The threat of a U.S. attack on Iran is all too real. Led by John Bolton, the Trump administration is spinning tales of Iranian misdeeds. It easy to concoct pretexts for aggression. History provides many examples.
The assault against Iran is one element of the international program of flaunting overwhelming U.S. power to put an end to “successful defiance” of the master of the globe: the primary reason for the U.S. torture of Cuba for 60 years.
The reasoning would easily be understood by any Mafia Don. Successful defiance can inspire others to pursue the same course. The “virus” can “spread contagion,” as Kissinger put it when laboring to overthrow Salvador Allende in Chile. The need to destroy such viruses and inoculate victims against contagion—commonly by imposing harsh dictatorships—is a leading principle of world affairs.
Iran has been guilty of the crime of successful defiance since the 1979 uprising that deposed the tyrant the U.S. had installed in the 1953 coup that, with help from the British, destroyed the parliamentary system and restored obedience. The achievement was welcomed by liberal opinion. As the New York Times explained in 1954, thanks to the subsequent agreement between Iran and foreign oil companies, “Underdeveloped countries with rich resources now have an object lesson in the heavy cost that must be paid by one of their number which goes berserk with fanatical nationalism.” The article goes on to state, “It is perhaps too much to hope that Iran’s experience will prevent the rise of Mossadeghs in other countries, but that experience may at least strengthen the hands of more reasonable and more far-seeing leaders.”
Little has changed since. To take another more recent example, Hugo Chávez changed from tolerated bad boy to dangerous criminal when he encouraged OPEC to raise oil prices for the benefit of the global south, the wrong people. Soon after, his government was overthrown by a military coup, welcomed by the leading voice of liberal journalism. The Times editors exulted that “Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator,” the “ruinous demagogue” Hugo Chávez, “after the military intervened and handed power to a respected business leader, Pedro Carmona”—who quickly dissolved the National Assembly, suspended the constitution and disbanded the Supreme Court, but, unfortunately, was overthrown within days by a popular uprising, compelling Washington to resort to other means to kill the virus.
The quest for dominance
Once Iranian “successful defiance” was terminated, and the “clear-eyed” Shah was safely installed in power, Iran became a pillar of U.S. control of the Middle East, along with Saudi Arabia and post-1967 Israel, which was closely allied with the Shah’s Iran, though not formally. Israel also had shared interests with Saudi Arabia, a relationship now becoming more overt as the Trump administration oversees an alliance of reactionary Middle East states as a base for U.S. power in the region.
Control of the strategically significant Middle East, with its huge and easily accessible oil reserves, has been a centerpiece of policy since the U.S. gained the position of global hegemon after World War II. The reasons are not obscure. The State Department recognized that Saudi Arabia is “a stupendous source of strategic power” and “one of the greatest material prizes in world history.” Eisenhower described it as the most “strategically important part of the world.” That control of Middle East oil yields “substantial control of the world” and “critical leverage” over industrial rivals has been understood by influential statesmen from Roosevelt adviser A. A. Berle to Zbigniew Brzezinski.
These principles hold quite independently of U.S. access to the region’s resources, which, in fact, has not been of primary concern. Through much of this period the U.S. was a major producer of fossil fuels, as it is again today. But the principles remain the same, and are reinforced by other factors, among them the insatiable demand of the oil dictatorships for military equipment and the Saudi agreement to support the dollar as global currency, affording the U.S. major advantages.
Middle East correspondent Tom Stevenson does not exaggerate when he writes that, “The U.S.’s inherited mastery of the Gulf has given it a degree of leverage over both rivals and allies probably unparalleled in the history of empire… It is difficult to overstate the role of the Gulf in the way the world is currently run.”
It is, then, understandable why successful defiance in the region cannot be tolerated.
After the overthrow of its Iranian client, the U.S. turned to direct support for Saddam’s invasion of Iran, tacitly condoning his use of chemical weapons and finally intervening directly by protecting Iraqi shipping in the Gulf from Iranian interdiction to ensure Iran’s submission. The extent of Reagan’s commitment to his friend Saddam was illustrated graphically when Iraqi missiles struck the USS Stark, killing 37 crew, eliciting a tap on the wrist in response. Only Israel has been able to get away with something like that (USS Liberty, 1967).
When the war ended, under President George H.W. Bush, the Pentagon and Department of Energy invited Iraqi engineers to the U.S. for advanced training in weapons production, an existential threat to Iran. Since then, harsh sanctions and cyber attacks—an act of aggression according to Pentagon doctrine—have been employed to punish the miscreants.
Threat to the world order
U.S. political leaders across the spectrum warn that all options are open in assaulting Iran – “containing it,” in prevailing Newspeak. It is irrelevant that “the threat or use of force” is explicitly banned in the UN Charter, the foundation of modern international law.
Iran is regularly depicted as the greatest threat to world peace—in the U.S., that is. Global opinion differs, regarding the U.S. as the greatest threat to world peace, but the American population is protected from this unwelcome news by the Free Press.
That Iran’s government is a threat to its own population is not in doubt, nor is the fact that like everyone else, Iran seeks to expand its influence. The issue, rather, is Iran’s alleged threat to world order generally.
What then is that threat? A sensible answer has been provided by U.S. intelligence, which advised Congress in 2010 (nothing has materially changed since) that Iranian military doctrine is strictly “defensive … designed to slow an invasion and force a diplomatic solution to hostilities,” and that “Iran’s nuclear program and its willingness to keep open the possibility of developing nuclear weapons is a central part of its deterrent strategy.” (U.S. intelligence agencies acknowledged in 2007 and 2012 that Iran doesn’t currently have a nuclear weapons program.) For those who wish to rampage freely in the region, a deterrent is an intolerable threat—even worse than “successful defiance.”
There would of course be ways to end the alleged threat of Iranian nuclear weapons. One start was the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the joint agreement on nuclear weapons, endorsed by the Security Council and abrogated by the Trump administration, in full awareness that Iran has lived up to its commitments.
Hawks claim that the agreement did not go far enough, but there are simple ways to go beyond. The most obvious is to move towards a nuclear-weapons-free zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East, as strongly advocated by the Arab states, by Iran and by G-77 (the former non-aligned countries), with general support elsewhere. There is a key obstacle. The proposal is regularly vetoed by the U.S. at the NPT review conferences, mostly recently by Obama in 2015. The reason, as everyone knows, is that the plan would require the U.S. to acknowledge formally that Israel has nuclear weapons and even to authorize inspections. Again, intolerable.
It should not be forgotten that the U.S. (along with Britain) has a unique responsibility to establish a Middle East NWFZ. When attempting to provide some legal cover for the invasion of Iraq, the two aggressors claimed that Saddam was developing nuclear weapons in violation of Security Council Resolution 687 of 1991, after the Gulf war, which obligated Saddam to end such programs (as in fact he did). Little attention is paid to Article 14, calling for “steps towards the goal of establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction.”
It is also worth noting that when Iran was ruled by the Shah, there was little concern about Iranian intentions to develop nuclear weapons. These were clearly stated by the Shah, who informed foreign journalists that Iran would develop nuclear weapons “without a doubt and sooner than one would think.” The father of Iran’s nuclear energy program and former head of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran was confident that the leadership’s plan “was to build a nuclear bomb.” The CIA reported that it had “no doubt” Iran would develop nuclear weapons if neighboring countries did (as Israel of course has).
This was during the period when Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Henry Kissinger and other high officials were pressuring U.S. universities (my own, MIT, included) to facilitate Iran’s nuclear programs. Asked later why he supported such programs under the Shah but since strenuously opposes them, Kissinger responded honestly that Iran was an ally then. Simple enough.
The neoliberal formula
Assuming that rationality prevails and that Bolton and co. can be contained, the U.S. will continue with the successful program of crushing Iran’s economy and punishing its population. Europe is too intimidated to respond, and others lack the power to stand up to the Master. The same policies are being pursued in Venezuela, and have been employed against Cuba for many years, ever since the Kennedy administration recognized that its campaign to impose “the terrors of the earth” on Cuba (in the words of historian Arthur Schlesinger) brought the world close to destruction during the missile crisis.
It is a mistake to seek some grand geopolitical thinking behind Trump’s performances. These are readily explained as the actions of a narcissistic megalomaniac whose doctrine is to maintain personal power, and who has the political savvy to satisfy his constituencies, primarily corporate power and private wealth but also the voting base. The latter is kept in line by gifts to the religious right, dramatic pronouncements about protection of Americans from hordes of rapists and murderers and other demons, and the pretense to be standing up for the working stiff whom the administration’s actual policies are in fact shafting at every turn.
So far, it is working well. The neoliberal formula is flourishing: spectacular profits for the primary constituency along with general stagnation and precarity for the majority, ameliorated slightly by the continuing slow recovery from the Great Recession of 2008. In brief, Trump is doing just fine. He is helped by the obsession of the Democrats with Russiagate and their downplaying of his major crimes, the most important, by far, the policy of leading the race to environmental catastrophe. Another Trump term might—literally—be a death knell for organized human life.
A new poll shows that Trump’s job approval among likely voters has passed 50%, higher than Obama’s at this stage of his presidency. A smart policy for Trump would be to continue to shake his fist at the world, charging that weak-kneed liberals like “Sleepy Joe” and “crazy Bernie” would submit to the terrible enemies who are being subdued by the street tough with the MAGA hat. The stance is assisted by the liberal media, which reflexively echo the charges that the “rogue state” of Iran has to become a “normal state” like the U.S. (Pompeo’s mantra), even while warning timidly that war might not be the best way to achieve that goal.
There are of course other paths that can be pursued. And, crucially, there can be no delay in mounting powerful opposition to the threat of yet another crime of aggression, with its likely catastrophic outcomes.
Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor and Professor of Linguistics (Emeritus) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the author of dozens of books on U.S. foreign policy. His most recent book is Who Rules the World? from Metropolitan Books.