Iran’s Dire Threat That It Might Be Able to Defend Itself

By Edward S. Herman
October 2004

Iran is the next Bush/U.S. and Israeli target, so the mainstream U.S. media are once again serving the state agenda by focusing on Iran’s alleged menace and refusing to provide context that would show the menace to be pure Orwell--that is, while Iran is seriously threatened by the Godfather and his aggressively ethnic-cleansing client, Iran only threatens the possibility of self-defense.

You might have thought that after the retrospectively awkward and embarrassing media service to Bush’s lies about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and dire threat to U.S. national security, which greased the skids to the invasion/occupation of Iraq, that the media would be less prone to jump uncritically on war propaganda bandwagons. But you would be wrong. It is a pretty reliable law of media performance that whenever the state targets an enemy the media will get on the bandwagon enthusiastically, or at minimum allow themselves to be mobilized as agents of propaganda and literal disinformation. And given the power of the United States and the extreme weakness of its usual targets, the claims of the fearsome threat posed by the targets is always comical.

Guatemala and Nicaragua As Earlier Dire Threats

My favorite remains Guatemala in the early 1950s, when the National Security Council claimed that that poor, tiny and effectively disarmed country was “increasingly [an] instrument of Soviet aggression in this hemisphere” and was posing a security threat to the United States as well as its neighbors. As in the case of Iraq in 2002-3, most of the neighbors failed to recognize the dire threat and had to be bribed and coerced into supporting the U.S. position, and the UN had to be (and was) neutralized.

In fact, the Reds hadn’t taken over Guatemala, and with U.S. direct and indirect assistance it was invaded and occupied by a U.S.-organized band of expatriates and mercenaries a month after the dire claims by the NSC. The New York Times and mass media in general cooperated fully in the propaganda campaign that made this proxy aggression palatable to the public. This early “liberation” transformed a democracy into an authoritarian counterinsurgency and terror state. The Times has never apologized for this performance and it has carefully avoided analyzing the results of that earlier intervention and contrasting it with the government’s (and its own) pre-invasion propaganda claims.

Several decades later, in the 1980s, Nicaragua provided a partial rerun of the Guatemala experience, with an alleged dire security threat based on a link of the leftist Sandinistas to Moscow, a link mainly forced by an arms boycott and open U.S. campaign of destabilization, subversion, and sponsored terrorism. There was once again an army of expatriates organized and funded by the Godfather—the contras--that engaged in systematic terrorism. Once again the neighbors of Nicaragua couldn’t see the dire threat and spent a great deal of effort in trying to fend off the United States by mediation and proposed compromises, which the Reagan administration resented and shunted aside. Once again an appeal to the UN for protection against intervention by violence was futile, and an International Court finding against the United States was simply ignored. In this case the United States was able to oust the Sandinistas by the combination of terrorism and boycott--which halved per capita incomes--and by the effective manipulation of an election, in which the United States intervened with advice, money, propaganda, and a blackmail threat (only if the Sandinistas are ousted will the boycott and sponsored terrorism be terminated). The combination worked and the Sandinistas were ousted.

The mainstream media carefully avoided the Guatemala context as they once again served as agents of state propaganda, demonizing the Sandinistas, failing to contest the stream of lies justifying the violent intervention, ignoring its gross illegality, declaring the 1984 Nicaraguan election a “sham” (New York Times), whereas the genuine sham elections held in El Salvador in 1982 and 1984 under conditions of severe state terror were declared promising steps toward democracy (for details see chapter 3 in Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent; note also how the U.S. media continues this great tradition in now finding the U.S.-appointed puppet government of Iraq a democratic breakthrough: “Early Steps, Maybe, Toward a Democracy in Iraq,” NYT, July 27, 2004). And when the terror war, blackmail and other forms of electoral intervention successfully removed the Sandinistas, the media were ecstatic, the New York Times featuring David Shipler’s ode to “Victory Through Fair Play.”

The Iran Threat and the Media’s Supportive Propaganda

So with these cases, and Iraq in 2003-4, in mind, we should expect the media to serve the state--to frame the issues and select the facts that will put any planned aggression in the best possible light. And just as Guatemala, Nicaragua and Iraq were dire threats, so is Iran today, because the Bush government says so and is supported here by Ariel Sharon.

The first rule in supportive propaganda is to intensify attention to the villain and the alleged threat that he poses. Thus the claims that Iran is trying to become a nuclear power have become the continuous basis of news, with all the details and claims of its moves toward nuclear capability newsworthy, emanating as they are from a superpower that is a primary-definer-plus. When it barks, all the smaller doggies in the “international community,” including Kofi Annan and relevant UN agency officials (in this case, Dr. Mohamed El-Baradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA]), join in with their complementary barks. (Dr. El-Baradei has been uncomfortable in his role of UN agency front man for the U.S. buildup toward an attack on Iran, his role being similar to that of Hans Blix in the preparation for the Iraq attack. In a recent interview with Al-Ahram News (July 27, 2004), he notes how confined he is by his limited powers, so that he cannot visit Israel’s Dimon reactor, only Iran’s facilities, although he believes the only real solution is denuclearization throughout the Middle East:

The analogy with the attention to Iraq’s alleged possession and threat of weapons of mass destruction in 2001-3 is close: the United States made those claims, pressed them on the UN and its allies, and in consequence this became first order news. Today the United States makes charges against Iran, presses its allies and the IAEA, and this makes the issue newsworthy. As a crude index, during the last six months (February 27-August 27, 2004) the New York Times had 21 articles whose headlines indicated that their subject matter was Iran’s threat to acquire nuclear capability, with dozens more mentioning the Iran-nuclear connection.

The second rule in supportive propaganda is to frame the issues in such a way that the premises of the propaganda source are taken as given, with any inconvenient considerations ignored and any sources that would contest the party line bypassed or marginalized. This technique is well illustrated in David Sanger’s “Diplomacy Fails to Slow Advance of Nuclear Arms,” the front page feature article in the New York Times of August 8, 2004--a virtually perfect model of propaganda service that will compete for honors with anything produced by Judith Miller or Marlise Simons.

The frame of Sanger’s article is the threat of the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, the efforts to contain that threat via diplomacy, the difficulties encountered in these efforts, U.S. and Israeli concerns over the matter, and the opinions of Western officials and experts over what should be done. All seven quoted sources in Sanger’s piece are present or former U.S. officials, which allows the establishment frame to be presented without challenge.

A basic Sanger premise is that the United States and Israel are good and do not pose threats worthy of mention, so that any “advance” in nuclear arms, or the possession and threat of use of such weapons, by these states is outside the realm of discourse. Thus the ongoing and well-funded U.S. program of developing “block buster” and other tactical nuclear weapons, the Bush plan to make nuclear weapons not merely a deterrent but usable in normal warfare, and the U.S. intention to exploit space as a platform for nuclear as well as other technologically advanced weapons system, do not fall under the heading “advance of nuclear arms” and they are not mentioned in the article. These are not the views of the global majority, but they represent the official U.S. view, hence serve as a premise of the Times reporter.

A second and related Sanger premise is that the United States has the right to decide who can and cannot have nuclear arms and to compel the disarmament of any country that acquires them without U.S. approval. He quotes Bush’s statement that he will not “tolerate” North Korea or Iran acquiring such arms, and Sanger treats the U.S. push to keep its targets disarmed as an undebatable position.

A third premise is that while Iran’s possible violation of its commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty is newsworthy and important, the failure of the United States to follow through on its promise in signing that treaty to work toward the elimination of nuclear weapons through good faith negotiations, a commitment brazenly violated in the open Bush effort to improve and make usable nuclear weapons, is not newsworthy. Again, this is what a press arm of the government would take as a premise, and so does the New York Times (and virtually the entire corporate media).

A fourth premise of Sanger’s piece is that Israel’s refusal to have anything to do with the Non-Proliferation Treaty and rules, and its possession and threat to use nuclear arms, are not relevant context in discussing the threat of Iran’s nuclear capability. Israel is referred to by Sanger only as fearing the Iran threat and possibly planning on preemptive action to eliminate that threat. The Arab states and most of the world cannot see the justice of Israel being allowed to acquire nuclear arms, even with superior conventional forces and a U.S. protective umbrella, while Arab states cannot do so. Again, as Israel is a U.S. client state whose acquisition of nuclear arms was facilitated and is protected by the United States, this matter is outside the orbit of discourse for U.S. officials and hence of the New York Times (etc.).

A fifth premise, implicit in the foregoing, is that Iran does not have a right to self-defense. Israel claims that its nuclear weapons are for self-defense in a hostile environment, but Iran, threatened by both Israel and its superpower ally, does not have that right, although its self-defense needs are far more serious than either Israel’s or the Godfather’s. This was a premise of officials, and hence of the New York Times, in dealing with Guatemala’s attempt to buy arms back in 1953-54, Nicaragua’s similar efforts in the 1980s, and Saddam’s mythical threatening WMD in 2002-3.

In sum, Sanger’s article is clean, in the sense that there is no deviation from the party line on the source of any nuclear threat and the “advances” that are worrisome. The Times’ subservience to the state in the propaganda buildup to the invasion-occupation of Iraq was not new and was not terminated by that sad experience. On the contrary, it proceeds apace, with any lessons or qualms overpowered by institutional forces that press it to support state crimes now just as it did in the case of the overthrow of democracy in Guatemala in 1954 and other alleged “liberations.”

Published in Z Magazine

Edward S. Herman is Professor Emeritus at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

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