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

The Trump administration is pursuing catastrophe to protect U.S. dominance.

Noam Chomsky May 21, 2019

National Security Adviser John Bolton listens to U.S. President Donald Trump speak in the Oval Office of the White House April 9, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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.

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.

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.

Noam Chom­sky is Insti­tute Pro­fes­sor and Pro­fes­sor of Lin­guis­tics (Emer­i­tus) at the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy, and the author of dozens of books on U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy. His most recent book is Who Rules the World? from Met­ro­pol­i­tan Books.
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