Anti-Iran bias: US continues to mischaracterize the Islamic Republic
For the past 38 years the US has indulged in feverish propaganda against Iran, trying in vain to portray the Islamic Republic as a terrorist state, despite the fact that Iran is the prime victim of terrorism in the world, and this terrorism has its roots in the administrations that have continued to march in and out of the White House.
No we have a mind-stimulating analysis by M. Reza Behnam as a guest writer for the site The Register-Guard, titled “Anti-Iran Bias: US continues to mischaracterize the Islamic Republic”. A Ph.D. of Eugene, Reza Behnam is a political scientist specializing in the governments and politics of the Middle East, and US foreign policy in the region.
Some ideas take on a character akin to sacred texts whose validity is rarely questioned. One such belief is that the Islamic Republic of Iran is the biggest threat to the Middle East and the United States. The threat narrative has become required foreign policy catechism in Washington, D.C.
Menacing stereotypes and bellicose rhetoric are the standards by which Iran has come to be judged. It has continually been in the crosshairs of US administrations since the victory of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The process by which a country is determined to be a terrorist state is highly subjective and politicized. The United States has assumed the singular role of terrorism arbiter.
After only weeks in office, the administration of President Donald Trump imposed new sanctions a legitimate ballistic missile test, saying “Iran has been officially put on notice”. Irrespective of whatever that phrase means, it was only a matter of time before the Trump administration would resurrect the “Iran the terrorist state” mantra to deflect attention from its internal chaos.
The unpredictability of the Trump White House and volatility of the Middle East make it vital to understand the nature of Washington’s anti-Iran bias, how and why Iran has come to be cast as an international sponsor of terrorism and, most importantly, examine why the characterization is false.
The triumph of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the overthrow of the British-installed and US-backed Pahlavi Shah freed the country from its obsequious relationship to Washington. Iran’s regional influence spread not in terms of conquered territory; instead, its revolutionary ideology that gave voice to the world’s oppressed people. The Islamic Republic presented a dilemma for Washington, accustomed to dealing with the ruling families and autocrats of the Middle East. To curtail the revolution’s influence, Washington manufactured a narrative depicting Iran’s leaders as irrational religious fanatics in charge of a dangerous state that acted contrary to traditional state behavior. The US attitude intensified with the takeover of the US embassy in 1979 – by students angry at the espionage activities of supposedly diplomatic mission.
The trauma inflicted by the 8-year war that the US imposed on Iran through Saddam in the 1980s deepened Tehran’s distrust of Washington. The US support for Saddam’s aggression was Washington’s attempt to restore the monarchy and to destabilize the government. The post-revolution 1980s were filled with uncertainties as Tehran struggled to survive its war with Iraq — a war largely subsidized by Saudi Arabia and supported by the United States.
In the 1990s, Iran attempted to develop closer relations with Saudi Arabia and build constructive ties to the West. Although Iran opposed the 2001 US attack on Afghanistan, the goal of fighting terrorism and toppling the Taliban regime — driven from power in November 2001 — united the two countries in perhaps the most constructive period of US-Iranian diplomacy. At a December 2001, meeting in Bonn, Germany, Secretary of State Colin Powell credited Iran with being particularly helpful in establishing an interim Afghan government following the American invasion. It was Iran that insisted that the agreement include a commitment to hold democratic elections in Afghanistan.
Surprisingly, President George W. Bush listed Iran among what he called the “axis of evil” countries in his 2002 State of the Union address. Tehran’s final attempt to normalize relations came in May of 2003, when it called for broad dialogue “in mutual respect,” suggesting that everything was on the table, including full cooperation on Iran’s peaceful nuclear program, and assistance in helping stabilize Iraq.
Assuming that the Iranian government was on the brink of collapse, and emboldened by perceived victory in Iraq in March of 2003, Bush administration officials belittled the initiative. The administration’s imperious posture and failure to build on Iran’s cooperation in Afghanistan led senior officials in Tehran to conclude that Washington’s goal was regime change. Bush strategists had another objective in ousting Saddam — to isolate and increase the military and political pressure on Iran, and to a lesser extent on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Repeated often by administration officials was the refrain, “Today Baghdad, tomorrow Damascus, and then on to Tehran.”
To curb Tehran’s growing influence in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, Bush launched an unprecedented financial war against Iran. A list of strategies developed in 2006 by Stuart Levy — the first undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury Department — were implemented to drive Iran out of the global economy. Where Washington sees terrorism, the Iranian government sees itself combating a power structure in the Middle East that benefits the United States, Israel and reactionary Arab regimes.
The US Congress defines an international sponsor of terrorism as a country whose government supports acts of international terrorism. Tehran does not support “international” terrorism. It only provides material support to regional movements against the oppressors, in their battle directed toward the Zionist entity called Israel — such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. These groups are accused of violence by the US which turns a blind eye to Israel’s state terrorism.
Tehran regards as legitimate its support for national liberation movements that fight against Israeli occupation and aggression, making it clear it is not terrorism. Iran’s leaders believe that Israel’s long-term goal is to weaken the Islamic world, eliminating all resistance, in order to carry out its expansionist designs. Interestingly – besides Iran – the Arab media have also charged Washington with sponsoring of terrorism because of its support for Israel.
Israel has relentlessly pushed the perception that Iran is the greatest threat to peace and stability in the region and world, and has sold this provocative idea in the United States, which ignores the fact that Israel enjoys a huge military and technical advantage in the region, and possesses a nuclear arsenal. Benjamin Netanyahu’s motives for vilifying Iran are many, but primarily it serves to distract international attention as Israel continues to build illegal Jewish townships in the occupied West Bank, Bayt al-Moqaddas and the Syrian Golan Heights.
Saudi Arabia, like Israel, is doing everything in its power to make sure the United States remains engaged in the Middle East. Riyadh relies on Washington to do its heavy lifting, and anti-Iran propaganda helps in its campaign. Saudi rulers believe that the government of President Bashar al-Assad is pivotal to Iranian influence in the region, and have been encouraging US to get rid of him for years. They were buoyed by Trump’s recent missile attack on Syria as a sign that the US is pivoting away from Obama’s policy of rapprochement with Iran.
The intense focus on Iran as a menace does not correspond to its capabilities, intent or danger. A 2017 Congressional Research Service report stated that Iran’s national security policy involves protecting itself from the efforts of the US or others to intimidate or change the system of government. According to the 2014 US Defense Department Annual Review of Iran, “Iran’s military doctrine is defensive. It is designed to deter an attack... .”
Forty-five US military bases encircle Iran, with over 125,000 troops in close proximity. The Congressional Research Service asserted that Tehran allocates about 3 percent of GDP to military spending, far less than what its Persian Gulf neighbors spend. Iran’s peaceful nuclear program has cultivated scientific innovation and national pride. It required pragmatic leadership to accept the constraints of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The agreement subjects Iran to greater restrictions and more intrusive monitoring than any state with nuclear programs, while its neighbors possess unlimited nuclear programs and, in the case of Pakistan and Israel, nuclear weapons.
Intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency agree that Iran has not been attempting to develop nuclear weapons. According to the IAEA and the US State Department, Iran has been fulfilling its obligations under the JCPOA.
Toughness on Iran has become a litmus test for American politicians to demonstrate their support for Israel. Congress overwhelmingly passed a 10-year extension of the Iran Sanctions Act, which was set to expire on Dec. 31, 2016. The renewal makes it easier for the Trump administration to re-impose sanctions that Obama lifted under the JCPOA. Unlike other countries in the Middle East that have integrated missiles into their conventional armed forces, Iran has been singled out for the same behavior. Iran’s recent missile test did not violate the JCPOA. It has no long-range missiles, no nuclear warheads for its missiles, and has not threatened their use. Without nuclear weapons, missiles are of negligible importance.
A February 26, 2015, report by the director of national intelligence, titled “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Communities,” admitted that Iran is not the sponsor of terrorism, and removed Iran and Hezbollah from its list of terrorism threats. The report asserted Tehran’s intentions are to “dampen sectarianism, build responsive partners and de-escalate tensions with Saudi Arabia ... and combat extremists, including ISIS – the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.”
Yet, despite these facts, there are countless examples of aggression against Iran.
The Saudi government has sought for decades to motivate Sunni Muslims to fear and resist Iran. To that end, it has spent billions on a campaign to expand Salafism or Takfirism – that breeds terrorism – in the Muslim world.
In 2007, Congress agreed to a Bush administration request of $400 million to escalate covert operations to destabilize Iran’s government, with change of government as the ultimate goal. The funding request came at the same time that a National Intelligence Estimate — the collective work of America’s 16 spy agencies — concluded that Iran had ceased its efforts to develop nuclear weapons in 2003. Both the Bush and Obama administrations employed some of the most draconian financial methods ever used against a state, including crippling sanctions on Iran’s entire banking, transportation and energy sectors. The first known use of cyber warfare against a sovereign state was launched against Iran by the United States and Israel in 2009. The Stuxnet virus crippled Iranian centrifuges used to produce nuclear fuel. Beginning in 2008, four of Iran’s nuclear scientists were assassinated on the streets of Tehran; the evidence pointed to Israeli agents. In 2011, a military arms depot was blown up, killing 17 people. The incident was similar to a blast in October 2010 at an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps missile base in Khorramabad. Both acts of sabotage were linked to Israel. US organizations such as the jingoistic ‘United against a Nuclear Iran’, chaired by former Sen. Joseph Lieberman, have called for attacks on Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf and on Iranian military forces fighting Daesh in Syria.
These acts of aggression are justified in Washington and elsewhere by the standard rhetoric of the Iranian terrorism myth, but there is scant intelligence to support the claim. In a 2011 poll conducted in 12 Arab countries by The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (based on face-to-face interviews of 16,731 individuals), 73 percent of those surveyed saw Israel and the United States as the most threatening countries, with 5 percent seeing Iran as such. Most US officials quietly acknowledge that Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf monarchies are the major supporters of al-Qaeda and Daesh, not Shi’ite Iran. A recently released classified US State Department cable dated Dec. 30, 2009, stated, “...donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding terrorist groups worldwide.”
It is Iran that is helping to fight the Takfiri terrorists in Iraq. Its offensive in the Syrian war was at the request of the country’s sovereign government. Iran lives in the neighborhood and relies on regional allies, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and President Assad in Syria, to bolster its security if attacked. Syria was the only country to support Iran during the 8-year Iraqi war. Tehran is keenly aware that the outcome of the Syrian war may have major consequences for the region’s Shi’ite Muslims, and could reshape the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia and Israel have made Iran their major regional adversary, and to that end have built a formidable alliance. Syria has become the theater for competing regional interests. Both the Saudis and Israelis are aiding al-Qaeda-affiliated forces in Syria. Washington has partnered with Saudi Arabia in the war to achieve its long-established goal of regime change, while Riyadh seeks to end what the Saudis see as the power emerging from the Shi’ite Crescent — Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.
Israel, for example, has been pressuring the United States and Russia to restrict and ultimately expel Iranian-backed forced from Syria, and has continued to attack pro-Iranian forces in southern Syria. From Israel’s perspective, Syria — ally of Iran and supporter of Hezbollah — has been one of the few remaining Arab states capable of standing in the way of its regional ambitions. Israel would like to see Syria fractured into small, sectarian enclaves, so weakened as to be no threat. Israel has partnered with al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria, Jabhat an-Nusra, whose goal like that of Daesh, is to overthrow Assad’s secular government and establish a radical Salafist regime. UN observers have documented the delivery of material aid and ongoing coordination between Israeli military personnel and an-Nusra armed groups, whose terrorists are being cared for in Israeli hospitals. By supporting an-Nusra, Israel has effectively sided with the US’ enemy and has, therefore, emerged as a state sponsor of terrorism.
In the wake of the 9-11-2001 incidents in New York, President Bush, in his Sept. 20, 2001, speech to Congress declared, “Every nation now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists... . From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.”
Iran has been fighting terrorism since 9-11. Its national security depends on stable borders and a stable region. To that end, it is fighting in Syria and aiding the Iraqi government to recapture territories held by Takfiri terrorists. Iranians know all too well the egregious effects of terrorism. For decades, US and Israeli intelligence agencies have covertly financed, equipped and trained groups that have fomented and carried out terrorist attacks inside Iran. Thousands of civilians and political figures have been killed, and thousands more including Leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, have suffered injury at the hands of terrorists. US intelligence agencies have supported the acts of violence committed by the MKO — listed by the US State Department as a terrorist group (although now delisted), as well as the Salafi group that calls itself Jundullah and is aligned with the al-Qaeda.
Terrorism is a cudgel used to engender fear. And fear, grounded in erroneous information, can result in destructive government policies, and in the worst case, war. This is especially true of the US-Iran relationship. After almost four decades, Iran and the Middle East have substantially changed, while US policy has not. Iran’s evolving and nuanced political system does not fit into Washington’s outdated, hegemonic good guy-bad guy worldview.
The objectives of the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia depend on the existence of an enemy; and to that aim, accusing Iran of terrorism has proven a potent rhetorical weapon. Washington’s hardline rhetoric and policies toward Iran merely strengthens the power of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Given the circumstances, Tehran will continue its defensive, cautious strategy — cooperating with the West on issues such as the fight against terrorists, while asserting what it sees as its historical role in the region.