Slouching Toward a Hot War

by Chris Toensing | published January 31, 2012 - 12:49pm

The odd, improbable Manssor Arbabsiar story is back, in prepared Congressional testimony by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper asserting that the alleged scheme “shows that some Iranian officials -- probably including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei -- have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived US actions that threaten the regime.”

In attributing de facto sponsorship of Arbabsiar to Khamenei, Clapper puts a prominent name on the face of previously vaguer Obama administration statements about how high in the Islamic Republic the supposed plot went. His testimony is thus an escalation of the White House’s anti-Iran rhetoric -- which the administration seemed, as of mid-month, to be ratcheting down. The cold war, it appeared, was edging too close to a hot one.

These adjustments of animus may be election-driven, but they are not ephemeral. They have lasting consequences: They put the administration on the record ascribing ill intent to Iran, making it harder to climb down later, if nothing else because the GOP will not stop attacking Barack Obama as soft on Iran if the Republican candidate happens to lose in November. They harden the belief within the Islamic Republic that Washington is an implacable foe. And more broadly, as Trita Parsi and Shiva Balaghi have written, they facilitate the loose “war talk” that attends every iteration of the US-Iranian confrontation. War talk, Balaghi notes, “creates a highly volatile atmosphere in which logic and history are pushed aside.” It has a way of drowning out more rational, deep-breathing types of discourse. (And its volatility may be even greater inside the Islamic Republic, which is much more palpably threatened by the United States than the other way around.)

Some may seize upon the last clause in Clapper’s quotation above -- “in response to real or perceived US actions that threaten the regime” -- to make the case that the Obama administration is more sensible than it seems. This phrase would seem to indicate that the White House appreciates, as the working level of the US intelligence community surely does, that any direct Iranian use of force against the US would be deterrent or defensive in motivation. That might sound like an argument that Washington should simply avoid issuing provocations of its own or, at the very least, that there is no immediate reason to fear Iran.

But, as the White House surely knew it would be, the headline is the first part of Clapper’s judgment, as well as the explicit mention of Khamenei. What Clapper said will root itself in the media hothouse and stick in Americans’ minds as “Iran is a bigger threat than we thought.”

The US and/or Israel are probably not terribly close to ordering military action against Iran, at least not as close as Israeli controlled leakers would like Iran to think. But overall, as Peter Jenkins, the former British envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, illustrates, the West and Iran are slouching down the path to physical confrontation. Jenkins points one finger at Iran but four at Western bad faith: “It looks as though the real goal of sanctions is not to get Iran back to the negotiating table, but to get Iran to give way on the demands that it has spent the last six years declining to concede.” One main demand, the cessation of uranium enrichment, is Iran’s right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and is thus resented across the Iranian political spectrum. Jenkins served in his IAEA post from 2001-2006, and was presumably quite involved in formulating the Western position; his piece is thus quite a stinging indictment.

In the case of both the stalemated nuclear talks and the surrounding war talk, the key dynamic to worry about is how, bit by bit, intransigence becomes an end in itself. It certainly does make one wonder if, to quote Jenkins again, “Western policy is driven not by non-proliferation goals, but by some ulterior purpose.”