If you want to understand why a coalition of states invaded Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, why drones are bombing people in a dozen countries and why Syria and Iran will probably be next, consider, as one reason, the logic of empire. Empires are always attempting to expand. For at least 20 years now, if not 50, people have been talking about the decline of the US empire. It’s not declining. It’s still expanding. But it’s a new kind of empire.
This empire does not consist solely of the US government. It includes considerable cooperation from other states. Contrary to what some realist scholars believe, states do not represent the people they rule over (and never have), but the elite of the given territory they rule. In recent decades, however, as legal regimes have converged and states have made it easier to make and move money across borders, the elite and their corporations have gone global. National and regional governments have become, to one degree or another, subordinate to this empire.
This empire is becoming less about the US than about multinational corporations and pliant states around the world. The UN and all affiliated organisations designed for global governance, aided in part by well-meaning non-governmental organisations, have spread constitutional and legal norms. Corporations now have the law (ie. words they have written to give them the use of hired guns) on their side when they repress and displace locals, whether kicking native people off their land in far-flung regions or tossing people out of foreclosed homes all over the US.
If states do not play by the rules of empire, they become targets for regime change. While the US is integral, as I mention elsewhere, this modern empire is not only about the US military but whichever militaries the elite want to use so they can enjoy a piece of the action. Look at how they carved up Iraq’s oil reserves. They went to oil giants from the most powerful countries, not just Shell, Exxon and BP, but the China National Petroleum Corporation, Japan Petroleum Exploration Co., the Korea Gas Corp, Malaysia’s Petronas, Turkish Petroleum International and Russia’s Lukoil and Gazprom. The conquerors auctioned off the oil in Iraq those who might otherwise have had the power to block future wars. Now that they profit from war, they are likely to support it more willingly in future.
Historically, all empires have declined and fallen. There are a variety of answers as to why. Suffice to say, we have it in our power to push this empire over the cliff of history as well. But it is not inevitable. The people of the world could eventually cave in, succumbing to the boot on their faces and accepting their enslavement. Most people do not even know what is going on. It is up to those who can see the system for what it is to show others. Resist. Disobey. Fight for freedom and justice. We can have it if we want it enough.
“Many in the United States have a rampant, untreated case of enemy dependency. Politicians love enemies because bashing them helps stir up public sentiment and distract attention from problems at home. The defense industry loves enemies because enemies help them make money. Pundits and their publications love enemies because enemies sell papers and lead eyeballs to cable-news food fights.” – David Rothkopf
“Here’s your enemy for this week, the government says. And some gullible Americans click their heels and salute – often without knowing who or even where the enemy of the week is.” – Charley Reese
Axis of Evil
The war drums are now beating for Iran. Politicians in the US and Israel are screaming about the need to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities before Iran attacks the countries with the two most dangerous militaries in the world. Iran is an example of the desire to create new enemies from non-existent threats since the fall of the Soviet Union. The think tanks, the ones who said before the Iraq invasion that US troops would be treated as liberators and that the oil would pay for the war, and media commentators, the ones who did not question the government’s assessments of the threat from Iraq, are helping bring public opinion in line once again. Clarity is needed on this crucial issue.
The Islamic Republic has not always been anti-American. Those with good memories know that, before Ahmadinejad, Iran had two moderate, “reformist” presidents in power: Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Seyed Mohammad Khatami. They urged cooperation with the West, reconciliation with the US and domestic freedoms. Rafsanjani spoke in July 2009 in support of Iranian pro-democracy activists; Khatami won the 2009 Global Dialogue Prize, and officially repudiated the fatwa on Salman Rushdie.
During the 1990s, Iran’s governments were interested in improving relations with the US, but the Clinton administration pushed Iran away. Iran offered the American oil firm Conoco a contract, chosen over other foreign oil companies in order to improve ties with the US, and the Clinton administration imposed sanctions on Iran in 1995.
Oil producers do not control the US government in quite the way most people imagine. War and sanctions are not in many oilmen’s interest. Sanctions prevent the development of oil fields by American companies and award them to rival companies from rival countries that do not participate in the sanctions regime. While security and stability are necessary to pump and transport oil, war produces instability. Whenever the US imposes sanctions on countries such as Iran, Iraq and Libya, or goes to war with countries like Iraq, it does so in line with some US oil interests, but counter to others. As could have been expected, Conoco’s parent company, DuPont, lobbied against hurting its business.
But the sanctions came along anyway. In fact, the sanctions on Iran came at the behest of the Israel lobby, the collection of hardline-Zionist pressure groups in the US whose actions have led to numerous strategic blunders for the US, including the subject at hand. In 1994, the US’s second most powerful lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), circulated a paper called “Comprehensive US sanctions against Iran: a plan for action”. It sought to close all of the loopholes American companies squeezed through to do business with Iran. Bill Clinton, under pressure from the Israel lobby, scuttled the Conoco deal, and banned all American oil companies from helping Iran develop its oil fields.
In Autumn 2001, Iran helped facilitate the toppling of the Taliban regime and its replacement with the friendly government of Hamid Karzai. Iranians even held candlelight vigils to commemorate those who died on 9/11. President Khatami took these moves in hopes that relations with the US would improve. Instead, in 2002, George Bush placed Iran in the Axis of Evil, indicating he was keen on regime change there as well.
In 2003, after the US invaded Iraq, Bush publicly pressured Syria and Iran. Neocons and the Israel lobby, apparently under the delusion that they could rearrange the entire Middle East, began pushing for a zero tolerance policy against Iran. Neocons accused Tehran of harbouring al-Qaeda operatives, though the CIA and the State Department thought it unlikely. Norman Podhoretz, part of the Israel lobby, wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal in 2007 entitled “The Case for Bombing Iran: I hope and pray that President Bush will do it.” John Hagee of Christians United for Israel told AIPAC “it is 1938; Iran is Germany and Ahmadinejad is the new Hitler.” Retired general Wesley Clark, when asked why he was worried the US would go to war with Iran, said “[y]ou just have to read what’s in the Israeli press. The Jewish community is divided but there is so much pressure being channeled from the New York money people to the office seekers.” He was, predictably, lambasted as an anti-Semite. But as Matthew Yglesias wrote at the time, “everyone knows [what Clark said was] true.”
It was at this time that the Iranian government proposed a peace treaty to Washington. It was making a final effort, after helping with Afghanistan, to reach out. In it, the reformist government put everything on the table: support for terrorism, the nuclear program, its hostility to Israel; and in return they asked not to be attacked. They never received a reply.
Along with the Israel lobby and Pentagon hawks, heads of the influential House of Saud and other Middle Eastern governments have repeatedly urged the US government to go to war with Iran. Iran poses them no real threat, but they have no qualms about having someone else pay to wipe out a rival for dominance of the region.
George Bush said his administration was willing to go to war with Iran to protect Israel. (The Israel lobby’s leaders were quick to distance themselves from Bush’s statements, as they did not want to seem like the cause of the US’s unilateral belligerence.) All the 2008 presidential candidates echoed Bush’s remarks. While campaigning, Barack Obama said
There is no greater threat to Israel, or to the peace and stability of the region, than Iran… Let there be no doubt: I will always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally Israel… I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon… everything.
In 2003, the US led an invasion of Iraq based partly on the testimony of a few exiled Iraqis and orientalist scholars who assured Americans they would be treated as liberators. Their Iranian counterparts and many of the same “experts” are providing Americans with the same lies in an attempt to lead the US into yet another foolish foreign adventure. Christopher Hitchens, for instance, who backed the invasion of Iraq, warned with his dispensable eloquence that Iran’s leaders might follow through on Ayatollah Kharrazi’s threat to establish a Greater Iran in Bahrain and the UAE. Such people have some difficulty in understanding people in other parts of the world because they are not able to put themselves in the shoes of those from other cultures. They believe that all the world’s people want democracy, which to them means political parties and a constitution. But Juan Cole, who has lived in and studied the Muslim world for many years, says in Engaging the Muslim World that among Muslims he has met, democracy means freedom from foreign oppression. (That should not be surprising, as most or all of the Muslim world has been subject to foreign occupation and humiliation for hundreds of years.) As ironic as it may seem, this revelation means that dictatorship would be viewed more favourably by Muslims than American-backed political competition. Iran, having suffered all manner of foreign intervention over its history, is no exception.
I believe it is unlikely that the Iranian government will be easily induced to give up its development of nuclear weapons (assuming, if we should, it is indeed attempting to produce them). Nukes are good for regimes who face an existential threat. It is understandable to prepare for war with a country like the US, which has started two wars with Iran’s immediate neighbours, and Israel, which publishes daily headlines that scream of the colossal threat posed by Tehran’s nuclear bomb and the necessity of preventing them from acquiring one. Barack talked about eliminating them, presumably to shape the Iran agenda, but doing so would require extremely costly incentives (eg. lots of money and security guarantees for countries like North Korea) or disincentives (eg. war). And if possessing the bomb is the best way to win a prize, what is to stop everyone from having them?
Moreover, why would they give up the bomb for some financial inducements to make themselves more dependent on outside powers? Aid can be sneakily withdrawn by governments at any time; a nuclear weapon is the only real deterrent against invasion.
Will Iran use nuclear weapons against Israel or the US? I doubt it. If an Iranian missile landed on the US or Israel, those two countries together would walk all over Iran. Let them have a nuclear weapon. It protects against invasion.
In spite of its president’s posturing, Iran’s military budget is smaller per capita than any other state in the Gulf beside the UAE (an ally of the US). To whom does it pose a threat?
To Israel? To the Israeli Defense Forces, one of the best trained militaries in the world, with its nuclear arsenal and its ability to crush any military in the Middle East? I have discussed the infinitesimal likelihood Iran will attack Israel elsewhere. In my opinion, Israel is far more likely to use nuclear weapons on Iran than vice versa. Israel has been involved in numerous wars, large and small, since its founding in 1948. Iran has spent most of the last hundred and fifty years fighting colonialist oppression, and has not once in that time invaded a neighbour. Given their records (and the strengths of their militaries), who is more likely to fire on whom?
Iran’s government is often accused of funding and supplying arms to Hamas. This support is then employed as an excuse not to talk to Iran, or Hamas as the case may be. However, former senior British diplomat Sir Jeremy Greenstock said in an interview with the BBC that Hamas is not politically tied to Iran. On a logical level, if Iran is supplying Hamas with arms, it is a sign of Iran’s weakness, not its strength. Hamas has no tanks, no aircraft, no ships, no artillery, no missiles besides Qassam rockets, which are so weak that of the nearly 10,000 fired at Israel in the past decade, just over 20 have actually killed anyone. It is well known that Iran supports Hezbollah (though that support recently came in the form of reconstruction aid, as Iran helped rebuild Lebanon after the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war), but like Hamas, Hezbollah poses little threat to Israel’s existence.
Meanwhile, the Badr Corps, a key US ally in Iraq, was once part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The US government has designated the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organisation (even though it has never engaged in terrorism) and the Badr Corps a pillar of Iraq’s democracy. Iran probably provided money or weapons to militias that killed US soldiers in Iraq; like the acquisition of nuclear weapons, this action is rational. The idea is, given that the US invaded two of Iran’s neighbours, and that its bases surround Iran like noose, tying the military down as best it can makes it harder for the US to invade yet again.
But to listen to the mainstream media, one would think Iran’s hand is in every terrorist plot in the world. In October 2011, the FBI alleged that Iran had hired a Mexican drug gang to kill the Saudi ambassador to the US. We have strong evidence, asserted the FBI, but we can’t show it to you. Bombs went off in Thailand and the Israeli government accused Iran of attempting to kill its diplomats. Meanwhile, agents murdered an Iranian nuclear scientist and the world said “he had it coming”.
Iran might be developing a nuclear weapon (though no one seems to have any hard evidence), and its leaders will probably continue to promise violence. (Presumably, few people know that the US gave some encouragement to its ally the Shah to build a nuclear weapon back before Iran was ruled by Bad Guys.) But a look at the evidence says there is little reason to worry that Iran’s leaders’ threats are worth heeding. What are we so afraid of? Listening to an adversary? (Please do not believe that the Barack administration has extended a diplomatic hand to Iran. It has done no such thing.) Fortunately, the truth is available to all of us, waiting to be found, ready to disprove any of the fears that could warrant war with Iran.
Will it give nukes to terrorists who will use them on everyone? This is an unrealistic prospect. First, Iran wants to keep its foes on their toes, but does not want to destroy the world. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric is just posturing. Men love to strut and posture and look tough. Men build big guns and missiles and hold military parades to feel good about themselves. Some men will always talk tough, even if, behind the scenes, they are actually hoping they will not have to carry through. Moreover, Ahmadinejad does not have power over the government, and certainly not over the deployment of heavy weapons. But unless one pulls back the curtain, one could be led to believe he is an imperialist warmonger.
Second, most terrorists have no ability to detonate a nuclear weapon. As John Mueller explains, a nuclear bomb is not a toy. It is very hard to assemble and use, and will not simply blow up the world if tapped with a hammer. Moreover, if Iran supplied terrorists with weapons, intelligence agencies would find out and governments would fiercely punish Iran.
Like all governments, the people running Iran want to remain in power. The idea that Iran is a “martyr state” is little more than a myth. Once-respectable historian Benny Morris said Iran is Nazi Germany. I hope such cheap, populist rhetoric destroys his reputation for thoroughgoing research, as he has clearly outgrown it.
But they continue to refer to Iran as the most dangerous country in the world. Gallup polls indicate that the percentage of Americans who believe Iran is their greatest enemy has increased every year since 2001. The reason might be that rhetoric on Iran has gone up concurrently. US and Israeli warmongerers want us to believe it to buoy support for military action. They believe that, by eliminating all enemies, they can be secure. But when we attempt to destroy all enemies, we imperil our own security most, because everyone will mistrust us, and most will defend themselves.
Have Americans already forgotten how they were duped into supporting the war against Saddam? All the same transparent words are being used: evil, irrational, radical, WMDs and so on. Have those pages of history already been rewritten? Yet, aside from interfering with American wars on its borders, a rational act given that tying down the US in Iraq and Afghanistan makes it less able to attack Iran, Iran has never attacked the US or Israel. Why would it do so now?
Are we afraid because Iran’s government is a pack of religious fanatics with an apocalyptic worldview that puts them on a collision course with civilisation? People who take this view tend also to see everyone an American newspaper might call “jihadists” in the same light: ready to kill themselves and everyone else to bring on the end of the world. The differences among these groups are significant and often ignored. Iran’s Islamic revolution was a nationalist one, and though it supports other Shia groups in the Middle East against Western interests, this has been largely in reaction to isolation and demonisation by America and Israel, not to spread holy war. It does not support groups like al-Qaeda, though I am sure that if they get desperate, the Israel lobby and neocons will fabricate evidence that they do.
Being religious does not mean being stupid. Everyone responds to carrots and sticks. Iran’s leaders have shown they can be reasonable and even friendly to foreign interests, including those of the Great Satan, and may be again. Besides, if religious fanatics could not be negotiated with, no one would ever have approached the Bush White House.
Talk of war tends to push the potential victims of that war into the hands of tough-talking governments. Shame, really, as Iranians are among the most pro-American people in the region. They may not like the US government—few around the world do—but they like the ideals the US used to stand for. Iranian-American author Hooman Majd explains that “Chants of ‘Death to America’ are meaningless–the phrase refers to US foreign policy, hegemony, and imperialism; not the American dream or the people.”
But the absence of a threat does not mean no march to war. The US and its allies are encircling Iran.
Thousands of US troops deployed to Israel recently. The Israeli military announced it as a major missile defense exercise with its ally. The reason for this “defense” preparation is the big, scary country on the other side of the Middle East. It is also being encircled by US and UK aircraft carriers.
CBS news reported the Israeli military as saying the drill had been long anticipated and was unrelated to recent events. The article explained the drill would take place “as tension between Iran and the international community escalates”, as if Iran is defiantly taking on the world, rather than being pummeled into submission. If we are still not sure who the aggressor is in this conflict, let us review the facts.
- Iran is, at present, surrounded by US military bases. If everyone in your neighbourhood were armed to the teeth and yelling about how dangerous you were, would you feel threatened?
- In recent years, the US has invaded and occupied two of those neighbours, Afghanistan and Iraq, for all the same reasons it may want to occupy Iran. Iran has oil; it is strategically located; it is a manufactured enemy; Americans do not know anything about the country except that it’s evil, and will thus give the green light to their politicians.
- Israelis have been subjected for years to media bombardment about the perils of an Ahmadinejad-led, nuclear-armed Iran. There seems to be broad consensus in the Israeli right wing and other circles that the Islamic Republic cannot wait to “wipe Israel off the map”. Again, the enemy is largely manufactured and sold by elites who want to send more people to die.
John Tirman of the MIT Center for International Studies points out the “peculiar” time for the march to war: the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Is it time for Operation Iranian Liberation? The foolishness with which the US stumbled into Iraq in 2003 is repeating itself.
The US and the EU (“the international community”) are ramping up economic sanctions unnecessarily. EU politicians have willingly endangered the European economy by moving toward choking Mediterranean countries’ oil supplies. Paul Stevens of Dundee University in Scotland says that Greece, which imports 30 percent of its oil from Iran, would be pushed off the cliff on which it is already perched. “It would utterly destroy the Greek economy.” Tough sanctions on Iran will not stop it from producing a nuclear weapon, which is, in fact, a very rational exercise for a state expecting to be attacked. (In fact, Iran has been under attack for thirty years.) They may, however, repeat the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, as the sanctions on Iraq did to that country during the 1990s.
The sanctions have been painful, and will get worse. The price of imports and consumer goods, including food, is rising. The value of the currency is dropping, making it harder to export goods. Juan Cole calls them “the most crippling sanctions that have been placed on any country since the case of Iraq in the 1990s. It’s no longer a matter of just sanctions. I think the US is now engaged in a blockade of Iranian petroleum. It’s trying to prevent Iran from selling its major export.”
Sanctions, much like interstate wars, exemplify the punishment of civilians that inevitably results from interegovernmental disputes. The pain of sanctions is not an unintended consequence, however. The hoped-for effect is to turn locals against the regime. But the locals are not stupid. At least as many who oppose their local oppressors understand that it is foreign oppressors who are making them suffer now. The sanctions applied to Iraq during the 1990s resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and no uprising. Madeleine Albright, whose policy it was, continues to say those deaths were justified.
The US has threatened India for violating the sanctions. Why? India, you see, is one of the countries that buys Iranian oil and does not use the dollar to do so. It cannot be allowed to slip out of Washington’s grip, so it will be punished.
Iran is a major oil source, and it is trying to ditch US dollars. The endless printing of money by the Federal Reserve has led to a serious devaluation of the USD. More and more countries are seeking to divest themselves of it. The US government will threaten those it can not to leave. If enough states stop using US dollars for international trade, the value of the USD drops, and the ability of the US government to print its way out of deficits goes away. It also gives the US government less leverage over foreign states, because they do not have to bow to its dictates regarding currency and foreign exchange. If the petrodollar is no longer the all-purpose medium of exchange for the oil market, the power of the US government over that market deteriorates. In September 2000, Saddam Hussein dropped the petrodollar as the currency for Iraqi oil, opting for the euro. By following the money, we can see the true nature of the desire for war with Iran. History repeats.
But fear of the evaporating petrodollar is not the only reason for aggression against Iran. It is presumed in Washington that Israel should have the monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Though a nuclear weapon would probably never be used against Israel (and plenty of top Israeli intelligence and military men know that), one cannot attack a country with nuclear weapons. Israel wants to retain the power to attack anyone. The Israel lobby in the US and its hawkish supporters in Israel would love to see the destruction of their rival, just as some of them are (prematurely) rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of Syria’s fragmentation.
Finally, the very existence of a “national enemy” is of enormous benefit to a state. It is a distraction from local problems, which the US government has in abundance at the moment, as people rally round the flag. It is a chance to curb civil liberties and enlarge the state. It is a way to give publicly-funded handouts to pressure groups.
Needless to say, full-blown war with Iran would be devastating. The war on Iraq killed hundreds of thousands of people and rendered the country intractably unstable for a long time to come for no other reason than to please the Washington power elite. And what is the desired outcome? National security? Can national security ever be achieved by waging endless wars? No, suggest the history of Israel and the 9/11 attacks. The entire Middle East and Central Asia could be engulfed in war.
Warmakers are not merely shortsighted, though. They understand the consequences. More devastation, more instability, more religious extremism, more terrorism, more pain: these are all foreseen and desired outcomes. More instability in western Asia will mean two things that keep the powerful happy: higher oil and gas prices, and more enemies to fight and justify more military intervention. If the elites can benefit, the war with Iran will no longer be clandestine, and millions of people could die as a result.