After Babylon, Persia

In an essay for Bitter Lemons last year, I discussed the ways in which neoconservatives (in tandem with their allies in the Likud Party) were directly involved in manufacturing the invasion of Iraq. What evidence is available to us today if we seek to support the hypothesis that neoconservatives are following a similar script against Iran, a probability that Noam Chomsky, Robert Fisk, Dilip Hiro, Seymour Hersh, Scott Ritter, and others have repeatedly alluded to? Let me frame this question with three political realities that define the institutional and ideological habitat of contemporary U.S. neoconservatism and its impact on U.S.-Iranian relations.

First, the "global war on terror" and the Bush doctrine of preemption have emerged as the primary planks of U.S. foreign policy advocating military intervention against potential adversaries even if they are not considered an immediate threat to U.S. national security. According to Norman Podhoretz, who was editor-in-chief of the influential neoconservative magazine Commentary between 1960 and 1995, the "global war on terror" is instrumental in producing a "new species of imperial mission for America, whose purpose would be to oversee the emergence of successor governments in the [West Asian] region more amenable to reform and modernization than the despotisms now in place." After taking Baghdad, Podhoretz prophesied, "we may willy-nilly find ourselves forced by the same political and military logic to topple five or six or seven more tyrannies in the Islamic world." The preemptive strategic doctrine, which was announced in June 2002 by President Bush at the military academy at West Point, provides the political legitimacy for such an agenda. Setting out an interventionist framework for U.S. foreign policy, Bush declared that the country will confront "evil and lawless regimes" if necessary by military force. The U.S. National Security Strategy published three months later institutionalized the "Bush doctrine." According to its authors, the U.S. "has long maintained the option of preemptive actions to counter a sufficient threat. … The greater the threat," it proclaimed, "the greater is the risk of inaction and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack" (emphasis added). There is convincing evidence that Iran is on that target list. A classified version of the National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD) 17 and Homeland Security Presidential Directive 4, leaked to the Washington Post, broke with 50 years of U.S. counterproliferation efforts by authorizing preemptive strikes on states and terrorist groups that are close to acquiring weapons of mass destruction or the long-range missiles capable of delivering them. In a top-secret appendix, the directive named Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Libya among the countries that are the central focus of the policy.

Second, it has become a central pillar of neoconservative strategy to discredit the infantile yet indigenous democratic process in Iran in order to minimize the diplomatic power of the Iranian state. In accordance with that campaign, neoconservative activists inject the public discourse with false facts and predictions. This was evident before, during, and after Iran’s ninth presidential elections in June 2005. "Any normal person familiar with the Islamic republic knows that these are not elections at all," wrote Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in an article entitled "When Is an Election Not an Election?" "They are a mise en scene, an entertainment, a comic opera staged for our benefit. The purpose of the charade," Ledeen claimed, "is to deter us from supporting the forces of democratic revolution in Iran." Kenneth Timmerman reiterated the neoconservative message in an article for the National Review online (NRO) entitled "Fake Election, Real Threats," which was reprinted by the Washington Times. Citing Abolhassan Banisadr, the first president of the Islamic Republic, who was forced into exile, Timmerman predicted that no more than 27 percent of eligible voters in Iran would participate in the elections (his estimate missed the real turnout by over 34 percent). Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the AEI, made a similarly misleading prophecy. In "Not Our Man in Iran," she argued that Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani was handpicked by the "machinations of the mullahs" to win the election (Rafsanjani lost, of course, having received seven million votes less than Ahmadinejad). Other articles by Nir Boms, vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East and former academic liaison at the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C.; Elliot Chodoff, a major in the reserves of the Israeli army; and Abbas Milani and Michael McFaul, who direct the Project on Iranian Democracy at the conservative Hoover Institution in California, were similarly misleading.

The campaign to trivialize the infant democratic process before and during the elections in Iran served a dual purpose: dislodging the presidential election from the political process in Iran and rendering the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad illegitimate. The strategy appeared to be successful. After the election, leading journalists, including John Simpson of the BBC, alleged that Ahmadinejad had been one of the students responsible for holding U.S. diplomatic staff captive between 1979 and 1980. This rather apocryphal claim was rejected by the CIA only after it had its impact on global opinion. Crucially, it minimized the diplomatic power of the Ahmadinejad administration before its first serious engagement with the international community at the United Nations in September 2005. (All this happened before Ahmadinejad’s tirades against Zionism in general and the Israeli state in particular.)

Third, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has made fears about Iran’s nuclear intentions a central pillar of its congressional agenda. At its largest ever policy conference in May 2005, AIPAC presented a Disney-inspired multimedia tour aimed at fostering the argument that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Moreover, AIPAC spearheads a whole army of networked think tanks with the explicit aim of bringing about regime change in Iran. The Coalition for Democracy in Iran (CDI), which was founded in 2002 by Michael Ledeen and Morris Amitay, a former director of AIPAC, is a typical example. Members include Raymond Tanter of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (itself an invention of AIPAC) and the Committee for the Present Danger; Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy (CSP); and Rob Sobhani, who has close personal and political links to the son of the deposed Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi. Ledeen, Amitay, and Sobhani joined forces at the AEI in a seminar on "The Future of Iran," co-sponsored by the Hudson Institute and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The former institution also supports the Alliance for Democracy in Iran (ADI), which is backed by prominent political strategists such as Jerome Corsi, who argued that negotiations between Iran and the European Union will collapse and that Israel, supported by the U.S., will eventually launch military strikes against the country. Whereas the CDI and ADI support monarchists tied to Reza Pahlavi, the Iran Policy Committee (IPC) acts as a lobbying organization for the Mujahedin e-Khalq (MEK), which is listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department and the European Union. Those readers who are familiar with Fox News and its propensity for ready-made, formulaic analysis by former members of the U.S. armed forces will recognize some of the supporters of the IPC: Lt. Col. Bill Cowan, USMC (ret.); Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney USAF (ret.); Maj. Gen. Paul E. Vallely, U.S. Army (ret.); Capt. Charles T. Nash, USN (ret.); and Lt. Gen. Edward Rowny, U.S. Army (ret.). Other IPC members are also familiar faces: the aforementioned Raymond Tanter; Clare Lopez, a former CIA analyst; and Jim Atkins, U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the presidency of Richard Nixon. Creating more and more interlinked foundations, think tanks, and other institutional platforms tied to the neoconservative cabal has served its political purpose. In Congress, the Iranian government has been targeted by several bills, including the Iran Freedom and Support Act, sponsored by Senators Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), and a comparable bill proposed by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican and strident anti-Castro campaigner. Moreover, funding of $3 million for Iranian opposition activities has already been inserted by Congress in the 2005 budget on the initiative of Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican.

The purpose of tracing the impact of neoconservatism on U.S.-Iranian relations is not to defend the political process in Iran. The Islamic Republic has not constituted a representative democracy at this stage of its development, and the political agenda of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears to be out of tune with the demands of Iran’s post-revolutionary generation. It should be added in parenthesis that neoconservative activists favor this type of West Asian politician. "[T]here are benefits to having an enemy that openly bares its teeth," suggests Daniel Pipes in that regard: "[f]or Westerners, it clarifies the hostility of the regime much more than if it subtly spun webs of deceit." The Muslim democrat, I am in no doubt, is anathema to the neoconservative Weltanschauung. Neither do I believe that an attack on Iran is imminent. It appears to me that the Bush administration has not been won over on this one yet. Rather, what is at stake in revealing neoconservative propaganda against Iran, China, Cuba, Venezuela and other countries is the destructive international agenda it promotes. Consider the comments of Patrick Clawson at a symposium organized by the militant in July 2005. Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, bluntly advocated covert operations in order to sabotage nuclear facilities in Iran: "Accidents are known to happen (remember Three Mile Island or Chernobyl).  If there were to be a series of crippling accidents at Iranian nuclear facilities, that would set back the Iranian program."

Ultimately then, neoconservative activists inscribe the narrative of conflict in international relations; they inscribe it in institutions (e.g., the Project for a New American Century), language (e.g., the "axis of evil"), mindsets (e.g., Why do they hate us?), and policies (e.g., the doctrine of preemption). This strategy transforms other countries into replaceable variables. To be more precise, preemption and the "war on terror" are made into versatile ideational agents that can be employed to legitimate war globally – not only in the Iraqi, Iranian, North Korean, or Syrian context, but also with regard to other conflicts (China-Taiwan, Russia-Chechnya, etc.). Hence, Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, and others are just episodes in the same neoconservative project, namely the "Fourth World War" invented by Eliot Cohen and popularized by James Woolsey. Even if we successfully avert one crisis, neoconservatives are always planning for the next. It is in this sense that U.S. neoconservatism reveals itself as war – a war continued by other means. It depends on the forces of peace to contain this pestilential doctrine.


Author: Arshin Adib-Moghaddam

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is an SOAS academic, critical theorist, and author of Iran in World Politics: The Question of the Islamic Republic (Columbia University Press, 2008, 2010) and A Metahistory of the Clash of Civilisations: Us and Them Beyond Orientalism (Columbia/Hurst, 2010).