On August 2, France, Britain and Germany announced that they might cut off negotiations with Iran and pursue punitive sanctions if the country followed through on its threats to resume its uranium enrichment program. The announcement came a day after the Washington Post reported that American intelligence agencies believe the country is a decade away from producing a nuclear weapon-an assessment that differs with earlier timetables cited by Bush administration officials, who estimated that Iran was only five years away from such a weapon. Responding to the Post story, State Department spokesman Tom Casey dismissed the divergent timetables, noting that both the United States and Europe have concluded that Iran’s nuclear ambitions pose “a threat for the entire international community.”
But are nuclear arms in the hands of Iran’s rulers really a threat to international peace and security? To answer the question properly, one has to locate it in its political and ideological context.
Every power structure has to rely on an underlying implicit threat, i.e. whatever the oficial democratic rules and legal constraints may be, we can ultimately do whatever we want to you. In the 20th century, however, the nature of this link between power and the invisible threat that sustains it changed. Existing power structures no longer relied on their own fantasmatic projection of a potential, invisible threat in order to secure the hold over their subjects. Rather, the threat was externalized, displaced onto an Outside Enemy. It became the invisible (and, for that reason, all-powerful and omni-present) threat of this enemy that legitimized the existing power structure’s permanent state of emergency. Fascists invoked the threat of the Jewish conspiracy, Stalinists the threat of the class enemy, Americans the threat of Communism-all the way up to today’s “war on terror.” The threats posed by such an invisible enemy legitimizes the logic of the preemptive strike. Precisely because the threat is virtual, one cannot afford to wait for it to come. Rather, one must strike in advance, before it is too late. In other words, the omni-present invisible threat of Terror legitimizes the all too visible protective measures of defense-which, of course, are what pose the true threat to democracy and human rights (e.g., the London police’s recent execution of the innocent Brazilian electrician, Jean Charles de Menezes).
Classic power functioned as a threat that operated precisely by never actualizing itself, by always remaining a threateninggesture. Such functioning reached its climax in the Cold War, when the threat of mutual nuclear destruction had to remain a threat. With the “war on terror”, the invisible threat causes the incessant actualization, not of the threat itself, but, of the measures against the threat. The nuclear strike had to remain the threat of a strike, while the threat of the terrorist strike triggers the endless series of preemptive strikes against potential terrorists. We are thus passing from the logic of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) to a logic in which ONE SOLE MADMAN runs the entire show and is allowed to enact its paranoia. The power that presents itself as always being under threat, living in mortal danger, and thus merely defending itself, is the most dangerous kind of power-the very model of the Nietzschean ressentiment and moralistic hypocrisy.
[Extract. Appeared in In These Times, on August 11th, 2005. (full text).]