“In wartime,” Churchill famously told Stalin, “truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” He said this on 30 November 1943 – by chance his 69th birthday – in an effort to impress upon the Soviet leader the importance of deception in the planning of D-Day. In fact, the Allies did deceive the Germans, whose Wehrmacht commanders thought the landings would be made in northern France rather than on the beaches of Normandy.
But the meaning of truth and lies – even the very word “wartime” – have so changed their meaning and usefulness in recent Middle East history that it’s almost impossible to apply Churchill’s quotation today. After its anti-aircraft missile destroyed Ukrainian Airways flight 752 this month, Iran’s initial lie – that its loss was due to engine problems – was uttered not to “attend” the truth but to protect the Iranian regime from being blamed in case its people discovered the truth.
Which, of course, they quickly did.
There was a time when you could get away with this sort of giant fib. In a pre-technology age, almost any catastrophe could be glossed – we still talk about a disaster “shrouded in mystery” – but phone cameras, missile-tracking, long-range radar and satellites quickly expose a lie. The loss of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 almost six years ago is the only exception I can think of.
True, Mubarak actually surrounded Cairo’s television headquarters with tanks in 2011 in an antediluvian attempt to stop a revolution powered by mobile phone messages. But the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Iranian military are so computer-savvy that they could hardly have misunderstood what they had done to the Ukrainian aircraft. The idea, still touted by the regime, that there were “communications” problems (for more than three days, for heavens’ sake) is preposterous.
What really happened, I suspect, is that both President Hassan Rouhani and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei both knew within an hour what had happened, but were so appalled that a nation whose very name bears the title of “Islamic”, and whose supposedly revered if corrupted Revolutionary Guards had been promoted as both God-fearing and flawless, that they simply did not know how to respond. They were faced with The Truth. So they told a lie. Thus the very image of spotless theology which was supposed to sustain Iran’s image was shattered by error – and then by dishonesty.
No wonder Iranians returned to the streets.
Iran made a mistake, but to compound a tragic mistake with a blatant – and then admitted — falsehood was close to Original Sin. The people are not about to overthrow the regime, as Trump’s acolytes and the usual US “experts” suggest. But Iran has been changed forever.
No longer can its religious leaders claim papal infallibility. If they can lie about killing innocents on a Ukrainian airliner – most of them Iranian — then surely their jurisprudence might prove equally flawed. Those who demand obedience from their loyal followers cannot expect their audience to accept their future pronouncements – on Trump or God – with the same sacred trust. For quite a while, the Revolutionary Guards who hitherto presented themselves as potential martyrs for Islam are going to be known as The Guys Who Fired the Missile.
Now let’s remember that we in the West have grown so used to our own dishonesty – and being caught out – that we scarcely flinch at the word “lie”. Let me ask a frank question: save for the flies around Trump, is there anyone who actually believes the “intelligence” information about Qassem Suleimani’s plans to attack or blow up four US embassies (or five, or six, or whatever)?
Maybe it’s true. Maybe it’s not. But given the sloppy replies of US defence secretary Mark Esper and his chums, I’d hazard a bet that this stuff was a Trump potboiler, a mix of Hollywood, haze and an early morning tweet. Who cares if it’s true or not? Suleimani was a bad guy. Hands up who in the West was really upset that he’d been murdered (let us at least use this word once today)? Even Boris Johnson said he wouldn’t mourn Suleimani’s passing, though no one had actually asked him to. He would say the same – and probably will say the same – if America or Israel, or both, assassinated the Lebanese Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.
The problem is that we’ve grown so used to lies – on Brexit, on the Middle East, you name it – that we hardly care any more.
If we can go to war on WMD, 45-minute warnings, promises of democracy for Iraq and half a million deaths, or a million, or a quarter of a million — see how we can play with the souls of the dead in this part of the world? – then we don’t safeguard truth with a bodyguard of lies: we search for a simple truth to protect us from the lies. Isn’t the world better without Qassem Suleimani? Isn’t the world better without Saddam?
But this only works up to a point. Does anyone really think that Boris Johnson’s hodgepodge about a “new” nuclear deal with Iran is anything more than a sop to Trump? There was a deal and – in theory, as the Iranians keep reminding us – there still is a deal. And the Iranians are prepared to go back to it. Or, as we must remember now, so they say.
And clearly, the Americans are going to suffer in the days and weeks and months to come. Those bases in the Iraqi desert are looking less and less like the “lily pads” that Donald Rumsfeld once called them and more and more like potential death traps.
The odd thing is that when the Americans originally claimed the Iranians were behind the guerrilla assaults on their occupation troops after the 2003 invasion, Iraqis knew this wasn’t true. Iraq itself was awash with weapons and very skilled weapons experts – all newly available from Saddam’s old and abandoned army – and didn’t need Suleimani and his chums to teach them what they already knew.
No one should doubt Suleimani’s encouragement, but to suggest that he was effectively running the Iraqi resistance – another of the reasons produced for assassinating him – was ridiculous. The irony is that when the US claimed the Iranians were behind the attacks on their soldiers in Iraq, they were likely not. And now the Americans have killed the Revolutionary Guards Quds force commander, the Iranians are indeed behind the attacks on the American bases. They even said so: a remarkable truth, uttered even as they lied about their own destruction of the Ukrainian airliner.
You can see why Trump might find all this confusing. For until now, the Americans have had a monopoly on deceit. Just look at the plans for what the Arabs still call “Palestine” – the “deal of the century”, as we journos like to call it – which effectively destroys any chance of giving the Palestinians a nation-state of their own. It is the antithesis of the Oslo agreement, always supposing Oslo was really intended to give the Palestinians a country of their own in the first place. Trump’s ‘policies’, if they can be called that, will lead inevitably to the permanent Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the dispossession of the Palestinians.
Yet we are supposed to believe – and the Arabs are supposed to believe, even the Palestinians themselves – that the further colonisation of the West Bank, not to mention the existence of the new US embassy in Jerusalem, is intended to bring peace to the region. Merely by discussing this absurd scenario, we are helping to propagate a lie.
Oddly, in a world where the assassination of a military commander is not regarded as an act of war, we are beginning to accept these lies. They have become normal, even acceptable in a routine kind of way. The west, of course, is hoping that the liar-in-chief will depart next year. But I wouldn’t be too sure. And what about the other nation which feasts upon lies? I’m talking about the state which never, ever, sent its special forces into Ukraine, which never had any hand – even in the remotest way – in shooting down another airliner, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17.
Set against all this, the Iranians might look squeaky clean. After all, the sacred regime did fess up in the end. But before they did so, they discovered Original Sin. Quite an experience.