Selling the War with Iran
Note from Steve Clemons. My
colleague and friend Nir Rosen who has been one of America's most significant chroniclers of the
Islamic dimensions of America's
war in the Middle East has just become a
regular contributer to The Washington Note. Please
welcome him. And as always, the views he expresses are exclusively his own and
not those necessarily of The Washington Note or mine. -- Steve Clemons
In June of 2003, two months after the United States conquered Iraq, I sat in
on a briefing given by US Army intelligence officers in that most Sunni of
Iraq's cities, Tikrit, to a couple of officers
visiting from Baghdad. One of the American intelligence officers based in
Saddam's famous hometown explained that they were worried about "Shiite
fingers" from Iran
"creeping" up to Tikrit to establish an
Iranian style government.
At a time when the mostly
Sunni Iraqi resistance had already established itself and its ability was
improving, I was astounded by how stupid the notion of an Iranian threat in Tikrit was. I have remained shocked, like many journalists
and academics familiar with the region and its languages, that the Americans
have shown no improvement in their understanding of the Muslim world with which
they are so deeply engaged militarily and as an imperial power.
We should expect little
interest in understanding the outside world from an insular and isolated
government whose leaders show open contempt for their own people. And we should
expect diplomatic and military officials themselves required to maintain
ideological purity to voice an equally unsophisticated world view.
But too often the so called
experts are equally ignorant. Remarkably, their lack of background, expertise
or language skills and their repeated errors have not diminished the
credibility of people such as Fred Kagan of the far
right American Enterprise Institute (a Russia expert!), or Kenneth Pollock of
the Brookings Institute or their cohorts.
Ridiculously, Kagan and his wife, both of whom have only gone on official
tours of Iraq with US Army babysitters, and neither of whom know Arabic,
described the recent clashes in Basra as an operation initiated by the
"legitimate Government of Iraq and its legally constituted security forces
[against] illegal, foreign-backed, insurgent and criminal militias serving
leaders who openly call for the defeat and humiliation of the United States and
its allies in Iraq and throughout the region."
Why anybody even hires or
publishes Kagan on the Middle East is a mystery, but
there is nothing legitimate in the government of Iraq, it provides none of the
services we would associate with a government, not even the pretense of a
monopoly on violence, it was established under an illegitimate foreign military
occupation and it is entirely unrepresentative of the majority of Sunnis and
Shiites who are opposed to the American occupation and despise the Iraqi
Moreover the dominant
parties in the government and in those units of the security forces that
battled their political rivals in Basra and
elsewhere are the ones closest to Iran. The leadership of the Iraqi
government regularly consults Iranian officials and is closer to Iran than any other element in Iraq today.
Moreover, the Americans have always blamed their failures in Iraq on
outsiders, Baathists, al Qaeda, Iranians, because
they refuse to admit that the Iraqi people don't want them. So Iran is a
convenient scapegoat to explain the strength of the Sadrists,
a strength actually resulting from the fact that they are a genuinely popular
mass movement. Blaming Iran
also lets the Americans maintain the illusion that the Mahdi Army's ceasefire
is still in effect.
I expect this from the Bush
administration and the ideologues who back it. But
when the American media, which, in the build up to the American attack on Iraq
abdicated its duty to challenge those in power and inform the public, continues
to demonstrate the same lack of skepticism, it is very distressing.
In April I testified before
the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to attempt to explain what was really
happening in Iraq,
where I have spent most of the last five years, so that they could better
challenge General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan
Crocker during their Senate testimony. But it made little difference.
As always, little interest
was shown in the Iraqi people, and the fact that they were enduring a brutal
foreign military occupation. Those who opposed the war did so because it was
too expensive for American taxpayers, not even because American men and women
were dying for absolutely nothing, and certainly not because anybody cares
about Iraqis. But one of the main themes I heard repeated by the General and
the Ambassador and by the senators who questioned
them, was that Iran was the
bad guy in Iraq
these days. They accused Iran
of supporting "Shiite extremists" and said that Muqtada
al Sadr was one such extremist. They even managed to
blame Iran for the Iran-Iraq
war, which Iraq
had initiated with US backing. Iran
was the bad guy and the US
was fighting a proxy war against it.
There has never been any
evidence of this, save the accusations of a US
regime that still hopes it can score a last minute war against Iran, but lack of evidence did not stop the
Washington Post editorial page from declaring war against Iran on April
The Post talked about the
"growing aggressiveness of Iran,"
taking at face value the Senate testimony of two politicized US officials about "Iranian-backed
militias" which are the largest threat to U.S. forces and
the Iraqi government." This "proxy war in Iraq is just one front in a
much larger Iranian offensive," said the Post, citing Gaza and Lebanon as
well as examples of "Iran's military adventurism," and stating that
military force would have to be used to counter this "growing menace."
The Post actually thinks there is a way to "nurture"
a "popular backlash
military adventurism" in the region.
In a region devoid of
democracy a popular backlash would not matter anyway, but Hizballah
and Hamas are popular in the region, the U.S.
and its occupation of Iraq are not
popular. Perhaps with enough payoffs, cajoling and threats the U.S. can nurture a backlash among the unpopular
dictators it supports in the Middle East. But
the backlash by the people of the region is against America's
military adventurism, not Iran's.
The Americans hope to persuade the skeptical people of the region that Iran is their
real enemy. And it was clear the Prime Minister and President of Iraq clearly
did not view Iran as a
threat when they welcomed Mahmud Ahmedinajad
to Baghdad like
a dear friend.
The Post's writers focus on
claims to progress in Iran's nuclear power program that are exaggerated while
denigrating the National Intelligence Estimate's own claim that Iran's nuclear
program is on hold. And producing a nuclear device is about more than just
centrifuges, and Iran
is nowhere near progress in other important technologies that essential for a
nuclear weapon. Iran's
religious and political leaders have forsworn nuclear weapons,
its supreme religious ruler has repudiated them.
We cannot at once condemn Iran for being
a theocracy and then disregard the rulings of its theocrats. Though with an
aggressive nuclear Israel
and U.S regularly rattling their sabers who could blame Iran even if it
did seek the security nuclear weapons seem to provide?
Hillary Clinton recently
threatened to "totally obliterate" Iran
while John McCain sings about bombing Iran
and president Bush called al Qaeda and Iran two of the greatest threats to America in the
21st century. This is slightly hyperbolic since al Qaeda's only successful
attack against the U.S. on September 11 ago was a strategic pinprick, not to
mention a lucky shot, and Iran has no global ambitions and no interest in
attacking the U.S. and in fact has never invaded another country (Iraq started
the Iran-Iraq war).
The repeated accusations of
American officials do not suffice, as the catastrophic war in Iraq should have
taught journalists who are still all too gullible and too willing to venerate
automaton mouth pieces, even those who should know better, such as former
secretary of state Colin Powell who gave an ignominious speech in front of the
United Nations that was hailed by the media.
The truth is, most
allegations about Iran's
role in Iraq
and the region are unfounded or dishonest. Iran
was responsible for ending the recent fighting in Basra and calming the situation after Iraqi
parliamentarians who backed Prime Minister Maliki
approached it. The Iranians, never close to Muqtada
or his family, were so annoyed with Muqtada and his
presence that they reportedly ordered him out of Iran where he had been living in
virtual house arrest anyway since arriving six months
earlier. Iranian officials and the state media clearly supported Prime Minister
Maliki and the Iraqi government against what they
described as "illegal armed groups" in the recent conflict in Basra, which is not surprising given that their main proxy
the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council dominates the Iraqi state and is Maliki's main backer.
The Supreme Council is of
course also the main proxy for the US
in Iraq and somehow in the
Senate testimony it was forgotten that its large Badr
militia was established in Iran
and is actually the only Iraqi opposition group to have fought on the Iranian
side against Iraq
during the Iran-Iraq war. Moreover, the Badr militia
was a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that is so demonized today, and
Badr dominates the ministry of interior, if not most
at the higher echelons. But none of this openly available information made its
way to the Post's editorial writers or the dominant discourse in the US.
If militias are the main
problem in Iraq, then the U.S. policy of
creating new Sunni militias and empowering them to rule walled off fiefdoms
does not bode well for the weak Iraqi government, especially when these Sunni
militias view the Iraqi government as their main enemy. These Sunni militias,
called "Awakening groups,"
Concerned Local Citizens, Iraqi Security Volunteers, Critical Infrastructure
Security Guards and Sons of Iraq are composed of former resistance fighters who
collaborated with al Qaeda to fight Shiites and the Americans but put their
fight against the Americans on hold so as to concentrate on fighting the
Shiites in the next round of the civil war. Iraq's Shiites are not thrilled
that the Sunni militias who were slaughtering them are now resurgent. In August
2007 the Mahdi Army had declared a "freeze," often mistranslated as a
ceasefire. But the US
military and the Maliki-Badr militia alliance continued
to arrest and target the Sadrists and the Mahdi Army.
If anything, they violated the ceasefire.
Salah al Ubaidi,
Muqtada al Sadr's spokesmen
recently admitted that his movement was not getting along with Iran. Iran had helped
them in the past but accounts of large Iranian arms shipments were
"greatly exaggerated." Muqtada refused to
be a slave to Iran
he said, implying that other Iraqi Shiite leaders were. In fact Mahdi Army
members in Iraq have taken to blaming the actions of their more notorious members
on Iran, adopting a position
similar, if disingenuous, to that of Iraq's Sunnis. Al Ubaidi also recently denounced Iran, accusing it of sharing
control of Iraq with the Americans and criticizing Iran for not objecting to
the long term security deal the Americans and Prime Minister Maliki are working on, to make the American military
presence a permanent one.
There is no proxy war in Iraq, because the US and Iran share the same proxy and the US installed
that proxy and empowered it. Today, to the extent that we can talk about an
Iraqi "state," it is dominated by the Supreme Council and its Badr militia. The Sadrist
movement of which the Mahdi Army is a loose militia is also the largest
humanitarian organization in Iraq,
providing homes, security, rations, clothes and other services to hundreds of
thousands of Iraqis. It is a complex movement and certainly is as guilty of
crimes as all the other groups that took part in the Iraqi civil war, including
But it is also the most
popular and legitimate movement in Iraq, and the
one sure to outlast the others, despite predictions by former Bush lackeys such
as Dan Senor that it was losing ground. The American and Iraqi Army attacks
only increased support for the Mahdi Army, justifying the feeling many poor
Shiites have that they are marginalized and threatened. Now that they have
walled off the Sadrist Shiite strong hold of Sadr City
in Baghdad, the
Americans are only increasing the feeling among Muqtada's
supporters that they are targeted just as they were under Saddam, who also
besieged that area.
The fact that the Americans
are routinely killing civilians, including children, in Sadr City,
will not win their Iraqi proxies any new supporters.
To the Post as to most
establishment officials in the media and government, all social and political
movements in the Middle East are either al Qaeda or Iranian plots, or for
Senator McCain, a bit of both. These people are unable to see social and
political movements in the Middle East as the
collective action of poor and oppressed people.
People in the region were
anti-American before Islamism became the dominant trend, and they were battling
American imperialism as secularists and nationalists. During the cold war every
popular movement was blamed on a Soviet conspiracy. Now people in the region
battle American imperialism as Islamists, but it is the fight that created the
movements, not the other way around. And the fight continues.
Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice pressured Iraq's
Arab neighbors to shield Iraq
"nefarious influence." Perhaps she was unaware that her government
had introduced that influence when they anointed the Dawa
party and the Supreme Council as the official Shiite parties in 2003. The idea
that the Sunni dominated states around Iraq,
which dislike Shiites, and which warned Bush not to invade Iraq because they feared a Shiite dominated
states, would now persuade Iraq's
Shiite leaders not to have a strong relationship with their Iranian friends
shows some lack of understanding. Moreover, a recent University
of Maryland poll shows that most Arabs
do not view Iran
as a major threat but that they are overwhelmingly hostile to the Unites States
is not part of an Iranian conspiracy, it is a massively popular political party
with more legitimacy than most other movements in Lebanon,
and it is the only serious political party in Lebanon that is not built around
one personality, but rather around enduring institutions. It is also a
successful resistance movement admired throughout the region for defeating the
Israelis while defying the Americans and thwarting undemocratic Saudi and
American plans for Lebanon.
One could just as easily say that the sectarian Sunnis and former warlords who
control the Lebanese government are paralyzing that state by refusing to allow
a more representative and legitimate distribution of power that would include Hizballah and its Christian allies.
Sunnis in the region have a
racist sort of habit of viewing all Shiite Arabs as Persian, Safavid, Iranian disloyal fifth columnists. Like the
Americans, they ignore the Lebanese nationalism of Hizballah
and the Iraqi nationalism of Muqtada al Sadr and the Mahdi Army. Both movements are local and not
part of any Shiite crescent. And if Hamas's militancy
is a problem then perhaps the 60 years of Israeli occupation and Palestinian
dispossession should finally be addressed.
There has not been a Hamas "buildup" in Gaza, as the Post states. Like Hizballah, like the Mahdi Army, like other popular social
movements, it is part of the people and their struggle.
This same American alliance
with the so called "moderate" Sunni Arab countries, which are in fact
dictatorships with gruesome human rights records, is backing Sunni militias in Lebanon and nearly succeeded in a coup attempt
to overthrow the democratically elected Hamas in Palestine and install Fatah thugs in their place. Iran
indeed has a strategic alliance with Hamas and Hizballah, groups that the United States condemns as
terrorists but millions of others view as national liberation movements who
also provide for and protect their people.
Why assume that the Bush
administration's interests are more legitimate than those of the Iranian regime's? What is wrong with Iraqi resistance groups that
oppose a foreign military occupation that has killed and imprisoned thousands
of innocent civilians while bringing only ruin an already tortured country?
It is true that some Iraqi
militias use Iranian weapons, but they also use American weapons, Soviet bloc
weapons, Austrian weapons and anything else they can purchase. And the Mahdi
Army actually often uses weapons originating with the Americans and given to
the Iraqi Army and Police. Mahdi Army men also purchased weapons originating in
Iran from offices of the
Supreme Council and Badr in southern Iraq.
Iranian weapons are smuggled
In a region with porous borders and rife with corruption this does not make it
a state policy.
Iraqis do not need arms, the
country is awash in them, and they need little help in being violent, as we
Most of those who fight the
Americans in Iraq
do so not at the bidding of a foreign power but out of genuine and sincere
opposition to the American occupation. The Americans never grasped this and
always assumed it was about the money, or al Qaeda, and now part of a silly
Iranian conspiracy. After at first siding with Iraq's Shiites much to the
consternation of America's so called "moderate" Sunni allies, the
Americans are now targeting Shiites and perhaps even Shiite Iran as Bush
prepares for once last war on his path to the "New Middle East."
But without the help of an
acquiescent media supplicating to Bush administration and US military officials
they might not be able to go to war once again.
Secretary of State Rice's
claim that the US seeks to protect Iraq, a country it has destroyed and whose
civilians it continues to kill in Sadr City and
elsewhere is laughable, but more dangerously, Rice added fuel to the already
combustible sectarian divide in the region, informing Iraq's neighbors that
"what they need to do is confirm and work for Iraq's Arab identity."
In a Sunni dominated Arab
region that already views Arab Shiites as inferior and often as fifth
columnists for Persian Iran, Rice is promoting racist notions that have
increased since the American invasion of Iraq. "Arab" is often
construed to mean "Sunni" in the region and hence a Shiite dominated Iraq is
perceived to be less Arab and more Persian. Throughout the Sunni Arab world
dictators, clerics and others warn of "Persian" or "Safavid" plots and conspiracies to take over the
region fearing that Hizballah is an Iranian tool, or
that the Sadrists are, and dismissing the Shiite
government of Iraq
as an "Iranian occupation." Paranoid rumors spread throughout the
Arab world of Sunnis converting to Shiism, feeding a
fear of Shiite expansionism.
After initially backing Iraq's Shiites
at the expense of alienating their reliable Sunni dictator buddies in the
region (also known as "the moderates"), the Americans are now
attempting to court them by promoting anti-Shiite sectarianism. That was Zarqawi's tactic too. It is also ironic because the US originally supported Kurdish efforts to de-Arabize Iraq's
identity. Vice President Cheney has also tried to persuade Gulf Arab countries
to get on board the US war
though with limited success until now, because they know they can only lose
from such a confrontation.
Rice also blamed Iran for the fighting in Basra. Secretary of Defense Gates warned that
is "is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons,"
and that "the military
option must be kept on the table, given the destabilizing policies of the
regime and the risks inherent in a future Iranian nuclear threat." He did
not say what those risks were.
Certainly they are less
frightening than Sunni Pakistan possessing nuclear weapons, or the aggressive
Israeli state possessing nuclear weapons, since it is Israel that
invades or bombs Arab states every so often. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff Admiral Mullen also discussed "potential military courses of
action" to deal with Iran's
"increasingly lethal and malign influence" in Iraq.
I believe that in fact Iran is a positive influence in Iraq, that it
has a close relationship with the Kurds and the Shiites and that the Iranian
regime, unlike its Sunni neighbors, is not sectarian and is very pragmatic. If Iraq's Sunnis dislike Iran
it is because Saddam Hussein initiated a war of aggression against Iran and
succeeded in demonizing Shiites. Admiral Mullen was wrong when he said that Iran prefers "see a weak Iraq
neighbor." Iran and the
former Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari even discussed Iran
security forces. Iran
has close relations with Sunni Islamist Hamas and its
foreign policy is not a Shiite one at all. Iran does not seek to conquer or
control its Arab neighbors but it also chooses not to be an American puppet or
client regime, and that has always been the sin the American empire will never
Another non expert on the Middle East who sees fit to regularly comment on it is
the Brookings Institution's Michael O'Hanlon, recently turned cheerleader for
the American "surge." He agreed with General Petraeus
and Ambassador Crocker that "Iran is a regime with the blood of
hundreds of Americans and thousands of Iraqis on its hands." If he is
referring to the American soldiers who died while occupying Iraq then
perhaps he should blame the generals and politicians who sent them there rather
than the Iraqis who are fighting to liberate their country or those who
allegedly helped those Iraqis. O'Hanlon says that dialogue with Iran is naïve because
Iran is "ambitious,
assertive and ruthless" and is "seeking to establish itself as the
region's hegemon, weaken
the U.S. role throughout the
broader Middle East and drive a stake through the heart of the Mideast peace process."
It is not odd for the
imperial power that props unpopular and anti democratic dictators in the region
while opposing genuinely popular movements and fomenting conflicts in Iraq,
Lebanon, Palestine and elsewhere to worry about somebody else moving in on its
turf, but it is silly that O'Hanlon thinks the Bush administration is genuinely
committed to a Mideast peace process.
Any actual expert on the region, or any sincere person with even passing familiarity
with it would know that genuine peace has always been easy to achieve, it
to abandon all its settlements and occupied territories, allow for the return
of the refugees and compensate them for their dispossession. It also means
granting equal rights to the Palestinian citizens of Israel. The so called "peace
process," nothing of the sort, is merely a way to enshrine the
dispossession of the Palestinians using unpopular but pliant and hand chosen
collaborators like Mahmud Abbas.
Real peace requires dealing
with Hamas, Hizballah and Syria. It
requires a recognition that there is a hegemonic
Zionist aggressor here, with Arab victims, not two equal sides. There can never
be a Mideast peace
process when the American secretary of state declares, as Rice did on April 29
that "I still remember my first time visiting
Israel: It felt like coming home
to a place that I had never been. And every time I return, as I look upon the
land where Israelis have made the desert literally bloom, and as I drive past
the aging hulks of Israeli tanks, which recall the dear cost that generations
of Israeli patriots have paid for their nation's survival, as I see all of
these things, it is clear to me that a confident Israel can achieve things that
many think impossible." Can we imagine an American secretary of state
paying tribute to the dear cost generations of Palestinian patriots paid for
their nation's survival while attempting to reclaim the homeland from which
they were ethnically cleansed?
Anyway, O'Hanlon in the end
calls for talks with Iran,
not because they will produce any breakthroughs,
he says, but because they are a prelude to violence. Talks will get more
countries to support the new American war. "By trying to talk," he
writes, "we better position ourselves to get tough and have others join
the effort." Remarkably, he hopes the talks would fail. "Only by
patiently trying to work with Iran,
and consistently failing to make progress, will we gradually convince
Bush-haters and U.S.
doubters around the world that the real problem does not lie
Knowing that the propaganda
war leading to the invasion of Iraq
failed, O'Hanlon wants this war to be more efficient. He wants the US to work
harder "to prove we are the reasonable ones" but he also wants
Senator Barak Obama to use
more "tough talk." O'Hanlon calls for talks to help shed the image of
cowboy foreign policymaking" but in the end it is only to further the same
cowboy foreign policy, just maybe with a few more Tontos
at the side of the Lone Ranger. Beware, the worst is
yet to come.