Washington’s new “group think” on Iran – that the only possible approach is a heightened confrontation followed by “regime change” – is being shaped by the same opinion leaders who charted the way into the bloody disaster in Iraq and paid no career price.
On Wednesday, New York Times’ columnist Thomas L. Friedman rejoined the gang of tough-guy pundits by roughing up the leaders of Brazil and Turkey for daring to negotiate an agreement with Iran that would have it ship about half its low-enriched uranium out of the country and thus spur hopes for a peaceful settlement.
To Friedman, this deal was “as ugly as it gets,” the title of his column. However, others might think that seven-plus years of carnage in Iraq – the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, children with limbs blown off, and the 4,400 dead American soldiers and their grieving families – might be uglier.
But not Friedman, who like many of his fellow millionaire pundits cheered on the Iraq War as the only possible way to deal with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, just as they now are demanding “regime change” in Iran, rather than an agreement to ensure that Iran doesn’t produce a nuclear bomb, which Iran vows it doesn’t want anyway.
In his new belligerent column on Iran, Friedman makes clear that he isn’t really interested in nuclear safeguards; instead, he wants the United States to do whatever it can to help Iran’s internal opposition overthrow President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s Islamic-directed government.
“In my view, the ‘Green Revolution’ in Iran is the most important, self-generated, democracy movement to appear in the Middle East in decades,” Friedman wrote.
“It has been suppressed, but it is not going away, and, ultimately, its success — not any nuclear deal with the Iranian clerics — is the only sustainable source of security and stability. We have spent far too little time and energy nurturing that democratic trend and far too much chasing a nuclear deal.”
That argument, of course, runs parallel to the neocon case for war with Iraq, that “regime change” was the only acceptable outcome. False claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction were just the means to get the American public to support that end, just as the exaggerated fears about Iran’s nuclear program are becoming the new excuse for another bid at “regime change.”
However, unlike Iraq which was ruled by dictator Saddam Hussein, the neocon goal of overthrowing Iran’s government faces the unacknowledged reality that Ahmadinejad almost certainly won the June 12, 2009, election – that he is a popularly elected leader.
The Election Fraud Myth
Though the U.S. press corps has refused to accept that fact – and routinely describes the election as “fraudulent,” “rigged” or “stolen,” the reality is there has been no serious evidence presented to support those claims.
Indeed, the overwhelming evidence is that Ahmadinejad, with strong support from the poor especially in more conservative rural areas, defeated the “Green Revolution” candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi by roughly the 2-to-1 margin of the official results.
For instance, an analysis by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes earlier this year concluded that most Iranians voted for Ahmadinejad and viewed his reelection as legitimate, contrary to claims made by much of the U.S. news media.
Not a single Iranian poll analyzed by PIPA – whether before or after the June 12 election, whether conducted inside or outside Iran – showed Ahmadinejad with less than majority support. None showed Mousavi, a former prime minister, ahead or even close.
"These findings do not prove that there were no irregularities in the election process,” said Steven Kull, director of PIPA. “But they do not support the belief that a majority rejected Ahmadinejad." [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Ahmadinejad Won, Get Over It!”]
If these and other scholarly examinations are correct – and there is no counter-evidence that they aren’t – what happened after the June 12 election is that Mousavi simply refused to accept the voters’ choice and – with the enthusiastic backing of the U.S. news media – undertook to reverse the results with massive street protests.
During those demonstrations, a few protesters threw Molotov cocktails at police (scenes carried on CNN but quickly forgotten by the U.S. news media) and security forces overreacted with repression and violence.
Though it’s fair to condemn excessive force used by Iran’s police, you can be sure that if the same factors were transplanted to an American ally, the U.S. news media’s treatment would be completely different. Suddenly, the security forces would be protecting “democracy” from anti-democratic mobs disgruntled over losing.
But Friedman and other neocon pundits have taken the false conventional wisdom – that Mousavi was the voters’ choice – and transformed it into a new casus belli.
This pattern of turning propaganda into political truth is eerily reminiscent of the black-and-white portrayals of the crisis with Iraq eight years ago. Then, neocons advanced the notion that violent confrontation with Iraq was the only way to remake the Middle East so it would be less threatening to Israeli and Western interests.
However, Friedman’s new column leaves out the historical context of Iraq. For instance, he doesn’t recall how enamored he was of British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s glib rationale for invading Iraq and forcibly planting the seeds of “democracy” there.
In those days, Friedman dubbed himself a pro-war Democrat who favored “regime change” – what he called “a Tony Blair Democrat” in line with the widespread neocon belief that President George W. Bush was right to invade Iraq but that Blair’s crisp English-accented rhetoric presented the case better.
Today, it might seem that anyone foolish enough to call himself “a Tony Blair Democrat” – after Blair has gone down in history as “Bush’s poodle” on Iraq and set the stage for this year’s historic repudiation of his Labour Party – should have the decency to simply vacate the public stage and let some other aspiring pundit try his or her luck.
But that’s not how it works in the world of U.S. punditry. As long as you don’t disrupt what the Establishment wants to do, you can count on keeping your job. When the carousel circles around to another possible war, you’re poised to reach for another brass ring.
So it has been with Thomas Friedman, whose witty observation before Bush’s invasion of Iraq was that it was time to “give war a chance,” a flippant play on John Lennon’s lyrics to the song, “Give Peace a Chance.”
Then, when the war didn’t go as swimmingly as he and other neocons expected, Friedman became famous for his repetitious, ever-receding “six month” timelines for progress. Finally, in August 2006, he concluded that the Iraq War wasn’t worth it, that “it is now obvious that we are not midwifing democracy in Iraq. We are babysitting a civil war.”
Friedman added “that means ‘staying the course’ is pointless, and it’s time to start thinking about Plan B – how we might disengage with the least damage possible.” [NYT, Aug. 4, 2006]
Yet, despite this implicit admission that the war was a waste, Friedman kept slighting Americans who had resisted the rush to war in the first place.
Twelve days after his shift in position, Friedman demeaned Americans who opposed the Iraq War as “antiwar activists who haven’t thought a whit about the larger struggle we’re in.” [NYT, Aug. 16, 2006]
In other words, according to Friedman, Americans who were right about the ill-fated invasion of Iraq were still airheads who couldn’t grasp the bigger picture that had been so obvious to himself, his fellow pundits and pro-war politicians who had tagged along with Bush and Blair.
As I noted in an article at the time, “it’s as if Official Washington has become a sinister version of Alice in Wonderland. Under the bizarre rules of Washington’s pundit society, the foreign policy ‘experts,’ who acted like Cheshire Cats pointing the United States in wrong directions, get rewarded for their judgment and Americans who opposed going down the rabbit hole in the first place earn only derision.”
In the nearly four years since then, the twisted reality of Official Washington hasn’t changed. The mainstream U.S. media is still dominated by the editorialists and news executives who endorsed the invasion of Iraq – and who now are determined to seek “regime change” in Iran.
Friedman is back reprising his role as a neocon propagandist with a friendly “pro-democracy” rationale for confrontation. Interestingly, however, he is acknowledging what some neocon critics, such as former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, have claimed, that the goal of the standoff with Iran isn’t really about its alleged nuclear-bomb desires, but rather about the desires for “regime change” among American neocons and Israeli hardliners.
Friedman is arguing that the Obama administration, instead of seeking an agreement that would ensure that Iran will live up to its word that it doesn’t want to build a nuclear bomb, should pursue “regime change” by supporting the Green Revolution and promoting “democracy.”
The fact that Ahmadinejad was the choice of the majority of the Iranian people doesn’t seem to matter much in Friedman’s “democratic” calculations. In that, Friedman seems to be expressing a view that he knows what’s best for the Iranian people, although he masks that paternalism with his bogus claim that Mousavi actually won.
Surely, Ahmadinejad, like Saddam Hussein, has contributed to his and his nations’ problems with wrongful actions and stupid rhetoric, making the work of neocon propagandists all the easier. But the truth is that actions of any national leader can be made to appear more outrageous or more reasonable depending on how the media frames these matters.
For example, Ahmadinejad, a little-educated populist from the Tehran’s “street,” has made obnoxious and ill-informed comments questioning the Holocaust against Jews during World War II (though I’m told he recognizes his mistake and has agreed to keep his mouth shut on this topic for months).
However, to extrapolate Ahmadinejad’s idiotic comments about the Holocaust into a readiness to attack Israel, a rogue nuclear state with hundreds of undeclared nukes, is the kind of logical overreach that we saw before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Back then, the Bush administration conjured up nightmare scenarios of Iraq flying unmanned planes over the United States to spray poison gases.
The game here is always to put what an “enemy” says or might theoretically do in the worst – or most alarmist – light. Similarly, if the goal is “regime change,” then the recent peace-seeking actions of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had to be condemned, not praised.
In what could have been an important breakthrough over Iran’s nuclear program, Erdogan and Lula da Silva persuaded Ahmadinejad to accept an agreement, originally brokered by the Obama administration last fall, to send 2,640 pounds of Iran’s low-enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for higher-enriched uranium that could only be put to peaceful medical uses.
Yet, even before the revived agreement was announced on May 17, the neocon editors of the Washington Post were already mocking the Brazil-Turkey initiative as “yet another effort to ‘engage’ the extremist clique of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.”
After the joint Iran-Brazil-Turkey announcement in Tehran, the rhetorical abuse escalated with Washington pundits and administration hardliners, like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, treating the leaders of Brazil and Turkey as unwelcome interlopers who were intruding on America’s diplomatic turf in an effort to grandstand.
Lula da Silva responded by challenging those Americans who insisted that it was “none of Brazil’s business” to act as an intermediary to resolve the showdown with Iran.
“But who said it was a matter for the United States?" he asked. "The blunt truth is, Iran is being presented as if it were the devil, that it doesn't want to sit down" to negotiate, contrary to the fact that "Iran decided to sit down at the negotiating table. It wants to see if the others are going to go along with what (it) has done."
What Friedman revealed in his Wednesday column was that the neocons have no particular interest in a negotiated settlement regarding Iranian nukes; they want an escalation of tensions that can set the stage for either internal upheaval in Iran or an external assault on its military infrastructure.
Friedman essentially tossed the leaders of Brazil and Turkey out of the civilized world and portrayed them as dupes of Ahmadinejad, writing:
“I confess that when I first saw the May 17 picture of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, joining his Brazilian counterpart, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with raised arms — after their signing of a putative deal to defuse the crisis over Iran’s nuclear weapons program — all I could think of was: Is there anything uglier than watching democrats sell out other democrats to a Holocaust-denying, vote-stealing Iranian thug just to tweak the U.S. and show that they, too, can play at the big power table?
“No, that’s about as ugly as it gets.”
Notice how Friedman reprised all the key propaganda points regarding Iran, including the “vote-stealing” canard.
This unrelenting hostility toward the Iran-Brazil-Turkey accord caught Brazilian and Turkish officials by surprise, in part because it turns out they had been encouraged by President Barack Obama to pursue this initiative.
After Friedman’s column and the other derogatory comments, Brazil released a three-page letter that President Obama sent to President Lula da Silva just last month in which Obama said the proposed uranium swap “would build confidence and reduce regional tensions by substantially reducing Iran’s” stockpile of low-enriched uranium.
The contrast between Obama’s support for the initiative and the anger from other voices in Washington caused “some puzzlement,” one senior Brazilian official told the New York Times. After all, this official said, the supportive “letter came from the highest authority and was very clear.”
Yet, this extraordinary incident may actually clarify two important points:
First, that American neocons and Israeli hardliners aren’t really interested in getting Iran to agree to a nuclear accord, but rather want to use the nuclear standoff as an excuse to press for “regime change.”
And second, that neocon opinion-shapers, like Friedman, remain very influential in the U.S. news media and have the clout to obliterate a peace initiative – even one favored by the President of the United States.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on May 28, 2010.