After 9/11, the United States did not only aim to overthrow the government of Iraq. Its Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, sought to overthrow the governments of seven countries: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and finally — Iran. Predictably, these are countries whose governments were not on ideal terms with the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. In order to justify fighting with these states, the State Department — which is responsible for informing the public on foreign policy issues — pushed the narrative that these states were real threats to US citizens.
These are the classic neoconservative agitations for war and regime change on the rhetorical level. The Iraq war, for instance, largely rested on the aftermath of 9/11. The Iraqi state and Saddam Hussein were deemed complicit in Al Qaeda’s attack on American soil, thus rationalizing the war — at least partly — as self-defense.
Obviously, these security goals were intertwined with other concerns. That is, American security was not simply about survival, but domination. It was not enough to topple Saddam Hussein, their former ally. Instead, an entirely new political order needed to be engineered for the United States to be “secure” and economically prosperous. Having a firm grip on oil-rich states has been vital for the United States’ status as a global power. Thus, the United States requires friendly allies that give them access to their resources, which is why they had a reason to support Saudi Arabia’s and Bahrain’s crackdowns during the Arab Spring.
Trump and his administration’s fixation on Iran has also been, on the rhetorical level, concerned with security. Iran became a party to an international nuclear deal in 2015, where they vowed to stop their nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions being lifted. However, after the United States unilaterally withdrew, Iran suspended some of its commitments to the deal. To make matters more tense, the United States is now blaming Iran for the damage of four ships in the Gulf. This fits into a security narrative rather neatly, because the United States considers Iran to be a rogue state that needs to be “tamed.”
This brings us to what British diplomat Robert Cooper calls “defensive imperialism.” Rogue nations that are suspected of having the intent to possess weapons of mass destruction are subject to American attack. Hence, it is the role of the world police, the United States, to transform these states into “democracies.”
While defensive imperialism has its roots in the colonial era — i.e., it relies on conceptions of the savage terrorist versus the civil west — it is not technically a colonial act. But it rests rather stably on centuries of colonialism and colonialist thought that have strongly constructed the image of the threatening Middle Eastern terrorist. Because the “rogue” state does not possess “western” values or comply with western powers, they are seen as a threat to American security, and pre-emptive, imperialist war is justified. In the colonial era, western states felt justified violating other states’ sovereignty and colonizing them. Why? Because international law and diplomacy were only for the “civilized.”
The problem is, the western powers show their (imperialist) cards in the kind of “compliance” they demand.
One may call this “compliance for thee, but not for me.” If the United States does not comply with its previous commitments — such as through pulling out of the 2015 deal — it is not because they are rogue. Instead, the United States’ government justifies its actions by claiming they need to be tougher and have a “firm hand” with a “rogue state” rather than negotiate with it.
Implicit in this argument is American exceptionalism. Choosing violence, be it through sanctions or war, is a righteous decision that will make America and the world safer, and we just have to take their word for it.
But whether America’s enemies comply or not makes little difference. In an attempt to be friendlier with the West, for instance, Gaddafi gave up Libya’s nuclear weapons and paid compensation to the Lockerbie victims’ families in the early 2000s. In exchange, western powers were to lift economic sanctions and have better relationships with Libya.
Well, we know how that turned out. Libya was still bombed based on false and suspect information, Gaddafi was still sodomized and murdered, Islamist extremists were still empowered, and now Libya is a failed state with a slave trade.
So what message does that send about compliance? Well, if the United States was planning to overthrow Libya’s government since after 9/11, it does not seem like there was much they could do to convince them not to.
The same is true of Iran. They can be compliant with the international community and with the United States, and all the evidence shows that they followed the terms of the 2015 treaty, but Trump still pulled the US out of the deal, signaling a preference for war over diplomacy. If the United States has already expressed its intent for regime change in Iran, what ought Iran to do at this point? The overthrow of Gaddafi signaled to other states that compliance is not enough, and that it might be wiser for a state to retain its weapons as a deterrent rather than give them up if an attack is imminent anyway.
Some have noted that other American adversaries like North Korea have learned from the overthrow of Gaddafi. Despite outcry from the international community, North Korea maintains its nuclear arsenal. This seems like a rather logical calculation: either give up your nukes and get overthrown with a different pretext presented, or keep your nukes and use them as a deterrent against those that, well, are going to try and overthrow you anyway. Not to mention, the United States has a violent history in North Korea that would naturally make the state — qua rational international actor — wary of American state behaviour.
Iran, similarly, has little incentive to give up its nuclear arsenal if the American and Saudi Arabian governments are intent on regime change in Iran, anyway. And the American government must be intelligent enough to know this. Between Libya and North Korea, there are glaring issues to be learned from. The United States has also engaged in regime change in Iran before (at this point, one has to wonder if they like enabling Islamism). Yet, after Libya, Iran is supposed to trust that if they follow America’s every command, they will be done no harm.
Ironically, American pundits and politicians like to conceive of Iran as irrational. But America would be reluctant to surrender its weapons if it watched its allies be taken down even after nuclear compliance. They would behave no differently if a State Department’s over-a-decade-old plan to remove their government was revealed explicitly. And they would behave no differently if the state threatening to take them down was the same state that had done so in the past.
But at the end of the day, America’s pro-war leaders are not willing to publicly concede that other states are rational actors with security concerns, just like them. If a “rogue” state complies, it is an exception to the rule. If America does not comply, there are few to no consequences. War criminals can be pardoned in spite of their illegal behaviour. Illegal wars can be instigated without other states threatening to invade and “tame” the United States. And if you happen to be an ally of the United States, you may also be able to get away with criminal behaviour, like starving Yemenis to death.
Really what this is is the operation of power. As a global hegemon, the United States has the power to shape the narrative of “good” and “bad” states that rests on the robust pillars of colonial and imperialist thought. If a state is good, it can break the rules and behave violently because it is simply defending its safety. If “bad” state behaves defensively, it means they must be forcibly crushed.
Do we need to normatively support Iran’s government in making this argument? No. But we need to learn what this justificatory rhetoric for war really relies on. We ought not to be fooled by the notion that Iran is just a rogue and irrational actor that wants to damage peoples’ safety just because. While the American government’s plan is fairly calculated and straightforward, the tricks it will use to gain support for their wars are more insidious (I mean, who can forget this?). Thus, it’s crucial we understand the inner mechanisms behind both their real motives and their rhetoric.
After all, if you fool me once, shame on me. If you fool the public a hundred times, that’s foreign policy.