Janine Jackson: August 5 marks the anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, when journalists reported official claims about an unprovoked attack by North Vietnam on American destroyers as absolute truths, ignoring countervailing evidence and opening the floodgates for the bloody escalation of the war, and the deaths of millions of Southeast Asians and over 50,000 Americans. The Johnson administration was able to use media, and their credulity when it comes to official enemies, to put through a plan they intended anyway.
Donald Trump is not obscuring—successfully—that he wants what is blithely referred to as “regime change” in Iran. And media aren’t really hiding that drive either. But is that the same thing as challenging it, or interrogating the premises the White House is lining up—the talk of Iran’s maligned behavior, support for terrorists, pursuit of nuclear weapons, its mistreatment of its own people, and all of that?
Joining us now to talk about how to get off what feels like a path to war with Iran is Trita Parsi, founder and former president of the National Iranian American Council and author of, most recently, Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy. He joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Trita Parsi.
Trita Parsi: Thank you so much.
Well today’s reports have it that Donald Trump says he is willing to meet with Iran’s leadership, without preconditions, whenever they want. That’s a week after tweet-threatening Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani with “consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before.
CNN called Trump’s recent statement “an abrupt shift in tone.” That misses the fact that abrupt shifts in tone are Trump’s tone. But they also called the offer of a meeting an “olive branch.” How appropriate a depiction is that, to your mind, of the present moment?
I think it would be quite inaccurate to call it an “olive branch.” At the end of the day, even if one were to accept it to be a genuine offer—and I think that’s a question mark in and of itself—just the offer of having conversations while the actual policy is to escalate tensions, is to escalate economic pressure, is hardly an olive branch. An olive branch should at least bring forward some element of substance, and there was no such thing in anything that Trump has put on the table thus far.
Well because Trump is Trump, there’s room to say, “Maybe he doesn’t really mean it in Iran; maybe it’s a shiny object.” What are the indicators that this administration truly intends, if not war, the sort of capitulation that is the goal of war?
Well I think the problem is that this administration is not pursuing one foreign policy; it’s pursuing five or six simultaneous foreign policies. So I think there is enough that are out there to be able to say that, “You know what? Perhaps Trump actually is serious.”
He would at least like to have a deal with the Iranians. The idea of him having his name on the deal, and the idea of him being able to say that it was a better deal than that of the previous administration, certainly is attractive to him. But is that consistent with the approach that is being pursued by John Bolton and by Pompeo, etc.? And the many actual things that are taking place right now, in the manner in which the Trump administration is really undermining the Iranian economy. Reuters have reported that US officials have said that their objective is to foment unrest in Iran and we are seeing unrest in Iran.
So mindful of the fact that this is an administration that has several simultaneous foreign policies, it makes it very difficult to be able to determine which one is the one that actually counts.
Right, right. Well every time I hear that Trump or the United States are deeply concerned, or primarily concerned, with Iran’s mistreatment of its own people, I sort of can’t believe it’s being reported without a laugh track. But you just talked about actual effects inside Iran, even if it sounds like it’s just rhetoric, or it’s just saber-rattling, there are actions here and they’re having an effect inside Iran. What have been some of the effects within Iran of Trump’s words and actions?
Well even from the very moment he came into office, he has been undermining the nuclear deal and creating so much uncertainty as to whether it would survive or not, that even before he actually pulled out of the deal, he was in violation of the deal, and he was making sure that European and other businesses were either not going into the market, or starting to get of the Iranian market. And part of the reason why this is important is because a big part of the nuclear deal was that the Iranians would agree to the restrictions to their nuclear program in return for sanctions relief. Trump was undermining and sabotaging the sanctions relief. In fact, the uncertainty that he injected into the atmosphere was, in and of itself, a de facto sanction. And that has contributed—it’s not the sole cause, but it certainly has been a major cause—as to why the Iranian economy is doing as badly as it is right now. There is very likely some form of currency manipulation taking place as well, that is causing the Iranian currency to drop at a very fast pace right now. And these are all part of the policy of pressuring the Iranians in the hope that they will capitulate.
I doubt that they will. I don’t see panic in the Iranian government at this point, although the people are really, really suffering from the combination of Trump’s sanctions, the sabotage of the nuclear deal, the Iranian government’s own mismanagement and corruption in the economy as well as the political repression that has taken place there.
Well and then for people who are interested in supporting civil society or supporting moderate factions within Iran, what has been the impact, politically, in that sense?
Well if you want to drive things towards a confrontation or even a regime change policy, one of the first things you will do is to deny that there is such a thing as moderates in Iran. You will make the argument that there is no difference between Rouhani and Ahmadinejad, for instance, which I think is a preposterous statement. But that is exactly the thing that John Bolton and Pompeo have been saying, and I think it’s quite clear that their preference is much more of a confrontation with Iran, whether it’s a military one or whether it is regime destabilization or regime change, and that Trump is toying with the idea at least, of having some form of a summit with Iran. He seems to have fallen in love with the idea of doing summits.
But these are contradictory policies and I think it is causing a lot of confusion. In Iran, they don’t know which policy actually is the policy, and whether Trump even is capable of steering this ship and not be undermined by his own cabinet members.
On Democracy Now back in May, you said “Pompeo and Bolton have made the choice for the international community much, much easier. Either you collaborate with the Trump administration and go along with these sanctions, walk away from this nuclear deal and speed up this march toward war—or you resist.” What does that resistance look like?
Well first of all, I think there needs to be a much stronger of a public—and an international—outcry against the effort of undermining the nuclear deal. Now key leader Europeans and others have spoken out, they’re trying to do whatever they can to make sure that the deal survives, but I think more should be done, and more is needed to be done. Because at the end of the day, if there is some form of a confrontation between the United States and Iran, that devastating effects will be of a completely different magnitude than the devastating effects of the Iraq war. And we are now, 17 years after the Iraq war still—17, 15 years—still feeling the very negative repercussions of that, both in the US as well as in the region.
Well I fear, as I sort of indicated, that media can, editorially, reject the kind of picture, the idea of war, even the idea of pulling out of the nuclear agreement—which most major media in this country did oppose that—and still somehow not root out these underlying myths, like Iran’s ceaseless and vigorous pursuit of nuclear weapons for example, which newspapers in this country keep having to run corrections on, you know, they keep asserting it and then having to take it back, or Iran’s unique involvement in regional wars, for example. These things kind of lay there, like tools, waiting to be picked up as long as media don’t really interrogate them to the root.
Absolutely and I think so. One of them that are very, very common is the idea that the Iranians are the only ones pursuing a policy in the region, that have an interventionist character to it. That key describes almost every country in the region. That is not to give the Iranians a pass for what they’re doing, but the singular focus on them actually reveals more of our unwillingness to realize and recognize and tell our public that this is actually a problem that not only is shared by everyone in the region, but the United States itself has actually been playing a significant role in this.
Whatever the Iranians have done to destabilize the region, it does not in any way, shape or form, come anywhere near the destabilizing effect that the Iraq war has had on the region as a whole. That is the most destabilizing event of the past 25 years in the Middle East. And that was not Iran, that was the United States.
Well let me just ask you, finally, about media. You know, I’m not sure how much foreign policy relies on public opinion. I think that relationship is indirect, to be generous. But I do think media are very powerful in telling us, for example, that Iran is one thing—you know, without further breakdown or elaboration—and then that US interests in Iran somehow mean something that the US public is going to benefit from. And I just wonder what you would like to see journalists—it’s not that they’re not going to be covering it; we’re probably going to be seeing stories pretty much every day—what would you like to see journalists doing more of, or less of perhaps, as we go forward in this very delicate and dangerous conversation between the US and Iran?
Well one thing I would very much like to see is that we do hear oftentimes that allies of the United States in the region would like to see the United States intervene here or intervene there. Right now the Israelis and the Saudis have been pushing very hard for a very, very tough line against Iran; they would like to see the United States to do something that would shift the balance of power in the region away from Iran and towards Saudi Arabia and Israel.
If you are sitting in Riyadh, if you’re sitting in Tel Aviv, I understand why that is attractive to you; I understand why you would think that that lies in your national interests. What I don’t understand is that media doesn’t ask the question, “OK, how did this lie in America’s national interest;” actually have a conversation about this, rather than automatically assuming that whatever the Saudis or the Israelis or other US allies in the region want automatically means that is also compatible with US interests.
We’ve been speaking with Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council. You can find them online at NIACouncil.org. Trita Parsi, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
Thank you so much for having me.