Asking the Wrong Questions on Iran

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Tony Karon 

Imagine, for a moment, that U.S. troops invading Iraq had, as they neared Baghdad, been fired on by an artillery unit using shells filled VX nerve gas — an attack that would have lasted minutes before a U.S. aircrew had taken out the battery, and may have brought a horrible death to a handful of American soldiers. Imagine, further, that the conquering troops had later discovered two warehouses full of VX and mustard gas shells. And later, that inspectors in a science lab had discovered a refrigerator full of Botulinum toxin or even anthrax.

The Administration and its allies in the punditocracy would have “proved” their case for war, and the media would have hailed President Bush as the kind of Churchillian visionary that he imagines himself to be. And goodness knows what new adventures the Pentagon ideologues would have immediately begun planning.

Now, ask yourself, had the above scenario unfolded and the “case for war” (on the terms accepted by the media and the Democrats) been proven, would Iraq look any different today? Would it be any less of a bloodbath; any less of a quagmire for U.S. troops; any less of a geopolitical disaster; any less of a drain on U.S. blood and treasure? Would the U.S. mainland or U.S. interests and allies worldwide be any safer today? In short, would the Iraq invasion seem any less of a catastrophic strategic blunder had the U.S. discovered some caches of unconventional weapons in Iraq?

The answer to all of those questions is obviously no.

And it’s from that point that we must begin our discussion on Iran, and the media’s role in preparing the American public for another disastrous war of choice. The “necessity” in the American public mind to go to war in Iraq was established through the mass media — a failure for which there has been precious little accounting. But that failure runs far deeper than is typically acknowledged even by critics: It was not simply a case of the media failing to properly and critically interrogate the spurious claims by the Administration of Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction capability. Sure, even the likes of France and Germany suspected that Saddam may, in fact, have still had a few piles of chemical munitions left over from the Iran-Iraq war. The point, however, is that they did not see these as justifying a war. They recognized from the outset that invading Iraq would cause more problems than it would solve.

The more important failure of the U.S. media, then, is its failure to question the basic proposition that if Iraq had, indeed, had unconventional weapons, then an invasion and occupation of that country was a wise and prudent course of action.
Of course many of the decision-makers in the U.S. media in the wake of 9/11 were scared and confused, and looking for John Wayne-style authority figures for comfort — read back now and you’ll find some astounding toadying up to the self-styled tough guys of the Administration: Bill Keller’s wet-kiss profile of Paul Wolfowitz in the New York Times suggested to me a man playing out Robert Mitchum’s epiphany in The Green Berets, the jaded liberal recognizing the harsh truths of John Wayne’s approach to making the world safe for freedom. And Donald Rumsfeld’s loquacious buffoonery created a comforting sense of certainty among a liberal media intelligentsia suddenly desperate to embrace an imperial mythology, and in the case of the George Packers and Peter Beinarts, to render it profound as a narrative of global liberation. Others simply preferred to avoid anything that might have demagogues branding them “un-American,” for fear of losing ad dollars.
That may help explain the failure, but it does not excuse it.

The fact that carnival barkers like Kristol and Beinart continue to be touted as having opinions worth heeding on these matters is ample evidence that the media has either learned little, or else is more dedicated to a kind of edutainment vaudeville than in empowering the American people to make informed foreign policy choices.

Beinart, in a mawkish attempt to account for himself in the excellent Bill Moyers documentary Buying the War, offers up this little gem: “The argument in the fall of 2002 was not mostly about the facts, it was about a whole series of ideas about what would happen if we invaded.”

Exactly. The fact that Beinart and company were wrong on the facts was only part of the problem. More importantly, it was their ideas about the use of force and its consequences that proved so disastrously flawed. And most of the decision-makers in the mainstream media did not bother to challenge the basic proposition that if Saddam had certain categories of weapons, then an invasion was necessary and beneficial.

The very idea that there are certain categories of weapons that draw down a red mist over rational discussion of geopolitical options is an exceedingly dangerous one — that should be one of the key lessons drawn from Iraq. And that’s exactly what’s being cooked up over Iran, too.

The very same crew of neocons and liberal hawks and the Israeli political establishment and its allies in Washington, are goading America to attack Iran. They insist Iran is going hell for leather to acquire nuclear weapons, and allowing it to do so represents a mortal threat to the West, Arab moderates and Israel. And just when a convenient excuse was needed for the U.S. failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, wouldn’t you know it, it’s those darn Iranians “interfering”. Don’t even think about discussing, what, are you Neville Chamberlain or something? Don’t you know it’s 1938 all over again?

Of course, not all of it is as plain silly as the paragraph above.
(For the record:

  • First, there is no evidence that Iran is actually building a nuclear weapon; merely that it is building a civilian nuclear energy program with all elements of the fuel cycle permissible under the NPT that would, in fact, put nuclear weapons easily within reach should they opt to build them.
  • Second, even if Iran did possess nuclear weapons, the idea that it would use them to initiate a conflict in which Tehran would certainly be destroyed is based on tabloid-style alarmism about the nature of the regime in Tehran — in fact, Iran’s Islamic Republic has long proved to be guided more by unsentimental realpolitik than by revolutionary fervor in the pursuit of its national interests and regional influence.
  • Third, Iran is not “interfering” in Afghanistan and Iraq any more than the U.S. is; it has close ties with the dominant Shiite and Kurdish parties that represent three quarters of Iraqis, for whom its involvement in Iraq is welcome. Thus the recent rebuke to Bush by both Karzai and Maliki on the question of Iran’s role in their countries. Even the Administration’s claims that Iran is targeting U.S. troops in Iraq are largely unproven: In a remarkably shallow treatment of complaints about the New York Times coverage of the issue, its public editor concedes simply that the Times should have told readers of its previous coverage to provide “context” — there is no serious questioning of the contention that because Iran has been known to supply the know-how to build “Explosively Formed Projectiles” (EFPs), any time an EFP is used in an attack on U.S. soldiers in Iraq, the perpetrators are an Iranian proxy. This is worth dwelling on, because it’s typical of the ignorance on various issues — the extent of President Ahmedinajad’s authority in Iran, for example — propagated by the Times. A simple technical exposition of what an EFP is reveals that the technology is easily copied by anyone with know-how and access to very basic munitions. It’s not an actual weapon; it’s a method of building an improvised explosive device to pierce armor. The idea that the use of EFPs in Iraq is automatically a fingerprint of Iran is ridiculous. Someone ought to tell the Times. And by the way, even if Iranian proxies were attacking U.S. forces in Iraq, that wouldn’t signal intent to undermine the Iraqi government; it would simply be an escalation of the secret war between Washington and Tehran. And that’s a war that this President, his deepest psychological scars laid bare by his failure in Iraq — a wound that the psychotic Dick Cheney will press and press — may be ready to escalate by launching an attack on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Indeed, it is not Iranian “interference” that Iraq and Afghanistan fear; it is being caught in the crossfire between the U.S. and Iran.
  • 1938? Don’t make me laugh. Nazi Germany was the most powerful military nation on earth, and in 1938 it was poised to invade its neighbors. To make the same claim about Iran is just plain ignorant. )

The drumbeat for war against Iran is actually more subtle than it was in the case of Iraq: The Administration denies it wants war and insists it seeks a “diplomatic solution” to the standoff over the demand that Iran cease uranium enrichment. But by “diplomatic solution,” the Administration and its allies simply mean an Iranian surrender to U.S. terms as a result of non-military pressures. There’s no room to question, here, the basic assumption: (a) that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons; (b) that, as Senator John McCain put it, “the only thing worse than going to war with Iran is an Iran with nuclear weapons.”
McCain delivers that one as if it’s a last word, but it shouldn’t be. He’s trying to effect the familiar demagoguery of narrowing options in the way the Iran issue is defined in U.S. public discussion: If threats and sanctions can’t dissuade Iran from enriching uranium, then military action becomes the “last resort.” The idea that Iran enriching uranium is a “red line” is not questioned. An irreversible slide to war in the U.S. is being carefully constructed by those who are out to persuade the American public that if Tehran refuses to run up a white flag, military action — unfortunate as it may be — becomes essential. And the idea would be to have the outgoing U.S. Administration to do the job, its disregard for law (international and domestic) well established, as is its propensity to orchestrate disaster. The mythology last time around was that invading Iraq would transform the Middle East in a healthy way; this time it is that a “surgical strike” taking out Iran’s nuclear facilities or Revolutionary Guard facilities would settle the matter. Hardly. Iran would respond in an asymmetrical fashion, that would cost many thousands of American lives in Iraq and elswhere over the next decade, might disrupt world oil supplies and more.

Together with the Iraq misadventure, it would ensure that the Bush Administration leaves a legacy that might be a latterday equivalent of the Hundred Years War between England and France; an open-ended conflict with the population of most of the Muslim world that the U.S. can’t really win.

So, the basic question on Iran should be exactly the same one the U.S. failed to ask on Iraq: Will military action against Iran leave the U.S. and its interests and allies in the Middle East in a more secure position or in greater peril. That, really, is the only question that matters.

There’s very little discussion in the U.S. media of why Iran might seek nuclear weapons, what alternatives it might have — and might choose to use should it be attacked — and whether the environment can be altered to persuade it that it doesn’t need nuclear weapons. What are Iran’s strategic needs, and can they be accomodated in a framework acceptable to others that at the same time accomodates its interests? And so on.

Intead, we’re essentially asked to believe that Iran wants nuclear weapons in order to destroy Israel and satisfy some sort of doomsday fantasy. The evidence for this is usually misquoted statements from President Ahmedinajad, and suggestions that he is personally inclined towards an eschatalogical world view (as if the same were not true for President Bush!). The fact is that Ahmedinajad does not actually rule Iran, and would never be in a position to decide on the use of nuclear weapons even if the portrait painted of him were true. Iran’s nuclear program has been in place for decades; Ahmedinajad is unlikely to survive the next Iranian election. (Yes, Iran actually holds elections, at least for the presidency — that may be one reason the presidency doesn’t run the country!) And the regime’s primary concern is to ensure its survival, a principle that governs even its proxy activities abroad — for example, it is conventional wisdom even on the right that Hizballah would attack Israel and U.S. targets in response to an attack on Iran; i.e. their purpose in the Iranian strategic doctrine is asymmetrical deterrence.

It would certainly be quite understandable in the strategic environment in which Iran operates to seek a nuclear weapon; some would argue they’d be stupid not to. After all, three of their arch-rivals, the U.S., Israel and Pakistan have such weapons. And they’ve seen such capability may have helped North Korea evade U.S. military action. The recent U.S. nuclear deal with India, moreover, underscores the fact that Washington is unashamedly selective in applying the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and has always ignored the treaty’s premise, i.e. that other countries would refrain from acquiring nuclear weapons in order to allow those that currently have them to disarm. Disarm? The U.S. is the only nation ever to have visited nuclear terror on another nation, a war crime — yes, it is a war crime to deliberately target a civilian population — the discussion of which is quite simply taboo in America. Instead, in the U.S. it is still acceptable to talk of actually using nuclear weapons: Hillary Clinton castigates Barak Obama for ruling out their use against al-Qaeda in Pakistan or Afghanistan!

States do not pursue weapons systems as ends in themselves; and states are hardwired to ensure their own survival. It is to that end that they acquire weapons systems, to protect, enhance or advance their own strategic position and even up the odds against more powerful rivals. As everything from the Cold War to the current deal with North Korea demonstrate, the only way to avoid nuclear conflict is to address the concerns and fears on both sides that might spark such a conflict.

Weapons systems are dangerous, but not as dangerous as the conflicts that might result in them being used. And we should also get used to the idea that the globalization of technology on the current strategic landscape makes nuclear weapons likely to become the norm among states — after all, the existing eight nuclear weapons states have no intention of relinquishing theirs, so why would any states that anticipate being in conflict with any of them refrain from pursuing those weapons when the opportunity presents itself?

It is the conflicts that fuel the drive for nuclear weapons that are more dangerous than the weapons themselves, and the problem of those weapons can’t be addressed separately from those conflicts. An Iran bombed to destroy its nuclear power plants would likely be far more dangerous to the U.S. and its allies over the next couple of decades than an Iran that had nuclear weapons within reach might be. The only way to diminish the danger of an escalating confrontation with Iran — which is what bombing its nuclear facilities would certainly do — is to address the conflict between it and its rivals directly, and seek a modus vivendi that can manage their conflicting interests. Iran has shown itself to be ready to engage in such dialogue; it is the Bush administration that has demurred.

At this stage, the U.S. media corps that facilitated the Iraq catastrophe ought to be asking the question, can the Bush Administration do any worse than it has already done in plunging the Middle East into bloody chaos and in destroying countless American and Arab lives — and doing irreversible damage to U.S. interests across the planet. The answer, of course, is yes, but only if the U.S. media once again enables it.


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