It worked with Iraq, and it looks like things are going the same way ten years later.
Ten years ago, when Messrs Blair and Bush decided that Saddam Hussein had done enough killing and that it was their turn to start recklessly massacring Iraqis, their PR teams turned to man's oldest friend to convince people it was the right thing to do: language. They spun the invasion not as the war against Iraq, but as "the War on Terror" – a noble, courageous act that would save millions of lives from the weapons of mass destruction Saddam definitely had stashed away.
As we all know now – and what most of us suspected back then – is that Saddam was not an international terrorist. Sure, he might have slaughtered hundreds of thousands of his own citizens, which perhaps justifies intervention depending on your stance on the West policing the world, but there was never any proven presence of WMDs before the invasion, while links between Saddam and 9/11 were forced and tenuous to say the least.
The method Bush and Blair used to remedy that little glitch in their plan was to personify Iraq as Saddam and then demonise him and, by proxy, it. This obviously wasn't too tricky – according to Mark Harmon and Robert Muenchen in their essay "Semantic Framing in the Build-Up to the Iraq War", this tactic fit "two classic fairy-tale mythologies, self-defence and rescue. The hero (the US and any allies) confronts a dangerous, evil and irrational villain and must defeat him, liberating his oppressed people."
Thus, you had George Bush saying stuff like, "The reason I keep insisting there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and al-Qaeda is because there was a relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda", after publicly confirming himself that the US had "no evidence Saddam Hussein was involved with the September 11 attacks". Then, of course, there was the "Axis of Evil"; Bush's term for all the nasty countries he didn't like (including Iraq), which also sounds a lot like a social club for super-villains. It's language that has been widely pilloried by satirical presences as varied as Private Eye and 2DTV, but it still may have subconsciously helped to get people on board.
Pro-war rhetoric was used almost to the point of exhaustion (68 percent pro-war messages compared to 32 percent anti-war sentiments expressed on Fox News alone), which obviously didn't convince the majority of protesters. But leading "the public to believe that Iraq was developing WMDs and providing substantial support to the al-Qaeda terrorist group" undoubtedly helped to elicit consent among the public, at whatever level, for the invasion.
Ten years after that invasion, the same kind of language is starting to be used around relations with Iran, and it's coming from both the US and Israel (even if it might not be as easy for media language to rationalise an invasion now as it was in the hyper-patriotic post-9/11 period). Language in press reports is increasingly framing diplomatic channels as exhausted and war with Iran as a regrettable inevitability, despite important players from the media theatre of the Iraq war making their case against a military assault on Ahmadinejad's country (like Hans Blix, leader of the UN weapons inspection team in Iraq).
Political and security pundits seem all too eager to place their bets on when war will start, rather than if it will start – predictions are routinely cast of Iran approaching a "point of no return" in the development of its nuclear capacity, or of an impending "unilateral" strike by Israel (the country that up to now has been most publicly hostile towards Iran). Meanwhile, President Obama is still engaged in negotiations with Iran and hasn’t yet formalised "red lines" to limit Iran’s nuclear capacity by force, much to the dismay of the Israeli government. But Washington has reiterated its commitment to military action should it deem Iran to be developing weapons-grade Uranium, with Vice-President Joe Biden recently announcing that the "military option remains on the table for Obama". However, Biden’s comments are somewhat misleading – while a full-scale military assault isn't yet under way, things moved off the table to the field quite some time ago.
As far back as 2007, the Bush administration gave the CIA approval to launch "black" operations in Iran in a bid to affect regime change. And while some dismiss Biden's remarks and others like them as textbook brinkmanship, others are rightly wary that fiery comments and military exercises aimed at flexing political muscle could turn a heated situation into something far more serious.
One of Iran's suspected nuclear facilities.
Last year, while he was still serving as US Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta told a Washington Post journalist that "there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June” of 2013. Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman claimed at the beginning of last year that "the probability is that Israel will strike during 2012" after completing a series of interviews with senior Israeli leaders (he was obviously a little off the mark). And Professor Amitai Etzioni stated that: "The US will have to confront Iran or give up the Middle East". Which, besides implying that America has some kind of ownership over the Middle East, is a clear case of fear mongering worded as fact.
There are plenty more examples of similar apparent truths being put forward, and the trend has to a large extent normalised a debate that should be anything but normal. Instead of taking one foot out of the propaganda pit and questioning whether we really need any more US imperialism stomping over the Middle East, war with Iran seems to be far less a question of "If?" and more a question of "When?"
It’s not only the language of print and online media that risks inflicting the crimes of Iraq upon Iran. As journalist John Pilger writes, “Hollywood has returned to its Cold War role, led by liberals.” The Oscar-winning film Argo is a prime example. Set in 1970s Iran, amid the US embassy hostage crisis, it solidifies notions of an Iranian threat today. Argo “is a propaganda movie in the truest sense, one that claims to be innocent of all ideology”, says Andrew O’Hehir, an independent critic.
US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper (on the left). (Image via)
Despite the fact that, last week, US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper assured a Senate select committee that Iran would be unable to build a nuclear weapon without being detected, public opinion still appears to side with the idea that Iran poses a nuclear threat. An ABC/Washington Post poll asked, “Based on what you’ve heard or read, do you think Iran is or is not trying to develop nuclear weapons?” An overwhelming 84 percent of respondents answered that they thought Iran was developing nuclear weapons, which begs the question: Why is it that such views are so widely held?
As reported by investigative journalist and author Mark Curtis, covert operations launched by Washington to destabilise Iran in 2007 involve a “propaganda and disinformation campaign", which roughly translates to "get the media to relay a bunch of anti-Iran shit so that everyone will get on side when we start bombing them".
Clearly no sane person wants Iran to develop nuclear weapons – or anyone to develop nuclear weapons, for that matter – but going in guns blazing isn't necessarily the best option, and the way the media have been reporting the situation doesn't exactly help. Robert Gates, former US Secretary of Defence – so hardly a dovish man – said that, “the results of an American or Israeli military strike on Iran could, in my view, prove catastrophic, haunting us for generations in that part of the world”.
So, despite the fact that Iran still aren't abiding by the sanctions placed upon them, it's pretty clear that we shouldn't just dive into an all-out war. However, there are still many jonesing for another military adventure in the Middle East, and the press coverage of the situation shares an unnerving amount of similarities with the war in Iraq, in that it seems to actually be persuading the public that the Israeli and American governments should start dropping bombs on Ahmadinejad.
Post-9/11, the press failed in their role as the so-called "Fourth Estate" in the run up to the Iraq war. Ten years on, it looks like they're in danger of making the same mistakes again with Iran.
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