Inventing a Record of Iranian Aggression

Following the lead of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Official Washington’s neocons are hyping Iran’s record as an aggressor state, with some examples harkening back to the Sixteenth Century and other more recent cases simply not true, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

Opponents of the nuclear agreement (really, of any agreement) with Iran continue, in an effort to divert attention from the relative advantages of having — versus not having — negotiated restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, to present an image of Iran as a ruthless and relentless imperialist intent on gaining control of the entire Middle East.

Iran is repeatedly portrayed as being “on the march” toward regional domination or as “gobbling up” other countries. It never gets explained how this picture, even if it were true, would constitute a reason to complete a nuclear agreement to ensure that this supposedly relentless imperialist power never gets the most powerful weapon mankind has ever invented. But logic is not what is being exercised here; instead it is more of an emotion-based effort to foster distaste for doing any business with such an ogre-like regime.

Iranian women attending a speech by Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. (Iranian government photo)

Iranian women attending a speech by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. (Iranian government photo)

An additional twist to this line of anti-agreement agitation is found in an opinion piece by Soner Cagaptay, James Jeffrey and Mehdi Khalaji, all of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The WINEP authors state that Iran is “a revolutionary power with hegemonic aspirations” and liken it to “hegemonic powers in the past”: Russia, France, Germany, Japan and Britain, powers that “pushed the world into war” in 1914 and 1939.

Let us recall what those hegemonic powers did. The Russians used their armies to build an empire that encompassed much of the Eurasian land mass and whose successor state still spans eleven time zones. Britain dominated the oceans with the Royal Navy and used its power to build an empire on which the sun never set. France also captured and colonized vast parts of Africa and Asia and, when it had an emperor with sufficient talent, overran most of Europe as well. Japan used military force to seize control of huge parts of the eastern hemisphere.

And as for Germany, the WINEP authors themselves, as part of the near-obligatory reference to Nazis in any anti-agreement writing about Iran, remind us that “Nazi Germany sought to dominate Europe from the Atlantic Ocean to the Volga River, reducing other countries to vassal states and establishing complete military, economic and diplomatic control.” Actually, it didn’t just seek to do that; Nazi Germany used its preeminent military power to accomplish that objective, at least for a while.

Iran represents nothing that comes even remotely close to any of this, as a matter of accomplishment, capability or aspiration. Certainly the current Islamic Republic of Iran does not come close, and one would have to reach far back into Persian history to start to get a taste of imperialism even at the reduced scale of the Persians’ immediate neighborhood.

The twist of the WINEP piece is that the authors reach back in exactly that way. They tell us that “Iran’s hegemonic aspirations actually date back to the Safavid Dynasty of the 16th century.” You know that there is a lot of argumentative stretching going on when references to Safavids in the Sixteen Century are used as a basis for opposing an agreement with someone else about a nuclear program in the Twenty-first Century.

The Safavid Dynasty faded out before anyone could judge what would have been its willingness to behave as a respectable member of the modern state system. Those other hegemonic powers named in the piece evolved into respectable members of the current international order (although debate related to the Ukraine crisis continues about the attitudes of the Russian government).

So the WINEP authors, in trying to argue that Iran never could become a respectable, well-behaving member of the same order, contend that what sets Iran apart is not only that it has hegemonic aspirations but that it is “a revolutionary power with hegemonic aspirations.”

And, they say, “Revolutionary hegemonic powers combine the imperialist lust for ‘lebensraum’ seen in Wilhelmine Germany”, gotta get in those comparisons to the Nazis, “with a religious or millennial worldview that rejects the principles of the classic international order.”

How far divorced from reality this line of argument is emerges from the authors’ reference to yet another power whose strengths and ambitions are way out of Iran’s league: China, which the authors want us to see as hegemonic but not revolutionary like Iran. They write, “Even today, countries with hegemonic tendencies, like China, acknowledge the legitimacy of this international order.”

That is a remarkable statement in view of how much China’s international behavior can be explained, and has been explained by innumerable analysts, in terms of China’s rejection of aspects of the international order that were established by the West without Chinese participation. A recent example of this aspect of Chinese policy involves the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and other Chinese-created mechanisms as alternatives to Western-dominated international financial institutions.

In contrast, a major feature of the supposedly “revolutionary” Iranian regime’s foreign policy has been to try to integrate Iran into as much of the existing international order as possible, notwithstanding its Western origins. (Iran, unlike China, does not have anywhere near the strength to erect alternatives to Western institutions even if it wanted to.)

This strand of Iranian policy is reflected not only in what Iranian leaders say but also in what they do, such as participation in this week’s Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference. The nuclear agreement currently being negotiated with the P5+1 is itself one of the clearest manifestations of the Iranian policy of making significant concessions and sacrifices in the interest of becoming a more integrated member of the international community.

The depiction of current-day Iran as “revolutionary” in the sense of upsetting the international apple cart requires as much ignoring of recent history and actual patterns of Iranian behavior as does the likening of current Iran to Sixteenth Century Safavid imperialism.

In the early years of the Islamic Republic there was indeed a belief among many in Tehran that their own revolution might not survive without like-minded revolutions elsewhere in the neighborhood. But with the Islamic Republic having now survived for more than three decades, that perspective is obsolete.

A good case in point is Bahrain, given its Shia majority population and historical Iranian claims. Despite the unrest there in recent years, it has been a long time since any reliable reports of Iranian activity there that could honestly be described as subversive or revolutionary. In stark contrast to whatever minimal Iranian involvement there is in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia rolled its armed forces across the causeway to forcibly put down Shia unrest and prop up the Sunni regime in Manama.

A similar contrast prevails today in Yemen, where any Iranian aid to the Houthis, whose rebellion was not instigated by Iran (and during which the Iranians reportedly have counseled restraint to the Houthis) is dwarfed by the Saudi airstrikes that have killed hundreds of civilians. (Tell us again,which Persian Gulf country is the hegemonic power?)

Stories of Iran as a supposedly threatening regional hegemon are not only not a reason to oppose reaching agreements with Tehran; the stories aren’t even true.

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.)

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8 comments for “Inventing a Record of Iranian Aggression

  1. Abe
    April 28, 2015 at 9:31 pm

    The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a spin-off the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), is an influential beltway think tank whose members have advocated a host of hawkish, “pro-Israel” policies over the years.

    WINEP is considered a core member of the “Israel lobby,” a constellation of policy and advocacy groups devoted to pushing an Israel-centric U.S. agenda in the Middle East.

    Many of WINEP’s current and former scholars have been closely associated with neoconservatism, and the organization has generally been supportive of the “war on terror” policies pushed by groups such as the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

    http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/profile/washington_institute_for_near_east_policy

  2. Andrew Nichols
    April 28, 2015 at 10:14 pm

    I strongly suspect that the sanctions regime will collapse abjectly no matter what the US Congress/Senate tries to do. The Euros will follow the Russians and Chinese in a stampede to invest once an agreement, any kind of agreement is signed off. The Empire might huff and puff but ultimately, all their efforts to punish the rest of the world will overwhelm them. The party is over Uncle Sam. Time to come in from the cold and become a civlised nation.

  3. John
    April 29, 2015 at 3:49 am

    The neocon reference to “revolutionary” Iran is of course propaganda: their c.1979 revolution was against the dictatorial Shah, installed by the US and UK to keep the oil concession nationalized by their democracy, which we overthrew. How dare they complain about US aggression to steal resources from the impoverished.

    Just imagine the audacity of a nation seeking not only an end to dictatorship, but even stability among states on its borders, like Russia in Ukraine, and China in Korea. The US would never imagine such a thing as the Monroe doctrine, and would never, never send troops or arms to stir up trouble in border states surrounding great powers, states like Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Ukraine. Let alone destabilizing the entire middle east with invasions on false pretexts, arms flows, and one-sided military support of an aggressor like Israel.

    Iran has so long relinquished hegemonic ambitions that it should be welcomed into NATO as the senior post-hegemonic power.

    • Rob Roy
      April 29, 2015 at 6:37 pm

      John, your comment is perfect except for one thing. NATO is a huge component of the biggest hegemonic sweep in the history of the world.

      • John
        April 30, 2015 at 7:36 am

        True, imperialists have found strength in unity, and should be pleased to join with former competitors who offer new markets and resources.

  4. alexander horatio
    April 29, 2015 at 9:12 am

    Finally Mr Netanyahu has got it right !
    ….I mean look at the “evidence”…for the last 30 years, at least, IRAN has been “gobbling up”…No, “Lebensraum-ing” the PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES practically on a daily basis..and subjecting those poor palestinian “UNTERMENSCHEN” to a never ending brutal and sadistic occupation !
    And LOOK at the way IRAN and its devilish “proxies” inside the RUSSIAN GOVERNMENT cunningly and cynically exploited the 9-11 attacks on RUSSIAN SOIL to manipulate the RUSSIAN PEOPLE into attacking IRAQ and launching its NAZI- LIKE HEGEMONIC DRIVE TO CONQUER and PULVERIZE, …AFGHANISTAN….,IRAQ,….LIBYA…., SYRIA,…and YEMEN…
    Look how ,with such fiendish evil, IRAN’S PROXIES INSIDE RUSSIA copied almost “verbatum”,the NAZIS “REICHSTAG FIRE DECREE ” used after the TERROR attack on the REICHSTAG BUILDING in 1933 and reissued it , after the 9-11 TERROR ATTACK as the “PATRIOTZKY ACT” essentially transforming “Clueless” MOTHER RUSSIA into a totalitarian police state hell bent on MILITARISM, EMPIRE and WORLD CONQUEST !
    And LOOK at how IRAN has brutally quarantined and corralled the poor starving JEWISH people in GAZA-KA ( a small coastal enclave resting on the PERSIAN GULF)and subjected them to untold periodic SADISTIC ASSAULTS from LAND, SEA and AIR with assorted EXPERIMENTAL WEAPONS…..The “resistance movement” inside GAZA-KA , known as the “INGLORIOUS HAMASTARDS”, desperately fighting for freedom just like the “french resistance” under Nazi rule !
    And do you remember …that fateful day in the north-east regions of IRAQ, when, just before the IRAN INITIATED IRAQ WAR, the young and valiant peace activist RACHEL CORRIE stood up to the IRANIAN BULLDOZER hell bent on EXTERMINATING the small IRAQI VILLAGE, only to be brutally crushed by its TOTALITARIAN TREAD !
    And have you noticed, too IRANS utter HATRED and CONTEMPT for the United Nations, and all its “resolutions” condemning IRANS relentless” landgrabbing” .. so reminiscent of HITLERS disdain for the League of Nations in his quest to CONQUER and LEBENSRAUM the world !
    I must say, Mr Pillar, on this score, Mr Netanyahu has really hit the nail on the head !

    • Rob Roy
      April 29, 2015 at 6:50 pm

      Alexander, wish I’d written that! Nothing elucidates like satire.

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