Why Are Some Liberals Silencing the Truth on Iran?
American options for constraining the Islamic Republic of Iran are limited and problematic. Sanctions inevitably hurt regular Iranians more than their government, because the regime uses its access to illicit markets to insulate the ruling class from the impacts of economic exile. In the military sphere, targeted airstrikes on particular facilities are unlikely to significantly impede Iran’s ability to develop nuclear technology — and an actual invasion of the Islamic Republic would come at unthinkable cost.
Nevertheless, the specter of war with Iran has caused many “responsible” liberals to actively seek a different sort of constraint: limits on the discussion or coverage of Iranian crimes. This deeply anti-democratic impulse — that an honest account of Iranian behavior would only lead to war — was a basic assumption of Obama-era Iran policy.
Even now, as the Trump administration takes incredibly modest steps against Tehran — such as preventing Iranian aircraft from targeting US partners in Syria — a subset of liberals seek to obfuscate or ignore Iranian provocations in the name of avoiding a disastrous, costly conflict.
Take a typical example published this week in the online foreign policy venue Lobeblog, where CIA veteran Paul Pillar discusses the words that many people use to talk about Iran, and the ‘pro-conflict bias’ of that terminology:
The vocabulary has become so repetitive and widely used that it rolls off tongues automatically: Iran is a “theocratic autocracy” and the “largest state sponsor of terrorism” that engages in “nefarious,” “malign,” and “destabilizing” behavior as part of its “drive for regional hegemony,” etc. The verbiage has become a substitute for thought and for any careful examination of exactly what Iran is and is not doing and how it does and does not affect US interests. Such a commonly accepted mantra means that anyone making a focused attempt to stir up trouble with Iran starts with a built-in advantage in mustering public and political support.
In this casting, verifiable crimes of the Iranian regime are reduced to political tools that are used by defense hawks to gin up public support for an inevitable war — a war that in Pillar’s mind, its proponents would be shopping irrespective of Iranian behavior. This attitude was present at the highest levels of the Obama administration. Former Secretary of State John Kerry and even the president himself deliberately denied or underplayed Iranian violations of the JCPOA on numerous occasions.
The Obama administration also undermined credible international institutions that were issuing an unbiased accounting of Iranian compliance. When the Obama State Department was asked to comment on a German intelligence report, cited by Angela Merkel, detailing Iranian efforts to procure nuclear material in Germany after the signing of the JCPOA, the State Department simply denied any knowledge of such violations.
Why would the Obama administration, and now their ideological fellow travelers, actively underplay Iranian violations? Ben Rhodes explained the answer about why it was so crucial that the Obama spin machine avoid the pitfalls of regular democratic process: “I mean, I’d prefer a sober, reasoned public debate, after which members of Congress reflect and take a vote,” he said, shrugging. “But that’s impossible.”
In other words, the normal democratic processes for evaluating policy are no longer valid when it comes to Iran.
In this context, the important question is not what Iran is up to, or how to constrain bad behavior, but how one’s own lies can offset the pro-war propaganda coming from known quarters. This is a sort of Bill Simmons meta-foreign policy — we don’t discuss what’s good or bad, but whether things are over, under or properly rated by the powers that be.
Even if we accept, as I do, the calamitous potential of a war with Iran, is it true that the American public is subjected to a constant litany of Iranian crimes? Do Americans know, for example, that Afghan refugees are picked up on the streets of Tehran and offered the choice of an indefinite jail term or to go fight in Syria?
Do Americans know that thousand-year familial residents of Damascus, one of the most diverse cities in the Middle East, are being uprooted from their ancestral home to make way for apartment blocks to house permanent Iranian military advisers?
Do Americans — or Europeans, for that matter — understand that the refugee crisis that they are now dealing with, is — in part — the direct result of an Iranian ethnic cleansing campaign that seeks a Shia-only territory spanning from Tehran to Beirut?
Even after the departure of the Obama administration, liberal doves continue to suppress the truth about Iranian crimes, keeping them off the front page and out of American minds. As so many liberals decry the anti-truth political climate heralded by Trump, they should acknowledge that on Iran, it is the Left that’s afraid of the facts.
Evan Barrett is an independent analyst with a focus on Syria. Previously he served as the deputy director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force.