By Stephen Gowans
The New York Times and U.S. politicians are, through assertion and repetition, attempting to create as common knowledge the idea that Iran has a nuclear weapons program and that the last presidential election in Iran was fraudulent, even though there is no evidence to back either claim.
In today’s (November 23, 2009) New York Times, reporter Alexei Barrionuevo writes that “Brazil’s ambitions to be a more important player on the global diplomatic stage are crashing headlong into the efforts of the United States and other Western powers to rein in Iran’s nuclear arms program” (my emphasis.)
This treats the existence of a nuclear arms program in Iran as an established finding.
Yet, Tehran denies it has a nuclear weapons program and the U.N nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, says it “‘has no concrete proof’ that Iran ever sought to make nuclear arms…”  The 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate disagrees, in part, claiming that Iran had a nuclear weapons program in 2003, but says that Iran has since disbanded it. In February, “US officials said that…no new evidence has surfaced to undercut the findings of the 2007 (estimate).” 
According to the head of the I.A.E.A, Mohamed ElBaradei, the agency has
“not seen concrete evidence that Tehran has an ongoing nuclear weapons program… But somehow, many people are talking about how Iran’s nuclear program is the greatest threat to the world… In many ways, I think the threat has been hyped. Yes, there’s concern about Iran’s future intentions and Iran needs to be more transparent with the IAEA and the international community… But the idea that we’ll wake up tomorrow and Iran will have a nuclear weapon is an idea that isn’t supported by the facts as we have seen them so far.” 
Barrionuevo isn’t alone in asserting, without evidence, that Iran is building nuclear arms. U.S. Representative Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, told Barrionuevo that “the world is trying to figure out how to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons,” assuming, as a given, that Iran is trying to have nuclear weapons.
Engel also says that Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “is illegitimate with his own people,” a reference to the disputed presidential election Iran’s opposition claims Ahmadinejad won through fraud. Barrionuevo points to critics who worry that a planned visit to Brazil by Ahmadinejad will “legitimize” the Iranian president “just five months after what most of the world sees as his fraudulent re-election.”
Yet there is no evidence the election was stolen. All that backs the allegation is the assertion of the opposition that the election was fraudulent and “what most of the world” believes, this being based on the Western media treating opposition claims as legitimate.
This is a circular process. Most of the world believes the election was fraudulent because that’s what the principal source of information on this matter, the media, led it to believe. Now the New York Times offers the fact that the assertion is widely believed as evidence it is true. This might be called the bootstrap theory of propaganda: legitimize an assertion by treating it as true, and when most of the world believes it’s true, offer the reality that everyone believes it to be true as evidence it is.
The only relevant evidence that would allow us to determine whether the outcome of the election was crooked or fair is provided by the sole methodologically rigorous poll conducted prior to the election. It was sponsored by the international arm of the U.S. Republican Party, the International Republican Institute, hardly a booster of Ahmadinejad. Carried out three weeks prior to the election, the poll “showed Ahmadinejad leading by a more than 2 to 1 margin – greater than his actual apparent margin of victory”.  The pollsters, Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty, concluded that “Ahmadinejad is who Iranians want.”
The process of creating commonly held beliefs that have no evidentiary basis, and doing so through assertion and repetition, is not new. To justify an illegal war on Yugoslavia, Western politicians, and the Western media in train, asserted without evidence that a genocide was in progress in Kosovo in 1999. Tens of thousands of corpses were expected to be found littering the “killing fields” of the then-Serb province. But when forensic investigators were dispatched to Kosovo after the war to document the genocide, the bodies never turned up. By frequently repeating unsubstantiated claims, people were led to believe that systematic killings on a mass scale were being carried out, and that the West had a moral obligation to intervene. The public was duped.
Similarly, Western politicians “sexed up” intelligence on weapons of mass destruction to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Western media went along, acknowledging only after public support for the war had been engineered by the media’s propagation of U.S. and British government lies, that it got it wrong. The politicians said they had been misled by the C.I.A. The C.I.A said it was pressured by the politicians. All that mattered was that many people believed that Saddam Hussein was hiding banned weapons. When none were found, a new pretext for dominating Iraq militarily was trotted out, and acceptance of the pretext was aided by the repetition of more unsubstantiated assertions.
The bootstrap theory of propaganda is at work again, this time in connection with Iran.
1. William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, “Report says Iran has data to make a nuclear bomb,” The New York Times, October 4, 2009.
2. Greg Miller, “US now sees Iran as pursuing nuclear bombs,” The Los Angeles Times, February 12, 2009.
3. William J. Cole, “UN nuclear watchdog says Iran threat hyped,” The Boston Globe, September 2, 2009.
4. Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty, “Ahmadinejad is who Iranians want,” The Guardian (UK), June 15, 2009.
By Stephen Gowans
The dominant U.S. approach to exercising influence over people in foreign countries is to operate through locals who are committed to U.S. imperialist values or fiercely oppose U.S. enemies. Locals, whether rulers, politicians, military officers, journalists, scholars or activists, are provided with opportunities, funding, training, equipment and support in exchange for assuming leadership roles on behalf of U.S. interests or against U.S. targets. The sine qua non of the paradigm is the appearance of independence. While locals may express admiration and support for U.S. positions, their own pro-U.S. stances, or opposition to U.S. enemies, are to be understood to have been arrived at independently. And, in many, if not most, cases, this is true. Locals who assume leadership roles on behalf of U.S. interests are often educated or trained in the United States, where they have absorbed pro-imperialist values. At the same time, the ubiquitous U.S. mass media convey pro-imperialist values to locals who haven’t been educated in the imperial nerve center. And some may, for their own (often class) reasons, be passionate opponents of individuals, groups or movements the United States government would like to eliminate. What matters is not how pro-U.S. positions, or anti-U.S.-enemy passions, are arrived at, only that some locals have them and that U.S. funding and support provide them with a platform to influence the political, military and informational landscape of their home country.
A recent example of how this paradigm operates is provided in an August 16, 2009 New York Times article by Thom Shanker (“U.S. turns to radio stations and cellphones to counter Taliban’s propaganda.”)
Shanker quotes Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. proconsul in Afghanistan and Pakistan, who acknowledges that the United States is losing the information war to the Taliban. In this, Holbrooke reminds us that war is multi-faceted, comprising not only military action, but other elements, as well. Warfare may be waged concurrently with or independently of military action: through economic means (trade sanctions, blockades and financial isolation); through non-violent warfare (destabilization); through sabotage; through cyber attacks; and through what concerns Holbrooke, information. Information warfare is “variously named public affairs, public diplomacy, strategic communications and information operations.” In plain language, it’s propaganda, a term invariably applied to the other side’s public affairs, public diplomacy, strategic communications and information operations, but propaganda all the same.
U.S. officials say they’re losing the information war because their “efforts to describe American policy and showcase American values are themselves viewed as propaganda.” The other reasons, unacknowledged by Holbrooke, are that the U.S. military has created considerable hardship, fear, and bloodshed in its efforts to quell opposition to its attempted conquest of Afghanistan and because, as the New York Times reported on July 28, 2009, the Taliban has bolstered its popularity by pursuing “a strategy intended to foment a class struggle,” rewarding “landless peasants with profits of the crops of the landlords,” the Taliban has ousted. To counter the Taliban’s growing popularity, Washington plans to “amplify the (anti-Taliban) voices of Afghans speaking to Afghans, and Pakistanis speaking to Pakistanis” by spending up to $150 million per year to “step up the training of local journalists and help produce audio and video programming, as well as pamphlets, posters, and CDs denigrating militants and their message.” By operating through locals, Washington hopes to conceal the “‘Made in the U.S.A.’ stamped on the programming.”
There’s little new here. For decades the C.I.A amplified the voices of citizens talking to citizens by funding anyone who had anything negative to say about the Soviet Union and Communism. As Frances Stonor Saunders revealed in her book The Cultural Cold War, anti-Communist leftists were particularly favored with C.I.A lucre, often channelled through philanthropic foundations – foundations parts of the Western left continue to receive funding from today. Just as Shanker reports that U.S. officials say they’ll amplify the voices of Pakistanis and Afghans who “denigrate the enemy”, so too did the C.I.A amplify the voices of Westerners who denigrated the Soviet Union and Communism. Since social democrats, Trotskyites and anarchists were already fiercely opposed to the Soviet Union, and being leftists could be presented as credible critics of Soviet Communism, they received the bulk of covert funding from the U.S. state, funding whose origins many were unaware of or chose to turn a blind eye to. Their mission: denigrate the U.S.S.R and Communism. This they were already doing, but C.I.A funding allowed them to do it more visibly, to a wider audience, and therefore more effectively. By doing so they justified U.S. engagement in the Cold War and, acting knowingly or unwittingly as U.S. agents, used Uncle Sam’s money to denigrate a shared enemy. Today, the common understanding of the Soviet Union and Communism carries over from the C.I.A amplifying the voices of Communism’s, the U.S.S.R’s, and Stalin’s political enemies. The amplification of categorically critical voices so thoroughly polluted scholarly histories of the U.S.S.R that historians have had to discard what was produced in the Cold War period and start afresh. It’s time too that Western leftists did the same. The fear of British historian E.H. Carr — that only the worst aspects of the Soviet experiment with socialism would be remembered, while the astonishing achievements would be forgotten – has been realized, thanks in no small part to the C.I.A and the anti-Communist leftists whose voices it amplified. Advances in human progress as significant as those achieved by the Soviet Union (full employment, free health care and education through university, no inflation, gender equality, mild and shrinking income inequality, low-cost housing and transportation, worker participation in enterprise management, support for national liberation movements, industrialization of underdeveloped regions) should no longer remain concealed behind the muck of C.I.A-backed Cold War propaganda.
While the paradigm is a long-standing one, what’s different today, from when the C.I.A covertly channelled funds to voices that served Washington’s interests, is that funding is no longer provided covertly. Washington learned a lesson when C.I.A support for anti-communist, anti-socialist and anti-national liberation movements came to light. Washington’s revealed hidden hand immediately undermined the legitimacy of these movements, setting back U.S. efforts to counter opposition to the unchecked spread of U.S. financial, military and corporate domination. From that point, greater openness was injected into funding individuals, groups and movements working against U.S. enemies. Rather than concealing Washington’s hand, Washington’s objectives would be concealed behind a rhetorical screen. Funding would be targeted at democracy promotion, international development, and public diplomacy – carried out openly, so that no one could say the hidden hand of U.S. imperialism was involved (though the overt hand of U.S. imperialism certainly was.) By dressing up U.S. imperialism in clothing that appealed to the sartorial preferences of the non-Communist left, the overt hand of U.S. imperialism was concealed behind honeyed phrases. Social democrats didn’t see imperialism; they saw humanitarian intervention, democracy promotion and the responsibility to protect vulnerable populations. Anarchists and Trotskyites didn’t see U.S. efforts to dominate other countries on Wall Street’s behalf; they saw the fight against tyrants, dictators and Stalinists.
And so it is that U.S. imperialism is concealed in plain sight. Washington’s funding of fifth columns, quislings, phoney ‘independent’ journalists and overthrow movements may be on the public record, but few know it, and even fewer are prepared to spend the time to make it widely known. Those who do are dismissed by social democrats, Trotskyites and anarchists – unwilling to rock the boat of U.S. imperialism under its humanitarian, anti-despot guise – as revealing nothing of significance. The money, training, equipment and support that flow in cataracts from the hands of Western governments, wealthy financiers and corporate foundations make no difference, they counter weakly. In this milieu, U.S. officials are now able to openly talk in the pages of the New York Times about how they plan to win the information war against the Taliban by enlisting locals as their mouthpieces – and openly acknowledge they are doing so to conceal the “Made in the U.S.A” stamped on the programming – without fear the exercise will be seen as illegitimate.