On September 2, the United States’ support for the Iran nuclear deal was secured. President Barack Obama’s team negotiated the deal along with other countries of the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the U.S. and Germany). The Republicans in the U.S. Congress had threatened to pass a resolution that would block Obama’s signature on such a deal. Obama had said he would veto any Bill that constrained his hand to sign that deal. He needed 34 Senators to back him in order to secure his veto. When Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland said she would support the President, the deal was safe.
Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., told me that Barbara Mikulski’s vote was “a big relief”. She said that the Iran deal was “a huge victory for diplomacy over the real threat of war with Iran”. Trita Parsi and Reza Marashi of the National Iranian American Council agreed. Obama, they said, “has proven to the U.S. that security is better achieved through diplomacy than through militarism”. Emad Kiyaei of the American Iranian Council told me just after Barbara Mikulski’s announcement: “There is no ‘better’ deal and the opposition has not introduced a viable alternative, except more coercive policies that to date have not slowed—rather accelerated—Iran’s nuclear programme.”
In late August, Obama suggested that those who agreed with him were “the crazies”. This suggested the strong push the White House had made to get the deal through. No wonder that the American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka told me that Obama was more belligerent with the Congress than the Iranian negotiators. “I only wish the President had brought the same tenacity and purpose to the Iran talks,” she told me, “than he brought to bludgeoning the representatives of the American people.”
To get the wider context of the Iranian deal, I spoke to Professor Noam Chomsky, who laid out the geopolitical and historical context for this important agreement. — Vijay Prashad
Professor Chomsky, how would you characterize the Republican Party’s reaction to the Iran nuclear deal?
The Republicans are almost unanimously opposed to the nuclear deal. The current Republican primaries illustrate the proclaimed reasons. Ted Cruz, considered one of the intellectuals of the group, warned that Iran may still be able to produce nuclear weapons, and it could use one to set off an electromagnetic pulse that “would take down the electrical grid of the entire eastern seaboard” of the U.S., killing “tens of millions of Americans”. The two most likely winners of the primary, Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, are battling over whether to bomb Iran immediately after being elected or after the first Cabinet meeting. The one candidate with some foreign policy experience, Lindsey Graham, described the deal as “a death sentence for the State of Israel,” which came as a surprise to Israeli intelligence and strategic analysts—and which Graham too knows to be utter nonsense, raising immediate questions about actual motives.
It is important to bear in mind that the Republicans have long abandoned the pretence of functioning as a normal parliamentary party. Rather, they have become a “radical insurgency” that scarcely seeks to participate in normal parliamentary politics, as observed by the respected conservative political commentator Norman Ornstein of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. Since Ronald Reagan, the leadership has plunged so far into the pockets of the very rich and the corporate sector that they can attract votes only by mobilising sectors of the population that have not previously been an organised political force, among them extremist evangelical Christians, now probably the majority of Republican voters; remnants of the former slave-holding States; nativists who are terrified that “they” are taking our white Christian Anglo-Saxon country away from us; and others who turn the Republican primaries into spectacles remote from the mainstream of modern society—though not the mainstream of the most powerful country in world history.
The Republican suspicion of Iran seems to be shared across sections of the political spectrum, even among those who are for the deal. Could you address that suspicion of Iran?
Across the spectrum, there is general agreement with the “pragmatic” conclusion of General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the Vienna deal “did not prevent the U.S. from striking Iranian facilities if officials decide that it is cheating on the agreement”, even though a unilateral military strike is “far less likely” if Iran behaves. Former Clinton and Obama Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross recommends that “Iran must have no doubt that if we see it moving towards a weapon, that would trigger the use of force” even after the termination of the deal, when Iran is free to do what it wants. In fact, the existence of a termination point 15 years hence is “the greatest single problem with the agreement,” he adds, recommending that the U.S. provide Israel with B-52 bombers to protect itself before that terrifying date arrives.
The underlying assumption here is that Iran is a serious threat, that it would attack Israel with nuclear weapons. How credible is that threat?
To be sure, Israel faces the “existential threat” of Iranian pronouncements: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad famously threatened it with destruction. Except that they didn’t—and if they had, it would be of little moment. They predicted that “Under God’s grace [the Zionist regime] will be wiped off the map.” Another translation suggests that Ahmadinejad actually said that Israel “must vanish from the page of time”. This is a citation of a statement made by Ayatollah Khomeini, during a period when Iran and Israel were tacitly allied. In other words, they hope that regime change will someday take place. They do not say that they will attack Israel either now or later.
Ahmadinejad’s threats fall far short of regular U.S.-Israeli direct calls for regime change in Iran, not to speak of actions to implement regime change going back to the actual “regime change” of 1953, when the U.S. organised a military coup to overthrow the Iranian parliamentary regime and install the dictatorship of the Shah, who proceeded with one of the world’s worst human rights records. These crimes were known to readers of Amnesty International and other human rights organisations, but not to readers of the U.S. press, which has indeed devoted plenty of space to Iranian human rights violations, but only after 1979, when the U.S.-imposed regime was overthrown. The instructive facts are documented carefully in a study by Mansour Farhang and William Dorman.
None of this is a departure from the norm. The U.S., as is well known, holds the world championship in regime change, and Israel is no laggard either. The most destructive of Israel’s invasions of Lebanon, in 1982, was explicitly aimed at regime change, along with securing its hold on the Occupied Territories. The pretexts offered were very thin, and collapsed at once. That too is not unusual and pretty much independent of the nature of the society, from the laments in the Declaration of Independence about the “merciless Indian savages” to Hitler’s defence of Germany from the “wild terror” of the Poles.
No serious analyst believes that Iran would ever use, or even threaten to use, a nuclear weapon if it had one, thus facing instant destruction. There is, however, real concern that a nuclear weapon might fall into jehadi hands—not from Iran, where the threat is minuscule, but from the U.S. ally Pakistan, where it is very real.
In the journal of the (British) Royal Institute of International Affairs, two leading Pakistani nuclear scientists, Pervez Hoodbhoy and Zia Mian, write that increasing fears of “militants seizing nuclear weapons or materials and unleashing nuclear terrorism [have led to] the creation of a dedicated force of over 20,000 troops to guard nuclear facilities [though] there is no reason to assume, however, that this force would be immune to the problems associated with the units guarding regular military facilities,” which have frequently suffered attacks with “insider help”. In brief, the problem is real, but is displaced by fantasies concocted for other reasons.
Professor Chomsky, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, has said that the problem is the “instability that Iran fuels beyond its nuclear programme”. She echoed U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, who went to Israel’s northern border and said, “We will continue to help Israel counter Iran’s malign influence” by supporting Hizbollah. The U.S., he intimated, reserved the right to use military force against Iran. Could you comment on this?
Power’s usage is standard: she defines “stabilisation” according to a peculiar logic. For instance, U.S. policy in Iraq is defined as stabilisation. What does that stabilisation look like? The U.S. invades a country, with hundreds of thousands killed and millions becoming refugees, along with barbarous torture and destruction that Iraqis compare to the Mongol invasions, leaving Iraq the unhappiest country in the world according to WIN/Gallup polls. It also ignited sectarian conflict that is tearing the region to shreds and laying the basis for the ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] monstrosity along with its Saudi ally. That is stabilisation. The standard usage sometimes reaches levels that are almost surreal, as when liberal commentator James Chace, former editor of Foreign Affairs, explains that the U.S. sought to “destabilise a freely elected Marxist government in Chile” because “we were determined to seek stability” [under the Pinochet dictatorship].
Let us consider the case of Hizbollah and Hamas. Both emerged in resistance to U.S.-backed Israeli violence and aggression, which vastly exceeds anything attributed to these organisations. Whatever one thinks about them, or other beneficiaries of Iranian support, Iran hardly ranks high in support for terror worldwide, even within the Muslim world. Among Islamic states, Saudi Arabia is far in the lead as a sponsor of Islamic terror, not only by direct funding by wealthy Saudis and others in the Gulf but even more by the missionary zeal with which the Saudis promulgate their extremist Wahhabi-Salafi version of Islam through Quranic schools, mosques, clerics, and other means available to a religious dictatorship with enormous oil wealth. The ISIS is an extremist offshoot of Saudi religious extremism and its fanning of jehadi flames.
In generation of Islamic terror, however, nothing can compare with the U.S. “war on terror”, which has helped to spread the plague from a small tribal area in Afghanistan-Pakistan to a vast region from West Africa to South-East Asia. The invasion of Iraq alone escalated terror attacks by a factor of seven in the first year, well beyond even what had been predicted by intelligence agencies. Drone warfare against marginalised and oppressed tribal societies also elicits demands for revenge, as ample evidence indicates.
The two Iranian clients [Hizbollah and Hamas] also share the crime of winning the popular vote in the only free elections held in the Arab world. Hizbollah is guilty of the even more heinous crime of compelling Israel to withdraw from its occupation of southern Lebanon in violation of [U.N.] Security Council orders dating back decades, an illegal regime of terror punctuated with episodes of extreme violence, murder and destruction.
Iran’s “fuelling instability” is particularly dramatic in Iraq, where, among other crimes, it alone came at once to the aid of Kurds defending themselves from the ISIS invasion and it is building a $2.5 billion power plant to try to bring electrical power back to the level before the U.S. invasion.
The other argument made here is that Iran has a terrible human rights record. How can the U.S. cut a deal with such a state?
Leon Wieseltier, contributing editor of the venerable liberal journal The Atlantic, said that the U.S. should pursue “an American-sponsored alliance between Israel and the Sunni states”. This is in reaction to his and others’ outrage that the U.S. would make a deal with the “contemptible” regime in Iran. Wieseltier can barely conceal his visceral hatred for all things Iranian. With a straight face, this respected liberal intellectual recommends that Saudi Arabia, which makes Iran look like a virtual paradise in comparison, and Israel, with its vicious crimes in Gaza and elsewhere, should ally to teach Iran good behaviour. Perhaps the recommendation is not entirely unreasonable when we consider the human rights records of the regimes the U.S. has imposed and supported throughout the world. The Iranian government is no doubt a threat to its own people, though it regrettably breaks no records in this regard and does not descend to the level of favoured allies [of the U.S.]. But that cannot be the concern of the U.S., and surely not Israel and Saudi Arabia.
It might also be useful to recall —surely Iranians do—that not a day has passed since 1953 when the U.S. was not severely harming Iranians. As soon as Iranians overthrew the hated U.S.-imposed regime of the Shah in 1979, Washington at once turned to supporting Saddam Hussein’s murderous attack on Iran. Ronald Reagan went so far as to deny Saddam’s major crime, his chemical warfare assault on Iraq’s Kurdish population, which Reagan blamed on Iran. When Saddam was tried for crimes under U.S. auspices, this horrendous crime, and others in which the U.S. was complicit, were carefully excluded from the charges, restricted to one of his very minor crimes, the murder of 148 Shias in 1982, a footnote to his gruesome record.
Saddam was such a valued friend of Washington that he was even granted a privilege accorded otherwise only to Israel: to attack a U.S. naval vessel with impunity, killing 37 crewmen—the USS Stark, in 1987. Israel did the same in its 1967 attack on the USS Liberty. Iran pretty much conceded defeat shortly after when the U.S. launched Operation Praying Mantis against Iranian ships and oil platforms in Iranian territorial waters. The Operation culminated in the shooting down of an Iranian civilian airliner in Iranian airspace by USS Vincennes, under no credible threat, with 290 killed, and the subsequent granting of a Legion of Merit award to the Vincennes commander for “exceptionally meritorious conduct” and for maintaining a “calm and professional atmosphere” during the period when the attack on the airliner took place. “We can only stand in awe of such display of American exceptionalism!” Thill Raghu commented.
After the war, the U.S. continued to support Iran’s primary enemy, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. President Bush I, the statesman Bush, even invited Iraqi nuclear engineers to the U.S. for advanced training in weapons production, an extremely serious threat to Iran. Sanctions against Iran were intensified, including against foreign firms dealing with Iran, along with actions to bar Iran from the international financial system.
In recent years, the hostility has extended to sabotage, murder of nuclear scientists [presumably by Israel], and cyberwar, openly proclaimed with pride. The Pentagon regards cyberwar as an act of war, justifying a military response, with the accord of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation], which affirmed in September 2014 that cyberattacks might trigger the collective defence obligations of the NATO powers. When we are the target that is, not the perpetrators.
It is only fair, however, to add that there have been breaks in the pattern. President Bush II provided several major gifts to Iran by destroying its major enemies, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. He even placed Iran’s Iraqi enemy under Iranian influence after the U.S. defeat, which was so severe that the U.S. had to abandon its officially declared goals of establishing military bases and ensuring privileged access to Iraq’s vast oil resources for U.S. corporations.
There seems to be little evidence that the Iranians would ever use nuclear weapons. In 2005, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei delivered a fatwa (decree) against nuclear weapons. Why is there this belief that the Iranians are eager almost to use their non-existent nuclear weapons?
We can decide for ourselves how credible the denials from Iranian leaders are, but that they had such intentions in the past is beyond question, since it was asserted openly on the highest authority, which informed foreign journalists that Iran would develop nuclear weapons “certainly, and sooner than one thinks”. The father of Iran’s nuclear energy programme and former head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation was confident that the leadership’s plan “was to build a nuclear bomb”. A Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report also had “no doubt” that Iran would develop nuclear weapons if neighbouring countries did [as they have].
All of this was under the Shah, the highest authority just quoted. That is, during the period when high U.S. officials—Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Henry Kissinger and others—were urging the Shah to proceed with nuclear programmes, and pressuring universities to accommodate these efforts. As part of these efforts, my own university, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), made a deal with the Shah to admit Iranian students to the nuclear engineering programme in return for grants from the Shah, over the very strong objections of the student body, but with comparably strong faculty support, in a meeting that older faculty will doubtless remember well. Asked later why he supported these programmmes under the Shah but opposed them now, Kissinger responded honestly that Iran was an ally then.
Putting aside absurdities, what is the real threat of Iran that inspires such fear and fury? A natural place to turn for an answer is, again, U.S. intelligence. Recall its analysis that Iran poses no military threat, that its strategic doctrines are defensive, and its nuclear programmmes [with no effort to produce bombs, as far as intelligence can determine] are “a central part of its deterrent strategy”.
Who, then, would be concerned by an Iranian deterrent? The answer is plain: the rogue states that rampage in the region and do not want to tolerate any impediment to their reliance on aggression and violence. Far in the lead in this regard are the U.S. and Israel, with Saudi Arabia trying its best to join the club with its invasion of Bahrain to support the crushing of the reform movement by the dictatorship and now its murderous assault on Yemen, accelerating the humanitarian catastrophe there.
Could you talk a bit more about these “rogue states”? After all, this is not the typical characterisation of rogue states, a term developed in 1994 by U.S. National Security Adviser Anthony Lake to refer to North Korea, Cuba, Iraq, Iran and Libya. Your list does not include these powers. It has the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Fifteen years ago, the Professor of the Science of Government at Harvard, the prominent political analyst Samuel Huntington, warned in the major establishment journal, Foreign Affairs, that for much of the world the U.S. was “becoming the rogue superpower” considered “the single greatest external threat to their societies”. His words were echoed shortly after by the president of the American Political Science Association, Robert Jervis, who observed, “In the eyes of much of the world, in fact, the prime rogue state today is the U.S.”
Global opinion supports this judgment by a substantial margin. According to the leading Western polling agencies (WIN/Gallup), the greatest threat to world peace is the U.S. Far below in second place is Pakistan, its ranking probably inflated by the Indian vote. Iran is ranked below, along with Israel, North Korea and Afghanistan.
The U.S., by its own admission, is the gravest threat to world peace. That is the clear meaning of the insistence of the leadership and the political class, in media and commentary, that the U.S. reserves the right to resort to force if it determines, unilaterally, that Iran is violating some commitment. It is also a long-standing official stand of liberal democrats, for example the Clinton Doctrine, that the U.S. is entitled to resort to “unilateral use of military power” even for such purposes as to ensure “uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources”, let alone alleged “security” or “humanitarian” concerns. And adherence to the doctrine is well confirmed in practice, as need hardly be discussed among people willing to look at the facts of current history.
Turning to the next obvious question, what in fact is the Iranian threat? Why, for example, are Israel and Saudi Arabia trembling in fear over the threat of Iran? Whatever the threat is, it can hardly be military. U.S. intelligence years ago informed Congress that Iran had very low military expenditures by the standards of the region and that its strategic doctrines are defensive, designed to deter aggression. Intelligence reports further confirmed that there was no evidence that Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapons programme, and that “Iran’s nuclear programme and its willingness to keep open the possibility of developing nuclear weapons is a central part of its deterrent strategy.”
The authoritative Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) review of global armament ranks the U.S., as usual, far in the lead in military expenditures, with China in second place at about one-third of U.S. expenditures. Far below are Russia and Saudi Arabia, well above any Western European state. Iran is scarcely mentioned. Full details are provided in an April study of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), which finds “a conclusive case that the Arab Gulf states have … an overwhelming advantage [over] Iran in both military spending and access to modern arms”. Iran’s military spending is a fraction of Saudi Arabia’s, and is far below even the spending of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Altogether, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—outspend Iran on arms by a factor of eight, an imbalance that goes back decades. The CSIS observes further that “the Arab Gulf states have acquired and are acquiring some of the most advanced and effective weapons in the world [while] Iran has essentially been forced to live in the past, often relying on systems originally delivered at the time of the Shah”, which are virtually obsolete. The imbalance is, of course, even greater with Israel, which, along with the most advanced U.S. weaponry and its role as a virtual offshore military base of the global superpower, has a huge stock of nuclear weapons.
Finally, could you say a little on what you just mentioned—namely, on Israel’s stockpile of nuclear weapons?
Israel, of course, is one of the three nuclear powers, along with India and Pakistan, whose nuclear weapons programmes have been abetted by the U.S. and who refuse to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif welcomed the nuclear deal and said that it was now the turn of the “holdout”, namely Israel. The regular five-year NPT review conference ended in failure this April. One of the main reasons for the failure was that the U.S. once again blocked the efforts to move toward a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East [West Asia]. These efforts have been led by Egypt and other Arab states for 20 years. Two of the leading figures promoting them at the NPT and other U.N. agencies, and at the Pugwash conferences, Jayantha Dhanapala and Sergio Duarte, observe that “the successful adoption in 1995 of the resolution on the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East was the main element of a package that permitted the indefinite extension of the NPT”, the most important arms control treaty, which, were it adhered to, could end the scourge of nuclear weapons. Repeatedly, implementation of the resolution has been blocked by the U.S., most recently by Barack Obama in 2010 and again in 2015. Dhanapala and Duarte comment that the effort was again blocked “on behalf of a state that is not a party to the NPT and is widely believed to be the only one in the region possessing nuclear weapons”, a polite and understated reference to Israel. They “hope that this failure will not be the coup de grâce to the two longstanding NPT objectives of accelerated progress on nuclear disarmament and on establishing a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone”. Their article, in the journal of the Arms Control Association, is entitled: “Is There a Future for the NPT?”
A nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East is a straightforward way to address whatever threat Iran allegedly poses. And a great deal more is at stake in Washington’s continuing sabotage of the effort, protecting its Israeli client. This is not the only case when opportunities to end the alleged Iranian threat have been undermined by Washington, raising further questions about just what is actually at stake.
This interview originally appeared in Frontline (India).