Dealing with Iran: Today’s Yellow Journalism?

Editorial cartoon by Leon Barritt, 1898, depicting newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, dressed as the Yellow Kid and pushing for war with Spain (Wikimedia Commons).

by Robert E. Hunter

At long last, the U.S. mainstream media (print division), much of Congress, and the Washington think-tank commentariat are waking up to the prospect of a war with Iran and not liking what they see. Iran as a problem? Yes. But worth yet another Middle East war? No thanks.

This epiphany is coming none too soon. It is already the eleventh hour, if not the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute, something worthy of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock. Ironically, many of today’s handwringers are the same people who, for years, warned constantly that Iran is a major threat to the United States and must be confronted everywhere, with the conviction, however often denied, that only “regime change” would suffice. Further, some leaders in U.S. foreign policy, notably the late Senator John McCain, also consistently advocated bombing Iran, as did the current national security advisor, John Bolton.

Indeed, Iran has posed threats to some U.S. regional partners, notably Saudi Arabia and Israel, though they have not been innocent parties to the confrontation. But strategically, the United States is only indirectly affected. Even keeping Persian Gulf oil flowing is as much in Iran’s interest as anyone else’s—unless war is made on it and thus threatening the oil flow becomes part of its response. Further, despite the repeated insistence by U.S. officials and the commentariat that Iran is the world’s leading exporter of terrorism, that title properly belongs to Saudi Arabia, even taking into account all of Iran’s activities.

Even if Iran were guilty as charged on all counts, making war is another matter. Such a punishment would surely not fit the crime, and most Americans would agree.

President Donald Trump bears a major share of the blame for getting the United States into its current jam over Iran. In addition to the potential for great regional disruption, this confrontation is already having a destructive diplomatic and political impact on key allies, especially in Europe. Even before his election, Trump expressed his contempt for Barack Obama’s success in putting the Iranian nuclear genie back in the bottle and corking it tightly, with the 2015 multilateral Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Trump hyped the Iranian “threat” and withdrew from the JCPOA just over a year ago. Fortunately for almost everyone’s genuine security interests—including the United States, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Europeans—the Iranians so far haven’t left the pact, nor have any of the other signatories. However, in response to U.S. actions, Iran this month suspended some secondary provisions.  Trump got his headline without risking Persian Gulf stability in the nuclear realm.

Opportunities Missed? Not Even Tried

Despite its unimpeachable strategic benefit, the JCPOA has continued to have detractors in the United States, who are regularly featured in mainstream and cable media. These detractors and others who have argued that Iran is the leading source of instability in the Middle East, even worse than the Islamic State, have included some of today’s worriers about war who don’t acknowledge that their exaggeration of Iranian threats and challenges helped light the powder trail.

Notably, even following the breakthrough represented by the JCPOA, the United States did not attempt to see whether it could forge a relationship different from sheer confrontation with Iran. Maybe that was a vain hope, but it wasn’t even tried. Officials in Obama’s own administration made sure that the United States did not fully honor the agreement on lifting sanctions, and his administration imposed even more sanctions designed to influence other objectional Iranian behavior. This included its ballistic missile development program although, contrary to widespread assertions, the relevant UN Security Council resolution used hortatory (“call upon”) rather than compulsory language regarding this program. Despite the desirability of stopping Iranian ballistic missile activity, those who have wanted to increase pressure on Iran—with “regime change” the unspoken but actual goal—have ignored the distinction between “ask” and “demand.”

There was a chance for key people in the Obama administration, some of whom rightly champion their roles in negotiating the JCPOA, to try building on it. They did not do so. They have now joined the chorus arguing that, after all, diplomacy would be preferable to the risks of war.

Meanwhile in Iran

U.S. sanctions—as well as Iran’s clerical hardliners and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)– have undercut the Iranian leaders who stuck their necks out to negotiate an agreement with “the Great Satan” that effectively trammeled any Iranian nuclear weapons program. It is a wonder that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have kept their jobs.

The person who did as much as anyone else to prevent any improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supported by others in the clerical establishment who would have to be blind not to see that their popularity has sunk to the lowest level since well before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. At the same time, the IRGC, a kleptocracy rivaling that of the Russia of Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, fears that its cash cow might dry up if Iran were readmitted into the global economy.

Yet, in seeking to hold on to power and convince many Iranians that their country is under siege, Khamenei and company couldn’t ask for better supporters than U.S. hawks. In providing grist to the Khamenei’s domestic political mill, they are buttressed by other long-time champions of a U.S. war against Iran. For instance, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, in addition to his actual security calculations, also benefits politically from having an Iranian threat to point to. The only real losers are the Iranian people, who are being crushed by U.S.-imposed sanctions while Khamenei, like Washington, is indifferent to their suffering.

Despite the role of the Iranian clerical establishment in leading the Middle East perilously close to yet another war, it wouldn’t be happening without the obsession of John Bolton. The national security advisor has long pressed for war on Iran, just as he was a mover-and-shaker in getting the United States to attack Iraq in 2003, a folly of historic proportions. The crisis would also not likely have reached this state without the efforts of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who produced a 12-point set of demands for Iran that virtually amounted to an unconditional surrender. Pompeo’s stridency and inflexibility on Iranian matters is a major reason that his reputation with key U.S. allies, especially in Europe, is the lowest of any secretary of state in living memory. Last week, he broke one of the first rules of diplomacy for a senior official: don’t go to another capital to advance a cause that is sure to be rejected, as he did both in Moscow and with key allies in Brussels. Of course, he might have been simply doing due diligence before going to war.

Three Major Lessons  

First, U.S. presidents need to pay close attention to whom they choose to be on their foreign policy and defense top teams. This is especially so when, as has been true since Bill Clinton was elected, a president comes to office with little or no experience and understanding of the outside world. Bolton and Pompeo head the list of those who are poorly serving the president and, more important, the nation. They bear a heavy burden for their personal Iranian agenda.

Second, in order to avoid another unwanted war, the mainstream media, the commentariat, and think tanks need to examine their own roles in the run-up to this crisis. They must also become more open to people with a solid basis for making judgments about critical regions like the Middle East as well as U.S. interests. For the media, this lesson should have been learned from the experience of the Spanish-American War, when, to sell papers, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer competed with one another in pressing the country into war.

There are exceptions in the media—notably LobeLog, which has consistently published experts whose voices should have been listened to regarding the Middle East in general and Iranian-American relations in particular. With its limited circulation, however, along with that of other boutique publications that have been making good sense, it can’t rival its bigger cousins, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post.  They trumpeted the Iranian threat until recently when they began to realize that the fire they helped start now risks spreading out of control. Ironically, they may now have to rely on Trump to be the leading sane person in Washington so that war can be averted.

The United States is now in the awkward position of depending on the forbearance of the potential enemy to keep out of an unwanted war. Washington has also become hostage to a possible accident or miscalculation. Any number of bad actors, even lone wolves, could start a war between the United States and Iran simply by killing a few American servicemen.

Finally, the United States needs at long last to put together a coherent strategy for the Middle East, based first and foremost on assessment of U.S. interests as opposed to those of some regional partners, as has been largely true for many years.

Early in World War II, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King said that “when the going gets tough, that’s when they send for us sons-of-bitches.” Substitute today: “those who have their heads screwed on straight.”

Don’t count on it—even though a war with Iran would make what has happened in Iraq since the 2003 invasion look like a “cake walk.”

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Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.

SHOW 12 COMMENTS

12 Comments

  1. This situation represents the malfunctioning of governance system in US in which anybody with relatively little money can lobby effectively toward anything from keeping guns at home to starting wars.

  2. Anne Johnson:

    Ambassador Hunter is being disingenuous when he writes: “…Iranian clerical establishment in leading the Middle East perilously close to yet another war…”

    Iraq attacked Iran in 1980.

    The beloved pit-bull of US attacked and occupied large parts of Lebanon for 18 years in 1982.

    The newly-found bosom buddy of US, Iraq, invaded Kuwait in 1991.

    US invaded Iraq in 2003.

    The pit bull again attacked Lebanon in 2006 and had its ass handed to it.

    US & drinking buddies in EU attacked and destroyed Libya.

    US, the Gulfie Arabs (including Qatar), EU buddies, and Turkey instigated and fed a war in Syria to destroy the Syrian Arab Republic – in 2011 – which failed due to Iran and Russia.

    The “Moderate” Arab friends of US – namely Saudi Arabia and UAE – you know the ones who attacked US in 9/11/2001 and then wee giggling about it later, initiated the war against Yemen in 2013 with active participation of US, France, and UK.

    Let us not kid ourselves here who the warmongers are.

  3. EB HADI

    There is no malfunction; US government is pursuing policies that are indicated by the US electorate, through their representatives. One of those policies has been to destroy enemies of Israel.

  4. With the President now talking about an “official end to Iran,” one wonders where we are in fact on the slide towards a confrontation with Iran. In any case, thanks Ambassador Hunter, for this timely calling out of many of those who have watched this mess expand and done nothing to contain or reverse it.

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