Iran: an irrational war of words

The spat between the West and Iran highlights the dangers of making up foreign policy as you go along.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Some scary words are being used to describe the spat between the West and Iran. Some are predicting ‘World War III’. There is talk of another Holocaust against the Jews, following Iranian president Mahmoud Admadinejad’s inflammatory remarks about wanting to wipe Israel off the map and his expressions of Holocaust denial. Others think there might be a ‘nuclear stand-off’ between an already nuked-up USA and an Iran that is keen (allegedly) to build the Bomb. On the anti-war side, the big word is ‘Empire’: it’s argued that President George W Bush’s administration is plotting a war on Iran in order to control its oil reserves (1).

What all of this doom-laden bluster overlooks is that Iran was, until quite recently, a supporter of America’s war on terror, and was pretty much turned into a pariah by an American foreign policy initiative thought up on the hoof and scribbled down on a sheet of paper. Up to 2002 Iran had been making increasingly friendly gestures towards the West until it was labelled part of an ‘axis of evil’ by Bush as part of a new foreign policy conjured up in a smoky backroom with little consideration given to the consequences. Nuclear World Wars with Holocausts attached are not normally made of such stuff.

America and the Islamic Republic of Iran have not exactly been the best of friends since 1979. US hawks never forgave the Islamists for overthrowing ‘our bastard’, the Shah. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was installed as ruler of Iran in 1953 in a coup backed by the CIA and MI6 which deposed of the democratically elected prime minister, Dr Mohammad Mossadeq. From 1953 to 1979 the Shah was a loyal US ally in the Middle East. In the words of US foreign policy officials he maintained an ‘island of stability’ (2). Iran during that time was America’s main customer for high-tech military hardware and its second-largest provider of fairly inexpensive oil; it was also, which seems strange now, Israel’s most valuable ally in a hostile Muslim world. As notorious US secretary of state Henry Kissinger said in the Seventies, the Shah supported the US on ‘virtually every major foreign policy issue’, and in return the US gave him ‘everything he wanted’ (3).

So America’s response to the Islamic revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini that got shot of the Shah was swift and unforgiving. Draconian economic sanctions were imposed, and Iran was denounced by Carter, Reagan, Bush Senior and Clinton as a ‘rogue’ or ‘terrorist state’. The Iranian hostage crisis, during which Iran held captive 66 American diplomats and citizens for 444 days between late 1979 and 1981, was especially humiliating for US officials, and is said to have contributed to President Jimmy Carter’s loss of the presidential election in 1980.

Yet behind America’s harsh public denunciations of Iran various US presidents sought to improve relations. America had an ambivalent relationship with Iran, motivated by outrage over the Islamic revolution and memories of the hostage crisis but also by a desire to influence events there. Even President Ronald Reagan, in the Iran-Contra affair in the mid-1980s, okayed the selling of arms to the Iranian mullahs. During the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988, America gave the green light to Saddam Hussein to attack Iran but also armed and supported, at different times, the Iranian side too.

In the Nineties, under President Bill Clinton’s administration, these various private attempts to build bridges with the mullahs became more public. Clinton stopped labelling Iran a rogue state and publicly admitted, for the first time, that the US ‘orchestrated the overthrow of Iran’s popular prime minister’ in 1953 and that this had been a ‘setback’ for Iran (4). He relaxed economic sanctions. Iran assured Britain that it had ‘no intention to threaten [Salman Rushdie]’ – against whom Khomeini had issued a fatwa for his novel The Satanic Verses in 1989 – for which Britain repaid Iran by restoring full diplomatic relations. After 9/11 Iran publicly showed its willingness to do business with the US: it denounced the ‘terrorist Taliban’ and urged the Northern Alliance (whom it had armed) fully to cooperate with the Americans. As one Iranian official said, ‘[The Afghan war] provided the two countries a perfect opportunity for improved relations’ (5).

What went wrong? How has Iran gone from being a supporter of America’s war on terror in 2001 to an apparently grave threat to America and Israel today, and the potential author of a new World War? It wasn’t Iran that changed, where, if anything, there have been liberalising reforms in recent years and the growth of a student movement for more democracy; Iran is ruled by reformers and conservatives, and the reformers had been making headway since the Nineties. Rather, Iran was catapulted into its current pariah status by a Bush administration seeking some kind of enemy against which it could posture – not by a US determined to ‘do another Shah’, but by a US which decided, virtually out of the blue, to label Iran as ‘evil’ to demonstrate that it still has some clout and purpose in the world.

In 2002, Bush gave his now famous (or perhaps infamous) State of the Union address in which he denounced Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an ‘axis of evil’. Far from being the product of a carefully thought-out plan to rattle and threaten Iran, the axis of evil thesis seems to have been made up on the hoof. As Ervand Abrahamian points out in his contribution to the very good book Inventing the Axis of Evil: The Truth About North Korea, Iran and Syria (following the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Syria has been namechecked as the latest member of the axis of evil), this sudden demonisation of Iran will have come as a ‘bolt out of the blue sky…for the average Iranian’, who had seen ‘relations between Iran and America gradually but markedly improve in the course of the previous five years’ (6).

Even leading US officials were taken aback by Bush’s speech. As Abrahamian notes, ‘Colin Powell [then secretary of state] and the State Department had not been consulted about the speech, neither about its general thrust nor about the inclusion of Iran’. State Department officials privately complained that the speech would ‘undermine their long-standing policy of rapprochement with Iranian reformers’. Abrahamian’s book points out ‘how arbitrary [the] trinity was’: ‘Consensus held that three countries sounded better than two….’ (7)

Bush’s speech demonstrated the extent to which US officials make up foreign policy as they go along these days. It was reportedly written at the last minute, and it would seem that little thought was given to the consequences of labelling three states as evil opponents. The fact that leading Bushies did not know about the content of the speech shows how little overarching coherence there is to US foreign policy. The creation of the axis of evil was not guided by a clear vision or strategy, but rather by stalemate within the war on terror. The Americans had been fighting in Afghanistan for four months at the time of Bush’s speech and though the Taliban had been easily toppled, the main targets of the war – Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar – had proved infuriatingly elusive. America had gone to Afghanistan not only in search of bin Laden, but also in search of itself, of a mission that could define what America is for and against today. When that didn’t come off, it conjured up three new evil spectres against which it might define itself, most likely in some meeting room in the Pentagon.

America’s support for the Shah for close to 30 years was driven by realpolitik, by a clear sense of America’s interests in the Middle East. The consequence was a denial of democracy for Iranians. Its covert arming of Iran at various times in the 1980s was motivated by a desire to have some influence on the mullahs. The consequence was a drawn-out and bloody war between Iran and Iraq.

America’s kneejerk denunciation of Iran in 2002 was motivated by the absence of a clear sense of America’s interests or mission; it was a quickly thought-up pose which, it was hoped, would make the US appear serious and impressive at a time when its war on terror was faltering. The consequence has been an increasingly tense situation, as both US and Iranian officials have upped the rhetoric between 2002 and today: US officials in order to take the heat off their disastrous wars on terror and Iraq, and Iranian officials in an attempt to appease and appear committed to the Iranian masses.

It was rhetoric, not realpolitik, that stoked the stand-off between the West and Iran. The tensions are not the result of design, whether of an American elite hell-bent on taking over Iran or of Iranian leaders who have decided politically to oppose the USA; they are the product of a US foreign policy that is driven more by emotional kneejerk reactions than by a coherent strategy. It is the irrationalism of US foreign policy today, rather than its cunning or ambition, that heightened tensions with Iran. This episode shows, not so much that America is greedily pursuing its own interests in foreign fields (which would be nothing new), but that its foreign policy is now so changeable and opportunistic that it can easily act against its own interests in its various foreign ventures.

It demonstrates that moral posturing in international affairs can sometimes be as dangerous as an old-style military mission. It is highly unlikely to lead to a new World War. But it has made international affairs a volatile and unpredictable realm.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

(1) Oil, geopolitics and the coming war with Iran, Global Policy Forum, 11 April 2005

(2) Inventing the Axis of Evil: The Truth About North Korea, Iran and Syria, Ervand Abrahamian et al, The New Press, 2004

(3) Inventing the Axis of Evil: The Truth About North Korea, Iran and Syria, Ervand Abrahamian et al, The New Press, 2004

(4) Inventing the Axis of Evil: The Truth About North Korea, Iran and Syria, Ervand Abrahamian et al, The New Press, 2004

(5) Inventing the Axis of Evil: The Truth About North Korea, Iran and Syria, Ervand Abrahamian et al, The New Press, 2004

(6) Inventing the Axis of Evil: The Truth About North Korea, Iran and Syria, Ervand Abrahamian et al, The New Press, 2004

(7) Inventing the Axis of Evil: The Truth About North Korea, Iran and Syria, Ervand Abrahamian et al, The New Press, 2004

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Topics Politics


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