This month saw yet another escalation of the U.S. policy of isolating and pressuring Iran as the White House announced its intention to add Iran’s Revolutionary Guard to the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. There is something to be learned from this about the nature of U.S. foreign policy if we care to examine the implications; and the ramifications of such a decision could be quite serious and potentially deadly, so it warrants a look.
The announcement was preceded by yet another declaration from the Pentagon that Iran was supplying “explosively formed penetrators” (EFPs) to Shiite militias combating the U.S. occupying forces in Iraq. The weapon is basically an improvised explosive device which projects a slug of metal upon detonation capable of penetrating armor. July, the Pentagon said, was a record-breaking month for incidents in which U.S. forces were faced with such weapons.
The actual evidence implicating the Iranian government in supplying the weapons is scant and relies upon two assumptions. The first is that Iraqis are not capable of assembling such a weapon, or at least not capable of manufacturing the required components, and the devices must therefore be supplied from elsewhere. The second is that the use of components manufactured in Iran could not occur without the knowledge and blessing of the Iranian government. Both assumptions are questionable, but the claim is given much the same appearance as fact as claims of Iraq’s WMD were prior to that invasion.
Whether the charges are true or not, the criticism of Iran is that they are contributing to the violence in Iraq. When Iran does so, it’s bad, presumably one of those things which makes Iran a part of an “axis of evil”. The U.S., on the other hand, which created the current state of violent affairs by waging what is known in international law as a war of aggression, “the supreme international crime”, against Iraq, is good. Our violence is legitimate and our intentions benevolent, while Iran’s violence (real or alleged), though far lesser in scale and in consequence, is illegitimate and their intentions evil. This unquestionable axiom is one of the most basic elements of the existing framework for discussion.
Similarly, reporting on the announcement that the White House is preparing to declare the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization has been completely devoid of any examination of whether this designation would be appropriate or not. The reasons for the proposal are given: Iran has defied the U.S. and refused to comply with U.N. resolutions calling for it to renounce its rights under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) to continue with research and development of its nuclear program while monitoring and verification inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are ongoing; Iran has supported attacks upon U.S. troops by supplying weapons to Iraqis combating the foreign occupation of their country; Iran has helped to arm the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan; and Iran has also supported Lebanon’s Hezbollah organization, such as during Israel’s war on Lebanon last summer.
This case against Iran is stronger in some respects than in others. Hezbollah, during last summer’s war, engaged in actions that clearly fall under the definition of “terrorism”; namely its indiscriminate use of rocket attacks against Israel. Iranian support for Hezbollah, then, it could reasonably be argued, would be support for terrorism. Indeed, this argument is quite commonly made and rarely, if ever, questioned. Yet the corollary, if we apply the same standard—that Israel’s indiscriminate attacks against Lebanon were, therefore, likewise acts of “terrorism”, that the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) is a terrorist organization, and that the U.S. government’s support for Israel is, therefore, likewise support for terrorism—is inconceivable for commentators and policy-makers.
If the charge was true, a similar argument in favor of the White House proposal could be made in the case of Iranian support for the Taliban. The charge happens to be frivolous. Iran has historically opposed the Taliban and supported its opponents, the U.S.’s allies in the Northern Alliance (when many of these same warlords were removed from power by the Taliban, the Taliban were greeted as liberators). In fact, it was the U.S.’s allies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that historically supported the Taliban. Pakistan openly supported the Taliban right up until 9/11. At that time, Pakistan officially ceased its support and joined the U.S. as its “ally” in the “war on terrorism”. Unofficially, Pakistani support for the Taliban arguably never ended (a situation which has caused some complications in relations between the “allies”, including threats of U.S. forces entering Pakistan).
As for the U.S. itself, it too was friendly towards the Taliban. Representatives from the Taliban were wooed by U.S. energy corporation executives and there were proposals (in need of government approval) to work with the Taliban to construct a pipeline across Afghanistan to transfer the wealth of oil and gas from the Caspian Sea region to a port in neighboring Pakistan. Eventually, public outrage against the Taliban and their treatment of women (their harboring of Osama bin Laden was not such an issue then) forced both corporations (namely UNOCAL) and the government to turn a cold shoulder to the Taliban and policy shifted more towards regime change in order to create stable enough conditions to go ahead with the proposed deals.
Even so, in 2001, in the months prior to 9/11, the U.S. gave $168 million in what it called aid to the Taliban. In May alone, the U.S. pledged to give $43 million, ostensibly to assist the Taliban in its efforts to eradicate the poppy crop in Afghanistan, which, except for a very brief spell under Taliban rule, has long provided the world with most of its heroin (this was one result of the Soviet-Afghan war as it provided financing for the U.S.-backed Mujahedeen; and production since the U.S. war on Afghanistan has once again soared, blowing away all past records).
Iran, on the other hand, opposed the Taliban from the beginning, preferring the warlords which the U.S. now also calls allies. Evidence that Iranian policy has shifted from the historical precedent by180 degrees is nonexistent—but, as was the case with the invasion of Iraq—evidence is hardly necessary. Policy makers simply make this stuff up and expect people to believe it (an expectation which, unfortunately, is not unreasonable, as the case of Iraq proved). Then when hindsight proves them wrong, the inconsistency between what was stated and the truth can be attributed as an “intelligence failure”.
The Taliban has been responsible for acts of terrorism in Afghanistan since the U.S. began its war there and, prior to that, harbored Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda organization which was presumably responsible for the attacks of 9/11. If the charge was true, the case could be made that Iran’s support for the Taliban was support for terrorism. But once again, applying the same standard to itself leads to uncomfortable conclusions for the U.S. It was the U.S. and its allies, and not Iran, that supported the Taliban. One could go further and point to the U.S.’s support for the Mujahedeen during the Soviet-Afghan war, which gave birth to al Qaeda (“the base”) and precipitated the rise of the Taliban to begin with. We have historically found the same phenomenon with many other cases of U.S. foreign policy across the globe, such as the U.S. support for the Contras in the war against Nicaragua (for which the U.S. was condemned by the World Court). Further examples abound.
The most prominent charge against Iran in the case to list a branch of its military as a terrorist organization is its alleged support for Iraqi militias fighting U.S. troops. While this claim has been given significant coverage in news articles reporting on the White House’s intention to add the Revolutionary Guard to the list of terrorist organizations, the fact that such actions don’t fall within the definition of “terrorism” has gone unmentioned and the reasonableness of adding Iran to the list based upon this charge left unquestioned. Under international law, attacks upon military personnel of a foreign occupying power are not terrorism, but legitimate acts of self-defense. This is a well recognized fact to any competent observer, but inconvenient. If we acknowledged this, we would either have to face up to our own hypocrisy or reasonably explain why the same standard applied to others isn’t also applied to ourselves, and vice versa. Hence it is simply ignored.
As for Iran’s nuclear program, as a member of the NPT it is quite legal for Iran to research and develop nuclear technology so long as it is used for peaceful purposes only. There is no evidence that Iran is attempting to use its technology to build a nuclear weapon. It’s reasonable to be concerned about Iran’s intentions, but the IAEA should be allowed to fulfill its function to ensure that members of the NPT comply with its terms. More to the point, researching and developing nuclear technology as a member of the NPT does not fall within the definition of “terrorism”, which has become a catch-all phrase used to describe anything foreign nations do that the U.S. doesn’t approve of. The word has thus become virtually meaningless, much as “communism” had been before it with relation to U.S. foreign policy.
This is the existing framework, and the consequence of continuing within its limited confines is perfectly well understood: the U.S. will engage in military attacks against Iran with devastating and predictable consequences which will subsequently be seen as perhaps regrettable, but unaffecting our claims of benevolent intent. This violent end is becoming increasingly inevitable because the existing framework makes it so; it is designed to make it so. Current U.S. policy towards Iran is designed to create a casus belli for attacking Iran. Then, when it occurs, it will be pointed to as justification for the policy that led to it.
U.S. pressure against Iran through the U.N. Security Council, it’s insistence that Iran give up its nuclear program despite being a member of the NPT and despite the enforcement of sanctions, will lead to Iran becoming increasingly defiant until the point they finally decide to withdraw from the NPT treaty (which they have already threatened to do, as predicted) and insist upon the withdrawal of all IAEA personnel. Iran has claimed its nuclear program is intended for peaceful purposes only, but threats of violence against Iran by the U.S. and its Middle East ally, Israel, can only demonstrate to Iran its need for a nuclear weapon to deter aggression from these nuclear powers that have openly declared their intention to bomb should Iran refuse to comply with U.S. demands. This future consequence, too, is well understood, and predictable. U.S. policy towards Iran is self-fulfilling, which is to say that it produces the very result it claims to be trying to prevent.
This was true for U.S. policy towards Iraq, as well. It was well understood that, given the assumption that Iraq actually had weapons of mass destruction (WMD)—a claim for which there was no credible evidence at the time—Saddam Hussein would only be willing to use his WMD against the U.S. or U.S. forces as a final act of desperation in the event that the U.S. invaded Iraq. Iraq had no WMD, of course, and this never occurred, but the fact is that U.S. leaders claimed the policy was designed to prevent such an occurrence while in fact bringing about the very circumstances required to make such an occurrence most likely.
In addition, the war was ostensibly fought to secure and destroy alleged stockpiles of WMD to prevent them from winding up in the hands of terrorists while actually exponentially increasing the chances that this very thing would happen, as a result of the chaos and looting that would occur as a result of destabilizing the government and the resulting foreseeable breakdown of law and order. Had Iraq had WMD, it is quite possible that the weapons would have ended up in the hands of terrorists not in spite of but as a result of the U.S. invasion.
The U.S. claimed that Iraq was an enemy in the “war on terrorism” and justifies the ongoing occupation by arguing that it needs to stay to combat the terrorism and other violence that exists there now as a consequence of the U.S. invasion. The war, as predicted, has also had the effect of increasing anti-American sentiment throughout the region and served as a catalyst for recruitment of increasingly frustrated and disillusioned Muslims into radical and violent organizations willing to use terrorism to achieve their ends. The “war on terrorism”, in other words, has increased the threat of terrorism by no small measure. In this case, though predicted, the intent of the policy was not to increase the threat of terrorism; it simply wasn’t a consideration that warranted much attention in their planning.
Further examples abound and the pattern is a well established aspect of U.S. foreign policy, not only in the Middle East but across the globe. There is no slight inconsistency with the declared intention of U.S. policy and its actual consequences. If their declared intentions are honest, then U.S. leaders would appear to be inept. On the other hand, if U.S. leaders are not incompetent, then the declared purposes of policies they establish cannot possibly be the correct ones. Assuming our leaders aren’t nincompoops, the corollary seems all too obvious: policy-makers constantly deceive the public about their true motives for implementing existing policies. Thus, the U.S. didn’t go to war to prevent Iraq from using WMD or from providing WMD to terrorists. We may debate true purpose of the invasion, but that the declared intentions were completely implausible and ridiculous should be fairly self-evident to all by now (as it was at the time for many of us).
In the case of Iran, U.S. policy makers claim to be trying to ensure peace and stability in the region by preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and from supporting terrorism. The policies themselves, however, only serve to isolate Iran and increase the likelihood that Iran will withdraw from the NPT and actually begin to develop a nuclear weapon, as well as to provide motive for Iran to support attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq. Numerous commentators and foreign policy experts have observed that if the U.S. were to attack Iran, one likely consequence would be Iranian support for attacks against the U.S., from increased support for the Iraqi resistance fighters to support for terrorist acts by Hezbollah or other organizations against U.S. interests throughout the region, and possibly even at home. Once again, we see policies greatly increasing the likelihood of consequences policy-makers claim they are trying to prevent.
So what is the true reason for existing U.S. policies towards Iran? There may be a number of motivating influences, but we may again learn from the lesson of Iraq to make an educated guess about the answer. In that case, it was clear that Saddam Hussein had for too long successfully defied the U.S. and thus threatened U.S. credibility as the global superpower. An example had to be made of Iraq, and the consequences for the Iraqi people were simply not a consideration. This was true for the sanctions as well as for the war. For instance, when asked about UN sanctions that had resulted in the deaths of half a million children, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright responded, “we think the price is worth it”. It was well understood at the time that the sanctions only served to strengthen the Hussein regime’s hold over the Iraqi people while collectively punishing the Iraqi people themselves. But the policy remained consistent.
Like any good mafia don, credibility was at stake and the U.S. had to take action to set an example. This motive is easily identifiable amongst documents written by current policy makers, such as the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance draft, The Project for a New American Century’s “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” document, or the U.S. National Security Strategy announced early on by the Bush administration.
Also, Iraq has lots of oil.
That this is the true purpose of U.S. policy should not come as all too surprising, particularly when policy makers have openly declared their intention of establishing global dominance with a focus on the energy-rich Middle East. What is more difficult for many people to accept is that the reasons they are given for a particular policy, which are important to them, are of little or no consideration to policy-makers.
Thus, as former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz had noted, the issues of WMDs and terrorism were chosen as the dominant justifications for the war. This was for a good reason; not because preventing proliferation and terrorism are high on the government’s agenda, but because it’s something the American people feel they have an interest in (particularly when made to feel threatened by images of a “mushroom cloud” that could be the “smoking gun” in the case of Iraq). The war was thus consciously and deliberately sold to Americans upon this false pretext. It’s not that policy makers don’t care about proliferation and terrorism; it’s just wasn’t a consideration when policy was being made towards Iraq.
The devastating consequences that many observers have predicted would result from an attack upon Iran do not have to be inevitable. A change of course is possible and there are alternatives to violence that would increase the likelihood that the stated purpose for U.S. policies would actually be fulfilled. In the case of Iran, this would mean establishing policies that increase the chances for peace and stability in the region. Ceasing from waging war and encouraging instability would be a good first step for the U.S. But we can go further.
It might be possible to establish policies that help increase the chances that Iran will continue to cooperate with the IAEA to ensure that its nuclear program is intended for peaceful purposes only. This would require a cessation of the effort to isolate Iran and an increased effort to engage Iranian leaders in a constructive dialogue. And with relation to Iraq, it presents a historic opportunity for the U.S. to open up a dialogue with Iran and come to some consensus on what needs to be done to heal the situation, which might not be too difficult since both countries share similar interests in achieving a secure and stable Iraq led by a democratic government. So far, meaningful steps towards peace and stability have been rejected by the current U.S. administration and a path towards war has once again been chosen as the desired course of action.