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The Neoconservative Obsession With Iran


Americans could be enjoying cultural and commercial relations with Iranians were it not for U.S. “leaders,” who are more aptly described as misleaders. Because of institutional, geopolitical, and economic reasons, Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton were not about to let that happen. They thought America needed an enemy, and Iran filled the bill.

President George W. Bush appeared to follow in his predecessors’ footsteps, Gareth Porter writes in his important new book, Manufactured Crisis: the Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare. But Bush added his own twist: the neoconservative zeal for regime change in the Middle East, a blind fanaticism about the magic of American military power that overwhelmed all sense of realism about the world. The results have been costly in lives and resources, and despite the current talks with Iran over its nuclear-power program, the neocon legacy might yet include war against the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Bush’s predecessors were determined to deny the Islamic regime all legitimacy. The regime came to power after Iran’s U.S.-backed autocratic ruler was overthrown in 1979, a quarter-century after the CIA overthrew a democratic government and restored him to power. As part of their efforts to undermine the Islamic Republic, American presidents strove to keep it from building even civilian nuclear power and medical-research facilities. However, as a signer of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran is subject to inspections and is permitted to acquire equipment and materials for generating nuclear power and medical isotopes. As a result of the U.S. government’s obsession with undermining Iran’s regime, attempts by the Shi’ite government to cooperate with the U.S. government were repeatedly rebuffed, even when rapprochement would have been in an administration’s interest, for example, in the battle against a common enemy, al-Qaeda.

On the surface, Bush’s anti-Iran policy, signified by his listing the country in the “axis of evil,” looked like those that came before. “But,” Porter writes, “like so much of the politics and policies surrounding the issue, that public posture was a cover for a rather different policy. The administration was actually less concerned about the Iranian nuclear program than about delegitimizing the Iranian regime. And that ambition for regime change distorted the Bush policy toward the nuclear issue, perversely skewing it toward provoking Iran to accelerate its [uranium] enrichment program.”

In fact, Hillary Mann Leverett, who coordinated Persian Gulf and Afghanistan policy for Bush’s National Security Council, told Porter that Vice President Dick Cheney’s staff took the view that “After regime change, we may not want to oppose nuclear weapons by Iran.”

The Bush people thought that the U.S. government could fundamentally change the Middle East with military power. “The administration’s strategy … was based on the firm conviction that the Islamic regime in Iran would fall within a few years as part of the broader redrawing of the political map of the region that the neoconservatives were planning,” Porter writes. Iraq would be first, “turning Iraq into a base for projecting US power into the rest of the Middle East. The result was expected to be a string of regime changes in those countries that had not been de facto allies of the United States.… And it would leave Iran surrounded by pro-American governments in Kabul, Baghdad, and Istanbul. Iran was targeted as the biggest prize of all in the regime change strategy.”

If that didn’t bring regime change, war would.

Predictably, things did not work out as Bush’s neocons planned. Iraq gained a pro-Iranian government, while remaining mired in horrendous sectarian violence. Afghanistan’s government is corrupt, autocratic, and ineffective against the Taliban. Bashar al-Assad of Syria, an ally of Iran, remains firmly in power despite U.S. efforts to aid an opposition dominated by al-Qaeda-type jihadists. And Iran’s supreme leader, who backs an elected president determined to reconcile with the West, doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration did everything in its power, including lying, to stop the more realistic British, French, and Germans from reaching agreement with an Iranian government eager to ensure the transparency of its nuclear program and, in return, have economic sanctions lifted.

Let’s hope President Obama doesn’t let the neocons destroy the current chance at reconciliation.

Sheldon Richman  is vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va. (


Sheldon Richman, author of the forthcoming America’s Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited, keeps the blog Free Association and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society, and a contributing editor at

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