“All options are on the table,” says President George W. Bush when asked about press reports that the Pentagon is drawing up plans to bomb Iran to derail the nuclear research program there. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei shoots back: "The Iranian nation will respond to any blow with double the intensity." Even if Bush’s saber rattling is merely a psychological ploy, and even if the Iranians are also just blowing smoke, the danger is that the cycle of threat and counter-threat could spin out of control.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is in hot water with Washington and European capitals because of its apparent pursuit of a nuclear bomb. Dangling carrots of increased trade, the Europeans are trying to persuade Iran to renounce atomic ambitions. Skeptical of these methods but bogged down in Iraq, the Bush administration has grumbled on the sidelines.
Rep. Ralph Hall opened a set of Congressional hearings on July 8 with a dramatic flourish, denouncing "the deaths of thousands of Iraqis through malnutrition and lack of appropriate medical supplies." "We have a name for that in the United States," the Texas Republican told a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "It's called murder."
Late in the evening of November 27, the US and Russia appear to have reached an agreement to once again roll over existing sanctions on Iraq for six months, by which time Secretary of State Colin Powell hopes the two powers will have agreed on a version of his proposed "smart sanctions." The December 3 deadline to renew the UN oil for food program, under which Iraq is allowed to sell its oil on the world market to import needed civilian goods, brings the familiar rhetoric, mutual accusations and rejections that have accompanied most renewals since 1997 when the program began. But this time, the stakes are higher, and the outcome is linked to broader uncertainties about future US policy in the Middle East.
(This article was updated on November 14, 2001.)
On February 16, US and British warplanes bombed targets outside the no-fly zones for the first time since December 1998, prompting a brief media frenzy that refocused the world's attention on the low-level US-UK air war waged against Iraq since the 1990-1991 Gulf war. But the media mostly missed the real story. With bitter irony, George W. Bush's characterization of the raid as a "routine mission" highlighted the media's near-total neglect of the remarkable escalation of bombing inside the no-fly zones over the last two years.
It feels oddly like being at a wake in a funeral home. Our Fellowship of Reconciliation delegation members speak very quietly with one another as we wait for a hospital official to brief us about conditions at the al-Mansour Children's wing of the Saddam City Medical Center. Dr. Mekki, the director, is away, so a hospital official went in search of a senior doctor to speak with us. I open my diary and it dawns on me that at this time four years ago, in March 1996, our first Voices in the Wilderness delegation visited Iraq.
As US policy supporting the continuation of sanctions on Iraq becomes ever more isolated abroad, domestic criticism of sanctions also mounts. Opponents of sanctions gained new visibility in February 1998 at Ohio State University, when pointed questions from the audience disrupted the Clinton administration's carefully staged "town meeting." (See Sam Husseini's "Short-Circuiting the Media/Policy Machine," Middle East Report 208, Fall 1998.) Activists now speak of an anti-sanctions movement drawn primarily from faith-based and peace groups.
Throughout the 1990s, social conditions in Iraq have deteriorated to levels last experienced three and four decades ago. This decline is associated with a dramatic reduction of the gross national product from around $3,500 to under $700 per capita, but changes in the GNP do not tell the entire story.  While Iraq's social indicators, including child mortality, today are certainly not the lowest in the world, the extent and rate of decline there is unprecedented in the modern world.
In the spring of 1995, a special issue of Middle East Report offered a damning assessment of US and Allied policy toward Iraq since the Gulf war: Economic sanctions imposed to topple the Iraqi government were punishing the Iraqi people instead. Over five years later, little and much has changed. UNICEF studies have established beyond any doubt that US-led economic sanctions are wrecking Iraq's public health, education system and infrastructure. Hospitals beg for blood bags and basic sanitation supplies. Schools starve for paper and pencils, let alone computers.