Hyping the Iranian ‘Threat’

Iran hasn’t invaded another country for centuries and is helping the U.S. push back against the Islamic State in Iraq, but Israeli leaders and American neocons want to enlist the West in the Saudi cause of promoting Sunni Islam over Shiite Islam, while America’s interests suffer, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

The idea of Iran as a regional marauder that is gobbling up other countries in the Middle East and against which pressure must therefore be unrelenting has become one of the favorite themes of those determined to kill the nuclear agreement with Tehran. As an argument for rejecting the nuclear deal, this approach has always suffered from major factual and logical flaws.

Given the casual and automatic manner in which references to Iran supposedly sowing mayhem all over the region are routinely worked into almost any discussion of policy toward Iran, it perhaps is too much to expect many people to stop and study the flaws. Perhaps we should just remind people who make those casual references that if Iran really were bent on causing all that mayhem, that is all the more reason to support an agreement to assure that the marauder does not get a nuclear weapon.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei sitting next to President Hassan Rouhani and addressing the cabinet.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei sitting next to President Hassan Rouhani and addressing the cabinet.

But let’s not abandon facts and logic just yet. The main fact on this subject is that Iran hasn’t been doing anything close to the country-gobbling, capital-controlling, instability-creating stuff in the Middle East that it routinely gets accused of doing. Its regional activity is best characterized as the understandable and unsurprising reactions of a major regional state to an assortment of conflicts in its neighborhood that are not of its own making.

As Jon Alterman has put it, “The reality is the Iranians don’t control any Arab capital, and they couldn’t if they tried. Iraqis have a strong sense of nationalism and self-interest, as do Syrians, Lebanese and Yemenis. If you were an Iranian trying to impose your will, you’d be tearing your hair out. There is no Iranian ‘order’ in the region.” Instead, there is a lot of disorder, and amid that disorder the Iranian goal, says Alterman, “is to survive in a hostile world.”

There is no fundamental difference between most of what Iran actually is doing in the region and what either the United States or its regional Sunni friends are doing in reacting to the same disorder. Yet when the latter step into something like the confusing sectarian/tribal/personal conflict in Yemen, as the Saudis have done with their U.S.-supported military intervention replete with airstrikes, it is looked on benignly, but when the Iranians provide lesser assistance to one of the players in the same conflict, this gets described as country-gobbling trouble-making. Such inconsistency is all the more glaring when Iran and the United States are weighing in on the same side, as they are in Iraq.

A particular variant of the Iran-as-marauder argument that has featured prominently in the most recent efforts to kill the nuclear agreement is the notion that granting Iran relief from some of the sanctions to which it currently is subjected would give Iran more resources for more trouble-making in the region, and this would mean Iran would in fact cause more trouble.

This assumes that any extra funds in the Iranian bank account would go into whatever foreign activities the anti-agreement people want us to think of as trouble-making, rather than toward meeting the demands and high expectations of the Iranian public for domestic improvement.

That assumption does not square with what Iranian leaders know their political future depends upon; they fully realize that the crowds that greeted Foreign Minister Javad Zarif upon returning from the negotiations in Lausanne expect that improvement in their way of life at home; people in the crowds were not cheering Zarif because they believe there will be more money for foreign adventurism.

The assumption also does not square, as Juan Cole points out, with the actual record of how the Iranians have apportioned their resources. And the assumption that Iranian regional activities will be a function of the balance in Iran’s bank account is certainly inconsistent with the image of Iranian leaders as ideologically-driven hotheads who are out to inflame and destabilize whatever they can.

In fact, the assumed connection between sanctions relief and greater regional activism makes the Iranians look much more like cool-headed green eyeshade types than are the Americans who promoted the biggest destabilizing, country-breaking, terrorism-stimulating event in the Middle East in recent times: a war that turned out to cost trillions.

Note a further inconsistency in what the deal-killers are saying. Many of the same people (the Israeli prime minister is a prominent but by no means the only example) who are saying that Iran should not be given sanctions relief lest the Iranians have more resources for regional trouble-making are also contending that continued pressure through sanctions is the way to get a “better deal” on the nuclear issue.

Even if either of these contentions were valid (and neither one is), they could not possibly both be valid. The sanctions from which Iran will get relief were enacted for the clearly expressed purpose of inducing concessions from Iran on the nuclear issue. With the framework agreement that was announced last week, that purpose has been achieved.

But opponents of the deal are suggesting that the United States should now say, “Well, that’s not really what we had in mind for those sanctions. We’re going to keep them in place indefinitely because we don’t want to give you resources for doing other things.”

How is that supposed to give the Iranians incentive to cooperate on anything, and specifically on nuclear matters? And for those who whine a lot about damage to U.S. credibility (many of those opposing the nuclear deal are among the principal habitual whiners), how will this switcharoo affect how other nations view U.S. credibility, and how much they will believe the United States the next time it tries to use a tool such as economic sanctions to persuade someone to change a policy?

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

7 comments for “Hyping the Iranian ‘Threat’

  1. Julian
    April 10, 2015 at 07:57

    My thoughts exactly. Failure on the side of the United States and EU to lift economic sanctions, despite Iran doing everything they demand, would make any future agreements and talks next to impossible. Why would Iran’s leadership bother acquiescing to further demands, when they can expect nothing in return? Some might call that a bad deal, especially when an entire nation is punished for something they never committed. To this day intelligence agencies have failed to supply their respective governments with waterproof proof that Iran is in fact developing a nuclear weapons program.
    But political fiction is hardly ever dispelled by facts and right-wing warhawks will continue spouting the same nonsense regardless.

  2. F. G. Sanford
    April 9, 2015 at 14:31

    As the American media continues to obfuscate, and American politicians continue their invidious invective, our valiant Saudi allies are engaged in a life-or-death struggle to protect democratic values [sarcasm alert]. The war torn battlefront in Yemen has become symbolic in an epic struggle to make the Arabian Peninsula safe for Saudi democratic values. They are trying to re-instate the democratically elected Hadi government, whose term expired fourteen months ago. The first step to achieving that democratic goal, obviously, is the establishment of a ‘no-fly zone’. Yemen has no air force, but subversive elements might try to rescue foreign nationals or provide humanitarian relief, so this strategic objective is paramount. Relying on intelligence and target coordination provided by American surveillance assets, these efforts have been highly successful. So far, the intrepid Saudi fighter pilots have destroyed a school, a refugee center, a dairy plant, and a multitude of strategically threatening civilian housing areas. These were essential to the coalition of rebels composed of both Shia and Sunni elements opposed to Saudi democratic reforms. In the midst of this byzantine scenario, the Iranians have somehow demonstrated, beyond any shadow of a doubt mind you, that they are the party at fault. Someday, Hollywood, or maybe Bollywood…will make a movie. An American female diplomat with a striking resemblance to Samantha Powers (Gillian Anderson?) will be led into a cavernous, dimly lit conference room paneled in dark green marble. It will be empty except for a simple rosewood table and two chairs. The audience will immediately sense that she’s got ‘an attitude’. Behind the table, two huge bronze doors silently open to a seemingly endless corridor lined on either side by an honor guard of Chinese soldiers in dress uniform with their weapons at ‘port arms’. The silent command to ‘order arms’ brings hundreds of rifle butts to a simultaneous, deafening crack against the stone floor. A little old Chinese man emerges from the shadows at the far end. Despite his ninety two years, he doesn’t look a day over eighty five. He is a wiry five feet tall and weighs less than one hundred pounds, but he is spritely and carries himself with the confidence of a much bigger man. He is, in other words, a typical Chinese diplomat. Seated across from him, the American diplomat launches into a hysterical tirade about American strategic interests in the Strait of Hormuz and the Socotra Islands. He listens patiently. As she finishes, he opens a silver cigarette case and extracts a long, American Pall Mall, the kind without the filter. He lights it, takes a deep drag, and slowly exhales across the table in her direction. Then he begins. “Missy, first, I remind you, Iranian partners very respectful. Friendship with honor a virtue to cherish…” [Reality alert: this movie could turn out to be a documentary.]

    • Rob Roy
      April 9, 2015 at 17:40

      Good article, Mr. Pillar. Thank you. Next article can explain why the right wing US and Israel want so badly to kill the deal. Can it be that, as you said, our recent wars cost trillions, and the easiest way to make a ton of money is to profit off war. But people are getting smarter about false flags, we hope. I say watch out for the flags to get more virulent toward Russia and China. Now that war would be very profitable. Of course, there’s the chance we (finally!) could have war right here on our soil. Pay back has to come here some day, doesn’t it?
      As for F.G., I hope you hold out for a really big chunk of money before signing up to sell your plot to Hollywood. Brilliant.

  3. Joe Tedesky
    April 9, 2015 at 11:34

    If by July 1st there is no fair deal in place that the Iranian’s feel comfortable enough to agree with there will be hell to pay within Tehran. Iran’s right wing will no doubt scream loudly, but isn’t that what the US Republican Congress and Netanyahu want?

    • Karen Levin
      April 9, 2015 at 17:46

      Hyping? What say you, then, to the missiles bombing the replica of the USS Nimitz in the Persian Gulf, amid cries of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel?” Tehran demands all sanctions off the table at onset, while proudly stating it will use their hyped-up centrifuges AFTER the deal is signed? C’mon now … Cognitive dissonance helps no one.

      • Joe Tedesky
        April 9, 2015 at 21:38

        Military exercises, and saber rattling is par for the course coming from both sides. What I am referring too is the actual deal. Knowingly handing Iran an offer they cannot accept could be problematic on many levels. Hard liners on both sides may prefer such a thing, but is this what we all want? I’m sorry I advocate somewhere in between. I for one am tired of all this war.

      • Zachary Smith
        April 9, 2015 at 22:33

        On another thread you said this:

        Israel, Israel, Israel. Sure gets a story printed. However, now that Iran has announced that it will use its advanced centrifuges as soon as “the deal” is signed, what say you?


        Israel, Israel, Israel. Sure gets a story printed. However, now that Iran has announced that it will use its advanced centrifuges as soon as “the deal” is signed, what say you?

        Presumably you got this centrifuge stuff somewhere, and a search confirmed that it’s probably from an Israeli news source.


        The French fact sheet also specifies that Iran will be allowed to continue R&D work on the advanced IR-4, IR-5, IR-6 and IR-8 centrifuges, the last of which can enrich uranium at 20-times the speed of Iran’s current IR-1 centrifuges, whereas the American parameters are less specific.

        And now what the filthy Iranians are announcing:

        According to the reached solutions, Iran will continue its research and development on advanced machines and will continue the initiation and completion phases of the research and development process of IR-4, IR-5, IR-6, and IR-8 centrifuges during the 10 year period of the Comprehensive Plan for Joint Action.


        Now of course neither of us know what sort of tentative deal has been worked out, but the close similarity of the French and Iranian versions suggests to me that permitting advanced centrifuges is part of the deal.

        Quite possibly if the Israelis agreed to demolish their nuke factory at Dimona and started destroying their nuclear weapons Iran wouldn’t feel the need to go so heavy on the nuclear stuff.

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