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Inventing the next enemy

October 5, 2007 | Pages 8 and 9

ERIC RUDER examines the claims made by politicians and the media about Iran and its president--and shows that the real threats of war in the Middle East come from a different source.

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THE MAINSTREAM media's bitter campaign against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his trip to New York City in late September was a superb study in what Noam Chomsky calls "manufacturing consent"--the all-but-unanimous media verdict on a given issue that serves the interests of the U.S. ruling establishment.

In an editorial, the "liberal" New York Times set the tone, denouncing Ahmadinejad as "loathsome" for "his call to wipe Israel off the map and his country's sponsorship of terrorism. Equally loathsome is Iran's denial of basic civil rights to its citizens, including the right of free speech."

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger did the Times one better by introducing Ahmadinejad to a campus audience as a "showing all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator."

But that wasn't enough to satisfy New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and New York City Council member David Weprin. The two Democrats have threatened to withhold millions of dollars in public funds from Columbia University for inviting Ahmadinejad at all.

What else to read

For more on the charges that Ahmadinejad has threatened to "wipe Israel off the map," see Juan Cole's "Turning Ahmadinejad into public enemy no. 1" and "Ahmadinejad: 'I am not anti-Semitic.'" Stephen Zunes' "My Meeting with Ahmadinejad" in Foreign Policy in Focus examines the Iranian president in light of his New York visit.

Left-wing writers Edward Herman and David Peterson's "Hegemony and Appeasement: Setting Up the Next U.S.-Israeli Target" on ZNet is a systematic debunking of the administration's allegations.

Peter Galbraith's "The Victor?" is a harsh critique of the Bush administration's strategic blunders by a mainstream Democrat from the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

Also look for the International Socialist Review's ongoing coverage, including most recently "Targeting Iran?" by Saman Sepehri.


Only a few media outlets caught the irony of politicians threatening Columbia's finances for inviting Ahmadinejad to speak--while denouncing the Iranian president for his disregard for free speech.

New York's tabloid newspapers denounced Ahmadinejad as a "monster" and the "new Hitler" in giant headlines, and others in the press repeated the Bush administration's claim that Iran's nuclear energy program is aimed at producing nuclear weapons.

Further down the media food chain, Greg Gutfeld, host of the show Redeye on Fox News, wrote: "So the foul-smelling fruitbat Ahmadinejad spoke at that crack house known as Columbia University."

Nowhere in the media was there any serious examination of the allegations made against Iran--nor any questioning of the larger U.S. aims at work in the demonization of Ahmadinejad.

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Nuclear weapons

POLITICIANS AND media commentators almost universally treated Ahmadinejad as a nuclear maniac intent on obtaining weapons of mass destruction.

But Iran has only insisted on its right to develop a nuclear energy program--as guaranteed to it under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran has signed, though U.S. allies Israel, India and Pakistan have not.

Mohammad ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which oversees inspections of Iran's nuclear sites, repeated again last month that the agency has been unable to find credible evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, including any sign of underground production sites or forbidden radioactive substances. ElBaradei has called for a three-month waiting period before the UN Security Council pursues further measures.

Second, even if Iran "got a nuclear weapon, it couldn't use it except in desperate self-defense as both Israel and the United States have many nuclear bombs and superior delivery systems, so that any offensive use of its nuclear weapon(s) would entail Iranian national suicide," wrote media experts Edward Herman and David Peterson.

"It may be recalled that Saddam used his WMD only against Iran and his Kurds, but not even in self-defense during the 1991 Persian Gulf war attack on Iraq by the United States and its 'coalition'--the former use was with U.S. approval, the latter case of non-use was because Saddam would have suffered disproportionate retaliation by the United States and his restraint followed.

"This point is not made in the establishment media, possibly because it would seem to qualify the Iran nuclear menace. The media also do not draw the further inference that an Iranian nuclear weapon would therefore serve only as a means of self-defense and to give Iran a little more leverage in dealing with the nuclear power states--the United States and Israel--that openly threaten it.

"Instead, the media, following the official line, talk about an Iranian nuclear weapon as 'destabilizing,' when what they really mean is that the Israeli-U.S. continuous war-making, ethnic cleansing, and deliberate and effective destabilization of the Middle East would be made more difficult."

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Opposing Israel

THE MEDIA'S coverage of Ahmadinejad's visit usually began with his supposed vow to "wipe Israel off the map." The problem with this oft-reported fact? Ahmadinejad never said it.

"Ahmadinejad did not use that phrase in Persian," Middle East expert Juan Cole wrote on his blog earlier this year. "He quoted an old saying of Ayatollah Khomeini calling for 'this occupation regime over Jerusalem' to 'vanish from the page of time.' Calling for a regime to vanish is not the same as calling for people to be killed...

"If Ahmadinejad is a genocidal maniac who just wants to kill Jews, then why are there 20,000 Jews in Iran, with a member of parliament in Tehran? Couldn't he start at home if that was what he is really about?"

Ahmadinejad has questioned the fact of the Nazi Holocaust of Jews during the Second World War and echoed the views of some of the world's more vile anti-Semites.

But, says Jonathan Steele, a columnist for Britain's Guardian newspaper, the claims about Ahmadinejad's military threats against Israel are wrong. "He was calling for an end to the occupation of Jerusalem at some point in the future," Steele wrote. "The 'page of time' phrase suggests he did not expect it to happen soon."

Cole reports that "some Western wire service [apparently] mistranslated the phrase as 'wipe Israel off the map,' which sounds rather more violent than calling for regime change...These propaganda efforts against Iran and Ahmadinejad also depend on declining to enter into evidence anything else he has ever said--like that it would be wrong to kill Jews!

"So here are some things Ahmadinejad has said that make clear his intentions, and which are translated by the United States government Open Source Center. He is hostile to Israel. He'd like to see regime change (apparently via a referendum on the shape of the government ruling over geographical Palestine, in which all 'original' residents of any religion would get a vote).

"Calling for a referendum on the dissolution of a government is not calling for genocide. Ahmadinejad also says he has no objection to a Jewish state in and of itself, he just thinks it should be located in, say, German territory set apart for the purpose, rather than displacing Palestinians from their homes. He may be saying unrealistic things; he is not advocating killing Jews qua Jews, or genocide.

"Note that Ahmadinejad...compares his call for an end to the Zionist regime ruling over Jerusalem to the Western call for the dissolution of the old Soviet Union. Was Ronald Reagan inciting to genocide when he called for an end of the Soviet regime?"

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Meddling in Iraq

THE BUSH administration accuses Iran of "meddling" in Iraq by providing explosives and other supplies to Iraq's Shiite militia forces. This "meddling" is given as a reason for both U.S. threats of war against Iran and its continuing occupation in Iraq.

Unnoticed by the media is the double standard--the U.S. claims the right to put 170,000 troops in Iraq, while Iran is considered a "foreign force," even though it would be far more affected by events in Iraq than the U.S.

The irony is that the U.S. occupation is the cause of Iran's expanded influence in Iraq. "When U.S. forces ousted Saddam's regime from the south in early April 2003, the Badr Organization infiltrated from Iran to fill the void left by the Bush administration's failure to plan for security and governance in post-invasion Iraq," wrote Peter Galbraith, a former policy official under Bill Clinton.

"In the months that followed, the U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority appointed Badr Organization leaders to key positions in Iraq's American-created army and police.

"In short, George W. Bush had from the first facilitated the very event he warned would be a disastrous consequence of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq: the takeover of a large part of the country by an Iranian-backed militia. And while the president contrasts the promise of democracy in Iraq with the tyranny in Iran, there is now substantially more personal freedom in Iran than in southern Iraq."

Given the black market in weapons (including U.S. weapons) and the large amount of arms in circulation after decades of war (also backed by the U.S.), it's not even certain that whatever smuggling has gone on represents Iranian government policy.

In any case, the U.S. has greatly exaggerated the impact of weapons that crossed the border between Iran and Iraq. "I thought Petraeus went way beyond what Iran is doing inside Iraq today," former CIA analyst and chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq David Kay told investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. "When the White House started its anti-Iran campaign, six months ago, I thought it was all craziness.

"Now it does look like there is some selective smuggling by Iran, but much of it has been in response to American pressure and American threats--more a 'shot across the bow' sort of thing, to let Washington know that it was not going to get away with its threats so freely.

"Iran is not giving the Iraqis the good stuff--the anti-aircraft missiles that can shoot down American planes and its advanced anti-tank weapons."

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Whose war threats?

IN LATE September, Newsweek reported that Dick Cheney had considered encouraging Israel to launch limited missile strikes against Iranian nuclear reactors in the hopes that Iran's retaliation would give the U.S. the pretext to launch its own attack.

But the characterization of Ahmadinejad as a madman has cemented the idea that Iran represents the real threat.

As Iran's president, Ahmadinejad actually has little power over foreign policy, and he remains a largely unpopular figure. In reality, he deviates little from the positions that Iran's more reform-minded clerics have held for years--aside from his disgusting claims that the Holocaust didn't happen.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is the country that has floated war scenarios against Iran, already committed an illegal war of aggression against a sovereign nation (the same crime for which the Nazis were prosecuted at Nuremberg), and stationed tens of thousands of troops in Iran's backyard.

The Bush administration's leaked Nuclear Posture Review in 2002 revealed that the U.S. had made plans for the use of nuclear first-strike weapons against countries such as Iran, Iraq and Syria.

And the U.S. has a long history as the aggressor against Iran, engineering a 1953 coup against a democratically elected leader and backing its former ally Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

Since 2001, Iran's regional influence has increased, but largely because of U.S. strategic blunders, not its own efforts. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban, Iran's rival to the east--and then deposed Saddam Hussein, Iran's competitor to the west.

In May 2003, after being named part of the "axis of evil" along with Iraq and North Korea, Iran offered a deal to the U.S. that it would halt its nuclear energy program, cooperate with IAEA inspectors, support the establishment of a non-religious government in Iraq, cooperate in the fight against al-Qaeda, and end material support to Palestinian groups such as Hamas.

In exchange, the U.S. was asked to remove Iran from the "axis of evil" and terrorism lists, help Iran get access to nuclear energy technology, support payment of reparations to Iran from the Iran-Iraq war, and cease support for Mojahedin-e Khalq, the anti-Iranian terrorist group based in northern Iraq.

But the administration, puffed up with a sense of its own power following Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech, rejected Iran's offer out of hand.

Rather than admit its own strategic errors, the Washington establishment--with the mainstream media's complicity--has returned to the same game plan used to get the war on Iraq: exaggerate the imminent threat to U.S. security of a "new Hitler," make unfounded accusations about weapons of mass destruction, and portray its own aggression as an effort to bring peace and democracy to the Middle East.

This new set of war lies has to be exposed and opposed at every turn.

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