by Shaahed Pooyandeh and Setareh Shohadaei
A dangerous, insidious public relations campaign has begun to prepare Western public opinion for economic and military intervention in Iran.
This campaign has already brought the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, a Patriot missile defense battery, and a bomber task force to the Persian Gulf. The Pentagon just announced the deployment of 1,500 American troops, along with drones and fighter jets, to the Middle East. The U.S. President has declared an emergency over Iran—a rarely used provision that allows the president to bypass congressional review—to sell over $8 billion worth of weapons and military equipment to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan, for defense against Iran’s so-called “threat.” Several of these escalations took place after Iran removed any perceived threats by unloading missiles from the small boats its military operates in the Persian Gulf.
A host of Iranian expat individuals and organizations are at the forefront of justifying the aggression against Iran. The scenario mirrors what we witnessed in 2003, when the George W. Bush administration claimed that the people of Iraq were waiting to be liberated from the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein. The U.S. government used the Iraqi National Council led by Ahmad Chalabi to convince the public that the people of Iraq would welcome invading U.S. soldiers with open arms.
A recent development in the effort to “manufacturing consent” regarding a potential war with Iran is a piece published in the Independent titled “The Iranian Revolutionary Guards are Terrorists- I’ve seen evidence with my own eyes” by Ms. Masih Alinejad. Published one day after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) a Foreign Terrorist Organization, the article opens with a video of Pompeo’s declaration. After providing a mix of unverifiable analyses and personal narratives in condemnation of IRGC activities, the article ends with the sentence “Anything which weakens the IRGC is a step in the right direction.”
Who Delivers the Narrative?
Masih Alinejad is the host of a program on the Voice of America Persian Television Service, funded by the U.S. State Department. She also operates a social media campaign against mandatory Hijab laws in Iran. In February, she met with Pompeo to secure his support for Iranian women’s rights. Shortly after, a petition was signed by over 1000 independent Iranian feminists and human rights activists condemning her campaign as faux activism.
Alinejad is not alone in propagating the U.S. administration’s policies towards Iran. There are a number of organizations and activists, directly or indirectly funded by the U.S. government, calling for regime change in Iran. State Department-funded foreign language media including Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Liberty have a long history of generating American propaganda dating back to the Cold War. The People’s Mujahedin of Iran with ties to John Bolton and Rudy Giuliani, the Tavana Initiative partially funded by the Democracy Endowment Fund, and individuals such as Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Saeed Ghasseminejad of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, two AIPAC funded think tanks, are but some of the main organizations whose leaders have openly called for war and sanctions against Iran in the name of human rights and democracy. Their goal is not too difficult to guess: normalizing the military option against Iran, establishing links between the IRGC and terrorism/weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), and depicting the Iranian people as in dire need of being rescued.
The evidence Alinejad provides as to the IRGC’s terrorist activities are: first, that they are a corrupt military-industrial organization whose funding has increased over the years; second, that they were involved in the suppression of domestic protests; and third, that they exert “influence” on foreign policy in “Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and even Russia.”
Now, if we just replace the IRGC with the U.S. military, could we not arrive at the same conclusion? We know that the U.S. military-industrial complex has enjoyed regular budgetary increases despite popular protests over the years, and we know that an internal report by the Pentagon revealed that it could not account for $125 billion in military spending. We also know that the U.S. military has been active in crushing the Standing Rock protests at home. And we need not speak of its “influence” in various countries around the globe.
So what makes the IRGC different? According to international law, a nation’s military force maintains sovereign legitimacy in its use of force and is subject to the principle of non-intervention, However, according to the definition of terrorism in the U.S. code of Criminal Justice “the term military force does not include any person that has been designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the Secretary of State.” Voila, in one act of labeling by Secretary Pompeo, a country’s military force is now a terrorist organization subject to “anything” that will stop it. What remains up for grabs, is what we, the people, think of it.
A Familiar Story
In 2003 the United States and its coalition allies invaded Iraq. Prior to the invasion, Iraq had been under severe sanctions since 1990, crippling its economy, killing at least 500,000 children alone from famine, destroying its civil society, and intensifying Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian cruelties.
After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration exploited the sentiments of a grieving public and called on the UN to support his invasion of Iraq. The justification: (1) that Saddam’s regime owned weapons of mass destruction; (2) that he was supporting terrorism, and (3) that the Iraqi people needed to be rescued from his dictatorship.
In 2002, the UN Security Council authorized the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect Iraq’s military sites. The IAEA did not find any evidence of activities that pointed towards the revival of Iraq’s nuclear or other WMD programs. After the unsuccessful attempt at convincing the international community of the need for military action, the U.S. decided to act unilaterally. An expansive domestic public relations campaign was launched to establish a false link between the 9/11 attacks and Iraq. In February 2003, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell presented at the UN Security Council evidence of biological weapons labs in Iraq, and in March the U.S. military and its allies invaded. Much of the information presented by Secretary Powell was provided by Iraqi expats and opposition organizations (e.g. Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress), and was later found to have been false.
The same scenario is being re-enacted with regard to Iran now. Iran’s nuclear developments had become a concern for the international community, resulting in severe sanctions starting in 2006. By 2015, Iran and the P5+1 countries (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) reached the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement, according to which Iran would agree to major limitations on its nuclear activities in return for elimination of the UN., EU., and U.S. sanctions. All IAEA reports confirm that Iran has thus far abided by the conditions of JCPOA.
In 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would unilaterally leave the JCPOA and reinstate economic sanctions against Iran. In his presidential address, Trump noted that there was definitive proof that Iran is still conducting nuclear activities. Arguments in support of the U.S. pulling out of the JCPOA usually combine nuclear accusations with concerns about the violation of human rights in Iran, and the Iranian regime’s sponsorship of terrorism in the region. The message this imparts to the public is clear: (1) Iran is a global threat trying to acquire WMD, (2) it supports terrorism, and (3) the Iranian people need to be rescued. Ring a bell?
Not surprisingly, at the forefront of this public campaign to pursue “regime change” by any means in Iran, are a group of opposition organizations and Iranian expats, including Alinejad, offering their “evidence.” While the damaging effects of economic sanctions on the Iranian people have been extensively discussed, these organizations manipulate global public sentiment towards human rights violations, while advocating for further sanctions as a means of “freeing” Iran from the regime and its Revolutionary Guards.
Who Are the Revolutionary Guards?
As a military force, the IRGC has over one hundred thousand members, and drafts thousands of soldiers for compulsory military service each year. During the reconstruction efforts in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war, the IRGC became a major participant in economic and development activities, and has over time established a large number of firms, subsidiaries, trusts, commercial and investment banks, and other economic entities, employing thousands of Iranian civilians. The IRGC has expanded its influence in Iran’s economy, and plays a significant role in the country’s largest infrastructure projects and oil and gas industries. As a result, many Iranian job seekers inevitably wind up working in development projects with some ties to the IRGC. Identifying the IRGC as a terrorist organization will mean severe economic and political ramifications for large numbers of Iranians, some of whom might be future students that Brian Hook, a senior advisor to Secretary Pompeo, invites to come study at American universities.
The situation is more complicated than what Alinejad et al. aim to portray. The IRGC has strong ties with multiple layers of the Iranian society for its pivotal role in defending the country during the war with Iraq. The imposed war, during which the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein, has remained a part of the Iranian people’s collective memory, and for a considerable number of Iranians the IRGC is the representation of thousands of lives lost defending the integrity of the country.
Amid the havoc caused by the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the IRGC has significantly expanded its operations beyond Iranian borders into neighboring countries. During the years after the imposition of U.S.-led international sanctions in 2006, the IRGC developed a stronghold in Syria in cooperation with Bashar al-Assad’s government, with disastrous humanitarian consequences. Inside Iran, at the same time as the implementation of the 2006 sanctions, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei “reinterpreted” Article 44 of the Iranian Constitution, handing over some 80 percent of the country’s publicly-owned industries and infrastructure to the “private” sector and thereby expanding the influence of the IRGC in order to “bypass” the sanctions. “Anything” that the U.S. has done so far to “weaken” the IRGC has only resulted in the consolidation of their power and the weakening of Iranian, Afghan, Iraqi, and Syrian civil societies.
What Does “Anything” Imply?
In Iraq the U.S. has left behind a ruin. At least three hundred thousand people are dead since the invasion alone, millions are displaced, and generations to come will endure the trauma. The Iraqi government still struggles with sovereignty issues, and dire living conditions have enabled the country to become a terrorist breeding ground over the years, bringing ISIS into the world.
These wars are funded at the expense of American people. While the U.S. military industry has profited handsomely from the war, public spending programs have witnessed massive cuts and “austerity measures.” The U.S. has spent an estimated total of $6 trillion since 9/11, that is, $32 million per hour.
This is the path upon which we now tread towards Iran. Global public opinion is, once again, taken hostage in the name of human rights to justify large military spending and geopolitical engineering in the Middle East. As far as the Iranian people’s rights and liberties are concerned, there is a long history of independent democratic resistance in Iran, at times against U.S. interference in its affairs. Moreover, the region and the world still have a long way to go before they reach anything that might look like a recovery from indefinite war and terrorism initiated by the last round of U.S. “support” in the Middle East. The lessons could not be more clear. Sanctions are not support. War is not peace.
Setareh Shohadaei is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of Politics at The New School for Social Research. Shaahed Pooyandeh is an economist.