Dispelling myths about Iran’s policies

The current flare-up in the Middle East has for the moment shifted Iran to the background. But you can be sure that once the immediate violence ends and we return to the stalemate of Israel enforcing a cruel blockade and siege of the people in Gaza that has caused such hardship, proponents of a military attack on Iran will be back, relentlessly beating the drums for yet another war.

Such a war is being relentlessly promoted by Israel and the neoconservatives in the US and their main argument has been to depict the Iranian leadership has being made up of irrational, religious fanatics who are capable of doing something crazy at anytime. This is their basis for calling for the overthrow of the government of Iran and its replacement with one that is friendly to Israel.

In the November 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine (not available online), Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett have an important article titled The Mad Mullah Myth: The dangers of misunderstanding Iran’s strategy where they systematically dismantle many of the justifications used by the US to support its current cruel policy of crippling sanctions on Iran and the case being made for war with that country. The article is well worth a trip to the library to read.

In their article, the Leveretts make the following points:

In the more than thirty years since the Iranian Revolution, Western analysts have routinely depicted the Islamic Republic as an ideologically driven, illegitimate, and deeply unstable state… Allegations of the Iranian government’s “irrationality” are inevitably linked to assertions that it is out to export its revolution across the Middle East by force, is hell-bent on the destruction of Israel, and is too dependent for its domestic legitimacy on anti-Americanism to contemplate improving relations with the United States.

If Western political elites were to make an effort to understand Iran and its motivations, they would discover that the Islamic Republic has shown itself to be a highly rational actor in the conduct of its foreign policy.

Tehran’s support for terrorism is another persistent theme in Western narratives. Yet the most comprehensive study of suicide terrorism to date, Robert Pape and James Feldman’s Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It, has determined that there has never been an Iranian suicide bomber. While Iran backs groups that the United States considers terrorist organizations-Hezbollah and Hamas-or that have threatened American military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, its support for such groups is concentrated in theaters where the United States, Israel, or Sunni states allied to Washington are working to undermine important Iranian interests.

If Westerners looked soberly at the record, they would discover that Iran is not aggressively exporting revolution.

Likewise, Iran is not out to destroy Israel. One of the more pernicious legends about Ahmadinejad is that he threatened to do so-a claim so entrenched in mainstream Western discourse as to seem to be a fact. But the claim is false, as Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intelligence minister admitted in April 2012. It is based on a poor translation of a speech Ahmadinejad delivered in October 2005, shortly after he became president, and was given international currency by irresponsible articles in the New York Times and other news outlets.

Westerners should consider that, from Tehran’s perspective, Israel is effectively at war with the Islamic Republic. Israeli officials regularly threaten to use force against it, and Iranians know that Israel is sponsoring a wide range of covert actions against their country, including assassinations of its scientists and lethal terrorist bombings.

But for many years now [Iran] has defined its diplomatic and national security strategies in largely nonideological terms, on the basis of national interests that are perfectly legitimate: to be free from the threat of attack and from interference in its internal affairs; to have its government accepted by its neighbors and by the world’s most militarily powerful state. For more than twenty years, the Islamic Republic has shown itself to be capable of acting rationally to defend and advance these interests. Americans may not like Tehran’s strategic and tactical choices-its links to political factions and their associated militias in Afghanistan and Iraq, its support for Hamas and Hezbollah, its pursuit of nuclear-fuel-cycle capabilities. But these choices are far from irrational, particularly in the face of continuing animosity from Washington.

Stereotypes depicting Iran as an aggressively radical country are not merely wrong but, worse, dangerous, because they skew Western thinking toward the inevitability of confrontation… For if the myth of the Islamic Republic’s irrationality is not dispelled, the Western belief that war with Iran is inevitable will turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Many other commentators have made similar points. But the Leveretts cannot be dismissed by the warmongers as know-nothing peaceniks. According to his Wikipedia page, Flynt Leverett, now a professor at Penn State University School of International Affairs, was from March 2002 to March 2003 “the senior director for Middle East affairs on the National Security Council. Prior to serving on the NSC, he was a counterterrorism expert on the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, and before that he served as a CIA senior analyst for eight years.” Hillary Mann Leverett served in the George W. Bush Administration where “she worked as Director for Iran, Afghanistan and Persian Gulf Affairs at the National Security Council, Middle East expert on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff, and Political Advisor for Middle East, Central Asian and African issues at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. From 2001-2003, she was one of a small number of U.S. diplomats authorized to negotiate with the Iranians over Afghanistan, al-Qa’ida and Iraq.”

With direct US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, there may be a greater temptation to think that the US has the freedom to start yet another war. As long the Israel lobby and neoconservatives is the US keep promoting war with Iran, and as long as the White House and Congress feel cowed by them and repeat those threats, the prospect of war increases. As John Quiggin said:

But if we started any analysis of international relations with the assumption that war will end badly for all concerned, and that the threat of war will probably lead to war sooner or later, we would be right most of the time.[My italics-MS]

To prevent war, we must begin by countering the rhetoric that leads up to war.


  1. msm16 says

    Excellent post. I have always been flabbergasted as to why people dont understand Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. They see the most militarily powerful nation in the world unilaterally invade its neighbor totally without justification. They can only assume they are next as the US has a history of antagonisms with iran. Therefore their government assumes that to prevent the inevitable attack they need nuclear deterrence. Which in turn causes the US to become more belligerent and threatening which in turn increases Iran’s desire for nuclear deterrence which in turn causes the US to be come more belligerent and threatening… it scares me that if we dont change our policy goals war with Iran seems to be inevitable.

  2. nardo800 says

    I agree that Iran’s motives are often exaggerated in right-wing thought, and that unilateral war would be disproportionate and unwise. However, it’s also frustrating to see Iran apologists throw out red herring arguments like “There are no Iranian suicide bombers” or “Ahmadinejad didn’t say that he himself would wipe out Israel” as if these misconceptions mitigate the fact that Iran is an regressive theocracy with documented human rights abuses.

    The fact is that Iranian proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah bear a significant portion of the responsibility for keeping their corners of the world (Gaza and Lebanon, respectively) in states of perpetual war and misery. Iran’s operation of these proxies may be rational, but there are good reasons for rational and ethical people to oppose them.

  3. left0ver1under says

    I agree with nearly all of the Leveretts’ words with only one minor quibble:

    “[T]he Western belief that war with Iran is inevitable will turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

    It is not a self-fulfilling prophecy. Invasion, unprovoked war and genocide in Iran have long been Washington’s goal, a desire to rationalize occupation and control of Iranian oil fields. Controlling the oil was the reason for the overthrow of Iran’s democracy in 1953, and think about the US’s arming of Saddam Hussein in 1981 with mustard gas and anthrax, encouraging him to start a war against Iran which killed over a million Iranians, mostly untrained rabble.

    The fact that the US hasn’t been able to rationalize such a war is further evidence of Iran’s careful and thoughtful political manoeuvering.

  4. says

    I have always been flabbergasted as to why people dont understand Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons

    Iran wants nuclear weapons for the same reason that the US already has thousands, and Israel already has hundreds.

    What has always amazed me about this particular topic is that people accept the absurd notion that the nonproliferation treaty is anything other than a club formed so that nobody else can join it. For those who’ve forgotten, the NPT originally meant that the nuclear-armed powers were agreeing to promise not to first-use agains non-nuclear countries that agreed to the NPT. Got that? “If you agree to stay out of the nuclear club, we agree not to kill you.” Nice. And countries violating its terms are supposed to be punished economically (as Iran is being…) unless that country is Israel, apparently.

  5. thewhollynone says

    Yeah, yeah, and Mr. Hitler was a nice reasonable man, too, according to Neville. I am not advocating a US pre-emptive strike, but the Persians are a regressive military theocracy with delusions of ancient grandeur (like Mussolini), and if they get nuclear weapons, they will try to coerce the Muslim world around them to unify in an effort to become one of the three world powers; they have stated that is their aim. Then we will see WWIII, the war in which we humans destroy ourselves. Better to let the Israelis kill the snake in the shell.

    I’m not saying that’s right, or that it’s fair, but how much of man’s history is?

  6. says

    What an absurd statement! WWIII? What, a handful of nukes suicidally deployed against thousands? You’re claiming the Iranians are simultaneously crazy yet rational (see a problem with that argument?) and basing it on reasoning that applies equally well to the US or Israel. The US is also a nuclear-armed state led by crazed fundamentalist nutjobs and, amazingly, it avoided starting WWIII when they had the chance.

    You’re showing how well the propaganda works, that’s for sure.

  7. thewhollynone says

    You like that word “absurd” don’t you! Anyone who doesn’t see things your way has an “absurd notion” or is making an “absurd statement.” Please, have a little patience with us lesser humans.

    As a matter of fact, I completely agree with you that the US is “a nuclear-armed state led by crazed fundamentalist nutjobs,” men who are fighting other men for money and power, just as men have done in all of known history, and particularly in the Middle East. That seems to be the nature of the beast, and I don’t expect that to change in my lifetime or in the lifetime of my great granddaughters, so we women just have to figure out how to keep ourselves and our children as safe as possible amid the chaos of men’s wars. Being modern, liberal, independent, western females, we don’t look kindly on being swathed in burkas and having to shut up about our atheism or be killed, so if the western males have to fight the Battle of Tours again, so be it.

    And do reread my comment. I didn’t say that the Iranians are rational; I said they are delusional.

  8. Mano Singham says


    To justify war based on imagined complicated scenarios of what your adversary might do in the future is to open the door for any country to attack its perceived enemies. This is why the American chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials Robert H. Jackson said, “To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

  9. Dunc says

    if they get nuclear weapons, they will try to coerce the Muslim world around them to unify

    Do the terms “Sunni” and “Shia” mean anything to you?

    Also, there’s already a nuclear-armed Islamic state – Pakistan. And before they acquired nuclear weapons, many people said much the same things about them.

  10. says

    And do reread my comment. I didn’t say that the Iranians are rational; I said they are delusional.

    I read it correctly. Your problem is that you are arguing both that the iranians are delusional (which you acknowledge) AND yet you’re acknowledging that their actions are eminently rational. Why do i say that? Because their wanting nuclear weapons IS the rational thing for them. And so would be forming a military alliance aligning other arab states against the US and Israel. Any political leaders in their right minds would do that; therefore they aren’t irrational. Q.E.D.

    Another basic flaw in the “iranians are crazed nihilists, if they get a single nuke they will suicidally attack Israel” argument is this: they have plenty of conventional artillery and weapons and if they actually were willing to commit collective suicide, they could have done a good job of it with conventional weapons any time in the last decade. They haven’t. Why not? Because your premise is bullshit.

  11. says

    Exactly. And it turned out that Pakistan’s reasons for wanting nukes were eminently sensible and not suicidal at all. In fact their nukes accomplished unexpected benefits – the US has been forced to treat the Pakistani tin cup dictatorship as if they’re really a political player rather than a punching bag. Irrational as a fox, in other words..

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