Noam Chomsky: Trump Is Trying to Exploit Tension With Iran for 2020

“Any concern about Iranian weapons of mass destruction could be alleviated by the single means of heeding Iran’s call to establish a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone in the Middle East,” says legendary public intellectual Noam Chomsky, but that isn’t stopping the Trump administration from concocting stories about Iran threatening to “conquer the world” in order to escalate tensions and thereby strengthen Trump’s hand going into the 2020 election.

In this exclusive transcript of a conversation aired on Alternative Radio, Noam Chomsky — the brilliant MIT professor and linguist who in one index is ranked as the eighth most cited person in history, right up there with Shakespeare and Marx — discusses Iran’s military deterrence strategy and the actions taken by U.S. leaders who cannot countenance what the State Department describes as Iran’s “successful defiance.”

David Barsamian: Let’s talk about Iran, in particular, locating it in post-1945 U.S. foreign policy. Washington laid out its Grand Area Strategy and Iran takes on enormous significance because of its oil wealth.

Noam Chomsky: Oil wealth and strategic position. It was taken for granted in the Grand Area Strategy planning that the U.S. would dominate the Middle East, what Eisenhower called the “strategically most important part of the world,” a material prize without any analogue.

The basic idea of the early stage of the Grand Strategy and the early stages of the war were that the U.S. would take over what they called the Grand Area, of course, the Western Hemisphere, the former British Empire and the Far East. They assumed at that time that Germany would probably win the war, so there would be two major powers, one German-based with a lot of Eurasia and the U.S. with this Grand Area. By the time it was clear that the Russians would defeat Germany, after Stalingrad and then the great tank battle in Kursk, the planning was modified, and the idea was that the Grand Area would include as much of Eurasia as possible, of course, maintaining control of Middle East oil resources.

There was a conflict over Iran right at the end of the Second World War. The Russians supported a separatist movement in the north. The British wanted to maintain control. The Russians were essentially expelled. Iran was a client state under British control. There was, however, a nationalist movement, and the Iranian leader, Mohammad Mossadegh, led a movement to try to nationalize Iranian oil.

The British, obviously, didn’t want that. They tried to stop this development, but they were in their post-war straits and were unable to do it. They called in the U.S., which basically took the prime role in implementing a military coup which deposed the parliamentary regime and installed the Shah, who was a loyal client. Iran remained one of the pillars of control of the Middle East as long as the Shah remained in power. The Shah had very close relations with Israel, the second pillar of control. They were not formal because theoretically, the Islamic states were supposed to be opposed to Israeli occupation, but the relations were extremely close. They were revealed in detail after the Shah fell. The third pillar of U.S. control was Saudi Arabia, so there was kind of a tacit alliance between Iran and Israel and, even more tacit, Israel and Saudi Arabia, under U.S. aegis.

In 1979, the Shah was overthrown. The U.S. at first considered trying to implement a military coup that would restore the Shah’s regime. That didn’t work. Then came the hostage crisis. Iraq, shortly after — under Saddam Hussein — invaded Iran. The U.S. strongly supported the Iraqi invasion, finally even pretty much intervening directly to protect Iraqi shipping in the Gulf. A U.S. missile cruiser shot down a civilian Iranian airliner, killing 290 people in commercial air space. Finally, the U.S. intervention pretty much convinced the Iranians, if not to capitulate, then to accept an arrangement far less than they hoped after the Iraqi aggression. It was a murderous war. Saddam used chemical weapons. The U.S. pretended not to know about it — in fact, tried to blame Iran for it. But there was finally a peace agreement.

The U.S. at once turned to sanctions against Iran and severe threats. This was now the first Bush. His administration also invited Iraqi nuclear engineers to the U.S. for advanced training in nuclear weapons production, which, of course, was a serious threat to Iran.

It’s kind of ironic that when Iran was a loyal client state under the Shah in the 1970s, the Shah and other high officials made it very clear that they were working to develop nuclear weapons. At that time, Kissinger and Rumsfeld and Cheney were pressuring American universities, primarily MIT — there was a big flap on campus about this — to bring Iranian nuclear engineers to the U.S. for training, though, of course, they knew they were developing nuclear weapons. Actually, Kissinger was asked later why he changed his attitude toward Iranian nuclear weapons development in later years when, of course, it became a big issue, and he said, very simply, they were an ally then.

The sanctions against Iran got harsher, more intense. There were negotiations about dealing with the Iranian nuclear programs. According to U.S. intelligence, after 2003, there was no evidence that Iran had nuclear weapons programs, but probably they were developing what’s called a nuclear capability, which many countries have; that is, the capacity to produce nuclear weapons if the occasion arises. As Iran was rapidly increasing its capacities, more centrifuges and so on, Obama finally agreed to the joint agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, in 2015.

Since then, according to U.S. intelligence, Iran has completely lived up to it. There is no indication of any Iranian violation. The Trump administration pulled out of it and has now sharply escalated the sanctions against Iran. Now there is a new pretext: It’s not nuclear weapons; it’s that Iran is meddling in the region.

Unlike the U.S.

Or every other country. In fact, what they’re saying is Iran is attempting to extend its influence in the region. It has to become what Secretary of State Pompeo called a “normal country,” like us, Israel and others, and never try to expand its influence. Essentially, it’s saying, just capitulate. Pompeo particularly has said that U.S. sanctions are designed to try to reduce Iranian oil exports to zero. The U.S. has extraterritorial influence: It forces other countries to accept U.S. sanctions under threat that they will be excluded from the U.S. market and, in particular, from financial markets, which are dominated by the U.S. So the U.S., as the world’s leading rogue state, enforces its own unilateral decisions on others, thanks to its power. Bolton, of course, as he has said, just wants to bomb them.

My speculation is that a lot of the fist-waving at the moment is probably for two reasons: one, to try to keep Iran off balance and intimidated, and also to intimidate others so that they don’t try to interfere with U.S. sanctions; but I think it’s largely domestic. If the Trump strategists are thinking clearly — and I assume they are — the best way to approach the 2020 election is to concoct major threats all over: immigrants from Central America coming here to commit genocide against white Americans, Iran about to conquer the world, China doing this and that. But we will be saved by our bold leader with the orange hair, the one person who is capable of defending us from all of these terrible threats, not like these women who “won’t know how to do anything,” or “sleepy” Joe or “crazy” Bernie. That’s the best way to move into an election. That means maintaining tensions, but not intending to actually go to war.

Unfortunately, it’s bad enough in itself. We have absolutely zero right to impose any sanctions on Iran. None. It’s taken for granted in all discussion that somehow this is legitimate. There is absolutely no basis for that. But also, tensions can easily blow up. Anything could happen. An American ship in the Gulf could hit a mine, let’s say, and some commander would say, “OK, let’s retaliate against an Iranian installation,” and then an Iranian ship could shoot a missile. Pretty soon, you’re off and running. So, it could blow up.

Meanwhile, there are horrible effects all over the place, the worst in Yemen, where our client, Saudi Arabia, with strong U.S. support — arms, intelligence — along with its brutal UAE ally, is in fact creating what the UN has described as “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.” It’s pretty clear; it’s not really controversial what’s happening. If there is a confrontation with Iran, the first victim will be Lebanon. As soon as there’s any threat of war, Israel will certainly be unwilling to face the danger of Hezbollah missiles, which are probably scattered all around Lebanon by now. So it’s very likely that the first step prior to direct conflict with Iran would be essentially to wipe out Lebanon or something like it.

And those missiles in Lebanon are from Iran.

They come from Iran, yes.

So, what is Iran’s strategy in the region? You hear this term, the “Shi’a arc,” the Shi’a population in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon and Syria.

The Shi’a arc is a Jordanian concoction. Of course, Iran, like every other power, is trying to extend its influence. It’s doing it, typically, in the Shi’a areas, naturally. It’s a Shi’ite state. In Lebanon, we don’t have detailed records because they can’t take a census — it would break down the fragile relationship that exists there in the sectarian system — but it’s pretty clear that the Shi’ite population is the largest of the sectarian groups.

They have a political representative, Hezbollah, which is in the parliament. Hezbollah developed as a guerilla force. Israel was occupying southern Lebanon after its 1982 invasion. This was in violation of U.N. orders, but they pretty much stayed there, in part through a proxy army. Hezbollah finally drove Israel out. That turned them into a “terrorist force.” You’re not allowed to drive out the invading army of a client state, obviously.

Since then, Hezbollah serves Iranian interests. It sent fighters to Syria, who are a large part of the support for the Assad government. Technically, that’s quite legal. That was the recognized government. It’s a rotten government, so you can, on moral grounds, say you shouldn’t do it, but you can’t say on legal grounds you shouldn’t. The U.S. was openly trying to overthrow the government. It’s not secret. Finally, it became clear that the Assad government would control Syria. There are a few pockets still left unresolved, the Kurdish areas and others, but it’s pretty much won the war, which means that Russia and Iran have the dominant role in Syria.

In Iraq, there is a Shi’ite majority, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq pretty much handed the country over to Iran. It had been a Sunni dictatorship, but, of course, with the Sunni dictatorship destroyed, the Shi’a population gained a substantial role. So, for example, when ISIS [also known as Daesh] came pretty close to conquering Iraq, it was the Shi’ite militias that drove them back, with Iranian support. The U.S. participated, but secondarily. Now they have a strong role in the government. In the U.S., this is considered more Iranian meddling. But I think Iran’s strategy is pretty straightforward: It’s to expand their influence as they can in the region.

As far as their military posture is concerned, I don’t see any reason to question the analysis of U.S. intelligence. It seems pretty accurate. In their presentations to Congress, they point out that Iran has very low military expenditures by the standards of the region, much less than the other countries — dwarfed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, of course Israel — and that its military doctrine is essentially defensive, designed to deter an invasion long enough for diplomatic efforts to be initiated. According to U.S. intelligence, if they have a nuclear weapons program — which we have no reason to believe they do, but if they do — it would be part of their deterrent strategy.

That’s the real Iranian threat: It has a deterrent strategy. For the states that want to be free to rampage in the region, deterrence is an existential threat. You don’t want to be deterred; you want to be able to do what you would like. That’s primarily the U.S. and Israel, who want to be free to act forcefully in the region without any deterrent. To be accurate, that’s the real Iranian threat. That’s what the State Department calls “successful defiance.” That’s the term the State Department used to explain back in the early 1960s why we cannot tolerate the Castro regime, because of its “successful defiance” of the U.S. That’s absolutely intolerable if you intend to be able to rule the world, by force, if necessary.

And it seems a component of that is the threat of a good example.

There’s also that, but I don’t think that’s true in the case of Iran. It’s a miserable government. The Iran government is a threat to its own people. I think that’s fair enough to say. And it’s not a real model for anyone. Cuba was quite different. In fact, if you look back in the early 1960s at the internal documents that have been declassified, there was great concern that — as Arthur Schlesinger, Kennedy’s close adviser, particularly on Latin American affairs, said — the problem with Cuba is “the spread of the Castro idea of taking matters into one’s own hands,” which has great appeal to others in the region who are suffering from the same circumstances as Cuba was under the U.S.-backed Batista regime.

That’s dangerous. The idea that people have the right to take things into their own hands and separate themselves from U.S. domination is not going to be acceptable. That’s successful defiance.

Another theme that plays out post-1945 is Washington’s resistance to independent nationalism.

Yes. But that’s automatic for a hegemonic power. The same with Britain, when it was running most of the world; the same with France and its domains. You don’t want independent nationalism. In fact, it’s often made quite explicit. Right after the Second World War, when the U.S. was beginning to try to organize the post-war world, the first concern was to make sure that the Western Hemisphere was totally under control.

In February 1945, the U.S. called a hemispheric conference in Chapultepec, Mexico. The main theme of the conference was precisely what you described: It was to end any kind of “economic nationalism.” That was the phrase that was used. The State Department internally warned that Latin American countries are infected — I’m virtually quoting now — “by the idea of a new nationalism,” which meant that the people of the country should be the first beneficiaries of the country’s resources. Obviously, that’s totally intolerable. The first beneficiaries have to be U.S. investors. That’s the philosophy of the new nationalism, and that has to be crushed. And the Chapultepec conference, in fact, made it explicit that economic nationalism would not be tolerated.

So, for example, to take a case that was discussed, Brazil, a major country, could produce steel, but not the high-quality steel of the kind that the U.S. would specialize in. Incidentally, there is, as always, one unmentioned exception to the rules. The U.S. is permitted to follow policies of economic nationalism. In fact, the U.S. was pouring government resources massively into development of what became the high-tech economy of the future: computers, the internet, and so on. That’s the usual exception. But for the others, they can’t succumb to this idea that the first beneficiaries of a country’s resources should be the people of that country. That’s intolerable. This is framed in all sorts of nice rhetoric about free markets and so on and so forth, but the meaning is quite explicit.

You’ve often quoted George Kennan, the venerated State Department official, in his famous 1948 memo: “We have 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population…. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity.” That was 1948. I was interested to discover that two years later, he made a statement about Latin America to the effect of, “The protection of our raw materials” in the rest of the world, particularly in Latin America, would trump concern over what he called “police repression.”

He said police repression may be necessary to maintain control over “our resources.” Remember that he was at the dovish extreme of the policy spectrum, in fact, so much so that he was kicked out about that time and replaced by a hardliner, Paul Nitze. He was considered “too soft” for this tough world. His estimate of the U.S. having 50 percent of the world’s resources is probably exaggerated now that more careful work has been done. The statistics aren’t great for that period, but there are studies. It was probably less than that. However, it may be true today in a different sense. In the contemporary period of globalization, global supply chains, national accounts, meaning the country’s share of global GDP, is much less relevant than it used to be.

A much more relevant measure of a country’s power is the wealth controlled by domestically based multinational corporations. There, what you find is that U.S. corporations own about 50 percent of world wealth. Now, there are good statistics. There are studies of this by a very good political economist, Sean Kenji Starrs, who has several articles and a new book coming out on it with extensive details. As he points out, this is a degree of control of the international economy that has absolutely no parallel or counterpart in history, in fact. It will be interesting to see what the impact is of Trump’s wrecking ball on all of this, which is breaking the system of global supply chains that have been carefully developed over the years. It may have some impact. We really don’t know. So far, it’s just harming the global economy.

Getting back to Iran, you mentioned in our book Global Discontents that, “Any concern about Iranian weapons of mass destruction could be alleviated by the single means of heeding Iran’s call to establish a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone in the Middle East.” This is almost on the level of samizdat. It’s barely known or reported on.

It’s not a secret. And it’s not just Iran’s call. This proposal for a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East and extended to WMD-free zone, that actually comes from the Arab states. Egypt and others initiated that back in the early 1990s. They called for a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East. There are such zones that have been established in several parts of the world. It’s kind of interesting to look at them. They aren’t fully operative because the U.S. has not accepted them, but they’re theoretically there. The one for the Middle East would be extremely important.

The Arab states pushed for this for a long time. The nonaligned countries, the G-77 — that’s by now about 130 countries — have called for it strongly. Iran strongly called for it while serving as spokesperson for the G-77. Europe pretty much supports it. Probably not England, but others. In fact, there is almost total global support for it, adding to it an inspection regime of a kind which already exists in Iran. That would essentially eliminate any concern over not only nuclear weapons, but weapons of mass destruction.

There’s only one problem: The U.S. won’t allow it. This comes up regularly at the regular review sessions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the most recent in 2015. Obama blocked it. And everybody knows exactly why. Nobody will say, of course. But if you look at the arms-control journals or professional journals, they’re quite open about it, because it’s obvious. If there were such an agreement, Israel’s nuclear weapons would come under international inspection. The U.S. would be compelled to formally acknowledge that Israel has nuclear weapons. Of course, it knows that it does, everybody does, but you’re not allowed to formally acknowledge it. For a good reason. If you formally acknowledge it, U.S. aid to Israel has to terminate under U.S. law. Of course, you can find ways around it; you can always violate your own laws. But that does become a problem. It would mean that Israel’s weapons would have to be inspected — not just nuclear, but also biological and chemical. That’s intolerable, so we can’t allow that. Therefore, we can’t move toward a WMD-free zone, which would end the problem.

There is another thing that you can only read in samizdat. The U.S. has a special commitment to this, a unique commitment, along with Britain. The reason is that when the U.S. and Britain were planning the invasion of Iraq, they sought desperately to find some legal cover for it so it wouldn’t look like just direct aggression. They appealed to a U.N. Security Council resolution in 1991 which called on Saddam Hussein to end his nuclear weapons programs, which in fact he had done. But the pretext was he hadn’t done it, so he had violated that resolution; therefore, that was supposed to give some legitimacy to the invasion.

If you bother reading that U.N. resolution, when you get down to Article 14, it commits the signers, including the U.S. and Britain, to work for a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East. So the U.S. and Britain have a unique responsibility to do this. Try to find any discussion of this. And, of course, it could resolve whatever problem one thinks there is. In fact, according to U.S. intelligence, there is essentially none.

The real problem is pretty much what U.S. intelligence describes, the Iranian posture of deterrence. That is a real danger and is constantly regarded as an existential threat to Israel and the U.S., which cannot tolerate deterrence.

There are big paydays for a militaristic foreign policy such as the U.S. has. For example, Lee Fang, writing in The Intercept, reports, “Large weapons manufacturers,” like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, “have told their investors that escalating conflict with Iran could be good for business.”

Of course, it is. That’s a factor. I don’t think it’s the major factor, but it certainly is a factor. It’s what’s called “good for the economy” if you can produce material goods that you can sell to other countries. The U.S. is preeminent in military force. That’s its real comparative advantage — military force. Other countries can produce computers and TVs, but the U.S. is the largest arms exporter. Its military budget overwhelms anything in the rest of the world. In fact, it’s almost as large as the rest of the world combined, much larger than other countries’. The U.S. increase in the military budget under Trump — the increase — is greater than the entire Russian military budget. China is way behind. And, of course, the U.S. is way more technologically advanced in military hardware. So that’s the U.S. comparative advantage. You would naturally want to pursue it. But I think the major thing is just ensuring that the world remains pretty much under control.

Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that was aired on Alternative Radio.