Demonizing Iran


” A visitor from Mars to the UN headquarter in 1985 would have found it difficult to decide, after listening to ambassadors Jeane Kirkpatrick and Benjamin Netanyahu, which of the two represented the United States and which Israel.”

Leon T. Hadar, a former UN bureau chief of the Jerusalem Post

Exactly, what is behind the unexpected phrase–“Axis of Evil”–that seemingly has surprised observers world round? Was it a mere faux pas, or the weathervane for a new Middle East policy? With the arrival of new actors, and the new militant political culture at the Pentagon, is the Department of Defense preempting the State Department in selective foreign policy matters, such as the negotiation of key international treaties and the US Middle East policy?

Is the formulation and conduct of foreign policy an open and accessible process to the public at large? Should American foreign policy be seen as all one piece? Or, at the bureaucratic-market-place of ideas, is it pulled in different directions by diverse constituencies? Are architects of foreign policy and “experts” a monolithic crowd? Does ideology play a role in this enterprise, at a cost to long-term strategic policy?

In the periphery and in the Gulf region, there may have been a naive understanding that, historically, a Republican administration with its oil company constituents can consistently provide a more pragmatic and conducive climate to resolve Middle East issues. Yet, the issue is not so linear, it is considerably more complex. In reality, since the “Reagan Revolution,” Republican administrations have also been pregnant with a cohesive, yet relatively little known phenomenon called Neo-con (Neo-conservatism)–a political movement legible to the Washington elite insider, yet, invisible to the general public. This political movement is a dense web of affiliates that is present in numerous spheres and active in different social domains.

As a whole, the radical right had been striving to appropriate the September 11th atrocities and to push forward several extremist agendas on the domestic front and in foreign policy. While initially the stated US government (State Department) objective after Sept 11th was the pursuit of those responsible for the terrorist attack and to locate and destroy the Al-Qaida terrorist network, there were right wing policy advisors with certain agendas intended to widen the scope of the US initiative. There is the impression that the policy advisors brought in by the Bush/Cheney team, anchored around the Department of Defense (DoD) and the National Security Council (N.S.C.), struggled to add an Israeli-right-wing wish list to the agenda. A study of these policy advisors illustrates a Neo-con ideological affiliation and demeanor. This clique is not the result of an accidental club of “experts.” Historically, and principally, ever since its inception in the late 60’s it has focused on the issues of foreign policy, Pax-Zionica through Pax-Americana (more of that later).

A Neo-con activist, Michael Ledeen, holds the Freedom Chair at The American Enterprise Institute. In the Reagan administration he served as an adviser to Oliver North on the National Security Council. In his column last year (“Time for a Good, Old-Fashioned Purge” National Review Online, March 8, 2001), Ledeen had ask the Bush team to purge the “environmental whackos,” “the radical feminazis” to ” foreign-policy types on the National Security Council Staff and throughout State, CIA, and Defense, who are still trying to create Bill Clinton’s legacy in the Middle East…”

For several months after the September 11th tragedy, a dispute ensued between the State Department and the Neo-con policy assets in other agencies such as DoD and N.S.C. The recent civilian leadership of the DoD includes such right-wing hawks as Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense; Douglas Feith, the Pentagon’s third-highest official, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy; and Richard Perle, Chief of the Defense Policy Board. These officials are not agendaless; their agenda-sketch echoes Neo-con political views and program. On the other side, Secretary of State Colin Powell and his aides Richard Armitage (Deputy Secretary of State) and Richard Haas (Chief of Policy Planning) and the Near East Bureau of the State Department seem to have a strategically more global and regional perspective on the issues. They had been successfully engaged with Iran in the war with Taliban in the context of the 6+2 Group in Bonn, leading up to the possibility of a thaw in US-Iran relations and a rapprochement.

A number of experts such as Gary Sick, the Acting Director of the Middle East Institute who served in N.S.C. under Ford, Reagan and Carter, view the deliberate utterance of the phrase “Axis of Evil” in the President’s State of the Union address as the triumph of DoD over the Department of State , thereby allowing the DoD agenda to come to the forefront. Not surprisingly, David Frum, the author of the address, had been associated with the Neo-con movement and the journal The Weekly Standard. What the recent thrust entailed was an agenda that went beyond Al-Qaida and those responsible for the actual September 11th attack. It intended to shift the paradigm, and create a linkage with other international issues, most of which concern Israel, such as the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in three named “rogue states,” and in the case of Iran, support for Hamas and the Hizbollah of Lebanon.

This nexus of the WTC tragedy on September 11th, and the issue of WMD in Iran and other “rogue nations,” as the new expanded objective of the war on terrorism, does not seem like a smooth and reasonable transition to some policymakers and Middle East observers. In the case of Iran, it was noted that the government had claimed that they have always been open to inspections by the international non-proliferation bodies. Moreover, Gary Sick differs with Zalmay Khalilzad, the current director of Near East/Southwest Asia in the N.S.C., that Iran had been destabilizing the current Afghan government (Ibid).

The phrase “Axis of Evil” had puzzled those observers who clearly could see its implications in the internal political situation of Iran, as complex as it is; that is, weakening the hand of Reformist President Khatami and the Reform movement at large. But survival of Khatami’s democratic movement may not be a priority to some. Patrick Clawson, Director of Research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, claims Bush was not trying to influence Iranian domestic politics so much as putting the world on notice that Iran’s leaders have to change course. In the final analysis, the WMD hardware does not seem to matter as much as the political positioning of the regime.

The Neo-con elements associated with the right wing think-tank institutes saw “momentous possibilities” in the Axis of Evil phraseology and were quick to celebrate the State of the Union address in their writings and to chastise Secretary Powell. In numerous editorials, William Kristol of the right-wing Weekly Standard openly criticized Powell’s position before and after the State of the Union address and his position on war. (Bush v. Powell, 9, 24, 2001; Bush Doctrine Unfolds, 3, 04, 2002). Again, Michael Ledeen in a more recent column (“Iran and the Axis of Evil” National Review Online, March 4, 2002) reprimanded Powell because his position on Iran was not adequately belligerent. Reuel Marc Gerecht, also of the American Enterprise Institute, in a Weekly Standard article (4), dismisses Secretary Powell’s “pragmatist” approach, and states “…this detentist view of commerce and politics still has currency in establishment circles.” Gerecht goes further and berates Le Monde Diplomatic and the Near East bureau of the State Department as having the same reaction to the State of the Union address as the speaker of Iran’s Majlis, Ayatollah Karroubi! As the logical extension of this sentiment, Gerecht maintains that unless Iran’s regime falls, its penchant for unconventional weaponry “will not evanesce.” This myopic analysis makes the presumption with certainty that a secular democratic government in Iran–as opposed to an Islamic democratic one–would not have the inclination to seek strategic parity with the client states in the region.

The Economist reports on Pentagon’s number two man, Paul Wolfowitz, and his “enthusiasm for changing governments.” The piece detects Mr. Wolfowitz’s ‘fingerprints’ all over the State of the Union speech (“Paul Wolfowitz velociraptor,” The Economist, Feb. 9, 2002, p 30). Since the State of the Union address and the perceived threat of “rogue nations,” the Axis of Evil parlance creates a hype and a psychological state of belligerence that would accommodate and support dramatic increases in defense spending. Accordingly, this year’s Pentagon budget was substantially expanded. Moreover, the Missile Defense Program which was looming in the background seems to be back on the table (Sick, op. cit.)

Neo-cons Deconstructed; Genesis

According to Hadar the major figures of the Movement were initially former Trotskyites, people like Irving Kristol, later contributor to the Wall Street Journal; Norman Podhoretz; the present editor of Commentary–a bastion of Neoconservatism; Democratic Party activist, Ben Wattenberg; Midge Dector, wife of Podhoretz, with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld served as officers of Committee for the Free World. This Neo-con core was later joined by other Cold Warriors and pro-Israeli advocates such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Walt and Eugene Rostow, Richard Perle, Elliot Abrams (Podhoretz’s son-in-law), Kenneth Adelman, Max Kampelman (aide to Senator Hubert Humphrey) and, of course, Michael Ledeen. (A good number of them in the Bush/Cheney team are reincarnates of the Reagan administration).

Israel became a central cause for these Neo-cons; and, as Hadar observed, the pivotal axiom was that “only a militarily strong and perpetually interventionist America can guarantee the security of Israel.” (Hadar, op. cit.) The civil rights and social justice ambiance of the 60’s movements had influenced the philosophy of the Democratic Party, hence making the rhetoric and platform potentially susceptible to recognition of self-determination for all peoples which may have included Palestinian rights. After all, at this stage, the Vietnam War was being criticized on moral grounds. By virtue of George McGovern representing the antiwar (Vietnam)-liberal forces within the Democratic Party in 1972, the Neo-cons mobilized support for Henry (Scoop) Jackson who possessed Cold War, pro-Israel credentials in the party. As a counterforce to the McGovern victory in 1972, the Neo-cons formed the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM) in 1973. Later on, Richard Perle and Elliot Abrams were to become top aids to Senator Jackson. President Jimmy Carter did not include many of the CDM members in his administration. Certain elements of his foreign policy agenda–improving the US-Soviet relationship and addressing the Palestinian matter–gave the Neo-cons serious pause. Whereas previously they were drifting toward the Republican Party, at this juncture, with a sense of grievance, the Neo-cons considered crossing the floor and moving to the Republican Party which would undoubtedly welcome the Neo-con intellectual prowess and media connections, and, in fact, did. (Ibid)

Thus a marriage of convenience took place. The CDM Neo-con members helped shape Ronald Reagan’s agenda and, in return, because their primary concerns and interests revolved around external issues and hegemony, they were rewarded with top foreign policy positions in his administration. The top brass included Jeane Kirkpartick (contributor to Commentary), Kenneth Adleman, Director of Arms Control; Richard Perle became the Assistant Secretary of Defense; Richard Pipes (of Harvard) was assigned to N.S.C., and Elliot Abrams, the rising star, was placed as Assistant Secretary of State.

From their top positions, they encouraged the Reagan administration to view the indigenous issues such as the Palestinian statehood/nationalism, the Nicaraguan revolution, and the South African and the Middle East conflicts from the prism of a Cold War context–international communism and Soviet expansionism were behind most 3rd -World struggles. Initially, for reasons of ideology, most of the old-guard conservatives of the Barry Goldwater-Richard Nixon types were weary of these newcomers, but later came on board, accepted them and continued to work with them. For some time now, Neo-con writers have appeared in William F. Buckley’s National Review. Segments of the more traditional right, however, committed to conservative social values had viewed the Neo-cons as closet liberals, and considered their presence in the conservative movement as a hostile takeover. The Old Right accused the Neo-cons for their over-preoccupation with interventionist foreign policy and their indifference to the size of government and the “Welfare State.” They object to the appropriation of the mantle of the conservative movement by the Neo-cons. In the foreword to the 2nd edition of Justin Raimondo’s 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, Patrick J. Buchanan wrote: “With Reagan’s triumph, the neocons came into their own, into his government and his movement.” Raimondo considers the Neo-cons the “the War Party,” or the cowbirds of conservatism.

There have been diverse reactions to the Neo-con phenomenon from the liberal and New Left corner as well. Gore Vidal, the celebrated American writer, has been known in his essays to take on political/social taboos. In an historic essay titled, “The Empire Lovers Strike Back,” [The Nation, March 22, 1986] he took aim at the elders of the Neo-con wave; they in return landed him labels of anti-Semitism. Vidal called the deans of the Movement “publicists for Israel” or “fifth columnists;” he declared that pro-Israel lobbyists “make common cause with the lunatic fringe” in order to scare Americans into spending enormous sums of money for defense against the Soviet Union and for support of Israel.

In a way, the Neo-con establishment itself is an axis of political-lobby/academic-cultural/media/defense-policy network in pursuit of a clearly defined agenda.

The Neo-con Orientalism, and Narrative

“Here Mr. McBryde paused. He wanted to keep the proceedings as clean as possible, but Oriental Pathology, his favourite theme, lay around him, and he could not resist it.” E. M. Forster, A Passage to India

In the post-September tragedy, there appeared a curiosity, a spontaneous public discourse in an effort to demystify the political, theological, cultural aspects of Islam and Islamic movements. In contrast, meanwhile, a literature began to resurface centered on a (dis)-Orientalism that has been associated with the exoticization of Islamic societies and Islamic history. There are cultural orientalists who possess clear policy/political preferences; they tend to also polemicize their scholarship to push for overt political agendas. The Neo-con wave is more than political appointees and lobbies; it is also a matter of culture and attitude. One of the most referred to in the Neo-con ideological pursuits and literature is Bernard Lewis, the semi-retired Princeton scholar. As pointed out above, during the Reagan term and based on the Cold War Zeitgeist of the time, the Neo-con propagandists encouraged the Israel-Palestinian conflict to be seen in that light. After the end of the Cold War, an Huntingtonian “Clash of Civilization” theory struggles to dominate the discourse on East/West relations and understandings; the sort of ethos that defamiliarizes and demonizes “the other.” Likewise, it carries over that dualistic Manichean worldview. In this Gemeinschaft, the Muslim and Arab world would replace the Soviet/red threat. And in this polarized view of the world, Israel is presented as the bastion of the West. On the occasion of reviewing Judith Miller’s book for The Nation (“A Devil Theory of Islam,” Aug 12, 1996), Edward Said wrote, “To demonize and dehumanize a whole culture on the ground that it is (in Lewis’s sneering phrase) enraged at modernity is to turn Muslims into the objects of a therapeutic, punitive attention.”

Reuel Marc Gerecht, an admirer of Lewis, is yet another Princeton “Orientalist” and a Neo-con scholar at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. In an interview with the Ha’aretz Magazine, he reveals, “I was a passionate believer in the Cold War…. One of my professors had ties with the agency and he put me in touch with them….” (Ronen Bergman, “Their Man in Iran,” Aug. 20, 1999). As a CIA operations officer for seven years from 1987 to 1994, Gerecht coordinated the network of agents in and outside Iran. Although in his book “Know Thine Enemy” he finds the Agency inept, it is possible that his agenda load was too heavy for the Agency. Earlier in December, prior to the State of the Union address, Gerecht stated in an interview with The Atlantic (Unbound, Dec. 28, 2001) that “the only way to douse the fires of Islamic radicalism is through stunning, overwhelming, military force….” Ann Coulter, one of the right-wing celebrities wrote “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” (“This Is War,” National Review Online, September 13, 2001)

The Axis of Evil terminology may have taken many by surprise, but a review of culturally-charged articles from September 2001 to January 2002 in various journals such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and, of course, The New Republic would illustrate that a “Clash of Civilization” and estrangement of “the other culture” was in the making. Alexander Cockburn once remarked metaphorically that the offices of The New Republic in Washington are attached to the back of the Israeli embassy. Although Neo-con writers such as Richard Pipes, Daniel Pipes and Michael Ledeen are regular contributors to such “mainstream” media as The Wall Street Journal, the citadel of their journalism is publications like The New Republic, Commentary, The Weekly Standard and The Washington Times. William Safire in The New York Times and Charles Krauthammer in The Washington Post carry the Neo-con torch, deliberating issues. While conservative hawks have wide access to the media hegemony created by moguls Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black (Hollinger International, Inc.), issues around the Middle East and the proliferation of WMD seldom get an objective hearing.

In the fall of 2001, prior to the State of the Union speech, there were initiatives on the part of some right-wing forces that caused worry for the academia. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) in which Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Cheney is involved, produced a document titled “Defense of Civilization” in which it published the names, colleges and statements of about 100 academics who seemingly had been critical. Similarly, Martin Kramer of the pro-Israel institute Washington Institute for Near East Policy published the monograph “Ivory Towers on Sand” where he blames the Middle East Studies in American academia for ‘incorrect analysis’ in not being able to “predict or explain” Middle East politics, and questions continued Federal funding.

Even though the Neo-cons’ institutional incarnation was in the liberal Democratic Party, their reincarnation nonetheless has been in right-wing WASP think-tank institutes such as The Committee on Present Danger, The Committee for the Free World, The Project for the New American Century, Heritage Foundation, and the American Enterprise Institute. A casual study of the advisory boards and officers reveals the usual Neo-con listings–William Kristol, son of Irving Kristol and editor of The Weekly Standard; Carl Gershman, special councilor to Jeane Kirkpatrick while at the UN, and president of the National Endowment for Democracy which supports selective causes in the Third World; Donald Rumsfeld; Vice President Cheney’s Chief of Staff, I. Lewis Libby; Newt Gingrich; William F. Buckley Jr.; Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle.

There exist in Washington many organizations that are active on behalf of the American Jewish community and Israel; but none have nearly the influence the Neo-cons have in terms of lobbying impact on behalf of right-wing Israeli hawks. In 1998, Fortune Magazine recognized the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) as one of the most influential lobbies in the country. In a recent piece in The Los Angeles Times, Michael Massing describes in detail this lobbying powerhouse located near Capital Hill, and asserts that the leadership personalities “…have developed ready access to the US State Department, Defense Department and National Security Council” (“Conservative Jewish Groups Have Clout,” March 10, 2002). While serving as Senator, Hubert Humphrey’s “Communist Control Act” was drafted by his aide, Max Kampelman, one of the Neo-con wave elders. Similarly, there was word around that AIPAC drafted Senator DAmato’s Iran-Libya Sanctions Act. Graham E. Fuller, a former vice-chairman of the National Intelligence Council for long-range forecasting at the CIA, writes “And efforts to portray Iran with some analytical balance have grown more difficult, crowded out by inflamed rhetoric and intense pro-Israeli lobbying against Tehran in Congress…. Improved U.S. ties with Iran should bring about a more balanced reckoning of just what Iran is and is not.” (5)

The Invisibles Take Center Stage

It is no secret that Dick Cheney nominated his old mentor Rumsfeld to the post of Defense Secretary. Rumsfeld in turn brought Wolfowitz (who had been Cheney’s right-hand man when he ran the Pentagon) as his deputy. As hawkish veterans of the Cold War, some of the Neo-con associates had understandably become proficient in the issues of strategic nuclear arms and national security; they had been critics of multilateral arms agreements (detente), and were involved with policy institutes as vehicles and proponents of those politics. As strong proponents of Star Wars, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) during the Reagan administration, it is believed that they were instrumental in the death of SALT II under the Carter administration (6).

This leads to what is known inside the Beltway as the “Wolfowitz cabal.” Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, the new chief of the 18-member advisory panel of Defense Policy Board, were both mentored by arch-hawk nuclear strategist Albert Wohlseteller of the RAND Corp. in the 1960’s. While the Defense Policy Board is an advisory panel, its new chief, Richard Perle, has an office in the E-Ring of the Pentagon. Known as “the prince of darkness,” he previously served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy in the Reagan Administration. In Seymour Hersh’s book on Henry Kissinger, The Price of Power, we learn that the FBI wiretaps had heard Richard Perle–then foreign policy aide to Senator Jackson–passing N.S.C. classified material to the Israeli Embassy; this had infuriated Kissinger (8). Other additions among the Wolfowitz circle are Douglas J. Feith; I. Lewis Libby, Cheney’s Chief of Staff; and, according to The Economist article, the latter is “Wolfowitz’s Wolfowitz.” (op. cit.)

Douglas J. Feith, previously associated with the Center for Security Policy (CSP), has been appointed to the position of Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. In the Reagan administration, Feith had served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and a Middle East specialist on the National Security Council staff. Because he holds strong pro-Israel views and is perceived as having a partisan position, Feith’s appointment to that policy post has been a matter of great concern for Arab-American spokesmen. In 1996, Feith and Richard Perle co-authored a paper for The Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies. In that piece titled “A Clean Break: a New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” they advised Israeli leader Netanyahu to halt the land for peace process.

If Elliot Abrams could serve as NSC’s senior director for democracy and human rights, then it is not so bizarre to have John Bolton as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, and non-proliferation. Apparently Bolton, a Vice President at the American Enterprise Institute, was forced on the State Department. Earlier, the Institute had openly opposed the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) treaty that was signed by the U. S. in 1988. In November 1999, Bolton wrote a short piece for the American Enterprise Institute titled “Kofi Annan’s U.N. Power Grab”–“United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has begun to assert that the U.N. Security Council is ‘the sole source of legitimacy on the use of force.’ If the United States allows that claim to go unchallenged, its discretion in using force to advance its national interests is likely to be inhibited in the future.”

Neo-cons are not political novices and seem to have little tolerance for dissenters; the N.S.C. is not immune to this political culture either. In a New Yorker article Seymour Hersh reports that several regional experts left the NSC “after a series of policy disputes with the civilian officials in the Pentagon” (“The Debate Within,” March 11, 2002, p36). Zalmay Khalilzad has replaced Bruce Reidel for the Middle East portfolio.

The Axis of Evil vocabulary may appear novel, but clearly the grammar is familiar and legible. It translates to a $48 billion increase in this year’s Pentagon budget, up to $379 billion annual–the largest defense spending increase in more than two decades. In terms of strategic policy, it is highly likely we may see the unilateral abandonment of the 1972 ABM Treaty, the abandonment of the goal of the formal implementation of Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty START II, and a strong push to pursue the controversial National Defense Initiative. The recent Nuclear Posture Review is alarming to many in the sense that it is changing deterrence to feasibility of nuclear application, viewing unconventional arms almost in conventional terms, and developing nuclear arsenals for possible use against non-nuclear states. Whereas the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) does not prohibit the US from targeting non-nuclear states, it has historically pledged not to do so, extending what is known as “a negative security assurance.” Under the new regime, the US is seriously considering not offering a negative security assurance to non-nuclear states.

During the Reagan administration, the extremist attitude of the Neo-con clique produced policy that found pronouncements and support for “constructive engagement” with Apartheid, support for the Contras in Nicaragua, Duvalier (FRAP) of Haiti, the Israeli siege of Beirut in 1982, and the proliferation of death squads in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

The kind of social campaigns that do not strive for wider solutions but are part of intensifying hostilities only postpone and encourage future conflict. Many experts believe that long term policy and national interest should not be sacrificed by putting forth a clique agenda. Undue influence of agenda-ridden hawkish ideologues has alarmed experts and the policy community at large. There are those who believe that this political culture has created an atmosphere that obstructs any serious debate on the Middle East. To bulldoze and elbow a one-sided policy over a long period may lead to political/moral tipping point. Is this discourse deeper than mere inter-agency disputes? Does this evolving discussion have the potential of a Glasnost in the intellectual life and thus the political life of America? Can Us-Iran rapprochement be brought to conclusion without such Glasnost? Does Crown Price Abdullah’s initiative have a real chance? Is a comprehensive and long-lasting peace in the Middle East possible before the dawn of this Glasnost?

Fareed Marjaee is an Urban Planner and researcher; previously, a member of the Executive Committee of the New Democratic Party of the City of Toronto. He can be reached at: This article originally appeared on Payvand, a website devoted to news about Iran.