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Threat Inflation and the Iran Obsession

One of the recurring problems in our foreign policy debates is that pundits and policymakers get into the habit of treating minor, manageable threats to other states on the other side of the world as major, existential threats to us.

Roberto Vivaldelli interviewed TAC contributor Prof. John Mearsheimer recently. Prof. Mearsheimer’s answer about the threat posed to the U.S. by Iran was very good and worth quoting in full:

Iran is not a direct threat to the United States. It is not even an indirect threat to the United States. First, Iran does not have nuclear weapons and it has signed an agreement with the world’s major powers that makes it impossible for Tehran to develop nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future. Second, Iran does not have missiles that can strike the U.S. homeland. Third, Iran has weak conventional forces, which cannot be used against the United States or any country in the Middle East that is under the American security umbrella. Fourth, Iran is not a serious threat to attack another country in its region. It has not launched a war against another country even once in modern times, and there is no evidence that it is now preparing to take the offensive against any of its neighbors. Fifth, Iran is not the source of America’s terrorism problem. To the extent that any one country deserves that title, it is Saudi Arabia, not Iran.

The truth is that it is the United States that is a direct threat to Iran, not the other way around. The Trump administration, with much prompting from Israel and Saudi Arabia, has its gunsights on Iran. The aim is regime change, and there is much evidence that the United States might use military force to achieve that goal.

Mearsheimer has very concisely and accurately assessed the nature of the Iranian threat, or rather the lack of threat, to the United States. Naturally, I agree with this assessment, and I have said much the same thing before. Everything that Mearsheimer said here is true, and it seems to me that none of it is seriously disputed by anyone other than ideologues. Iran hawks have spent decades exaggerating both Iran’s power and ambitions, and this has created a degree of irrational fear of and hostility to Iran that is out of all proportion to the reality of the danger. Even when it comes to support for terrorism, the boilerplate denunciation that Iran is the “world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism” is an exaggeration and misrepresentation of the facts. Iran isn’t the one inspiring the jihadists that attack Americans and Europeans, and it isn’t Iran that arms and funds Al Qaeda and its affiliates. Iran cannot hurt the U.S. and it can’t even do that much damage to our regional clients, and perversely it is because they cannot do anything to the U.S. that our government feels free to antagonize and threaten Iran on behalf of those clients, including some of the very governments that sponsored jihadists in Syria and work with jihadists right now in Yemen.

One of the recurring problems in our foreign policy debates is that pundits and policymakers get into the habit of treating minor, manageable threats to other states on the other side of the world as major, existential threats to us. If one of our clients has a regional rival, the rival doesn’t just become our adversary but also gets built up into the next great foreign menace. Then our entire regional policy is reoriented to opposing that rival at the expense of our own interests. Our political leaders and policymakers obsess over the rival and cook up misguided plans to “contain” them or even overthrow their government, and all the while they pretend that this has something to do with keeping America secure.

The United States is extremely secure from foreign threats, but in order to whip up support for aggressive policies overseas that security has to be denied. Because our political leaders and policymakers define our vital interests so broadly and frequently confuse those interests with the interests of distant clients, we are always being told how increasingly dangerous the rest of the world is becoming. Once we have defined our interests as being almost everywhere, those interests are always under some kind of threat. America has rarely been more physically secure against attack than it is today, but thanks to threat inflation and interest inflation our leaders encourage us to believe that we are under siege and have to respond to practically every problem overseas. That leads us into one costly and unnecessary confrontation after another against states that don’t pose a threat to us and couldn’t hurt us even if they tried. It is preposterous, but we see the same pattern repeated again and again.



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