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“All Sides Need to Begin to De-escalate”: Tensions Between Iran, U.K. & U.S. Spark Fears of War

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In Iran, authorities say they’ve arrested 17 Iranian citizens and charged them with being CIA-trained spies for the United States. Iranian media reports that some have already been executed. This comes as tensions in the Persian Gulf continued to mount over the weekend following Iran’s seizure of a British oil tanker and its 23 crew members Friday in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran said it seized the tanker in retaliation for the British impounding of an Iranian tanker earlier this month off the coast of Gibraltar. The Iranian National Guard released video Sunday showing the vessel flying an Iranian flag. Britain says Iran forced the Stena Impero out of international waters and rerouted the tanker into Iranian territory. We speak with Narges Bajoghli, professor of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University and author of the forthcoming book, “Iran Reframed: Anxieties of Power in the Islamic Republic.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Iran, where authorities say they’ve arrested 17 Iranian citizens and charged them with being CIA-trained spies for the United States. Iranian media reports some have already been executed.

This comes as tensions in the Persian Gulf continued to mount over the weekend following Iran’s seizure of a British oil tanker and its 23 crew members Friday in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran said it seized the tanker in retaliation for the British impounding an Iranian tanker earlier this month off the coast of Gibraltar. The Iranian National Guard released video Sunday showing the vessel flying now an Iranian flag. Britain says Iran forced the Stena Impero out of international waters and rerouted the tanker into Iranian territory. Audio released Sunday appears to show an Iranian official directing the vessel to change course.

HMS MONTROSE SPEAKER: Sepah Navy patrol boat, this is British warship foxtrot…

SEPAH NAVY PATROL BOAT SPEAKER: Foxtrot 236, this is a Sepah Navy patrol boat. No challenge is intended. No challenge is intended. I want to inspect the ship for security reasons. Over.

AMY GOODMAN: Britain classified Iran’s capture of the tanker as a “hostile act.” Today, Prime Minister Theresa May, who is expected to leave office Wednesday, is scheduled to hold a series of emergency Cabinet meetings. Iran said it seized the tanker in retaliation for the British impounding of an Iranian tanker earlier this month off the coast of Gibraltar.

This comes as Iran continues to deny President Trump’s claim that the U.S. military shot down an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz. Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif accused the U.S. of engaging in economic terrorism with its sweeping sanctions that have devastated Iran since President Trump’s 2018 decision to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal.

MOHAMMAD JOAVAD ZARIF: This is economic terrorism, pure and simple. We need to repeat it again and again. And we do not negotiate with terrorists. They do not negotiate with terrorists. We do not negotiate with terrorists, because this is economic terrorism, what they’re doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Amidst heightened tensions with Iran over the safety of shipping lanes in the Gulf, the Pentagon has said U.S. troops are being deployed to Saudi Arabia to defend American interests from so-called emergent credible threats. Saudi Arabia confirmed King Salman had approved the move. The kingdom has not hosted U.S. combat forces since 2003, when then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced their withdrawal. Meanwhile, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton is in Tokyo, reportedly to meet with Japanese officials about a U.S.-led military coalition to safeguard shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.

For more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Narges Bajoghli, professor of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University, author of the forthcoming book, Iran Reframed: Anxieties of Power in the Islamic Republic. She’s also the director of The Skin That Burns, a documentary film about survivors of chemical warfare in Iran.

Professor Bajoghli, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about this latest series of actions in the Strait of Hormuz, the latest news we’re getting just today that an unnamed Iranian official held a news conference saying they had arrested 17 people, somehow linked to the CIA, and that some of them were executed? He would not identify himself. And then we have this seizing of the British tanker following the seizing of the Iranian tanker. Can you respond to all that’s developing right now?

NARGES BAJOGHLI: Sure. Well, you know, President Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign against Iran is really a multipronged campaign. So, there is the issue of sanctions, which you had spoken about earlier in your segment, the economic sanctions that the Trump administration has put on Iran, especially on oil exports. That has been something that’s gained a lot of media attention. Iran, for the first year after President Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, sort of practiced a lot of restraint. In that first year, it tried not to retaliate in any way. However, as the oil sanctions increased in pressure and have resulted in the Iranian currency initially crashing quite a bit, what that’s entailed has been that Iran has promised that it will retaliate in order to show that it’s not going to stand by idly while maximum pressure is imposed on them.

And so, as things have heated up between the United States and Iran, Iran has attempted to react in different ways in order to sort of stand in front of different forms of American pressure, one being economic sanctions, the other being sort of ways that the Trump administration seems to be trying to corner Iran militarily. And so, Iran is trying to raise the stakes not only for the United States, but for EU countries, as well as other Persian Gulf countries, and saying that if there is further military confrontation in the region, it will be something that various countries will have to pay the cost of, not just the United States. So, really, Iran is trying to sort of show that U.S. pressures are going to have repercussions for not just the Americans, but also for other countries involved.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you know of what’s happened today with this arrest of Iranians that this unnamed official said were somehow linked to the CIA? Who knows if some were executed at this point?

NARGES BAJOGHLI: Right. Well, you know, I’m reading the news as you all are, as well. There has been a lot of—in different instances in this past year, there have been points at which the Iranian government has said that they are accusing certain individuals or groups of individuals of working either with the Americans, the CIA, or with other intelligence agencies. You know, this is one of those instances.

And this is why so many activists in Iran, civil rights—activists who are involved in civil society in Iran, have been so much against the sanctions and against this sort of pressure from the United States, because what this means is it further securitizes all of civic society within Iran. So, this is sort of—whether or not these individuals that they are claiming have ties to the CIA, the fact is, in this sort of environment, when there is this sort of maximum pressure from the United States, what ends up happening is that it becomes easy for the government within Iran to securitize the atmosphere and say that, you know, different people are involved in activities with the United States. Some may be—we don’t know—but it’s also a net that they can sort of cast widely. And that’s why a lot of lawyers, activists and rights workers in Iran have been very much against this sort of pressure from the United States, because it actually ends up working against those within Iran.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s an interesting piece in The Guardian that’s headlined “How Trump’s arch-hawk lured Britain into a dangerous trap to punish Iran.” And it says, “When”—he’s talking about the national security adviser—”[John] Bolton heard British Royal Marines had seized an Iranian oil tanker off Gibraltar on America’s Independence Day, his joy was unconfined.” He tweeted, “Excellent news: UK has detained the supertanker Grace I laden with Iranian oil bound for Syria in violation of EU sanctions.”

It goes on to say, “Bolton’s delighted reaction suggested the seizure was a surprise. But accumulating evidence suggests the opposite is true, and that Bolton’s national security team was directly involved in manufacturing the Gibraltar incident. The suspicion is that Conservative politicians, distracted by picking a new prime minister [in Britain], jockeying for power, and preoccupied with Brexit, stumbled into an American trap.”

Talk about this, very significant. What? I guess Boris Johnson is expected to be the new prime minister of Britain, perhaps tomorrow, Theresa May leaving on Wednesday. But what this means bringing Britain in? I mean, what’s very interesting in all of this, which is probably not lost on many Iranians, is you go back to 1953, not a significant year for many Americans, but all Iranians, whether they were born then or not, know that that was the year that the U.S. CIA was involved with overthrowing the democratically elected president of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh, on behalf of what is now British Petroleum, right? Anglo-American Oil. What about this U.S.-U.K. alliance here?

NARGES BAJOGHLI: Right. So, in 1953, as you mentioned, it was the U.K., actually, who was trying to bring the United States into what ended up becoming a U.S.- and U.K.-led coup against the prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, because he had nationalized Iranian oil and kicked out the British, who were controlling the Iranian oilfields. So, that incident ended up having large consequences in Iranian political history. Many historians point to the fact that that might have been even one of the reasons that, later on, the 1979 revolution came about, because the shah was reinstated after that coup, and he was extremely unpopular in Iran in the years after the 1953 coup.

In this instance, that The Guardian article that you’re referring to, it’s very interesting—well, part—another, you know, one of the reasons that this is very significant is that John Bolton was involved in the lead-up to the war with Iraq in 2002. In that war, the United States really relied heavily on the U.K., on Tony Blair, in coming behind it and in helping to lead that war into Iraq, and also the United States really needed its coalition in Europe in order to do so. In this instance, the Trump administration doesn’t have the support of the Europeans, including the United Kingdom, once it pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal in May of 2018. That was a deal that all of these—the United States, Europe, Russia and China had worked for years to build that deal and to come to terms with the Iranians on the nuclear issue. When the Trump administration decided to unilaterally pull out, the Europeans have tried, at least in word, to say that they continue to be committed to this deal, and have tried to figure out ways to work around the sanctions that the United States has unilaterally imposed on Iran.

And so, as this maximum-pressure campaign has ramped up, the Trump administration has tried to bring in allies in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel, in confronting Iran. For various reasons, some of those, including the Emirates specifically, have begun to, it seems at least, pull away from the U.S. in trying to support some sort of military or some sort of campaign against Iran.

Now, in this instance, with the reporting that The Guardian has put out today, what it’s showing is that John Bolton is trying to get the U.K. involved in confronting Iran. And if the United States can build some sort of coalition at least—and it seems like John Bolton, out of the Trump administration, really is at least the one strand that we can point to that wants some sort of military confrontation with Iran—that at the end of the day he wants some sort of regime change. And so, if he can—you know, if this reporting is true from The Guardian, and he’s really been able to set out this trap to bring the United Kingdom into this confrontation, that’s very significant. And none of this should be lost on—you know, we need to be able to connect these dots to who John Bolton was during the George W. Bush administration and his role in the Iraq War.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the significance right now—I mean, you have the two oil tankers, one held by Britain, one held by Iran, right now. You have the U.S., Trump, announcing they had shot down an Iranian drone, and Iran saying they haven’t. You have the U.S. sending troops to Saudi Arabia. How serious is this right now? And, Professor Bajoghli, you have done a lot of research over many years around the Revolutionary Guard. There are also divisions within Iran right now. And the question is: Who is being empowered by this conflict, that started with Trump pulling out of the Iran nuclear agreement, that led to these intense sanctions that’s putting intense pressure on the population?

NARGES BAJOGHLI: Yeah. So, you know, for many years, voters in Iran kept voting for reformists and moderates, in the hopes that they would engage with the West, and with the United States in particular, in order to bring Iran out of this isolation that it’s been in since the 1979 revolution, in which—you know, Iran is a country that’s been sanctioned by the United States for about 40 years now. And so, the idea with the Iran deal was to begin these sorts of conversations and to at least allow certain avenues of trade between Iran and Western powers.

The point that is happening today is that the moderates and the reformists kept pushing for: Let’s engage with the United States, let’s engage with the West. With Trump pulling out and imposing all of this pressure on Iran, right now what has happened is that it’s the hard-liners within the Islamic Republic, and especially within the Revolutionary Guard, who are gaining the upper hand here. And in the face of—again, as I mentioned, maximum pressure from the Trump administration is multipronged, so there are covert actions happening. There are the economic sanctions. There are very large media and social media campaigns being targeted at Iranians within the country. So, in this sort of atmosphere, what’s happening is that the hard-liners in Iran have been vindicated by saying, “See, we told you you could never trust the United States. We shouldn’t have gone down this path anyways.”

And so, in this instance, right now, for the moment at least, we’ve seen a united front on the Iranian leadership in standing up to what it sees as a war by the United States in multiple ways. It just hasn’t gotten to a hot war quite yet. But there is the sanctions, the media wars. All of these things are happening in tandem. And so, this is a situation in which the Iranian leadership is rallying around the flag, and they’re trying to get the Iranian public to rally around it, as well. And that has only—that will only benefit the hard-liners within Iran.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, Professor Bajoghli, about the social media campaign that the U.S. has launched as part of its, quote, “maximum-pressure strategy”?

NARGES BAJOGHLI: Yes. Well, part—this is multipronged, as well. So, one of the things that we know, that journalists have been reporting on within the past month and a half, is the U.S. State Department has been funding social media campaigns that have been targeting American journalists, scholars, for those who are against the Trump administration’s Iran policies. Those have been smear campaigns, trolling campaigns. There have been letters sent to employers of these journalists and editors and scholars.

And then, on the Iran—within Iran, there has been a lot of money given by the U.S. State Department, as well as other entities, to promote either troll farms, to promote specifically satellite Iranian—so, Persian-language Iranian satellite stations that are broadcast to Iran. If you begin to trace the differences in the guests that they’ve been inviting within the past year, the kind of analysis that is being provided by some of these different stations, like Voice of America—there’s a Saudi-funded Iran International—all of these different satellite stations are embroiled in this wider maximum-pressure campaign, which is geared towards creating as much economic pressure on Iran through the sanctions and then really sowing feelings of discord and despair within the population, that it’s one of the hopes of John Bolton—and he’s mentioned this publicly many times—that maximum pressure will help—will lead to a situation in which Iranians within Iran will rise up and ask for regime change themselves.

And so, the economic sanctions are one part of it, and that’s sort of the more visible part that we’re seeing. But there’s an entire media campaign that’s going on around this, as well, that’s meant to both suppress dissent in the United States against what the Trump administration is doing, as well as create discord within Iran through these different media campaigns.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Bajoghli, in the last 30 seconds we have, what do you think needs to happen right now to avoid a war?

NARGES BAJOGHLI: Well, you know, Iran has said, and it stands by, and its actions show, that whatever actions the United States or European powers take militarily within Iran, Iran will retaliate. And so, what needs to happen at this stage is—there are talks between Iran and the United States going on now, as Zarif’s—Foreign Minister Zarif’s trip here last week in New York indicated. And so, those conversations really need to continue, and all sides need to begin to de-escalate, because whatever actions either the United States or any other powers take in the Persian Gulf region, Iran will retaliate, and eventually these tits-for-tats will lead to, I think, very devastating military confrontation in the Middle East, that it seems that no one really wants at this time.

AMY GOODMAN: Narges Bajoghli, we want to thank you for being with us, professor of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University.


AMY GOODMAN: Her book, Iran Reframed: Anxieties of Power in the Islamic Republic, is due out in September. She’s also director of The Skin That Burns, a documentary film about survivors of chemical warfare in Iran.

When we come back, we go to Hawaii to look at the growing resistance against the construction of a massive telescope on top of Mauna Kea, a sacred Native site in Hawaii. We’ll go to that site. Stay with us.

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