Discourse of ‘Iranian threat’

Time and again, we are reminded by the news media and bloggers that Israel (in concert with the US and Britain) is planning to launch a military strike against Iran and that Iran poses a dire threat to international community. How should we understand the discourse of the Iranian threat? What kinds of questions can we ask?


Immediately after the report submitted by the Director General of International Atomic Energy Agency (hereafter IAEA) to the UN Security Council in November 8, 2011, the US, Canada and the UK intensified their previous sanctions on Iran’s financial institutions, including its central bank and commercial banks, as well as those on companies involved in Iranian petrochemical and oil industries.[1] The EU may soon likely to impose sanctions on Iran, for instance by banning Iranian oil imports. The Israeli government, meanwhile, began pushing the EU and the western governments to impose ‘harsher’ sanctions on Iran, as a ‘punishment’ for the latter’s nuclear ambition. Recently, sources from the Arab press reported on a showcase of the American cooperation with Israel regarding Iran, just as an American fleet heading to the Persian Gulf passed through the Suez Canal with an Israeli vessel.[2]


The latest report by the IAEA Iran states that Iran has taken further steps needed for production of nuclear weapons. But the report does not clarify how long it will take for Iran to develop atomic warheads usable for military purposes.[3] According to the New York Times, the report ‘represents the strongest judgment the agency has issues in its decade-long struggle to pierce the secrecy surrounding the Iranian program.’[4] However, partly due to the Iranian refusal to disclose fully information regarding its nuclear program, the agency lacks clear evidence and seems to touch more on a possible Iranian nuclear capability.


It seems that, with images of recent Israeli military exercise targeted on its future conflict with Iran, the western news media has drawn our attention to the possibility of a war preemptively launched by Israel, which can at any moment mobilize its forces, at least in principle. The stories of the informal meetings between Israeli, American, and British officials point to the level of threat said to be posed by Iran. Moreover, Iran itself has countered the sanctions and other military threats posed by the western governments and Israel by claiming that it will attack the NATO defence facilities in Turkey, in case either US or Israel launches an attack on Iran or its nuclear infrastructures.[5] In concert with the rhetoric of these government sources, the media has shaped the image of Iran as a threat not only to the Middle East and the West but also to global security.


Meantime, one might question whether Iran is intentionally developing nuclear weapons for military purposes and whether it is feasible to focus on the debates surrounding the possible military attack on Iran by Israel or the US. Is Iran really a threat? What do Iranian leaders want?


Before asking these questions, however, one should also note that the so-called ‘Iranian threat’ has been constantly on the table of the Israeli and western governments, and that those who support a military strike or strikes on Iran are the same neo-conservatives arguing for a ‘preemptive’ war against the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. After all, the newly upgraded sanctions by the western government seem planned ahead of the report, while the US neo-conservatives have long demanded a ‘preemptive’ strike against Iran. And the discourse of ‘the Iranian threat’ has as well been widely circulated both by the Israeli news media and by the Israeli politicians and academics of a wide range of political spectrum. In addition to that, the brutal Iranian regime seems to be ‘enjoying’ the attention from the western media regarding its nuclear program, as it is often the case that foreign policy concerns can be used as an excuse to crack down political dissents at home; the popular movements of the Green Revolution in Iran are still alive in Iran and the demands for greater freedom of speech and expression have not yet been receded in Iranian politics. 


Therefore, amidst the war mongering espoused either by Israel or by the western governments (or by the Iranian regime), we should rather ask why, if Iran possesses nuclear weapons, it has to pose an existential threat to the region, the West, and the international community. Is Iran a threat because it possesses the deadly weapons? Or is Iran without the weapons still a threat? In other words, we should better keep in mind that there is a difference between seeing Iran itself as a threat and perceiving ‘a nuclearized Iran’ as a threat to world’s peace and security.


And, secondly, if we treat Iran as a threat, we should ask what is the reference to which Iran is a threat. According to those demanding ‘harsher’ responses from the western governments, preventing Iran from furthering its nuclear project is necessary for the ‘stability’ of the region and beyond. Given the fact that that particular type of ‘stability’ encouraged by the western governments and its allies has helped to secure the anti-democratic regimes currently under the popular scrutiny in the region, it is not too premature to argue that this ‘stability’ means a Middle East and a Central Asia packed with friendly pro-western states and leaders for certain cohorts of western elites and that it is, more often than not, distinct from the interests of ordinary people in the region.


Thirdly but not the last, when it comes to Israel’s aggressive move toward Iran or the ‘western’ governments’ call for further sanctions on Iran, there seems to be a double standard that needs to be thought about. The West’s seemingly hostile reaction toward Iran’s nuclear program stands uneasily with its relations with Israel with regard to the question of nuclear proliferation. Indeed, Israel is not a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which seeks as one of its objectives to prevent the spread and proliferation of nuclear weapons and related technology and has a group of 190 signatory parties to it (other non-party states include North Korea, India, and Pakistan). The ‘western’ governments have supported, ‘officially’ and ‘unofficially’, Israel’s nuclear policy, while the latter has kept its nuclear program undisclosed, whereas the western governments have tended to balk at the possibility of nuclear programs pursued by countries in the Middle East and North Africa, including Iran. According to such a standard, Israel therefore is ‘free’ to pursue its nuclear policy ‘outside’ the international framework. Against this background, what needs to be further considered, hence, is what Israel (or the West) means by ‘a crisis’ espoused by the Iranian nuclear program.   


These do not mean that Iran’s nuclear program is harmless or that it should be left alone without international oversight. Of course, Iran is a threat to its own people (as many Iranians are threatened by their own government as well as by the western and Israeli aspiration for ‘stability’) and any kind of nuclear projects poses threats to the peace and security of international community. Rather than take for granted Iran’s nuclear program as a threat, we should re-consider how and why Iran has to be the threat against which the West or any other international bodies must take an action or actions. Whose interests would be served when some sort of military measures, alongside economic sanctions, is taken to deter that ‘threat’ in near future?


written by April

November 27, 2011  (revised December 1, 2011)