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A Mobile Slaughterhouse

Christopher Scanlon

Google Ads, the paid links that appear on many web pages offering goods and services supposedly tailored to the content of the page, often seem like the unconscious of the web — a kind of free association of idea that reveals what cannot be explicitly stated. Clicking on the New York Times’ ‘Breaking World Iran News’, for example, generates Google Ads about predictions of ‘the coming world war’ attributed to Nostradamus, an essay in Foreign Policy by Robert McNamara on the nuclear question (‘Apocalypse Soon’), and consumer reviews for those considering travelling to Iran (‘Read our Impartial Consumer Reviews First and Avoid Any Nasty Surprises’). Taken together they offer a kind of truth about much of the debate regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions: a mixture of expert commentary, a hefty dose of speculation and risk analysis.

For example, writing on OpenDemocracy.net in early April, defence specialist Paul Rogers noted the arrival of three B-2 ‘Stealth’ bombers at Fairford US airforce base in Gloucestershire, England — a base that is likely to play a central role in any strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The arrival of the bombers, along with heightened security around the base, he suggests, may indicate preparations for such strikes. Rogers suggests that attacks on Iran might come as early as October.

Even the recent demotion of Jack Straw from Foreign Secretary to leader of the Commons in a Cabinet re-shuffle has been widely interpreted as part of the preparation for war. Straw has previously ruled out strikes on Iran as ‘inconceivable’. According to many commentators, Straw’s demotion was motivated by the need to remove any potential opposition to war, thereby avoiding a re-run of his predecessor, the late Robin Cook, who opposed the Iraq war. Like Straw, Cook too was demoted from Foreign Secretary to leader of the Commons before he eventually resigned over what has become the debacle of the Iraq War.

To be sure, the stand-off with Iran is not entirely baseless. Unlike Iraq’s non-existent WMDs, Iran does at least have a uranium enrichment program. In 2002 it was revealed that 164 centrifuges had been installed in a secret nuclear facility in Natanz, in central Iran, for the purpose of enriching uranium. While this is concerning, it remains well short of the 1500–2000 centrifuges that, according to Prabir Purkayastha of the All India Peoples Science Network, is needed to make weapons-grade uranium.

Iran’s breach of the Non-Proliferation Treaty is not that it is enriching uranium — it’s permitted to do so under the Treaty — but that it failed to disclose the nature and extent of its nuclear activities as required by the agreement. The US and its allies are using Iran’s failure over disclosure to conjure up the spectre of a terrorist state holding the globe to ransom.

It is here that the parallels with Iraq become stark. As with Iraq’s non-existent WMDs, Iran is now in the impossible position of having to furnish evidence for something — a more extensive uranium enrichment program than what is known to exist — which may not, and probably does not, actually exist. In other words, like so much else about the present standoff, the case against Iran is based on speculation about what might exist, not what does exist.

Of course, strikes on Iran may not happen. Bush’s poor standing in the polls makes any attack that much messier, although Presidents are not above using ill-defined threats from afar to distract domestic audiences from poor performance in the polls. This is particularly the case given that long-range or high-altitude strikes on underground weapons plants have little chance of casualties for the aggressor.

Looking beyond the speculation around future strikes on Iran, it’s possible to more clearly see the outlines of the so-called ‘Long War’, the Pentagon’s new brand-name for the War on Terror. Specifically, the manoeuvring around Iran moves us further away from the practice of war as a (reasonably) temporally and geographically discrete episode in relations between states and towards a permanent and ongoing process.

This was neatly spelt out by US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in a Pentagon news briefing in 2001. Asked what would constitute victory, Rumsfeld replied:

Now, what is victory? I say that victory is persuading the American people and the rest of the world that this is not a quick matter that’s going to be over in a month or a year or even five years. It is something that we need to do so that we can continue to live in a world with powerful weapons and with people who are willing to use those powerful weapons. And we can do that as a country. And that would be a victory in my view.

In the logic of the Long War, the reasons for war, as demonstrated by Iraq, have little to do with the acts of commission or omission of the target, and depend more on how it can be made to fit into the larger schema. Since the reasons for war have little to do with facts outside of those convenient to the Long War planners, it is beyond even the most minimal and imperfect constraints of democratic control. The Pentagon’s Long War, in short, is another name for a mobile slaughterhouse driven by its own internal logic.

Christopher Scanlon is co-editor of Arena Magazine.