On Iran, Iraq, and the Rest of the World
Noam Chomsky interviewed by Michael Shank
Foreign Policy in Focus, February 16, 2007
Shank: With similar nuclear developments in North Korea and Iran, why has the United States pursued direct diplomacy with North Korea but refuses to do so with Iran?

Chomsky: To say that the United States has pursued diplomacy with North Korea is a little bit misleading. It did under the Clinton administration, though neither side completely lived up to their obligations. Clinton didnít do what was promised, nor did North Korea, but they were making progress. So when Bush came into the presidency, North Korea had enough uranium or plutonium for maybe one or two bombs, but then very limited missile capacity. During the Bush years itís exploded. The reason is, he immediately canceled the diplomacy and heís pretty much blocked it ever since.

They made a very substantial agreement in September 2005 in which North Korea agreed to eliminate its enrichment programs and nuclear development completely. In return the United States agreed to terminate the threats of attack and to begin moving towards the planning for the provision of a light water reactor, which had been promised under the framework agreement. But the Bush administration instantly undermined it. Right away, they canceled the international consortium that was planning for the light water reactor, which was a way of saying weíre not going to agree to this agreement. A couple of days later they started attacking the financial transactions of various banks. It was timed in such a way to make it clear that the United States was not going to move towards its commitment to improve relations. And of course it never withdrew the threats. So that was the end of the September 2005 agreement.

That one is now coming back, just in the last few days. The way itís portrayed in the U.S. media is, as usual with the governmentís party line, that North Korea is now perhaps a little more amenable to accept the September 2005 proposal. So thereís some optimism. If you go across the Atlantic, to the Financial Times, to review the same events they point out that an embattled Bush administration, itís their phrase, needs some kind of victory, so maybe itíll be willing to move towards diplomacy. Itís a little more accurate I think if you look at the background.

But there is some minimal sense of optimism about it. If you look back over the recordóand North Korea is a horrible place nobody is arguing about thatóon this issue theyíve been pretty rational. Itís been a kind of tit-for-tat history. If the United States is accommodating, the North Koreans become accommodating. If the United States is hostile, they become hostile. Thatís reviewed pretty well by Leon Sigal, whoís one of the leading specialists on this, in a recent issue of Current History. But thatís been the general picture and weíre now at a place where there could be a settlement on North Korea.

Thatís much less significant for the United States than Iran. The Iranian issue I donít think has much to do with nuclear weapons frankly. Nobody is saying Iran should have nuclear weapons Ėnor should anybody else. But the point in the Middle East, as distinct from North Korea, is that this is center of the worldís energy resources. Originally the British and secondarily the French had dominated it, but after the Second World War, itís been a U.S. preserve. Thatís been an axiom of U.S. foreign policy, that it must control Middle East energy resources. It is not a matter of access as people often say. Once the oil is on the seas it goes anywhere. In fact if the United States used no Middle East oil, itíd have the same policies. If we went on solar energy tomorrow, itíd keep the same policies. Just look at the internal record, or the logic of it, the issue has always been control. Control is the source of strategic power.

Dick Cheney declared in Kazakhstan or somewhere that control over pipeline is a ďtool of intimidation and blackmail.Ē When we have control over the pipelines itís a tool of benevolence. If other countries have control over the sources of energy and the distribution of energy then it is a tool of intimidation and blackmail exactly as Cheney said. And thatís been understood as far back as George Kennan and the early post-war days when he pointed out that if the United States controls Middle East resources itíll have veto power over its industrial rivals. He was speaking particularly of Japan but the point generalizes.

So Iran is a different situation. Itís part of the major energy system of the world.

Shank: So when the United States considers a potential invasion you think itís under the premise of gaining control? That is what the United States will gain from attacking Iran?

Chomsky: There are several issues in the case of Iran. One is simply that it is independent and independence is not tolerated. Sometimes itís called successful defiance in the internal record. Take Cuba. A very large majority of the U.S. population is in favor of establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba and has been for a long time with some fluctuations. And even part of the business world is in favor of it too. But the government wonít allow it. Itís attributed to the Florida vote but I donít think thatís much of an explanation. I think it has to do with a feature of world affairs that is insufficiently appreciated. International affairs is very much run like the mafia. The godfather does not accept disobedience, even from a small storekeeper who doesnít pay his protection money. You have to have obedience otherwise the idea can spread that you donít have to listen to the orders and it can spread to important places.

If you look back at the record, what was the main reason for the U.S. attack on Vietnam? Independent development can be a virus that can infect others. Thatís the way itís been put, Kissinger in this case, referring to Allende in Chile. And with Cuba itís explicit in the internal record. Arthur Schlesinger, presenting the report of the Latin American Study Group to incoming President Kennedy, wrote that the danger is the spread of the Castro idea of taking matters into your own hands, which has a lot of appeal to others in the same region that suffer from the same problems. Later internal documents charged Cuba with successful defiance of U.S. policies going back 150 years Ė to the Monroe Doctrine -- and that canít be tolerated. So thereís kind of a state commitment to ensuring obedience.

Going back to Iran, itís not only that it has substantial resources and that itís part of the worldís major energy system but it also defied the United States. The United States, as we know, overthrew the parliamentary government, installed a brutal tyrant, was helping him develop nuclear power, in fact the very same programs that are now considered a threat were being sponsored by the U.S. government, by Cheney, Wolfowitz, Kissinger, and others, in the 1970s, as long as the Shah was in power. But then the Iranians overthrew him, and they kept U.S. hostages for several hundred days. And the United States immediately turned to supporting Saddam Hussein and his war against Iran as a way of punishing Iran. The United States is going to continue to punish Iran because of its defiance. So thatís a separate factor.

And again, the will of the U.S. population and even US business is considered mostly irrelevant. Seventy five percent of the population here favors improving relations with Iran, instead of threats. But this is disregarded. We donít have polls from the business world, but itís pretty clear that the energy corporations would be quite happy to be given authorization to go back into Iran instead of leaving all that to their rivals. But the state wonít allow it. And it is setting up confrontations right now, very explicitly. Part of the reason is strategic, geo-political, economic, but part of the reason is the mafia complex. They have to be punished for disobeying us.

Shank: Venezuela has been successfully defiant with Chavez making a swing towards socialism. Where are they on our list?

Chomsky: Theyíre very high. The United States sponsored and supported a military coup to overthrow the government. In fact, thatís its last, most recent effort in what used to be a conventional resort to such measures.

Shank: But why havenít we turned our sights more toward Venezuela?

Chomsky: Oh theyíre there. Thereís a constant stream of abuse and attack by the government and therefore the media, who are almost reflexively against Venezuela. For several reasons. Venezuela is independent. Itís diversifying its exports to a limited extent, instead of just being dependent on exports to the United States. And itís initiating moves toward Latin American integration and independence. Itís what they call a Bolivarian alternative and the United States doesnít like any of that.

This again is defiance of U.S. policies going back to the Monroe Doctrine. Thereís now a standard interpretation of this trend in Latin America, another kind of party line. Latin America is all moving to the left, from Venezuela to Argentina with rare exceptions, but thereís a good left and a bad left. The good left is Garcia and Lula, and then thereís the bad left which is Chavez, Morales, maybe Correa. And thatís the split.

In order to maintain that position, itís necessary to resort to some fancy footwork. For example, itís necessary not to report the fact that when Lula was re-elected in October, his foreign trip and one of his first acts was to visit Caracas to support Chavez and his electoral campaign and to dedicate a joint Venezuelan-Brazilian project on the Orinoco River, to talk about new projects and so on. Itís necessary not to report the fact that a couple of weeks later in Cochabamba, Bolivia, which is the heart of the bad guys, there was a meeting of all South American leaders. There had been bad blood between Chavez and Garcia, but it was apparently patched up. They laid plans for pretty constructive South American integration, but that just doesnít fit the U.S. agenda. So it wasnít reported.

Shank: How is the political deadlock in Lebanon impacting the U.S. governmentís decision to potentially go to war with Iran? Is there a relationship at all?

Chomsky: Thereís a relationship. I presume part of the reason for the U.S.-Israel invasion of Lebanon in Julyóand it is US-Israeli, the Lebanese are correct in calling it thatópart of the reason I suppose was that Hezbollah is considered a deterrent to a potential U.S.-Israeli attack on Iran. It had a deterrent capacity, i.e. rockets. And the goal I presume was to wipe out the deterrent so as to free up the United States and Israel for an eventual attack on Iran. Thatís at least part of the reason. The official reason given for the invasion canít be taken seriously for a moment. Thatís the capture of two Israeli soldiers and the killing of a couple others. For decades Israel has been capturing, and kidnapping Lebanese and Palestinian refugees on the high seas, from Cyprus to Lebanon, killing them in Lebanon, bringing them to Israel, holding them as hostages. Itís been going on for decades, has anybody called for an invasion of Israel?

Of course Israel doesnít want any competition in the region. But thereís no principled basis for the massive attack on Lebanon, which was horrendous. In fact, one of the last acts of the U.S.-Israeli invasion, right after the ceasefire was announced before it was implemented, was to saturate much of the south with cluster bombs. Thereís no military purpose for that, the war was over, the ceasefire was coming.

UN de-mining groups that are working there say that the scale is unprecedented. Itís much worse than any other place theyíve worked: Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, anywhere. There are supposed to be about one million bomblets left there. A large percentage of them donít explode until you pick them up, a child picks them up, or a farmer hits it with a hoe or something. So what it does basically is make the south uninhabitable until the mining teams, for which the United States and Israel donít contribute, clean it up. This is arable land. It means that farmers canít go back; it means that it may undermine a potential Hezbollah deterrent. They apparently have pretty much withdrawn from the south, according to the UN.

You canít mention Hezbollah in the U.S. media without putting in the context of ďIranian-supported Hezbollah.Ē Thatís its name. Its name is Iranian-supported Hezbollah. It gets Iranian support. But you can mention Israel without saying US-supported Israel. So this is more tacit propaganda. The idea that Hezbollah is acting as an agent of Iran is very dubious. Itís not accepted by specialists on Iran or specialists on Hezbollah. But itís the party line. Or sometimes you can put in Syria, i.e. ďSyrian-supported Hezbollah,Ē but since Syria is of less interest now you have to emphasize Iranian support.

Shank: How can the U.S. government think an attack on Iran is feasible given troop availability, troop capacity, and public sentiment?

Chomsky: As far as Iím aware, the military in the United States thinks itís crazy. And from whatever leaks we have from intelligence, the intelligence community thinks itís outlandish, but not impossible. If you look at people who have really been involved in the Pentagonís strategic planning for years, people like Sam Gardiner, they point out that there are things that possibly could be done.

I donít think any of the outside commentators at least as far as Iím aware have taken very seriously the idea of bombing nuclear facilities. They say if there will be bombing itíll be carpet bombing. So get the nuclear facilities but get the rest of the country too, with an exception. By accident of geography, the worldís major oil resources are in Shiíite-dominated areas. Iranís oil is concentrated right near the gulf, which happens to be an Arab area, not Persian. Khuzestan is Arab, has been loyal to Iran, fought with Iran not Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. This is a potential source of dissension. I would be amazed if there isnít an attempt going on to stir up secessionist elements in Khuzestan. U.S. forces right across the border in Iraq, including the surge, are available potentially to ďdefendĒ an independent Khuzestan against Iran, which is the way it would be put, if they can carry it off.

Shank: Do you think thatís what the surge was for?

Chomsky: Thatís one possibility. There was a release of a Pentagon war-gaming report, in December 2004, with Gardiner leading it. It was released and published in the Atlantic Monthly. They couldnít come up with a proposal that didnít lead to disaster, but one of the things they considered was maintaining troop presence in Iraq beyond whatís to be used in Iraq for troop replacement and so on, and use them for a potential land move in Iran -- presumably Khuzestan where the oil is. If you could carry that off, you could just bomb the rest of the country to dust.

Again, I would be amazed if there arenít efforts to sponsor secessionist movements elsewhere, among the Azeri population for example. Itís a very complex ethnic mix in Iran; much of the population isnít Persian. There are secessionist tendencies anyway and almost certainly, without knowing any of the facts, the United States is trying to stir them up, to break the country internally if possible. The strategy appears to be: try to break the country up internally, try to impel the leadership to be as harsh and brutal as possible.

Thatís the immediate consequence of constant threats. Everyone knows that. Thatís one of the reasons the reformists, Shirin Ebadi and Akbar Ganji and others, are bitterly complaining about the U.S. threats, that itís undermining their efforts to reform and democratize Iran. But thatís presumably its purpose. Since itís an obvious consequence you have to assume itís the purpose. Just like in law, anticipated consequences are taken as the evidence for intention. And hereís it so obvious you canít seriously doubt it.

So it could be that one strain of the policy is to stir up secessionist movements, particularly in the oil rich regions, the Arab regions near the Gulf, also the Azeri regions and others. Second is to try to get the leadership to be as brutal and harsh and repressive as possible, to stir up internal disorder and maybe resistance. And a third is to try to pressure other countries, and Europe is the most amenable, to join efforts to strangle Iran economically. Europe is kind of dragging its feet but they usually go along with the United States.

The efforts to intensify the harshness of the regime show up in many ways. For example, the West absolutely adores Ahmadinejad. Any wild statement that he comes out with immediately gets circulated in headlines and mistranslated. They love him. But anybody who knows anything about Iran, presumably the editorial offices, knows that he doesnít have anything to do with foreign policy. Foreign policy is in the hands of his superior, the Supreme Leader Khamenei. But they donít report his statements, particularly when his statements are pretty conciliatory. For example, they love when Ahmadinejad says that Israel shouldnít exist, but they donít like it when Khamenei right afterwards says that Iran supports the Arab League position on Israel-Palestine. As far as Iím aware, it never got reported. Actually you could find Khameneiís more conciliatory positions in the Financial Times, but not here. And itís repeated by Iranian diplomats but thatís no good. The Arab League proposal calls for normalization of relations with Israel if it accepts the international consensus of the two-state settlement which has been blocked by the United States and Israel for thirty years. And thatís not a good story, so itís either not mentioned or itís hidden somewhere.

Itís very hard to predict the Bush administration today because theyíre deeply irrational. They were irrational to start with but now theyíre desperate. They have created an unimaginable catastrophe in Iraq. This shouldíve been one of the easiest military occupations in history and they succeeded in turning it into one of the worst military disasters in history. They canít control it and itís almost impossible for them to get out for reasons you canít discuss in the United States because to discuss the reasons why they canít get out would be to concede the reasons why they invaded.

Weíre supposed to believe that oil had nothing to do with it, that if Iraq were exporting pickles or jelly and the center of world oil production were in the South Pacific that the United States wouldíve liberated them anyway. It has nothing to do with the oil, what a crass idea. Anyone with their head screwed on knows that that canít be true. Allowing an independent and sovereign Iraq could be a nightmare for the United States. It would mean that it would be Shiíite-dominated, at least if itís minimally democratic. It would continue to improve relations with Iran, just what the United States doesnít want to see. And beyond that, right across the border in Saudi Arabia where most of Saudi oil is, there happens to be a large Shiíite population, probably a majority.

Moves toward sovereignty in Iraq stimulate pressures first for human rights among the bitterly repressed Shiíite population but also toward some degree of autonomy. You can imagine a kind of a loose Shiíite alliance in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, controlling most of the worldís oil and independent of the United States. And much worse, although Europe can be intimidated by the United States, China canít. Itís one of the reasons, the main reasons, why China is considered a threat. Weíre back to the Mafia principle.

China has been there for 3,000 years, has contempt for the barbarians, is overcoming a century of domination, and simply moves on its own. It does not get intimidated when Uncle Sam shakes his fist. Thatís scary. In particular, itís dangerous in the case of the Middle East. China is the center of the Asian energy security grid, which includes the Central Asian states and Russia. India is also hovering around the edge, South Korea is involved, and Iran is an associate member of some kind. If the Middle East oil resources around the Gulf, which are the main ones in the world, if they link up to the Asian grid, the United States is really a second-rate power. A lot is at stake in not withdrawing from Iraq.

Iím sure that these issues are discussed in internal planning. Itís inconceivable that they canít think of this. But itís out of public discussion, itís not in the media, itís not in the journals, itís not in the Baker-Hamilton report. And I think you can understand the reason. To bring up these issues would open the question why the United States and Britain invaded. And that question is taboo.

Itís a principle that anything our leaders do is for noble reasons. It may be mistaken, it may be ugly, but basically noble. And if you bring in normal moderate, conservative, strategic, economic objectives you threatening that principle. Itís remarkable the extent to which itís held. So the original pretexts for the invasion were weapons of mass destruction and ties to al-Qaida that nobody but maybe Wolfowitz or Cheney took seriously. The single question, as they kept reiterating in the leadership, was: will Saddam give up his programs of weapons of mass destruction? The single question was answered a couple of months later, the wrong way. And quickly the party line shifted. In November 2003, Bush announced his freedom agenda: our real goal is to bring democracy to Iraq, to transform the Middle East. That became the party line, instantly.

But itís a mistake to pick out individuals because itís close to universal, even in scholarship. In fact you can even find scholarly articles that begin by giving the evidence that itís complete farce but nevertheless accept it. There was a pretty good study of the freedom agenda in Current History by two scholars and they give the facts. They point out that the freedom agenda was announced on November 2003 after the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, but the freedom agenda is real even if thereís no evidence for it.

In fact, if you look at our policies theyíre the opposite. Take Palestine. There was a free election in Palestine, but it came out the wrong way. So instantly, the United States and Israel with Europe tagging along, moved to punish the Palestinian people, and punish them harshly, because they voted the wrong way in a free election. Thatís accepted here in the West as perfectly normal. That illustrates the deep hatred and contempt for democracy among western elites, so deep-seated they canít even perceive it when itís in front of their eyes. You punish people severely if they vote the wrong way in a free election. Thereís a pretext for that too, repeated every day: Hamas must agree to first recognize Israel, second to end all violence, third to accept past agreements. Try to find a mention of the fact that the United States and Israel reject all three of those. They obviously donít recognize Palestine, they certainly donít withdraw the use of violence or the threat of it -- in fact they insist on it -- and they donít accept past agreements, including the road map.

I suspect one of the reasons why Jimmy Carterís book has come under such fierce attack is because itís the first time, I think, in the mainstream, that one can find the truth about the road map. I have never seen anything in the mainstream that discusses the fact that Israel instantly rejected the road map with U.S. support. They formally accepted it but added 14 reservations that totally eviscerated it. It was done instantly. Itís public knowledge, Iíve written about it, talked about it, so have others, but Iíve never seen it mentioned in the mainstream before. And obviously they donít accept the Arab League proposal or any other serious proposal. In fact theyíve been blocking the international consensus on the two-state solution for decades. But Hamas has to accept them.

It really makes no sense. Hamas is a political party and political parties donít recognize other countries. And Hamas itself has made it very clear, they actually carried out a truce for a year and a half, didnít respond to Israeli attacks, and have called for a long-term truce, during which itíd be possible to negotiate a settlement along the lines of the international consensus and the Arab League proposal.

All of this is obvious, itís right on the surface, and thatís just one example of the deep hatred of democracy on the part of western elites. Itís a striking example but you can add case after case. Yet, the president announced the freedom agenda and if the dear leader said something, itís got to be true, kind of North Korean style. Therefore thereís a freedom agenda even if thereís a mountain of evidence against it, the only evidence for it is in words, even apart from the timing.

Shank: In the 2008 presidential election, how will the candidates approach Iran? Do you think Iran will be a deciding factor in the elections?

Chomsky: What theyíre saying so far is not encouraging. I still think, despite everything, that the US is very unlikely to attack Iran. It could be a huge catastrophe; nobody knows what the consequences would be. I imagine that only an administration thatís really desperate would resort to that. But if the Democratic candidates are on the verge of winning the election, the administration is going to be desperate. It still has the problem of Iraq: canít stay in, and canít get out.

Shank: The Senate Democrats canít seem to achieve consensus on this issue.

Chomsky: I think thereís a reason for it. The reason is just thinking through the consequences of allowing an independent, partially democratic Iraq. The consequences are nontrivial. We may decide to hide our heads in the sand and pretend we canít think it through because we cannot allow the question of why the United States invaded to open, but thatís very self-destructive.

Shank: Is there any connection to this conversation and why we cannot find the political will and momentum to enact legislation that would reduce C02 emissions levels, institute a cap-and-trade system, etc.?

Chomsky: Itís perfectly clear why the United States didnít sign the Kyoto Protocol. Again, thereís overwhelming popular support for signing, in fact itís so strong that a majority of Bush voters in 2004 thought that he was in favor of the Kyoto Protocol, itís such an obvious thing to support. Popular support for alternative energy has been very high for years. But it harms corporate profits. After all, thatís the Administrationís constituency.

I remember talking to, 40 years ago, one of the leading people in the government who was involved in arms control, pressing for arms control measures, dťtente, and so on. Heís very high up, and we were talking about whether arms control could succeed. And only partially as a joke he said, ďWell it might succeed if the high tech industry makes more profit from arms control than it can make from weapons-related research and production. If we get to that tipping point maybe arms control will work.Ē He was partially joking but thereís a truth that lies behind it.

Shank: How do we move forward on climate change without beggaring the South?

Chomsky: Unfortunately, the poor countries, the south, are going to suffer the worst according to most projectionsóand that being so, it undermines support in the north for doing much. Look at the ozone story. As long as it was the southern hemisphere that was being threatened, there was very little talk about it. When it was discovered in the north, very quickly actions were taken to do something about it. Right now thereís discussion of putting serious effort into developing a malaria vaccine, because global warming might extend malaria to the rich countries, so something should be done about it.

Same thing on health insurance. Hereís an issue where, for the general population, itís been the leading domestic issue, or close to it, for years. And thereís a consensus for a national healthcare system on the model of other industrial countries, maybe expanding Medicare to everyone or something like that. Well, thatís off the agenda, nobody can talk about that. The insurance companies donít like it, the financial industry doesnít like and so on.

Now thereís a change taking place. Whatís happening is that manufacturing industries are beginning to turn to support for it because theyíre being undermined by the hopelessly inefficient U.S. healthcare system. Itís the worst in the industrial world by far, and they have to pay for it. Since itís employer-compensated, in part, their production costs are much higher than those competitors who have a national healthcare system. Take GM. If it produces the same car in Detroit and in Windsor across the border in Canada, it saves, I forget the number, I think over $1000 with the Windsor production because thereís a national healthcare system, itís much more efficient, itís much cheaper, itís much more effective.

So the manufacturing industry is starting to press for some kind of national healthcare. Now itís beginning to put it on the agenda. It doesnít matter if the population wants it. What 90% of the population wants would be kind of irrelevant. But if part of the concentration of corporate capital that basically runs the country -- another thing weíre not allowed to say but itís obvious -- if part of that sector becomes in favor then the issue moves onto the political agenda.

Shank: So how does the south get its voice heard on the international agenda? Is the World Social Forum a place for it?

Chomsky: The World Social Forum is very important but of course that canít be covered in the West. In fact, I remember reading an article, I think in the Financial Times, about the two major forums that were taking place. One was the World Economic Forum in Davos and a second was a forum in Herzeliyah in Israel, a right wing forum in Herzeliyah. Those were the two forums. Of course there was also the World Social Forum in Nairobi but thatís only tens of thousands of people from around the world.

Shank: With the trend towards vilifying the G77 at the UN one wonders where the developing world can effectively voice their concerns.

Chomsky: The developing world voice can be amplified enormously by support from the wealthy and the privileged, otherwise itís very likely to be marginalized, as in every other issue.

Shank: So itís up to us.