Stop fighting a fantasy war over Iran

Both the Bush administration and its critics are talking war with Iran because they are struck dumb by events in Iraq.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

If the current debate about Iran tells us anything, it is that the notion of a powerful Bush administration determined to plunder foreign nations in the name of Empire and oil is a myth created and sustained by Bush’s critics.

President Bush and his secretary of state Condoleezza Rice have turned their attentions to Iran from a position of weakness and isolation, not strength. As the mess in Iraq got worse, and former supporters of the neoconservative agenda (including most recently Francis Fukuyama) jumped ship, Bush and his cronies raised the spectre of a possibly nuke-armed Iran threatening world peace in a last-ditch bid to recover some of their collapsing moral authority. And yet this desperate act of a desperate administration is now presented as evidence of a ‘messianic’ mission to bring Iran to its knees and impose American hegemony across the Middle East (1). Bush cynically invented a fantasy war with Iran to boost his standing; his critics indulged that fantasy and even inflamed it. It is time both sides re-entered the real world.

With newspaper headlines such as ‘US plans strike to topple Iran regime’, online magazines asking ‘How crazy is the Bush administration?’, and BBC Radio 4’s Today programme leading its news with the words ‘It’s ten past eight – President Bush is making plans for a military attack on Iran’, you could be forgiven for thinking that the US military had started gathering around Iran’s borders, or at least that cast-iron plans for an invasion had been leaked or discovered. In fact, all of this week’s stories stem from an investigation by Seymour Hersh for the New Yorker magazine, which claims that while the Bush administration says it will use diplomatic methods only to put pressure on Iran, in secret it is plotting war, maybe even nuclear war.

Yet if you read Hersh’s piece you’ll see that much of it is based on interviews with anonymous sources and seemingly disgruntled individuals who work, or formerly worked, in the Pentagon and US and European intelligence. As David Aaronovitch points out in The Times (London), Hersh’s info came from, among others, ‘a former senior intelligence official…one former defence official…one military planner…a discouraged former International Atomic Energy Agency official…one recently retired high-level Bush administration official.’ (2) The individual who told Hersh that Bush has gone all ‘messianic’ in relation to Iran is an anonymous ‘senior member of the House Appropriations Committee’, which means he could be either Republican or Democrat. He said, ‘The most worrisome thing is that this guy has a messianic vision’, and that has been repeated faithfully in numerous news reports around the world about Bush the wannabe messiah taking on the mad mullahs of Iran.

Does nobody remember one of the central lessons of the Iraqi WMD debacle – namely that relying on anonymous individuals for your information is a precarious business? We now doubt those faceless officials who told us Saddam was threatening the world order with ‘weapons of mass murder’ but we believe faceless officials who claim that Bush thinks he has some kind of God-given right to nuke Iran. The evidence for both of these claims is slight bordering on non-existent.

The Bush administration may well be planning some kind of action against Iran. It would be a spectacularly foolish thing to do, but then the Bushies’ foreign policy is nothing if not unpredictable and unwieldy. But the claims that Bush is hellbent, as part of some bigger programme, on invading Iran gives coherence, meaning, even gravitas to his Iran policy (for want of a better word) where none exists. The reality of the Bush administration’s current stance on Iran is almost the exact opposite of that fantasised over by its critics. It is not part of some grand project but rather is a kneejerk response to a deep crisis of political and moral authority; it is not shaped by any great vision, whether messianic or otherwise, but rather has been shaped by the failures and fallouts of the war on terror and the war on Iraq. In short, it is the incoherence of US foreign policy, not any cunning or ambition, that led them to turn on Iran.

If you trace how the US made Iran the big issue of international affairs over the past three or four years, you will see that it happened at times of crisis in the wars on terror and Iraq. The turning point came when President Bush denounced Iran as part of an ‘axis of evil’ in his State of the Union address in 2002 (the other two evil states being Iraq and North Korea). This was not the start of some carefully elaborated plot to pave the way for a future war – it was an on-the-hoof response to stalemate in the war on terror. The Americans had been fighting in Afghanistan for four months when Bush gave his speech, and while the Taliban had been easily toppled, the main targets of the war – Osama bin laden and Mullah Omar – had proved annoyingly elusive. US troops were getting bogged down in fruitless operations in the harsh Afghan mountains. Initially the war had won a fair amount of post-9/11 support, but by early 2002 it was becoming mired in controversy (3).

The overnight creation of an ‘axis of evil’ was an attempt to create a new terrible spectre against which America could posture itself. It was pretty much conjured out of thin air, and took both Iranians and leading US officials by surprise. In his contribution to the very good book Inventing the Axis of Evil, Ervand Abrahamian points out ‘how arbitrary this trinity was…. Consensus held that three countries sounded better than two’. The sudden demonisation of Iran will have come like a ‘bolt out of the blue sky…for the average Iranian’, argues Abrahamian, who had seen ‘relations between Iran and America gradually but markedly improve in the course of the previous five years’. And it was a bolt for some of Bush’s own colleagues, too. 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’ (4). Here we see that US foreign policy thinking is so incoherent today that it can actually undermine America’s interests rather than advance or pursue them.

More recently, Bush officials have upped the ante on the Iran issue as the situation in Iraq has deteriorated. Their discovery of allegedly wicked intentions on the part of nuke-hungry Iranian President Mahmoud Admadinejad is in direct proportion to increasing crises in Iraq, where there are almost daily suicide bombings, a largely toothless and inconsequential government, and where even the trial of Saddam isn’t going to plan (see Saddam’s trial: playing the genocide card, by David Chandler). Bush officials prefer to talk up a fantasy battle with Iran rather than face up to, much less deal with, the consequences of their real battle in Iraq. With little to say about Iraq (apart from issuing the occasional statement that usually ends up causing further controversy) they talk endlessly about nukes and mullahs and Admadinejad instead.

Rather than challenge this fantasy talk, Bush’s critics go along with it, and transform it into something it isn’t. Some are even talking up the possibility of new world wars (or at least of Johnny Foreigner going crazy): ‘If the US drops a nuke on Iran, it is possible that the Taliban-allied fundamentalists in Pakistan would rise up and overthrow Musharraf, thus gaining control of Pakistan’s own arsenal of nuclear weapons. All of a sudden, those nukes would be loose, and India would lose its collective mind….’ (5)

These critics imagine they are being radical, but they are playing the same game as the Bush administration itself. They, too, prefer to talk about Iran rather than Iraq, to oppose a fantasy version of the Bush administration over its fantasy plans to nuke Iran rather than get to grips with what is going on in Iraq and exploring why the 2003 invasion had such disturbing consequences there. On a recent anti-war demo in London I saw as many placards saying ‘Don’t attack Iran’ as placards saying ‘Troops out of Iraq’. Commentators and activists are opting for the simplistic stance of opposing an alleged wicked plot to nuke another Middle Eastern country because the Iraq aftermath seems too messy and complicated. Rather than stand up to the Bush administration and knock down its fantasies, they follow it around like poodles. Where Bush creates a fantasy ‘evil’ Iran to posture against, his opponents create a fantasy messianic White House to oppose. Nowhere is there a serious debate about contemporary US foreign policy and why it is a problem.

The fantasies of both sides are already having real consequences. The cynical transformation of Iran into an evil state seems to have nurtured a new sense of belligerence on the part of Iran’s leaders, in particular Admadinejad. If you treat a state like a pariah, very often it will act like one (especially, I suspect, if you treat it like a pariah all of a sudden, after five years of trying to build up a relationship with it). And Admadinejad’s boast yesterday that his state has succeeded in ‘enriching uranium’ for apparently peaceful purposes, and thus has joined ‘the nuclear club’, seemed to be a direct response to the shrill reports in the international press about messianic Bush’s secret plot to unleash his own nukes on Iran. As both Bush and his opponents help to create a volatile situation in the Middle East, it’s all an ugly reminder that moral posturing can itself be a dangerous business.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

(1) Can Blair hold back the neocons?, Daily Mail, 11 April 2006

(2) Let’s calm down. Messianic Bush isn’t about to rain down nukes on Iran, The Times (London), 11 April 2006

(3) See War against what?, by Brendan O’Neill

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

(5) How crazy are they?, truthout, 11 April 2006

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Topics Politics


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