Senate Tested, Iran Approved?

It’s become difficult to keep track of the all the ridiculous charges that have been thrown at Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel over the past few months, but surely one of the most absurd is the idea that the government of Iran “endorsed” his nomination.

That this had become the latest claim to make the journey from goofy right-wing bleat to conservative political “fact” became evident during the Senate Armed Services Committee debate over Hagel’s nomination last week. Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz, doing his best impersonation of what he thinks a very serious person sounds like, gravely intoned that, with Hagel’s nomination came “something that was truly extraordinary, which is the government of Iran formally and publicly praising the nomination of a defense secretary. I would suggest to you that to my knowledge, that is unprecedented to see a foreign nation like Iran publicly celebrating a nomination.”

When Senator Bill Nelson responded that Cruz had “gone over the line” with this suggestion, Senator James Inhofe, the committee’s ranking member, defended Cruz, saying Hagel was “endorsed by [Iran], and you can’t get any cozier than that.”

Let’s stop here for a moment and note that the sum total of the evidence for the claims of Senators Cruz and Inhofe is a statement from Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast, who, when asked about the Hagel nomination at a press conference, said that he hoped that the U.S. would seek a different policy course. “We hope there will be practical changes in American foreign policy and that Washington becomes respectful of the rights of nations," Mehmanparast said.

These comments are utterly unremarkable. Last November, Mehmanparast responded with almost exactly the same boilerplate language when asked about Obama’s re-election. Senior Iranian government figures have also said similar things when asked about new Secretary of State John Kerry, but for some reason this was not trotted out as evidence that the Islamic Republic sees Kerry as a friend. In other words, the claim that “the government of Iran formally and publicly” praised Hagel’s nomination is simply fiction. Much like the belief that Barack Obama is a secret Islamist sympathizer, Cruz’s comments were the product of a hermetically sealed, Fox News-fed reality. (The ensuing stories in Politico, The New York Times and The Washington Post scolding Cruz for his antics are a win-win for the freshman senator, providing him both greater visibility and negative attention from the “lamestream media” that delights his right-wing base.)

More important, however, the notion that the government of Iran has embraced Hagel because of his previously stated concerns about the possible consequences of a strike on Iran (a position he shares with both previous Secretaries of Defense, as well as pretty much every serious national security analyst in the country) is based in a fundamental misunderstanding of what Iran’s rulers actually fear. In the Times earlier this month, Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at RAND, wrote that U.S. military action “isn’t what keeps the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, up at night.” A U.S. strike “would spur the Iranian public to rally around the flag and buck up a wobbling, wheezing theocracy—and an Israeli strike would do so in spades.”

“What the Islamic Republic fears most isn’t that American officials will be blustery and belligerent,” Nader concluded. “It’s that they will be patient and pragmatic.” 

Hagel’s critics clearly believe that, in order to effectively confront Iran, more threats and bluster are required. But we actually have a relatively recent example of such an approach, and the evidence is not favorable to it. In his 2002 state of the union speech, President George W. Bush (in)famously labeled Iran as part of an “axis of evil” that also included Iraq and North Korea. While conservatives fell over themselves to praise the speech’s boldness and “moral clarity,” in terms of actually advancing U.S. security, over a decade later it’s clear that the impact of the speech was almost entirely negative, scuttling the possibility of rapprochement that had arisen from U.S.-Iran cooperation in Afghanistan, and undermining Iranian moderates while dramatically empowering their hardline opponents. 

In a 2007 article for the Middle East Journal titled “What the Axis of Evil Metaphor Did to Iran,” scholars Daniel Heradstveit and G. Matthew Bonham interviewed a number of pro-reform Iranian moderates, and found an overwhelming consensus that the belligerent tone of Bush’s speech had been “a godsend to the conservatives and ultra-conservatives” who profited from continued hostility with the U.S. According to one of these reformers, “After Afghanistan, Iran expected that the dialogue with the USA would get wind in its sails, but then came the speech that gave the right-wingers the chance to say, ‘If they want to hurt us, then we’ll hurt them.’”

One of the most prescient critics of that speech was Chuck Hagel himself, who remarked shortly afterward, “We ought to be a little more thoughtful. That [axis] comment only helps the mullahs.”

Interviews with Iranian democracy activists confirm this. In 2010, Iranian dissident journalist Akbar Ganji told me, “The belligerent rhetoric of Bush didn’t help us [the Iranian democracy movement], it actually harmed us during that period.” Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and human rights activist who won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, was similarly critical of Bush’s rhetoric, going so far as to suggest in an interview with me that the Iranian government probably “wouldn’t mind the U.S. throwing a missile at them,” as it would provide the perfect pretext for the regime to do away with all of its domestic opponents. President Obama, on the other hand, by showing a willingness to engage with Iran, helped show the international community and the Iranian people “that it is the Iranian regime that doesn’t want to talk,” Ebadi said.

What Iran’s leaders would like more than anything is another Dick Cheney or John Bolton, someone willing to play the villainous role that Iran’s anti-American propaganda narrative requires. One of President Obama’s most important decisions was to refuse to play that part. And he’s picked a Secretary of Defense who won’t either. It’s sad that so many of their critics continue to audition for it.

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