The politicians and media in the United States are creating the conditions that will inevitably lead to a major new war in the Middle East. While it is difficult to imagine that any U.S. Administration would want to rush into another armed conflict, the deliberate shaping of the debate over Middle East policy and the response to terrorism has increasingly narrowed the options to make it appear that there are only two choices: capitulation to a threatening "axis of evil" or war. Given the experience of Iraq, it is reasonable to argue that this White House and Congress would almost certainly try to avoid having to make a decision to actually choose war, but there is a significant danger that a conflict might be triggered by a minor incident that, either by accident or by design, escalates into something much greater.
As in the lead-up to Iraq, the mainstream media and pandering politicians in both parties have shown themselves keen to display their "tough on Iran" credentials. All of the leading Republican presidential aspirants have indicated their willingness to use nuclear weapons against Tehran while the Democrats have averred that "all options" remain on the table. And the media, far from challenging such insanity, is stoking the fire. In 2002, Saddam Hussein was described as a new Hitler. Now it is the turn of Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has been called Hitler, "evil," and even a "foul-smelling fruit bat." The typecasting should sound familiar because anyone the United States is preparing to attack must be likened to Hitler to generate the proper level of public revulsion and to silence any voices calling for a more measured response. The Iranian president is not Hitler, however, not even close. Last week's disgraceful demonization and humiliation of Ahmadinejad by the media and the head of Columbia University Lee C. Bollinger accomplished nothing and only helped strengthen the unpopular politician's standing at home. Ahmadinejad looked positively statesmanlike when he responded to the overwrought Bollinger's string of insults by saying "In Iran, when you invite a guest, you respect him."
Waging a media war against Ahmadinejad is in reality little more than waging war against Iran by proxy, which is precisely what hawks in the Administration, at the American Enterprise Institute, and in AIPAC intend. Ahmadinejad is clearly a master of maladroit one-liners and no effort should be made to legitimize his posturing, but he poses no threat to the international order and he has frequently been deliberately misquoted to make a political case against him. Ahmadinejad has called for "regime change" in Israel but he has never threatened to wipe it off the map. He has never denied that the Holocaust took place and has only questioned the imprisoning in Europe of people who have challenged the orthodox account of that event. Concerning the Holocaust, he has also asked why the Palestinians should be paying the price for something that happened in Europe sixty years ago.
Even if Ahmadinejad had made the statements attributed to him, his actual authority as Iranian President should be relevant. Ahmadinejad is no "petty and cruel dictator," contrary to the assertions of the learned Professor Bollinger. He is an elected president who has very little power and who is frequently at odds with the country's religious leadership and its parliament. Even if Iran had a nuclear arsenal, which it does not, his finger would not be on the trigger. He does not command the Iranian armed forces and he does not determine Iranian foreign policy. Far from being a belligerent expansionistic power, the last time Iran attacked a neighbor was in the seventeenth century.
Ahmadeinejad won the presidency in 2005 after promising to help the poor, a pledge that he has singularly failed to carry out. He is extremely unpopular, witness the gasoline riots in June. Demonstrators battled police, burned gas stations, and blamed the price rises and rationing on the president's failure to address serious economic problems. If Ahmadinejad runs for president again in 2009, he will almost certainly be defeated.
All of the above is not to say that the United States does not have genuine issues with Iran. They include containing Iran's nuclear ambitions, determination of its legitimate and possibly illegitimate roles in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq, its involvement with groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and improvement of its generally unsatisfactory human rights record. All of those bones of contention should be on the negotiating table with the ultimate objective of encouraging a peaceful and democratic Iran that has full and normal relations with all other countries, including the United States. But the Bush Administration has preferred the stick to the carrot, starting with consigning Iran to the "axis of evil" in January 2002.
The White House currently insists that it is exercising the diplomatic option with Iran even though it is not. Bilateral sessions in Baghdad have consisted of little more than staking out adversarial positions. The United States is demanding that Iran suspend its nuclear enrichment program as a precondition for serious negotiations, but Iran is legally entitled to carry out enrichment for peaceful means and both the Iranian public and the government are strongly supportive of that right. The US insistence on Iranian capitulation in advance of any talks means that the negotiations are intended to be a non-starter, leaving only a military solution to the Iran problem.
The American public should be aware that most of the claims of Iranian interference in Iraq and Afghanistan are based on unverifiable assertions by the Defense Department. Many of the allegations have even been contradicted by the Iraqi and Afghan governments, both of which insist that they have positive working relationships with Tehran. Even where Iranian military equipment has shown up in Afghanistan and Iraq there is no real evidence of Iranian government involvement as there is a large gray and black arms market in central Asia and the region is awash with weapons. Nor is there any solid intelligence suggesting that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Yet, the impression given by the US media, political class, and the ubiquitous talking heads is that Tehran has been actively targeting American soldiers and is hell bent on becoming a nuclear armed power, two contentions that are at best dubious.
And Congress will do nothing to stop the march to war. The passage of a more punitive Iran Sanctions Act in July coupled with last week's approval by a 77 to 22 Senate vote of the Kyl-Lieberman amendment to the Defense Procurement bill have provided a virtual carte blanche for the White House to attack Iran at will. Kyl-Lieberman called for the naming of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group and provided the White House with language to justify the use of military force to oppose alleged Iranian provocations. The unwillingness of the Senate and House to insist on a bill forbidding a new war without Congressional approval demonstrates that when it comes to Iran the Democrats are as bloodthirsty as any red state Republican.
Iran is not the only country in the cross hairs in what is evidently a concerted campaign to lump all of the bad guys in the Middle East into one convenient group for eventual "regime change." Bashar al-Assad's Syria was attacked by Israeli planes on September 6th. Subsequent media accounts indicated that the target was a nuclear facility located in northern Syria that was being set up with the assistance of the North Koreans. The only problem with the story about the nuclear weapons is that it was untrue and ultimately derived from Israeli sources that had an interest in justifying the incursion and portraying the Syrians as proliferators. U.S. intelligence states flatly that Syria has no nuclear weapons program and that no radioactive materials were released into the atmosphere as the result of the attack. The end result is that the American public has again been conned and those who followed the stories now believe that Syria is trying to obtain a nuclear device.