x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Phantom menace

The big idea The American right's obsession with Iran substitutes alarmist rhetoric for a serious policy, writes Matthew Yglesias.

Faking it: The Iranian regime is not the first nor the last to fulfil the needs of the American imagination for a demonic enemy.
Faking it: The Iranian regime is not the first nor the last to fulfil the needs of the American imagination for a demonic enemy.

The American right's obsession with Iran substitutes alarmist rhetoric for a serious policy towards Tehran, writes Matthew Yglesias.

One of the oddest moments of the US presidential campaign came in May when Barack Obama, defending his approach to Iran, observed that countries such as Iran, Cuba and Venezuela "are tiny compared to the Soviet Union. They don't pose a serious threat to us the way the Soviet Union posed a threat to us. And yet we were willing to talk to the Soviet Union at the time when they were saying we're going to wipe you off the planet." One could argue that the scale of the threat posed by a given country doesn't have an obvious logical relationship to the desirability of holding direct high-level talks with its leadership. Indeed, you might say that Obama's observation points in the opposite direction: the Soviet regime was so powerful that the United States had no choice but to engage with it, whereas a relatively puny country like Iran can be isolated.

But the American right took Obama's remarks as a rallying cry. John Bolton dubbed him "Obama the Naive", while the right-wing blogger James Lewis mocked "Emperor Obama's New Clothes", describing the power of a country with "a half-million men in the army plus the fanatical martyrs of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, a domestic terror apparatus to keep the people down, a growing nuclear and missile programme, enough oil to finance it all, a strategic position at the head and the tiny choke-point of the Gulf, a long, long imperial tradition, and an Islamofascist suicide ideology, thanks to Jimmy Carter's good friend Ayatollah Khomeini."

John McCain took time out from a speech that was supposed to be about economic policy to blast Obama's remarks, and later released an ad featuring menacing images and a voice-over designed to bolster the claim that Obama's remarks revealed him to be "dangerously unprepared to be president": Iran. Radical Islamic government. Known sponsors of terrorism. Developing nuclear capabilities to "generate power" but threatening to eliminate Israel. Obama says Iran is a "tiny" country, "doesn't pose a serious threat". Terrorism, destroying Israel, those aren't "serious threats"?

In the real world, compared to the United States or the Soviet Union, Iran is indeed a tiny country, measured by land area, population, economic potential and military capability. Saudi Arabia spends three times more than Iran on defence; America's military budget is about 100 times larger.

None of this means that we should not be concerned with Iranian nuclear proliferation. But it does call into question the relentless obsession with Iran that grips American hawks. National Review, the prominent conservative magazine, runs a daily "Iran News Update" on its website - with no comparable attention to other proliferators like North Korea or Pakistan or, for that matter, to Iraq, where the United States is engaged in an actual war.

Substantial swathes of the American press have a lurid, almost pornographic obsession with the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's rhetoric, even though they know perfectly well that he doesn't control Iranian foreign policy. His annual tirades at the opening of the UN General Assembly get wide play on cable, and he was depicted on a New Republic cover in literally demonic form, as a vampire with missiles as fangs.

And though Iran's anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric is real enough, the demonologists on the right can't resist the impulse to exaggerate. Jeffrey Bell wrote in the February 6, 2006 Weekly Standard that Ahmadinejad not only "says the Jewish Holocaust never happened" but also "muses about the possibility of correcting that Nazi failure by dropping a nuclear bomb on Israel." Ahmadinejad never said anything of the sort, but when I asked Bell about this, he replied he was exercising "poetic license".

It is in many ways an apt metaphor for conservatives' preoccupation with Iran. Simply put, a good story needs a villain. For many decades there was the Soviet Union - a gigantic, continent-spanning superpower with a universalistic ideology and dreams of world domination. But then the Cold War ended. Recovering neoconservative Francis Fukuyama has explained that in neoconservative circles in the 1990s, "there was actually a deliberate search for an enemy because they felt that the Republican Party didn't do as well" in an atmosphere lacking one. China was their first choice. But China's leadership tends to avoid cartoonishly evil performances, and GOP-friendly business interests tend to prefer a warm relationship between Washington and Beijing.

After September 11 and the dawning of the vaguely defined "war on terror", Osama bin Laden would have seemed a logical candidate to become Public Enemy Number One, but one suspects his elusiveness presents too many possible embarrassments for the powers that be. Instead we promoted Saddam Hussein - who was not so hard to find - but with his demise, paradoxically, his old enemies in Tehran moved into the top spot.

But while the current Iranian regime is neither the first nor the last to fulfil the needs of the American imagination for a demonic enemy, it is in some ways well-suited to the role. The antagonism between America and Iran is unique among international conflicts in that it is actually quite hard to say what it is really about. Other classic standoffs - Israel versus its neighbours, India versus Pakistan - typically have at their root a territorial dispute. Who controls Kashmir? Will Taiwan come under the sway of Beijing, or remain safely ensconced in the US protective umbrella? The long struggle with Saddam had this quality: the independence and security of Kuwait and the other Gulf States - and, of course, the oil resources therein - were a concrete, practical concern for the United States.

By contrast, no competing territorial claims animate the US-Iran rivalry. In Afghanistan, the interests of Washington and Tehran are closely aligned in opposing the Taliban and seeking to establish a stable regime in Kabul. For a time, the US and Iran were even co-operating closely on Afghanistan policy. Iraq is a different matter, the site of a long struggle between America and Iran for power and influence, which has, at times, threatened to turn violent. But it is the exception that proves the rule. After all, why does Washington fear Iranian influence in Iraq? Well, because Iran is anti-American. And at the same time, Tehran can hardly allow America to establish a firm grasp over a neighbouring country at a time when the United States refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Revolutionary regime. Even this conflict over influence in Iraq, in other words, is not the cause of US-Iranian antagonism, but its consequence. Indeed, the US-backed government in Baghdad is led by political parties whose ties to Iran are so close that they fought on the Iranian side of the Iran-Iraq war. Under the circumstances, nothing would be more natural than a co-operative policy aimed at achieving a modicum of stability under the aegis of a regime that can be counted on to refrain from invading its neighbours.

But the very history of tit-for-tat provocations and condemnations since the Iranian Revolution makes an agreement all but impossible. How can Iran not feel threatened by a country that deems it a member of an "Axis of Evil"? How can the US look with equanimity on a state that brands it the "Great Satan"? The nuclear issue is made of much the same stuff. Iran doesn't trust that it can be safe from the United States without the protection of its own nuclear deterrent, any more than the United States believes Iran can be trusted to possess nuclear material in any form, even that allowed by the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The real issue is not influence in Iraq or nuclear weapons but trust itself in a context where the legacy of conflict makes compromise impossible.

While Obama's election reflects mainstream US opinion moving in one direction, being cast into the wilderness seems likely to push the right deeper into the cycle of paranoia. Free from the burdens of governance, conservative thought can become even more detached from practical considerations, and even more gripped by alarmist imagery and fantasies that America would be omnipotent if only she had a president with the guts to unleash that omnipotence.

But a diplomatic breakthrough won't require everyone's mind to change and there now seems to be a firm consensus in the United States about the need to pursue some kind of diplomatic rapprochement. This is why Obama's intention to pursue presidential-level diplomacy, though viewed with some anxiety even by many Democrats, has a certain logic to it. An acrimonious relationship long on hostility but short on concrete "root causes" arguably can only be changed by dramatic gestures aimed not only at resolving disputes, but at altering the underlying psychology of the dynamic.

Matthew Yglesias is the author of Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats.