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Iran: Who's Threatening Whom?

By Stephen Gowans
January 13, 2008

It is very likely that a Pentagon video showing Iranian patrol boats confronting three US warships in the Strait of Hormuz was deliberately embellished to back up US president George Bush's efforts to enlist allies to confront Iran.

The video was released on the eve of Bush's departure on "a five-day, five-country tour of the Arab build a common front to pressure Iran - which Mr. Bush said...'was a threat to world peace' - into ceasing its efforts to acquire nuclear technology." (1)

There are a number of reasons to believe Iranian patrol boats did not provocatively confront US warships in international waters, and that the evidence they did was "sexed up," to borrow a phrase used to describe Bush administration efforts to cherry pick evidence to fabricate a casus belli for its 2003 military conquest of Iraq.


The release last month of a new National Intelligence Estimate that declares Iran to have abandoned a nuclear weapons program in 2003 has set back the efforts of the Bush administration to build an international coalition to confront Iran.

Washington has three reasons to pressure Iran.

1. Iran is exercising a degree of independence from the US that does not suit the corporate and investment banking interests that dominate US foreign policy. Economic independence removes Iran from the territory US capital is free to unconditionally exploit. Washington's ultimate goal is regime change, in which the current government in Tehran would be replaced by a comprador government beholden to the US, in keeping with the accustomed US imperialist practice of dominating other countries through local elites. With a Western-oriented regime in Tehran, tariffs and restrictions on foreign investment would be lifted and state-owned enterprises would be sold off. This would benefit the profit-making interests of US firms, investment banks and American hereditary capitalist families.

2. Countries which are weak economically and dependent on foreign sources of critical economic inputs are readily manipulated to serve the interests of the owners and managers of income-producing properties - the bankers, corporate executives, corporate lawyers and major investors who make up the US ruling class. The development in Iran of a domestic nuclear power industry, and reliance on domestic supplies of uranium, would strengthen Iran economically, and make the country more self-reliant. An Iran that imported enriched uranium from outside its borders - a "compromise" proposal put forward by Russia and Europe - would leave the country vulnerable to economic blackmail and under the thumb of foreign powers. It is for this reason that the Iranian state insists on being able to control the enrichment of Iran's plentiful uranium.

3. The development of an independent, self-reliant domestic nuclear industry would furnish Iran with the capability of producing nuclear weapons, a potential it could exercise to deter US aggression. From the point of view of the US foreign policy establishment, this amounts to the very real threat of self-defense, an intolerable development to an establishment that relies on force, and the threat of force, to outrage the sovereignty of other countries.

With Russia and China, veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, opposed to highly punitive sanctions against Iran, the Bush administration has been pressuring its allies to apply their own trade and investment sanctions. Many allies, especially those with economic stakes in Iran, are reluctant to comply with Washington's demands. For these countries, the pain of sanctions goes two ways. With the National Intelligence Estimate impugning the administration's case, the pressure on US allies has diminished. To generate new pressure, the US administration has been looking for opportunities to convey the message that Iran continues to pose a threat; hence, Bush's week-long tour of the Middle East. It appears all too convenient that the incident in the Strait of Hormuz occurred on the eve of Bush's mission to enlist support for a renewed push to confront Iran.


The most dramatic part of the evidence the Pentagon used to underline the US president's case against Iran was the audio portion of the videotape. In heavily accented English, a voice - presumably belonging to one of the Iranian sailors -- warns: "I am coming at you - you will explode in a couple of minutes." The audio, recorded separately from the video, was stitched together with scenes of Iranian patrol boats manoeuvring around US warships. The Pentagon acknowledges that it can't say the words originated from one of the patrol boats. Indeed, the absence in the audio of ambient sound -- wind, waves and the growl of outboard motors - makes the initial implication of the Pentagon video -- that the threat came from the patrol boats -- rather unlikely. The Iranians were travelling in open speedboats. The wind, waves and engine sounds would have been heard in the background. The fact that the Pentagon used audio it now acknowledges is of uncertain origin to embellish its video (and video, being easily doctored cannot nowadays be taken as compelling evidence of anything), calls to mind the Gulf of Tonkin incident. To win support for stepping up war in Vietnam, the Johnson administration concocted a story about two US warships, the Maddox and Turner Joy, coming under attack from North Vietnamese naval forces. It was pure fiction.


Contriving evidence to support aggression, whether military, subversive or economic, is part of a practice that recurs in US foreign policy with a regularity that makes the practice institutional. Grand deceptions to justify war, from the false allegations of genocide in Kosovo to contrived intelligence of banned weapons in Iraq, are not symptoms of the moral weakness of high state officials, but are part of a regular pattern of the US state shaping public opinion to the demands of its aggressive and expansionary foreign policy.

The threats the Bush administration have already made against Iran, and the economic warfare it has already waged, are themselves justified by concocted evidence. Over the last few years, the principal justification the US has invoked to rattle its sabre against Iran is the need to deter Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, weapons Washington claims Iran seeks to wipe Israel off the map. The evidence that Iran is secretly building nuclear weapons - now discredited by the latest National Intelligence Estimate - is based on an earlier, 2005, National Intelligence Estimate. That estimate declared with high confidence that Iran had a nuclear weapons program. The latest estimate declares, also with high confidence, that Iran didn't have a nuclear weapons program in 2005. If the latest assessment is true, the intelligence community could not have had high confidence in its positive assessment in 2005. Significantly, sections of the 2005 estimate were written by the same team that "sexed up" the intelligence on Iraq's non-existent weapons of mass destruction. The 2005 conclusions, according to intelligence sources interviewed by the New York Times, were "thinly sourced" and "based on somewhat murky knowledge of Iran's capabilities and the goals of its leaders." (2) In other words, the evidence was concocted to fit a pre-conceived conclusion, one needed to justify an aggressive posture toward Iran.

The other part of the claim that Iran represents a threat - that the Iranian president is a vicious Jew-hater on the order of Hitler who seeks to destroy Israel in a hail of nuclear missiles - originates in a deliberate misrepresentation of Ahmadinejad's words. The Iranian president's wish to wipe Israel off the map is metaphorical. He supports a bi-national, one person-one vote state in ex-British mandate Palestine, the territory comprising Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Were such a state to succeed Israel - something Ahmadinejad believes is inevitable - Israel, a Jewish state based on the theft of the land and property of the indigenous Palestinian population, would figuratively disappear from the map. Anyone willing to work to help the Palestinians reclaim the territory they were dispossessed of is quite naturally a threat to Israel. This accounts for Israel's hysterical reaction to the Iranian president. Israeli state officials, however, do not for a moment believe that were Iran to acquire nuclear weapons it would launch a nuclear first strike. That is a convenient fabrication used to justify an aggressive posture toward Iran.

Inverting reality

While US state officials and the mimetic Western media shape public opinion to the view that Iran is a threat, the reality is quite different. To see this, consider the thought experiment conducted by British journalist Neil Clark. Clark announced on his blog that Tehran had called upon the world to confront the US because US Navy patrol ships had harassed Iranian warships off the coast of Florida. Of course, there are no Iranian warships off the coast of Florida, but there are US warships - dozens of them - off the coast of Iran.

If the Iranian patrol ships had truly been as provocative as the Pentagon says, the threat they posed would have been miniscule compared to the infinitely larger threat the US poses to Iran. Washington has been dangling a military sword of Damocles over the heads of millions of Iranians for years, allegedly because Iran has a secret nuclear weapons program. The real reason is because the officers of the Iranian ship of state refuse to steer in the direction the US admiralty demands. With a protectionist economy that features oodles of state-owned enterprises, and which therefore denies US capital coveted export and investment opportunities, Iran has long been on Washington's (economic) regime change radar screen. Washington is willing to threaten millions of Iranians to get its way, all for the profits of corporate America, not least those of US oil. Who's really threatening whom?


1. Globe and Mail, January 11, 2008.

2. New York Times, December 5, 2007.


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