Noam Chomsky: We Must Stop War with Iran Before It’s Too Late

Noam Chomsky for In These Times

May 21, 2019. In These Times.

The threat of a U.S. attack on Iran is all too real. Led by John Bolton, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion is spin­ning tales of Iran­ian mis­deeds. It is easy to con­coct pre­texts for aggres­sion. His­to­ry pro­vides many examples.

The assault against Iran is one ele­ment of the inter­na­tion­al pro­gram of flaunt­ing over­whelm­ing U.S. pow­er to put an end to ​suc­cess­ful defi­ance” of the mas­ter of the globe: the pri­ma­ry rea­son for the U.S. tor­ture of Cuba for 60 years.

The rea­son­ing would eas­i­ly be under­stood by any Mafia Don. Suc­cess­ful defi­ance can inspire oth­ers to pur­sue the same course. The ​virus” can ​spread con­ta­gion,” as Kissinger put it when labor­ing to over­throw Sal­vador Allende in Chile. The need to destroy such virus­es and inoc­u­late vic­tims against con­ta­gion — com­mon­ly by impos­ing harsh dic­ta­tor­ships — is a lead­ing prin­ci­ple of world affairs.

Iran has been guilty of the crime of suc­cess­ful defi­ance since the 1979 upris­ing that deposed the tyrant the U.S. had installed in the 1953 coup that, with help from the British, destroyed the par­lia­men­tary sys­tem and restored ­obe­di­ence. The achieve­ment was wel­comed by lib­er­al opin­ion. As the New York Times explained in 1954, thanks to the sub­se­quent agree­ment between Iran and for­eign oil com­pa­nies, ​Under­de­vel­oped coun­tries with rich resources now have an object les­son in the heavy cost that must be paid by one of their num­ber which goes berserk with fanat­i­cal nation­al­ism.” The arti­cle goes on to state, ​It is per­haps too much to hope that Iran’s expe­ri­ence will pre­vent the rise of Mossadeghs in oth­er coun­tries, but that expe­ri­ence may at least strength­en the hands of more rea­son­able and more far-see­ing leaders.”

Lit­tle has changed since. To take anoth­er more recent exam­ple, Hugo Chávez changed from tol­er­at­ed bad boy to dan­ger­ous crim­i­nal when he encour­aged OPEC to raise oil prices for the ben­e­fit of the glob­al south, the wrong peo­ple. Soon after, his gov­ern­ment was over­thrown by a mil­i­tary coup, wel­comed by the lead­ing voice of lib­er­al jour­nal­ism. The Times edi­tors exult­ed that ​Venezue­lan democ­ra­cy is no longer threat­ened by a would-be dic­ta­tor,” the ​ruinous dem­a­gogue” Hugo Chávez, ​after the mil­i­tary inter­vened and hand­ed pow­er to a respect­ed busi­ness leader, Pedro Car­mona” — who quick­ly dis­solved the Nation­al Assem­bly, sus­pend­ed the con­sti­tu­tion and dis­band­ed the Supreme Court, but, unfor­tu­nate­ly, was over­thrown with­in days by a pop­u­lar upris­ing, com­pelling Wash­ing­ton to resort to oth­er means to kill the virus.

The quest for dominance

Once Iran­ian ​suc­cess­ful defi­ance” was ter­mi­nat­ed, and the ​clear-eyed” Shah was safe­ly installed in pow­er, Iran became a pil­lar of U.S. con­trol of the Mid­dle East, along with Sau­di Ara­bia and post-1967 Israel, which was close­ly allied with the Shah’s Iran, though not for­mal­ly. Israel also had shared inter­ests with Sau­di Ara­bia, a rela­tion­ship now becom­ing more overt as the Trump admin­is­tra­tion over­sees an alliance of reac­tionary Mid­dle East states as a base for U.S. pow­er in the region.

Con­trol of the strate­gi­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant Mid­dle East, with its huge and eas­i­ly acces­si­ble oil reserves, has been a cen­ter­piece of pol­i­cy since the U.S. gained the posi­tion of glob­al hege­mon after World War II. The rea­sons are not obscure. The State Depart­ment rec­og­nized that Sau­di Ara­bia is ​a stu­pen­dous source of strate­gic pow­er” and ​one of the great­est mate­r­i­al prizes in world his­to­ry.” Eisen­how­er described it as the most ​strate­gi­cal­ly impor­tant part of the world.” That con­trol of Mid­dle East oil yields ​sub­stan­tial con­trol of the world” and ​crit­i­cal lever­age” over indus­tri­al rivals has been under­stood by influ­en­tial states­men from Roo­sevelt advis­er A. A. Berle to Zbig­niew Brzezinski.

These prin­ci­ples hold quite inde­pen­dent­ly of U.S. access to the region’s resources, which, in fact, has not been of pri­ma­ry con­cern. Through much of this peri­od the U.S. was a major pro­duc­er of fos­sil fuels, as it is again today. But the prin­ci­ples remain the same, and are rein­forced by oth­er fac­tors, among them the insa­tiable demand of the oil dic­ta­tor­ships for mil­i­tary equip­ment and the Sau­di agree­ment to sup­port the dol­lar as glob­al cur­ren­cy, afford­ing the U.S. major advantages.

Mid­dle East cor­re­spon­dent Tom Steven­son does not exag­ger­ate when he writes that, ​The U.S.’s inher­it­ed mas­tery of the Gulf has giv­en it a degree of lever­age over both rivals and allies prob­a­bly unpar­al­leled in the his­to­ry of empire… It is dif­fi­cult to over­state the role of the Gulf in the way the world is cur­rent­ly run.”

It is, then, under­stand­able why suc­cess­ful defi­ance in the region can­not be tolerated.

After the over­throw of its Iran­ian client, the U.S. turned to direct sup­port for Saddam’s inva­sion of Iran, tac­it­ly con­don­ing his use of chem­i­cal weapons and final­ly inter­ven­ing direct­ly by pro­tect­ing Iraqi ship­ping in the Gulf from Iran­ian inter­dic­tion to ensure Iran’s sub­mis­sion. The extent of Reagan’s com­mit­ment to his friend Sad­dam was illus­trat­ed graph­i­cal­ly when Iraqi mis­siles struck the USS Stark, killing 37 crew, elic­it­ing a tap on the wrist in response. Only Israel has been able to get away with some­thing like that (USS Lib­er­ty, 1967).

When the war end­ed, under Pres­i­dent George H.W. Bush, the Pen­ta­gon and Depart­ment of Ener­gy invit­ed Iraqi engi­neers to the U.S. for advanced train­ing in weapons pro­duc­tion, an exis­ten­tial threat to Iran. Since then, harsh sanc­tions and cyber attacks — an act of aggres­sion accord­ing to Pen­ta­gon doc­trine — have been employed to pun­ish the miscreants.

Threat to the world order

U.S. polit­i­cal lead­ers across the spec­trum warn that all options are open in assault­ing Iran – ​con­tain­ing it,” in ­pre­vail­ing Newspeak. It is irrel­e­vant that ​the threat or use of force” is explic­it­ly banned in the UN Char­ter, the foun­da­tion of mod­ern inter­na­tion­al law.

Iran is reg­u­lar­ly depict­ed as the great­est threat to world peace — in the U.S., that is. Glob­al opin­ion dif­fers, regard­ing the U.S. as the great­est threat to world peace, but the Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion is pro­tect­ed from this unwel­come news by the Free Press.

That Iran’s gov­ern­ment is a threat to its own pop­u­la­tion is not in doubt, nor is the fact that like every­one else, Iran seeks to expand its influ­ence. The issue, rather, is Iran’s alleged threat to world order generally.

What then is that threat? A sen­si­ble answer has been pro­vid­ed by U.S. intel­li­gence, which advised Con­gress in 2010 (noth­ing has mate­ri­al­ly changed since) that Iran­ian mil­i­tary doc­trine is strict­ly ​defen­sive … designed to slow an inva­sion and force a diplo­mat­ic solu­tion to hos­til­i­ties,” and that ​Iran’s nuclear pro­gram and its will­ing­ness to keep open the pos­si­bil­i­ty of devel­op­ing nuclear weapons is a cen­tral part of its deter­rent strat­e­gy.” (U.S. intel­li­gence agen­cies acknowl­edged in 2007 and 2012 that Iran doesn’t cur­rent­ly have a nuclear weapons pro­gram.) For those who wish to ram­page freely in the region, a deter­rent is an intol­er­a­ble threat — even worse than ​suc­cess­ful defiance.”

There would of course be ways to end the alleged threat of Iran­ian nuclear weapons. One start was the Joint Com­pre­hen­sive Plan of Action, the joint agree­ment on nuclear weapons, endorsed by the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil and abro­gat­ed by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, in full aware­ness that Iran has lived up to its commitments.

Hawks claim that the agree­ment did not go far enough, but there are sim­ple ways to go beyond. The most obvi­ous is to move towards a nuclear-weapons-free zone (NWFZ) in the Mid­dle East, as strong­ly advo­cat­ed by the Arab states, by Iran and by G‑77 (the for­mer non-aligned coun­tries), with gen­er­al sup­port else­where. There is a key obsta­cle. The pro­pos­al is reg­u­lar­ly vetoed by the U.S. at the NPT review con­fer­ences, most­ly recent­ly by Oba­ma in 2015. The rea­son, as every­one knows, is that the plan would require the U.S. to acknowl­edge for­mal­ly that Israel has nuclear weapons and even to autho­rize inspec­tions. Again, intolerable.

It should not be for­got­ten that the U.S. (along with Britain) has a unique respon­si­bil­i­ty to estab­lish a Mid­dle East NWFZ. When attempt­ing to pro­vide some legal cov­er for the inva­sion of Iraq, the two aggres­sors claimed that Sad­dam was devel­op­ing nuclear weapons in vio­la­tion of Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil Res­o­lu­tion 687 of 1991, after the Gulf war, which oblig­at­ed Sad­dam to end such pro­grams (as in fact he did). Lit­tle atten­tion is paid to Arti­cle 14, call­ing for ​steps towards the goal of estab­lish­ing in the Mid­dle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction.”

It is also worth not­ing that when Iran was ruled by the Shah, there was lit­tle con­cern about Iran­ian inten­tions to devel­op nuclear weapons. These were clear­ly stat­ed by the Shah, who informed for­eign jour­nal­ists that Iran would devel­op nuclear weapons ​with­out a doubt and soon­er than one would think.” The father of Iran’s nuclear ener­gy pro­gram and for­mer head of Atom­ic Ener­gy Orga­ni­za­tion of Iran was con­fi­dent that the leadership’s plan ​was to build a nuclear bomb.” The CIA report­ed that it had ​no doubt” Iran would devel­op nuclear weapons if neigh­bor­ing coun­tries did (as Israel of course has).

This was dur­ing the peri­od when Dick Cheney, Don­ald Rums­feld, Hen­ry Kissinger and oth­er high offi­cials were pres­sur­ing U.S. uni­ver­si­ties (my own, MIT, includ­ed) to facil­i­tate Iran’s nuclear pro­grams. Asked lat­er why he sup­port­ed such pro­grams under the Shah but since stren­u­ous­ly oppos­es them, Kissinger respond­ed hon­est­ly that Iran was an ally then. Sim­ple enough.

The neolib­er­al formula

Assum­ing that ratio­nal­i­ty pre­vails and that Bolton and co. can be con­tained, the U.S. will con­tin­ue with the suc­cess­ful pro­gram of crush­ing Iran’s econ­o­my and pun­ish­ing its pop­u­la­tion. Europe is too intim­i­dat­ed to respond, and oth­ers lack the pow­er to stand up to the Mas­ter. The same poli­cies are being pur­sued in Venezuela, and have been employed against Cuba for many years, ever since the Kennedy admin­is­tra­tion rec­og­nized that its cam­paign to impose ​the ter­rors of the earth” on Cuba (in the words of his­to­ri­an Arthur Schlesinger) brought the world close to destruc­tion dur­ing the mis­sile crisis.

It is a mis­take to seek some grand geopo­lit­i­cal think­ing behind Trump’s per­for­mances. These are read­i­ly explained as the actions of a nar­cis­sis­tic mega­lo­ma­ni­ac whose doc­trine is to main­tain per­son­al pow­er, and who has the polit­i­cal savvy to sat­is­fy his con­stituen­cies, pri­mar­i­ly cor­po­rate pow­er and pri­vate wealth but also the vot­ing base. The lat­ter is kept in line by gifts to the reli­gious right, dra­mat­ic pro­nounce­ments about pro­tec­tion of Amer­i­cans from hordes of rapists and mur­der­ers and oth­er demons, and the pre­tense to be stand­ing up for the work­ing stiff whom the administration’s actu­al poli­cies are in fact shaft­ing at every turn.

So far, it is work­ing well. The neolib­er­al for­mu­la is flour­ish­ing: spec­tac­u­lar prof­its for the pri­ma­ry con­stituen­cy along with gen­er­al stag­na­tion and pre­car­i­ty for the major­i­ty, ame­lio­rat­ed slight­ly by the con­tin­u­ing slow recov­ery from the Great Reces­sion of 2008. In brief, Trump is doing just fine. He is helped by the obses­sion of the Democ­rats with Rus­si­a­gate and their down­play­ing of his major crimes, the most impor­tant, by far, the pol­i­cy of lead­ing the race to envi­ron­men­tal cat­a­stro­phe. Anoth­er Trump term might — lit­er­al­ly — be a death knell for orga­nized human life.

A new poll shows that Trump’s job approval among like­ly vot­ers has passed 50%, high­er than Obama’s at this stage of his pres­i­den­cy. A smart pol­i­cy for Trump would be to con­tin­ue to shake his fist at the world, charg­ing that weak-kneed lib­er­als like ​Sleepy Joe” and ​crazy Bernie” would sub­mit to the ter­ri­ble ene­mies who are being sub­dued by the street tough with the MAGA hat. The stance is assist­ed by the lib­er­al media, which reflex­ive­ly echo the charges that the ​rogue state” of Iran has to become a ​nor­mal state” like the U.S. (Pompeo’s mantra), even while warn­ing timid­ly that war might not be the best way to achieve that goal.

There are of course oth­er paths that can be pur­sued. And, cru­cial­ly, there can be no delay in mount­ing pow­er­ful oppo­si­tion to the threat of yet anoth­er crime of aggres­sion, with its like­ly cat­a­stroph­ic outcomes.