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Noam Chomsky: The United States, Not Iran, Poses Greatest Threat to World Peace

StorySeptember 22, 2015
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Noam Chomsky

world-renowned political dissident, linguist, author and institute professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he’s taught for more than half a century.

In a speech Saturday at The New School in New York, Noam Chomsky explained why he believes the U.S. poses the greatest threat to world peace. "[The United States] is a rogue state, indifferent to international law and conventions, entitled to resort to violence at will. … Take, for example, the Clinton Doctrine—namely, the United States is free to resort to unilateral use of military power, even for such purposes as to ensure uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources—let alone security or alleged humanitarian concerns. And adherence to this doctrine is very well confirmed and practiced, as need hardly be discussed among people willing to look at the facts of current history." Chomsky also explained why he believes the U.S. and its closest allies, namely Saudi Arabia and Israel, are undermining prospects for peace in the Middle East. "When we say the international community opposes Iran’s policies or the international community does some other thing, that means the United States and anybody else who happens to be going along with it."

This is part two of a three-part speech. Watch Part 1 || Watch Part 3

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We spend the hour with MIT professor, author, activist, political dissident, Noam Chomsky. Over the weekend, he spoke to a packed audience at The New School here in New York City.

NOAM CHOMSKY: The former Republican Party has now become a "radical insurgency" that’s abandoned parliamentary politics. I’m quoting two highly respected, very conservative political commentators, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. And in fact, they may succeed in increasing sanctions, and even secondary sanctions on other countries, and carry out other actions that could lead Iran to opt out of the deal with the United States—with the United States, that is. That, however, need not mean that the agreement is nullified. Contrary to the way it’s sometimes presented here, it’s not a U.S.-Iran agreement. It’s an agreement between Iran and what’s called P5+1, the five veto-holding members of the Security Council plus Germany. And the other participants might agree to proceed—Iran, as well. They would then join China and India, which have already been finding ways to evade the U.S. constraints on interactions with Iran. And in fact, if they do, they’ll join the large majority of the world’s population, the Non-Aligned Movement, which all along has vigorously supported Iran’s right to pursue its nuclear programs as a member of the NPT. But remember that they are not part of the international community. So when we say the international community opposes Iran’s policies or the international community does some other thing, that means the United States and anybody else who happens to be going along with it, so we can dismiss them. If others continue to honor the deal, which could happen, the United States will be isolated from the world, which is not an unfamiliar position.

That’s also the background for the other element of Obama’s—what’s called Obama’s legacy, his other main foreign policy achievement, the beginning of normalization of relations with Cuba. On Cuba, the United States has been almost totally isolated for decades. If you look, say, at the annual votes in the U.N. General Assembly on the U.S. embargo, they’re rarely reported, but the U.S. essentially votes alone. The last one Israel joined. But, of course, Israel violates the embargo; they just have to join, because have to join with the master. Occasionally, the Marshall Islands or Palau or someone else joins. And in the hemisphere, the United States has been totally isolated for years. The main hemispheric conferences have foundered because the United States will simply not join the rest of the hemisphere in the major issues that are discussed. Last one in Colombia, the two major issues were admitting Cuba into the hemisphere—U.S. and Canada refused, everyone else agreed—and the U.S. drug war, which is devastating Latin America, and they want to get out of it, but the U.S. and Canada don’t agree. Now that’s actually the background for Obama’s acceptance of steps towards normalization of relations with Cuba. Another hemispheric conference was coming up in Panama, and if the United States had not made that move, it probably would have been thrown out of the hemisphere, so therefore Obama made what’s called here a noble gesture, a courageous move to end Cuba’s isolation, although in reality it was U.S. isolation that was the motivating factor.

So if the United States ends up being almost universally isolated on Iran, that won’t be anything particularly new, and in fact there are quite a few other cases. Well, in the case of Iran, the reasons for U.S. concerns are very clearly and repeatedly articulated: Iran is the gravest threat to world peace. We hear that regularly from high places—government officials, commentators, others—in the United States. There also happens to be a world out there, and it has its own opinions. It’s quite easy to find these out from standard sources, like the main U.S. polling agency. Gallup polls takes regular polls of international opinion. And one of the questions it posed—it’s posed is: Which country do you think is the gravest threat to world peace? The answer is unequivocal: the United States by a huge margin. Way behind in second place is Pakistan—it’s inflated, surely, by the Indian vote—and then a couple of others. Iran is mentioned, but along with Israel and a few others, way down. That’s one of the things that it wouldn’t do to say, and in fact the results that are found by the leading U.S. polling agency didn’t make it through the portals of what we call the free press. But it doesn’t go away for that reason.

Well, given the reigning doctrine about the gravity of the Iranian threat, we can understand the virtually unanimous stand that the United States is entitled to react with military force—unilaterally, of course—if it claims to detect some Iranian departure from the terms of the agreement. So, again, picking an example virtually at random from the national press, consider the lead editorial last Sunday in The Washington Post. It calls on Congress—I’ll quote—to "make clear that Mr. Obama or his successor will have support for immediate U.S. military action if an Iranian attempt to build a bomb is detected"—meaning by the United States. So the editors, again, make it clear that the United States is exceptional. It’s a rogue state, indifferent to international law and conventions, entitled to resort to violence at will. But the editors can’t be faulted for that stand, because it’s almost universal among the political class in this exceptional nation, though what it means is, again, one of those things that it wouldn’t do to say.

Sometimes the doctrine takes quite a remarkable form, and not just on the right, by any means. So take, for example, the Clinton Doctrine—namely, the United States is free to resort to unilateral use of military power, even for such purposes as to ensure uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources—let alone security or alleged humanitarian concerns. And adherence to this doctrine is very well confirmed and practiced, as need hardly be discussed among people willing to look at the facts of current history.

Well, The Washington Post editors also make clear why the United States should be prepared to take such extreme steps in its role of international primacy. If the United States is not prepared to resort to military force, they explain, then Iran may—I’m quoting—Iran may "escalate its attempt to establish hegemony over the Middle East by force." That’s what the president, President Obama, calls Iran’s aggression, which we have to contain. For those who are unaware of how Iran has been attempting to establish hegemony over the Middle East by force—or might even dream of doing so—the editors do give examples, two examples: its support for the Assad regime and for Hezbollah. Well, I won’t insult your intelligence by discussing this demonstration that Iran has been seeking to establish hegemony over the region by force; however, on Iranian aggression, there is an example—I think one in the last several hundred years—namely, Iranian conquest of two Arab islands in the Gulf under the U.S.-backed regime of the Shah in the 1970s.

Well, these shocking Iranian efforts to establish regional hegemony by force can be contrasted with the actions of U.S. allies—for example, NATO ally Turkey, which is actively supporting the jihadi forces in Syria. The support is so strong that it appears that Turkey helped its allies in the al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, to kill and capture the few dozen fighters that were introduced into Syria by the Pentagon a few weeks ago. It’s the result of several years and who knows how many billions of dollars of training. They did enter and were immediately captured or killed, apparently with the aid of Turkish intelligence. Well, more important than that is the central role of the leading U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, for the jihadi rebels in Syria and Iraq, and, more generally, for Saudi Arabia having been—I’m quoting—"a major source of financing to rebel and terrorist organizations since the 1980s." That’s from a study, recent study, by the European Parliament, repeating what’s well known. And still more generally, the missionary zeal with which Saudi Arabia promulgates its radical, extremist, Wahhabi-Safafi doctrines by establishing Qur’anic schools, mosques, sending radical clerics throughout the Muslim world, with enormous impact. One of the closest observers of the region, Patrick Cockburn, writes that the "Wahhabisation" by Saudi Arabia—"The 'Wahhabisation' of mainstream Sunni Islam is one of the most dangerous developments of our era"—always with strong U.S. support. These are all things that wouldn’t do to mention, along with the fact that these pernicious developments are a direct outgrowth of the long-term tendency of the United States, picking up from Britain before it, to support radical Islam in opposition to secular nationalism. These are long-standing commitments.

There are others, like U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, who condemn Iran’s destabilization of the region. Destabilization is an interesting concept of political discourse. So, for example, when Iran comes to the aid of the government of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan in defense against the assault of ISIS, that’s destabilization, and we have to prevent it, if not aggression, perhaps. In contrast, when the United States invades Iraq and kills a couple hundred thousand people, generates millions of refugees, destroys the country and sets off a sectarian conflict that’s tearing Iraq and, by now, the whole region to shreds, and, on the side, increases terrorism worldwide by a factor of seven, just in the first year, that’s stabilization, part of our mission that we must continue for the benefit of the world. Actually, the exceptionalism of U.S. doctrinal institutions is quite wondrous to behold.

Well, going on with The Washington Post editors, they join Obama’s negotiator, Obama’s Clinton negotiator, Dennis Ross, Thomas Friedman, other notables, in calling on Washington to provide Israel with B-52 bombers, and perhaps even the more advanced B-2 bombers, and also huge, what are called massive ordnance penetrators—bunker busters, informally. There’s a problem: They don’t have airstrips for huge planes like that. But they can use maybe Turkey’s airstrips. And none of this is for defense. These are not defensive weapons, remember. All of these weapons are offensive weapons for Israel to use to bomb Iran, if it chooses to do so. And, you know, since Israel is a U.S. client, it inherits from the master the freedom from international law, so nothing surprising about giving it vast supplies of offensive weapons to use when it chooses.

Well, the violation of international law goes well beyond threat; goes to action, including acts of war, which are proudly proclaimed, presumably, because that’s our right—as an exceptional nation again. One example is the successful sabotage of Iranian nuclear installations by cyberwar. The Pentagon has views about cyberwar. The Pentagon regards cyberwar as an act of war, which justifies a military response. And a year ago, NATO affirmed the same position, determined that aggression through cyber-attacks can trigger the collective defense obligations of the NATO alliance, meaning if any country is attacked by cyberwar, the whole alliance can respond by military attacks. That means cyberwar attacks against us, not by us against them. And the significance of these stands is, again, something that wouldn’t do to mention. And you can check to see that that condition is well observed.

AMY GOODMAN: Noam Chomsky, speaking Saturday at The New School in New York. When we come back, Professor Chomsky continues on the issue of the Middle East, U.S.-Israel relations, presidential politics and Donald Trump. More in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: In our Democracy Now! special, we continue our full-hour broadcast with Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned political dissident, linguist, author, institute professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he’s taught for more than half a century. He’s author of more than a hundred books. As we bring you the remainder of his speech, "On Power and Ideology," which he delivered this weekend at The New School here in New York.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Perhaps the United States and Israel are justified in cowering in terror before Iran because of its extraordinary military power. And it’s possible to evaluate that concern. For example, you can turn to the authoritative analysis, detailed analysis, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the main source for such information, last April, which conducted and published a long study of the regional military balance. And they find—I’ll quote—"a conclusive case that the Arab Gulf states have ... an overwhelming advantage [over] Iran in both military spending and access to modern arms." That’s the Gulf Cooperation Council states; that’s Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates. They outspend Iran on arms by a factor of eight. It’s an imbalance that goes back decades. And their report observes further that "the Arab Gulf states have acquired and are acquiring some of the most advanced and effective weapons in the world [while] Iran has [been essentially] forced to live in the past, often relying on systems originally delivered at the time of the Shah," 40 years ago, which are essentially obsolete. And the imbalance is, of course, even greater with Israel, which, along with the most advanced U.S. weaponry and its role as a virtual offshore military base of the global superpower, has a huge stock of nuclear weapons.

There are, of course, other threats that justify serious concern and can’t be brushed aside. A nuclear weapon state might leak nuclear weapons to jihadis. No joke. In the case of Iran, the threat is minuscule. Not only are the Sunni jihadis the mortal [enemies] of Iran, but the ruling clerics, whatever one thinks of them, have shown no signs of clinical insanity, and they know that if there was even a hint that they were the source of a leaked weapon, they and all they possess would be instantly vaporized. That doesn’t mean that we can ignore the threat, however—not from Iran, where it doesn’t exist, but from U.S. ally Pakistan, where the threat is in fact very real. It’s discussed recently by two leading Pakistani nuclear scientists, Pervez Hoodbhoy and Zia Mian. In Britain’s leading journal of International Affairs, they write that increasing fears of "militants seizing nuclear weapons or materials and unleashing nuclear terrorism [have led to] the creation of a dedicated force of over 20,000 troops to guard nuclear facilities. There is no reason to assume, however, that this force would be immune to the problems associated with the units guarding regular military facilities," which have frequently suffered attacks with "insider help." In other words, the whole system is laced with jihadi elements, in large measure because of the—of what Patrick Cockburn described, the "Wahhabisation" of Sunni Islam from Saudi Arabia and with the strong support of the United States, ever since the Reagan administration. Well, in short, the problem is real enough, very real, in fact. It’s not being seriously addressed. It’s not even discussed. Rather, what we’re concerned about is fantasies, concocted for other reasons, about the current official enemy.

Opponents of the Iran nuclear deal maintain that Iran is intent on developing nuclear weapons. U.S. intelligence can discern no evidence for this, but there is no doubt at all that in the past they have, in fact, intended to do so. And we know this because it was clearly stated by the highest authorities in Iran. The highest authority of the Iranian state informed foreign journalists that Iran would develop nuclear weapons "certainly, and sooner than one thinks." The father of Iran’s nuclear energy program, former head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, expressed his confidence that the leadership’s plan is "to build a nuclear bomb." And a CIA report also had, in their words, "no doubt" that Iran would develop nuclear weapons if neighboring countries do, as of course they have.

All of this was under the Shah, the "highest authority" just quoted. That is during the period when high U.S. officials—Cheney, Rumsfeld and Kissinger—were urging the Shah to proceed with nuclear programs, and they were also pressuring universities to accommodate these efforts. My own university was an example, MIT. Under government pressure, it made a deal with the Shah to admit Iranian students to the nuclear engineering department in return for grants from the Shah. This was done over the very strong objections of the student body, but with comparably strong faculty support. That’s a distinction that raises a number of interesting questions about academic institutions and how they function. The faculty or the students of a couple years ago would have a different institutional place. Opponents of the nuclear—in fact, some of these MIT students are now running the Iranian nuclear programs.

Opponents of the nuclear deal argue that it didn’t go far enough. You’ve heard a lot of that. And interestingly, some of the supporters of the deal agree, demanding that it go beyond what has been achieved and that the whole Middle East should rid itself of nuclear weapons and, in fact, weapons of mass destruction generally. Actually, I’m quoting Iran’s minister of foreign affairs, Javad Zarif. He is reiterating the call of the Non-Aligned Movement—most of the world—and the Arab states, for many years, to establish a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East. Now that would be a very straightforward way to address whatever threat Iran is alleged to pose. But a lot more than that is at stake. This was discussed recently in the leading U.S. world arms control journal, Arms Control Today, by two leading figures in the international anti-nuclear movement, two scientists who are veterans of Pugwash and U.N. agencies. They observe that "The successful adoption in 1995 of the resolution on the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East was the main element of a package that permitted the ... extension of the [Non-Proliferation Treaty]." That’s the most important arms control treaty there is, and its continuation is conditioned on acceptance of moves towards establishing a weapons of mass destruction-free zone, a nuclear-free zone, in the Middle East.

Repeatedly, implementation of this plan has been blocked by the United States at the annual five-year review meetings of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, most recently by Obama in 2010 and again in 2015, a couple of months ago. The same two anti-nuclear specialists comment that in 2015 this effort was again blocked by the United States "on behalf of a state that is not party to the [Non-Proliferation Treaty] and is widely believed to be the only one in the region possessing nuclear weapons." That’s a polite and understated reference to Israel. Washington’s sabotage of the possibility, in defense of Israeli nuclear weapons, may well undermine the Non-Proliferation Treaty, as well as maintaining dangerous instability in the Middle East—always, of course, in the name of stability. This is, incidentally, not the only case when opportunities to end the alleged Iranian threat have been undermined by Washington—some quite interesting cases; no time, and I won’t go into them. But all of this raises quite interesting questions, which we should be asking, about what actually is at stake.

So, turning to that, what actually is the threat posed by Iran? Plainly, it’s not a military threat. That’s obvious. We can put aside the fevered pronouncements about Iranian aggression, support for terror, seeking hegemony over the region by force, or the still more outlandish notion that even if Iran had a bomb, it might use it, therefore suffering instant obliteration. The real threat has been clearly explained by U.S. intelligence in its reports to Congress on the global security situation. Of course, they deal with Iran. And they point out—I’m quoting U.S. intelligence—"Iran’s nuclear program and its willingness to keep open the possibility of developing nuclear weapons is a central part of its deterrent strategy." Right? It’s part of Iran’s deterrent strategy—no offensive policies, but they are trying to construct a deterrent. And that Iran has a serious interest in a deterrent strategy is not in doubt among serious analysts. It’s recognized, for example, by U.S. intelligence. So the influential analyst, CIA veteran Bruce Riedel, who’s by no means a dove, he writes that "If I was an Iranian national security planner, I would want nuclear weapons" as a deterrent. And the reasons are pretty obvious.

He also makes another crucial comment. He points out that Israel’s strategic room for maneuver in the region would be constrained by an Iranian nuclear deterrent. And it’s, of course, also true of the United States. "Room for maneuver" means resort to aggression and violence. And it’s—yes, it would be constrained by an Iranian deterrent. For the two rogue states that rampage freely in the region—the United States and Israel—any deterrent is, of course, unacceptable. And for those who are accustomed and take for granted their right to rule by force, that concern is easily escalated to what’s called an existential threat. The threat of deterrence is very severe, if you expect to resort to force unilaterally at will to achieve your goals, as the U.S. and, secondarily, Israel do commonly. And more recently, the second U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, has been trying to get into the club, pretty incompetently, with its invasion of Bahrain to prevent mild reformist measures, and more recently its extensive bombing of Yemen, which is causing a huge humanitarian crisis. So for them, a deterrent is a problem, maybe even an existential threat.

That, I think, is the heart of the matter, even if it wouldn’t do to say or to think. And except for those who hope to fend off possible disaster and to move towards a more peaceful and just world, it’s necessary to keep to these injunctions. These are things that wouldn’t do to say, wouldn’t do to think—you don’t read about them, you don’t hear about them—but they are, I think, the heart of the issue. Thanks.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Noam Chomsky, speaking at The New School this weekend.

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