Iran debate

Below are three articles about Iran that, read together, make up a serious, informative debate -- in a time when two parties vie titles in venality and idiocy -- on the issue of whether the US should invade that country or not. While this is not the usual Badlands Journal fare, in general it is everyone's fare.
BadlandsJournal editorial board
Washington Post
The alarm bells behind Iran’s alleged assassination plot
By Richard Cohen
A mere moment or two after the Obama administration announced it had discovered and thwarted a plot by Iran to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States by bombing a Washington restaurant, the doubters started to air their doubts. Columnists and experts, even some columnists who were not experts, said the Iranians would never be so sloppy as to commit a virtual act of war by setting off a bomb in the nation’s capital. The alleged plot was crazy, they said. I agree. But so is Iran.
It’s not as if the Iranian intelligence services, particularly the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, usually operate deftly and leave no fingerprints. This is a regime that commenced what amounts to mass murder soon after it came to power. It executed not only its opponents but also its critics. It even went after exiled Iranians. In 1991, it murdered the former prime minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, in Paris. He was stabbed to death — how’s that for sloppy? — and in 2010, when France freed one of Bakhtiar’s killers, he was given a hero’s welcome in Tehran.
Iran was blamed by Argentine prosecutors for the 1994 bombing of the Buenos Aires Jewish center that killed 85 and wounded at least 300. It has been implicated in the 1996 bombing of a housing complex in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 U.S. airmen and wounded another 372 people. It is the chief sponsor of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Both are terror organizations that Iran has used as proxies.
More recently, Iran is suspected of playing a role in the 2005 assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, five times prime minister of Lebanon and an immensely wealthy and effective businessman. He was killed when a bomb detonated as his car went by. This may well have been a group endeavor — Syria, Hezbollah and, in training and aid, Iran. Hariri was not only a force for stability but he was extremely close to the Saudi royal family and maintained a home in Riyadh. The Saudis took his death personally.
The mistake with Iran is the tendency to think its leadership is rational. This may not be the case. The country’s leaders are Islamic fundamentalists who would surely kill any member of the Saudi royal family, custodians of the holy city of Mecca and fervid Sunnis all. The Iranians are just as fervid Shiites. They have many enemies, including their own people, whom they oppress in the name of God and torture with abandon. In Iraq, the Iranians have gotten away with a proxy war against the United States. If they indeed undertook that Washington operation, it’s because they have achieved so much and paid so little.
No easy answers exist to the problem of Iran. Sanctions hurt, but not so much that it has caused Tehran to abandon what looks like a nuclear weapons program. If Iran succeeds, the Saudis will want their own bomb and maybe Egypt will, too. The United States will have to offer its nuclear umbrella as protection. But the Saudis have lately found Barack Obama to be less than a steadfast friend. (The dumping of Hosni Mubarak, which Obama supported, sickened them.) If a nuclear arms race accelerates, the Middle East then goes from merely dangerous to incredibly scary. It will be scarier still if Iran retains its contempt for American power.
For years, virtually the first word out of any Israeli official’s mouth has been Iran. Invariably, these Israelis are treated as either paranoid or duplicitous. Few in the West take Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threats to exterminate Israel seriously. But Israelis have some experience with the irrational and its consequences, and they do not easily dismiss threats of genocide. They look to America to do something. So far they have looked in vain.
It would be an incalculable mistake for the Obama administration — and the petulantly irresponsible Russians and Chinese — to see the alleged Iranian plot as the reckless act of some runaway intelligence chief. Instead, I refer the White House to the wisdom of Bill Haydon, the traitor in John le Carre’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” Haydon recognized that intelligence services are not rogue agencies, but “the only real measure of a nation’s political health, the only real expression of its subconscious.”
He was right. The alleged Washington bomb plot does not tell you something that’s limited to Iran’s Quds Force; it offers an insight into the entire Iranian regime. It’s too reckless to be allowed a nuclear arsenal.
Sloppy Iran Think by WPost’s Cohen
In a powerful place like Washington D.C., sloppy thinking can have horrendous consequences, a truism that Big Media pundits have proved over and over. Now, the target is Iran and the usual suspects, the likes of the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, are back at it, as former CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar notes.
By Paul R. Pillar
Richard Cohen’s column in Tuesday’s Washington Post, under the headline “Dangerous behavior from Iran,” deserves scrutiny, and not just to pick on Cohen (although he deserves to be picked on for this kind of work).
The column exemplifies several of the types of distorted thinking and non-thinking that were critical in pushing the United States into an enormous blunder of a war eight years ago and are threatening a repeat performance with another of the countries in the same part of the world that has a four-letter name starting with “I.”
Moreover, the column by Cohen — who on most matters other than stumbling into disastrous wars can be considered a liberal — illustrates how the arguments and attitudes that have greased the skids on which the United States can slide into such a war are not the exclusive province of neocons or others who are the prime movers of such misadventures.
The column begins, unsurprisingly, with the outrage du jour: that strange plot involving DEA informants and a used car salesman in Texas. Cohen has a nifty way to dispose of the chief reason skeptics have found it hard to believe this was an officially instigated Iranian operation — namely, the disconnect between the crazy nature of the plot and the careful tradecraft that the Iranians have consistently exhibited.
“I agree” the plot was crazy, says Cohen. “But so is Iran.”
It’s a rhetorical twofer: not only is the bizarre plot kept in play, but it is done in a way that pushes the main theme of the anti-Iran agitators, which is that Iranian leaders are supposedly irrational and thus cannot be trusted not to do crazy things with whatever capabilities they have, especially a capability as momentous as a nuclear weapon.
“The mistake with Iran,” says Cohen, “is the tendency to think its leadership is rational.”
But like others who invoke this theme, Cohen adduces nothing in the record of behavior by the Islamic Republic that suggests irrationality and ignores the fact that the record is overwhelmingly one of caution and careful calculation.
Oh, Cohen cites a record, and like most others who do, it concerns Iran’s past terrorist operations. But invoking the terrorist record ignores that these very operations were carefully targeted responses to what Iran’s adversaries were doing, with every indication that the Iranians were fully mindful of consequences.
There were the assassinations (which pretty much ended a decade and a half ago) of expatriate dissidents, which served to eliminate a political threat to the leadership of the Islamic Republic.
Cohen tries to make an argument that the assassinations exemplify sloppy methods (even suggesting at one point that a stabbing is somehow sloppier than other methods of killing people), with the Iranians not covering their tracks well.
With hits on individual Iranian dissidents, part of the purpose was not to cover tracks but instead to send a message to other would-be oppositionists. When the target was foreign, the track-covering was careful and effective.
With the bombing of the U.S. military barracks at Khobar, Saudi Arabia, in 1996 (which Cohen also mentions), the tracks were so well covered that Iranian involvement was not established until years later.
Then there were the bombings by Lebanese Hezbollah against Jewish and Israeli targets in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s. As I briefly noted a few days ago, these operations were specific retaliatory responses to Israeli actions in the Middle East, each of which preceded the response by only a few weeks.
The bombing of the Israeli embassy in 1992 responded to Israel’s assassination of Hezbollah secretary general Abbas Musawi. The bombing of the Jewish community center in 1994 was a response to Israel’s kidnapping of Lebanese Shia leader Mustafa Dirani and bombing of a Hezbollah training camp in eastern Lebanon.
This kind of tit-for-tat retaliation is the epitome of carefully calculated use of the capacity to inflict deadly harm. The experience with Hezbollah in South America, far from demonstrating that Iran or its clients are apt to strike out irrationally, instead demonstrates a pattern of keeping a lethal capability in reserve and not striking out until being struck themselves.
Cohen plays the usual religion card in trying to establish the irrationality idea, referring to Iranians as “fervid Shiites.” The card is ultimately just another instance of religious stereotyping and prejudice.
Is the fervidness of those Shiites, and the implications for public policy — including the use of military force — any greater than what one can find with, say, many fundamentalist Christians in the United States? Or with the religious right in Israel?
In referring to those feared possible Iranian nuclear weapons, Cohen raises another common specter — of an Iranian nuke touching off a spurt of proliferation throughout the Middle East.
And like others who raise it, he never considers why the sizable Israeli nuclear arsenal, which has existed since the 1970s and involves at least as much antagonism and unresolved issues as anything having to do with Iran, should not have already touched off such a spurt.
Speaking of Israel, Cohen goes on to note that while “few in the West take Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threats to exterminate Israel seriously,” the “Israelis have some experience with the irrational and its consequences” and do not dismiss such threats.
Cohen doesn’t say explicitly what the implication of this observation ought to be for U.S. policy. That the United States should fall in line with the posture of a state whose own view of Iran is in large part driven by emotion and — dare one use the word? — irrational fears? It shouldn’t, but unfortunately to a large extent that is what is happening.
Cohen concludes his column by circling back to that weird alleged assassination plot. It would be an “incalculable mistake,” he says, for the United States to see the plot as “the reckless act of some runaway intelligence chief.”
He invokes no less an authority than the traitor in a John le Carre novel, who observes that intelligence agencies are “the only real measure of a nation’s political health, the only real expression of its subconscious.”
That’s right, says Cohen, and so the assassination plot “offers an insight into the entire Iranian regime. It’s too reckless to be allowed a nuclear arsenal.”
How’s that for the conclusion of a compelling piece of analysis? The caper involving the used car salesman and the DEA agent shows that Iran cannot be permitted to have a nuclear weapon; a fictional character in a novel says so.
With analysis like that it is not surprising that when reality finally intrudes, Cohen has a tendency to forget some of his own arguments. After three years of the ugly reality of the Iraq War — which Cohen had supported — he wrote a column calling for more leaking by government officials.
He said, “Among other things, the consensus at the CIA was that there was no link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. And while the spooks of Langley more or less concurred that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, they also thought his nuclear program was years away from fruition. In short, there was no urgent reason to go to war. I wish I had known that.”
Amnesia must have set in before that last comment, because here’s what Cohen had written in a column in March 2003, a week before the U.S. invasion:
“In the run-up to this war, the Bush administration has slipped, stumbled and fallen on its face. It has advanced untenable, unproven arguments. It has oscillated from disarmament to regime change to bringing democracy to the Arab world.
“It has linked [Saddam] Hussein to al Qaeda when no such link has been established. It has warned of an imminent Iraqi nuclear program when, it seems, that’s not the case.”
This was an accurate and perceptive capsule assessment of the Bush administration’s case for war. And yet, Cohen still favored launching the war, referring (again, accurately) to Saddam Hussein’s continued ambition to acquire nuclear weapons once the pressure was off.
What was not considered, of course, was the misery and mess that would follow the toppling of Saddam. Cohen became part of a drumbeat, initiated by the neocon promoters of the war and amplified by other opinion-shapers such as himself, that came to portray the Iraqi dictator as such a grave threat that he had to go.
The drumbeat beat away any concern about post-invasion messes, or about the non-imminence of an Iraqi nuclear weapon or the lack of an alliance between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaeda.
What leads the prime movers of the Iraq War, many of whom are also among the most active agitators for war against Iran, to promote such folly is a question for another day.
Their promotions are successful only if they get many others beyond their ranks, including the Richard Cohens of the world, to sway to their beat. They did it once, beginning about ten years ago. As frightening as it is to think about, they could do it again.
Paul R. Pillar, a 28-year veteran of the CIA, is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site.)
Plus ça change: Iraq Done; On to Iran!
One not-so-funny fact about Washington is that nearly all the news media stars who fell for neoconservative falsehoods about Iraq are still around to fall for new ones on Iran, even some like Richard Cohen who briefly regretted his earlier gullibility
by Ray McGovern
Paul R. Pillar, my former colleague in the CIA’s analytical division, has raised a warning flag, cautioning that the same imaginative neocon composers who came up with the various refrains on why we needed to attack Iraq are now providing similar background music for a strike on Iran.
He is right. And as one of my Russian professors used to say, “This is nothing to laugh!”
Pillar’s piece – dissecting an op-ed by the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen about the alleged Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington – first appeared on The National Interest Web site. On Oct. 21, it was posted at under the title “Sloppy Iran Think by WPost’s Cohen.”
The Cohen column that Pillar critiques is entitled “The alarm bells behind Iran’s alleged assassination plot.” Yet Cohen’s “alarm bells” ringing now about Iran brought a painful reminder of all the alarms he and his colleagues sounded in cheerleading for the attack on Iraq in 2002 and 2003.

NEO-CONNED -- Richard Cohen of the Washington PostCohen was one of the many big-name opinion leaders to put on the pompoms after Secretary of State Colin Powell gave his deceptive Iraq War speech to the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003. Joining a cheerleading pyramid of pro-war consensus, Cohen mocked anyone who still doubted that Saddam Hussein possessed hidden WMD stockpiles.
“The evidence he [Powell] presented to the United Nations – some of it circumstantial, some of it absolutely bone-chilling in its detail – had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasn’t accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them,” Cohen wrote. “Only a fool – or possibly a Frenchman – could conclude otherwise.”
However, six weeks after the Iraq invasion, with not one WMD stockpile discovered, Cohen’s conscience may have begun to trouble him a bit. To his credit, I suppose, Cohen seems to have been embarrassed enough to fess up, sort of, using the device of an apocryphal conversation with his long-dead grandfather.
In an April 29, 2003, column entitled “Baghdad Bait and Switch,” Cohen recounted a middle-of-the-night visit by Grandpa, who is not at all pleased with his grandson’s credulity about President George W. Bush’s case for war.
“You think maybe you got snookered?” Grandpa asks. “For this your mother sent you to college? … For this you fight a war?
“I read the column where you said that [‘Saddam Hussein was like another Hitler’]. All my friends said, ‘This is your grandson, the hotshot columnist? This is the guy people read so they should know what to think?’
“Hitler? Hitler was a threat to the world. Saddam threatened only his own people. He fought for only 26 days. I had longer fights with your grandmother. …
“First you wanted a war because of terrorism, then because Iraq had a nuclear program. Then you wanted a war because he has poison gas and little crawling things you can’t see. Now you want to bring democracy to the Middle East.
“You know what we used to call this when I was in retail? Bait and switch. … I hope everything turns out hunky-dory, like you’ve been writing. … Otherwise, you should have been an accountant.”
Cohen’s column about the imaginary upbraiding he got from his grandfather ran two days before President Bush jetted onto a U.S. aircraft carrier off the coast of California and gave his memorable “Mission Accomplished” address.
Accountability, Anyone?
One might think that a columnist who got something as wrong as Cohen did would have the decency to admit that Grandpa was right and switch professions.
After all, endorsing the falsehoods that led to an aggressive war in violation of international law – an invasion that led to hundreds of thousands of dead and the squandering of $1 trillion or so – isn’t exactly a minor mistake.
But Cohen apparently found safety in numbers. The fact that he was surrounded by scores of other big-name media stars who had fallen for the same “bait-and-switch” scam meant that he kept his place as a major national columnist – and soon returned to his comfortable role defending the war policies of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
For instance, in a June 19, 2007, op-ed, Cohen rallied to the defense of Cheney’s former chief of staff I. Lewis Libby who had been sentenced to 30 months in jail for perjury and obstruction of justice for lying about his role in unmasking covert CIA officer Valerie Plame.
The destruction of Plame’s career was collateral damage resulting from the Bush administration trying to discredit her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, for criticizing Bush’s use of a misleading claim about Iraq seeking uranium from Africa.
But Cohen showed no sympathy for Wilson or Plame, two patriotic citizens who had been personally targeted by Cheney and the White House. Cohen worried only about Libby.
In the column, Cohen denounced the trial as “a mountain out of a molehill.” Following the neocon propaganda themes on the Plame case, Cohen concluded there was no “underlying crime” and poked fun at Americans who thought the invasion of Iraq might have been a bad idea.
“They thought – if ‘thought’ can be used in this context – that if the thread was pulled on who had leaked the identity of Valerie Plame to Robert D. Novak, the effort to snooker an entire nation into war would unravel and this would show . . . who knows? Something,” Cohen wrote.
Smirking at Torture
Cohen also sympathized with Cheney over his enthusiasm for torturing Muslim detainees. In a May 11, 2009, column – entitled “What If Cheney’s Right?” – Cohen justified “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including the near-drowning tactic of waterboarding, as worthwhile in eliciting important intelligence information and thus saving American lives.
Starting the column, Cohen made light of the whole issue of torture with the quip, “Blogger Alert: I have written a column in defense of Dick Cheney.”
While conceding that torture is morally wrong, Cohen wrote, “where I reserve a soupçon of doubt is over the question of whether ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ actually work. That they do not is a matter of absolute conviction among those on the political left, who seem to think that the CIA tortured suspected terrorists just for the hell of it.”
Cohen noted that Cheney – through his declaration that critical intelligence was extracted by these means – “poses a hard, hard question: Is it more immoral to torture than it is to fail to prevent the deaths of thousands?”
With unintended irony, the columnist regretted that Cheney’s credibility on torture had been dinged by the fact that his pre-Iraq War claims had proved false, like his insisting “that ‘the evidence is overwhelming’ that al-Qaeda had been in high-level contact with Saddam Hussein’s regime when the ‘evidence’ was virtually non-existent.”
What Cohen left out was the very relevant point that precisely those claims of a Saddam-al-Qaeda connection resulted from a coerced confession from one of the CIA’s “high-value detainees,” Ibu al-Sheikh al-Libi.
A June 2002 CIA report cited claims by al-Libi that Iraq had “provided” unspecified chemical and biological weapons training for two al-Qaeda operatives. Al-Libi’s information was then inserted into a November 2002 National Intelligence Estimate.
Al-Libi’s false claim – which he later said he offered to escape torture – also found its way into Cheney’s public presentations and into Powell’s UN speech. But Cohen did not deign to mention this inconvenient fact in his column defending these harsh tactics.
On Oct. 6, 2009, Cohen was back serving the neocon cause, baiting President Barack Obama into a major military escalation in Afghanistan, through an opinion piece entitled “Does Obama Have the Backbone?” – questioning Obama’s mettle as a war president.
“The war in Afghanistan is eminently more winnable than was Vietnam,” Cohen wrote. “Still, the war will require more than a significant commitment of troops and, of course, money. It will take presidential leadership, a consistent staying of the course – an implacable confidence that the right choice has been made despite what can be steep costs.”
So, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Richard Cohen is now helping to set the stage for another war – with Iran.
Quick! Someone conjure up Cohen’s grandfather again. We need him to pin back Richard’s ears once more before the gullible grandson falls for a new round of neocon propaganda and enables another catastrophic war.
Originally posted at