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War and peace

Jul 19, 2015

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It’s a deal, at last. As you’ve no doubt seen by now, Iran and the international community have reached an agreement that will see the progressive removal of sanctions in return for a comprehensive set of measures designed to stop Iran developing nuclear weapons.

As expected, the agreement has been loudly opposed by the usual range of suspects in both the Middle East and the United States. What’s most striking, however, is their lack of embarrassment at the fact that they have absolutely no alternative to offer. And this from people who in other contexts would be happy to proclaim “there is no alternative” – a line that Barack Obama can now legitimately take possession of.

Faced with an Iranian nuclear program, what was the west supposed to do other than negotiate? And having negotiated long and hard to reach agreement, what is the alternative if we find that the outcome is (like all compromises) somewhat less than ideal?

No answer. Implicitly, the answer can only be “go to war”. But while the idea of war to prevent Iran developing nuclear weapons had at least some (if inadequate) logic to it, war now would lack even that justification: it could only be for the neocon project of regime change in Iran, or the Saudi Arabian project of global struggle against Shi’ite Islam.

Closely allied to the Saudis in the region, not for the first time, is the Israeli government. That’s not to discount the genuine fears of Iran held within Israel; as I’ve said before, “history has taught the Jews, with awful clarity, to assume the worst of their enemies.”

But those fears have been encouraged by politicians acting out of self-interest. It is simply not credible that Benjamin Netanyahu, sitting on a substantial nuclear arsenal of his own, sees Iran as a military threat. For him, the threat is political: a western rapprochement with Iran is a blow to his strategy of demonising Israel’s opponents to prevent any of their claims being taken seriously.

In the United States, where the Likud lobby is used to having a distressingly large number of politicians do its bidding, some of the same imperative is at work. But there are domestic political considerations as well: election year is coming up, and Republicans are trying to outdo one another in depicting Obama as weak, incompetent and in thrall to the forces of Islamic terrorism.

And there’s something more than political, something more to do with the neocons’ own demons. In large sections of the American right, warmongering has become an end in itself; aided no doubt by the self-interest of the national security sector, but also fueled by a psychological need, a sense that war gives purpose and nobility to life. As Will Wilkinson wrote two years ago:

It’s almost impossible for normal people to believe that, if not for American neoconservatives unaccountably fretful about the meaninglessness of secular liberal capitalism, many many thousands of dead Americans and Iraqis might be alive today, but it really might be true.

It may be, of course, that the desire to be seen to be warlike is a lot stronger than the desire to actually fight one. And perhaps the fact that war with Iran would be so self-evidently absurd even helps to induce hysteria about it: pundits feel confident that they will never be taken seriously, so they can pontificate about it to their heart’s content without the risk of consequences.

One might respond, however, that a detached observer would have said much the same thing about the drive to war in Iraq.

For more on the Iranian deal, I’d particularly recommend having a look at Aaron Stein at Vox, Fred Kaplan at Slate, Tom Friedman at the New York Times and Scott Lucas at the Conversation.

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2 thoughts on “If not peace, what?

  1. Charles Richardson

    Thanks Ian, that’s interesting. I can’t read Farsi, but Juan Cole (who can) reports that Khamenei “said its path to ratification would proceed in accordance with the law. He said, ‘Hopefully it will be.'” That sounds more positive, but it was certainly accompanied by a lot of anti-American rhetoric, which Cole suggests was playing to a domestic audience – but which would still seem a risky strategy if ratification is at all doubtful.

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