Anonymous Liberal for Glenn Greenwald: The incoherence of the competing rationales for war with Iran

Published October 22, 2007 9:06PM (EDT)

Most of you probably know me from past guest-blogging stints here at Unclaimed Territory, but for those of you who don't, I -- like Glenn Greenwald -- am an attorney and I blog regularly at my own site and, less frequently, at Crooks and Liars, both under the terribly unoriginal pseudonym "Anonymous Liberal" (I use a pseudonym because, unlike Glenn, I'm still a litigator by day.) I want to thank Glenn for once again giving me the opportunity to post here.

The subject of this post is Iran and the incoherence of the competing rationales for war being offered by the Dick Cheneys and Bill Kristols of the world.

A number of bloggers have already noted the ominous parallels between the speech Vice President Cheney delivered over the weekend and statements he made back in 2002 and 2003 regarding Iraq. As he did with respect to Iraq in 2002-2003, Cheney warned that if Iran stays on its present course, it will face "serious consequences."

Needless to say, I too found Cheney's speech to be deeply concerning (though not particularly surprising). But instead of trying to predict what the Bush administration will do, I want to focus on the various substantive rationales for war that Cheney laid out in his speech.

There are two principal arguments that Iran hawks make for confronting Iran militarily, both of which were represented in Cheney's speech. The first centers around Iran's nuclear ambitions. We're told that Iran is run by a uniquely irrational regime, one that is undeterred by traditional means. This regime cannot, therefore, be allowed to get its hands on nuclear weapons because if it does, it is likely to use them (despite the fact that the U.S. and/or Israel would surely retaliate in kind and obliterate the country). Cheney even quotes Bernard Lewis in his speech, the same guy who -- as Fareed Zakaria reminds us -- predicted in an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal last year that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would try to end the world on Aug. 22, 2006.

The second argument, which is of more recent vintage, centers around Iran's alleged meddling in Iraq. According to this argument, Iran's leaders are not crazy and irrational, but clever and strategic. Here's the way Cheney described Iran's strategy in his speech:

Operating largely in the shadows, Iran attempts to hide its hands through the use of militants who target and kill coalition and Iraqi security forces. Iran's real agenda appears to include promoting violence against the coalition. Fearful of a strong, independent, Arab Shia community emerging in Iraq, one that seeks religious guidance not in Qom, Iran, but from traditional sources of Shia authority in Najaf and Karbala, the Iranian regime also aims to keep Iraq in a state of weakness that prevents Baghdad from presenting a threat to Tehran.

Putting aside for a moment the validity of these claims, has anyone noticed that the behavior and motives being attributed to Iran under Argument for War 2.0 are inconsistent with the claims of Iranian irrationality that are central to Argument for War 1.0?

The truth is, of course, that Iran has an enormous interest in the outcome of our Iraq experiment, and it is perfectly rational for Iran's leaders to attempt to influence events there. Remember, Iraq is a country that invaded Iran in 1980, leading to a bloody eight-year war in which nearly a million people died, the majority of them Iranian. It's probably fair to say that nothing is more important to Iran's national security than the character of the regime that eventually emerges in Iraq. To expect that Iran would just sit back and not try to influence events there is profoundly naive.

And it is clear, even accepting the administration's largely unproven and at times illogical allegations of Iranian meddling in Iraq, that Iran is being very careful and strategic in what it is doing. The chief allegation the administration has made is that Iran has been supplying a certain type of deadly improvised explosive device to Iraqi "militants" (a vague term used by the administration to obscure the reality that Iran is, at worst, only supplying Shiite groups, not the Sunni insurgents who are responsible for the vast majority of U.S. casualties). But why just IEDs? Iran indisputably possesses much more sophisticated and deadly weapons. If its goal were primarily to hurt U.S. troops, why not supply Iraqis with missiles or shoulder-fired antiaircraft weaponry, the kind of stuff it supplies to Hezbollah?

The fact that Iran is not alleged to be supplying Iraqis with anything of this sort (at least for use against the U.S.) suggests that Iran is not particularly interested in harming U.S. troops but, rather, in bolstering Shiite elements in Iraq vis-à-vis their Sunni rivals (which is perfectly rational given that the previous Sunni regime invaded their country!). Iran's priorities could change, of course, should we do something reckless and provocative like, say, attacking Iran. It would be tragic if we had to learn the hard way what real meddling is like.

If the Iranian government is indeed attempting to cause harm to U.S. troops by supplying IEDs to Shiite militants, I don't mean to belittle that or suggest that it's not important. But whatever you want to say about Iran's policy toward Iraq, it's pretty hard to argue that it is either overtly aggressive or irrational. Cheney himself describes a cautious policy designed to advance Iranian interests in Iraq, but always under the radar screen and in a way calculated not to provoke a fight with the United States. This is the behavior of a rational regime (though on the latter score, the Iranians may have overestimated the rationality of our leaders).

Moreover, this second, Iraq-centered argument for attacking Iran presupposes that Iran has a rational regime that can be deterred by force. The idea is that if we bomb the country, it will know we mean business and will stop meddling in Iraq. But if the Iranians are a bunch of nut jobs with a death wish -- a regime with no "residual rationality," as Rudy Giuliani recently put it -- what reason is there to believe that bombing Iran will do anything to change their policy?

It's well past time to force the Iran hawks to settle on one consistent rationale for war; they can't keep having it both ways.

I'll leave you with this passage from Zakaria's latest column in Newsweek, which I think helps put things in some perspective:

The American discussion about Iran has lost all connection to reality. Norman Podhoretz, the neoconservative ideologist whom Bush has consulted on this topic, has written that Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is "like Hitler ... a revolutionary whose objective is to overturn the going international system and to replace it in the fullness of time with a new order dominated by Iran and ruled by the religio-political culture of Islamofascism." For this staggering proposition Podhoretz provides not a scintilla of evidence.

Here is the reality. Iran has an economy the size of Finland's and an annual defense budget of around $4.8 billion. It has not invaded a country since the late 18th century. The United States has a GDP that is 68 times larger and defense expenditures that are 110 times greater. Israel and every Arab country (except Syria and Iraq) are quietly or actively allied against Iran. And yet we are to believe that Tehran is about to overturn the international system and replace it with an Islamo-fascist order? What planet are we on?

When the relatively moderate Mohammad Khatami was elected president in Iran, American conservatives pointed out that he was just a figurehead. Real power, they said (correctly), especially control of the military and police, was wielded by the unelected "Supreme Leader," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Now that Ahmadinejad is president, they claim his finger is on the button. (Oh wait, Iran doesn't have a nuclear button yet and won't for at least three to eight years, according to the CIA, by which point Ahmadinejad may not be president anymore. But these are just facts.)

In a speech last week, Rudy Giuliani said that while the Soviet Union and China could be deterred during the cold war, Iran can't be. The Soviet and Chinese regimes had a "residual rationality," he explained. Hmm. Stalin and Mao -- who casually ordered the deaths of millions of their own people, fomented insurgencies and revolutions, and starved whole regions that opposed them -- were rational folk. But not Ahmadinejad, who has done what that compares? One of the bizarre twists of the current Iran hysteria is that conservatives have become surprisingly charitable about two of history's greatest mass murderers.

By Anonymous Liberal

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