Imagining a “Clean Break” with Israel…Over Iran

The world of science acknowledges matter-of-factly that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapons program. There is simply no evidence for one. The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, staffed by specialists on nuclear power and maintaining a tight watch on Iran’s civilian facilities, finds no evidence of a military program. Two successive reports (National Intelligence Estimates) produced in 2007 and 2010 by all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies have declared with confidence that there is no operative weapons program. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and even Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak have both recently stated or let it slip that Iran is not currently attempting to build nuclear weapons.

But then there is the political world of systematic disinformation. The world of big, bold lies which, as they are constantly repeated, acquire a certain life of their own. Thus the mainstream press and the entire political class in this country refer routinely to “Iran’s nuclear weapons program” as though there obviously were one. As though any questioning of the charge were thoroughly naive.

(By the way: try doing an advanced Google search for the exact phrase “Iran’s nuclear weapons program” and you will call up 4,640,000 results. Try “Israel’s nuclear weapons program”—which we know exists—and you’ll get 533,000. What does this tell you?)

The proponents of the lie rest assured that it will resonate, since it pertains to a Muslim country, and people here are largely conditioned to believe the worst about Muslims and see them as all complicit in some sort of anti-U.S. movement. In a poll taken as late as 2007, 41 per cent of U.S. citizens stated their belief that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks!

Similarly, misguided by well-funded and well-placed propagandists, people will believe anything about Iran.

Never mind that Iran has never in modern times attacked another country. Never mind that it had nothing to do with the 9/11 episode, and that thousands of Iranians rallied in solidarity with the people of the U.S. after the attacks. Never mind that the majority of its people and their leaders are Shiites, like the people of Iraq, and that they’re sworn enemies of the Salafists in al-Qaeda as well as the Taliban. To the masters of disinformation they’re purveyors of terror, holding the world hostage to the threat of nuclear attack and Israel to total annihilation.

This view is so patently idiotic than many bright people might just roll their eyes in bewilderment and simply give up trying to challenge the mendacity. It’s tiresome, year after year, to refute the ever-expanding web of lies. But this is serious, dangerous idiocy broadcast from the citadels of power. It has become integral to U.S. political culture.

The mission in 2002 was to persuade the people of this country that Iraq had something to do with 9/11 and that it threatened us with weapons of mass destruction. No matter that Iraq had been subject to the most intrusive arms inspections regimen in history, was bleeding from sanctions, and wasn’t regarded by any of its neighbors (including Kuwait and Iran, which it had invaded) as a threat. Through coordinated statements (“We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”) and leaks of (mis)information to complicit journalists, the Bush administration built a case for a truly criminal war (frankly pronounced “illegal” by the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to the outrage of some U.S. diplomats).

If the Bush administration officials weren’t consciously taking their cue from the Nazis, they surely embraced a Nazi-like logic. As Hermann Goering stated before his suicide in 1946, “Naturally the common people don’t want war. But after all, it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy, and it’s always a simple matter to drag people along… This is easy.  All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and for exposing the country to danger.  It works the same in every country.”

And so we were told to fear an Iraqi nuclear attack on New York City. It worked beautifully. Most of the people were indeed dragged along. Neoconservatives hell-bent on transforming the “Greater Middle East” to advantage Israel concocted their case through the secretive “Office of Special Plans” and scared a large section of the public into rallying for war. And when no weapons of mass destruction were found, and no evidence for Iraqi-al Qaeda links were found, they slunk offstage quietly (Wolfowitz, Feith, Perle) with no apology, embarrassment or explanation (to say nothing of prosecution).

Who is most responsible for this utter lack of responsibility? Barack Obama! He came to power through the support of antiwar voters. His own opposition to the Iraq war was timid and partial; it was, he thought a “strategic blunder” rather than a crime.

The harbinger of Hope and Change was all smiles when he met the outgoing president, and made it clear that there would be no embarrassing Justice Department investigations or prosecutions of Bush-era officials for war crimes. He wasn’t outraged that the highest officials in the land had approved a campaign to hoodwink the people into endorsing a horrific assault on a country that did not threaten us. He just wanted to put that all behind us, be reconciliatory, “unite the country” and move on…

Part of “moving on” meant embracing the neocons’ lies about Iran. In his very first press conference after the 2008 election, Obama signaled his intentions. He was asked about his response to Iranian president Ahmadinejad’s friendly letter congratulating him on his election. He sidestepped the question but used the occasion to grimly declare that the U.S. would not tolerate Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. It was a shameless sop to the Israel Lobby. And just as George W. Bush ignored the 2007 NIE on Iran’s nuclear program, Obama ignores the 2010 NIE and presses on with a policy of vilification and confrontation.

There is some distance between Israel and Washington on the Iranian nuclear question. The Likud Party would happily involve the U.S. in another war (like the Iraq war based on lies) serving Israeli interests. But Obama apparently doesn’t want another war. Obama can’t say what he must surely know: that the Israeli officials’ repeated references to Iran’s nuclear program as an “existential threat” to their state, echoed by neocons and the Lobby in the U.S., is sensationalistic fear-mongering of the sort Goering spoke of. The neocons have been bellowing “Bomb Iran!” for years hoping that the Christian Zionists and bought legislators will override “the judicious study of discernable reality.”

Dennis Hill, the leading Iran hawk in the Obama administration, may have left his National Security Council post last November out of chagrin at the fact that Obama had failed to carry out the attack Hill had advocated from at least 2008. (Described by Aaron David Miller, whom he’d served with as a diplomat during the Camp David negotiations of 1999-2000, as “Israel’s lawyer,” Hill had responded to the 2007 NIE by co-authoring a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece declaring that Iran was striving to become “a nuclear state” and that leaders needed to “mobilize the power of a united American public in opposition” and send aircraft carriers into the Persian Gulf. He has long advocated crippling economic sanctions on Iran, precisely to provoke actions that might be used to justify a U.S.-Israeli attack.)

Still, Obama has acceded to the fundamental demand of the war-mongers: he has refused to respect the judgment of his own intelligence apparatus and relentlessly stepped up sanctions against Iran, arm-twisting allies to join in taking actions that many western legal scholars agree constitute acts of war. He does so ostensibly to derail a nuclear weapons program, but that is not the real reason. Nor is it because he believes that Iran truly constitutes an “existential threat” to Israel, which has its own 300 nukes. If he’s done his homework he knows that the Iranian regime is not even an “existential threat” to Iranian Jews.

Doesn’t Iran have the largest population of Jews in the Middle East outside of Israel, a community tracing its history back two and a half millennia? And isn’t that community of maybe 35,000 protected by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa of 1979 and by representation in the Majlis far exceeding its numbers? (Jews are fewer than half of one per cent of Iran’s population, but their one constitutionally mandated seat in the Majlis is over three per cent of the total.)

Don’t synagogues operate legally (as they did, by the way, in Baathist Iraq)? And aren’t Hebrew schools funded by the Ministry of Education? Doesn’t Article 13 of the Iranian Constitution specifically allow Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians to “perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education”? Didn’t a judge last year determine that Christians drinking wine during Communion were innocent of violating the law banning alcohol citing that article?

Obama and his team want to topple the regime in power in Tehran. But not primarily because it oppresses its people; this is the norm in the Middle East (and most places), and Washington (and Israel) have been comfortable enough with dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and now in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain… Nor because it has allegedly threatened to “wipe Israel off the map.” (That was a deliberate mistranslation of Ahmadinejad’s comment to a conference in 2005, indirectly quoting Khomeini, that “the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.” He alluded in the same breath to the vanishing of the USSR and the regime of the Shah. He made no reference to Iran using force to make this happen.)

The real reason Washington wants regime change in Iran is that, in the most mass-based, genuine revolutionary upheaval in the modern history of the Muslim world, the Iranian people overthrew the brutal U.S.-imposed regime of the Shah in 1979. This deprived the U.S. of the services of the “Gendarme of the Gulf” serving U.S. oil interests, and intervening in Yemen (to support royalists against republicans) and Oman (to suppress a secessionist movement). It was a huge blow to Washington’s geopolitical interests, and the U.S. wants to reestablish its lost hegemony.

While there have been moments when the U.S. flirted with the mullahs who replaced the Shah (the Iran-Contra episode under Reagan, Colin Powell’s brief consideration of rapprochement in 2001-2) the neocon advocates of “regime change” have always won out.

Iran under the Shah was a virtual ally of Israel, maintaining diplomatic and military relations and supplying it with oil. Since the Islamic Revolution Iran has maintained close ties with Palestinian resistance groups (notably Hamas) and the Lebanese Shiite-based Hizbullah.  These are probably the two most popular political parties in Palestine and Lebanon respectively, but since they challenge the legitimacy of the Israeli settler-state, they are regarded by the U.S. and most of its allies as “terrorists.” Hence Iran is a “supporter of international terrorism” and its government (like those of Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, etc.) should be destroyed—with no option left off the table.

The fact that there’s no evidence for an Iranian nuclear weapons program is an inconvenient truth. And it would surely be inconvenient for the U.S. administration to state frankly that it’s trying to topple the Iranian regime—to either please the lying Likudists and enhance Israel’s power in the region, or to re-establish Anglo-American control of Iran’s oil production. Hence the ongoing campaign against discernible reality on behalf of another Big Lie.

A lot of people alarmed by the situation have been predicting an attack on Iran since 2002, the year of George W. Bush’s infamous “axis of evil” speech and the year when the neocons huddling around Dick Cheney came to dominate foreign policy. For a couple years I was convinced a strike was imminent, only to learn that during Bush’s second term he had rejected Cheney’s advice to bomb. But the neocons remain a powerful force in policy making; they have helped insure that Obama consistently condemns a program which the experts deny exists, and ratchets up pressure on Iran to suspend uranium enrichment through economic warfare.

The signals are so contradictory. The Bomb Iran advocates including the Israel leaders dearly hope that increasingly crippling sanctions (along with the—apparently—Israeli-sponsored program of assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists and sponsoring terrorism in the country) will provoke Iran into moves which will force a reluctant Obama administration to attack the nuclear facilities.

But as Jim Lobe of Inter-Press News observes, many “liberal hawks” who supported the Iraq War, including former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack, Princeton professor Anne- Marie Slaughter, New York Times columnist Bill Keller, former Pentagon Middle East policy chief Colin Kahl, and former CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden have recently warned of dire consequences should either the U.S. or Israel attack. There is opposition within the foreign policy elite. But there was during the lead-up to the attack on Iraq as well.

On the other side are the Congressional leaders urging the stiffest, most provocative sanctions and even (in HR 1905) prohibiting any contact between U.S. diplomats and Iranian representatives without Congressional approval fifteen days in advance.  Presumably such contacts might derail the drive to war.

On the one hand, you have the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff visiting Israel this month to meet his Israeli counterpart, in a mission former Maj.-Gen. Gideon Shefer described as one to stop Israel from attacking Iran. On the other hand you have the Pentagon requesting funding from Congress for a more powerful, bunker-busting bomb.  (Having spent $ 330 million constructing 20 “Massive Ordnance Penetrators” they need another $ 82 million to make them more destructive.)

Perhaps the best outcome of the unpredictable course of events would be a serious falling out between Israel and the U.S., such as occurred during the Suez Crisis in 1956 and the Israeli attack on the Osiraq nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981. In the first, Israel, Britain and France tried to seize control of the newly nationalized Suez Canal. President Eisenhower, joined with the Soviets to demand an end to this tripartite aggression. In 1981, Ronald Reagan ordered his UN ambassador to vote with the rest of the world in condemning the utterly illegal “preventative strike.”

Since then the power of the Israel Lobby in league with politicized Christian fundamentalism and the neocon cabal have so sharply tilted U.S. policy towards Israel that a president cannot even press for a freeze on illegal Jewish settlements on the West Bank without encountering a ferocious political backlash. One can’t be too hopeful about any “clean break” but it’s surely pleasant to imagine one.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades. He can be reached at:

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: