Should any Iraq lessons be applied to Iran?

The claims about Iran raise more questions than they answer. Virtually none is being asked by America's media.

By Glenn Greenwald
Published September 26, 2009 10:27AM (EDT)

(Updated below - Update II - Update III - Update IV - Update V)

Anonymous Obama officials yesterday dictated to Helene Cooper and Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times their version of the dramatic and exciting behind-the-scenes events that led to the administration's announcement this week about Iran's nuclear facility -- a late-night strategy session; secret consultation with allies; high-level diplomatic wrangling; the White House's decision to "outflank the Iranians."  Cooper and Mazzetti faithfully wrote down everything they were told and produced this breathless front-page article (though, to their credit, they noted the motive of their anonymous sources:  "all of whom want the story known to help support their case against Iran").  Perhaps the most meaningful paragraphs came at the very end:

The Chinese, one administration official said, were more skeptical, and said they wanted to look at the intelligence, and to see what international inspectors said when they investigated.

The lessons of the Iraq war still lingered.

"They don’t want to buy a pig in a poke," the senior administration official said.

That's rational, isn't it?   Shouldn't the American media infuse its coverage with some of that same skepticism, along with a similar desire to see actual evidence to support the claims being made?  Isn't that exactly the lesson every rational person should have learned from the Iraq War?  Identically, don't the two decades worth of false warnings about how Iran would have a nuclear bomb in "a couple of years" if we did not act by themselves warrant a demand for evidence before mindlessly embracing these claims?

Obviously, the Chinese have their own self-interested motives when it comes to Iran.  And although the official position of the American intelligence community remains that Iran is not attempting to develop a nuclear bomb, it would hardly be a shock (or even irrational) if they did harbor that ambition.  As the long list of nuclear states demonstrate -- which ironically includes all of the ones expressing such anger over Iran -- many governments believe, rationally, that their security will be enhanced if they obtain one.  After all, the U.S. has more or less explicitly stated that it wants to prevent other nations from obtaining a nuclear weapon to ensure we can still attack them if we choose.  Under those circumstances, it's not hard to believe that countries like Iran want to obtain nuclear weapons.  It would be more surprising if they didn't.

Still, the accusations issuing about Iran are unaccompanied by evidence and raise at least as many question as they answer.  Yet here we have, yet again, inflammatory (and, in many eyes, war-justifying) accusations made against an American Enemy, and the American establishment media seems capable of nothing other than mindlessly repeating it, asking no real questions, and doing little other than fueling the fire.

By contrast, The Washington Independent's Spencer Ackerman spent all day yesterday diligently and critically grappling with the question of whether Iran even breached any of its obligations under the NPT (he quotes an analyst with the Federation of American Scientists’ Strategic Security Program who points out out that the NPT requires notification to the IAEA no less than 6 months before a facility is operational -- which Iran plainly did -- but also notes there may be non-public Iran/IAEA agreements requiring earlier notification).  Either way, everyone agrees that -- despite all the rhetoric about Iran getting caught red-handed -- it was Iran itself which notified the IAEA of this facility; the facility is far from operational; and there's no evidence that it contains or even can produce weapons-grade material.  Until there's an IAEA inspection -- which Iran said it would permit -- it's impossible to know the true purpose and capabilities of this facility, which is the cause for the Chinese's skepticism and should cause skepticism among every thinking person, beginning with the American media.  Can anyone point to any such skepticism anywhere?  Listening to the media coverage, one would think that Iran just got caught sitting on a secret atomic bomb.

The reason such accusations deserve so much scrutiny is obvious:  there is a substantial faction in our political culture which craves a military attack on Iran -- the same faction, more or less, that caused us to attack Iraq -- and will seize on anything to justify that.  Anyone who doubts that should look at this creepily excited and chest-beating statement yesterday from Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh, GOP Sen. John Kyl, and Sen. Joe Lieberman:  Iraq War supporters all.  Contradicting the 2007 NIE, they declare as an "inescapable conclusion" that "Iran is determined to acquire nuclear weapons."  Their joint statement threatens "catastrophic consequences" against Iran and vows that "we are prepared to do whatever it takes to stop Iran's nuclear breakout."  Just in case anyone is still confused by what they are threatening, they favorably cite a "bipartisan" report from former Senators Chuck Robb (D) and Dan Coats (R) which urges the President to begin preparing for military action against Iran, and lays out a detailed plan for what it would entail, beginning with a naval blockade and extending to "devastating strikes" against "assets" inside Iran that "would probably last up to several weeks and would require vigilance for years to come."  That's what three key U.S. Senators are explicitly threatening.

In the absence of what they call "immediate" compliance, the Senators call for "crippling new sanctions against Iran."  In The Washington Post today, AIPAC's most trusted House member -- Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D) -- similarly recommends sanctions that would "cause the Iranian banking system to collapse" and impose other severe economic hardships.  So much for all of that oh-so-moving, profound, green-wearing concern for the welfare of The Iranian People.  Time to bomb them or, at best, starve them until their government complies with our dictates.  The Post Editorial Page repeats the same claim made for two decades about Iran ("officials say that when it is operational, it could deliver the material for a bomb in a year") and warns:  "If it had not been discovered, the Qom plant could have given Iran the means for a bomb by 2011 without the world knowing about it.  And if there is one clandestine facility, most likely there are others."

So we can all see where this is headed.  Obama, to his credit, is one of the least inflammatory and fear-mongering establishment voices in all of this.  And whatever else one might think of the whole Iran question, Obama officials -- just on a strategic level, in terms of negotiating tactics -- are infinitely smarter and more calculating than the ones who preceded them.  They seem intent on formulating a negotiation strategy that will be most likely to resolve the matter through mutual agreement.  But the drooling, belligerent sentiments being unleashed by the reporting of this story -- eagerly fueled by the always-war-hungry Bayh/Kyl/Lieberman faction -- could easily produce its own momentum.   

Just look at how these people think -- the ones who exert great influence over our actions.  Here's the deeply Serious Evan Bayh in 2008:

You just hope that we haven't soured an entire generation on the necessity, from time to time, of using force because Iraq has been such a debacle. That would be tragic, because Iran is a grave threat. They're everything we thought Iraq was but wasn't. They are seeking nuclear weapons, they do support terrorists, they have threatened to destroy Israel, and they've threatened us, too.

In other words:  Whoops.  We bombed, invaded and destroyed the wrong country.  We should have attacked that one over there rather than this one here.  Silly us.  It sure would be awful if our little mistake in Iraq prevented us from attacking Iran or caused people not to trust what we say.  And here's what Joe Lieberman is, as reported by Jeffrey Goldberg, then of The New Yorker:

In another conversation, [Lieberman] told me that he was reading "America Alone," a book by the conservative commentator Mark Steyn, which argues that Europe is succumbing, demographically and culturally, to an onslaught by Islam, leaving America friendless in its confrontation with Islamic extremism [GG: that book also flirts with explicit advocacy of anti-Muslim genocide]. . . .

Lieberman likes expressions of American power. A few years ago, I was in a movie theatre in Washington when I noticed Lieberman and his wife, Hadassah, a few seats down. The film was "Behind Enemy Lines," in which Owen Wilson plays a U.S. pilot shot down in Bosnia. Whenever the American military scored an onscreen hit, Lieberman pumped his fist and said, "Yeah!" and "All right!"

With people like that at the center of American power -- and with recent history demonstrating how literally crazed and bloodthirsty our political establishment is -- nothing is more vital than aggressive media scrutiny and skepticism towards war-fueling accusations against our Enemy Du Jour, the latest Hitlers.  But we have the opposite.  Nothing excites them like the smell of aggressive American confrontation with the bad people.  As a result, all of the genuine questions raised by this latest Iran episode are completely obscured, and the most inflammatory and hysteria-generating assertions are assumed to be true and disseminated as such by our "journalists."


UPDATE: Daniel Larison has some typically insightful observations about all of this, which should be read in their entirety, including this:

Significant Russian cooperation with a sanctions regime would make it more "successful" in that it would isolate Iran more fully, which would at least address part of the practical problem of imposing sanctions on Iran, but this would not lead to the result that sanctions advocates want. Most likely, China would pick up the slack and become even more heavily invested in trade with Iran than it has been. On the contrary, as opponents of sanctions keep saying, a tighter sanctions regime will harm internal political opposition to the regime, increase the political-military establishment’s hold on the economy and cause Iranians to rally behind their government in the face of outside hostility.

One of the things the American political establishment has the greatest difficulty accepting is that sometimes we can't force other countries to do what we order by bombing them or otherwise harming them, and that the far more likely way to obtain the outcome we want is through consensual agreement.  That doesn't produce the same pulsating sensations of power and strength as Shock and Awe -- it won't cause Joe Lieberman to pump his fists and yell "Yeah!" and "All right!" -- but it is still the most rational and effective course of action.


UPDATE II: The CIA's personal spokesman at The Washington Post, David Ignatius (who, needless to say, supported the attack on Iraq), says today that the confrontation with Iran is "the Cuban Missile Crises in slow motion" and excitedly concludes:  "It’s hard to see how this one will end short of military confrontation if the Iranians don’t start bargaining for real."   How exciting:  we have our own Cuban Missile Crises that is heading for military attack, and will end with us waging war simultaneously against three Muslim countries -- because we're good and peaceful.

Along the same lines, Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution (who, needless to say, supported the attack on Iraq), has a new book out this week with this cover (h/t sysprog):

That perfectly sums up the American establishment's view of war:  a fun and fulfilling game where we sit around strategizing and put camouflage hats onto human beings whom we view as pawns (while Joe Lieberman, sitting with his family and Evan Bayh and John Kyl far away in the comfort and safety of his house, pumps his fists and yells:  "Yeah!" and "All right!").

Related to all of this -- and highly worth watching in its own right -- is this:  a performance of sand animation from a Ukranian talent show.  Trust me:  it's very worth watching.


UPDATE III: Iran's top nuclear official claims to be shocked by the West's reaction to the second enrichment plant, since they disclosed its existence to the IAEA a year earlier than required by the NPT (i.e., they disclosed it 18-24 months before operability), and also said the site would be open to full IAEA inspections.  So what "rules" exactly did Iran violate here?  Additionally, Iran claims it opened a second, secret enrichment site in order to disperse its assets, so as to protect its civilian nuclear program from an Israeli air attack, which has been threatened many times.  Steve Hynd argues that claim is both plausible and rational.

Iranian assertions shouldn't be believed any more than those from American officials.  The point is that there are competing claims and the American media shouldn't assume that the American Government's assertions are true without evidence -- any more than they should have done so in the run-up to the Iraq War.


UPDATE IV: James Acton of Carnegie Endowment for Peace argues that the rule Iran violated is a 2003 amendment between the Iranians and the IAEA that purports to require notification to the IAEA immediately upon Iran's deciding to build such a facility -- not merely 180 days prior to its receipt of nuclear material.  Iran denies the validity of this agreement, as it was never ratified by its legislature, and -- as early as 2007 -- advised the IAEA that it did not consider itself bound by this provision.  Thus, it seems clear that Iran complied with all of its obligations under international law with the possible exception of an amendment to an agreement between it and the IAEA which Iran has long claimed is invalid and was never ratified.

Everyone can decide for themselves if they find Acton's argument convincing; it's certainly plausible at the very least, and it seems clear Iran wanted to hide its construction of this facility (either because they intended it for nefarious purposes and/or because they wanted to prevent the Israelis from destroying it).  But, given that Iran did notify the IAEA long before the facility became operational and has agreed to inspections, this "violation" -- even if one is persuaded by Acton's argument -- is obviously a very thin reed on which to hang orgies of international outrage and particularly war threats, to put that mildly.


UPDATE V: Remember Scott Ritter -- the former Marine and weapons inspector who (a) had actual expertise on Iraq; (b) was right about everything he said prior to the war, and -- therefore -- (c) was mocked and marginalized as an ignorant quasi-traitor by the likes of Jonah Goldberg, Peter Beinart and most of the American media when they weren't ignoring him?  He has a lengthy analysis of Iran today in The Guardian; maybe it's worth listening to what he has to say:

[W]hen Obama announced that "Iran is breaking rules that all nations must follow", he is technically and legally wrong. . . . The need to create a mechanism of economic survival in the face of the real threat of either US or Israeli military action is probably the most likely explanation behind the Qom facility. Iran's declaration of this facility to the IAEA, which predates Obama's announcement by several days, is probably a recognition on the part of Iran that this duplication of effort is no longer representative of sound policy on its part.

In any event, the facility is now out of the shadows, and will soon be subjected to a vast range of IAEA inspections, making any speculation about Iran's nuclear intentions moot.

His entire column should be read as a crucial antidote against the hysterical, characteristically uncritical and one-sided media melodrama being churned out from virtually every corner.

Glenn Greenwald

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