Rhetoric of War: First Iraq, then Iran?
By Cyrus Safdari
Global Dialogue, Volume 8, No. 1-2, Winter-Spring 2006
[Global Dialogue is a publication of the Centre for World Dialogue, Cyprus.
With the passing of the third anniversary of the United States-led invasion of Iraq, and with no end in sight to the resultant daily carnage and anarchy there, the drumbeat for a new war is becoming audible, this time against Iran. Ironically, the case put forth by the Bush administration and its neoconservative coterie for an attack on Iran has striking rhetorical parallels to the now totally discredited case for attacking Iraq, employing a series of identifiable logical fallacies and rhetorical tricks that are ultimately intended to create a narrative which legitimizes a so-called "pre-emptive" use of force against the Islamic Republic.
The Bush administration's case for attacking Iran has three main themes, which it shares with the case for invading Iraq: both countries were accused of supporting al-Qaeda and have been “linked” to the 11 September 2001 tragedy; both countries were said either to possess or seek nuclear weapons and both countries were said to pose an imminent threat which had to be dealt with by force and outside the United Nations system if necessary. The similarity in the drumbeats for war on Iran and Iraq is no accident: it is just one example of the most common justification employed by US presidents to influence public opinion in favour of the use of military force overseas, a justification which is formulated as the necessity to deter foreign aggression, protect the United States and defend freedom. Similar justifications have been employed for overseas interventions on numerous occasions in the past. For example, using language which is eerily similar to President George W. Bush's justifications for waging a "war on terror" today, President Lyndon Baines Johnson justified sending US troops to the Dominican republic in 1965 by stating:
[A]s long as I am president of this country, we are going to
defend ourselves. We will defend our soldiers against
attackers . . . we will defend our nation against all those who
seek to destroy not only the United States but every free
country of this hemisphere.
Of course, the use of rhetorical techniques of persuasion by presidents or other leaders is not new. Statesmen in ancient Athens and in the Medieval era employed rhetorical techniques to sway public opinion and to refute their opponents. In the modern era, the US president is the chief rhetorician in the American political system. Indeed, President Theodore Roosevelt described the presidency as a "bully pulpit" from which to command attention and attempt persuasion, and presidential researchers have since developed general theories to explain how presidents lead public opinion towards desired policy choices.(1)
These appeals to public opinion employ a variety of standard techniques of rhetorical persuasion. In analysing the Bush administration's rhetoric on Iran, it is therefore instructive to consider how some of the more obvious examples of fallacious reasoning and techniques of deceptive rhetoric were employed to make the case for a war on Iraq.
* The Enthymeme *
One of the most powerful justifications for the invasion of Iraq was the alleged connection between Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. After all, the 9/11 attacks provided a convenient cover for the sort of military action against Iraq which had been long espoused by many members of Bush's neo-conservative clique, and the belief that Saddam Hussein was somehow responsible for 9/11 persists among Americans long after the Congressional 9/11 Commission investigation concluded in June 2004 that there was "no credible evidence" that Saddam Hussein had a role in the attacks.
The pervasiveness of this false belief is a tribute to a technique of rhetorical persuasion known as the enthymeme, which is just as effective today as it was more than 2,500 years ago when it was defined by Aristotle in his Rhetoric as the act of "concluding from certain assumptions that something else follows ... either universally or as a rule" where the assumptions are based on "commonplaces" that the audience takes for granted, and so need not be explicitly stated.
A simpler, modern definition of an enthymeme is an argument in which a premiss or a conclusion is left unsaid, allowing the audience to fill in the gap itself using its own preconceptions. The persuasive effect of the enthymeme is attributable to the fact that the audience becomes a participant in the process of its own persuasion; rather than challenging the audience's preconceptions, the speaker relies on the preconceptions to sell his message. And since the key element in the argument is merely hinted at, but never explicitly stated by the speaker, an added benefit of the enthymeme is that it provides a degree of "plausible deniability" to the speaker: if ever confronted, the speaker can legitimately deny having made the controversial statement.
The Bush administration's ability to connect the invasion of Iraq to the tragedy of 9/11 was a textbook example of the usefulness of enthymemes. For example, on 1 May 2003, while standing on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, President Bush said:
The battle in Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on
September 11, 2001, and still goes on .. . With those attacks, the
terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States,
and war is what they got.
As an example of the enthymeme, the argument is summarised thus:
Major premiss: Terrorists attacked us on 11 September.
Unstated minor premiss: Iraq was responsible for the attacks of 11 September.
Conclusion: So we justifiably went to war on Iraq.
Note that the minor premiss-that Iraq was somehow responsible for the attacks of 11 September, was never explicitly stated. It didn't have to be; it was simply left up to the audience to fill in that gap for itself.
Vice-president Dick Cheney used a slightly different enthymematic argument to connect the invasion of Iraq to 9/11. In various interviews during the course of the build-up to the invasion, Cheney repeatedly emphasized the existence of an Iraq-al-Qaeda conspiracy by referring to an alleged meeting between Mohammed Atta, one of the 9/11 hijackers, and a senior Iraqi official in Prague a few months prior to the attacks. The audience already knew that al-Qaeda was responsible for the events of 9/11 (major premiss). Cheney supplied the minor premiss by claiming that agents of al-Qaeda and Iraq had met and conspired together in Prague. From there, the audience was able to connect the dots and reach the unstated conclusion: Saddam was responsible for the attacks of
9/11. Cheney never had to state this explicitly, of course; he merely had to imply it. And after the 9/11 Commission found no such Iraq-al Qaeda connection (since Atta was in Virginia at the time of the alleged meeting, according to the FBI and the CIA), Cheney invoked the "plausible deniability" characteristic of the enthymeme: "I have not suggested there's a connection between Iraq and 9/11.(2)
Americans, jarred and confused by the 9/11 attacks, were quite willing and able to hold Saddam responsible for the attacks; and just in case they encountered any difficulty in making the connection, a pliant and frenzied media as well as a variety of think tanks and pundits, through their endless and heated speculation on the matter and repeated juxtaposition of Iraq and al-Qaeda, helped the audience make the leap from retaliation for 9/11 to the invasion of Iraq. This step was probably further assisted by the fact that most Americans have little understanding of the Middle East in the first place, and make few distinctions between its various peoples and political systems. After all, the "common knowledge" used by audiences to fill in the missing portions of enthymematic arguments often consists of little more than ordinary prejudices and cultural biases. That is why Aristotle characterised the enthymeme as the best way to sway the masses, since "the uneducated argue from their everyday knowledge".
And similarly today, we are treated to new allegations about an al-Qaeda connection to Iran-for example, that Iran permitted the hijackers to cross its territory. In a "web exclusive", Newsweek breathlessly reports on "the latest evidence" that the 9/11 hijackers had "frequently used Iran as a safe transit point in their travels to and from Afghanistan" (3) -as if passing through Iran, which is a neighbour of Afghanistan, is indicative of Iranian complicity in the 9/11 attacks. As one commentator put it,
President Bush promised to "look into the facts" about al-Qaeda members'
crossing Iran on their way to the US. What he didn't say is the fact that no
one can come to the US directly from Iran (legally or otherwise). These
terrorists must have gone through a number of other countries. Turkey?
UAE? Others? It doesn't seem that Mr. Bush will "look into the facts" to
see how these terrorists managed to cross those other, friendly, countries.(4)
In any case, the alleged Iranian support for al-Qaeda does not now appear to be the main theme of the Bush administration's chargesheet against Iran, perhaps because the FBI's own rather blatant failures in stopping the 9/11 hijackers have reduced the potential traction of any alleged Iran-9/11 link. Instead, the theme of the "Iranian nuclear-weapons programme" seems to be the favoured justification for a war on Iran. However, the main stumbling block in selling Iran as a nuclear threat has been the absence of any actual evidence of such a programme. Thus, the rhetorical techniques used by the Bush administration to portray Iran as an impending nuclear threat are mainly designed to make up for that crucial bit of missing evidence. The enthymeme fulfils this "gap-filling" function perfectly.
The Bush administration's rhetoric on Iran employs a somewhat more evolved form of the enthymeme than the two examples given regarding Iraq. Thus, "Iran must not have a nuclear weapon", President Bush thundered in a 1 March 2006 interview, and in June 2003 he urged that "the international community must come together to make it very clear to Iran that we will not tolerate the construction of the nuclear weapons". These two statements represent a form of the enthymeme which Aristotle identified as an "especially well-liked" kind: the enthymematic maxim. This type of enthymeme is distinguishable from the previous sort by the fact it does not employ separate clauses which the audience must laboriously connected together to reach the desired conclusion (while prodded on by the hints, nods and winks of authority figures). Instead, enthymematic maxims are short, self-contained "persuasion bombs" which, conveniently, are also great sound bites: "Iran must not be allowed to have nuclear weapons" implies that Iran is in fact seeking nuclear weapons, and furthermore that the Bush administration would be justified in using force to prevent such acquisition. There is no room for questioning in the enthymematic maxim - no room to wonder, for example, whether Iran is actually seeking nuclear bombs in the first place; if you agree with the conclusion that Iran must not obtain the bomb, you must accept the unstated premises that Iran is in fact seeking to obtain the bomb.
* Begging the Question *
Stating as fact the slightest conjecture about weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is but one of the Bush administration's rhetorical deceptions used in selling wars. Students of rhetoric may recognise this technique as the related fallacy of petitio principii or "begging the question". This is a form of fallacious argument in which the truth of the very point in dispute is implicitly assumed in the premisses of the argument. This fallacy is particularly useful in overcoming the problem of the missing evidence of a nuclear-weapons programme in Iran: rather than proving the existence of such a programme, it is easier to assume that its existence has already been established and is an incontestable fact.
This rhetorical technique was widely used in the build-up to the war on Iraq. The phrase "Iraqi WMD programmes" was bandied about so often that it became unquestionable fact, even though inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had failed to find the alleged WMD. The Bush administration was so insistent that Iraqi WMD existed, and the US media was so willing to parrot the Bush administration, that it seemed downright silly and conspiratorial to suspect otherwise. Perhaps the most glaring of the many examples of the administration's absolute insistence on the existence of Iraqi WMD was supplied by Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld in a 30 March 2003 interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC This Week: "We know where they are. They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south, and north somewhat." Again, in a televised speech on 17 March 2003, President Bush told the American people there was "no doubt" Iraq had "some of the most lethal weapons ever devised".
Similarly, the Bush administration simply treats the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons programme as an established and unquestionable fact. Thus, addressing a conference in December 2003, John Bolton, at the time US Under-Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, declared: "Although Iran has biological, chemical and missile programmes, I will focus today on their nuclear weapons programme, which Iran itself has acknowledged has been under way for at least eighteen years."(5) This despite the fact that there is no evidence of a nuclear-weapons programme in Iran, and that Iran has certainly never acknowledged the existence of any such programme.
And again, just as in the case of Iraq, the media and the pundits are happy to go along with the official spin by casually tossing out pro forma references to "Iran's nuclear weapons programme", as if the existence of such a programme is now beyond dispute. For example, on 23 May 2005, PBS TV's News-Hour with Jim Lehrer dedicated a segment to "a report on the Iranian nuclear weapons program". On 4 April 2006, William Arkin opened his online Washington Post blog: "In the tricky world of deterrence, where the United States is pressuring Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program ..."
The New York Times is perhaps the worst offender in this regard. Though the New York Times editorial board admitted rather grudgingly to having inadvertently promoted the Bush administration's propaganda line on Iraq, the newspaper is apparently capable of simultaneously condemning the Bush administration while promoting a similar propaganda line against Iran. As media scholar Norman Solomon observed,
[A] distinct rhythm of drumming for a war dance is audible in
the present. Consider a statement that appeared a couple of inches
under the close of the New York Times editorial declaring on
Saturday that "there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."
In an editorial just below, the Times flatly stated conjecture as fact:
"Iran has a nuclear weapons program."(6)
Ironically, the same media outlets that freely refer to a non-existent "Iranian nuclear weapons programme" are meticulously careful when referring to an "alleged" Israeli nuclear arsenal-even though thanks to Mordechai Vanunu, the existence of Israeli nuclear weapons is an established fact.
Amusingly, the fallacy of begging the question often takes the form of a rhetorical question, and is usually asserted in article headlines. "Can Iran's A-bomb Ambitions Be Stopped?" asked Fred Kaplan in the online news magazine Slate on 6 May 2005. "Can the U.S. Defuse Iran?" asked Time on 14 February 2005; on 3 April 2006, the same magazine, referring to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, asked: "Will This Man Get the Bomb?"
And regrettably, some of the same pundits and think tanks that helped peddle the "Iraqi WMD" threat are now active in promoting the idea that an Iranian nuclear weapons programme exists. For example, during the build-up to the Iraq invasion, the director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control repeatedly claimed that Iraq had "an active programme for building weapons of mass destruction", though in fact the IAEA inspectors had concluded otherwise. In editorials published in the Wall Street Journal he even went so far as to repeatedly accuse Hans Blix, then-Director General of the IAEA, of being "timid"-and "irrelevant" because of the IAEA's "failure" to find the non-existent WMD in Iraq. The editorials are still conveniently posted at IragWatch.org, a special website created by the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control dedicated to "accounts of Iraq's efforts to build weapons of mass destruction". There were no attempts to withdraw these statements after the IAEA was vindicated and no WMD were found in Iraq. Instead, without missing a beat, the same organisation has simply shifted its attention to Iran: it has a started a new website called IranWatch.org, which urges policies to "stop the Iranian bomb". The fact that there is no actual evidence of any "Iranian bomb" appears to be as irrelevant to these pundits today as the non-existence of Iraqi WMD was in 2003.
* Ambiguity *
When the much-touted "Iraqi WMDs" were not found after the US invasion, the Bush administration's justification was reformulated as "Iraqi WMD-programme-related activities". A bit later it was again reformulated as Saddam's "intent to reconstitute WMD". The justification for the invasion of Iraq became more and more vague with each step, to smooth over the fact that Iraqi WMD had failed to materialise. Eventually, the whole WMD pretext was discarded in favour of a post facto "promotion of democracy" justification.
Similarly, the absence of any actual evidence of an Iranian nuclear-weapons programme is being smoothed over through the use of ambiguities. This is usually done by conflating a nuclear-weapons programme with a nuclear-energy programme. Legally, the two are quite distinct: according to the terms of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), countries like Iran are entitled to obtain and possess civilian nuclear technology for peaceful purposes "to the fullest extent possible" and "without discrimination". That is why a number of other countries have developed the same nuclear-enrichment technologies that Iran is developing now, including Brazil, and why the United States encouraged and supported Iran's nuclear programme under the shah.
The intentional conflation of a nuclear weapons programme with a nuclear-energy programme takes several forms. For example, in addition to overt references to a weapons programme, there may be references to Iran's nuclear "threat", or vague statements about Iran's nuclear "ambitions", or even more tenuously, allusions to Iran's "intentions" to obtain a nuclear-weapons "capability". In a paper entitled "Defusing Iran's Bomb", one pundit claims: "Iran is now no more than 12 to 48 months from acquiring a nuclear bomb ... and seems dead set on securing an option to do so."(7) So, what is Iran months from acquiring: the bomb, or merely an "option" to obtain the bomb? What exactly is an "option" to acquire the bomb, anyway? Can't any country with a nuclear infrastructure be said to have the "option" of using it to build bombs? All these inconvenient issues are covered up by such use of ambiguous language. The ambiguity is useful precisely because such questions don't have to be answered, provided the implied "threat" is communicated.
* Subverted Support *
Writing in the Boston Globe, a veteran Iran-watcher considers the question, "why does Iran want nuclear weapons?":
Far from being an irrational state seeking nuclear arms as a means of intimidating
and invading its neighbors, Iran wants the bomb for the purpose of deterrence against
a range of external actors, most notably today, the United States ... Washington's
incendiary rhetoric and talk of military preparation only reinforce the cause of
Iranian politicians who suggest the only manner of preserving Iran's territorial
integrity and regime security is to acquire the "strategic weapons" (8)
Note the built-in assumptions of this paragraph, which are never adequately justified: that Iran does indeed "want nuclear weapons" and that there are unidentified "Iranian politicians" who favour obtaining nukes.
However, those who claim that Iran lives in a dangerous neighbourhood and therefore must be seeking nuclear weapons as a deterrent are engaging in a logical fallacy known as "subverted support": they are attempting to explain a phenomenon when there is no evidence that the phenomenon exists in the first place.
After three years of intensive inspections, and despite the speculation about "secret nuclear sites" and "parallel weapons programmes", the only real conclusion the IAEA inspectors have been able to reach about Iran is that there is no evidence of an Iranian nuclear-weapons programme. The IAEA reported in November 2003 that "to date, there is no evidence that [Iran's] previously undeclared nuclear material and activities ... were related to a nuclear weapons programme". One year later, Mohamed E1Baradei, director-general of the IAEA, confirmed that "all the declared nuclear material in Iran has been accounted for, and therefore such material is not diverted to prohibited activities". As a result of publishing these findings, the IAEA drew a serious rebuke from the Bush administration and prominent neo-conservative think tanks, and for a while the Bush administration even sought to remove ElBaradei from his position. Indeed, politicians in Iran uniformly and vehemently deny seeking nuclear weapons, and have consistently pressed for the creation of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East, only to be rebuffed by the United States and Israel. Iranian authorities have consistently and repeatedly stated that nuclear weapons would not improve their security environment, and have offered to implement measures going far beyond any legal requirements in order to ensure that Iran's uranium enrichment programme cannot be diverted to military use. These offers, which have included operating Iran's enrichment facilities as joint ventures with foreign investors, and subjecting these facilities to intensive monitoring by the IAEA, have been rejected out of hand by the United States and the EU-3 (Britain, France, and Germany), as has Iran's offer to suspend industrial-scale enrichment for another two years.
* Argumentum ad Ignorantiam *
The argumentum ad ignorantiam, or argument from ignorance, is a fallacy where an assertion is assumed to be true since it has not been disproved, or conversely, that an assertion is assumed to be false since it hasn't been proven to be true.
An example of an argumentum ad ignorantiam would be to say, "Ghosts exist, but their existence cannot be proven because they are immune to all forms of scientific measurement" When applied to the case of Iran's nuclear programme, the argumentum ad ignorantiam is usually employed to explain away the absence of evidence of an Iranian nuclearweapons programme. For example, one veteran Iran-watcher has stated:
Iran has no particular reason to actually do the bomb work yet;
first, it has to complete the nuclear fuel cycle and make the fissile
material. So it is possible that Iran has not started to work on how
to put together a bomb because there is no need to do so yet. (9)
The Iranians have always denied that they had a weapons program,
and though Western intelligence agencies had determined that they
were lying, the Iranian program was believed to be so rudimentary
that it did not require very much to keep it hidden from the IAEA,
thereby explaining why no one had found more evidence of Iranian
In both cases, the fallacy of argumentum ad ignorantiam is applied to suggest that the absence of evidence of a nuclear-weapons programme isn't attributable to the fact that no such programme exists; rather, there is no evidence of a weapons programme because Iran supposedly hasn't really set its nuke-building programme in motion yet. In other words, ghosts should be assumed to exist but we just haven't been able to prove their existence.
* Shifting the Burden of Proof *
Part of the effectiveness of the fallacy of argumentum ad ignorantiam derives from the fact that it shifts the burden of proof. During the course of reasoned argument, it is usually the case that the person who makes an accusation has the obligation to provide the necessary proof to support it. The fallacy of shifting the burden of proof occurs when the accused is required to disprove the accusation against him, a practical impossibility. The fallacy lies in the assumption that an accusation is true unless proven otherwise by the accused. The accused is faced with two equally bad choices: either he can simply refuse to attempt to disprove the accusation, or he can try to do so fruitlessly. Whichever option the accused chooses, he will simply make himself appear to be guilty.
This fallacy had a particular relevancy during the build-up to the Iraq War, when Iraq was required to prove that it no longer had WMD. Saddam attempted to meet this burden by, for example, submitting a twelve thousand-page disclosure about Iraq's WMD programmes, only to be accused of trying to cover up something by filing such a voluminous document: "Instead of full cooperation and transparency, Iraq has filed a false declaration to the United Nations that amounts to a 12,200-page lie.”(11)
Saddam's efforts to prove that he no longer harboured WMD were futile. A lonely article in the New York Times explained why he was doomed to fail: "Suppose you assert that there are no black swans ... You'd have to produce all the swans in the world to show there are no black ones-an impossible undertaking." (12)
Similarly, the German foreign minister has declared that the onus is on Iran to prove its nuclear programme is peaceful. Iran has perhaps foolishly attempted to meet this burden by allowing greater inspections than it is legally obliged to permit, by voluntarily suspending uranium-enrichment work between October 2004 and January 2006, and by offering to operate its enrichment facilities as highly monitored joint ventures with foreign entities. However, the EU-3 and the United States have made it clear that the only proof they will accept of the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear programme is the total abandonment by Iran of its right to enrichment.
The fallacy is compounded when the accuser not only shifts the burden of proof of innocence onto the accused, but also raises the evidentiary bar so high as to make it practically impossible for the accused to refute the charge. According to Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, Iran is to be denied nuclear technology not because it is currently building bombs but merely because Iran "could" do so. Stated in this form, the charge against Iran is irrefutable: after all, there is no way for Iran: or the IAEA inspectors for that matter-to prove that Iran "could not" do something in the indefinite future.
* Slippery Slope *
We next come to the fallacy of the "slippery slope" (also known as non causa pro causa), according to which if A can lead to B which can lead to C, and C is bad, then A must be bad and must be prevented. This argument becomes fallacious if the connections from A to B, or from B to C, are not necessarily valid or likely.
The generic form of the slippery slope justification for war is usually, "If we don't fight them there, we'll have to fight them here." Some may recognise this as the "Domino Theory" which was used as a justification for the US role in Vietnam: If we don't stop the godless communists in Vietnam, then Vietnam's neighbouring countries will fall and ultimately all of southeast Asia could succumb to communism. Of course, that proved not to be the case. More recently, the neo-conservatives have argued that by invading Iraq, the United States could install a democratic government there, which would then help to spread democracy and liberalism across the Middle East.
When applied to Iran's nuclear programme, the slippery slope fallacy usually predicts that if Iran is allowed to develop nuclear technology, the result will be an uncontrollable wildfire of proliferation and a regional nuclear arms race:
If Iran goes nuclear, Egypt will follow, then Saudi Arabia
(more likely buying than making) and possibly Syria.
Contemplate the consequences of such a nuclear alms
race for Israel's security and the stability of energy supplies. (13)
There are some very basic problems with this theory. For one thing, it is highly ironic that Iran's mere capability to build nuclear weapons can supposedly spark this uncontrollable cascade of nuclear proliferation, and yet Israel's existing nuclear weapons are not believed to have this effect. Indeed, if we are to accept, as the fallacious argument assumes, that one country's nuclear capability will force other countries to acquire their own nuclear deterrent, then the real regional culprit for proliferation must be the original nuclear power in the region: Israel. Note also that similar predictions of regional arms races have not been made when, for example, Brazil recently acquired the same nuclear technology that Iran is seeking to develop.
Finally, the argument assumes that the other countries in the region aren't already working to develop their own nuclear programmes. There has been speculation about a Saudi-Pakistani nuclear link for many years. Several other nations, including Egypt and South Korea, have been caught conducting secret and potentially weapons-related experiments. In the cases of those two US allies, however, the IAEA settled for delivering a light slap on the wrist, there was no continued speculation about the existence of "secret" nuclear intentions, and there were no demands that they abandon nuclear technology permanently, as is demanded of Iran.
* Red Herring *
That the Iranian enrichment facility at Natanz is buried underground and ringed with anti-aircraft guns is often cited as proof of the nefariousness of Iran's nuclear programme. After all, if Iran wasn't building bombs, why would it assume that the site would come under military attack? Of course, there are perfectly good reasons for seeking to protect Natanz from aerial bombardment, namely, repeated US and Israeli threats to bomb it, as well as Iran's bitter experiences during the Iran-Iraq War when Iranian civilian power facilities were the target of Iraqi bombs. Under those circumstances, seeking to protect energy-producing assets seems simply to be prudent.
Another common red herring is that Iran started its nuclear programme "at the height of the Iran-Iraq War", a claim embellished further by asserting that Iran dedicated "scarce resources" to the programme. Kenneth Pollack essentially repeated this argument, in addition to making a series of other highly misleading claims regarding Iran's nuclear programme, in an interview with Germany's Spiegel Online:
There are also other clues. The Iranian nuclear program
was revived at the height of the Iran-Iraq war, at a time
when Iran was putting everything into the military
and nothing into the economy, for example. (14)
The implication is that since Iran's programme was started during a war, and that wartime resources were diverted to the programme, then it must have been intended to have military applications, i.e., to make a nuclear bomb. However, upon more careful examination, this argument fails apart.
For one thing, Iran's nuclear programme did not start at the height of the Iran-Iraq War. Iran announced that it planned to start up an enrichment programme as early as 1982, a full three years before the height of the war (assuming that 1985 marked that point). Second, considering that even today, nearly twenty years after the end of the Iran-Iraq War, Iran is judged to be five to ten years away from actually building a nuclear weapon (assuming that it intends to do so), then it would have been remarkably optimistic of the Iranians to assume in the mid-1980s that they could build a nuclear bomb within the timeframe of the war. Furthermore, dedicating the alleged "scarce resources" to such a venture would have made this an even less likely gamble.
* False Comparison *
The fallacy of the false comparison is easily spotted with respect to nuclear issues when the following phrase is used: "countries like Iran or North Korea". Comparing North Korea and Iran probably began with Bush's famous "Axis of Evil" speech, even though the two countries have very little in common. The suggestion is that just as North Korea secretly developed nuclear-weapons technology and then exercised its right under Article X of the NPT to withdraw from that treaty and later publicly declared that it had nuclear weapons, then somehow Iran must be planning to do the same. The Bush administration has tried to equate Iran's nuclear programme with that of North Korea by displaying slides purportedly showing that Iran's nuclear-enrichment facilities are structurally similar to the nuclear facilities in North Korea, as if the structural similarity of such installations is indicative of the intended use of their products.
But again, the New York Times exemplifies the willingness to promote the Bush administration's agenda: "Step by step North Korea and Iran are advancing their capability to build nuclear weapons . . ." (editorial, "Letting Nukes Happen", 16 May 1005); and "It may only be a few more days before the world finds out whether Iran and North Korea are willing to give up nuclear weapons ..." (editorial, "A Glimmer of Hope", 6 August 2005).
However, the comparisons between Iran and North Korea fail at several points. North Korea secretly built nuclear weapons, threw out IAEA inspectors, and withdrew from the NPT. In contrast, Iran resorted to some clandestine nuclear activity only after its repeated overt attempts to obtain the technology it was legally entitled to were rebuffed under US pressure. Since then, rather than withdrawing from the NPT, Iran has signed and implemented the treaty's Additional Protocol, subjecting its facilities to a strict regime of safeguards and additional inspections; other nuclear-capable countries (such as Brazil) have refused to do this. Iran even temporarily suspended its nuclear-enrichment activities. And rather than finding a nuclear-weapons programme, the IAEA inspectors have concluded that there was no evidence of any such programme in Iran. Indeed, Iran has even offered to subject its enrichment programme to more intensive IAEA monitoring than it is legally required to permit, provided its right to nuclear enrichment is recognised in principle - only to have the offer summarily dismissed by the United States and the EU-3. In short, Iran is no North Korea.
* Exclusion *
The fallacy of exclusion occurs when relevant evidence which would undermine an argument is excluded from consideration. When applied to Iran, the fallacy takes several forms. For example, it is often asserted that "oil-rich" Iran does not need nuclear power and so must be planning to build nuclear weapons. Thus, Kenneth Pollack again:
Beyond that, the EU trio, in its discussions with Tehran,
has found a lack of any tie between nuclear activity and
economic consideration. Iranians try to argue that nuclear
energy is more cost-effective but, as the EU trio has pointed
out, natural gas is more cost-effective than nuclear energy-
and the Iranians sit on the second largest natural gas reserves
in the world. European governments have concluded
that this program is almost certainly for weapons and not
for economics. (15)
This argument overlooks the fact that "oil rich" Iran has a very good economic case for developing nuclear technology, which is why the United States encouraged and supported Iran's diversification of its energy resources in the first place. Indeed, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs of the British Parliament concluded in March 2004 that, based on a study it commissioned, "It is clear . . . that the arguments as to whether Iran has a genuine requirement for domestically produced nuclear electricity are not all, or even predominantly, on one side."
Swaying the Public
One could continue indefinitely to list the fallacies employed by the Bush administration, echoed by a compliant media, to make its case against Iran. Ultimately, these fallacies are employed by leaders as part of a larger narrative which is intended to legitimise an intended course of action, thus ensuring public acceptance of (or at least acquiescence in) the predetermined policy choice. In the case of Iran, the intended course of action seems quite clear and has distinct parallels to the build-up to the invasion of Iraq.
Some have claimed that the ascension of Condoleezza Rice to the position of US Secretary of State indicates a greater willingness by the Bush administration to engage in a multilateral, diplomatic process, as evidenced by the current policy of involving the UN Security Council in Iran's nuclear file. However, the willingness to go to the United Nations seems to be nothing more than a ceremonial process of legitimisation. Indeed, just as in the case of Iraq, the Bush administration once again appears intent on portraying the matter as an opportunity for the United Nations to "prove its relevance" by agreeing to the US position. By all accounts, a military attack on Iran would have terrible, possibly catastrophic, consequences. Iranian pro-democracy forces have already rallied against any such at-tack, claiming that it would set back their goal of a more open and representative government by rallying support for the most anti-American, hardline elements in Iran. It has been widely predicted that an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would result in the deaths of many thousands of civilians, especially if the United States uses tactical nuclear weapons to destroy its targets. While the Bush administration claims that diplomacy is its favoured current policy, it has also made clear that the use of force has not been ruled out. The only question that remains is whether the same elements - the media, the pundits, the think tanks - that were complicit, knowingly or otherwise, in bringing about the current tragedy in Iraq will allow the Bush administration to inflict the same on Iran.
1. See, for example, Robert L. Ivie, "Presidential Motives for War", Quarterly Journal of Speech 60, no. 3 (October 1974).
2. Glenn Kessler and Jirn VandeHei, "Misleading Assertions Cover Iraq War and Voting Records", Washington Post, 6 October 2004.
3. Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball, "More Evidence of an Iran-al-Qaeda Connection", Newsweek, 23 July 2004
4. Reza Ghorashi, "How about an October Naval Skirmish? The Elections, Iran and al-Qaeda", Counterpuneh, 21 July 2004 [http://www.counterpunch.org/ghorashi07212004.html ].
5. John R. Bolton, remarks to the conference of the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis and the Fletcher School's international security studies programme, Washington, D.C., 2 December 2003.
6. Norman Solomon, "The New York Times Acquits Itself", Antiwar com, 1 November 2005 [http://www.antiwar.co misolomonf?articleid=7858].
7. Henry Sokolski, "Refusing Iran's Bomb", Policy Review, no. 131 (June-July 2005).
8. Ray Takeyh, "Threats vs. Diplomacy", Boston Globe, 14 February 2005.
9. Patrick Clawson, testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing, "A Nuclear Iran: Challenges and Responses", Washington, D.C., 2 ?March 2006.
10. Kenneth Pollack, The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict between Iran and America (New York: Random House, 2004), p. 363.
11. Condoleezza Rice, "Why We Know Iraq Is Lying", New York Times, 23 January 2003.
12. Emily Eakin, "Saddam's Swan Song", New York Times, 15 December 2002.
13. Graham Allison, "A Cascade of Nuclear Proliferation", International Herald Tribune, 17 December 2004.
14. "It's Time to Get Serious with Iran", Spiegel Online, 22 September 2005 [http://service.spiegel.delcache/international/0,1518,376022,00.html].
16. Paul Hughes “ANALYSIS-Iran's arguments for nuclear power make some sense” Reuters 02 Mar 2005. See also United Kingdom Parliament, Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, Foreign Affairs: Third Report of Session 2003-4, 9 March 2004.
Global Dialogue is a publication of the Centre for World Dialogue, Cyprus.