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Bill Clinton and the Bogus Iranian Threat

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Tragically, President George H.W. Bush passed up a chance for a rapprochement with Iran because, after the Soviet Union imploded, the national-security apparatus needed a new threat to stave off budget cutters in Congress. Iran became the “manufactured crisis,” according to author Gareth Porter’s new book by that title.

Doubly tragic, Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton, compounded the dangerous folly by hyping the bogus threat. Why? That might be a good question for progressives to ask possible presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who enjoys basking in her husband’s supposed presidential successes.

Porter writes,

That ramping up of pressure on Iran by the Clinton administration was still driven by the same bureaucratic incentives that had appeared at the end of the Cold War, but it shifted into overdrive because it was linked to support of the Israeli government’s drive to portray Iran as the great threat to peace in the world.

Clinton’s advisers saw the threat of nuclear proliferation as the path to beefing up the national-security apparatus. It was perfect for justifying new weapons systems and a continuing role as world policeman.

Moreover, the military focus on Iran, Porter adds, “dovetailed with the Clinton administration’s move to align its Iran policy with that of the Israeli government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.” Before assuming power, Clinton signaled his intention to be “more explicitly pro-Israel than the Bush administration had been.” To that end, he selected Martin Indyk as his campaign’s Middle East adviser. Indyk had been an adviser to former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir; a researcher at the chief pro-Israel lobbying organization, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee; and cofounder of AIPAC’s spinoff think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. (Today, Indyk is President Obama’s chief envoy to the failed U.S.-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian talks.)

The Clinton administration implemented the “dual containment” policy against Iraq and Iran. But Porter reports that Robert Pelletreau, the Middle East policymaker in the State Department, acknowledges “that it was ‘pretty much accepted in Washington’ that the policy had originated in Israel.”

Was there a case against Iran to justify the policy? The administration charged Iran with abetting international terrorism, beefing up its armed forces, and seeking nuclear weapons. But was there evidence?

Porter’s book is a heavily documented brief showing that Iran never had a policy or took steps to acquire nuclear weapons. It sought a uranium-enrichment capability in order to produce fuel for its civilian nuclear program, but it did not seek weapons. Moreover, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had issued a fatwa condemning nuclear weapons as a sin against Islam.

As for Iran’s military, the government sought to acquire medium-range missiles, but this was entirely consistent with its defense needs: Saddam Hussein of Iraq was a standing threat (he had launched an eight-year war complete with chemical attacks and missile strikes on Iran’s cities, including Tehran), and Israeli leaders often spoke of the need for a preemptive strike against the Islamic Republic, like the one staged in 1981 against Iraq’s nuclear-power reactor at Osirak.

And terrorism? “Reflecting both the hostility toward Iran within the national security bureaucracy and the influence of the Israeli line on its Iran policy, the Clinton administration also adopted the same a priori assumption that Iran was a threat to the issue of terrorism,” Porter writes. In other words, Clinton didn’t need evidence. Porter provides several examples of Iran being falsely blamed for terrorism committed by someone else. The pattern of blame without evidence persists.

Finally, why were Israel’s leadership and American supporters so determined to put Iran at the center of U.S. foreign policy, especially when Israel’s government had previously, if covertly, cooperated with the Shiite Islamic Republic on the grounds that both countries had a common enemy in Sunni extremism? Porter’s detailed and documented chapter on this aspect of the manufactured crisis concludes, “The history of the origins and early development of Israel’s Iran nuclear scare and threat to attack Iran over its nuclear and missile programs highlights a pattern in which both the [Yitzhak] Rabin and [Benjamin] Netanyahu governments deliberately exaggerated the threat from Iran, in sharp contradiction with the Israeli intelligence assessment. The ruse served a variety of policy interests, most of which were related to the manipulation of US policy in the region.”

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.