"Tyranny is the deliberate removal of nuance" ~ Albert Maysles
Fifty two years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. broke with the white liberal establishment, the Lyndon Johnson administration, and the U.S. military when he bravely declared America "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." King, now canonized, sanitized, and co-opted even by his conservative opponents paid a heavy price for his brutal honesty and Vietnam War opposition. He died, just a year later, wildly unpopular and under extensive FBI surveillance by the very government that now celebrates him with a national holiday. How quickly Americans have forgotten that part of the King legacy.
I must admit it was odd, then – if not altogether surprising – this week, that it took the president of a purported American enemy, Iran’s Hassan Rouhani, to speak a fresh and King-like bit of discomfiting truth. The United States, he correctly, if inconveniently, noted, is today the main "supporter of terrorism" in the Middle East. Specifically, and undeniably, he – his own nation’s flaws aside – observed that at least since 9/11 (if not before) everywhere the US has deployed its military, from West Africa to South Asia, it has shattered societies, caused countless deaths, and often empowered or supported the very Islamists it’s ostensibly combating.
All this came on the heels of President Trump’s ludicrously bellicose tweet that America is "locked and loaded" to strike Iran in the wake of the Islamic Republic’s alleged role in a damaging attack on the Saudi oil industry. Trump has already upped the ante, foolishly announcing the deployment of ever more US troops to Saudi Arabia. Of course last time American soldiers garrisoned the home of Islam’s two holiest cities, an obscure scion of a wealthy Saudi construction magnate took such umbrage that he declared and waged war on America. The young man’s name was Osama bin Laden.
Maybe Trump will strike or invade Iran on the Saudi’s behalf; maybe he won’t. The man is so lazy, uninformed, and erratic that is genuinely difficult to predict his next move. What we do know is he’s already sent Iran-hawk Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to kowtow to the Saudi and Emirati theocrats and coordinate a response that suits these rather nefarious "partners." I’ve written extensive reports demonstrating why war with Iran would be militarily disastrous, regionally cataclysmic, and diplomatically foolhardy. Yet that’s not my point today. Rather, I’ve recently got to thinking that the whole charade in the region feels like a chaotic bar fight in the ghetto.
If it, in fact, were, it’d go something like this. Saudi Arabia is America’s petulant little brother, apt to act tough and posture because his big brother is a huge guy with a big reputation on the block. The United Arab Emirates is the Saudi’s best friend with a serious Napoleon complex. Both want to gain respect and assert themselves at the bar. Problem is there’s this other, older fellow, Iran, ethnically distinct from the two friends, who’s had the nerve to muscle in on their drug (read: oil) trafficking trade.
The two young friends, counting on the support of big brother, have been threatening, isolating, Iran, and backing its enemies for years. Finally, an exasperated and cornered Iran seems to (allegedly) have sent their own little friend with a chip on his shoulder, a Yemeni Houthi, to throw and land a punch right in the Saudi’s gut. Surprised, in pain, and scared, the Saudi and his Emirati buddy initially retreat, run home, and beg the big brother, America, to tramp back to the bar and get revenge. Which is precisely where matters stand now. What unfolds remains to be seen, but what’s certain, is that America feels the need to do something to maintain his street cred.
That flippant, if accurate, analogy aside, something else is lacking from the story; something extremely vital but rare: historical context. Because the inconvenient truth is that since at least 1953, the US – with the aid of its Saudi and Emirati allies – has usually been the aggressor, has waged a veritable war on Iran’s government and people. Seen in this light, consider it the view from Tehran, one begins to understand the hostility and desperation of the Iranians. Consider just a few historical highlights.
Way back in 1953, after a democratically elected and popular Iranian prime minister had the audacity to nationalize the nation’s oil – then under monopoly control by UK corporations – the American CIA and British M16 fostered a coup, toppled Prime Minister Mossadeq, and imposed the rule of a vicious king, or shah, for 26 years. Then, after the Iranian people had the comeuppance to revolt in 1979, kicking out the brutal shah, the US isolated Iran and even backed an invasion and eight year war waged by the Islamic Republic’s sworn enemy, Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial Iraqi regime. During that war – which killed some half million Iranians – the US even quietly sank much of Iran’s small navy, and an American ship, the USS Vincennes, shot down an Iranian civilian airliner, killing all 290 aboard. Afterwards, the ship’s commander received a medal, and then President George W. Bush, declared he would "never apologize" for his country’s actions.
Fast forward to the war on terror, and the US military invaded and indefinitely occupied the countries on both of Iran’s flanks. President George W. Bush even grouped Iran with a sordid trio of nations he labeled an "axis of evil;" and serious neoconservative officials threw Iran on the short list for future regime changes, with one reportedly quipping that everyone wants to go to Baghdad but "real men want to go to Iran." Then, when an isolated and threatened Iran showed even an inkling of interest in a nuclear program, Washington smacked crippling sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Sanctions, remember, are a form of economic warfare and always, always, hit the poorest people hardest, largely sparing wealthy elites. No one mentioned that Israel has illegally and (not so) secretly produced hundreds of nuclear missiles for decades now.
Most recently, Trump unilaterally pulled out of an Obama-era nuclear deal between Iran and six other powerful nations, even though his own intelligence services admitted that Iran had complied with the agreement. Since then, Trump’s hawkish, Iran-obsessed, series of national security advisers have threatened war whilst Washington reimposed even more stringent economic sanctions that threaten to bankrupt Tehran and impoverish the Iranian people. This, predictably, has had the counterproductive effect of drawing Iran’s many moderates closer to government hardliners in a typical burst of national solidarity. Then came the strike on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities, claimed, not by Iran, but by Tehran’s loosely affiliated Yemeni Houthis.
Nevertheless, most US citizens either don’t know or don’t care about this sordid history and still refuse to acknowledge legitimate Iranian grievances. It’s really not the American way, after all. So on the war drums beat and the metaphorical bar fight seems ready to escalate. Thing is, my experience in New York blue-collar bars has taught me that when little brothers or smaller friends start fights and expect your support, matters rarely end well. Neither will the current maelstrom in the Persian Gulf. Mark my words…
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen