Yet Another Neocon call to arms by Playing Victim and Avoiding Responsibility

The neoconservative hawk and deputy editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens, has once again figured it all out. The Islamic Republic of Iran has been at war with the United States since 1979, and no US president since then, including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, has done anything but appease that evil regime for reasons that befuddle us all.

Hence, it is now of paramount importance to halt the current president’s “outreach” to Iran because all previous attempts motivated by Washington’s “excess of decency” have allowed “33 years of Iranian outrages” to go “unavenged” and “undeterred”.

Stephens, a former editor of the Jerusalem Post, was an avid supporter of the US invasion of Iraq and a fierce critic of the planned 2011 troop withdrawal, arguing that the US should have maintained a “serious tripwire force in Iraq as a hedge against Iran and other bad forces in the region” instead.

Now, again, he is amplifying his call to arms with fear mongering and a line that fellow neoconservative pundit Michael Ledeen has been using for years – Iran and the US are already at war, so the US should start acting like it:

Maybe the president thinks decency obliges him to give diplomacy another chance. But it is from an excess of decency that 33 years of Iranian outrages have gone unavenged, and Iran now proceeds undeterred. Sensible policy on Iran begins not with the question of how to avoid a war—that war was foisted on U.S. in 1979—but how to win it. Anything less invites further terror and dishonors the memory of Iran’s many American victims.

Following this line of reasoning requires diverting the conversation from how best to effectively engage with Iran in order to stop its nuclear program, to how to wage a successful war against an intractable and wicked enemy. Stephens’ conclusion is based on a litany of Iranian offenses (some of which remain questionable, let alone unproven) from the hostage crisis to bombings and kidnappings in Lebanon in the 1980s, the Khobar Tower bombing in Saudi Arabia, “thousands of U.S. troops killed by IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan” and the curious case of Mansour Arbabsiar, the Iranian-American who recently pleaded guilty to attempting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US in collusion with Iranian counterparts. This, according to our militarist pundit, has been the Iranian record against the United States.

And what of the US record against Iran? Why, an “excess of decency” of course! For reasons that Stephens doesn’t have time to get into or simply cannot explain, the US leadership from Reagan to Obama has repeatedly chosen the soft line with Iran. Perhaps the inherently peaceful character of the US has led to its impressive military hardware being reserved for only special occasions, which, in the case of the Middle East, Stephens forgets to mention, has somehow been deployed since the first 1991 Gulf War with no hiatus in between.

With this in mind, there really is no reason to waste time over the nuclear issue. Stephens wants a war to “avenge” the Islamic Republic’s 33-year long record of crimes and does not shy away from declaring his unhappiness regarding the direction of the Iran conversation in the US. The idea that sanctions are working unsettles him because it suggests that there is still time for serious and public diplomatic engagement with Iran to resolve the nuclear issue once and for all. (And no, I am not talking about a Reaganesque mission to secretly dispatch a national security adviser with a cake and bible to Tehran.) Even attempting peaceful conflict resolution is difficult for Stephens to accept because it “dishonors the memory of Iran’s many American victims.” For Stephens and many of his neocon colleagues, the real issue goes beyond the nuclear impasse; what we should really be concerned about is Iran’s history of “dishonoring” America since its Revolution.

Interestingly, this argument echoes talking points made by Iranian neoconservatives (which we often refer to as hardliners). Just read any column by Hossein Shariatmadari, the intractable editor of Kayhan Daily, and you will understand what I mean.

What are the similarities? First there is the victim mentality. Nothing the US or Iran has done can outdo the “bad” things that are done to them. From Shariatmadari’s point of view, the Islamic Republic has always been on the receiving end of Western “savagery” (a term also recently used by Leader Ali Khamenei to describe US conduct vis-à-vis Iran) because of its values, principles, and its daring resistance against US “arrogance.” From Stephens’ point of view, nothing the US has done – like siding with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war and at a minimum engaging in a collusion of silence over Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iran’s military and civilians, or shooting down, even if accidentally, an Iranian civilian airliner and then promoting the naval commander responsible for it – is even worth mentioning. Iranian conduct always occurs in a vacuum and is only worth noting in terms of the harm that is imposed.

From the neoconservative point of view — in the U.S. and Iran — correct values, “decency,” and the desire to be a beacon of goodwill, is the only mark of their respective countries. And the violent and disdainful conduct of the other side is the only conduct that needs to be noted. I am sure that, in the minds of folks like Shariatmadari and Stephens, that is indeed the only conduct noted.

This is why Stephens refers to the “crippling” sanctions that Governor Romney and President Obama referenced in Monday night’s debate as more of a “campaign prop than policy tool.” The notion that “unprecedented” sanctions that target the financial core of another country — not to mention killing nuclear scientists and sabotaging nuclear facilities — could also be considered an act of war is incomprehensible for Stephens.

Beyond feigned or actual feelings of victimhood, there is also a similarity in their avoidance of responsibility for the outcome of their proposed solutions. Neoconservatives in both Iran and the United States have had their chances at influencing their respective countries’ foreign and security policies. George W. Bush’s “muscular foreign policy” promoted by the likes of Stephens brought the US the debacle that has been Iraq — which, if anything, has actually strengthened Iran — and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s “aggressive foreign policy,” pushed by folks like Shariatmadari, has brought Iran crippling sanctions.

Do they take responsibility for any of their disasters? Absolutely not! Stephens’ push for another war in the Middle East is clear evidence that he does not see himself or his cohorts as responsible for the fiasco in Iraq. In fact, he has said so plainly. The war was not the “original sin,” he wrote in 2007. In fact, it was no sin at all. Things went wrong because of mistakes that occurred after the neoconservatives lost their influence in the Bush administration when Condoleezza Rice became Secretary of State (this being, by the way, the reason Stephens vehemently opposed Rice becoming Romney’s running mate).

A similar argument is now being parlayed by Iranian neoconservatives. Things always begin to go wrong when the Iranian government indicates a willingness to talk with the United States, they say. It exhibits weakness, and it is only through a show of strength and “will”– a favorite mantra of neoconservatives everywhere — that “bullies” like the US can be deterred.

Let me end by pointing out that despite the uncanny similarities of their worldviews, there is at least one critical difference between Iranian and US neoconservatives. This difference does not exist in their self-satisfied and belligerent poses; it relates to the location of their respective countries in the geopolitical and economic order.

It is the United States and its allies that are trying to strangle Iran economically, not the other way around. And of course it is the United States that will be engaging in yet another version of “shock and awe” if folks like Bret Stephens have their way, not the other way around.


Farideh Farhi

Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. She has taught comparative politics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, University of Hawai'i, University of Tehran, and Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran. Her publications include States and Urban-Based Revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua , Power and Change in Iran: Politics of Contention and Conciliation (co-edited with Dan Brumberg), and numerous articles and book chapters on comparative analyses of revolutions and Iranian politics. She has been a recipient of grants from the United States Institute of Peace and the Rockefeller Foundation and Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has also worked as a consultant for the World Bank and the International Crisis Group.