January 5, 2020
By Stephen Gowans
While the assassination of an Iranian general by a US drone attack in Iraq has been construed in some quarters as a consequential act of war, it is only one, in a long series of US actions, that constitute de facto acts of war by the United States against Iran that have caused considerable harm to the country.
Ever since Iranians overthrew the US puppet ruler, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in 1979, Washington has pursued an unceasing campaign of aggression against the sovereign state with the aim of returning Iran to its orbit. Since 2018, US aggression has intensified. In a stepped up effort to topple the independence-minded government in Tehran, Washington has undertaken campaigns of destabilization on top of information-, cyber-, and economic-warfare—significant aggressions against which the assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani is but a minor act.
The roots of anti-Iranian US hostility can be summed up in one sentence: Tehran rejects the hegemony of the United States and its allies over the Middle East and the Muslim world.  This is consistent with the view of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Iran, they testified before the US Congress in 2017, seeks to “counter the influence of the U.S. and our Allies.”  Accordingly, the Iranian government has been declared an enemy of the United States. In short, Washington insists on imposing its will on the Middle East, and Tehran refuses to submit to US despotism. A former Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, once expressed the Iranian position this way: “We tell [the United States] that instead of interfering in the region’s affairs, to pack their things and leave.”  Insisting there should be no limit to its global influence, Washington targets for elimination any force that insists limits must be imposed. Advocacy of local independence and national assertiveness, in the US view, is an act of war against the United States, and must be met by aggression. That, at its base, explains Soleimani’s demise, and explains the character of US foreign policy—thuggery in the service of an international dictatorship.
The immediate goal of Washington’s campaigns of destabilization and information- and economic-warfare “is to spur uprisings in Iran that would lead to the overthrow of the cleric-led government,” according to The New York Times.  Washington is using economic tools to destroy the Iranian economy, along with US influence over media to mislead the Iranian population into attributing the collapse of their economy to government mismanagement, and therefore to view the solution to their misery as the overthrow of their own government.
Acts of war I: Economic terrorism
To destroy Iran’s economy, Washington has acted to cut Iran’s oil exports to zero. Additionally, by “sanctioning many of the country’s largest banks, including its central bank, it has severed most of Iran’s financial ties to the world. Other major non-oil sources of revenue have also been targeted—including the auto, aluminum, and petrochemical sectors—and insurers are prohibited from covering Iranian shipments,” according to The Wall Street Journal.  The sanctions, in the words of US president Donald Trump, are “massive.”  Indeed, the United States has used its economic weight and pressure on other countries to impose a total embargo on Iran, adding the Islamic republic to the list of countries now facing a total US embargo, including Venezuela, North Korea, Syria and Cuba.  Significantly, all of these countries share a single thing in common: refusal to submit to US domination.
The “massive” sanctions are hardly limited, surgical, or targeted—that is, restricted to government figures with exemptions for the civilian population. On the contrary, as the Iranian diplomat Majid Takht-Ravanchi explained to the United Nations Security Council in June,
The sanctions are basically designed to harm the general public, particularly those who are vulnerable, such as women, children, the elderly and patients. The sanctions harm the poor more than the rich, the ill more than the healthy and infants and children more than adults. In short, those who are most vulnerable suffer the most. For instance, patients who have severe conditions and therefore need scarce and expensive medicines and advanced medical equipment, which in most cases must be imported, suffer the most. 
“Sanctions aren’t an alternative to war,” tweeted Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif in June. “They ARE war.”  Indeed, if we define war as the use of harm to achieve political ends, then harmful coercive economic measures are acts of war. As Takht-Ravanchi told the Security Council,
The United States is weaponizing food and medicine against civilians, which is a clear manifestation of the collective punishment of an entire nation, amounting to a crime against humanity and thus entailing international responsibility. 
Terrorism is the deliberate harm of civilians to achieve political goals. Economic warfare is terrorism. Washington’s anti-Iranian sanctions program has a clear political aim: to topple the independence-minded government in Tehran in order to re-assert US hegemony over the country. And there is no question it is aimed at civilians. US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, acknowledged the terrorist nature of the US economic warfare campaign when he said “The Iranian leadership has to make a decision that they want their people to eat.” 
“These days, the biggest, baddest weapon in the American arsenal isn’t a missile, or a tank, or a fighter jet. It is America’s economic clout,” remarked Gerald F. Seib, a columnist with The Wall Street Journal.  Patrick Cockburn, the veteran Middle East correspondent with The Independent, echoed Seib:
Because the media and much of the political establishment in Washington and western capitals are so viscerally anti-Trump, they frequently underestimate the effectiveness of his reliance on American economic might… At the end of the day, the US Treasury is a more powerful instrument of foreign policy than the Pentagon for all its aircraft carriers and drones. 
The US drone strike on Soleimani killed a handful of soldiers, people who had devoted their lives to local independence and national assertiveness. The Treasury Department’s sanctions have harmed vastly more people—of a different category: civilians, the victims of the United States’ crazed drive to extend its dictatorship over as many countries as will bow to US coercion.
Pompeo’s threat to starve Iranians unless Tehran capitulates to US demands was anticipated by Martinique-born Algerian revolutionary Frantz Fanon, author of The Wretch of the Earth. ”’When a colonial and imperialist power is forced to give independence to a people, this imperialist power says: ‘you want independence? Then take it and die of hunger.’ Because the imperialists continue to have economic power,” remarked the late Italian philosopher Domenico Losurdo, “they can condemn a people to hunger, by means of blockades, embargoes, or underdevelopment.” 
Acts of war II: Information warfare
Annihilating the Iranian economy is easily within the Treasury Department’s power, but misleading tens of millions of Iranians into understanding their misery as originating in their own government’s mismanagement, rather than US economic terrorism, is a task of an altogether different sort. In an effort to “win over the Iranian public” Washington has launched “an information campaign blaming the country’s economic hardship on its leaders and discrediting those who oppose the White House’s policies,” according to The Wall Street Journal. “The campaign aims to erode public support for the leadership in Tehran with hashtags, YouTube videos and traditional pro-U. S. media outlets broadcasting in the Middle East.” 
To this end, Washington “has helped anti-Iranian government hashtags to trend on Twitter, including #40YearsofFailure that coincided with the 40th anniversary of the country’s revolution. It has used Persian-language social media to blame deadly floods … on government mismanagement, tapping into a complaint many Iranians have made.” Additionally, Washington relies on its formal propaganda apparatus, the Voice of America, to beam messages aimed at discrediting the Iranian government to 14 million residents of Iran.  The propagation of lies to discredit a state in order to destabilize it and bring down its government is every bit as much an act of war as the assassination of Soleimani.
And when Washington isn’t using its influence over information media to try control the minds of Iranians, it’s acting to silence those who present an opposing point of view. Last year, Instagram cancelled Soleimani’s account, after Washington designated him the head of a foreign terrorist organization—an act of stunning hypocrisy, considering that the US government is targeting the entire Iranian population with harm in order to achieve its political goals, i.e., is practicing terrorism. What’s more, US terrorism is carried out on a massive scale, far in excess of anything the insurgents Washington labels as terrorists could ever hope to emulate. Additionally, Washington moved to discredit expatriate Iranians who contested the US war on Iran by dubbing them as propagandists for the Iranian government. According to The Wall Street Journal, “an online platform funded by the State Department, the Iran Disinformation Project, spearheaded a campaign to discredit Iranian journalists and scholars living in the U.S. and Europe, accusing them of being mouthpieces for the Iranian regime.” Their offense was to support the 2015 nuclear deal. 
Acts of war III: Covert CIA action
The total embargo of Iran is the principal means by which Washington intends to destabilize the country. But Washington is also relying on CIA covert action to help foster political instability. In 2017, The New York Times, citing multiple US defense and intelligence officials, reported that the Trump administration intended to use US “spies to help oust the Iranian government.”  The CIA destabilization program would be led by Michael D’Andrea, nicknamed “the Dark Prince”, who led the hunt for Osama bin Laden. In the years after 9/11, D’Andrea was “deeply involved in the detention and interrogation program,” which resulted in the torture and deaths of a number of prisoners. 
Citing a former US military commander, The New York Times reported that “there was a range of options that the Pentagon and the C.I.A. could pursue that could keep Iran off balance but that would not have ‘crystal-clear attribution’ to the United States.”  These included putting a bounty “on Iran’s paramilitary and proxy forces” to encourage “mercenary forces to take on Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies.” It could also include spreading “information, either embarrassing truths or deliberate false rumors, aimed at undermining the support that Tehran’s elites have for Iran’s leaders.” Additionally, Washington could provide assistance to Iran’s labor movement to make its protests against the government more effective. 
Acts of war IV: Cyber options
On top of these acts of war, Washington has carried on an ongoing campaign of cyberwarfare against the Iranian state. According to The New York Times, “The head of United States Cyber Command, Army Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, describes his strategy as ‘persistent engagement.’” According to a senior US defense official, US operatives “are carrying out constant low-level digital attacks.”  One of the most ambitions campaigns of cyberwarfare ever launched, namely, the Stuxnet virus, was developed jointly by the United States and Israel to disrupt Iran’s entirely legal uranium processing activities.
Of the multiple means Washington has used to try to impose its will on Iran and negate the country’s sovereignty—from total embargo, to the deliberate spreading of lies, to the suppression of alternative voices, to aid to dissidents, to persistent harassment of the Iranian state through cyber-operations—the assassination of the Quds Brigade commander has been the least significant in producing harm to Iran and perhaps the most likely to backfire and harm the United States.
What measures may a state legitimately take, in a de facto or de jure state of war, to protect itself from an aggressor? In 1939, the British authorities rounded up and jailed members of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. While Mosley’s followers were not accused of crimes,  their loyalty was deemed to be questionable. Accordingly, they posed a credible threat to national security during a period of acute crisis, and were duly incarcerated. Few people today would challenge the British government’s decision to lock up British fascists while the country was at war with a fascist state. Neither would they question the decision to suspend elections and confer extraordinary powers on the prime minister, that is, to establish a totalitarian state, while the country was at war.
There is no question that Iran finds itself in a state of emergency and a de facto state of war, arising through no fault of its own, but through Washington’s unceasing efforts to project its influence over the entire face of the globe and negate the sovereignty of other states. Whatever political police state measures Tehran takes to protect itself from US despotism are fully justified under the standards invoked by leading Western democracies during two world wars and other national emergencies.
I make this point because there is a principle that lies at the heart of Iran’s struggle against US tyranny—the principle of independence and local sovereignty, one which partisans of the tradition of equality, liberty, and international solidarity must defend. Defending this principle, however, can be difficult. Witness Washington’s attempts to discredit expatriate Iranians who have spoken out against the de facto US war. To avoid such difficulties, some seek an escape route. A favored tactic is to eschew support for states deemed official enemies of the United States on the grounds that they are police states, or authoritarian, or have abridged human rights. Of course, all of these descriptions fit. But if official enemies are police states, it is because they have been made so by US actions, in the same way the crises of world wars made leading Western democracies into robust police states. If we’re genuinely concerned with human rights, political openness, and political democracy, the way to make these institutions flower is to stop Western governments from poisoning the soil in which the institutions thrive.
Deciding one’s attitude to targets of US aggression on the basis of whether they’re police states sets an impossible standard. It mandates that countries attacked by the West must deny themselves the same defenses their own countries have taken in times of emergency to merit our support. In this view, our solidarity and assistance are available only to those who allow themselves to be victimized, while those who act in the real world, in realistic and consequential ways in defense of laudable principles and aims, are shunned, deplored, ostracized, and excoriated. The consequences of this for the preservation of the principles of democracy on an international scale, for self-determination, and for equality, are not difficult to discern.
While the US assassination of Qassem Soleimani was an act of international barbarity, emblematic of the thuggish nature of US foreign policy, it was neither the only de facto act of war the United States has undertaken against Iran, nor the most harmful. Indeed, against the total embargo Washington has imposed on Iran with the intention of starving Iranians into submission or inducing them to overthrow their government, the killing of Soleimani is a act of little consequence, even if its significance in provoking widespread outrage and galvanizing opposition to US aggression is undoubted.
1. Said K. Aburish, The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of the House of Saud, Bloomsbury, 2005, p. 137.
2. Posture statement of 19th Chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff before the 115th Congress Senate Armed Services Budget Hearing, June 13, 2017.
3. Howard Schneider, “Iran, Syria mock U.S. policy, Ahmadinejad speaks of Israel’s ‘annihilation’”, The Washington Post, February 26, 2010.
4. Edward Wong, “U.S. Turns Up Pressure on Iran With Sanctions on Transportation Firms,” The New York Times, December 11, 2019.
5. Ian Talley and Rebecca Ballhaus, “Trump imposes sanctions on Iran’s supreme leader, others,” The Wall Street Journal, June 24, 2019.
6. Michael R. Gordon, Ian Talley and Laurence Norman, “US plans new Iran sanctions as Europe tries to defuse tensions,” The Wall Street Journal, June 23, 2019.
7. Vivian Salama, “US expands sanctions against Venezuela into an embargo,” The Wall Street Journal, August 5, 2019.
8. Takht Ravanchi (Islamic Republic of Iran) 8564th meeting of the United Nations Security Council, 26 June 2019.
9. Laurence Norman and Stacy Meichtry, “Iran threatens to pull out of nuclear treaty, like North Korea,” The Wall Street Journal, June 27, 2019.
10. Takht Ravanchi.
11. Mike Pompeo, November 7, 2018, quoted in ”Iran letter to the UNSG and UNSC on Pompeo provocative statement,” Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran, November 30, 2018.
12. Gerald F. Seib, “The risks in overusing America’s big economic weapon,” The Wall Street Journal, May 13, 2019.
13. Patrick Cockburn, “Europe doesn’t have the power to be much more than a spectator in the escalating US-Iran conflict,” The Independent, May 11, 2019.
14. Domenico Losurdo, “The New Colonial Counter-Revolution,” Revista Opera, October 20, 2017.
15. Sune Engel Rasmussen and Michael Amon, “US aims a megaphone at Iranian public as part of pressure campaign,” The Wall Street Journal, July 25, 2019.
16. Rasmussen and Amon.
18. Matthew Rosenberg and Adam Goldman, “CIA names the ‘dark prince’ to run Iran operations, signaling a tougher stance,” The New York Times, June 2, 2017.
20. Julian E. Barnes, Eric Schmitt and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “White House is pressing for additional options, including cyberattacks, to deter Iran,” The New York times, June 23, 2019.
22. Julian E. Barnes, “US cyberattack hurt Iran’s ability to target oil tankers, officials say,” The New York Times, August 28, 2019.
23. David A. Price, “’Agent Jack’ review: Tell it to Hitler.” The Wall Street Journal, November 8, 2019.