The US followed through on its threats to impose severe economic sanctions on Iranian institutions on October 25, when it announced unilateral measures against the Revolutionary Guard Corps, three major Iranian banks, and more than 20 Iranian companies. However, the fact that it imposed the sanctions unilaterally, instead of via the UN, as initially threatened, indicates caution about the US’s belligerence even among allies that are supporting it publicly, and there was outspoken criticism of the US from Russian president Victor Putin during a state visit to Iran. The American move also came just weeks after investigative journalist Seymour Hersh published further details of its covert war against Iran in the New Yorker magazine on September 30.
The US sanctions, announced by secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and treasury secretary Henry Paulson, are targeted primarily at the Revolutionary Guard, which the US accuses of being “proliferators of weapons of mass destruction” and “supporters of terrorism”. The sanctions follow from threats to impose such sanctions issued in August, which Iran laughed off, saying that Iran need not fear any US action and that there is little the US can do to hurt it.
The Revolutionary Guards are Iran’s main popular militia force, with responsibilities for law-enforcement, border-control and training Iran’s people to resist any outside invasion. It is also involved in scientific research and large-scale economic projects such as the construction of the Tehran metro system and oil and gas projects. It also supports Islamic movements in other countries, such as Hizbullah in Lebanon and resistance movements in Palestine. However, commentators say that it has had ample time to make arrangements to ensure that its activities are not significantly affected by the US sanctions, which allow for the freezing of assets in US banks, and barring US businesses from dealing with the Revolutionary Guards and others named in the sanctions. These are unlikely to have any significant impact because economic links between the two countries have been minimal since economic sanctions imposed by the US after the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
The sanctions are also aimed at blackmailing foreign banks and corporations with the threat that they could be excluded from dealing with the US if they maintain economic links with any of the Iranian parties named in the sanctions. Speaking off record, US officials have said that the Revolutionary Guards’ economic activities are so pervasive that any dealings with Iran by foreign companies carry the risk of US-imposed penalties. This is designed to pressurise foreign companies to comply with the US sanctions, even though the US has no right to demand cooperation from them without UN action. The only companies likely to fall foul of this are of course ones in Muslim countries; major corporations in allied Western countries, such as Britain and France, will in practice no doubt be exempt from any US penalties.
Although the US’s move was supported by the British government, its usual lap-dogs, other Western powers responded more cautiously. Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeir, said that decisions on sanctions against Iran should be left to the UN, to be taken in view of the IAEA reports on the country’s nuclear activities. Russian president Victor Putin was even more critical, strongly condemning the US’s actions at a meeting of European Union leaders shortly after they were announced, and saying that the US has no right to try to bully other countries.
The US decision to go ahead with the sanctions shows two things: first, its determination to increase political pressure on Iran as a prelude to military action; and second, its frustration with the IAEA for its refusal to provide the justification that the US wants for its aggressive intentions. Evidence of these intentions was clear in Bush’s $200-billion budget-request sent to Congress on October 22. This includes $88 million for “bunker-busting” bombs to be fitted to B-2 Stealth bombers, evidently for possible use against Iran.
Details of the US government’s advanced military and political preparations for war on Iran were revealed in a long article by Seymour Hersh in the September 30 issue of New Yorker magazine, called “Shifting Targets: The Administration’s plan for Iran”. Hersh, who has repeatedly exposed covert American intelligence and military operations, wrote that the Pentagon has drawn up detailed war plans, the CIA has allocated funds specifically for operations against Iran, and that senior allies of the US, including Britain, Australia and Israel, have prepared to support the US plans.
Reflecting the US’s frustration with the IAEA, Hersh states that while the US was initially focusing on the nuclear issue to justify attacking Iran, it has now decided that that is not working, and that it needs to shift attention to a new propaganda campaign: claiming that Iran is arming and supporting insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan who are killing US troops. This line appears to be taken particularly strongly for the domestic US audience, while the nuclear issue and Iran’s supposed threats against Israel are still emphasised more for international audiences.
Quoting senior intelligence and defence sources, Hersh states that the US is building both the case, and the military capacity, for intensive bombing of targets in Iran rather than an all-out invasion. He quotes one former senior intelligence official as saying that “Cheney's option is now for a fast in and out -- surgical strikes. The navy’s planes, ships and cruise missiles are in place in the Gulf and operating daily. They have got everything they need -- even AWACS are in place and the targets in Iran have been programmed. The navy is flying F-18 missions every day in the Gulf.”
Another anonymous intelligence source told Hersh that the bombings would be accompanied by operations by Special Forces Units on the ground, and that there was an option for escalating the operations to include targets in Syria and Lebanon -- i.e. Hizbullah targets -- if deemed necessary.
A CIA source told Hersh that the CIA has also focused on Iran: “They’re moving everybody to the Iran desk. They’re dragging a lot of analysts and ramping everything up. It’s just like the fall as 2002 [i.e. before the Iran invasion]... The guys now running the Iranian program have limited direct experience with Iran. The Administration has not thought this all the way through.”
Perhaps most chillingly, Hersh has stated in a separate interview with Democracy Now that the limited strike option was a compromise designed to keep domestic and international sceptics and opponents of action against Iran on-board with the US’s plans, and that Cheney's original plans had been for far more extensive bombing of Iran: “to bring in the Air Force and rake everything.”
Hersh’s article confirms that, along with the overt political and diplomatic moves against Iran, the US is also engaged in intense covert preparations for war. It also confirms that the IAEA and its attempts to find a solution to America’s apparent concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme are utterly irrelevant.
For the record, IAEA secretary general Mohammad ElBaradei said again on October 28 that there is no evidence to suggest that Iranis working actively to build nuclear weapons of mass destruction, and expressed concern at the implications of the belligerent US attitude towards Iran. But there is little reason now to believe that anything ElBaradei or the UN can do can divert the US from its course.