There is much discussion in Western political discourse of the “threat” of Iran, spoken of as though it is a self-evident truth, an assumption that underlies the entire spectrum of debate. To question such an obvious truism is something that disciplined intellectuals understand is not proper of them to do. Most likely the thought doesn't even cross their minds, thanks to dignified university education and the values instilled from it; there are some things not suitable for a respectable intellectual to discuss, after all.
Senator John McCain recently stated that Iran will pose “a direct threat to the existence of the state of Israel” if it is allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, warning further that “The Iranians are on the march.” House Speaker John Boehner recently said that “There needs to be a more serious conversation in America about... the threat posted by Iran,” further stating that Iran poses a “grave threat” to our “security and way of life.” Israel’s US ambassador Ron Dermer stated that the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran “could endanger the very existence of the State of Israel,” going on to say that Iran is “the greatest sponsor of terrorism in the world.” Former US Army Lt. Col. Ralph Peters went so far as to say that “Iran is building a new Persian Empire.” Furthermore, in order to slow down Iran’s progress towards a bomb, Netanyahu has threatened to launch an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Threats which are credible, according to officials from the Obama administration. Obama, over the years, has also used such threats by telling other world leaders that toughening sanctions on Iran is the only way to forestall an Israeli attack. Obama himself has argued that a nuclear Iran poses a “profound” national security threat to the US.
Given this ubiquitous rhetoric, there is an obvious question that arises, one which is seldom asked: what exactly is this “threat” that a nuclear Iran poses? What exactly is such a grave and existential threat that Western leaders would risk escalation and military confrontation by threatening the Iranian republic with an attack? Fortunately, we have an authoritative answer to this.
Each year the Department of Defense produces an unclassified, congressionally mandated report detailing the Pentagon’s assessment of the military power of Iran, which it is required to submit to lawmakers. An effort of intelligence evaluation which utilizes thousands of dollars to get accomplished ($22,000 in 2012.) It is reported on sparingly in the media.
The 2014 report opens by stating that “Iran has not substantially changed its national security and military strategies over the past year,” virtually the same opening line as previous reports, except for the addition: “however, Tehran has adjusted some of its tactics to achieve its enduring objectives. President Hasan Ruhani’s international message of moderation and pragmatism is intended to support these objectives.”
It goes on to state that “Iran’s military doctrine is defensive. It is designed to deter an attack, survive an initial strike, retaliate against an aggressor, and force a diplomatic solution to hostilities while avoiding any concessions that challenge its core interests.” Thus, Iranian military strategy is to attack only in the event that it is aggressed upon, and still then only long enough to force a diplomatic solution; its doctrine is defensive.
In the context of its ballistic missile development, the report states “Since the Iran-Iraq War, Tehran has placed significant emphasis on developing and fielding ballistic missiles to counter perceived threats from Israel and coalition forces in the Middle East and to project its power in the region.” Iran is developing weapons stockpiles specifically to counter the threats from Israel and the West, of which I have documented above. This falls in line with the defensive assessment of Tehran’s military; its buildup is a defensive response, not an offensive one.
In terms of its nuclear capabilities, the Pentagon admits that “Iran continues to develop technological capabilities that could be applicable to nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, which could be adapted to deliver nuclear weapons,” although at present no nuclear weapons exist. (emphasis added)
Therefore, the “threat” of Iran, of which we are constantly told to fear, the “grave threat” to our “security and way of life”, this “new Persian Empire” that “could endanger the very existence of Israel” that Obama warns is a “profound” national security threat to the US, is simply the threat that scares Western policymakers the most: the threat of deterrence and defense.
Worrying still is the fact that those who are most adamant about warning us of this “threat” know perfectly well that their words are not true. John McCain, who is quoted above as saying that a nuclear Iran will pose “a direct threat to the existence of Israel” previously employed a national security aide named Anthony Cordesman. In 2013 Cordesman published a research paper for the Center for Strategic and International Studies of which he concluded that it is Iran, and not Israel, that faces a direct existential threat, “Israel now poses a more serious existential threat to Iran than Iran can pose to Israel in the near term… It seems likely that Israel can deliver an ‘existential’ nuclear strike on Iran, and will have far more capability to damage Iran than Iran is likely to have against Israel for the next decade.” And as the DoD report states, if and when Iran does acquire nuclear weapons capabilities, they will be deterrents used to defend against an attack.
Further confirmation of this is available from the February 2014 Annual Threat Assessment given before the Senate Armed Services Committee by the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn. Detailing Iran’s threat assessment, Flynn notes “Iran has threatened to temporarily impede international ship traffic transiting through the Strait of Hormuz if it is attacked or in response to further sanctions on its oil exports. Additionally, Iran has threatened to launch missiles against U.S. targets and our regional allies in response to an attack. Tehran could also employ its terrorist surrogates. However, it is unlikely to initiate or intentionally provoke a conflict or launch a preemptive attack.” (emphasis added)
Therefore, the threat of Iran is one of deterrence, of defending itself in the event of an attack, and there exists no evidence that it seeks to provoke or attack its adversaries.
Given this, it is hard not to wonder why there is so much paranoia, fear, and thus belligerent and punitive rhetoric employed against Iran. If the threat is deterrence, then why all the hostility?
The characterization of Iran as a rogue, aggressive, and hostile state has become a sort of dogma in Western discourse, sharing similar characteristics with a fundamentalist religious belief. A main reason for this is simply the intention of the United States to punish Iran; after all it does not follow orders. However, as is seen with the example of Cuba, in order to be hostile and punitive towards a recalcitrant state there is a necessity to portray that state as the unreasonable aggressor or a despotic terrorist, thereby making your actions against it appear to be defensive and reactionary, rather than offensive and aggressive; people are much more likely to approve of defensive actions rather than offensive ones.
In Cuba, the impetus for the aggression against it stemmed from the fall of the US-supported dictator Batista to Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, who subsequently expelled US corporations and nationalized the land and resources they had been exploiting. They didn’t like that much, and the US reacted in kind by immediately launching military attacks and decades of terrorism against Cuba, along with historic amounts of assassination and regime-change attempts. The reasons were explained by the State Departments Policy Planning Council, which warned that “the primary danger we face in Castro is... in the impact the very existence of his regime has upon the leftist movement in many Latin American countries… The simple fact is that Castro represents a successful defiance of the U.S., a negation of our whole hemispheric policy of almost a century and a half,” referring to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, in which the US declared its intention of dominating the hemisphere.
The Iran case is similar. After the 1953 CIA-run coup that overthrew the parliamentary government and installed the brutal regime of the Shah, a day hasn't gone by that the US hasn't been torturing Iran. After the Shah’s overthrow in 1979, the US immediately turned to supporting Saddam Hussein’s vicious invasion. The punitive measures exist to this day, including crippling economic sanctions, threats of attack, and attacks against allies such as Syria. The reasons for this, as well, are similar: Iran too represents a successful defiance of US power, and refuses to obey orders emanating from Washington. If your goal is world hegemony, and you feel you have the right to use force freely wherever you want, then you simply cannot tolerate such a deterrent.
There is another element to this as well, and that is of a truism that should be evident to knowledgeable analysts of statecraft. US leaders take for granted the indelible presumption that we, as a nation, are good, and therefore by extension it follows that whatever we do, is also good. In contrast, of course the actions of our enemies are bad. So when we invade Afghanistan, we are liberating Afghanistan. When Russia invades Afghanistan, they are conquering Afghanistan. Similarly when we invade Vietnam or Iraq, we are not conquering, we are bringing freedom and democracy. Applying the logic to Iran, given that Iran represents an opposition to US policy and hegemony, which is of course benevolent, they must then be evil. So when we install a brutal dictator in their country, that is good, and when they expel that dictator and pursue an independent policy of self-determination, that of course is very bad. When we threaten to attack Iran, it is out of a munificent desire to stop a grave threat to the world, and so on. This is the essence of the fanatical religion that exists in the West.
Another reason for portraying Iran as a hostile threat is that it provides a useful scapegoat for the problems in the region, and provides an excuse for Western offensive actions. It is well known to policy planners that intervention and aggression are not goals shared by the populous, and therefore a threat or enemy is needed to justify such actions. Former National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter and current Obama advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski expressed this notion in 1997 when he wrote that “Never before has a populist democracy attained international supremacy. But the pursuit of power is not a goal that commands popular passion, except in conditions of a sudden threat or challenge to the public’s sense of domestic well-being.”(1) And thus you have the Iranian “threat.”
This is of course not to say that the Iranian government is righteous or beyond reproach, far from it, there is much authoritarianism and internal repression to admonish, however that is a threat to their domestic population, not the US and the West.
Coming back now to the actual “threat”, the one of nuclear deterrence capabilities, there are ways to prevent against this. One way would be to institute a nuclear weapons free zone in the region. That would effectively eliminate any problems or threats, and further foster peace and stability in the Middle East. That proposal is strongly supported by Egypt and the Arab states, and has overwhelming support in general worldwide, except that the United States and Israel won’t allow it. They insist on a precondition: that Israel be exempt. Obviously, because of this the proposal won’t get anywhere. And this very perfectly exemplifies the true picture of the situation: that because of the United States and Israel’s aggression, hostility, and unilateral insistence on not only maintaining their weapons capabilities, but assiduously enhancing them forward, Iran is working towards preventive capabilities to defend itself and deter a potential attack.
Ironically, it is then Israel’s insistence on maintaining its power and ability to existentially threaten Iran that is in turn pushing Iran towards pursuing nuclear capabilities and further military power.
These conclusions were as well echoed by a prominent Israeli historian and professor, Martin van Creveld, who stated succinctly back in 2004 that given the unilateral aggression shown by the West, Iran is forced into a position of deterrence “The world has witnessed how the United States attacked Iraq for, as it turned out, no reason at all. Had the Iranians not tried to build nuclear weapons, they would be crazy.”
1.) Zbigniew Brzezinski, “The Eurasian Chessboard,” The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy And It’s Geostrategic Imperatives (New York, 1997), pg. 35-36.