Irangate

Edward Said

  • The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey by Salman Rushdie
    Picador, 171 pp, £2.95, January 1987, ISBN 0 330 29990 5
  • Turning the Tide: US Intervention in Central America and the Struggle for Peace by Noam Chomsky
    Pluto, 298 pp, £5.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 7453 0184 3

The ostensible reason for the enormous concern in America over the Irangate affair has been the question of whether the President and his National Security Council, together with the CIA and others, have been trading weapons for the release of the hostages held in Lebanon. The argument given in defence of what was done has been, from the start, that sending Robert McFarlane to Teheran was an attempt to exploit a ‘geopolitical opening’. Both versions of the same series of events have been criticised as an affront to the stated US policy of not dealing with terrorists or terrorist states. According to the categories devised by the State Department, Iran is a terrorist state.

In both versions, the Israelis have played the role either of pioneer or broker. There have been statements in the Israeli press and elsewhere that all the various contacts maintained between Israel and the Shah have been restored since the Islamic Revolution. Moreover the two cornerstones of Israel’s Iran policy before the Revolution are no less cogent after it: that Iran is a natural ally for Israel in its battles against Arab nationalism, and that the substantial Jewish community in Iran deserves special consideration by Israel. Hence the rapprochement between the Jewish and the Islamic states.

A closer look at the situation reveals a more convincing dimension, and a much more compelling logic, behind the behaviour of the American and Israeli principals. Ayatollah Khomeini is a very old man who remains, however, the unquestioned authority in Iran. As in the first hostage crisis (1979-81), he and his lieutenants have used what appear to be diversionary events and circumstances to advance domestic political goals. One such goal is to assure a suitable successor to himself, and although Ayatollah Montazeri seemed to have been Khomeini’s (and Khomeini’s son’s) favourite for the post, a dispute about his ability to continue the old revolutionary’s policies arose a few years ago. In an article on the present crisis that appeared in the New York Review of Books (15 January) Shaul Bakhash reported on the increased presence in Teheran of power centres, all of them vying for authority and for better positions in the coming battle for the succession. If we add to this the boasts that have emanated from Israel (Uri Lubrani, the man who supervised Israeli operations in Pahlavi Iran, and who remains in control of similar operations now, has often said that he could change the regime with a handful of strong men willing to preside over ten thousand deaths), it comes to seem probable that the geo-political opening undertaken by William Casey, McFarlane, North and company was nothing less than an attempted coup whose goal was either the fomenting of prolonged instability in Iran or the accession to power of some person or group less hostile to the US and Israel. The man publicly identified with the arms deals in Iran is Majlis Speaker Rafsanjani, whose political fortunes in the past two years have risen dramatically: he is now a leading figure in the succession sweepstakes. The fact that he was America’s Teheran interlocutor suggests either that he was using the arms supply to buttress his position, or that the arms were being used against him. Whichever way one looks at it, the theatricality of American arms and visitors in Teheran was a provocation that might have triggered a domestic insurrection, thereby increasing the factionalism and fragmented authority already present. As to whether Rafsanjani is pro-American or not, it is not easy to say, although it is likely that his claims about his American connection have been that he has made the hated Yankees come begging to Teheran; he is reported to have said as much after the arms deals were discussed there. His enemies would necessarily try to characterise him as either a stooge or a secret agent. Al-Shiraa, the Lebanese magazine that leaked word of the arms supply on 1 November, may well have been enlisted by his political enemies in order to cripple his chances of greater prominence.

There are at least two precedents for such American expeditions to Iran, both of them interventionary in the most literal sense. One was the notorious Kermit Roosevelt mission in 1953, which is discussed by Roosevelt in his book Countercoup (published in 1979 but suddenly withdrawn from the market a month after it appeared). This coup disposed of Mossadegh and restored the Shah to his throne. The other was the considerably less successful Jimmy Carter-instigated mission in 1979, when Admiral Huyser was sent to Iran with orders to prod the Iranian military into resistance on behalf of Shahpur Bakhtiar and the Shah. Huyser’s own version of the affair, Mission to Teheran, provides a detailed account of his moves. He still believes that had there been a will to make the attempt in Washington and among senior Iranian officers, an American military strike modelled on the Soviet intervention in Ethiopia would have defeated Khomeini. As a preliminary to this famous US victory Huysen envisioned domestic unrest within the Khomeini camp. There was no such outcome: but this need not have been enough to deter future efforts.

Once he had been offered American arms, it is probable that Rafsanjani would have been considered both complicit with US imperialism and bold enough to try to assert himself over his competitors. Whether he won or not, the disturbance would have had a haemorr-haging effect on the Iranian polity, with some small probability that new and friendlier forces would gradually assume control and, ultimately, state power. This, in my opinion, is a much more plausible rationale for what North, the CIA and the Israelis were trying to do than trading arms for hostages or exploring contacts with Iranian moderates. Anyone with experience of Third World radical nationalism knows that the almost certain sign of a coup attempt is the sudden eminence of ‘moderates’ blessed with the US imprimatur, especially if those moderates claim to belong to an authentic native opposition. The analogies here with the Nicaraguan Contras and with the Gemayel family in Lebanon can scarcely be incidental, just as the intellectual and logistical conjuncture between Israeli and American planners has not been incidental. Once Iran became friendly, it would no longer be necessary to supply it with faulty intelligence about Iraq, nor would the war between the two states be allowed to go on as it has for the last eight years. Since Saudi Arabia had already been dragged into these schemes, one could foresee Israeli and US planners delighting in a forecast that would include bilateral negotiations between Iran and Israel, and perhaps between Israel and Jordan. The consequence would be the ‘recovery’ of a vast swatch of valuable Middle East territory for ‘Western’ power, which has become synonymous with US and Israeli domination.

One sure thing to fall back on is what the American historian William Appleman Williams has called ‘empire as a way of life’: the notion that since nearly everything in the world has a bearing on America, it had better be under American control. A precise insight into what sort of strategy might follow from such a premise is to be found in the so-called Church Commission Report (1976), undertaken by the Senate Committee to Study Foreign and Military Intelligence, in which a quotation from the Doolittle Report of 1955 is cited for its ‘chilling’ prose. President Eisenhower had commissioned James Doolittle to evaluate CIA operations. His Report, as the Church Commission notes, can be read as a brief for future CIA operations.

It is now clear that we are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination by whatever means and at whatever cost. There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply. If the United States is to survive, long-standing American concepts of ‘fair play’ must be reconsidered. We must develop effective espionage and counter-espionage services and must learn to subvert, sabotage and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated and more effective methods than those used against us. It may become more necessary that the American people be made acquainted with, understand and support this fundamentally repugnant philosophy.

To what extent such ideas have ruled one can only surmise, although the evidence in Lawrence Wittner’s American Intervention in Greece, 1943-49 seems to be the extraordinary tip of an even more extraordinary iceberg. The passage is interesting for the attitudes it embodies to the American past (‘long-standing American concepts of fair play’). The assumption is that a new enemy has appeared whose goals and methods require the ‘world’ for their scope. This in turn places a responsibility on America to regard ‘the world’ as its ward. What is left unstated is that the old empires, as well as the competition between them – ‘normal’ imperialism – have been superseded by new imperial entities, which seem to have the metaphysical status of unchanging, almost Manichean opponents. Even more curious is the implied innocence and benign forbearance of an earlier age, in which, presumably, Americans regarded their enemies with amused courtliness at best and a chivalrous anger at worst. Gone from the record are the genocidal campaigns against native Americans, or the various interventions, from Central and South America to the Pacific, North Africa, Europe and Asia, pitting Americans against local enemies considered to be stooges, heavies or scum. What seems to determine methods is the purity of American intentions, which are and will remain more or less automatically good. Flowing from such untainted sources subversion and sabotage will turn out to be acceptable. American dirty tricks derive from goodness, on the one hand, and from the absolute evil of implacable enemies, on the other. An unspoken compact between the American people and their government on this basis, mandating clandestine operations, has been allowed to stand for almost half a century.

This has allowed the steady growth in power of a class of insiders and experts, first described by Walter Lippmann during the Thirties, whose technical skill and organic affiliations with the power structure gradually insulated them from scrutiny and accountability. It is my impression that whereas the first clandestine operatives as well as their immediate superiors came from the Eastern establishment, from Groton, Princeton and Harvard, the present variety – the Norths, the Ledeens, the McFarlanes, the Regans – come from the professional and service schools. The new men are Middle Americans. They do not feel in their bones that the country is theirs, but that they have to win it by daring exploits. For them, as for the various Wall Street ‘insiders’, what matters isn’t knowledge but ‘information’, and information is invariably tied to brokers or commission agents whose loyalties can be bought or sold. Manuchar Ghorbanifar, the Iranian go-between and Khashoggi colleague employed by the Israelis and Americans, has been described as being so dishonest that he could not be trusted to tell the truth about what he was wearing.

That these men and their Iranian, Nicaraguan, Asian and Israeli counterparts did so much of their brokering in London, Rotterdam, Frankfurt and Geneva imparts a poignant nostalgic tone, with an admixture of irony, to their machinations. Whereas the European cities were once metropolitan centres of the old imperialism, they have now become meeting-places, midway between other more powerfully central cities, where deals can be engineered and paid for. For one thing, these places are far enough from the main and often bloody action to be safe. For another, they are not airtight commercially speaking: money can be hidden there, it can be lost and of course made, free from taxation departments and snoopy government agencies. Tens of millions of dollars of Irangate money remain to be accounted for.

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