Neoconservative Brinksmanship – OpEd


By Philip Weiss

So apparently, Obama and Holder are either too clever by half, or are just dhimmi dunces. They’re too busy playing cloak and dagger to really do something about Tehran: sanctions, MEK, Super Stuxnet and assassinations? Oh please! Where’s our Operation Opera? The Irano-Mexican terror cell run by the FBI proves we must do something, and fast! (And if the U.S. won’t, it seems increasingly possible that Israel’s top leadership, having created “Atomic Pressure” to spur action, may strike within the next two weeks).

The withdrawal from Iraq? That’s just a further sign of U.S. weakness in the eyes of many neocons (both Israeli and American), who, after all, were hoping to hold onto at least a few military bases in the country. But no, Obama and Holder dropped the ball by not fighting harder to give U.S. forces there legal impunity.

So, while many neocons (and 2012 presidential hopefuls) are now criticizing the withdrawal and rattling their sabers at Iran (Justin Raimondo has an interesting piece on how it might play out by 2012), there is at least one neoconservative who sees an opportunity – in a most roundabout way – in the Iraq withdrawal for the U.S. (and UK) to finally attack Iran.

Obama and Holder, one hopes, probably won’t see the grand opportunity that Lee Smith sees for the U.S.:

“U.S. policymakers cannot recognize the pending withdrawal from Iraq—or what is effectively the liberation of many thousands of American hostages—as an opportunity to go after Iran. Instead, Washington will continue to wage clandestine operations against Tehran—like killing Iranian nuclear scientists and sabotaging Iranian centrifuges with a computer worm. None of those operations will stop the Islamic Republic from getting the bomb—rather, that secret war, presumably conducted in tandem with Israel, is meant only to deter the Jewish state from attacking Iran in earnest.”

Of course, for Smith, there’s been enough discussion about this. The U.S. is the problem now because it’s holding the IDF back. That’s the problem: there is no “will” to act! It’s all talk, talk, talk! And Iran only understands action, for “Shiite Iran is responsible for far more American deaths and injuries in America’s two Middle East combat theaters than al-Qaida or other Sunni factions.”

For neocons, the fact that U.S. government has declined to release more evidence tying the presence of Iranian-made weapons in Iraq to the Iranian leadership just shows that Washington is lying and spineless . . . and not that Washington can’t determine the difference between unsanctioned Iranian smugglers and sanctioned Iranian commandos, or that a 2008 interdiction effort targeting Iranian-made weapons found very few of these weapons, even though they are apparently very easy for Iraqis to obtain through Iranian arms dealers.

(Smith’s assertion also ignores the facts that Afghanistan is not part of the Middle East, and that Pakistan is the main non-American foreign player in Afghanistan. But Pakistan is not on the regime change radar: Iran is.)

“The far-superior American military is capable of bringing Iran’s armed forces to heel,” Smith proclaims, and Americans should be embarrassed we haven’t struck back. His Weekly Standard colleague William Kristol agrees:

“The next speech we need to hear from the Obama administration should announce that, after 30 years, we have gone on the offensive against this murderous regime. And the speech after that can celebrate the fall of the regime, and offer American help to the democrats building a free and peaceful Iran.”

The focus is on all the lives that US inaction will cost – American, Israeli, and “Sunni Arab” (even though some neocons apparently believe that the Islamists who won a majority in the Tunisian elections are “more dangerous” than al Qaeda).

Clearly, the only way to protect these lives is to strike Iran hard. This will, in the end, “save” the Iranian people. Mitt Romney, the most likely Republican nominee for the 2012 presidential race, surrounds himself with unrepentant neocons and warns that “Iran’s suicidal fanatics could blackmail the world.” His fellow contenders are also opening their doors to neocons, who are trying to rebrand their failed “Project for a New American Century” as the more innocuous-sounding “Foreign Policy Initiative.”

Such statements are par for the course for Smith and Kristol, and for neocons in general: Iran is an irrational rogue state with a martyr complex. It is the enemy of all Western civilization, a Persian “Mordor” threatening the “Free Peoples” of the Middle East. The new “Evil Empire,” if you will.

Of course, there’s J. R. R. Tolkein’s Mordor, and then there is the actual country of Iran.

No one should be fooled by the Iranian government’s attitude towards the “peace process” in the Middle East. Like any country participating the “peace process,” Iran’s involvement is largely an extension of its internal affairs. Iran today is run by one of the most repressive regimes in the world. The Iranian government rigs elections and literally beats down opposition leaders and protesters alike. Journalism is increasingly dictated to reporters from on high. The security establishment of paramilitaries, special forces units and secret police squabble for supremacy and suppress internal dissent through manufactured crimes and reprehensible public executions. The bombastic Ahmadinejad rails against Israel, hypocritically calling for fair elections and transparency in the Arab world while denying the Iranian electorate the same rights. Iran’s real leadership – Supreme Ayatollah Khameini and his clerical colleagues – finds his bombast useful as they struggle to maintain dictatorial control over a populist revolution that ran out of steam (and cash) years ago. And now he goes to the UN to speak “for” the Palestinian people – a gross insult to their struggle for self-determination.

So what about the rest of Iran’s citizens? Are they, as neocons and religious rightists in Israel and the U.S. suggest, working to instigating a “Madhist” apocalypse because of a Shia martyr complex? Does the Iranian Revolutionary Guard plan to prep its missile men with Quranic verses like we’ve prepped ours with the New Testament? Jesus loves nukes, apparently. Does the Madhi also love nukes?

This is a dangerous line of thinking. One must consider that Iran’s leaders (and people) see nuclear weapons (or the ambiguity surrounding them) in much the same way that the Soviets did: as a deterrent to maintain their own survival, rather than as precious instruments to help them make their appointed rounds at Armageddon. The U.S. has nukes. Israel “has” nukes. Iran does not (so far as we know). Hussein’s Iraq and Qadhafi’s Libya never succeeded in obtaining nukes: today, Hussein and Qadhafi are dead. Pakistan was, of course, censured for its secret nuclear program, but they got “the bomb” and today, stand (against all logic) as an “ally” of the U.S. Islamabad is hardly an international pariah despite their military’s human rights violations and active collusion with terrorists. Pakistan is a poor ally indeed that many U.S. officials do not trust at all, but it has nukes, complicating New Delhi’s, Washington’s and Kabul’s hope and dreams.

With a nuclear deterrent in place, regime change will be unthinkable for Iran (or, at least, that is what the leadership hopes). The ayatollahs, having participated in not one but two 20th century regime changes in Iran (1953 and 1979), are well aware of the worst case scenario for them if they lose their grip on power, so they are striving to survive. As a Foreign Affairs article puts it:

“To deter any possible military actions by the United States and its allies, Iran is improving its retaliatory capabilities by developing the means to pursue asymmetric, low-intensity warfare, both inside and outside the country; modernizing its weapons; building indigenous missile and antimissile systems; and developing a nuclear program while cultivating doubts about its exact capability. And to neutralize the United States’ attempts to contain it, the Iranian government is both undermining U.S. interests and increasing its own power in the vast region that stretches from the Levant and the Persian Gulf to the Caucasus and Central Asia. Although it is being careful to avoid a military confrontation with the United States, Tehran is maneuvering to prevent Washington from leading a united front against it and strategically using Iran’s oil and gas resources to reward its friends.”

What is missing from Netanyahu, among others, is an effort to discuss Iranian motives – both in public or behind closed doors, as Nahum Barnea suggests – in terms of anything other than Hitler and Churchill analogies. There are specific reasons behind these human rights abuses and Janus-faced political theater in Iran, just as there were in the USSR.

For all its ideological and militant millenarianism, Moscow was not run by crazed ideologues with “Red” martyr complexes. Like Iran’s leadership, they would very easily through their ideological allies under a bus just to preserve good ties. Even Ronald Reagan backed away from using that language – hell, he even repudiated his “Evil Empire” comments in Moscow itself.

Moscow, and its client states from East Berlin to Bucharest, were run by coteries of apparatchiks responding to real (and imagined) geopolitical challenges who were far more concerned about maintaining their grip on power at home than in achieving “world revolution” in their lifetimes. And if the Soviet people, who had little choice over who ruled them, really were so mendacious and millenarian as U.S. propaganda portrayed them, I would probably not be writing these words today. The same caveat goes for the American people, so vilified by Soviet propaganda as war junkies. People understood there were consequences to taking the action of starting a preemptive war. That understanding, as some Israeli commentators note, seems to be lacking in Israel today, as though Iran, 2011 is Iraq, 1981.

Iran’s leadership sees a double standard: the U.S. has played up Iran’s (very real) human rights violations while saying much less about those committed by Iran’s regional rivals, such as Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt; all of whom benefit from billions of dollars in U.S. arms sales and a “protective” nuclear umbrella. A “revoltuion” needs external enemies to rally against, and regional rivals (and their superpower backer) help the regime channel dissent away from their domestic policies. As George F. Kennan said of the USSR:

“The Soviet leaders, taking advantage of the contributions of modern techniques to the arts of despotism, have solved the question of obedience within the confines of their power. Few challenge their authority; and even those who do are unable to make that challenge valid as against the organs of suppression of the state.”

These words could just as easily be applied to Iran’s post-1979 leadership and its control mechanisms.

The U.S. is practicing containment of Iran, hoping to strangulate its leadership and effect regime change on the cheap. Some U.S. officials hope that economic sanctions and countering Iranian influence in the Middle East will, to borrow a phrase of George F. Kennan, “promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of [Islamist] power.” Iran’s leadership, in turn, is practicing brinkmanship, which was something that some of the U.S. and the USSR’s most revered statesmen engaged in during the Cold War. Both sides are engaging in it: Iran announces it will not allow IAEA inspectors in, so the U.S. sends a fleet into the Persian Gulf; a new round of sanctions hit Iran, so Iran heaps praise and money on Hezbollah. This is, regrettably, how both sides practice their great game today (and how the U.S. and USSR played their hands during the Cold War in Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America).

But as the specter of nuclear war became more dreadful, brinkmanship gave way to mutually-assured destruction (MAD). Both Israeli and U.S. politicians have thundered on about effecting regime change in Tehran coupled with preemptive strikes on nuclear installations (Iranium, anyone?). That is what Iran’s leadership wants: the deterence of MAD. And what will they do to achieve it? No one can predict that (again, something that should give Israel’s leaders pause, rather than a preference to rspeak of a “second Holocaust” while conducting military drills).

This makes Iran’s gambling understandable and not, as certain hawks would have it, an existential conflict demanding an existential response. None of this gives neocons an excuse to bay for war with Iran as though the only consequences will be “saving” lives. Whose lives are we saving? Certainly not Iranian lives, and certainly not those of the Israelis, Americans and Iraqis who will get caught up in any decision made behind closed doors in Washington or Tel Aviv to attack Iran without prior warning.

Ideally, all of these recent moves from Israel will just amount to grandstanding, aimed at distracting Israelis from the Occupation and renewed J14 protests as the winter Knesset session approaches. Actions speak louder than words.

Existential conflicts, as every holy book illustrates, end with the whole world in flames. The leaders of the U.S., Israel and Iran, who often claim to be such devout men and women, must realize this and step back from the brink.


Mondoweiss is a news website devoted to covering American foreign policy in the Middle East, chiefly from a progressive Jewish perspective. Mondoweiss is maintained by Philip Weiss and Adam Horowitz. Weiss lives in New York state and Horowitz lives in New York City.

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