Paradigm of a Fascist Mindset: Nicholas Burns on Iran

The American political-ideological spectrum has become so twisted and falsified (in the sense of not representing anything close to a true left-right spectrum) over the last several decades by a bipartisan ironclad global commitment to counterrevolution and, within that context, US unilateral world supremacy, that we are being told the approval or defeat of the Iran Accord is a matter of life-and-death and deep policy division. In reality, Democrats and Republicans are so close together on Iran whether favoring or disfavoring the Accord that peace is the last thing on anyone’s mind. The assertion of power, economic blackmail, humiliation, whatever it takes to bring Iran to its knees and thus guarantee America’s dominating interest and status in the region, along with Israel as the nuclear-armed comprador to look after its own and America’s regional military supremacy. In other words, Obama manning the ramparts against the Republicans is pure hokum, he, like them, in addition to bowing to Israel’s wishes, wants regime change as prelude to outright subservience.

It won’t work. The US may be making Iran a pawn in the game of confrontation with Russia and China, which cannot allow it to be crushed, but even in short-term geostrategic planning, this will further enflame the Middle East, mistakenly thought by Israel and America to their benefit. It isn’t. Finally both countries by their own actions will have their come-uppance, whether as the politics of oil, the incitement of ISIS-type groups, or both. And Obama’s self-righteous glibness fools no-one. More even than a pawn, Iran has become, like Vietnam, a symbol for resisting and obstructing American empire—intolerable to the power-market-military lust of the US.

Here I’d like to look at Nichalas Burns’s op-ed piece in the New York Times, “What Should Obama Do Next on Iran?” (Sept. 2), the title itself indicative of going beyond the projected Accord into the realm of real or implied punishment. Punishment after having already submitted to imposed terms, the perfect formula for humiliation and regional subordination. Burns, former undersecretary of state, now at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, anticipating the return of Congress to Washington after the Labor Day recess, sees the upcoming vote on Iran as “its most important since the decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003,” and proudly announces, “I testified in favor of the agreement before four congressional committees, and talked with many members individually during July and August.” No disinterested spectator, he. Obama is on track: “It now appears almost certain that [he] has the votes to prevail in Congress.” Hence, the stage is set for going further.

America, he writes, “had a right to hope for a more genuine, sober debate,” given this is “on a war-and-peace issue that will affect American power in the Middle East for a generation to come,” (a non sequitur, in that war and peace = America’s supremacy in the region, plainly axiomatic), yet no Republican in either the Senate or the House “is likely to vote for the deal.” The “deal,” as Burns calls it, will have to be made more convincing to them via a toughening which in any case is needed and desired. On its face, it doesn’t go far enough: “Mr. Obama has managed to persuade most Democrats that, however imperfect, there is no effective alternative to a deal that will freeze Iran’s nuclear apparatus for more than a decade by diplomacy rather than another Middle East war.” To which Republicans would be “walking away unilaterally,” rather than engaging Democrats in debate. (Misguided idealist that I am, I would think that never having embarked on the sanctions regime, or lifting it now, in conjunction with providing Iran a security pledge against Israeli nuclear weapons, and US general disengagement from the region’s internal affairs, might have, by removing pressures to ensure Iran’s pariah status, resolved matters, including permitting Iran’s peacetime use of nuclear energy, if that was its wish.)

But no doubt cooler minds, like Burns’s, prevail. Trust, international inspection, obviously for sissies, as he continues, charging that Iran would bide its time until the immediate provisions of the treaty ran out, and then spring upon an innocent world! This transitional argument, conjuring up holy terror (in faintly diplomatic language) is worth quoting: “Though rejecting the deal would only strengthen Iran and weaken America’s global credibility [note, “credibility” is integral to the Cold War lexicon], Republicans have been right to highlight the deal’s principal weakness—it could permit Iran to emerge stronger 10 to 15 years from now as restrictions on its nuclear program begin to lapse. Specifically, an unfettered Iran in 2030 would be free to reconstitute an expanded civil nuclear program. It could possibly use that program, as it has in the past, to build a covert nuclear arms effort. This is one of the deal’s major downside risks that the Obama team has struggled to counter.” By this token Team Obama’s own support has been only conditional, not whole-hearted. Obama poses as world peacemaker, clutching nuclear weapons in both hands.

Too soft? Burns to the rescue (presumably with administration blessing). “Whether Iran gets that far,” he observes, “will depend ultimately on the leadership and will of the United States to stop it. That is why Mr. Obama needs to affirm what has been missing in the Iran debate: a comprehensive United States strategy to contain Iran’s support for terrorism and to prevent it from becoming a nuclear weapons power.” He unashamedly invokes further Cold War imagery dusted off for the occasion: “As with the Truman Doctrine, where the United States vowed not to let Greece and Turkey go Communist in the late 1940s, Mr. Obama should declare that he and his successors will not permit Iran to go nuclear.” This not-so-subtle mixture of anticommunism and counterterrorism would help to assuage some doubts (as well as re-establish credibility): “This won’t win him many Republican votes in the short term, but it will be a serious response to their concerns and reassure wavering Democrats. More important, it is the right response to an assertive Iran and will recoup some of our diminished credibility in the region.”

Even the Accord is small potatoes; antecedently, the projection of American power, here, a testing ground for diplomacy quite unlike the accustomed form: “Mr. Obama should not be content to have his veto sustained in Congress. His more important aim, looking beyond the vote, is to win the long-term struggle with Iran for power in the Middle East.” Burns explains: “To begin this effort, the administration should commit to a policy of coercive diplomacy [savor the words, enough to shame Metternich]—major steps to keep Iran on the defensive and push back against its growing power in the Middle East.” Then getting down to business, he notes: “The president should suggest that Republicans and Democrats agree on a separate resolution to support this more tough-minded approach. Such a resolution could begin to heal the wounds from the bruising Iran debate and chart a more assertive American posture in the region.” It would also, I surmise, make the Accord not worth the paper it’s written on—which is really Washington’s intent in the first place. “Heal the wounds” of nonexistent policy differences between the major parties, but heaven forfend healing the wounds of a much imposed upon Iran.

Next a bill of particulars—a barely restrained foreign policy framework of aggression, suitably bipartisan, as though political unity at home takes precedence over the actual consequences of policy (which in any event are seen as completely salutary). Thus: “A new, bipartisan policy should include the following elements. First, Mr. Obama could reaffirm President Jimmy Carter’s doctrine from the 1970s that the United States will defend its vital interests in the security of the Persian Gulf region against any aggressor. This would bolster the recent efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry to strengthen the defense of Saudi Arabia and the gulf states.” This architecture of global hegemony doesn’t pause to take a breath—Burns now linking the general and the specific: “Second, Mr. Obama could state in unmistakably clear terms that the United States would use military force to strike Iran should it violate the nuclear agreement and drive toward a nuclear weapon. This would be an important reassurance to many members of Congress in both parties who want to see the nuclear deal not as an isolated initiative but as an integral part of a larger and more assertive American regional policy.” Those last words bear repeating: an integral part of a larger and more assertive American regional policy.

When we follow out American thinking, Iran at times becomes beside the point in the larger configuration of regional power. Burns’s next point in the framework of power: “Third, Mr. Obama could announce the expedited renewal this autumn of the United States-Israel military assistance agreement, set to expire in 2017. This would counter Iran’s support of Hezbollah and Hamas in challenging Israel’s security on its northern and southern borders. Mr. Obama could commit to ensuring Israel’s qualitative military edge over Iran and other regional rivals.” Then borrowing a rhetorical leaf from JFK’s “I am a Berliner,” for after all, Harvard men build on one another’s insights, Burns, in ace-in-the-hole maudlin sympathy, advises: “He should close the glaring gap between him and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A strong symbolic step would be for Mr. Obama to travel to Israel to stand side by side with Mr. Netanyahu against a nuclear Iran.” Burns concludes, “An Obama pivot [we’ve already seen the “pivot” to the Pacific to contain and isolate China, carrier battle groups trawling the waters as I write] back to American leadership in the Middle East is not only good politics in a divided Washington, but also the right diplomatic response to reaffirm United States power and purpose on Iran and in a violent, turbulent but still vital Middle East.”

My New York Times Comment on the Burns article, same date, follows:

Nicholas Burns superbly recaptures the mood and substance of American foreign policy at its very worst: aggressive, arrogant, as though America has the right to define and determine the shape of Middle East politics, and by inference, assert its supremacy throughout the world. This is Cold War thinking and planning worthy of Kissinger and Albright (no coincidence he uses “assert”) and goes to extra lengths to ensure Israeli regional dominance, nuclear weapons and all.

If this is Harvard/Kennedy School, as in fact it is, I feel my own Harvard doctorate has been thrown in the mud, soiled, tarnished. Burns’s words come spitting out like a machine gun–all threat, exhibition of power, etc., not a glimmer of inclination toward peace. But he is typical of Obama administration thinking, which is why I consider the Accord, far from better than nothing, deserving of defeat for its revanche-like aspects. Worthy of defeat, to make the situation worse, and thereby further isolate the US for its exaggerated belligerence. Perhaps the other signatories already recognize US moral bankruptcy and break the lockjaw of the embargo and guarantee Iran’s security against US and/or Israeli bombing. Power appears to make bullies of us all. And from bully to tyrant is a short step.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at