Threats of force against Iran have escalated and new sanctions have weakened the Iranian economy much to the pleasure of Washington and its allies. In the recent vice presidential debate Republican candidate Paul Ryan labeled Iran ‘the world’s largest sponsor of terrorism.’ Biden, in accord with this script, hailed the new sanctions that have devastated Iran’s economy. Or as Joe stated ‘[the Iranians] are being crippled by them. And we‘ve made it clear, big nations can‘t bluff.’ Both comments were accepted with casual approval by the educated classes, a norm for privileged society. Yet it would be instructive to measure the credibility of such statements.
Iran has aroused the contempt of the ‘west’ for their alleged refusal to halt the development of nuclear capabilities which some claim will lead to nuclear weapons. President Obama has repeatedly threatened Iran with military force, of course in violation of the UN Charter, and has ‘tightened the vice’ on a sanctions regime that would be seen as a form of collective punishment in less indoctrinated circles. To be precise, the kind of punishment explicitly forbidden under the Geneva Conventions.
In fact, on-the-ground testimonials within Iran attest to the harmful effects of these sanctions and, more sinisterly, Biden’s maxim that “big nations can‘t bluff”. For example, since this new round of economic sanctions were imposed, the value of the Iranian rial has been cut in half, rising costs have made staple foods harder to purchase, and even hemophilia centers have reported resource shortages, a result of the barriers placed on the importation of vital medicines. According to a report released by Arseh Sevom, an Amsterdam based NGO, the head of Iran’s hemophilia center delivered a letter to the director of the Global Hemophilia Association pointing out that ‘blocks [on Iran’ s banking system] have made payments for medications nearly impossible’. Very rarely does any of this enter the establishment press, a moral disgrace for those who take seriously elementary principles of international law. A graphic example of this refusal to examine the content of Biden’s statement can be discerned in the western media’s treatment of the recent meeting of the non-aligned movement in Tehran. The New York Times described the non-aligned movement as “the biggest single voting bloc in the 193-member General Assembly at the United Nations”. Naturally, one would expect the press to cover the deliberations and documents that emerged from this historic meeting. This was not the case.
The main document to come out of this meeting was the Tehran declaration, a unanimously agreed upon document which condemned ‘all acts of terrorism, in all their forms and manifestations’; in particular, the document denounced the murders of ‘civilian researchers and scientists who have fallen victim to [an] inhumane terrorist campaign’. We should not expect anyone in the west to cite this report, its substance tells us too much about ourselves. For example, it deems the murder of civilian scientists acts of terrorism, a fact that should be obvious to anyone with a moderate understanding of international law.
Newspapers in the US, like the New York Times, do not consider the murder of nuclear scientists acts of terror. In a January article authored by Alan Cowell the word terrorist is placed in scare quotes and Iran is accused of ‘anti-western belligerence’. Contrast this with Cowell’s article after the attacks on the US embassy in Benghazi where he wrote that ‘5 US ambassadors had been killed by terrorists . . . according to the state department’. Journalism of this kind advances an orientalist doctrine that only America’s so-called enemies can engage in terrorism and any deviation from this doctrinal norm is a sign of ‘anti-western belligerence’ (the removal of the MEK from the terrorist list is but the latest development in this practice). This mode of thought was captured most powerfully in an article that appeared in the Diplomat titled Grand Strategy of the Authoritarian Axis: How Will the West Respond? Here Dr. William Martel, an associate professor of international security at the Fletcher School, decries what he calls a ‘dramatic shift in international politics’, namely states that ‘oppose and resist the policies and actions of the US, the UN, and its allies.’
It’s of great significance that Dr. Martel singled out states that resist the policies of the UN because the US is,by far, the chief obstacle to the passage of comprehensive resolutions at the UN. Take for instance the fact that the US has exercised its veto power 42 times since 1970, more than any other nation. Unilateralist policies of this kind are even recognized in conservative publications like Foreign Policy Magazine and the National Journal. Foreign Policy Magazine’s David Rothkopf described Obama’s drone war in Pakistan as a policy built upon the ‘coerced consent’ of Islamabad and the National Journal highlighted the ways in which the Obama administration, quite apart from a repudiation of the foreign policies that characterized the Bush administration, represents the latest affirmation Bush’s policies, the signature of an ‘imperial presidency’.
Add to this the potential human costs that are likely to be endured by ordinary Iranians in the event of a military strike. When the possibilities are contemplated the criminality of the threats issued by President Obama, Biden, and Benjamin Netanyahu are given a frightening degree of depth. Take for example a scientific study authored by Iranian physicist Khosrow Semani titled The Ayatollah’s Nuclear Gamble. In this study a grim picture is painted which details ‘the human and environmental consequences of an Israeli nuclear strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.’ In section six of the report titled Human Casualties Semani writes “The probability of an attack on Natanz is high. With 2,000 total workers onsite, we estimate 1,000 casualties resulting from a strike. In addition, the casualties from toxic plumes in the Natanz rural region could range between 1,700-7000 people.”
Comparable or worse body counts are estimated if the other nuclear facilites are bombed: Isfahan, 5000-70,000 dead; Arak, 500-3,600 dead; Bushehr, 2,400-12,000 dead. Samin concludes by writing “total casualties at all four sites could range from 5,500 to 85,000“. To put it in more straightfoward terms, if an Israeli strike on Iran were to use the maximal amount of firepower the death toll would be equal to that of 30.8 September 11 attacks, a record in the annals of state-terrorism surpassed in savagery only by maybe the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
Incidentally, there are some finer points to be touched upon about Martel’s ‘authoritarian axis’; specifically, those states that are consciously omitted from the category of authoritarian. For example, Martel fails to mention the overt authoritarianism of places like Saudi Arabia or, more interestingly, the most militarized and volatile region in South Asia: Kashmir. India’s ongoing atrocities in occupied Kashmir have been extensively documented by researchers like Angana Chatterji and the Citizen’s Council for Justice. In Chatterji’s 2009 preliminary report, Buried Evidence: Unknown, Unmarked, and Mass Graves in Indian Administered Kashmir, she describes an ‘anthropology of violence’ filled with extra judicial killings, custodial deaths, sexual assaults, mass graves, and the wholesale denial of fundamental human rights. This ‘low-intensity war’ against Kashmiris has led to ‘widespread use of torture in detention camps and interrogation centers,’ which has affected more than 60,000 people, clear war crimes. Moreover, ‘incalculable numbers have experienced gendered and sexualized violence, including use of rape as a means of torture.’ These depredations have entered their 62nd year and have no perceivable end in sight.
All of this falls silently on the ears of the ‘free world’. Upon his 2010 trip to India President Obama, according to an interview with Chatterji on David Barsamian’s Alternative Radio, was sent a letter signed by 30 prominent parliamentarians which detailed these crimes. The response they received was less than compassionate to put it mildly. In fact, he did not respond at all. Instead President Obama met with a cadre of CEOs in Mumbai to announce that “the Boeing company and the Indian Air Force [had] reached [a] preliminary agreement on the purchase of 10 C-17 Globemaster III military transport aircraft” and that the US was “now in the process of finalizing the details of the sale”. Tripti Lahiri of the Wall Street Journal reported that the deal amounted to an estimated $15 billion”. This military affair was consummated, in part, earlier this year when India was upgraded to the rank of regional ‘linchpin’ in the US military’s so-called ‘pivot’ toward the Asia-Pacific. The US also holds the distinction of participating in more joint military exercises with India than any other country.
It would be useful for us to imagine what the reaction would be in the west if Iran mobilized its revolutionary guard to the country’s northern region and slaughtered, displaced, and raped thousands of Bahais, entered into an Iran Strategic Dialogue agreement with Moscow, and used this Russian support to participate in 56 joint military exercises in the Strait of Hormuz. The response would plausibly be more than a yawn. In fact, the press would be agitating for war.
India, a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, is also engaged in ‘possible uranium sales’ with Australia and was even ‘granted a waiver’ by the Nuclear Supplies Group which normally bars membership for non-signatories. Again, we can ask how the newspapers would read if Iran entered into uranium sales with China, another instructive thought experiment made more illuminating by the fact that Iran would be entitled to such an exchange as a signatory of the NPT. All of this provides more than enough facts to understand Biden’s cryptic statement and the power play it conceals. It’s a policy that is ugly but standard for terrorist states, namely to impose a ‘[strategy] of governance that [produces] and circulates death,’ where “‘safety’ is made synonymous with submission to violent governance.”
Fortunately, in the United States such violence is more structural and shields us from the more naked forms of military brutality like that carried out in places like Kashmir, what Chatterji called ‘death as strategy.’ Yet we cannot deny that we have a major hand in the violence that has come to characterize the region. The same can be said for the people of Tehran who continue to languish under the harshest sanctions on earth because ‘big nations can’t bluff’. It is clear that these policies will proceed uninterrupted as long as the American public and the compliant press remain silent on these matters. Perhaps, we have mastered the practice of “death as strategy” to create a new paradigm: death as principle. The godfathers of world history would undoubtedly be impressed.