America’s “War Party” and the Myth of Iranian “Irrationality” (Khomeini and Chemical Weapon)

America’s “War Party” and the Myth of Iranian “Irrationality”


by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

Speaking with Antiwar Radio’s Scott Horton earlier this week (listen to podcast here) about our forthcoming book, see here, Flynt took on widespread stereotypes in American discourse about Shi’a Islam as a martyrdom-obsessed, death-seeking, and “irrational” culture that makes the Islamic Republic of Iran a threatening and dangerous actor on par with Hitler’s Reich.  He confessed that “I’m reaching a stage where I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when [I hear that sort of thing from] people who I don’t think know very much about Shi’a Islam, don’t know very much about Iran, haven’t spent a lot of time, I would suspect, talking about Shi’a Islam with people who believe it, live it, think about it.”  But, evoking a major theme in Going to Tehran:  Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran, he rejoins,

“Just look at the historical record.  The Islamic Republic has never used weapons of mass destruction.  In its war with Iraq—when the United States, among others, was supporting Saddam Husayn in an eight-year war of aggression against the new Islamic Republic—Ayatollah Khomeini’s own military leaders came to him and said, ‘We inherited the ability to produce chemical weapons agent from the Shah.  We need to do that and weaponize it so that we can respond in kind.  We have tens of thousands of our people, soldiers and civilians, who are being killed in Iraqi chemical weapons attacks.  We need to be able to respond in kind.”  And Imam Khomeini said, ‘No, because this would violate Islamic morality, because it is haram—it is forbidden by God—to do this, and the Islamic Republic of Iran will not do this.’  Imam Khomeini and his successor, Ayatollah Khamenei, have said repeatedly, over years, that the acquisition or use of nuclear weapons would also violate God’s law; Khamenei has said that to do it would be a ‘big sin.’  This is not the rhetoric of people who are out to bring the apocalypse down upon everyone else and themselves

The most detailed, data-rich extensive study of suicide terrorism, done by scholars at the University of Chicago and the U.S. Air War College, concluded that there has literally never been an Iranian suicide bomber…And so people like to talk about the Islamic Republic as run by these ‘mad mullahs,’ or even if the president is a layman, it’s this ‘crazy,’ ‘millenarian’ Ahmadinejad who just is waiting to get his hands on a nuke so he can turn the whole 70-plus million people in Iran into history’s first ‘suicide nation.’  And there is just absolutely no historical or even rhetorical support for that line of argument.  This is a country that, since its revolution, has basically been much, much more concerned about defending itself, defending the Iranian people, consolidating and maintaining its own independence in the face of hostile regional powers and hostile outside powers including, most notably, the United States.

Spurred by a reference to Hannah Arendt’s observation that “the most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution,” Flynt notes,

“The first task of a revolutionary, once he or she has overthrown the incumbent regime that he’s opposing, the first task is to consolidate power.  And that was certainly the case for the Islamic Republic—and the Islamic Republic had to do this when, in fairly short order as I said, Saddam Husayn launches this eight-year-long war against it, supported by most of his regional neighbors and supported by the United States.  So they were having to consolidate power while they were also having to defend the Iranian people against this onslaught.

And then if you look at what they did, after they came out of this war in in 1988—after it’s over and their military has been very, very badly decimated in this war, as has their economy as a whole—they actually diverted significant resources away from military spending, so that they can focus on postwar reconstruction, on building up a health care system, on building up an education system for their people.  And if you look at the outcomes they have produced for Iranians in those areas, considering the baseline they started from, it’s really impressive what they have accomplished.

Today, the United State spends 70 times more on defense than Iran.  Saudi Arabia spends more than four times what Iran spends on defense.  Israel spends twice as much on its military as Iran does.  Iran today has basically no capability to project large amounts of conventional military force beyond its borders.  The idea that Iran is going to come across its borders and, to borrow a phrase from the U.S. Army, park it’s tanks in somebody else’s front yard, is just fantasyland

So they are no conventional military threat to their neighbors.  They do have a lot of ballistic missiles—conventionally-armed ballistic missiles—which they have said they would use in response to attacks on them.  But they are certainly not the only country in the world that makes that sort of deterrent, retaliatory threat as part of its defense posture.  And if you are concerned about those missiles not flying anywhere, I would suggest you don’t attack Iran, and those missiles aren’t going to go anywhere.”

Scott Horton raises the discomfiting prospect that facts don’t really matter where Iran is concerned—that, regardless of the facts, “there is this endless drumbeat of bad things that Iran did, and it doesn’t matter that none of them are true…In the popular narrative, Iran is a terrible danger that must at some point be dealt with; I think the war party has won on that and that means it’s just a matter of time.”  Flynt responds,

“You may be correct; I hope you’re not.  Hillary and I have written the book that Harper’s was good enough to print an excerpt from in no small part because we want to do everything we can, at least, to make sure that the war party doesn’t win.

Now, it’s a very tall order.  The war party, as you describe them—we saw what they are capable of doing, in terms of getting us to invade IraqThey can manufacture intelligence, they can create threats that aren’t there, they can link a country that they don’t like to other threats that Americans are afraid of, like Al-Qa’ida—even though there is no link between that country they don’t like and Al-Qa’idaThey can manage to pull that off.  They can tie into very powerful domestic constituencies who can put lots of pressure on Congress, lots of pressure on the mainstream media, and so onWe saw with Iraq what they are capable of doing, and you’re right—they are certainly trying to do it with Iran now.

Hillary and I saw that inside government during the run-up to the Iraq WarBasically, all of the institutions Americans count on to provide a check on that sort of thing—the Congress, the media, think tanks, public intellectuals—with some few and extremely honorable and courageous exceptions, for the most part those institutions tankedThey provided no independent check on the war party.  And Hillary and I have written this book, Going to Tehran, as I said, in no small part because, at least this time around, we want someone to be asking the hard questions and making the kinds of countervailing arguments that should have been asked, should have been made before we invaded Iraq but, to a large extent, really weren’t put forward.”

Scott and Flynt also discuss the possibilities for U.S.-Iranian rapprochement.  After reviewing the 2003 Iranian non-paper passed to the United States via Swiss intermediaries, Flynt makes a broader point:

This is also part of the ‘mad mullah’ myth—that this is a regime, a government, that is either too ideologically committed to anti-Americanism or too dependent on it for its own domestic legitimacy ever to contemplate improved relations with the United States.  But,again, just look at the historical record.

The historical record is that whenever the United States has reached out to Iran and said, ‘We need your help with some problem—whether it’s American hostages in Lebanon, whether it’s getting weapons to Bosnian Muslims when U.S. law prohibited the United States from doing that, whether it’s help against Al-Qa’ida and in Afghanistan after 9/11—whenever we have reached out like that to Iran, they have tried to respond positively.  They have done much—not everything, but much—of what we’ve asked of them in those circumstances, in the hope that this would lead to an improvement in relations.  It’s never worked out, but not because the Iranians didn’t respond.  It didn’t work out because we decided to pocket their cooperation, and then cut it off.  They’ve advanced any number of proposals over the years for a more comprehensive improvement in relations, which we have pretty consistently rebuffed.

Their stated position, from Ayatollah Khamenei himself—and it’s been echoed by presidents, by foreign ministers, and by other senior officials—is if the United States is willing to accept the Iranian Revolution, to accept the Islamic Republic (the product of that revolution) as a legitimate political entity representing legitimate national interests and to deal with it on that basis, there is no barrier to improved relations between Iran and the United States—and in fact Iran would welcome improved relations on that basis.  From the Iranian perspective, it’s the United States that’s never shown itself seriously willing to proceed on that basis.  We think relations can only improve only after Iran has surrendered to every one of our demands, and then we’ll see if it’s possible, we’ll think about it then…

That’s never going to work with this political order…We tried that for twenty years after the Chinese Revolution with the People’s Republic of China, and it was an utterly stupid and counterproductive policy that, among other things, got us bogged down in Vietnam.  Fortunately, Richard Nixon [realized] that this is stupid, it’s hurting the United States; the United States needs to be able to deal with this large and important country in Asia.  I am going to accept the People’s Republic as a legitimate entity that has national interests just like we do, and we are going to see if we can’t align enough of those interests to make it possible these two countries that have been estranged from one another since the Chinese Revolution actually to have a productive relationship.  And it worked; it worked brilliantly.

That’s the kind of approach we need to take toward Iran today, toward the Islamic Republic.  It’s just like China—for twenty years, Mao and Zhou Enlai had said, ‘We’re not unremittingly and unreasonably hostile toward the United States.  If the United States is prepared to accept us, accept the revolution that we came from, accept us and deal with us as a legitimate entity representing legitimate national interests, there is no barrier to good relations between the United States and China.  We would welcome that.  But you’re not going to be able to bully us around, you’re not going to be able just to make demands of us, and you’re not going to be able to get us to compromise our sovereignty to accommodate your preferences.’  It took us twenty years, but we figured out how to do that” where China was concerned.

As to the prospects for productive American diplomacy toward Iran during President Obama’s second term, Flynt noted that he was “not at all optimistic.”  To be sure, the outlines of a nuclear deal are clear:

If you acknowledge Iran’s legal right to enrich uranium under safeguards on its own territory if it chooses to do so, then everything becomes possible…[But even in the talks over a possible deal to refuel the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) in 2009-2019] the Obama administration was never prepared to acknowledge Iran’s right to enrich…It was prepared to do a kind of narrow deal that would buy it a certain amount of time  to figure out maybe what it wanted to do on these bigger issues.  But it has never been willing to say Iran has a right to enrich…

If you look at why the Obama administration rejected the deal that Brazil and Turkey brokered with Iran over this issue in May 2010, Obama administration officials, Dennis Ross, people like that have said in public, ‘Oh, we had to reject it because the first point in the deal that the Brazilians and the Turks brokered was [an acknowledgment of] Iran’s right to enrich, and we couldn’t have that’…[The administration] put terms on it, and the Brazilians and the Turks took letters that Obama had sent to the Brazilian president and the Turkish prime minister; they even showed those letters to the Iranians while they were negotiating with them, because the Iranians were saying, ‘Are you really sure the United States is going to sign off on this?’  And [the Brazilians and the Turks said, ‘Oh, yes, we have letters from the President of the United States; look.’

But it was really just a kind of cheap trick on Obama’s part.  [Administration officials] thought that if the Brazilians and the Turks insisted on the conditions in Obama’s letter, the Iranians would never agree; then, when the Brazilians and the Turks failed, they were both members of the Security Council at that time and they would both have to support a new sanctions resolution.  It was just a kind of cheap trick.  They thought…the Iranians will never say ‘yes.’  But then the Iranians said ‘yes.’  And then it’s the Obama administration that can’t take ‘yes’ for an answer.”

Looking ahead, Flynt notes that we’ve “talked to senior administration officials just in the last couple of weeks who tell me that there is no inclination to [recognize Iran’s right to enrich]—the policy, the goal is still to get Iran to suspend uranium enrichment.”  Responding to a suggestion that Nixon was uniquely able, as a Republican with strong Cold War anti-communist credentials, to spearhead an opening to China in ways that Obama, as a Democrat, is simply not able to replicate with respect to Iran, Flynt argues,

“More important than Richard Nixon being a Republican was that Richard Nixon actually had an accurate assessment of America’s place in the world when he entered the White House, and he had really thought through what that should mean for the United States strategically.  And he understood how important it was for the United States—it was not a favor to the Chinese—how important it was to the United States to open relations with China.  And he put every ounce of political skill, Machiavellian calculation, diplomatic acumen, capacity for secrecy…all of the good and maybe not so good parts of political persona, he put all of them into this and achieved this historic breakthrough, because he knew it was strategically vital for his country.

I don’t think the main problem with Obama is that he is a Democrat.  I think the main problem is that he doesn’t really understand where the United States is in the world right now, he doesn’t really have a strategic vision for the United States, and whatever vision he does have doesn’t compel him enough, doesn’t matter enough to him that he is actually to spend and risk political capital to realize it.”

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


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