The boy who cried war

A conflict with Iran has been touted so many times it's a wonder these anti-war demonstrators in America still have the energy to take to the streets and shout about it
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Among the fables of the ancient Greek storyteller Aesop is that of a young shepherd who repeatedly raises false alarms about a looming wolf with nearby villagers; the crux comes when a real wolf later appears but nobody believes the boy’s cries before it is too late. Now, replace “young shepherd” with “the media, Middle East experts and informed sources”, then replace “wolf” with “war with Iran”, and this tale from antiquity is suddenly spun into contemporary non-fiction.

In the summer of 2007, I wrote a commentary for these pages describing the then-resounding rumors of an impending war with Iran. I could easily submit the same piece again for publication today, changing just a fact or two and updating the latest political rhetoric. It was actually two years before, in 2005, that the current wave of media reports warning of imminent war with Iran began to deluge my email inbox. Having forwarded a number of these articles to my sister over the years, she acerbically remarked to me in 2009: “You told me a war with Iran would happen last year, and the year before that but nothing happened.” I replied: “Just wait and see.”

But wait she has — in fact all of her life — with the Iranian nuclear weapons crisis playing out for three decades now like a long-running TV soap opera. The public, particularly in the West, has been regularly prepped about the pressing need to tackle Tehran; the Christian Science Monitor outlined a litany of examples in an article last year, among them that West German intelligence reported as early as 1984 that Iranian nuclear arms production “is entering its final stages”, and in 1992 Benjamin Netanyahu, then an Israeli parliamentarian, said Tehran was no more than five years from a nuclear bomb and that this threat needed to be “uprooted by an international front headed by the United States.” George W. Bush kept the fire raging with the inflammatory tones of his infamous 2002 “axis of evil” speech, labeling Iran a “rogue state” and ratcheting up the media and political campaign vilifying the Islamic Republic. 

Seemingly fallen on deaf ears over the years are the more moderate voices that have taken pains to point out the bias and rhetoric in accounts of the weaponization of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, as Tehran has steadfastly maintained it seeks nuclear technology for energy production and scientific research. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest report implicating Iran, for example, was widely discredited by experts, including former United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix — but you wouldn’t have known this from reading the headline news.

So, will there be a war? The multi-national military build up in the Gulf is certainly worrying, but like the past responses to “Iran nearly has nukes” reports, it is not unprecedented. The European Union announcing sanctions on Iranian oil — ostensibly meaning it is sourcing alternative energy supplies to avoid a shortage in the advent of a conflict — is a major move that has raised the stakes, yet it is also clearly economic and political maneuvering to put pressure on Tehran. Israel, as usual, is the wild card, being the most vocally gun-ho to ‘take out’ Iranian nuclear facilities and retain its regional nuclear supremacy, while Washington still appears intent to keep “all options on the table” for the immediate short-term. With so much saber rattling and so many military maneuvers broiling hostilities across the Gulf right now, however, one has to hope that a misunderstood action or incidental blunder does not set off a chain reaction of unintended consequences. 

Let’s be clear though: the shepherd boys crying out through the media that the bombs will begin dropping tomorrow are charlatans, not fortunetellers. That the world has had to listen to them for so long, however, is massively worrying, for when the wolf of war actually is nigh and those who see it coming raise the alarm, who among us will believe them?

Paul Cochrane

Paul Cochrane is the Middle East Correspondent for International News Services. He has lived in Beirut since 2002, and has written for some 70 publications worldwide, covering business, media, politics and culture in the Middle East, East Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

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