November 5, 2007

Commentary by Noam Chomsky

Neoconservative stalwart Bill Kristol recently suggested in the Weekly Standard that, in response to “Iranian aggression,” the United States should seriously consider “a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.”[i]

As Kristol certainly knows, the shoe is on the other foot. The Iranian government has been proposing negotiations for years. We now know, and he undoubtedly knows, that in 2003 the Khatami government, the moderate government, but with the approval of the hard-line clerical rulers, offered to negotiate all outstanding issues with the United States. That included nuclear issues. It also included a two-state settlement for the Israel-Palestine problem, which, as I mentioned, Iran officially supports. The Bush administration didn’t reject the negotiation offer. It didn’t even reply to it. Its response was to censure the Swiss diplomat who brought the offer.[ii]

It’s the United States that’s refusing negotiations. The big hoopla that Iran is now willing to negotiate seriously because Condoleezza Rice has shifted policy is not true.[iii] Iran’s government is not a nice one. There are all kinds of hideous things you can say about it. But the fact is, on the nuclear issue, they are the ones who offered negotiations. They are the ones who said that they would accept the two-state settlement on Israel-Palestine. But the United States is willing to “negotiate” only if Iran concedes the result of the negotiations before the negotiations begin. The negotiations are conditional on Iran stopping uranium enrichment, which it’s legally entitled to do, but which is supposed to be the goal of negotiations.[iv] So, yes, we’ll negotiate if they first concede in advance. And with a gun pointed at their heads, because we won’t withdraw the threats against Tehran. Washington has made that very clear. We continue the threats, which are a violation of the UN Charter. So, in other words, the United States is still refusing to negotiate.

The issue of enriching uranium to weapons grade is a very serious problem. The fate of the species depends on it. If such enrichment continues, we may not survive much longer. There are proposals as to how to deal with the problem. The major one comes from Mohammed ElBaradei, the highly respected head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel Prize laureate. His proposal is that production of weapons-grade fissile materials be placed under international control and supervision. Anyone who wants to apply for fissile materials can apply to the IAEA for peaceful use.[v] That’s a very sensible proposal. As far as I’m aware, there is only one country in the world that has accepted it—Iran. Try to find a reference to that somewhere.

There has been an upsurge in bellicose language toward Iran. Under the UN Charter, not just the use of force but the threat of force is a breach of the Charter, correct?

That’s certainly correct. Article 2 outlaws the threat or use of force in international affairs. But the United States is an outlaw state, and it is accepted by the intellectual class here that it should be an outlaw state, so it is not subject to international law and norms. There is no criticism of this. The only criticism is that maybe these threats will get us into trouble—not that we are committing a crime.

We can say the same about the invasion of Iraq. There is a huge debate about the invasion of Iraq, but no question about whether we have a justification to do it. Of course we have an automatic justification to do it—because it’s us. We have a justification to do anything. In fact, if you look at the so-called debate about Iraq, it’s at approximately the level of a high school newspaper commenting on the local sports team. You don’t ask whether the team has a right to win, you just ask how they can win. Do we need a new coach? Do we have too many injuries? Should we try some new tactics? But not, do we have a right to win? It’s an unthinkable thought. The question whether the United States has a right to win in Iraq is unthinkable. Of course it does. Everyone is in favor of victory. The only question is whether this strategy or the other strategy will produce it.

Some of the discussion that’s going on is almost surreal. For example, a couple of days ago it was announced that Iran is opening a bank in Iraq.[vi] There was a huge furor about how this proves Iranian interference in Iraq. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Suppose Russia in the 1980s had protested because the United States was opening a bank in Afghanistan, saying, “You’re interfering with our liberation of Afghanistan.” People would have collapsed in hysterical laughter. But when we say this about Iran, it’s correct. In fact, we’ve come close to threatening that we might have a right to attack Iran if there is Iranian interference in Iraq.[vii] The comparison isn’t fair to Russia, but it’s as if the Russians had claimed the right to bomb the United States in the 1980s because we were interfering in Afghanistan, which we certainly were. We were supporting major terrorist forces in Afghanistan.

In discussions of Iran, you often hear tropes from the Munich narrative—appeasement, Hitler, Nazi Germany. You have CNN’s Glenn Beck saying, “Iran is a global threat as big as what we’ve seen since the Nazis.”[viii] Why is this story recycled so often? And why do people seemingly fall for it?

I presume the people who are producing this rhetoric fall for it. I don’t see any particular reason to think they’re lying, but it’s so utterly outlandish, it’s hard even to comment on. First of all, Munich was welcomed by the Roosevelt administration. Sumner Welles, Roosevelt’s main adviser, came back glowing with praise for what had been accomplished. They had established peace in Europe forever. The business community in the United States, and even more so in England, were fairly supportive of Hitler. After Hitler came to power, investment in Germany shot up. Now that’s all gone from history. One part of the story is true, though. If the United States and Britain had wanted to stop Hitler in 1938, they probably could have done it. There wouldn’t have been any war, but they didn’t particularly want to.

Or in 1937 or 1936?

In earlier years, almost certainly. But even as late as 1938, it probably would have still been possible to end the threat of war. By 1939, Germany was a major military power, and came very close to conquering Europe.

Iran, in stark contrast, wasn’t able to defeat Iraq in the 1980s. By now, its military force is almost nonexistent. It can barely hold the country together. Has Iran ever threatened anyone? Has it attacked anyone? It wouldn’t have the military force to do it. You can say what you like about Iran: it has a horrible government. We obviously don’t want them to have nuclear weapons. But to consider them a threat comparable to Hitler kind of reminds me of when Ronald Reagan put on his cowboy boots and declared that we have to have a national emergency because the Nicaraguan army is “just two days’ drive from Harlingen, Texas.”[ix]

No one wants Iran to have nuclear weapons. If you’re serious about this, though, there are ways of dealing with the problem sensibly. To regard Iran as a serious threat, let alone a threat comparable to Hitler, that’s to move into outer space. You can’t discuss it rationally. It’s like talking to a religious fanatic.

Benjamin Netanyahu says “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany.”[x]

He has his reasons. Israel recognizes that there is a threat—namely, that Iran is a threat to its regional dominance. Israel wants to dominate the region completely, with no competing forces, and Iran might be some slight counterbalance. But it’s not a serious threat to them. From a military point of view, almost surely not. Suppose Iran had nuclear weapons. Could they use them? If there were even the slightest indication that Iran is planning to arm a missile, the country would be vaporized. The only thing they can use nuclear weapons for is as a deterrent. They can’t attack anyone with nuclear weapons unless they decide on mass suicide.

You could argue that maybe they’ll leak weapons to terrorists. That’s conceivable. But then there is a much more serious threat of that right in front of us, Pakistan, which in fact has leaked nuclear weapons.[xi] You want to worry about that? Fine. Let’s bomb Pakistan.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Commission, says he’s worried that further U.N. sanctions against Iran “is only going to lead to an escalation,” and then he dismissed as “absolutely bonkers” the idea that Israel or the U.S. might launch military attacks on Iranian nuclear sites. Such an attack “would only strengthen the hand of hard-liners” in Iran, driving its nuclear program underground.[xii]

It would almost certainly. Let’s remember what happened at Osirak, when Israel bombed the Iraqi nuclear facilities in 1981. It didn’t terminate nuclear weapons development. It didn’t even accelerate it. It initiated it. The Osirak reactor was inspected within weeks after the bombing, by the chairman of Harvard’s physics department, who is a specialist in nuclear engineering. He wrote an article in the world’s leading scientific journal, Nature, in which he said that the reactor was not capable of weapons production.[xiii] From testimony that we now have from Iraqi defectors, it turns out he was apparently correct. The reactor was not intended for weapons production. But, of course, as soon as it was bombed, Saddam Hussein immediately undertook a clandestine nuclear weapons development program. So it appears from what we know that the Israeli bombing initiated Iraq’s nuclear weapons development program. Something similar could happen in Iran, too. I would be really surprised if there isn’t an office in the Pentagon that’s thinking through contingency plans about how to take over Khuzestan, the Arab region of Iran right near the Gulf, which happens to be where most of the country’s oil is, and just bomb the rest of the country to dust.

Who knows what effect that would have on the world? Hatred and fear of the United States and Israel would escalate to an immeasurable degree. It’s already huge. So, in that sense, any use of military force would be crazy. We know from polls in the region that the populations in the surrounding countries, who very much dislike Iran—Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan—nevertheless by large majorities prefer a nuclear-armed Iran to any form of military action.[xiv] Though the next to last thing in the world they want is a nuclear-armed Iran, the last thing they want is military action. And what would that lead to? It’s a question of the extent to which you can control populations by force, violence, and threat. Maybe you can. It’s been done in the past. But it’s a terrible gamble.

The Bush administration accuses Iran of “meddling” in Iraq. There is no sense of irony here.

Yes, but that’s standard. During the Vietnam War, for example, when the United States was bombing North Vietnam, it happened to be bombing an internal Chinese railroad. The way the French built railroads, the internal Chinese railroads from southwest to southeast China pass through North Vietnam. When China sent in workers to rebuild the bombed railroad, that was condemned as interference in Vietnam. For us to bomb is legitimate. For them to repair their railroad that we’re bombing shows that they are aggressors, and therefore we have to think about bombing China, and so on.

These formulations have a lot of significance. If you can get people to repeat without ridicule that Iran is interfering in Iraq or that China is interfering in Vietnam, it entrenches the fundamental principle that we have a right to use violence anywhere we like and nobody has a right to deter it. No one. That’s an important principle.

[i]. William Kristol, “It’s Our War: Bush Should go to Jerusalem—and the U.S. Should Confront Iran,” Weekly Standard, 24 July 2006.

[ii]. Andrew Moravcsik, “Déjà Vu All Over Again,” Newsweek International, 15 May 2006.

[iii]. See Michael Hirsh and Maziar Bahari, “Diplo-Dancing With Iran: Rice Makes an Offer to Tehran—With Tough Conditions,” Newsweek, 12 June 2006, p. 32.

[iv]. David Usborne, “Iran Must Make First Move, Bush Tells UN Meeting,” The Independent (London), 20 September 2006, p. 28.

[v]. For details, see Noam Chomsky, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (New York: Owl Books, 2007), pp. 70–75.

[vi]. Edward Wong, “Iran Is Playing a Growing Role in Iraq Economy,” New York Times, 17 March 2007, p. A1.

[vii]. Ewen MacAskill, “US Threatens Firm Response to Iranian Meddling in Iraq,” Guardian (London), 30 January 2007, p. 15.

[viii]. Glenn Beck, “What Will Change Iran Situation?” CNN, Glenn Beck Show, 23 August 2006.

[ix]. David Maraniss, “Reagan Has a Texas-Sized Sales Job,” Washington Post, 16 March 1986, p. A1.

[x]. Andy Geller, “Bibi: Mad Mullahs Threaten ‘Another Holocaust,’ ” New York Post, 15 November 2006, p. 8.

[xi]. For background, see Chomsky, Failed States, p. 16.

[xii]. Quoted in Mark Landler and David E. Sanger, “Chief U.N. Nuclear Monitor Cites Iran Enrichment Plan,” New York Times, 27 January 2007, p. A10.

[xiii]. For details, see Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, p. 25.

[xiv]. Dan Morrison, “Persian Populist Wins Arab Embrace,” Christian Science Monitor, 21 June 2006, p. 6. U.S. Newswire, “First Public Opinion Poll in Iran’s Neighboring Countries Reveals Startling Findings on Possibility of Iranian Nuclear Arms,” 12 June 2006.

Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. Very interesting commentary.
    Isn’t it interesting that Israel is now calling for the removal of ElBaradei. No, not interesting, ironic. An extreme case of “chutzpah” maybe…

  2. From what I have read from you and Said’s Orientalism, unpeople have no say in anything because they are considered sub-human.Be that it may, the US govt.could not possibly be stupid enough to launch a full scale attack on Iran; at that point the international community will completely isolate the US, and regardless of how righteous we think we are, we cannot stand alone on this planet.
    or dare we do so?


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