Former Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer has come on television to advocate the destabilization of Iran, on the grounds that it would improve the lives of Iranians and perhaps lead to the end of what he called its “theological regime.” Fleischer, who was for eight and a half years a chief propagandist for the catastrophic US war on and occupation of Iraq, appears to have learned nothing (and those who book him on national television seem to have learned less). He was taking advantage of the saber rattling against Tehran being conducted by the Trump administration.
Trump threatened Iran with what sounded like a nuclear holocaust in a hyper-ventilating, all-caps tweet on Sunday, after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned the United States that if it attacked Iran it would get “the mother of all wars.” Rouhani has also been warning that Iran could blockade the Strait of Hormuz, through which 22 percent of the world’s petroleum and a significant percentage of its liquefied natural gas moves. Iran does not actually have that capability (and such a move would in any case cripple Iran as well), and Rouhani is making himself look foolish by going around quoting Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from the 1991 Gulf War.
The old Bush-era neoconservatives, including National Security Adviser John Bolton and Fleischer himself, have eagerly revived all the rhetorical deceptions they once deployed with regard to ginning up the disastrous Iraq War, but are now aiming them at Iran. The hypocrisies inherent in Fleischer’s remarks are not just a personal failing but infect the inside-the-Beltway political elite in general. Fleischer minds that Iran is a “theological regime.” But no regime is more theological than that of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, and Fleischer does not advocate destabilizing it—indeed, he has repeatedly spoken positively about Riyadh.
Fleischer is a major figure in the US Israel lobbies, going to the mat for a country where the religious right has a lock on public policy, where the religious right has a lock on public policy, as evinced by the new law denying, on “theological” grounds, surrogacy rights to gays, which this week provoked major demonstrations in Tel Aviv. Fleischer’s Republican Party has been kneecapping Roe V. Wade for decades and seems on the cusp of overturning it to please the Christian right, a key GOP constituency.
It seems clear that, whatever it is that makes American conservatives (and a not inconsiderable number of liberals) hysterical about Iran, it is not that it has a “theological” government. Moreover, Iranian foreign policy is not typically made on a religious basis. Iran supports the secular, proto-Stalinist, socialist Baath Party in Syria. It is allied with oligarchic Russia and Communist China. It supports a multicultural coalition that includes Maronite Christians in Lebanon. It sides with Christian Armenia against Azerbaijan (which, now a largely secular country, has a Shiite heritage). A Shiite clerical regime itself, Tehran has its difficulties with the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq.
Iran’s major military interventions have been against ISIL and kindred groups in Iraq and Syria. Iran sent Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Shiite militias, along with a small number of its own Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as well as Afghan fighters, into Syria to fight the Sunni extremists (along with merely conservative Sunni rebels). It also helped to organize Shiite militias in Iraq for campaigns in Tikrit and elsewhere against the terrorist group of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In this endeavor, of defeating ISIL, Tehran was a latent asset to the United States, something neither Tehran nor Washington can publicly acknowledge.
As for Fleischer’s show of caring about the welfare of the Iranian people, surely he jests. Iran’s economy, and the well-being of the Iranian people, has been badly hurt for decades by American sanctions. The United States has even gone to the lengths of endangering airplane passengers in that country by refusing to allow the country’s airline to update its aging fleet by purchasing from Boeing or Airbus. American sanctions have indirectly, at least, hurt the Iranian middle classes’ ability to get certain medicines.
This meme—that Iran is ruled by kleptocrats who sacrifice the best interests of the people for their own gain—was also trotted out this week by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Yet what greater giveaway of public goods to private corporations has been carried out by any government on earth than that of the highly corrupt Trump administration, which has gutted the EPA and environmental organizations and handed the billionaire class huge tax cuts? These steps will deprive the American public of key government services and expose their children to poisons, not to mention dooming them to the ravages of climate change.
Iran ranks 130 out of 180 countries in the world on perceived corruption, according to Transparency International, which is admittedly pretty bad. But it ranks higher than Mexico and Kenya, and is only a little lower than stalwart American ally Egypt. Fleischer and Pompeo exhibit no desire to destabilize those other corrupt governments. And Pompeo’s show of concern for Iranians would be more credible if he did not back a visa ban on them and if he hadn’t allied himself with the notorious terrorist group the Mojahedin-e Khalq.
The hypocrisy of this push on Iran is only one of its objectionable features. The Iraq War set in train events that displaced on the order of 4 million people out of the country’s then 26 million—as in, made them homeless. That would be like chasing 48 million Americans out of their homes, for years on end. Excess mortality caused by the invasion and subsequent events is controversial, but it likely amounted to hundreds of thousands. Millions were wounded. And the invasion and occupation led to the rise of ISIL and to the subsequent destruction of much of Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, as well as to vast devastation inflicted on several other Sunni-majority cities.
A destabilized Iran would make American and post-American Iraq look like Disney World in comparison. It would provoke an exodus of hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps of millions, to Europe, exacerbating the struggles over nativism and immigration in that continent. Since Iran was a bulwark against ISIL, the latter would likely take advantage of an Iran in disarray to come back in Sunni Arab neighboring states, and to hit the United States and Europe. Minorities like the Iranian Kurds might make a play for independence, provoking Turkish military intervention. Iran’s instability would certainly spill over into Iraq and Afghanistan, worsening security in countries with thousands of US troops on the ground.
Fleischer, Pompeo, and their ilk may think that Western security is enhanced when the Middle East is in flames and unable to challenge the chief American proxies in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia. In fact, this chase after “security” through turmoil only produces worse problems. History may not be exactly dialectical, but it is nevertheless true that payback is a bitch. Israel occupied south Lebanon from 1982 to 2000 in a bid to block Palestinian pushback from that country, but only managed to radicalize many Lebanese Shiites and create Hezbollah. The United States deployed Muslim fundamentalists against the Soviets in Afghanistan and managed to create Al Qaeda. Bush invaded Iraq to depose a one-party Baath, secular socialist state and created what is to all intents and purposes another Islamic Republic, with Shiite militias as pillars of the establishment. The most successful US foreign-policy approach of the past 70 years was containment—leaving an adversary alone except where it was desirable to defend US spheres of influence.
In the wake of the senseless carnage of World War I (what were they fighting for, again?), Irish poet W.B. Yeats wrote his celebrated “Second Coming,” a warning about how messianic hopes can go horribly awry.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
No better epitaph could be found for our own rotten times. In the last line of the poem, Yeats was raising an alarm about precisely those sorts of soulless technocrats now in charge of American, Saudi, and Israeli foreign policy. It is the US military-industrial complex and its allies in the Israeli Likud party and in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, to which those ominous lines now apply best: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”