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Tom Engelhardt: Iran Through the Looking Glass

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Now, pinned to Iran, that list looks absurd.  Were such things to have happened (even in a far more limited fashion), they would have been seen across the American political spectrum as an abomination (and rightly so), a morass of illegal, illegitimate, and immoral acts and programs that would have to be opposed at all costs.  As you also know perfectly well, it is a description of just what we do know or suspect that the U.S. has done, alone or in concert with its ally Israel, or what, in the case of the assassination operations against nuclear scientists (and possibly an explosion that destroyed much of an Iranian missile base, killing a major general and 16 others), Israel has evidently done on its own, but possibly with the covert agreement of Washington. 

And yet you can search the mainstream news far and wide without seeing words like "illegal," "illegitimate," or "immoral" or even "a very serious breach of international behavior" applied to them, though you can certainly find sunny reports on our potential power to loose destruction in the region, the sorts of articles that, if they were in the state-controlled Iranian press, we would consider propaganda. 

While the other three presidential candidates were baying for Iranian blood at a recent Republican debate, it was left to Ron Paul, the ultimate outsider, to point out the obvious: that the latest round of oil sanctions being imposed by Washington and just agreed to by the European Union, meant to prohibit the sale of Iranian oil on the international market, was essentially an "act of war," and that it preceded recent Iranian threats (an unlikely prospect, by the way) to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the planet's oil flows.   

And keep in mind, the covert war against Iran is ostensibly aimed at a nuclear weapon that does not exist, that the country's leaders claim they are not building, that the best work of the American intelligence community in 2007 and 2010 indicated was not yet on the horizon.  (At the moment, at worst, the Iranians are believed to be working toward "possible breakout capacity" -- that is, the ability to relatively "quickly" build a nuclear weapon, if the decision were made.)  As for nuclear weapons, we have 5,113 warheads that we don't doubt are necessary for our safety and the safety of the planet.  These are weapons that we implicitly trust ourselves to have, even though the United States remains the only country ever to use nuclear weapons, obliterating two Japanese cities at the cost of perhaps 200,000 civilian deaths.  Similarly, we have no doubt that the world is safe with Israel possessing up to 200 nuclear weapons, a near civilization-destroying (undeclared) arsenal.  But it is our conviction that an Iranian bomb, even one, would end life as we know it. 

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Added to that fear is the oft-cited fact that Iran is run by a mullahtariat that oppresses any opposition.  That, however, only puts it in league with U.S. allies in the region like Bahrain, whose monarchy has shot down, beaten up, and jailed its opposition, and the Saudis, who have fiercely repressed their own dissidents.  Nor, in terms of harm to its people, is Iran faintly in a league with past U.S. allies like General Augusto Pinochet of Chile, who launched a U.S.-backed military coup against a democratically elected government on September 11, 1973, killing more than died in the 9/11 attacks of 2001, or the Indonesian autocrat Suharto on whom the deaths of at least half a million of his people are usually pinned.

Washington At Home in the World

Here, then, is a little necessary context for the latest round of Iran-mania in the U.S.: Washington has declared the world its oyster and garrisons the planet in a historically unique way -- without direct colonies but with approximately 1,000 bases worldwide (not including those in war zones or ones the Pentagon prefers not to acknowledge).  That we do so, unique as it may be in the records of empire, strikes us as anything but odd and so is little discussed here.  One of the reasons is simple enough.  What's called our "safety" and "security" has been made a planetary issue.  It is, in fact, the planetary standard for action, though one only we (or our closest allies) can invoke.  Others are held to far more limiting rules of behavior. 

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As a result, a U.S. president can now send drones and special operations forces just about anywhere to kill just about anyone he designates as a threat to our security.  Since we are everywhere, and everywhere at home, and everywhere have "interests," we may indeed be threatened anywhere.  Wherever we've settled in -- and in the Persian Gulf, as an example, we're deeply entrenched -- new "red lines" have been created that others are prohibited from crossing.  No one, after all, can infringe on our safety. 

In support of our interests -- which, speaking truthfully, are also the interests of oil -- we could covertly overthrow an Iranian government in 1953 (starting the whole train of events that led to this crisis moment in the Persian Gulf), and we can again work to overthrow an Iranian government in 2012.  The only issue seriously discussed in this country is: How exactly can we do it, or can we do it at all (without causing ourselves irreparably greater harm)?  Effectiveness, not legality or morality, is the only measurement.  Few in our world (and who else matters?) question our right to do so, though obviously the right of any other state to do something similar to us or one of our allies, or to retaliate or even to threaten to retaliate, should we do so, is considered shocking and beyond all norms, beyond every red line when it comes to how nations (except us) should behave. 

This mindset, and the acts that have gone with it, have blown what is, at worst, a modest-sized global problem up into an existential threat, a life-and-death matter.  Iran as a global monster now nearly fills what screen-space there is for foreign enemies in the present American moment.  Yet, despite its enormous energy reserves, it is a shaky regional power, ruled by a faction-ridden set of fundamentalists (but not madmen), the most hardline of whom seem at the moment ascendant (in no small part due to American and Israeli policies).  The country has a relatively modest military budget, and no recent history of invading other states.  It has been under intense pressure of every sort for years now and the strains are showing.  The kind of pressure the U.S. and its allies have been exerting creates the basis for madness -- or for terrible miscalculation followed by inevitable tragedy. 

In an election year in the U.S., little of this is apparent.  The Republicans, Ron Paul aside, have made Iran the entre'e du jour on the American (and Israeli) security menu, a situation that couldn't be more absurdly out of proportion or more dangerous.  In fact, when it comes to "American security," our fundamentalists are off on another rampage with the Obama administration following behind. 

Just as a small exercise to restore some sense of proportion, stop for a moment the next time you hear of American or Israeli plans for the further destabilization of Iran and think: what would we do if the Iranians were planning something similar for us?

It's one small way to begin, individually, to imagine a planet on which everyone might experience some sense of security.  And here's the oddest thing, given the blowback that could come from a blowup in the Persian Gulf, it might even make us all safer.

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Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), has just been published. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Engelhardt discusses reversal scenarios on a one-way planet, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

[Note:  The initial "Iranian" news article in this piece was taken, with a few small changes, from "New U.S. Commando Team Operating Near Iran," a post by the intrepid Spencer Ackerman of Wired's Danger Room blog, an important place to keep up on all things military.  Let me offer a bow as well to Antiwar.com, Juan Cole's Informed Comment, and Paul Woodward's the War in Context.  I don't know what I'd do without them when it comes to keeping up.]

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 Tom Engelhardt

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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