10 Myths About Iran -- and Why They're Dead Wrong
By Jasmin Ramsey, AlterNetThis article originally appeared on AlterNet, which requested that Truthdig’s first published version be revised slightly, as below. The 10 boldface statements below are intended to contradict myths; they reflect the truth and not the erroneous assumptions that abound in the current atmosphere.
As media reports continue to imply that a military confrontation with Iran is closer than ever, rhetoric demonizing the Iranian government is rampant, particularly among Israeli leaders and most Republican presidential candidates—so much so that former Israeli Mossad director Efraim Halevy recently complained that Mitt Romney is “making the [Iran] situation worse” with his statements.
So it should come as no surprise that according to a 2012 Gallup poll, Iran is Americans’ “least favored nation” and has consistently ranked unfavorably since 1989. Gallup is not specific about why an overwhelming majority of respondents have such a low “overall opinion” of the Islamic Republic, but they suggest that “heavy scrutiny and criticism from the West over its nuclear programs” sheds light on American reasoning. Alarmist notions about Iran’s foreign and nuclear policy that spread through the media perpetuate a negative image that is oftentimes inaccurate–and help pave the path to war, which experts say would have disastrous consequences for Israel, the broader Middle East and the U.S.
AlterNet decided to look at 10 myths about Iran, many of them created by these alarmist notions—and explain why they’re dead wrong.
1. Iran does not have a nuclear weapon.
According to the Iranian government, the International Atomic Energy Agency and American intelligence assessments, the common assumption that Iran already has a nuclear bomb is wrong. Even Israeli intelligence agrees.
Yet 71 percent of Americans said “Yes” to the question, “Do you think Iran currently has nuclear weapons, or not?” in the last poll to ask that question. The question was asked a little over two years ago and public opinion could have become more accurately informed. Then again, when widely read newspapers like the Wall Street Journal publish weekly pieces suggesting that “evil” Iran is “building a nuclear bomb” (while justifying terrorism against Iranian citizens), and when Republican presidential contenders like Mitt Romney write that Iranian “Islamic fanatics” are “racing to build a nuclear bomb,” the truth can understandably become muddied for the average person.
2. Iran is not rushing to build a nuclear weapon.
The most prevalent suspicion about Iran is that it is trying to obtain breakout capability, or the ability to produce a nuclear weapon in a short period of time if it made the decision to do so. But that idea often results in unfounded alarmism about Iran’s nuclear program. Former Mideast-focused Pentagon official Colin Kahl told attendees during a packed Capitol Hill briefing in February that there’s a lot of “hyperbole and hyperventilation about Iran’s program” based on estimated timeframes about its alleged nuclear ambitions.
But Kahl emphasized that “timelines” estimating how quickly Iran could obtain a nuclear weapon depend on Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei making a “final decision” that “we have no evidence that he’s made, and we have every reason to believe we would detect if he did.” The Georgetown associate professor went on to point out that because of the very real existential threats the Iranians would face if they decided to start building a weapon, “we’re probably a number of years away” from the point at which Khamenei would “feel comfortable enough” in making that decision. According to nuclear nonproliferation expert Daryl Kimball, the main aim with Iran should accordingly be to affect Iranian “political will.”
Historian and Middle East expert Juan Cole also explained this week that Iran’s main decision-maker, Ali Khamenei, has consistently forbidden, on the basis of Islam, the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Cole says that if people believe Khamenei is being “dishonest,” they should prove it. Finally, as veteran Iran-focused journalist Scott Peterson recently illustrated, “breathless” assertions that Iran is speeding head-on toward nuclear capability “or worse” have been heard for decades while related predictions about imminent Iranian threats have “come and gone” unrealized.
3. Iran is not ruled by “irrational” leaders.
This is particularly true when it comes to Iranian foreign policy–and that’s according to America’s top-ranking military officer Gen. Martin Dempsey, who told CNN last month that the United States is “of the opinion that the Iranian regime is a rational actor.” Former head of the Israeli Mossad Meir Dagan recently echoed that view, telling CBS that, “The regime in Iran is a very rational one.”
In January, director of National Intelligence James Clapper informed a Senate Intelligence Committee that Iran was using a “cost-benefit analysis” with its nuclear program decision-making process: “[I]f the decision has been made to press on with a nuclear weapon — and there are certain things they have not done yet to eventuate that — that this would be based on a cost-benefit analysis.” He added that the U.S. does not believe that the decision to build a nuclear weapon has been made by Iran’s leadership yet. And in February, the chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess, also told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “The [DIA] assesses Iran is unlikely to initiate or intentionally provoke a conflict”–another indication that Iran’s decision-making process is a calculated one.4. Iran’s leadership wants to preserve their regime.
The Republican presidential candidates, along with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, frequently suggest that the Iranian government is committed to Israel’s “annihilation” even if that means their own end. But according to Mideast analyst Matt Duss of the Center for American Progress, the idea that Iran is a “martyr state” is a “myth” that “actually detracts from our ability to develop policies to effectively meet [the] challenge” of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapon ambitions. After being chided by Israeli leaders and American hawks for admitting that Iran is “rational,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey also said that it’s counterproductive to label Iran’s leadership with sweeping generalizations: “The key is to understand how they act and not trivialize their actions by attributing to them some irrationality.” Dempsey said framing the discussion about Iran in that way is a “dangerous thing for us to do” even if he doesn’t “agree” with Iranian decisions.
5. Iran’s leadership is not monolithic.
Rand Corporation senior analyst Alireza Nader said during a March 7 New America briefing that it’s “simply not true” that Iran is a “monolithic actor with a unified political system.” Rather, Nader noted that Iran’s leadership is actually fracturing, and that this was most recently exhibited by the sidelining of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by the Supreme Leader and his allies after Ahmadinejad challenged him. This fact should also lay to rest any illusions that Ahmadinejad’s presidential power and authority exists independently of Iran’s main decision-maker, the Supreme Leader. According to Nader, Iran is “not a democratic country” and is becoming an “increasingly authoritarian system,” but there is “still a political process in Iran.”
6. Iranians don’t hate Americans.
Contrary to popular belief, many Iranians hungrily consume American culture whenever they can in various ways. According to Iranian-American writer Hooman Majd, the author of two acclaimed books exploring the intricate complexities of Iranian politics and society, “…Iranians are indeed the most pro-American peoples of the Middle East–perhaps not pro-American foreign policy–but pro-American in the sense that we would like the people of the world to be.”
Majd notes that “even the mullahs ‘buy American,’ if and when they can.” While American Iran hawks often remind us that Iranians continue to shout anti-American rhetoric, they forget to include that these displays of bluster are usually exhibited in public where there’s state-run media coverage and official pressure to talk and act a certain way. Certainly, the majority of the Iranian population do not wish Americans any harm. Says Majd, “Chants of ‘Death to America’ are meaningless–the phrase refers to US foreign policy, hegemony, and imperialism; not the American dream or the people.”
7. The Mujahideen-e Khalq (aka MEK, MKO, PMOI and NCRI) is not “Iran’s main opposition.”
The short story is that at one time the MEK was a popular revolutionary force in Iran that was brutally repressed. But for decades, it has been detested or considered irrelevant by the majority of the population. It worked for Saddam Hussein’s regime during the bloody and long Iran-Iraq war. It has also committed terrorism inside Iran that led to the death of U.S. citizens.
Now, the MEK is lobbying the United States to remove it from its foreign terrorist organizations list through a well-funded campaign. It’s akin to Al Qaeda advertising in the New York Times, the Washington Post or on cable TV. Its advocates include former George W. Bush administration members Frances Townsend and Michael Mukasey, who has described MEK members as “courageous freedom fighters,” as well as the likes of Howard Dean.
Analysts and journalists who have no affection for the Iranian government have reported the facts about MEK, despite well-organized campaigning by its members to silence criticism or deflect attention by bringing up the real human rights issues its members face in Iraq. MEK supporters have reacted furiously to the Rand Corporation’s description of them as a “cult” and deny the disturbing abuses attributed to their leadership by Human Rights Watch. According to their lobbyists, negative depictions of MEK are funded by the Iranian government, thereby implying that the U.S. State Department and the FBI were also controlled by Iran!
If that isn’t enough to make those who still buy into MEK’s propaganda think twice, consider that when millions of Iranians took to the streets in 2009 after the hotly contested presidential election, the people were focused on democracy in Iran and the “Green Movement,” not MEK. But regardless of what MEK and its former high-ranking U.S. official advocates do to change the reality surrounding them, the fact remains that this group inspires no hope among the vast majority of more than 70 million Iranian citizens.8. Iranians speak a different language than Iraqis.
It’s common for Iranians to be mistaken for Arabs, but people in Arab nations speak a different language (Arabic varies by region just as Farsi is not the only spoken language in Iran) and have different cultures. Persian food and Arabic food also differ significantly, regardless of which Arabic country you are talking about. As stated in an “explainer” article in Slate: “Alone among the Middle Eastern peoples conquered by the Arabs, the Iranians did not lose their language or their identity.”
9. Iranians don’t want another revolution.
There is indeed widespread discontent about the Iranian leadership and life inside Iran among its citizens at home, who have been negatively impacted by years of increasingly harsh U.S.-led sanctions. The widely attended protests of 2009 and 2010 forced the world to recognize this even if the Iranian government refuses to acknowledge the facts. But unlike the protest movements in Arab countries that began in 2011 and resulted in the fall of multiple governments, the Green Movement has since been mostly dormant while the Iranian leadership is alive and more focused on crushing internal dissent amongst establishment figures than democracy activists.
When I was in Iran this time last year, there were weekly protests for imprisoned Green movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi and widespread arrests and other forms of government-sponsored intimidation. But the protests were nowhere near the scale of what we saw in 2009, and by the Iranian holiday period in March, Tehran cleared out like it always does. This was just a month after Mousavi and Karroubi’s house arrest began.
The argument can certainly be made that Iranians face a brutally repressive government and fear for their lives if they continue to oppose the regime, but as Iran expert and scholar Farideh Farhi told me during an interview last year, many Iranians want change, but not another painful revolution at this point. Like the characters in Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning film, A Separation, average Iranians are occupied with pressing daily living concerns regardless of sex or social class even if the political remains deeply personal. As Farhi noted, “When have two revolutions ever happened so closely together?”
10. Your Iranian friend’s account of the situation in Iran isn’t necessarily authoritative.
It doesn’t matter how convincing your Iranian friend sounds when he recounts his version of Iranian history or current affairs, whether he’s a dentist, a personal relation or a cab driver. Remember that much of the Iranian expatriate population, millions of whom live abroad, left Iran in search of economic opportunities or for political reasons and don’t feel they can return for good even if they wanted to. Their feelings about Iran are therefore extremely complex and that will certainly play into how they describe it to others. What Iranians think about the situation inside Iran is deeply influenced by their sex, class and religious beliefs. This doesn’t mean that what they’re telling you is necessarily untrue or unimportant. But seeking verifiable facts is as important as personal testimony when trying to get a clear picture about Iran–especially now.