We spoke to American linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky in March about the ongoing controversy surrounding Iran and nuclear weapons.
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SG: Over the course of the Obama administration we’ve seen a very strong campaign to isolate Iran emerge as a major component of foreign policy. This in spite of U.S. intelligence reports, among others, that have concluded that the military applications of the nuclear program were stopped years ago. Who benefits from a war with Iran?
I don’t think the United States wants a war with Iran. They may be setting up conditions in which it will happen, but I don’t think they consciously want to have a war. In fact, U.S. military and intelligence seems to be strongly opposed to that. Not because they’re opposed to war, but because they think that the consequences could be quite damaging to the U.S. and its interests.
As for why they’re doing it, there’s an authoritative answer, and no reason not to take it seriously. The answer is given by the U.S. military, by the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence, and the clearest place is in their annual presentations to Congress. They give regular presentations to Congress on the global security situation. Of course, they have long sections on Iran. They explain very clearly what the threat of Iran is: they say that Iran is not a military threat. Iran has very low military expenditures, even by the standards of the region—trivial as compared to the United States. It has very limited capacity to deploy force. Its strategic doctrines are defensive, designed to deter an invasion long enough so that diplomacy will set in.
They say that if they’re developing nuclear weapons capability—big if; as you say, they don’t say that they are—but if they are, it would be a part of their deterrence strategy. Well, a deterrence strategy is intolerable to the United States. If you effectively own the world, at least in your own mind, you cannot accept deterrence.
Then there are other threats. Iran is attempting to expand its influence into neighboring countries, into Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s a name for that: it’s called destabilization. They’re trying to destabilize these countries. When we invade and destroy countries, that’s called stabilization. When they try to expand their political, commercial, and other relations, it’s called destabilization.
The other threat is that they support terrorism. In fact, they’re called the leading supporters of terrorism in the world. Well, “terror” means Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. Now, whatever you think about Hamas and Hezbollah, they happen to be the political forces that essentially won the elections. There was one free election in the Arab world, exactly one: in Palestine in January 2006. The U.S. had called for the election. It was carefully monitored, recognized to be free—but it came out the wrong way. Hamas dominated. That wasn’t supposed to happen.
So the U.S., and Israel of course, instantly turned to punishing the population harshly for voting the wrong way. Europe went along timidly, the way it usually does. It revealed quite clearly the conception of elections and democracy that we have: vote our way and it’s fine; vote the wrong way and we’ll crush you.
What about Hezbollah? Well, Lebanon’s elections are—it has elections. Not the best in the world. But in the last election, which was certainly reasonably free by the standards of the region, the Hezbollah-based coalition won the majority of the votes. Well, the voting system is set up in such a fashion that they didn’t get the majority of the delegates, but they won by approximately the same majority as the year before.
So those are the major political factions. Now, their terrorism, or what we call their terrorism, is rooted in that they grew out of resistance to U.S. and Israeli aggression. Hamas took form during the first intifada as a resistance to Israeli occupation. Hezbollah was formed after the U.S.-backed Israeli invasion of 1982. After a long struggle they finally drove Israel out of Lebanon, which it had been illegally occupying—meaning, in violation of U.N. Security Council orders—for twenty-two years. They drove them out. That’s obviously intolerable—nobody can resist the aggression of the United States and its client.
They do lots of other ugly things which you can point to, but that’s not the reason for the hostility. There are others that are far worse, including us.
SG: China’s relationship with Iran has become very strong. China has exclusive rights to many Iranian oil fields until 2024, as well as state contracts with an estmated worth in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Iran has secured China’s promise to develop these vast regions as though they were China’s own sovereign land. Major General Zhang Zhou Zong’s statement in 2011 that China will not hesitate to protect Iran, even with a third world war, indicates as much. And yet certainly, China doesn’t want an Iraq-style invasion and occupation. Where would China fit into a U.S.-Israeli war with Iran?
First of all, on the last point—the U.S. invasion of Iraq intended to gain privileged access to Iraq’s resources on the part of U.S. energy corporations—in fact, that was stated explicitly—but it failed. The U.S. was defeated in Iraq. They didn’t gain that access and they didn’t gain the rights to maintain military bases, the two main goals of the war. Which were stated explicitly by the end—in the beginning there were various fabrications, but by the end it was stated explicitly in government declarations. It didn’t succeed. They’re still trying, but it didn’t succeed.
Secondly, I don’t think there’s any chance of the United States invading Iran, but if they did the Chinese wouldn’t do a thing. Contrary to statements, they don’t want to be involved in a military confrontation with the United States.
But the main point is that yes, they’re continuing their commercial and other relations with Iran—but so is most of the world. India, for example, has stated very openly that they’re going to reject U.S. and European sanctions to expand their commercial relations with Iran. That means energy, and also building a port in Iran, which for India is intended as a way of gaining access to central Asian resources (including Afghanistan, but mainly central Asia).
China, at the same time, is building a port in Pakistan which will have a straight connection to western China through pipelines. The goal of China is to access Middle East oil without having to go through the Malacca Strait, the region south of China which is the main passage for ships, and which the U.S. very much controls. There’s conflict over that. They want to get it directly, so the port in Pakistan should be the way to do that.
In fact, I should add that China has also negotiated with Israel to buid a high-speed rail line from Haifa to Eilat on the Mediterranean, where there’s also development of substantial natural gas resources. Eilat is on the Red Sea. If that works out—it’s in process—it would mean that China would gain access to the eastern Mediterranean energy resources without going through the Suez Canal.
In many other ways they’re developing an energy security system which, yes, includes Iran. India and Russia are as well. In fact, what’s called the international community—meaning Washington and whoever goes along with it—is quite isolated on this. Turkey, for example, is maintaining and maybe expanding its commercial relations with Iran. There’s almost no support for Washington’s position outside of Europe.
So yes, what you say about China is correct, but that’s most of the world. In fact, the nonaligned countries—most of the world—for years have been vigorously supporting Iran’s right to enrich uranium.
What about the Arab world, right nearby? Well, in fact just a couple of days ago the latest poll of Arab public opinion came out. There have been American-run polls before, and the results are pretty similar, but this was much more interesting because the poll was much more in-depth. I think it was based in Qatar. What they found is what’s been found before: in the Arab world Iran is not regarded as a threat. In this poll, I think five per cent regarded Iran as a threat. Other polls have found maybe ten per cent. What’s regarded as a threat in the Arab world is the United States and Israel—the percentage of people who regard the U.S and Israel as a threat is very high, three quarters or more. In fact the majority of people in the Arab world think the region would be better off if Iran had nuclear weapons to counter this threat. They don’t like Iran—Iran’s quite unpopular—and of course they don’t want nuclear weapons, but those are basically the attitudes. Right before the Arab Spring brokeout, according to U.S. polls in the Arab world, in Egypt, for example, I think about eighty per cent favored Iran developing nuclear weapons—not just enriching uranium, but developing nuclear weapons to offset the U.S.-Israeli threat.
So these are the main reasons why the U.S. and Europe are quite afraid of the Arab Spring and very much opposed to democracy in the region. Because to the extent that democracy functions public opinion has some influence on policy, and obviously they don’t want these to be the policies of the Arab world.
Now, the way that’s reported here is strikingly different. The way it’s reported is, “the Arabs support the United States on Iran.” Which is true of the Arab dictators. But the intensity of the contempt for democracy in the West is so profound that if the dictators support us and the population strongly opposes us, we say the country supports us. When the WikiLeaks exposures came out, one of the ones that got the most publicity said that Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and others support the U.S. on Iran. That meant the dictators support us. But at the very same time, U.S.-run polls were revealing exactly what I said. That barely got any mention in the press. And this latest poll, I haven’t seen a word about it yet, except on Al Jazeera.
So, who supports the West on Iran? Well, its allies. And it’s the same with other issues. Take Libya. The way it’s presented here, the world supported us on the U.S.-British-French intervention in Libya. In reality, almost nobody did. The African Union—it’s an African country—strongly opposed and came out with repeated declarations (never published here, of course) calling for negotiations, diplomacy, peacekeeping missions. The BRICS countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa—took the same position: negotiations, diplomacy. The International Crisis Group, which is the main NGO that monitors these affairs—same position. Turkey’s the same—major regional power, although it’s a NATO power, that at the beginning didn’t want to participate at all, but finally kind of slightly came along. They were all trying to head off a likely humanitarian crisis which they assumed would be the result of intervention and, in fact, took place. Many more people were killed in Libya than in any of the other countries of the region. It ended up pretty brutal and bloody. The final attack on Sirte and Bani Walid happened to be at the base of the largest tribe in Libya, the Warfalla tribe, who were quite bitter about it, and who have since reconquered it and virtually declared autonomy. It’s part of what looks like a possible break-up.
It’s claimed that the U.S., Britain, and France were responding to the plea of the Arab League. Well, there are two things wrong with that. First of all, the Arab League did take a position, but it wasn’t really the full Arab League. The gulf countries, a minority of the Arab League, did call for a no-fly zone. They also called for a no-fly zone over Gaza, so you have to ask what happened to that. And then after the bombing started they kind of drew back from it. Egypt, which is right next door, could’ve participated if they wanted to.
So yes, the West is quite isolated, for pretty good reasons. Now remember, most of the world regards the West as just the old imperial countries. Here our carefully cultivated self-image is that we’re liberators and humanitarians and so on, but that’s not the way the people at the other end of the gun see it.
SG: There are reports that Israel has received a new generation of “bunker buster” bombs from the U.S. in exchange for holding off a unilateral military strike on Iran. These seem specifically designed for attacking Iranian laboratories that are deep underground. As well, Israeli secret forces are widely blamed for the targeted assassination of Iranian scientists inside Iran over the last year. Why is Israel so eager for a military confrontation with Iran? What does Israel specifically gain from this?
What Israel wants is for the United States to attack Iran. In fact, they’re pulling out all the stops to try to convince the United States to do the dirty work for them, for a number of reasons. For one, they don’t have the military resources to do it themselves, and for another there would be a number of repercussions. They don’t want to be isolated and face the repercussions. They might try it anyway; I don’t think anyone knows, or they don’t know themselves. But they’d certainly prefer for the U.S. to do it.
Why do they want it? Well, same reasons as the U.S. They don’t want a deterrent. Iran does support forces that have resisted Israeli aggression and occupation, and of course Israel doesn’t like that. The 2006 invasion of Lebanon, which was actually their fifth, was pretty much beaten back by Iranian-armed Hezbollah forces.
And they want to have a monopoly of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. They have several hundred nuclear weapons, which is regarded not only by the Arab world as a severe danger—the Arab population, I’m talking about, I don’t care about the dictators—but others too. Like General Lee Butler, the former head of the U.S. Strategic Command, which is in charge of nuclear weapons and strategy, a couple of years ago said something like, “In the cauldron of animosity that is the Middle East it is dangerous in the extreme for one country, namely Israel, to have hundreds of nuclear weapons.” And sure, it’s dangerous and extreme, but Israel wants to be able to dominate the region. They don’t want a deterrent. They want to be able to proceed with their policies without interference.
So sure, they want to get rid of it. I mean there is concocted threat of holocaust, Auschwitz, and so on, which they may come to believe, but objectively it’s beyond outlandish. There’s no sane analyst in the world who thinks that if Iran had nuclear weapons it would try to use them. It’s exactly as U.S. military intelligence says—if they had them it would be part of their deterrence strategy. If Iran was to so much as load a nuclear weapon the country would probably be obliterated. Israeli strategists understand this as well as anybody else.
SG: So then you don’t agree that having Iran as a nuclear power would create any instability in the region?
It would create stability, not instability. The populations of the Arab world—the populations, not the dictators—regard it as a move toward stability, because it would offset the real threat that they perceive, which is the United States and Israel.
Remember, the term stability in the United States has kind of a technical meaning—it means, do what we say. But that’s not the way it’s understood elsewhere. They don’t want nuclear weapons.
In fact there is an answer to this, and a very clear answer, supported by almost the entire world, which is to establish a nuclear weapons–free zone in the region. Virtually everyone supports that. In fact, support is so strong that Clinton and Obama have been compelled to express formal support for it, but with conditions that prevent it from happening. The conditions are: not now, at some future time after everyone’s converted their swords into ploughshares down there, then we’ll talk about it. So: never, in other words. And it has to exclude Israel. That’s saying no, we can’t do it. But if there were moves toward that—it wouldn’t solve every problem, obviously, but it could significantly mitigate and maybe overcome tensions. But it’s not discussed, except in arms control circles.
And there’s another fact that’s not discussed which is kind of relevant. The U.S. and Britain have a special commitment, a unique commitment, to moving towards a Middle East nuclear weapons–free zone. There’s a simple reason for that. When the U.S. and Britain invaded Iraq, they tried to construct a thin legal cover, and the legal cover, as you remember, had to do with the alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction program. That was the excuse. The U.S. and Britain appealed to U.N. Security Council resolution 687 from 1991, which called on Iraq to eliminate these programs. And the Bush-Blair pretext was, well, they’re violating the Security Council order, so we have the right to invade them. Ridiculous argument, but that was the argument.
Well, if you read that resolution, it calls on the signers to move to establish a nuclear weapons-free zone in the region. So above all others, the U.S. and Britain have a commitment to this, but I can’t imagine anybody mentioning this.
NN: In regards to Syria, do you think that the West is going to intervene along the same lines as they did in Libya?
Not in the same way. Libya was kind of a pushover. It had no army, no defense system, and therefore you could become the bombing. Remember, in Libya there was a U.N. resolution. It called for a no-fly zone, ceasefire, and steps to protect civilians. The imperial triumvirate—U.S., Britain, and France—violated that instantly, and just became the air force of the rebel forces. That was kind of easy—just bomb from a distance.
But Syria’s not like that. In fact, if we can believe what the U.S. military’s saying, it would be extremely difficult. There was an article in the Times which reported the U.S. military judgments. How literally to take that you can decide. But what’s reported, at least, is their statement that it would be very hard, that Syria has advanced anti-aircraft systems, air defense systems, and also a big army, unlike Libya, which has no army. Obama asked the military for contingency plans, and according to the report, at least, they say we can do it, but it won’t be easy.
So I think the West regards it first of all as dangerous and costly. Secondly, fundamentally, I think the Western powers may conclude that they’re better off with Assad than his replacement. In fact, my strong guess is that Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and the rest of them were quite pleased when Russia and China vetoed the Security Council resolution, because that first of all allows them to pontificate about how wonderful we are and how terrible they are, but also offers a pretext not to do anything. They are claiming, well, our hands are tied because of the Security Council resolution. Well, that’s not even a bad joke. They don’t care one way or another about Security Council resolutions. It’s been shown over and over again. But they can claim it and the press will loyally report it without laughing, and it means now there’s a pretext not to do anything. So chances of intervention, I think, are pretty slight, for reasons like this. There are countries that could intervene—Turkey, for example, but they don’t want to do it.
NN: Do you think that the uprising is going to be successful?
It looks pretty ugly. There is a big massacre going on, undoubtedly. But any form of intervention would very likely just exacerbate the civil war and be more brutal and violent. So one possibility, a likely one, is that the civil war will just continue and get more brutal and destructive.
The only alternative I’ve ever heard anyone talk about—except for John McCain, who’s kind of off in outer space—but someone serious, is what Kofi Annan’s trying to do: see if he can make some basis for negotiation and diplomacy, which would presumably ease Assad out of office, but without requiring suicide. If you set up conditions which say either commit suicide or keep attacking, they’ll want to keep attacking—that’s what happened in Libya. No way out. So it’s pretty ugly, but I don’t see any other alternative.