Over the last few years the United States has been obsessed with preventing Iran from developing its own nuclear weapon. This obsession has been made even more curious by the fact that American politicians appear to be at odds with their own intelligence services on the issue.
President Obama said in his State of the Union address, “America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hasn’t been any more diplomatic than her boss, saying, “It is the policy of this administration that Iran cannot be permitted to have a nuclear weapon and no option has ever been taken off the table.”
For three of the four remaining Republican presidential candidates, the Iranian nuke issue has become a contest to see which one of them can scare the American people the most. Mitt Romney has said, “a nuclear-armed Iran is not only a threat to Israel; it is a threat to the entire world.” Newt Gingrich repeatedly reminds voters of the horrors of an Iranian bomb and warns of an impending Iranian nuclear strike on the United States. Rick Santorum said while campaigning in Missouri, “Once they [Iranians] have a nuclear weapon, let me assure you, you will not be safe, even here in Missouri. These are folks who have been and are at war with us since 1979.”
Such apocalyptic and bellicose rhetoric contrasts sharply with the official reports produced by the U.S. intelligence community, which concludes that Iran is currentlynot attempting to develop or acquire nuclear weapons. James Clapper, the U.S. director of National Intelligence, recently told a Senate committee,
We continue to assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons, in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.
Iran is also under a rigorous inspection regime, which experts say makes it virtually impossible for the government to have an undetected active nuclear-weapons program. While Iran has admitted to enriching uranium for energy and medical purposes, this requires an enrichment level far below the weapons-grade threshold and is permitted under the terms of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.
And Tehran has been more than accommodating to Washington’s escalating demands. In 2010, the Iranian government accepted a condition put forth by the Obama administration that they forgo domestic production of non-weapons-grade uranium and purchase it abroad, but when Iran entered into a trade agreement with Turkey and Brazil that did exactly that, the deal was rejected by the United States.
Moreover, Iran has called for a nuclear-free Middle East; and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has issued a fatwa prohibiting the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons. That an Islamic government might have genuine moral compunctions about possessing and using weapons of mass destruction might be difficult for a skeptical and morally degenerate West to accept, but the fact that Iran has not yet acquired a nuclear weapon suggests Khamenei’s fatwa may be more than just a PR stunt.
American leaders cite Tehran’s supposed intransigence as evidence of the Iranians’ malevolent intentions and as justification for further sanctions and even the use of military force. But they ignore Iran’s painful colonial past and whitewash their own government’s role in that history. Iran spent most of the 20th century being dominated by Russians, British, and Americans. The CIA overthrew the democratically elected Mossadegh government in 1953, and the United States supported Iraq’s unprovoked invasion of Iran in 1980.
That the Iranian government would feel compelled to resist demands by the United States to curtail or suspend uranium enrichment is not surprising. Any government must at least give the appearance of defending the nation’s sovereignty, and most Iranians view their government’s nuclear program as an expression of national sovereignty.
So, given that Iran poses no real threat to the United States and is not even a regional threat because it is dependent on exporting its oil, why are so many American politicians baying for war against the Islamic Republic?
To get an answer, we should recall what H. L. Mencken said:
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.
Conjuring up and exaggerating threats from abroad is a tried and true method of social control. It can also be used by the government to distract the public’s attention from domestic problems. There is nothing like a “splendid little war” to take the public’s mind off an imploding economy. And with war, politicians have an enemy to scapegoat.
Another important element is the national-security state, which depends on “threat inflation” for its $1 trillion plus annual budget. This point has been made in, of all places, Foreign Affairs, where Micah Zenko and Michael A. Cohen write,
Warnings about a dangerous world also benefit powerful bureaucratic interests. The specter of looming dangers sustains and justifies the massive budgets of the military and the intelligence agencies, along with the national security infrastructure that exists outside government — defense contractors, lobbying groups, think tanks, and academic departments.
In 1961, President Eisenhower admonished the nation to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex,” but his warning has gone mostly unheeded. As Sheldon Richman writes,
The military-industrial complex has never been larger or more pervasive. Thousands of companies exist to sell expensive things to the government. Fortunes have been made. The post–9/11 period has been a feeding frenzy at the taxpayers’ trough — grand larceny of historic proportions.
It should be obvious that spending hundreds of billions of dollars year in and year out on military and other “national-security” programs would create powerful constituencies dependent on crises and threats, real or perceived. Such largess creates interests that, once entrenched, will fight doggedly to preserve their privileged positions.
U.S. military power is so dominant that it is a joke to talk about threats in a conventional sense. The Pentagon’s budget could be slashed by 75 percent and the United States would still have the most powerful military in the world. There are currently no nation-states with the will or capacity to invade the American mainland. Furthermore, the United States has a powerful deterrent in its massive nuclear arsenal.
Washington does not maintain 900 overseas military bases and deploy 300,000 soldiers in 130 foreign nations for the purposes of defense. The obvious truth is that the United States maintains its overwhelming military capabilities for the purposes of empire.
The war on terror, Iranian nukes, human rights, and the “responsibility to protect,” are just national-security pretexts or cynical humanitarian facades put up by the American establishment to conceal its ruthless geopolitical strategy to control the world’s resources and prevent the rise of any challengers to U.S. hegemony.
Just a glimpse at a map of the world reveals as much. Wherever there are energy resources and chokepoints on the flow of oil, you will find a concentration of U.S. forces. The Pentagon’s own Defense Planning Guidance admits this:
The U.S. must show the leadership necessary to establish and protect a new order that holds the promise of convincing potential competitors that they need not aspire to a greater role or pursue a more aggressive posture to protect their legitimate interests. In non-defense areas, we must account sufficiently for the interests of the advanced industrial nations to discourage them from challenging our leadership or seeking to overturn the established political and economic order. We must maintain the mechanism for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.
But this imperial-military order demands a prodigious infusion of cash — and with the U.S. economy still in free fall, and the federal government borrowing forty cents for every dollar it spends, the foundations are cracking. Since 2000, the national debt has gone from $5.7 trillion to almost $16 trillion today. U.S. policy makers appear to think they can borrow forever and not face any consequences.
This delusion encourages the United States government to make its foreign policy increasingly bellicose and reckless. The American colossus may bestride the world today, but its bank account is empty, its credit cards are maxed out, and its days are numbered.
Tim Kelly is a columnist and policy advisor at the Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Virginia, a correspondent for Radio America’s Special Investigator, and a political cartoonist.
 Thanks to John Glaser for pointing out the Foreign Affairs article in his blog post at AntiWar.com.