This Week: Iran Threats in Context
There are countries in the world who prefer that the United States military not be allowed to operate off their coasts or near their borders. For those who accept Imperialism as normal, such expressions of sovereignty will be seen as a “threat.” Meanwhile, outside of our borders, the U.S.’s ability to project its power is perceived by many to actually BE a threat, which gives fuel to all kinds of resistance, including what we know as “terrorism.”
While it’s tempting to blame the bombastic Trump for the current tensions between Iran and the U.S., this issue of the Notes points out the continuity of U.S. policy toward the nation of Iran.
“Quote” of the Week: Meddling, Ours and Theirs
Many major news outlets covered Mr. Trump’s July 22nd rant about Iran, which is the subject of this issue of Nygaard Notes. You know the one, the ALL-CAPS rant in which Trump threatened Iran with a nuclear attack without ever saying “nuclear.” A July 23rd Washington Post article covered the rant, but actually more space in the article was allotted to coverage of a speech given by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the same day as the Trump rant, July 22nd.
The speech was offered to a “largely Iranian American audience” in California. Here are the first two paragraphs of the article:
“President Trump, in a tweet in capital letters late Sunday, warned Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that if Iran threatened the United States again, it would face severe consequences.
“Trump’s message came after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States would step up broadcasts into Iran critical of the country’s theocratic rulers.”
And here’s paragraph 14:
“Pompeo stopped short of calling for regime change, but he announced stepped-up U.S. government broadcasting in Farsi [the national language of Iran] that is likely to foment further unrest against the government.”
Reporting on the same speech, Reuters announced that “Pompeo said the U.S. government broadcasting agency was launching a 24/7 Farsi-language channel on TV, radio, digital and social media platforms.”
Meanwhile, as I type these words, many U.S. headlines echo this headline from Fox News: “Trump Officials Sound Alarm on Russian Meddling.”
Meddling by “outsiders” in the internal affairs of the U.S. exists simultaneously with U.S. meddling in the internal affairs of Iran. One elicits outrage and a major investigation into the secret operations that the President calls a “hoax”. The other is not secret—in fact is publicly announced—and elicits almost no response.
Yet the seeming contradiction goes unremarked in reporting on the two.
The Threat of Deterrence
Late in the day on Sunday July 22nd Donald Trump sent out a tweet supposedly responding to some remarks earlier in the day by the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani. Here is the President’s tweet (yes, it was all in capital letters):
“NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!”
Alarmed at what can only be a barely-veiled threat by my country of the first use of nuclear weapons, I did what I imagined most journalists would do: I attempted to find out what President Rouhani actually said that might elicit such an extreme response. As far as I can tell (after far too much time spent searching in every way I know how) no English-language news service offered a transcript, or a link to a transcript, of the words actually spoken by Rouhani. There was, however, quite a bit of reporting of small, out-of-context bits of what he said. And those bits followed a pattern, to which we’ll return in a moment.
I did eventually find, on “the official website” of the Iranian President, a rather poor and fragmented translation of the entire speech. (The reason I used quotation marks there is, Why would the official website have such a poor English translation?) At least, it seems to be the entire speech, it’s hard to tell. But however incomplete it may be, it offers more than was reported in this country. The speech was delivered to a “meeting of heads of Iranian missions abroad” and starts out with these words:
“Iran’s power is deterrent and we have no fight or war with anybody but the enemies must understand well that war with Iran is the mother of all wars and peace with Iran is the mother of all peace. We have never been intimidated and will respond threat with threat.”
Deterrent, you say? The media coverage of this speech was interesting to observe. The Proquest Global Newsstream database indexes major English-language newspapers from around the world, so I went there to see how the major media dealt with all of this.
I did two searches for the week following the Trump tweet. First I searched for articles that included the words “Rouhani” and “mother of all wars,” and the search returned 558 articles. Then I searched again, this time looking for articles with the words “Rouhani” and “deterrent.” This search returned 34 articles.
The U.S. Department of Defense has stated (2015) that “Iran’s military doctrine is primarily defensive… It is designed to deter an attack…”
Nonetheless there is a “threat” posed to the United States by Iran, and that threat is Iran’s ability to respond to U.S. aggression. That is, the threat of self-defense. Even if Iran wanted to threaten the U.S. in the military sense, it’s highly unlikely that they would initiate hostilities. U.S. military bases encircle Iran—there are more than 40 of them—while Iran’s bases near the United States… well, need I go on? There are none.
What Iran CAN do is to interfere with the shipping of oil out of the region, as they control “the world’s most important oil chokepoint,” the extremely narrow Strait of Hormuz. I explained all this last year in NN # 609, so I won’t go into it here.
If we accept the idea that the United States takes seriously Iran’s ability to deter an attack by the United States, then suddenly Trump’s seemingly over-the-top response to the Iranian President’s speech makes some kind of sense. Iran’s insistence that they are willing and able to mount a meaningful defense must seem—to a country accustomed to being the dominant power on the international stage—terribly menacing. Iran’s defiance—if we can call a statement of the right to defend oneself an act of defiance—takes on even greater symbolic power at a time when U.S. dominance is on the decline.
Thinking like a news editor, what larger story does this exchange between the two national leaders illuminate? It’s easy to become mesmerized by the dance between the Iranian president and the U.S. president, but the reason they are dancing in the first place is because the geopolitical ground is shifting below their feet. The next essay explains.
The Bipartisan Empire
I wrote a piece back in October of 2007 (Nygaard Notes #389) called Iran and the Threat of Self Defense in which I said that “At this particular moment in history we are in the midst of a gigantic propaganda effort aimed at making it difficult for U.S. voters to believe that Iran’s leaders are rational people who think strategically. Because, if they are those kind of people, then we might want to engage with them. On the other hand, if they are no more than hateful fanatics who are essentially unreasonable and maniacal at their cores, then I guess we will have to go to war with them.”
I wrote those words when George W. Bush was in the White House. The current Trump threat is to tell Iran, via tweet, that “YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.” All caps, as usual.
But for those who think such “Empire Talk” is limited to right-wing elements of the Republican Party, consider these words, words that I wrote back in September of 2009 (NN 440), nine months into the Obama administration:
On September 28th Iran announced that it had test-fired some missiles, saying that “Iranian missiles are able to target any place that threatens Iran.” The Associated Press report on this event bore the headline, “Iran Tests Advanced Missiles, Raising More Concern.” The “concern” arises in part, according to the AP, from the fact that “U.S. military bases in the Middle East” would now be “within striking distance” of Iranian missiles.
Of course, they’re only within striking distance because the distance is short due to the U.S. bases being placed within shouting distance of the Iranian borders on all sides.
It was in 2012 that a document emerged from Washington called “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” commissioned by President Obama to “guide our defense priorities and spending over the coming decade.”
In it, the U.S. reserves for itself the right to “project power in areas in which our access and freedom to operate are challenged.” By which is meant, anyplace on the planet, including off the coasts of “states such as China and Iran” which will (not surprisingly) “continue to pursue asymmetric means to counter our power projection capabilities.”
So, the document continues, “the U.S. military will invest as required to ensure its ability to operate effectively in anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) environments.” (A2/AD is military shorthand for any nation or initiative that even attempts to limit US military activities anywhere in the world.) The difference between Trump’s use of ALL CAPS and the national security bureaucracy’s use of italics means little, as the need to dominate is a constant, bipartisan feature of Empire.
Skip ahead a couple of years to 2014, when I wrote: Foreign Policy magazine reported in August that ‘the idea behind’ the ‘so-called ‘pivot to Asia’ undertaken by the Obama administration ‘is simple: ring China with U.S. and allied forces, just like the West did to the Soviet Union, back in the Cold War.’
China is already surrounded by U.S. bases, as a glance at a global map of U.S. bases will show.
Now recall that the Trump administration, supposedly so different from the Obama administration, announced in January its own “pivot to Asia,” although that Obama-coined phrase was never uttered. Here’s how the New York Times led off a story on the January announcement of the policy change:
“The United States is switching its priority to countering Chinese and Russian military might after almost two decades of focusing on the fight against terrorism, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday, unveiling a national defense strategy that Pentagon officials say will provide a blueprint for years to come.”
The announcement made clear that the new focus would be not ONLY on China and Russia, but also on “rising threats … from what was described as rogue governments like North Korea and Iran,” according to the Times.
And the “pivot” aspect was underlined just last week as the U.S. announced a turn away from Africa and toward the East. Here’s the New York Times of August 2nd:
“Hundreds of American troops in Africa would be reassigned and the number of Special Operations missions on the continent would be wound down under plans submitted by a top military commander, a response to the Trump administration’s strategy to increasingly focus on threats from China and Russia.”
That top military commander is Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, the leader of United States Africa Command, who stated that the United States would still “reserve the right to unilaterally return” to Africa to protect American interests. Of course it does! As mentioned above, the U.S. reserves the right to “operate” anywhere in the world.
Who, or what, gave the U.S. the right to “unilaterally” assert power in this way? It would be surprising to hear any such question raised by the Times or any other U.S. media who might be allowed to interview top U.S. military leaders. But it’s a question worth asking.
A Deep Longing for Power
It would be absurd to claim that there are not significant differences between the Obama administration and that of Trump. For one thing, the Trump “administration” may more accurately be called a junta. But my point I’m making here is that there are structural and institutional realities that can and will override the priorities of any individual president. Those realities may be internal—as when the military-industrial complex insists on seeing itself as the primary enforcer of the Imperial aims of the United States—or they may be external—as at present, when the global system is evolving away from the kind of Imperial system that the former order-givers long so mightily to retain.
The call to Make America Great Again can thus be heard as an expression of that deep longing, a longing to return the United States to the good old days when white Christian men called the shots with impunity. Outside of our borders the call can also be heard as a nostalgic call for the restoration of a rapidly-declining Empire in which white Christian nations—with the U.S. in the lead—called the shots with impunity.
It won’t be long before “white” people are no longer the majority in the United States, and it won’t be long until the United States is no longer the acknowledged leader among the nations of the world. There will be much struggle and much suffering as the old order gives way to the new.
We have a two-party system in the United States, which makes things seem more simple than they are. It’s bigger than Democrats or Republicans. And the problem is not a lack of “civility” and too little bipartisan compromise. The Empire has always been bipartisan! The future will be something entirely different.