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Why Iran?

By Stephen Gowans

January 15, 2006

The increasingly frequent demonization of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the Western media has become an integral part of the stepped-up efforts of Washington, London, the EU-3 and Tel Aviv to bring Iran under US control, efforts that may, if scattered newspapers reports are to believed, culminate in the aerial bombing by US or Israeli forces or both of Iranian nuclear facilities early this spring.

A London Sunday Times article of December 11, 2005 revealed that Israeli armed forces had been ordered "to be ready by the end of March for possible strikes on secret uranium enrichment sites in Iran." Scotland’s The Herald (January 10, 2006) echoed the Times’ report.

Meir Dagan, the chief of Israel’s spy service, Mossad, General Aharon Zeev-Farkasj, who retired earlier this month as head of Israeli military intelligence "and Israeli policy makers all agree that a military option against Iran’s nuclear facilities cannot be ruled out." (New York Times, January 13, 2006.) But they say "Israel has no intention, for now, of trying to deal with Iran alone or through military means." (New York Times, January 13, 2006)

But do they have an intention of dealing with Iran through military means in partnership with the US?

UPI (December 30, 2005), citing the German weekly, Der Spiegel, revealed that "Washington appears to be dispatching high-level officials to prepare its allies for a possible attack (on Iran) rather than merely implying the possibility as it has repeatedly done during the past year." CIA Director Porter Goss is said to have traveled to Ankara to clear the way for Turkey to be used as a staging ground for US warplanes to fly missions against Iranian targets.

Whether planning for an attack is in an advanced stage, or whether reports of an imminent assault are a ruse to pressure Iran, is unclear. Whatever the case, there’s no mistaking the reality that the Iranian president is being elevated to the position of international enemy #1, in much the same way Saddam Hussein was in the run-up to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq.

Emblematic is the Times of London’s Bronwen Maddox (January 12, 2006) asking whether Ahmadinejad is "the most dangerous leader in the world?" and answering her own question in the affirmative by noting it’s "thin reassurance for the West that Iranian clerics are the bulwark against Ahmadinejad’s excesses." Not too many months ago, Kim Jong Il was called the most dangerous leader in the world, though the demands of the Western propaganda machine have since thrust him aside, for now, to better align with the shifting priorities of US foreign policy.

Not to be outdone, Timothy Garton Ash, professor of European studies at the University of Oxford, speaks of Ahmadinejad as the "seemingly half-crazed Iranian President." (Globe and Mail, January 12, 2006) In doing so, he places the Iranian president in the company of north Korea’s Kim Jong Il, also regularly presented as half-mad, along with a legion of other Third World leaders who have, as the standard operating procedure of imperialism, been described variously as bloodthirsty, dictatorial, despotic, antidemocratic and monstrous -- whatever it takes to make the messy and murderous business of regime change appear to be worth the price.

Ash, by the way, worries that US or Israeli bombing raids "would take the lives of innocent civilians – or at least of people who Iranian television could credibly claim were innocent civilians," implying that while the job of taking over a country might seem messy, the carnage is probably an illusion conjured up by the propaganda ministry of the country whose innocent civilians’ lives are not really being snuffed out.

"Innocent civilians" has become a cliché, a prepackaged phrase to be thrown about, and absorbed, without much thought. What about innocent soldiers? Is a solider, or for that matter, a guerilla, or insurgent, who resists an invader any less innocent than a civilian? And can people like Ash, who prepare public opinion for war, be considered innocent? One wishes Ash could be plunked down in the middle of Tehran, to take the place of the innocent civilians he says probably won’t be killed or mangled or permanently disabled by the terror bombing of the US and Israeli air force. If he’s right, he has nothing to worry about.

It happens so regularly as to have become a law, that we can soon expect prominent critics of US foreign policy to join in the demonization, at the same time donning t-shirts emblazoned with the smiling mug of George W. Bush above the words: "international terrorist," just to show they’re above the fray and with the angels. Analysis of foreign affairs, in the hands of pro-imperialist scribblers, like Ash, and of professed anti-imperialists, who invariably deplore the "monsters" imperialist armies and bomber crews are set in motion against, is nothing more than demonology.

The problem with the Bush international terrorist t-shirts is that, while Bush is indeed a terrorist, and deserves the opprobrium, so were all his predecessors, and so too would be anyone who replaced him. Get rid of one international terrorist, and another will immediately pop up in the White House to take his place. Like whack-a-mole, no matter how many moles you hit, the rodents keep coming back, because that’s the way the game is programmed.

The t-shirts would convey a deeper truth if they featured the outline of faceless person, accompanied by the following note: place picture here of head of US (or British or French or German) government. When all heads of US governments, to single out one imperialist country, have at least one entry in their portfolios of terrorist acts, from the ethnic cleansing of aboriginal populations and wars of conquest that attended the expansion of the US westward, through the wars of conquest to dominate the Philippines, Hawaii, Guam, Samoa and Cuba, through regular bloody interventions throughout Latin America, to fire-, carpet-, and atomic-bombings of civilian populations, it’s clear there’s something deeper than the personal characteristics of high state officials that account for this sanguinary, horrific, record. Like whack-a-mole, there seems to be something deep in the programming that thrusts individuals forward as the culprits, when in fact they’re simply agents through which the program works. It’s not individuals, but the program, that ultimately matters.

A clue to what the logic is that governs the program can be glimpsed in the Heritage Foundation’s 2006 Index of Economic Freedom. The think tank’s index is a kind of measure of how pleased you’d be with a country if you had a whole pile of cash to invest, or goods and services to sell, and were looking around for a good place to expand your stock of capital. Hong Kong, for example, which tops the list, has everything a capitalist could want. No tariffs and no barriers to trade, no pesky minimum wage laws, free entry of capital, unrestricted repatriation of earnings, and a low corporate and personal income tax rate. Other countries high on the list include Singapore (no tariffs, low corporate income tax), Ireland (hungry for foreign investment and willing to do whatever it takes to get it), Luxemburg (virtually free entry of goods) and the UK (good foreign investment climate, minimal tariffs).

The countries at the bottom, on the other hand, are a veritable Who’s Who of international pariahs, as defined by US State Department: Cuba (rank: 150, restricts and imposes performance criteria on foreign investment); Belarus (rank: 151, "concerted resistance to the private sector, and resistance to privatization" serving "to hinder foreign investment; follows "active policies of import suppression and export promotion"); Venezuela (rank: 152, "government controls key sectors of the economy" limiting US investment opportunities); Zimbabwe (rank: 154, "generally unwelcoming to foreign investment," preferring "majority Zimbabwean participation" in new ventures and eventual local ownership); Iran (rank: 156, see below) and north Korea (rank: 157, "firmly rooted in communism" with a "central command economy" which "controls all imports and exports" and prohibits most foreign investment). We’re supposed to believe these countries -- the perennial bugbears of US-UK foreign policy – are countries of concern, not because they set local development and economic sovereignty ahead of what Western investors and trans-nationals believe is their inalienable right to accumulate capital wherever they like, but because they’re supposed to be anti-democratic and contemptuous of human rights.

Yet all these countries share one thing in common: they prohibit or impose conditions on foreign investment and imports. That includes US investment and US exports. It would hardly be surprising that the US state, dominated by business interests, where the majority of cabinet members are, and have, for at least the past century, been corporate directors or members of corporate law firms, would be hostile to countries that interfere with, or prohibit, activities related to the accumulation of capital by US-based trans-nationals.

Iran prohibits private ownership of power generation, postal services, telecommunications and large-scale industry – hardly an inviting place for a foreign investor looking to expand his capital. Add to that the fact that Iran’s constitution severely restricts foreign ownership in the petroleum sector and mandates that the banking sector be state-owned. There’s also the reality that the government uses its ownership stake in over 1,500 companies to influence pricing to meet social policy (not trans-national profit-making) goals. Top these multiple crimes against the potential for fat profits with a trade policy that fosters the development of domestic industry by discouraging imports, and the conclusion is clear: Iran isn’t the kind of place a capitalist scouring the globe for markets and investment opportunities is going to warm up to.

So, is alarm over Iran acquiring the means to develop nuclear weapons, and Ahmadinejad’s reputed "violent anti-Semitism," a cover for an effort to pry open the Iranian economy to move it up the Index of Economic Freedom?

Ask yourself this: Is the US trying to make over Iraq, its latest conquest, into another Hong Kong, the index’s champion? Before the US installed itself as the effective ruler of the country, Iraq had a largely state-owned economy, imposed restrictions on foreign ownership of key economic sectors, and subsidized necessities, such as fuel, cooking oil and staples, to meet social policy objectives. Like Iran today, Iraq had all the features of a largely closed, dirigiste economy, so richly at odds with the expansionary requirements of US capital. But Iraq, under US guidance, is in the midst of an economic makeover. State-owned enterprises are to be sold off. Subsidies for fuel and oil are being eliminated. The country is under the control of the IMF. Foreign investors are to be allowed to enter the state-run oil-export business, and promises are being made to open up downstream infrastructure, like refining, to private investors. (New York Times, August 11, 2005) So, yes, Iraq is being transformed from an economy much like Iran’s into one much like Hong Kong’s.

That’s one reason to believe that alarm over Iran is contrived, a cover for pursuing a new economic makeover project to benefit the economic elite of the US imperialist alliance. But there are others. Lay aside the monumental hypocrisy of rich, industrialized countries, some teeming with nuclear weapons, all with the capability of producing them, most with their own civilian nuclear power industries, demanding that Iran relinquish its right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to independently develop nuclear power for civilian use. Ignore, too, that the same demands are not made of other less developed countries, higher on the index of economic freedom, and more accommodating to the profit-making interests of Western investors and trans-national corporations.

It’s not as if Iran hasn’t a legitimate need for nuclear energy, notwithstanding the insinuations of the Bush administration that a country rich in oil hasn’t a need for nuclear energy. On top of oil, Iran has abundant supplies of uranium. And while it sits on a sea of oil, it lacks sufficient refinery capacity. So it imports refined fuel.

Add to that the fact that the US hasn’t always been opposed to nuclear power in Iran, and the alarm over Iran’s nuclear energy program is seen for what it is -- contrived. Under the Shah, a consortium of US corporations, led by Westinghouse, put together a proposal to build a massive nuclear power industry in the country – with the approval of the US government. (Washington Post, March 27, 2005) The proposal was shelved after the Shah was overthrown.

Were Westinghouse hired to build nuclear power plants in Iran today, US foreign policy wouldn’t be so hostile, but Iran’s nuclear facilities are being built by Russia, a US economic competitor. Nor would Washington look askance if US investors were allowed to own Iran’s proposed nuclear industry, but Iran’s constitution forbids foreign ownership of power generation.

What about the claim Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons? It’s true that on top of strengthening Iran’s economic sovereignty, a civilian nuclear power industry, and domestic control over the fuel cycle, would give the country the means to develop nuclear weapons. But who are the US, France, the UK and Israel, all possessed of nuclear weapons themselves and having no intention of relinquishing them, to tell Iran it can’t have them, too? Moreover, just because someone has the means to do something, doesn’t mean they’ll do it. Your neighbor has the means to creep into your bedroom late at night and slip a stiletto under your sternum, but do you stay awake worrying about it?

Western media coverage implicitly accepts as an axiom that if Iran is permitted to exercise its right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to refine uranium, it will, ipso facto, produce nuclear weapons, and use them. The only evidence it will do so, is that the US, some Western European countries which have a habit of joining the US in pulverizing countries you’ll find at the bottom of the Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Index, and Israel, keep rattling their sabers in Tehran’s direction; faced with unceasing threats, Iran may decide to acquire a nuclear capability to make imperialist countries think twice about doing to Iran what they have, in recent years, done to Iraq and Yugoslavia, and to countless other less developed countries in other times. Indeed, it would seem almost to be a necessity of maintaining any kind of real sovereignty, to equip oneself with an effective means of deterring the inevitable threats of destabilization, economic strangulation and open warfare that the ruling interests of Washington and other advanced, industrialized countries routinely employ to keep the world open to their products, services and capital.

But that’s not the Western media line. Instead, we’re to understand that Iran may acquire nuclear weapons, not as a self-defensive measure, but because its president is "half-crazed," the clerics who hold him in check are not much better, and that they all want to "wipe Israel off the map," which is to say, fire a few nuclear tipped missiles Israel’s way to reduce the Jewish settler state to cinders. Surely, this is not beyond the capability of anyone who denies the Holocaust.

The line that a "half-crazed" and "violently anti-Semitic" president of Iran has denied the Holocaust and threatened to wipe Israel off the map, is a useful as a tool to justify strenuous action against Iran, including war, but it creates an impression that doesn’t quite line up with the facts.

Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust remarks were a challenge to those who use the Nazi’s attempt to systematically exterminate European Jews as justification for displacing Palestinian Arabs to found a Jewish state. What he said about the Holocaust amounted to this:

"Either it took place or it didn’t. If it didn’t take place, then it is a fabrication. If it did, it wasn’t the Arabs who did it; it was the Europeans. Why then should the Palestinians pay the price of what the Europeans did against the Jews?" (Musayeb Naimi, editor of Al Wefaq, New York Times, December 20, 2005)

That, by the way, is a question those who express high moral dudgeon over the Iranian president’s comments, have steered clear of. Instead, they’ve latched onto his questioning of the Holocaust, even as a hypothetical, as the mark of a half-crazed Jew-hater.

Ahmadinejad’s remarks:

"If you committed this big crime, then why should the oppressed Palestinian nation pay? This is our proposal: If you committed the crime, then give part of your land in Europe, the United States, Canada or Alaska to them so that the Jews can establish their own country." (New York Times, December 15, 2005)

"Why do you want to force Israel on the holy land of Palestine by killing Muslims? Give a piece of your land in Europe, the United States, Canada or Alaska so the Jews can create their own state." (Los Angeles Times, December 15, 2005)

"Is the killing of innocent Jewish people by Hitler, the reason for their (the Europeans’) support to the occupiers of Jerusalem? … If the Europeans are honest they should give some of their provinces in Europe – like in Germany, Austria or other countries – to the Zionists, and the Zionists can establish their state in Europe. You offer part of Europe, and we will support it." (Washington Post, December 9, 2005)

To this, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s spokesman, Raanan Gissin, replied: "Just to remind Mr. Ahmadinejad, we’ve been here long before his ancestors were here. Therefore, we have a birthright to be here in the land of our forefathers and to live here." (Washington Post, December 9, 2005) Who’s the religious fanatic?

Ahmadinejad’s assertion that Israel must be wiped from the face of the map (by which he meant the idea of Israel as a Jewish homeland, founded on expulsion of Palestinians) has, predictably, been deliberately misinterpreted as a call for a second Holocaust, this serving the necessary pro-war propaganda function of painting Ahmadinejad as beyond the pale – a new Hitler whose country must be contained, crushed and subordinated, like the countries of all the other propaganda program-fabricated monsters the US and its janissaries have argued they needed to take out.

When Egypt’s ambassador to the UN, Maged Abdelaziz, criticized a UN General Assembly Resolution adopted November 1, 2005 to set aside a day each year to commemorate the Nazi perpetrated anti-Jewish holocaust as being too narrow ("We believe no one should have a monopoly on suffering,") US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton replied, "When a president of a member state can brazenly and hatefully call for a second Holocaust by suggesting that Israel, the Jewish homeland, should be wiped off the face of the map, it is clear that not all have learned the lesson of the Holocaust and that much works needs to be done." (New York Times, November 2, 2005)

Ahmadinejad’s explanation of what he meant by "wiping Israel of the face of the map" is a far cry from what Bolton, and others, angling for intervention in Iran, would have you believe. "The only logical solution to solve the Palestinian issues, explained Ahmadinejad, "is to hold free elections with the participation of Palestinians inside and outside the occupied territories and in recognition of a nation’s legitimacy." (RNA, cited in Workers World, November 6, 2005). Ahmadinejad later noted that "they (Bolton and others) created a lot of hue and cry over that," adding, "It is clear what we say: Let the Palestinians participate in free elections and they will say what they want." (New York Times, January 15, 2006) This isn’t the half-crazed ranting of a violently anti-Semitic leader; it’s a call for justice.

It is a standard practice, going back to at least WWI, if not earlier, to select an individual on whom all the fear and hatred whipped up by a deliberate program of pro-war propaganda can be focused. Where plans to pry open the Iranian economy are concerned, Ahmadinejad is that person, as Hugo Chavez (now described by the US as anti-democratic, though popularly elected (New York Times, January 14, 2006)) is in Venezuela, Fidel Castro is in Cuba, Alexander Lukashenko is in Belarus, Robert Mugabe is in Zimbabwe and Kim Jong Il is in the DPRK. Since the Second World War, it has been common practice to try to equate such individuals to Hitler, a fairly easy task in Ahmadinejad’s case, not because he’s anti-Semitic, but because his hostility to the expulsion of Palestinians as the basis of Israeli can be readily twisted into an apparent anti-Semitism, while his opposition to the idea of a Jewish state in historic Palestine, featuring a single dominant ethnic group by design and intention, can be distorted demagogically to create the appearance he’s committed to a second Holocaust.

The hostility of Western powers to Iran, then, has little to do with the ideas of Iran’s leadership, especially as they pertain to Israel, for those ideas, as presented by pro-interventionists, are distortions deliberately twisted to build a case for economic strangulation, at the very least, and war, quite probably. Instead, the hostility is rooted in Iran’s economy, and the country’s assertion of economic sovereignty. It would, however, be wrong to say that Iran’s hostility to the idea of Israel as an ethnically-defined state, founded on a gross injustice perpetrated against Palestinians, is entirely insignificant to US foreign policy, for insofar as it signals an opposition to Israel, it strikes at part of the apparatus the US relies on to enforce its domination of the Middle East. But domination, to what end?

It’s often said that the US seeks to bring renegade states under its control, either for entirely spurious reasons (to introduce democracy and respect for human rights, for example) or, where these reasons have been discredited and shown to be false, for reasons that are often left unstated. Power, control, domination – these represent the end point of the analysis, as if imperialist powers seek power for power’s sake.

But what is it about renegade states that impel Western powers to bring them under their control? Rebellion, yes, but against what? Against the economic interests of Western powers; not out of hostility to the West as a policy, but out of commitment to their own independent development and sovereignty. State-ownership of key, and in some cases, all economic sectors; intervention in internal markets in pursuit of social policy objectives; control of, or influence over, pricing, including the price of labor; and the use of barriers to trade to foster internal industrial development; these are policies that may significantly improve the living conditions of domestic populations, but they, of necessity, impede the pursuit by Western investors and trans-nationals of activities related to capital accumulation. Since the same investors and trans-nationals hold almost exclusive sway over the policies of Western states, they are able to press the apparatus of the state into service to unblock pathways to foreign investment and export. Subversion, destabilization, economic strangulation and war are used to establish political and military control over economically renegade states, to define a space wherein investors and trans-nationals of whichever alliance of advanced, industrialized countries has undertaken the intervention are free to move about economically, to sell products and services without restriction, to own industry and infrastructure, to accumulate capital, and to do so without constraint, free from performance conditions, with profit senior to all other considerations.

Why Iran? (1) To stifle the country’s economic development by depriving it of nuclear power; (2) To prevent it from acquiring a nuclear deterrent to Western aggression; (3) To keep it from becoming powerful enough to challenge the US attack dog in the region, Israel; and the reason to which the preceding three are subordinate: (4) To put an end to Iran’s assertion of economic sovereignty, which conflicts with the profit-making interests of US investors and trans-nationals.

Achieving these goals is a multi-phase project. The project has now moved into the phase of preparing public opinion for some manner of stepped up intervention, possibly culminating in terror bombing of Iranian targets. This will not make people in the West or Israel safer, but will greatly heighten the chance there will be retaliatory strikes against Western and Israeli targets. This, however, is of little moment to the economic elite of the advanced, industrialized countries, who are compelled by the logic of capitalism to vigorously pursue the project of capital accumulation. Iran, as other countries deemed to be of concern by US foreign policy, is a multiform obstacle to unimpeded foreign investment and export. A state dominated by business interests, scouring the globe for investment and export opportunities, will quite naturally move in the direction of undermining and outraging the sovereignty of closed or economically sovereign countries, to open markets and improve investment climates. The demonization of Ahmadinejad is merely the mostly publicly visible part of that project.


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