Thursday, 10 February 2011

Why we Will Attack Iran: Or the link between Ivory and Fossil Fuels

Why ‘we’ will attack Iran (Persia)
It’s repeatedly said that we’re addicted to oil; and it’s true. From air travel and the internet to creating the means to wean ourselves off our hydrocarbon addiction, our current infrastructure relies almost solely on a petro-chemical base. This hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing. The Earth’s water nourished us as primates and only recently have we begun to leave it undrinkable. It didn’t get us much further than an animal existence for millennia. 

Since learning to use the poisonous oil and coal, we have enjoyed rapid and ever-increasing life expectancy, global travel, and effortless dissemination of ideas; we have even visited the distant moon. Through globalisation, even the billions for whom life has always been ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short’ are following us into longer lives lived well. Since striking Black Gold, our species has been able to outgrow nature itself.

But we are being told that ‘Peak Oil’, that time when our guzzling reaches its fullest, fast approaches; and that we should fear fighting over the dregs. It is also apparent that our Faustian pact has its own abrasive sub-clauses. Cancer has become common. Rapid population growth fuelled by oil has led to prodigious famines and wars; with more people, come more deaths. Our seas, sublime in their ability to slosh about indifferent to us, are in places polluted to the extent that they extinguish life. 

Stand by a car’s exhaust to understand the choking cost of fast transport; sit in a bar to feel how far we have come, yet see that we are still animals. We are asked to set off on a course for change, embracing cleaner technologies that will allow us to extend our stay in the Garden. We shall not heed these calls; self-interest deals mainly in minutes, not months; in families, not societies. No leader exists at the top, nor is there sufficient will for change at the bottom. And nor shall it matter; the world will continue, regardless. 

But we cannot. ‘We’, the fortunate few descendents of those closest to the fire, have grown accustomed to a lot more than an equitable share; because we’ve earned it, fought for it. It’s made us soft, and we will squabble terribly about sharing the embers with our harder, larger group of brothers who are clawing their way in. We may have the rough-hewn flint knife and the power to douse the whole party; but our will is fractured across a thousand voices. 

Our fathers preached Equality; we have forgotten their provisos and exceptions. Now, there is a long way to fall to reach parity with the rest of the World. Giving money to help an orphan or two in a far-flung place was fine. Signing a Facebook petition to end a war was easy. Endorsing protectionist policies to save local jobs was a stretch. And living a frugal, sustainable existence at the cost of all past luxuries would be downright hard.

Riots abound about austerity. Retirement, once a year or two spent shuffling off this mortal coil, is now a sacred, ‘earned’ couple of unproductive decades that has to be paid for. Those same corporations that cause such popular angst are likely invested in by pension funds struggling to accommodate payouts to can’t-work, won’t work people kept alive by easy living and expensive healthcare. In France, mass riots accompanied the increasing of the age at which the state begins to pay people to live. 

The young demand a full quarter of life as dependents, enjoying panem et circenses on expensive laptops created by their industrious ‘equals’ in the Far East. Witnessing student riots, we see public bills driven up further by the actions of the bored youth playing out the riots of the previous generation for short-lived Youtube fame. Shouldering more of the cost of spending three years in creation-less consumption ought to be less contentious. 

We started providing aid to appease populations while we plundered the raw resources that we lacked; we carry on now at least in part because we started to believe the lie that we were helping. We excessively reward individuals not for the proper allocation of capital so we can keep up the Ponzi scheme of pensions, but for gambling with other’s money. And we don’t take anything back when some of the bigger bets are lost, staking the bills ourselves.

We have been comfortable enough to create a beautiful ideality; that same will be our downfall in the arena of the wolf where ruthless always wins. Already environmental concerns gave China, which looks set to surpass America, a monopoly on the rare earths so necessary for the teeth and bones of Western society. Tellingly, this imbalance is quickly being addressed.

In the last decade, we have killed hundreds of thousands in Iraq. We have killed hundreds of thousands in Afghanistan. We have done this with contraptions purpose-built to kill, and profited well from it. In a worrying step ‘forward’, we have begun to kill by proxy from the other side of the world using drones controlled using an interface almost identical to the games we buy our children. This has been perpetrated under the guise of a war against terrorism. 

The same catch-all concept has been misused to impinge civil liberties and create laws that are open to abuse. The Icelandic banking assets were frozen using UK anti-terror legislation, for example. In many Western countries the right to fly has become inseparably linked with an agreement to have one’s dignity and privacy invaded. A lot of these new rules are counter-intuitive. Mothers must open and taste a fortnight’s worth of perishable baby food; relatively unchecked baggage handlers are often free to go as they please about the same planes. The main terrorist danger to aviation is through explosives secreted in the hold, not through passengers armed with nail clippers. 

This is a moot point, or we would check buses and trains; but the illusion of safety is enforced, albeit in a particularly unpleasant way. Terrorism then is addressed through a rationing of scaremongering and reassurance. Photographers cannot use tripods  in many places due to an abstract ‘terrorist threat’, but Google is permitted to photograph every street in high-resolution for the free and private (?) use of interested parties. 

The same degree of state intervention was not seen however when terrorist action was more ubiquitous; when P-IRA bombs regularly exploded on the British mainland, or during ETA’s campaign for Basque independence in France and Spain. Terrorism is ever a political tool. Of course, the weapons that we have worked so hard to create are far more devastating now, and offer the force of destroying civilisations to a single person. Unfortunately, humankind has not managed to advance as far, so strong locks must keep these horrific toys from our brutal, foolish nature. But in considering the need to keep apocalyptic power out of insane hands, we should bear in mind that 'those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.'

The terror threat has been properly used however. It has allowed us to ride roughshod into foreign countries in which we have significant strategic interest. Our reliance on fossil fuels to fund our heady lifestyle and continual growth is not the only justification for recent calls to arms. Saddam Hussein, leader of a major OPEC member, had opted to be paid for its oil in Euros instead of the traditional US dollars due to US currency manipulation and high trade deficit. Venezuela joined him, as did Iran. Since coming off the gold standard, the US was keen to see that the value of the Dollar remained rooted in oil, especially due to their voracious appetite for the latter. Iraq was invaded and the interim and subsequent governments have returned to using the US dollar. Only after our invasion of Afghanistan did we discover more than a trillion dollars worth of mineral wealth there.

The collapse of the USSR led to a race to tap the oil and natural gas deposits of the Caspian Sea but the logistics of doing so remain challenging due to lack of infrastructure and the political situation in the region. Several large tankers were created in situ in order to achieve this, but this was a small solution and concerns with Russian control over a portion of European gas exports prompted a  to be sought. Putin’s suspension of Ukrainian supplies exacerbated the situation. 

Turkmenistan, formerly ruled by an eccentric, has attractive gas fields. In 1995, a pipeline was proposed that would pass from the Dauletabad gas field in Southern Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India; the TAPI pipeline. The Chinese-financed Pakistani port Gwadar allows Western markets access to the region’s gas while circumventing Russian channels. Those interested in Turkey’s flirtation with EU membership should be aware of the BTE pipeline from the Caspian ending up at the port of Ceyhan on Islamic Turkey’s Mediterranean coastline. Russian pressure on Georgia, through which the pipeline runs after Azerbaijan, necessitates additional channels to Western markets.

For Afghanistan, this looked to be a positive proposal; it was the largest foreign investment project since the Cold War by proxy under the Russian invasion. However, part of the conditions on the Afghan side were that the security of the multi-billion dollar pipeline be assured, and the then Taliban government didn’t have the far-reaching control over the tribal areas to guarantee this. While an Argentinian competing company bidding for the contract was able to secure a number of commitments from tribal leaders, the US company Unocal was not. In addition, requests that US soldiers be deployed in country to protect the investment were met with insurmountable opposition by Taliban leaders. 

Delays dogged the project, and it was only in 2010, with Western soldiers on the ground routing out the ‘insurgents’ and a new and rather more malleable government in Kabul that the pipeline has finally taken a firm step towards fruition. The cost, in money and lives, has been steep; and with political will faltering in a domestic climate of austerity and disgust at the loss of life, a number of the Afghani fighters are playing a waiting game until the Western armies are recalled. Not for nothing has mountainous, tribal Afghanistan been called the ‘graveyard of Empires’.

But there is a better route for the addictive substances that fuels our ‘growth’. And that is through Iran.  In fact, a proposed IPI (Iranian, Pakistanian and Indian) pipeline does just this, connecting at intervals with the TAPI pipeline. Quite serendipitously, it also looks set to provide easy access to the South Pars gas field in the Persian Gulf. Western military bases now already exist in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan surrounding Iran. But this is not the only way in which Iranian occupation would benefit the West. Iran is second only to Russia with regards to the sheer size of its natural gas deposits, and third for oil deposits. 

In 1953 the US and Britain stepped in to guard their interests in Iranian oil by deposing the democratically elected popular Prime Minister Mossadegh after he nationalised the petroleum industry and oil reserves. Prior to this, the Shah was effectively deposed and afterwards the West aided the Iraqis in a territory grab that led to some five hundred thousand Iranian casualties, one hundred thousand of which were killed using chemical weapons; so it is natural that a distrust of Western manipulation lingers in Iran. The creation of Israel from British Palestine is particularly contentious, and Iran does not recognise that state. Without going too far into any religious aspects, Iran is a functioning Islamic Republic whose population is 95% Shi’a and only 3% Sunni.

Wikileaked documents indicate that several other important countries in the Middle East have repeatedly pressured the US to act against Iran. Ahmadinejad meanwhile pursues an inflammatory nuclear program, which he insists is for energy supply only. It wouldn’t be difficult to believe that a weapons program would be appealing to the Iranian regime, proving regional clout and a deterrent against invasion. Israeli politicians have recommended pre-emptive strikes on Iranian facilities, and the Mossad have been tentatively linked to assassinations of nuclear scientists. 

But it is not the nuclear situation; that is equally concerning in North Korea, and perhaps even in Pakistan. But it does complicate matters for it sets a time limit on any military action; as the Ayatollahs know. It is worth noting that Iran has the lowest proportional defence budget among the Gulf States, whereas the US and Israel spend heavily. We should consider Iran’s two thousand, eight hundred years of rich history before we act rashly.

Is there any way to prevent this? It used to be that the ivory and fur trades were accepted and lucrative business. War has often been a business; see the fortunes that change hands and warnings about a Military Industrial Complex as evidence for this. But by broadcasting graphic and often disturbing images of wounded rhinos with tusks sawn off or animals killed for a skin and then left, the Western consciousness was informed, and repulsed. We have all seen images of war, and who can forget the photograph of a charred, devilish figure of a former Iraqi soldier, burned to death? 

Yet war persists, despite popular domestic protest. An ‘us or them’ mentality is understandable; if by occupying and fighting in Afghanistan we are able to prevent mass bombings in our own cities then this is a price that many would accept is worth paying; yes, even if civilian casualties are unavoidable. We remember the Wars, and the necessity for action against the formidable German war machine. Appeasement didn’t work. But to suggest that the terrorist threat is on a par with international threats, assuming the enforcement of a strict and effective control of weapons proliferation, is debatable. Our way of life faces a greater existential threat from domestic factors, the misapplication of capital and the lobbying of a military industrial complex.

With the amount of money spent on recent wars, a far more surgical combination of propaganda and assassination could have been adopted. Our psychologists ought to be able to create a wholly compelling ideology that would spread widely and encourage devotion to the point of self-sacrifice; it has been done several times before, most notably about two thousand years ago. Perhaps any such ideas could take into account how the world has changed, including our individual ability to disperse ideas globally and to cause mass destruction. But no, beyond a mortgage, inflation and consumption, not enough exists in this domain; spirituality cannot be completely reasoned away, as Kierkegaard realised.

Could we propose greater honesty with the voting population (and greater emphasis on the responsibility of informed voting)? I share Kant’s opinion that the truth is always better, allowing the requisite silences. If a war is predominantly for control of natural resources in another country, then this reasoning should be offered up for consideration. If we don’t want to pay foreign workers too much due to the economic consequences of currency export, say so. If a small group of individuals are getting disproportionately wealthy by their actions, let us know about them. Like the ivory, it is our own demand that causes this. 

If we cannot live without constant hot water, individual cars and absolute personal safety in our home country, then we should realise that this comes at a cost; and we should see this cost. Wastefulness is easy when prices are cheap, but prices are cheap only when wages are low. Flights are cheap when jet fuel isn’t expensive; but refineries are dirty and their cost is both human (see Nigeria) and environmental (see Deep Water Horizon) as well as financial.  

Cigarettes now have accompanying photographs of the diseases that smoking them will lead to (and that will be paid for by society). Perhaps products that rely on fossil fuels or corporate malpractice to satisfy consumer expectations should be linked to a similar advisory notice. Like the huge black market in addictive drugs has led to such bloodshed worldwide and especially in Latin America, our own addiction to the products of fossil fuels has created an insatiable demand. Let us see clearly what the consequences of this demand are; and let us then choose if the more flippant luxuries of our lifestyles are worth the atrocities that are routinely carried out to provide them. ‘Knowing when enough is enough is always enough.’ Lao Tzu.