible.

JAY: So how would that affect China, which is the number one purchaser of Iranian oil?

PORTER: Well, the Israelis and their allies in the United States never thought for a moment that the Chinese were going to break their oil relations with Iran, nor did they believe that the Indians would do so. The Indians were considered to be far too much reliant on Iranian oil as well. So really what it came down to was that they hoped to use the E.U. and the United States to get most or all E.U. countries to either cut off or minimize the import of Iranian oil, as well as a number of other countries in the Far East, particularly Japan and South Korea. And there are a lot of questions surrounding this, not the least of which was whether it was possible to even have a major impact on Iranian export of oil without basically causing a great deal of inflation of oil prices worldwide.

JAY: Right. Well, on Wednesday, the E.U. diplomats have apparently said they do have an agreement in principle. They haven’t said when they’re going to be able to implement this. But the big change here seems to be that Greece, which is more dependent on Iranian oil than I think any other European country, has now apparently agreed to this in principle. So, I mean, if in fact they do go ahead with this—and I guess you have some doubts whether they will, but let’s—if they do, will this be significant to Iran? Or will China simply make up the difference?

PORTER: Well, it’s not insignificant if the E.U. is in fact going to reduce to a minimum it’s import of Iranian oil. But that in itself will not, of course, mean that Iran is going to suffer a significant reduction in its oil revenues. The fact is that if there are no other compensatory, you know, oil supplies put on the global market, or if there’s not a lot more compensatory supplies put on the global market, Iran will in fact be able to take advantage of higher oil prices, and the result would either be a wash, or Iran could conceivably have even more oil revenues. And the point I would make here is that the Obama administration was warning in November and early December that this was precisely the reason why this was a bad idea. And the Obama administration very vociferously opposed the idea of trying to do this worldwide precisely because it would result both in the Iranians having more oil revenues and in higher prices for oil. And, of course, with the world economy in a very tenuous situation, and particularly the U.S. economy in a tenuous situation, higher oil prices could have a very negative effect on the U.S. economy and of course affect President Obama’s chances for being reelected.

JAY: So in recent days you wrote a piece which essentially said that President Obama’s trying to distance himself somewhat from any potential Israeli strike against Iran. What’s your take on this?

PORTER: Well, what I understand from people who have been following this closely, particularly Trita Parsi, who is of course the executive director of the National Iranian American Council and a specialist on the triangular relationship between United States, Israel, and Iran, is that people in the White House and around the White House are saying that President Obama believes that he can credibly distance himself from an Israeli strike against Iran, perhaps coming this year sometime, by issuing a series of statements or having his cabinet members issue statements which clearly make it—you know, that make it clear that the United States is opposed quite strongly to an Israeli strike, and that he can communicate this in other ways, perhaps, to Iranians, so that Iran will not hold the United States responsible for Israel. Now—.

JAY: That seems either naive or crazy. I mean, either the U.S. is going to be drawn into this or they’re going to be totally opposed to it and make sure the Israelis know they’re opposed to it. There’s no half-pregnant here.

PORTER: Well, that’s exactly right. I mean, it seems very clear to me as well that unless President Obama is willing to publicly state that there will be serious political consequences for U.S.-Israeli relations, if the Israelis attack Iran in an unprovoked manner, unless, in other words, the United States is saying that this will result in a serious change in the relationship between the United States and Israel—and, of course, with that meaning the United States will not come to Israel’s defense if the—as we all know is going to be the case, that Iran is going to retaliate against Israel, both directly from Iran and through Hezbollah’s rockets and missiles in southern Lebanon you know, this is simply not going to wash. The Iranians are not going to take that seriously because it’s been the case since the beginning of the Obama administration that the United States has taken various steps that make it possible, make it more feasible for Israel to go ahead and attack Iran, not the least of which is to sell bunker buster bombs to Israel. This was of course revealed by WikiLeaks’ cable of November 2009. So it’s simply not going to be credible to Iran. And you’re right. I mean, this is extremely naive of President Obama to believe that there’s any way to divorce the United States from this without a major public shift in policy, which it seems quite clear he’s not prepared to do.

JAY: Now, how much do you think—the tensions between these countries, of course, are real. But how much do you think this is about playing to domestic audiences in all three countries, meaning Israel, Iran, and the United States? I mean, the Iranian regime loves this stuff, to be able to play we’re standing up to the bad Americans and play the nationalist card. Netanyahu loves this external enemy stuff to deal with all the dissent and fractious divisions inside Israel. And it doesn’t hurt Obama, too, to—you know, he’s got to look tough or the Republicans are going to hammer him. I mean, it’s almost, you know, in a sense, seems more driven by all these domestic politics than a real moving at that kind of level to this kind of confrontation.

PORTER: Well, I would—I was, in fact, much more attracted to that approach that there’s much less than meets the eye to the threats of attack against Iran a few years ago than I am now. One of the reasons for that is that you have in Israel a situation where the former chief of Mossad, Meir Dagan, has gone public this past year, in June—his first public appearance since he left his post as head of Mossad in 2010. He revealed that he and two other major figures in Israeli military intelligence circles—the head of Shin Bet and the head of IDF—had in fact prevented Netanyahu from carrying out any adventure against Iran. And it was also reported in the Hebrew language newspaper Maariv that there was in fact a move by those three, plus former—or I should say President Shimon Peres and one other IDF commander, senior commander, which prevented a plan or vetoed a plan by Netanyahu to attack Iran in 2010. So—and clearly this is not just a part of a charade, because Meir Dagan has gone public also in saying that attacking Iran is the stupidest thing that he’d ever heard, and also saying that this could result in the end of the state of Israel. So this is a very serious—a very serious debate, a serious attack on the whole idea of attacking Iran.

JAY: Yeah. Our correspondent in Tel Aviv, Lia Tarachansky, did a piece on this, and we’ll link that to this video as well. She has a report on Dagan’s comments, who essentially said that Netanyahu and Lieberman are essentially not—”reckless and irrational” he called them. So, yeah, I mean, you can never underestimate that as a factor. So in terms of—let’s just back up one big picture to end this off with, because I don’t think one can ever not—one can talk about this too much, which is this seems to be not, again, really about a nuclear program, because there seems, again, no real new evidence that there’s anything going on in Iran, but more about the regional role of Iran, and particularly Hezbollah and Iran’s position on Iraq and so on. Let’s just finish off. What’s your views on that?

PORTER: Right. I mean, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head that there are multiple sources now, both within Israel and pro-Israeli, pro-Likud figures in the neoconservative movement in the United States, who have quite explicitly now stated or argued that the real problem here is not that Iran is going to get a nuclear device and use it against Israel, but rather that Iran will not do so—at least, it will not use a device against Israel, and in fact may be very quiet about having a nuclear device. But the problem would be that Iran would be able to shift the regional balance of power in the Middle East in such a way as to make it more or less possible for Israel, or even impossible for Israel, to continue to intimidate the region, and particularly to intimidate Iran and Hezbollah. And therefore the argument is that it would give the green light for Hezbollah and Hamas to carry on a war against Israel.

Now, I happen to think that that is really quite—even that, as opposed to the idea that there’s an existential threat against Israel—which, by the way, even Defense Minister Ehud Barak of Israel has now essentially disowned; that is admitted to be simply a device to convince the Western world that Iran is a threat to world peace, and to try to get the United States in particular to join in a war against Iran. But quite apart from that, this is an exaggeration, obviously, that even having the capability to build a nuclear weapon without going ahead and building one, which is what Israel seems to be—what Netanyahu seems to be determined to prevent, is simply not going to change the fundamental dynamics of politics in the region. It’s not going to change the role that Hezbollah and Hamas are playing vis-à-vis Israel.

JAY: Right. And just to go back to Dagan again, he was—I can’t remember. He was Shin Bet or Mossad, Dagan?

PORTER: He is Mossad, yes.

JAY: Mossad, the former head of Mossad. One of the things he said, if I remember correctly, was there’s just no reason why Israel couldn’t actually reach some kind of accommodation deal with Iran and with Hezbollah. He doesn’t think there’s any reason for this level of confrontation. But—and he’s known as a hard right-wing hawk.

PORTER: He is. He’s been described as somebody who ate the Palestinians for breakfast—maybe lunch and dinner as well. So you’re right. I mean, he is a hardliner, and yet he is saying Israel, the Israeli government of Netanyahu has got this all wrong. It’s too bad that the Obama administration is not listening more to Meir Dagan and taking that very seriously. And this reminds me, of course, the Iranian government, then of Khatami, President Khatami, approached the United States with a letter proposing negotiations, in which they quite explicitly stated that as part of an overall deal, the Iranian government would be willing to rein in Hezbollah, to make a shift in Hezbollah’s posture from being a military organization into a merely political and cultural organization. Of course, that’s in the context of a major settlement of all the outstanding issues. But nevertheless, that is the level on which the United States and Iran need to be talking. And, of course, Israel in the background needs to be part of that deal as well.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Gareth.

PORTER: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Gareth Porter is a historian and investigative journalist on US foreign and military policy analyst. He writes regularly for Inter Press Service on US policy towards Iraq and Iran. Author of four books, the latest of which is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.