According to a New Yorker article by Seymour Hersh published Friday, during the George W. Bush administration the United States funded, armed, and trained in Nevada members of Mujahideen-e-Khalq — an Iranian dissident group seeking the overthrow of Iran’s government and who, along with Israel, are reported to have been behind the assassinations of several Iranian nuclear scientists. MEK has been designated by the U.S. Department of State as a terrorist organization since 1997.
In other words, the U.S. government has provided material support to a group that by its own admission is comprised of terrorists, which as Glenn Greenwald points out, is a crime in the U.S. Hersh’s piece is significant not just because it exposes yet more criminality perpetrated by the Bush administration, but because it reveals a glaring hypocrisy in American foreign policy that should add some much needed perspective to the current situation between the U.S. and Iran.
The U.S. has long reserved the right to act preventively through military action in order to ward off potential threats to its security and hegemony (which, contrary to neoconservative orthodoxy, are not the same). This view was most notably advanced in the Bush administration’s 2002 National Security Strategy, which for the first time formally articulated the erstwhile approach to foreign policy that has spanned presidential administrations of both parties. That document served as the philosophical justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which the Bush administration alleged possessed weapons of mass destruction — the proof of which, said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, could come in the form of a “mushroom cloud” if the U.S. did not act.
A similar drama has been playing out between the U.S. and Iran today. President Obama has cryptically stated that “when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table.” It is not difficult to imagine the outraged reaction in the U.S. if Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmahdinejad or Ayatollah Ali Khamenei were to declare that when it comes to dealing with the U.S., “all options are on the table.” Such a remark would be met with all the alarmism of Ahmadinejad’s misreported comment about Israel being “wiped off the map,” which was not a promise of future action, but the expression of wish. However abhorrent that wish may be, desiring something is quite different from having the ability to facilitate its realization, or even the willingness to carry it out.
President Obama then, in keeping with the spirit of the Bush doctrine, has declared that the U.S. will not allow Iran to engage in certain activities even within the confines of its own borders, lest that activity ultimately, someday, possibly lead to something along the lines of that mushroom cloud Rice mentioned.
Applying this standard, the Iranians can make a far better case for waging preventive war against the nuclear-armed U.S. than vice versa. In the first place, Iran is surrounded by the U.S. and its allies. There are over 100,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan to Iran’s east, a large American diplomatic and intelligence contingent in Iraq to Iran’s west; an American naval fleet within easy striking distance of Iran in the Persian Gulf; and several American allies and military installations throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. Coupled with Obama’s “all options” rhetoric (which has amazingly come under attack from the Right for being insufficiently hawkish), the Iranians have every reason to feel besieged. The U.S. can make no such claim about Iran. And by itself, the revelation that the U.S. has funded, armed, and trained an Iranian dissident group looking to overthrow Iran’s government gives the Iranian regime a much more credible pretext for preventive war against the U.S. than the U.S. has against Iran.
Despite this more credible pretext, it would wrong for Iran to attack the U.S. for the same moral, legal, and practical reasons it would be wrong for the U.S. to attack Iran. For all the heated rhetoric, the support by both countries of terrorist groups, and Iran’s nuclear program, military action is not inevitable. Whatever “escalations” Iran has engaged in, they are best explained as responses to the perception of an increasingly hostile U.S. (and Israel) that has through its words and actions, explicitly declared that the burden it has to meet to justify the use of force is much lower than that of other countries. As long as this view persists among U.S. policymakers, Americans will continue to find themselves embroiled in diplomatic and military confrontations with states that pose no serious threat to their security.