What can be done about the impending invasion of Iran?

Geoff Harris

International Centre of Nonviolence

I am afraid – very afraid – that the United States is preparing for a war with Iran. When I look at the unmitigated disaster the 2003 invasion of Iraq has caused to the region, the prospect of some similar action against Iran appals me.  

Why do I think that an invasion of Iraq is on the cards? I refer to a phrase which celebrity psychologist Dr Phil often uses – ‘the best guide to future behaviour is relevant past behaviour’. The relevant past behaviour in this case has two components.

First, there is the sheer number of times the US has ‘intervened’ militarily in other countries since the end of WW2. As William Blum[i] and others[ii] have documented, there have been well over 50 such interventions, beginning with China in 1945 and continuing to the present day.

What led to these interventions? Blum explains that in almost every case it was not because of the country’s anti-American sentiments. Rather, it was because it had shown signs of self-determination – ‘the desire … to pursue a path of development independent of US foreign policy objectives’[iii]. Just wishing for neutrality and non-alignment with any super-power was more than enough justification for the US to intervene. 

The second element of past behaviour concerns the way these interventions, particularly the major invasions, came about. Vietnam and Iraq are the best known examples. In 1967, the US tried to provoke North Vietnam into military action which could be used to justify a major expansion of the US war effort. North Vietnam was careful not to respond to such provocation, so Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara blatantly lied to President Johnson about a non-existent naval encounter in the Gulf of Tonkin[iv]. The President, impatient to be seen as decisive during an election campaign, swallowed the bait and the Vietnam war began in earnest. After 50 000 US soldiers, 1.4 million Vietnamese combatants and perhaps two million civilian deaths, the US pulled out of South Vietnam, which promptly fell to North Vietnamese forces.

The decision to invade Iraq was also based on lies. First, someone – guilty or not – had to be punished for the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11, 1999 and, even though there was no credible evidence of any Al Qaeda-Iraq link, Iraq seemed like a good candidate. Second, there was the continued allegation that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, despite extremely credible evidence to the contrary provided by United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission. Based on fabricated evidence, including that presented by Secretary of State Colin Powell to the UN Security Council, President George W. Bush ordered the invasion which began in March, 2003. The war was soon over, with minimal US casualties but the resultant civil wars in Iraq and Syria have killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, displaced and traumatised millions more and multiplied the number of terrorists intent in harming the US and its allies. These consequences are continuing 16 years after the invasion and, now that the genie of violence is out of the bottle, will continue for decades more.

A frightening feature of these two examples, and many of the others documented by Blum, is a US President who is willing to believe and act on the advice of one or two key advisors rather than that of his own intelligence agencies or respected international agencies. Does this sound like anyone we know?

In fact, the track record shows that US military interventions have largely failed to achieve their objective of installing regimes which are friendly to US interests. And in most cases, US invasions and US-backed coups ‘have led to severe repression, disappearances, extra-judicial executions, torture, corruption, and prolonged setbacks for the democratic aspirations of ordinary people’.[v]

In addition, and contrary to popular belief, in the 20th century, nonviolent efforts were far more effective than violence in bringing about major changes such as overthrowing regimes, expelling foreign occupiers and secession[vi].

Given this, what advice can be offered from a nonviolence perspective to the parties involved in the likely US invasion of Iran? Given that there is no way Iran could withstand a concerted attack from the US, there is no point in it maintaining a large military to deter such an attack. My advice to Iran is a radical one – to reduce its military capacity by half in a very public way by closing military bases, demobilising soldiers and decommissioning naval vessels and aircraft. At the same time, it should advise the world that in the event of a US invasion, it will not resist. This will disconcert the US to such an extent that an invasion – of a country which will not resist – will become far less likely. There is a risk in doing this, of course, but I believe it is far less than allowing the present trajectory to continue.

The resources saved can be reallocated to issues such as combatting climate change and providing non-military assistance, without strings attached, to poorer countries in the region, especially those dealing with huge numbers of refugees. This fits closely with Islamic principles and would raise Iran’s regional and international status.

I would ask the United States to recognise that military interventions go against the very principles of freedom and truth on which the country is said to be based. This means, to paraphrase Gandhi, that the US needs to demonstrate by its actions the sort of world order it wants to encourage. One way to do this would be to join international efforts against the biggest threat to humankind – climate change – financed by significant cuts in military expenditure, the size of which dwarfs those of all its potential enemies combined.

Finally, I would urge other countries to take the risk of encouraging the US, over and over again, to behave better as global citizen.  

[i] Blum, W. 2014. Killing hope. US military and CIA interventions since World War II. Updated edition. London: Zed Books.

[ii] Keylor, W. 2009. A world of nations: the international order since 1945. 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press; Litwak, R. 2007. Regime change: US strategy through the prism of 9/11. Washington, DC/Baltimore, MD: Woodrow Wilson Center Press/The Johns Hopkins University Press.

[iii] Blum, op cit, p. 12.

[iv] Hastings, M. 2018. Vietnam. An epic tragedy 1945-1975. London: William Collins, pp. 189-193.

[v] Swanson, D. 2016. War is a lie. 2nd edition. Charlottesville, VA: Just World Books, p. 30.

[vi] Chenoweth, E. and Stephan, M. 2011. Why civil resistance works. The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict. Columbia, NY: Columbia University Press.