On the US-Iran relationship, President Obama seems to be talking from both sides of his mouth. From one side we hear promising messages of dialogue and a “new beginning” with Iran; from the other side provocative words that seems to be coming right out of the mouth of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
For example, on the occasion of the Iranian New Year in March, while the President expressed willingness for “engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect” he also warned Iran that it cannot “take its rightful place in the community of nations . . . through terror or arms.”
Claims that Iran supports international terrorism or seeks to manufacture nuclear weapons were used by the Bush administration as excuses for not negotiating with Iran. President Obama’s occasional mimicking of those claims (which completely disregards the expert views of both the International Atomic Energy Agency and the National Intelligence Estimate) is likewise bound to serve as a major obstacle in the way of a meaningful conversation with Iran.
In terms of actual policy measures, President Obama and his foreign policy team have not taken any steps to reverse or mitigate the hostile policies their predecessors put into effect against Iran.
Spearhead by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama’s “point man” on Iran, Dennis Ross, the administration is pushing the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to further escalate multilateral sanctions against Iran if Tehran does not stop or limit its uranium enrichment (or nuclear-fuel production) activities. This demand is nothing short of sheer provocation because as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (and under the supervision of IAEA inspectors) such activities are altogether within the legitimate and lawful rights of Iran.
Furthermore, by occasionally parroting George W. Bush’s militaristic song that, concerning Iran, “all options are on the table,” President Obama has not disavowed his predecessor’s favorite threat of “regime change” in Tehran.
This not-so-subtle threat of “regime change” in Iran is not, however, limited to purely rhetorical statements such as “all options are on the table.” More importantly, there are ongoing destabilizing covert operations against Iran that are sponsored by various agents or agencies of the US government.
As Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, former National Security Council staff members, point out, “the Obama administration has done nothing to cancel or repudiate an ostensibly covert but well-publicized program, begun in President George W. Bush’s second term, to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to destabilize the Islamic Republic.”1
This means that
“the U.S. is, in effect, conducting a secret war against Tehran, a covert campaign aimed at recruiting Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities . . . into a movement to topple the government in Tehran, or, at least, to create so much instability that U.S. intervention to ‘keep order’ in the region is justified. Given recent events in Iran — a suicide bombing in the southeast province of Sistan-Baluchistan and at least two other incidents — the effort is apparently ongoing.
“A suicide-bomber blast, which occurred inside a mosque in the city of Zahedan, killed at least 30 people: a rebel Sunni group [called Jundallah] with reported links to the U.S. claimed responsibility. . . . The violence was very shortly followed up by attacks on banks, water-treatment facilities, and other key installations in and around Zahedan, including a strike against the local campaign headquarters of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Add to this an attempted bombing of an Iranian airliner…and you have a small-scale insurgency arising on Iran’s eastern frontier.”2
The Iranian government has repeatedly accused the U.S. and Israel of fomenting destabilizing covert activities across its borders. Although they deny any connection with Jundallah, the Pakistan-based terrorist organization that has claimed responsibility for a number of cross-border attacks on Iran, including the recent wave of bombings, ABC News, citing US and Pakistani intelligence sources, reported in 2007 that the terrorist group “has been secretly encouraged and advised by American officials” to destabilize the government in Iran.3
In an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) on the occasion of the publication of his article in The New Yorker, titled “Preparing the Battlefield,” the renowned investigative journalist Seymour Hersh revealed striking details of his findings on the goals of the $400 million budgeted by the US government for covert operations inside Iran. He provided valuable information on US military preparations to strike the country . . . and on the US support for the anti-Iran terrorist organizations Jundallah and MKO.4
More evidence of the US involvement in the terrorist activities inside Iran came to light recently when the head of the Jundallah gang, Abdulmalik Rigi, “admitted receiving assistance from the terrorist group Mojahedin Khalq Organization (MKO),” a terrorist gang of Iranian expatriates under US protection in Iraq. There have been persistent intelligence reports of collaborations between the MKO and Jundallah in the past. But, in a significant admission, Rigi told a US-based satellite TV station . . . on June 2, “They [MKO] have had good intelligence collaborations with us and have provided us with much information about the activities of the Iranian regime.”5
MKO, sheltered and armed by the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, have killed thousands of Iranians in their decades-old campaign of bombings and other terrorist activities against Iran. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, the MKO came under the protection of the occupying US power in Iraq. Although the US State Department officially lists MKO on its list of terrorist organizations, it nonetheless refuses to turn them in to Iranian authorities, as frequently requested. Nor has the US, as the MKO custodian, put an end to its terrorist activities against Iran.
That’s why it is safe to argue that the US is playing a crucial (though largely submerged) role in the terrorist collaboration between Jundallah and MKO against Iran.
It is not surprising, then, that Iranians are not thrilled by President Obama’s rhetoric of “peace and dialogue,” as they can easily see who is pulling the strings of the Jundallah-MKO terrorist activities from behind the scene. “What’s going on in Iran today — a sustained campaign of terrorism directed against civilians and government installations alike — is proof positive that nothing has really changed much in Washington, as far as U.S. policy toward Iran is concerned.”6
But what is to be made of President Obama’s apparently contradictory overtures toward Iran? What accounts for his simultaneously extending a hand for friendship and a fist for continued antagonism?
Charitable and optimistic interpretations tend to blame the President’s opponents for his doublespeak on Iran: the President does have a real plan for a genuine conversation and rapprochement with Iran; but to bring this about he has to occasionally make some tactical Iran-bashing statements in order to appease his powerful opponents lest they should torpedo his entire plan. Hence, his conflicting statements.
Whether this generous reading of the President’s mind is true or false can never be conclusively proven. Nor can such wishful speculations about the President’s “true” feelings or inner desires be of any analytical value for political or policy purposes. What matters — at the end of the day — is what he does or says, not what he quietly thinks to himself. And what he does and says in relation to Iran is pathetic.
He seems to want to eat his cake, and have it too: continuing with George Bush’s policies while employing slick rhetoric and pretending he is different! He serves as the smiley-face mask for the same militaristic policies left behind by George W. Bush and his Neoconservative handlers.
Iranians see through this fraud very clearly. For example, Iran’s most powerful leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently stated: “The nations in the region hate the United States from the bottom of their hearts because they have seen violence, military intervention and discrimination. . . . The new US government seeks to transform this image. I say firmly, that this will not be achieved by talking, speeches and slogans.”7
Many of Obama’s fans, both at home and abroad (including, by the way, many in Iran), who were indignant of his predecessor’s unrefined personality and militaristic policies, seem to be in denial that Obama’s so-called “change” is mainly about style and rhetoric, not substance. This is true not only of foreign but also domestic policies. Just note how his neoliberal, supply-side economic response to the ongoing economic crisis is more friendly to Wall Street rackets than any other President’s in US history — President Reagan included.
A major problem with wishful interpretations of President Obama’s conflicting statements on Iran is that they tend to perpetuate the illusion that he can bring about meaningful change in the US policy toward Iran or, for that matter, the broader Middle East. In reality, however, while the resident of the White House may posture as Commander-in-Chief and tweak policy around the edges, US foreign policy in this region is determined largely by two other sources of power, or special interest groups.
These two powerful special interests are (a) the highly influential beneficiaries of military spending and war dividends or, as the late President Eisenhower put it, the military-industrial complex; and (b) the equally powerful proponents of Greater Israel (from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean coasts), known as the Israel lobby. Evidence shows that both of these groups view their interests better served by war and geopolitical tensions in the Middle East.
There is an unspoken or tacit alliance between these two extremely powerful interest groups: the armaments lobby and the Israel lobby. There is no formal or legal framework for the alliance; it is largely based on a convergence of interests on war and international convulsion in the Middle East.
To say that the military-industrial complex thrives on war and militarism is to state the obvious. Arms industries and other powerful beneficiaries of war dividends need an atmosphere of war and international tensions in order to promote the sale of armaments and maintain continued increases in the Pentagon budget, thereby justifying their lion’s share of the public money. Viewed in this light, unprovoked US wars abroad can been seen as reflections of domestic fights over national resources, or tax dollars.
This helps explain why since World War II powerful beneficiaries of war dividends have almost always reacted negatively to discussions of international cooperation and tension reduction, or détente.
For example, in the face of the 1970s tension-reducing negotiations with the Soviet Union, representatives of the military-industrial complex rallied around Cold Warrior think tanks, such as the Committee on the Present Danger, and successfully sabotaged those discussions. Instead, by invoking the “communist threat,” they managed to reinforce the relatively weakened tensions with the Soviet Union to such new heights that it came to be known as the Second Cold War — hence, the early 1980s dramatic “rearming of America,” as President Reagan put it.
Likewise, when the collapse of the Soviet system and the subsequent discussions of “peace dividends” in the United States threatened the interests of the military-industrial conglomerates, their representatives invented “new external sources of danger to U.S. interests” and successfully substituted them for the “threat of communism” of the Cold War era. These “new, post-Cold War sources of threat” are said to stem from the “unpredictable, unreliable regional powers of the Third World,” from the so-called rogue states, from “global terrorism,” from “Islamic fundamentalism,” or more recently from Iran’s “impending nuclear weapons.”
Just as the powerful beneficiaries of war dividends view international peace and stability as inimical to their business interests, so too the hardline Zionist proponents of Greater Israel perceive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors as perilous to their territorial ambitions. The reason for this fear of peace is that, according to a number of United Nations resolutions, peace would mean Israel’s return to its pre-1967 borders.
But because proponents of Greater Israel, which includes the current Israeli government, are unwilling to return to those internationally-agreed-upon borders, they sabotage peace efforts and avoid genuine dialogue with Palestinians. By the same token, these proponents view war and socio-political convulsion (or, as David Ben-Gurion, one of the key founders of the State of Israel, put it, “revolutionary atmosphere”) as opportunities that are conducive to the expulsion of Palestinians, the geographic recasting of the region, and the expansion of Israel’s territory.
Although there is no formal agreement or treaty between the Israel lobby and the armaments lobby, there is a de facto institutional framework for the unholy alliance of these two militaristic interest groups: a web of closely knit think tanks that are both founded and financed primarily by the armaments lobby and the Israeli lobby. These include the American Enterprise Institute, the Project for the New American Century, the Center for Security Policy, the Middle East Media Research Institute, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Middle East Forum, the National Institute for Public Policy, and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. These malicious institutes of war and militarism are staffed largely by the war-mongering Neoconservative chicken-hawks.
It is no longer a secret that the major plans of the Bush administration’s jingoistic foreign policy were drawn up largely by these think tanks, often in collaboration, directly or indirectly, with the Pentagon, the arms lobby, and the Israeli lobby. Although no longer as noisy as during the heydays of the Bush administration, especially when they were cheerleading the invasion of Iraq, these belligerent think tanks are no less busy plotting another war of aggression in the region — this time against Iran.
These think tanks and their (somewhat disguised but still active) Neo-conservative champions continue to serve as influence-peddling, corrupting, and, ultimately, subversive links between the armaments lobby, the Israel lobbies, the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, and the Congress. What is truly amazing is that the debacles they have wrought in Iraq and Afghanistan have not deterred them from working just as hard, using the same scandalous tactics, to bring about a military strike against yet another Muslim country — Iran.
Since the late 1940s, no US president has been able to seriously challenge the militaristic designs of the unholy alliance of the armaments lobby and the Israel lobby in the Middle East. President Obama does not seem to represent an exception to this pattern — his feeble message of peace and hollow posturing about a “new beginning” with Iran, or his formalistic advocacy of the two-state solution in Palestine, notwithstanding.
The carrot-and-stick strategy of the alliance in corrupting and/or co-opting politicians is rather well known: the carrot is the money the alliance pays for their election while the stick is driving them out of office if the carrot proves ineffective. What is less known (but perhaps more dangerous) is the alliance’s tendency to resort to pernicious patriotic-blackmailing tactics against politicians who may defy its policies and priorities.
Furthermore, when the alliance is unable to influence policy within the existing parameters or premises of international relations, it would not hesitate to change (or try to change) those parameters in order to bring about the desired change in policy.
This cynical strategy includes fabrication of evidence, provocation of terrorism (often in Muslim countries or communities), and instigation of war and political tensions. It is a strategy of manufacturing “external threats to our national security,” or inventing new enemies, in order to justify war and military intervention, thereby coercing Presidents and other politicians who may otherwise resist the alliance’s tendency to militarize US foreign policy.
For example, President Jimmy Carter went to the White House (1976) with a major agenda for international peace and stability. A key principle on that agenda was reducing tensions and seeking harmony with the Soviet Union. One of the main reasons for Carter’s peace overtures with the Soviets was to downsize the US military colossus and cut the Pentagon spending in order to reduce the US budget deficit. Carter’s discussion of “peace dividends” frightened beneficiaries of war dividends.
Terrified by Carter’s proposals of tension reduction with the Soviet Union, these influential beneficiaries of military spending set out to challenge him mercilessly. Organizing around opposition to tension-reducing talks with the Soviet Union, they reconstituted the brazenly militaristic Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), which had been instrumental to President Truman’s militarization policies of the early 1950s.
The CPD questioned the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE)’s account of the Soviet military capabilities. It charged that the NIE’s account of Soviet arms outlays was too low and that there should be an ‘independent’ analysis. Sounding the false alarms of the Soviet threat, it came up with an alternative estimate (known as the Team B Report) of the Soviet Union’s military spending.
The Team B report ‘discovered’ a sizable error in previous NIE/CIA estimates of Soviet military outlays: the USSR was said to be spending 13, not 8, percent of its GNP on arms. Multiplying this ‘error factor’ by 10 (for the 10-year period 1970-80), it was concluded that by the end of the 1970s the USSR would have outspent the US by $300 billion.8
Although years later it was acknowledged that the Team B Report was bogus, it was nonetheless effectively used at the time to divert the Carter administration from its tension-reducing negotiations with the Soviet Union. “By late 1977 or early 1978 President Carter had moved from his campaign pledge to reduce military spending every year to increasing it. . . . Pressured by the CPD. . . , Carter began a sustained buildup in military expenditures” that continued to the end of his term as President.9
Evidence thus clearly indicates that, using “threats to our national security interests,” along with subtle but unmistakable patriotic-blackmailing tactics, champions of war and militarism successfully highjacked President Carter’s initially peaceful agenda soon after he arrived in the White House. His militaristic political opponents outmaneuvered and coerced him to abandon most of his campaign pledges. Not only was he not able to reduce the geopolitical tensions of the Cold War atmosphere, but, indeed, in the second half of his presidency Carter moved to revive the ephemerally-relaxed Cold War tensions of the early-to-late 1970s and, instead, embark on a confrontational course with the Soviet Union.
There are striking similarities between CPD’s tactics of inventing “external threats to our national security” in order to heighten hostility with the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and the Neoconservatives’ employment of similar tactics in the early 2000s in order to pave the way for the invasion of Iraq. Just as the CPD questioned and overrode the NIE/CIA estimates of the Soviet military capabilities during the Carter administration, so too in the immediate aftermath of the heinous 9/11 attacks the Neoconservative think tanks and their war-mongering operatives in and around the Bush administration overruled the official CIA assessments of Iraq’s military capabilities under Saddam Hussein, thereby justifying the invasion of that country — which drastically increased the fortunes of war profiteers.
The tried-and-true scheme of militarism, “external threats or enemies,” to instigate wars and international tensions continues to this day. Just as during the Bush administration the Neoconservative champions of war and militarism fabricated intelligence in order to justify the occupation of Iraq, so too today their counterparts in and around the Obama administration are plotting to discredit the official CIA/NIE intelligence on Iran’s nuclear plans and military capabilities in order to bring about a military assault against that country.
President Obama and his top policy makers on Iran may use a slightly tempered rhetoric, but they are not any less hawkish in terms of concrete policy measures against that country. While Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz are out; Hillary Clinton and Dennis Ross are in. In their attitudes and approaches toward Iran, neither Hillary Clinton is less hawkish than Donald Rumsfeld, nor is Dennis Ross than Paul Wolfowitz.
Hillary Clinton is on record as having said (during her unsuccessful bid for the White House), “we would be able to totally obliterate” Iranians should they threaten our ally Israel. There was a widespread understanding of the word “obliteration” as having meant the use of “tactical/surgical” nuclear bombs against Iran. Parroting the AIPAC claim that Iran represents an “existential danger to Israel,” Hillary Clinton recently described a potentially nuclear Iran as an “extraordinary threat.”10
President Obama’s appointment of Dennis Ross as the point man in dealing with Iran is equally ominous. Ross is known as having developed a strategy of dealing with Iran that is called “engagement with pressure,” which means projecting or pretending negotiation with Iran in order to garner broader international support for the US-sponsored economic pressure on that country. Here is how Flynt and Hillary Leverett, former National Security Council staff members, relate a conversation they had with Ross about his cynical strategy of engagement-with-pressure:
“In conversations with Mr. Ross before Mr. Obama’s election, we asked him if he really believed that engagement-with-pressure would bring concessions from Iran. He forthrightly acknowledged that this was unlikely. Why, then, was he advocating a diplomatic course that, in his judgment, would probably fail? Because, he told us, if Iran continued to expand its nuclear fuel program, at some point in the next couple of years President Bush’s successor would need to order military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets. Citing past ‘diplomacy’ would be necessary for that president to claim any military action was legitimate.”11
It is no secret that AIPAC strongly favored Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in the 2008 Presidential race for the White House. Although they failed in this bid, they succeeded in filling key foreign policy positions in the Obama administration with their favorites: Hillary Clinton as the Secretary of State and Dennis Ross as the point man in dealing with Iran. Perhaps more importantly, they also succeeded in having Rahm Emmanuel, who served in the Israel Defense Forces, appointed as Obama’s chief-of-staff.
Considering this team of advisors, who are not much different in their approach to Iran than their Neo-conservative counterparts of the Bush days, it stands to reason to argue that, at least in the context of the Middle East, President Obama works essentially from within the same metaphorical box of policy options as did his predecessor, President George W. Bush.
Nor is it surprising to see Mr. Obama use the same political toolbox in his approach to Iran as did Mr. Bush: the same narrative, the same premises, the same assumptions, and the same faulty intelligence or distorted information. These dubious assumptions and premises include,
(a) Iran’s nuclear program is not a peaceful technological pursuit, as attested by both the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), but a pursuit of nuclear weapons.
(b) Hamas is not a democratically elected government, but a terrorist organization; Hezbollah is not a major political party in Lebanon, but a terrorist organization; therefore, Iran’s support of these two organizations is tantamount to supporting terrorism.
This spurious, obstructionist narrative — borrowed without reservations from the Bush administration and its Neoconservative handlers — are bound to render President Obama’s rhetoric of “a new beginning with Iran” meaningless. It is hypocritical — as well as offensive — to talk about “a new beginning” while carrying out old policies of lies, demonization, threats, and subversion.
Iran poses no military threat to the United States or Israel — or, for that matter, any other country in the world. The shrill noises coming out of Washington and Jerusalem, however, continue to relentlessly portray Iran as a menace to the national interests of the United States and an “existential threat” to Israel. Why? What accounts for this need of Iran as a boogeyman?
A widely shred view blames Iranian leaders, especially President Ahmadinejad, for the US-Israeli hostility toward Iran. What the proponents of this view overlook, however, is the fact that Iran’s nuclear issue or Ahmadinejad’s controversial statements about Israel are no more than distractions and excuses — distractions from land grabbing, and excuses for war profiteering. The US-Israeli hostility toward Iran did not start with Ahmadinejad; nor will it end after him. The military-industrial-Likud alliance is certain to quickly find other distractions and boogeymen soon after Ahmadinejad is replaced by another president, whenever that maybe.
Just as a reliable prognosis of a disease requires a sound diagnosis, so too a sensible solution to the plague of war and militarism in the Middle East requires an objective identification of the root causes of the continued cycle of violence and bloodshed.
As I have briefly argued in this essay, two nasty viruses lie at the root of war and geopolitical convulsion in the Middle East. These are (a) the beneficiaries of war dividends (the military-industrial complex and associated businesses that benefit from war and military spending), and (b) partisans of territorial expansion in Palestine, that is, militant Zionism, as reflected, for example, in the policies of the Likud Party in Israel and those of American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in the United States.12
These two powerful groups view Iran as a threat to their nefarious interests not because of its military power but because Iran exposes these two interest groups for what they are: real sources of war and mischief in the Middle East, driven by a thirst for more profits and more land.
It follows that efforts to end war and geopolitical turbulence in the Middle East require removing or reducing the destructive influences of these two extremely powerful interest groups in the shaping of the policies of the Middle East. This is admittedly a suggestion that is not easily realized. Some might even say it is altogether impractical. But there is simply no other way to achieve peace and stability in the region. It requires two major steps.
First, as the late General Smedley D. Butler pointed out long ago, it requires “taking profits out of war and arms production.”13 This means greatly downsizing the military-industrial complex, closing down the nearly 800 US military bases overseas, and nationalizing the war/defense industry. In suggesting this drastic overhaul, I am not unmindful of the fact that millions of jobs, hundreds of thousands of businesses, and thousands of communities have become dependent on military spending. My suggestion is therefore to reallocate a major portion of military to non-military public spending so that the overall public spending would not diminish. This is, by the way, a suggestion that is sometimes referred to as substituting “peace dividends” for “war dividends.”
Second, ending war and political turbulence in the Middle East also requires ending the suffering of the Palestinian people and the occupation of their land. All that is needed to be done here is simply to carry out the long-standing UN resolutions regarding the Palestinian-Israeli relations. This, of course, requires curtailment of the Likud/AIPAC power, as well as the influence of their supporters in the US congress and the media.
While this may appear remote and unlikely, it is bound to happen. It is simply a matter of time. I only hope that more Jewish people will wake up to the ominous trajectory of expansionist Zionism and play a salutary role in the unfolding of this inevitable outcome. The sooner they realize and/or acknowledge (as many far-sighted and peace-loving Jews already have) that militant Zionism is a con game, headed toward a dead end, the better.
No doubt, the leaders of militant Zionism are, by and large, intelligent and politically savvy people. But they are also shortsighted, as they seem oblivious to the fact that their project of Greater Israel remains, ultimately, hostage to the political utility and profitability imperatives of imperialist powers. They fail to realize or acknowledge that forceful conquest and occupation of the Palestinian land cannot be continued or maintained for ever; and that, as the late Albert Einstein put it, “Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding.”
4 “Seymour Hersh: US Training Jondollah and MEK for Bombing Preparation,” CASMII Press Release (July 8, 2008).
6 Raimondo, op. cit.
8 James Cypher, “The Basic Economics of Rearming America,” Monthly Review 33, no. 6 (1981): 20-21.
11 Leverett and Leverett, op. cit.
Ismael Hossein-zadeh, author of the recently published The Political Economy of U.S. Militarism (Palgrave-Macmillan 2007), teaches economics at Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa.