Iran Watch: A new series which rounds up media responses to the Republic's nuclear arsenal

Mehdi Hasan presents blogposts on the hawkish rhetoric surrounding the Islamic Republic.

Back in November, I wrote the following paragraph at the start of my weekly column in the magazine:

It has become an annual event in international affairs: the "Iran crisis". Belligerent politicians and febrile commentators refer to the "drumbeat of war", the "ticking clock" and how "all options are on the table". My own, oft-repeated favourite is "the window of opportunity" - to thwart Iran's nuclear programme through military means - "is closing".

But, as each week goes by, I can't help but feel as if this year the afore-mentioned "Iran crisis" is different - more urgent, more imminent, more serious. Others I speak to - in the inter-connected worlds of politics, the media, intelligence and security, business and economics, both on and off the record - seem to agree.

I'm worried. In fact, I'm very worried. I can't help it. I keep asking myself and my colleagues: are we sleepwalking into another catastrophic, bloody, illegal and unjustifiable conflict in the Middle East? The Iraq war was the most traumatising, divisive, frustrating and, perhaps, formative political event of my adult life. And the realisation that a growing number of politicians and pundits in the west, and in Israel, are now seriously considering military action against Iran, on spurious "WMD" grounds, is deeply depressing. I feel like we've gone back in time and I have to keep pitching myself everytime I come across a hawkish individual fear-mongering, on air or in print, about the "threat" from a "nuclear" Iran (e.g.have a listen to my brief debate with neocon hawk Douglas Murray on Five Live yesterday morning...)

The HuffPo's Michael Calderone feels the same way:

Military strikes expected! Weapons inspectors called in! A murky al Qaeda connection! And Cheney says time's up for Ira...

Wait. Haven't we seen this movie before?

It's already been a decade since the media hyped bogus WMD claims prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But it sure feels like 2002 for anyone who was around then and is now scanning newspaper headlines or watching TV talking-heads discuss a possible Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities -- an act which could pull the U.S. into another thorny Middle East military conflict.

Or as the former New Republic editor and ex-Iraq-hawk Peter Beinart noted yesterday in a piece for the Daily Beast:

How can it be, less than a decade after the U.S. invaded Iraq, that the Iran debate is breaking down along largely the same lines, and the people who were manifestly, painfully wrong about that war are driving the debate this time as well? Culturally, it's a fascinating question -- and too depressing for words.

The role of the media - print and broadsheet, Anglo and American - in the run-up to the Iraq invasion was particularly egregious and shameful; unforgettable and unforgivable. Take the New York Times, which had to issue a public apology for its "credulous" and "flawed" coverage of the Bush administration's false and exaggerated claims about Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction" in 2002 and 2003.

Yet, a decade later, few lessons seem to have been learned. Here's the New York Times's public editor, Arthur Brisbane, commenting last month on the paper's ludicrously hawkish and alarmist coverage of the IAEA's latest report on Iran's nuclear programme:

Readers complaining about the Jan. 5 article believe The Times should avoid closing the gap with a shorthand phrase that says the IAEA thinks Iran's program "has a military objective."

I think the readers are correct on this. The Times hasn't corrected the story but it should because this is a case of when a shorthand phrase doesn't do justice to a nuanced set of facts. In this case, the distinction between the two is important because the Iranian program has emerged as a possible casus belli.

(For further details on the US press and Iran claims, check out Just Foreign Policy's Robert Naiman writing over at Huffington Post.)

Like Iraq, Iran isn't a left-right issue. For example, here's noted left-winger Seumas Milne of the Guardian, writing in his column today:

If an attack is launched by Israel or the US, it would not just be an act of criminal aggression, but of wanton destructive stupidity. As Michael Clarke, director of the British defence establishment's Royal United Services Institute, points out, such an attack would be entirely illegal: "There is no basis in international law for preventative, rather than pre-emptive, war."

It would also be guaranteed to trigger a regional conflagration with uncontrollable global consequences. Iran could be expected to retaliate against Israel, the US and its allies, both directly and indirectly, and block the fifth of international oil supplies shipped through the Strait of Hormuz. The trail of death, destruction and economic havoc would be awesome.

But, then again, here is the Conservative MP and former soldier John Baron writing on the Staggers blog:

We need to better understand and engage with Iran, and offer the prospect of implicit recognition of Iran's status as a major power in the region - a status we created ourselves by our misguided invasion of Iraq which fundamentally altered the regional balance of power. There is a precedent for recognising this new status. In the 1960s, when the US presence in Asia was waning and China was beginning to flex her muscles, Nixon did not respond by denying the reality of Chinese power. His visit to China in 1972 took everyone by surprise, but it was the right decision - it was a defining moment.

I suggest the US needs to realise that this is one of those defining moments. Israel and Iran are two proud nations, both perhaps uncertain as to the best course of action. The US is the elephant in the room. It needs to put behind it the underlying antagonism of the last 30 years which defines this crisis. It needs to make clear an Israeli attack would be unacceptable, and then better engage with Iran. It is in Israel's long-term interest that this happens.

Meanwhile, top generals and spooks from the United States and Israel are lining up to warn against an air attack on Iran, including Martin Dempsey, James Clapper, Michael Mullen, Paul Pillar, Ephraim Halevy, Meir Dagan, Dan Halutz. My favourite quote comes from retired four-star general and former head of US Central Command, Anthony Zinni:

I tell my friends, if you like Iraq and Afghanistan, you'll love Iran

But is anyone listening? A frustrated Beinart, in his Daily Beast piece, writes:

Can you find former military and intelligence officials who are more sympathetic to a strike? Sure. But in my lifetime, I've never seen a more lopsided debate among the experts paid to make these judgments. Yet it barely matters. So far, the Iran debate has been a rout, with the Republican presidential candidates loudly declaring their openness to war and President Obama unwilling to even echo the skepticism of his own security chiefs.

And as the New York Times's Scott Shane pointed out yesterday:

Despite a decade of war, most Americans seem to endorse the politicians' martial spirit. In a Pew Research Center poll this month, 58 percent of those surveyed said the United States should use military force, if necessary, to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Only 30 percent said no.

"I find it puzzling," said Richard K. Betts of Columbia University, who has studied security threats since the cold war. "You'd think there would be an instinctive reason to hold back after two bloody noses in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Indeed. But there doesn't seem to be - and the media, a la Iraq, isn't helping. And so, as I said at the start, I'm worried. Very worried. We all should be.

So what are we going to do about it? I plan to start a new series of blogposts, with the original (!) title of "Iran Watch", in which I intend to try and examine and deconstruct the claims and counter-claims made by politicians and pundits about Iran, its nuclear programme, the IAEA's inspections, US/Israeli plans for military action, alleged al-Qaeda links, etc. I want to try and play a (small) role in holding opinion-formers to account on Iran in 2012 in a way that they weren't on Iraq in 2002 and 2003, a shameful period in which "dodgy dossiers" were embraced uncritically and our political leaders, in the words of the former weapons inspector Hans Blix, "misled themselves and then they misled the public".

Myths must be dispelled and falsehoods rebutted. And I need your help. Please send me, via Twitter, articles, headlines, speeches, quotes, reports, etc, that you come across which make false, exaggerated, fear-mongering or otherwise outrageous or nonsensical claims about the "Iran crisis". Whether wittingly or unwittingly, we can't afford a repeat of Iraq. We just can't.

Further reading:

"The road to hell" - Hans Blix, New Statesman, February 2012

"Now they tell us" - Michael Massing, New York Review of Books, February 2004

@ns_mehdihasan #iranwatch

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.