Journalist David Barsamian sat down with Noam Chomsky to discuss the US relationship with Iran, acts of war from assassinations to blockades, and the need for self-reflection on the domestic front.
David Barsamian: The assassinations of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a top Iraqi militia commander, and others in early January 2020 immediately raised the possibility of a wider war. Iran launched missiles on two US bases in Iraq. The Pentagon reported that 50 US soldiers sustained brain injuries as a result of Iran’s attacks, but no deaths.
There was a lot of bluster from Washington, but it did not counterattack, and the threat of war seems to have subsided at least temporarily. Iran accidentally shot down a civilian airliner resulting in the death of all 176 on board. Comment on the significance of what happened.
Noam Chomsky: The easiest way to determine the significance is to imagine that the situation was reversed—always a useful procedure. Suppose then that Iran murdered the top US general, the second most significant official of the US government, in the Mexico City international airport, along with the highly respected commander of a major part of the army of an allied state. Would it have significance? Would discussion be limited to whether these criminal Iranian acts of war will achieve Iranian objectives? Or would the US react with extreme violence, with the vigorous support of the Western world? I think that answers the question.
To be sure, such questions do not arise in a country that regards itself as the master of the universe, to which laws and civilized norms do not apply. Those assumptions are so deeply ingrained that they are virtually invisible. They are part of what Gramsci called hegemonic common sense. We witness manifestations daily. Thus Trump recently announced “the Greatest Deal in History,” his son-in-law Jared’s plan for Israel-Palestine. The announcement, with great fanfare, elicited a great deal of commentary. The essential question is: will it work? Will it lead to peace and security (for Israel)? Many commentators recognized that Trump had overturned formal US policy. And a few even mentioned that with this gift to the Israeli far right, as the Israeli press described it, Trump casually gave the back of his hand to international law, the World Court, the U.N. Security Council, and overwhelming international opinion. But so what?
Unasked is why we are even paying any attention to this performance. Suppose China had submitted a plan—or Russia—or anyone other than the master of the universe. Would it have elicited more than a yawn? Or maybe a smile at the pretentiousness of a mere state in the international system?
When the plan comes from Washington, reactions are different. To paraphrase some opening words of the Bible, the Lord said “Let there be The Plan, and there was the Plan, and the Lord saw that the Plan was good, in fact Great!” And the world obeys, quietly.
In the background we hear laments from the political class about “American decline.” We only have colossal power, but not everything—a tragedy.
During the Clinton years, prominent US policy intellectuals including Harvard Professor of the Science of Government Samuel Huntington, recognized that the US was going rogue. Huntington wrote in the main established journal, Foreign Affairs in 1999: “While the US regularly denounces various countries as ‘rogue states,’ in the eyes of many countries it is becoming the rogue superpower … the single greatest external threat to their societies.” (Foreign Affairs, 1999, 2001.)
That was before Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Then it was simply asserted as fact that the US “has assumed many of the very features of the “‘rogue nations’ against which it has … done battle” (Robert Tucker and David Hendrickson, Foreign Affairs, 2004).
Others outside the US mainstream might think of different words for the worst crime of the millennium, a textbook example of aggression without credible pretext, the “supreme international crime” of Nuremberg.
Sometimes others are given a chance to express their opinions.
Gallup runs regular polls of international opinion. In 2013 (the civilized Obama years), Gallup asked for the first time which country is the greatest threat to world peace. The United States won, no other country was even close. Far behind in second place was Pakistan, presumably inflated by the Indian vote. Iran—the greatest threat to world peace in US discourse—was scarcely mentioned.
That was also the last time the question was asked, though there needn’t have been much concern. The poll does not seem to have been reported in the United States.
Under Trump, to his credit perhaps, the veils are withdrawn. Washington openly takes pride in being the prime rogue state, which exercises its will with abandon. More accurately, Washington exercises the current whims of “the chosen one,” as he modestly calls himself before an adoring crowd while lifting his eyes to heaven.
A majority of Republicans, now in Trump’s pocket in a manner with no historical precedent, regard him as the greatest of all American presidents, even surpassing Abraham Lincoln, who had some thoughts about political assassination. In 1863, the founder of the Republican Party condemned political assassination as “international outlawry,” an “outrage,” which “civilized nations” view with “horror” and which merits the “sternest retaliation.”
The Grand Old Party has come a long way in 160 years, dragging the rest of us down with it.
Turning to the question to which we are supposed to confine ourselves, does Trump’s assassinations of Soleimani and al-Muhandis pose the risk of war? The question should be formulated a little differently. The US has been at war with Iran for some time. Trump’s sanctions are quite openly designed to destroy the Iranian economy, imposing maximal suffering on civilians so that they will overthrow the government. Furthermore, sanctions imposed by the master of the universe apply to third parties as well; a country that tries to evade them can be expelled from the US-run international financial system. The sanctions therefore amount to a blockade, an act of war.
As an aside, we may note another feature of common sense. The US is alone in its ability to impose sanctions. That is a bipartisan consensus freely exercised for many years. The most extreme current case is the brutal sanctions regime against Cuba, sustained for such crimes as Cuba’s prime role in beating back the attacks against Angola by apartheid South Africa, a major contribution to ending apartheid, which President Reagan defended to the end, in splendid isolation.
The Cuba sanctions have been in place for 60 years, a bipartisan enterprise. When Russian support for Cuba was withdrawn, leaving the country in dire straits, Clinton and the Democrats outflanked president Bush I from the right in making the sanctions harsher. This proceeds in defiance of unanimous votes at the UN General Assembly (Israel of course excepted), a minor annoyance rarely even reported. No eyebrows are raised. Another prerogative of overwhelming power.
Posing the question properly, then, do the assassinations make it more likely that the ongoing US war will escalate, with Iranian contributions as well? And it is a mutual affair. Unfortunately, cet animal est très méchant. Quand on l’attaque il se défend. And the vicious Iranian clerical regime hardly has clean hands in the international arena.
Apart from some crazed fanatics like John Bolton and his counterparts in Iran, it seems that few on either side want a war, which could have devastating consequences. But tensions are very real, primarily caused by the global rogue state. They could easily get out of control.
DB: Assassinations have always been in the US toolbox. Was Soleimani’s in any way a departure?
NC: Very much so. During the Cold War, for example, neither side sought to assassinate leaders of the antagonist. To be sure, the analogy is misleading. It could not be done with impunity. The rules are different when the target is defenseless. It’s well-known that the US sought to assassinate Castro, part of the effort of the Kennedy brothers to bring “the terrors of the earth” to Cuba (Presidential Adviser Arthur Schlesinger’s phrase). The US also sought to assassinate Patrice Lumumba, Africa’s most promising leader, but the Belgians got there first. The crime of political assassination was banned by the Ford administration in 1976.
The assassination of Soleimani and al-Muhandis (who shouldn’t be overlooked—he was quite a significant figure in Iraq) revokes that principle of American law. Trump’s decision, according to reports, appalled the Pentagon planners who presented it as the extreme option, assuming that it would be rejected in favor of “the middle ground,” the usual practice.
As for assassination more generally, that’s the norm for rogue states. Israel has specialized in it for years, as has Iran. Obama honed assassination into a high art with his murderous drone campaign targeting those alleged to have plans to harm the Master, and any other unfortunates who happened to be around.
DB: The US strategy is to turn the sanction screws tighter and tighter and this will result in the collapse of the government in Tehran. Go back to the sanctions imposed on Iraq in the 1990s. Saddam’s regime was actually strengthened as people turned to it for whatever crumbs they could get. Could the same scenario play out with Iran?
NC: We know a good deal about the sanctions on Iraq—or we could know, if the constraints on bringing the wrong information into the public domain were relaxed. The “soft side” of the sanctions was the Oil for Food program, technically administered by the United Nations though effectively run by Clinton and his sidekick Tony Blair (referred to less politely as Clinton’s poodle). The administrators of the program had extensive information on their impact on Iraqi society, more so than any other Westerners. The first two, Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, were distinguished international diplomats. Both resigned in protest because they found the programs to be “genocidal.” They had a devastating impact on Iraqi civilians while strengthening the tyrant. Any opposition was stilled while people had to huddle under the wings of power to survive, relying on Saddam’s apparently efficient rationing system. It’s not unlikely that the sanctions saved Saddam from the fate of a long string of other tyrants: among others, Somoza, Marcos, Duvalier, Ceausescu, Suharto, all strongly supported by Washington until they became unsustainable in the face of popular fury.
The outcomes of US sanctions are not unusual. The same is true of the resort to terror, though sometimes it proves successful, even short of the regular practice of overthrowing unwanted governments. Washington’s war against Nicaragua is a case in point. It was condemned by the World Court, which ordered the US to end its “unlawful use of force” (aka, international terrorism) and pay substantial reparations. Washington responded by escalating the violence and economic warfare. Finally, the exhausted population capitulated, voting for the US candidate under explicit threat that refusal to do so would mean more terror and economic strangulation. The victory for democracy was hailed with euphoria here.
“There’s no difficulty at all in criticizing US policies while harshly condemning the vicious clerical regime in Iran and its practices, and supporting those who courageously resist it.”
Hans von Sponeck wrote a very important book about the sanctions regime, A Different Kind of War, the most detailed and instructive account of the impact of the sanctions on Iraqis. But Americans have been spared knowledge of these matters. This highly important book seems to have passed without review in the US (or the UK), though others were less scrupulous, among them the Geneva International Centre for Justice.
As George Orwell observed in his unpublished introduction to Animal Farm, in free England, and no less in its successor in world control, “Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without any need for any official ban.” Immersion in the general culture, and a good education, suffice to instill the tacit understanding that “there are certain things it wouldn’t do to say,” or even to think.
Returning to the US war against Iran, there are too many uncertainties to allow confident predictions.
DB: Has the left been vigorous enough in its criticism of Iranian policies? How do you separate not wanting to support Washington while at the same time critiquing Tehran?
NC: There’s no difficulty at all in criticizing US policies while harshly condemning the vicious clerical regime in Iran and its practices, and supporting those who courageously resist it. We do it all the time.
We should, however, take note of some curious aspects of this question, which is constantly raised, often as a stick to beat the left.
In considering moral issues, and this is one, it is quite useful to generalize. So how often have we heard the following question: “Were East European dissidents vigorous enough in their criticism of US policies?” (or Iranian or Chinese dissidents?)
“We should never forget the elementary moral principle that scrutinizing and condemning our own crimes is of far greater moral significance than joining the parade of condemnation of official enemies.”
I can’t recall ever hearing the question. And it would hardly make sense. With rare exceptions, East European dissidents either ignored US crimes or lavishly praised Washington—for example, when Vaclav Havel addressed a joint session of Congress and praised Washington as the “defender of freedom” to exuberant applause, a few days after troops armed and trained by Washington blew out the brains of six Latin American intellectuals, Jesuit priests, in El Salvador; Havel’s counterparts, though analogy is unfair because the violent repression was far more extreme in US domains.
But the general point is that it doesn’t much matter. It’s very easy to add a few straws to the mountain of condemnation of official enemies, and if dissidents elsewhere ignore US crimes, it is of slight, if any, interest. That doesn’t mean that we should adopt the same practice. We shouldn’t. We should condemn the crimes of official enemies, and sometimes it can make a difference. But we should be aware of why and how the question is raised within the very powerful Western propaganda systems. And we should never forget the elementary moral principle that scrutinizing and condemning our own crimes is of far greater moral significance than joining the parade of condemnation of official enemies—a corollary of the principle that our attention should focus on what we can influence, typically what we ourselves are doing. Standard practice is the exact opposite, often with an impressive display of self-righteousness.
DB: You’ve mentioned the US concept of diplomacy is somewhat akin to how the mafia operates. Can you explain how mafia rules apply to Iran?
NC: The Godfather decides, and that is the law. Others may mumble in annoyance, but the costs of disobedience are not slight. The mafia analogy in international affairs extends quite far. Suppose in a gangster-dominated system some small storekeeper decides not to pay protection money. The bosses don’t need the money; it’s barely a rounding error. But do they let him get away with it? Surely not. They send their goons to beat him to a pulp. In international affairs, it’s sometimes called the domino theory: others might follow the example. In Kissinger’s rendition, the “virus” might “spread contagion”; he was specifically referring to Allende’s Chile, where he warned of “the insidious model effect” of Allende’s efforts to use parliamentary means to enact social reforms, which might spread the contagion to Italy, perhaps beyond. The cure is to kill the virus and “inoculate” potential victims, often by imposing brutal military dictatorships. That is a major principle of international affairs.
The domino theory is commonly ridiculed when the dominos don’t fall—because the cure was successful. But though ridiculed, the principle is never abandoned, just as in the mafia. The reason is that the theory is valid.
The “insidious model” theory was not invented by George Washington of course. King George III had the same concerns about independence for the American colonies, which might have been an “insidious model” for erosion of the empire. His concerns were shared by czarist Russia and later by Austrian diplomat Metternich, who warned of the virus of republicanism taking root across the ocean. It is second nature for imperial powers, taken over and vigorously pursued by the US as it became the world-dominant power after World War II.
Scholarship suggests that similar concerns may have been one motive for the US-UK overthrow of the parliamentary regime in Iran in 1953, in this case concern that independence in Iran might inspire similar developments in Egypt. Such concerns surely were a factor in the launching of the torture of Cuba in fear that its “successful defiance” of the ruler of the hemisphere might inspire others. The war against Indochina began with similar concerns, and there are many other cases.
DB: Can the Iran deal—JCPOA—be resurrected? Should it be?
NC: It should, but for once I agree with Trump: it should be improved. How? A major improvement would be to institute a nuclear weapons–free zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East, with an inspection regime that can be quite effective, as the record of the JCPOA reveals. That would eliminate any concern over allegations of Iran’s nuclear-weapons ambitions. And it shouldn’t be hard to achieve.
The Arab states have long been strong supporters of the idea, as has Iran. The former non-aligned countries and all others that have taken any stand also support the idea. There is one crucial exception standing in opposition to the idea: the United States, which regularly vetoes the proposal when it comes up at the NPT review sessions. The most recent time the US opposed was in 2015 under Obama.
The reasons are no secret. A nuclear weapons–free zone in the Middle East would require inspection and monitoring of Israel’s extensive nuclear programs, and that’s verboten. Worse yet, it would require the US to recognize that Israel’s programs exist, thus calling into operation the provisions of US law (the Symington Amendment) that ban US aid to countries that develop nuclear weapons outside the NPT framework. It would, in short, require the US to recognize that its aid to Israel for the past almost forty years is illegal under US law. That plainly won’t do, so we must face the threat of major war in the Middle East.
To me, this seems to be quite an astonishing situation, as soon as the import sinks in. And the success in totally suppressing it in the context of decades of hysteria about the alleged Iranian threat is a propaganda achievement of impressive dimensions.
These are more examples of matters that would be improper to discuss, along with the fact that the U.S. has a unique responsibility to work to establish a nuclear weapons–free zone in the region. I won’t go into that once again here, since the words fall on deaf ears.