While on his Northern California book tour, David Barsamian spoke to Foaad Khosmood about his 2007 trip to Iran and his latest book Targeting Iran. The book features discussions with Noam Chomsky, Ervand Abrahamian and Nahid Mozaffari. Two short excerpts from the book are reproduced at the end of the interview by permission from the publishers.
This piece was first published at ZNet.
Foaad Khosmood: Tell us about your trip to Iran. Why did you go? What were you hoping to accomplish and did you do it?
David Barsamian: I was in Iran for two weeks. I was actually attending 25th anniversary of the Fajr international film festival. And I met some of my Iranian heroes there, like Majid Majidi, Jafar Panahi, Bahman Ghobadi and other filmmakers. I was very excited to be there. As you know Iran has one of the most sophisticated and developed film industries in the world. I also was planning on publishing my book, Targeting Iran and I felt by my being there it would give the work credibility and authenticity when I could report eye-witness experiences.
FKh: Who did you talk to?
DB: I talked to all sorts of people. I held conversations with Islamists, people who support the regime in Iran. Their view was that they had been vindicated. You remember I said in my talk, that they had warned Khatami not to deal with the Americans and that he would only be humiliated and insulted.
I wanted to talk to the students. Iran is a very young country. It has 70 Million people with two thirds of the population under the age of 30. That means they don’t remember the Shah. They don’t remember the Islamic revolution of 1979. 65% of students in colleges and universities are women. Women are very active politically, culturally and socially in Iran.
FKh: How did you contact the Islamists and establishment figures?
DB: It wasn’t difficult. They were all over the place. Many of them were at the Fajr film festival, as a matter of fact. I also met with a new media initiative started by the government called “PRESS TV,” trying to get Iranian perspectives out to a wider audience.
FKh: Is this like an Al-Jazeera for Iran?
DB: Yes, except it is not as interesting and not as well done as Al Jazeera. That may be because it’s new and they are still finding their feet. It’s only been on the air for 6 month. Al Jazeera has a much longer history and a much wider network of followers throughout the Arab world.
FKh: What’s in your new book? What can you share with us about that?
DB: The book, Targeting Iran consists of an essay that I wrote. It touches on the importance of Iranian history, both past and contemporary, important moments in US-Iranian relations.
The book is written for Americans primarily. It has 3 chapters, one featuring Noam Chomsky who is the famous MIT professor and the leading American dissident. Chomsky talks about the US relationship with Iran. He says for example that Iran has a right to enrich Uranium, something that is not discussed very often. He also talks about the key 1953 overthrow of the Mohammad Mussadegh by the CIA, destroying democracy in Iran and ultimately leading to the events of 1979, 1980.
Another chapter features Ervand Abrahamian who is a professor of history at the City University of New York. He is regarded by many as the foremost scholar on Iran. He talks about the internal Iranian political structure which is very unusual. Most Americans are completely unaware of the fact, that for example, the President of the country is not the supreme leader; that he himself answers to a higher authority, which they call “rahbar.”
The supreme leader answers to a group of clerics that select him. So ultimately, Ahmadinejad, who of course, is the enemy du-jour of the United States, has to answer to the supreme leader. Abrahamian talks about those aspects of internal Iranian structure and framework.
The final chapter features Nahid Mozaffari, a brilliant Iranian woman based in New York now who talks about Iran’s great cultural achievements, not just historically but contemporary culture.
She talks about such poets as Ahmad Shamlu, for example, who when he died a few years ago, over one hundred thousand Iranians turned out to honor him. When I went to visit his resting place in Karaj, I saw many fresh flowers that had been placed on his grave, indicating that many people continue to go there to honor his memory.
She also talks about an important Iranian feminist poet, Forough Farrokhzad, who was killed in an auto accident some years ago but still has a very big influence in Iran.
Those kinds of things, the intersection of resistance and culture, art, poetry, literature, film, all of these aspects…. even though Iran has been under an Islamic regime since 1979, it is culturally producing very vibrant, rich and diverse work that I believe deserves our attention.
FKh: What were the attitudes toward the United States that you encountered in Iran?
DB: Well, of course, it’s mixed. The Islamists, of course, are quite hostile to US policies. But across the board, I found that Iranians, almost without exception, want to have diplomatic relations with the United States, want to have normal trade and cultural relations with the United States.
American culture still seems to be very popular in Iran. If one walks down Valiasr street in Tehran, if that’s any indication, the sidewalks are completely covered with DVDs of the latest Hollywood movies and books and CDs of American music.
So that aspect of American culture is still very strong in Iran. Of course you don’t see this kind of thing out in the open in Ghom, the religious capital of Iran, but who knows what’s going on behind the chador, you know?
I met a lot of young people. I went to several Universities. I was there after the incident where Ahmadinejad was at Amir Kabir University. That was in December. But recently in Daneshgah Tehran (Tehran University), he couldn’t get out of his car. He was verbally assaulted. There were signs saying “you are not welcome.” I remember one sign that said “Fascist President of Iran is not welcome at the University,” or words to that effect.
I think much of it also has to do with the poor economic situation inside the country. There is tremendous unemployment. Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005 on a platform of improving the daily lives of average Iranians, you know, providing them with more services and facilities. That hasn’t really happened and his veering off into international areas, I think, has made him intensely unpopular inside the country today.
I met some students at the University who said that we don’t need Holocaust conferences, we need jobs. He was referring to the ill-fated conference which was an enormous fiasco and a blow to Iran’s reputation, bringing people like David Duke of the United States and Robert Faurisson of France and others… putting them up in five-star hotels, and putting on this conference. That’s not what people need in Iran. They need economic future. They need services and the like. Not the government wasting its time and money in pursuing such activities.
I must say visibly at least in terms of the posters and billboards and the like, there seems to be a lot of support for Iran to pursue its enrichment of Uranium under the NPT. You hear the slogans everywhere: It is our right to do this and no one can tell us not to do it.
So it’s become, the issue has become one of interference. Having been interfered with and intervened with so many times throughout it’s history, the idea of Western, white people, mostly Christian telling Iran what to do doesn’t sit well with a lot of Iranians.
FKh: How do you read the situation between Iran and the United States? In the event of a war with Iran, what can Iran do?
DB: Well they have significant assets in Afghanistan where half the population speaks Farsi and perhaps 20, 30% of the rest understand it. They have long cultural and civilizational ties with Afghanistan. There are of course many American troops there. They would be relatively easy targets for Iran and Iran’s allies.
Many of the major warlords in Afghanistan including those around the Northern Alliance in the Panjshir valley in the northeast as well as in Herat which is right along the Iranian border. One of the major war lords there is named Ismail Khan. They have some very strong ties to Tehran, so they could be activated to strike against US and NATO forces.
In addition Iraq is along Iran’s western border. And Iran has many many assets and allies inside Iraq. In fact the major political parties as well as political leaders, including the former Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari and the current Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, were protected by Tehran throughout the 1980’s. That’s where the Dawa party was born, in Tehran. The same is true of Abdulaziz al-Hakim and his Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. That party also was literally supported by Iran throughout the rule of Saddam Hussein.
The other strategic advantage the Iran has is that it sits north of the Strait of Hormuz which is only 30 miles wide. It would not be very difficult for Iran to lay mines or sink ships passing through the straights which would have an immediate effect on world oil prices, catapulting them upward.
So Iran can do a lot of damage. Iran is not some banana republic like Grenada or El Salvador or Nicaragua that United States can simply punch around.
FKh: So, what’s the motivation behind Washington’s saber-rattling against Iran?
DB: Well, the main motivation is to show the world that anyone who defies the United States will be punished. This will not be tolerated. That is Iran’s principle crime: that it says no to Washington hegemony.
FKh: So, not “meddling”, not “interference in Iraq”, not “nuclear threat” that we keep hearing about?
DB: No, those are just excuses. I’m talking about the strategic reason which is as I just described it. In order to perpetuate US hegemony over the world and domination and control, any state that says no to Washington is singled out. And a state that is particularly rich in oil and natural gas has even more of an attraction to the United States.
Also, you’ll recall that the Shah was America’s strongman in the region. So the so-called “loss” of the Shah was a great blow to United States’ imperial interest in the Middle East. They have never accepted the Islamic revolution. They have always tried to roll it back. Now they are positioning the military forces, I believe, to carry out a major bombing campaign against Iran.
In the most recent Pentagon war appropriations bill, there was extra money, tens of Millions of dollars for new bunker buster bombs that were – and I’m quoting here – “urgently requested by field officers in the theater.” This is Pentagon speak: “Theater” means in the Middle East.
Now, the US completely controls the skies in Iraq and Afghanistan, why would they need such enormous bunker-buster bombs? By the way the power is almost nuclear, not quite. In terms of destructive capacity this is very very close to being a low yield atomic weapon.
This is clearly intended for use against Iran. There are three aircraft carrier battle groups positioned in the Persian Gulf right off the coast of Iran. And I believe, Washington wants to teach Iran a lesson and I think that will have very dire and catastrophic consequences.
FKh: Who are the imperialists in the US Government? Are they Democrats? Republicans? How do they control US policy?
DB: Well, no issues of US foreign policy… on issues of strategy there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats. The only difference is on tactics. So the fact that these people believe that United States rules the world and it can intervene in any country in the world, those are embedded ideas. The disagreements come over tactics. How do you implement policy in order to achieve those strategic goals, of domination of oil, control of the world? So these kinds of ideas are so deeply embedded in the political system.
But what is the debate? The debate is on how and when military force should be used against Iran. No one is saying that this would be a major war crime. That Iran is not a threat to the United States that any attack on Iran would constitute a grave breach of the UN charter and international law. No one is even uttering those words.
FKh: What is your message to the anti-war movement? I have heard you talk about HR 333, the Cheney impeachment resolution, but is that really the best strategy that you think the anti war movement should be pushing for?
DB: Well, it’s one strategy. I think it’s a very practical thing. Even though the votes are not there, to actually impeach the President in the House and then to have a trial in the Senate… and the Vice President incidentally, but I think by its introduction it would deter action against Iran.
So I think that is a very important thing that people can work on. Just the whiff of impeachment in the air will, I believe, have a leveling effect on the imperial war marching. And people should be writing and demonstrating and talking to Ana Eshoo and Nancy Pelosi and Tom Lantos. Those are three important congresspeople from this area.
People sometimes get discouraged and think they should just give up, that there is no hope, their voices don’t matter; their votes don’t mater, etc. I think that would be a very foolish mistake for citizens to make.
FKh: What is your opinion on all the sanctions talk? UN sanctions and unilateral…
DB: Well, unilateral sanctions are a grave breach of the UN charter and are illegal and should be seen as such. The United States, because it rules the world, can unilaterally impose sanctions.
What’s been disturbing over the last few months is how obsequious Europe has become vis-à-vis the United States on the issue of Iran. I thought many European nations adopted a principled position on Iraq, but now with Iran, they seem to be in compliance with the United States.
Maybe the election of Merkel in Germany replacing Schroeder and Sarkozy in France replacing Chirac… they seem to be much more infatuated with US policy on Iran and have subordinated themselves to Washington.
Look, the US has had sanctions against Iran since 1980, since the hostage crisis. So this is not anything new. Basically it’s a little bit of an inconvenience at the moment. It has been an inconvenience for Iranians people and Iranian business people. But you know they have their offshore bank accounts in the Gulf.
When I was in Iran, I was there for the 22-Bahman celebrations of the revolution. I went to the Meydaneh Azadi. Ahmadinejad was there and there was the usual “Marg bar Amrika” slogans. The whole thing seemed totally artificial to me. They were just reciting their lines, there was no passion. There was no fervor. I feel like the revolution has gone stale, it has lost its flavor and people are just going through the motions. But if confrontation starts, they will not hesitate to defend their country because of nationalism; because they care about Iran.
I think Shirin Ebadi who was the Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2003, has it right. She said it would be grave mistake for the US to attack Iran. It would only solidify support for the regime. And it would also compromise the democracy movement inside Iran.
There is a movement in Iran that wants to make changes in the system of government in the country. But they don’t want it imposed from Washington. They want it to be Iranian. They want it to have an Iranian flavor, not an American flavor.
FKh: You’re talking about the reform movement.
DB: Right. They want to have some kind of opening to the west. They want to end this confrontational, hostile situation. Of course, they have been undermined by the US foreign policy. It’s not just Shirin Ebadi, Akbar Ganji has said this. Others have said this.
Every time, the US increases its bellicose, aggressive language vis-à-vis Iran there are domestic crackdowns, more repression inside the country. Because the government feels insecure and identifies anyone who is a dissident as somehow supporting Washington, which is not the case at all, but you can see how that syndrome perpetuates itself.
FKh: What’s the solution?
DB: One word: honesty. The lying has to end. The propaganda has to end. We have to talk clearly about Israel and about oil. There’s just too much lying, too much subterfuge.
Everything is buried under “freedom” and “democracy” and “liberty.” These are propagandistic slogans masking the real intentions of US foreign policy, which is domination of the Middle East, protection of Israel, no matter what, and control of world’s oil and natural gas resources.
David Barsamian is the award-winning founder and director of Alternative Radio (www.alternativeradio.org). He plans a return trip to Iran in February. Foaad Khosmood is a contributing editor to ZNet.
Excerpts from Target Iran reproduced by permission from City Lights publishers:
1. Noam Chomsky on US Threats and Sanctions against Iran:
“By US standards, Iran ought to be carrying out terrorist acts in the United States. In fact adopting US standards, we ought to be demanding that they do it. They’re under far greater threat than anything Bush or Blair ever conjured up, and that’s supposed to authorize what they call anticipatory self-defense, namely attack. They can’t bomb the United States. They could do something else. Of course that’s totally outrageous, but that just tells you something about US-British standards. However, Europe did not live up to its half of the bargain. Apparently under US pressure, it backed off. It did not make any offer to provide any guarantees of security. Shortly after, Iran backed off from its side of the bargain.
That bring us up to the present, with Europe refusing to live up to the bargain; the US and Israel continuing, extending in fact, the threats to Iranian security, which are serious; and Iran, we don’t know. They’re back to enriching uranium, and we don’t know for what purposes. No one wants Iran to get nuclear weapons. If there were a real interest in preventing that, what would happen is you would reduce the threats which are making it likely that they’ll develop them as a deterrent; implement the bargain that was made; and then move toward integrating Iran into the general international economic system; remove the sanctions, which are against the people, not the government; and just bring them into the world system. The US refuses. Europe does what the US orders them to do.
One of the problems that the US is facing is that China is not intimidated. That’s why the US is so frightened of China. You see headlines on the front pages, ‘How Dangerous Is China?’ Of all the major nuclear powers, China has been the most restrained in its development of offensive weaponry. But China is frightening because it is not intimidated. Europe will back off, and China won’t. European companies, frightened of US, have backed away from investments in Iran, but China just proceeds. That’s why the US is so terrified of China. If you’re the Mafia don and somebody doesn’t pay protection money, that’s scary, especially when you can’t do anything about it.”
— Targeting Iran, pages 37-38
2. Ervand Abrahamian on the relevance of Iranian history:
“This type of premise in Washington completely ignores Iranian history. Iranian history for the last 150 years has been a history of having to struggle with foreign imperialism. And in that history, the imperial powers, particularly Britain, were constantly giving ultimatums to Iran. In Iranian history, Iranian politicians who submitted to ultimatums were considered national traitors, and the national leaders who refuse to submit are invariably considered heroes. Even if they lost, they’ve been considered heroes.
So the present crisis in Iran is being seen as a replay of the oil nationalization crisis with Mossadegh, and the Iranians are drawing parallels to Iran in 1951-53, when Iran wanted to be a self-sufficient, self-respecting nation and have sovereignty over its resources. The Americans and the British offered these ultimatums: if you don’t give up your oil, we’re going to destroy you. And Mossadegh was a hero; even though he didn’t succeed, he stood up for national rights.
Iranians are seeing a similar thing, except now it’s the question of nuclear technology. If you look back to the twentieth century, a partial myth in Iranian historiography is that Iran couldn’t develop railways because British and Russian imperialism wouldn’t allow it. Every time Iran wanted to build railways, which was at the time the cutting edge of technology, the imperial powers stepped in and said, ‘No, you’re not good enough you’re not developed enough to have railways.’ This now plays into the question of nuclear technology, the argument is that Iran really doesn’t need it or Iran isn’t mature enough to have nuclear technology.”
— Targeting Iran, pages 116-117