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“Right-Wing Populists Will Sweep the Elections”: U.S. Killing of Soleimani Helps Hard-Liners in Iran

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Image Credit: Office of the Supreme Leader of Iran

We host a roundtable discussion on the U.S. assassination of Iranian commander Major General Qassem Soleimani, who has long been one of the most powerful figures in Iran. He was the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force — Iran’s powerful foreign military force, similar to a combination of the CIA and U.S. Special Forces. Iran called Soleimani’s assassination an act of “international terrorism.” “It was probably the best, the fastest, the quickest way to have a unifying rallying cry for the Iranian political establishment,” notes Iranian journalist Negar Mortazavi. We are also joined by historian Ervand Abrahamian, author of “The Coup: 1953, the CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations,” and Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and author of “Understanding the US-Iran Crisis: A Primer.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report, as we continue our roundtable discussion after the U.S. assassinated the Iranian commander, basically number two in Iran, Major General Qassem Soleimani, a major escalation in the Iran-U.S. conflict, now threatening to engulf Iraq and the Middle East. We are also joined by Negar Mortazavi, who is an Iranian-American journalist in Washington, D.C. Ervand Abrahamian is with us here, too, a historian at City University of New York, author of several books, including The Coup: 1953, the CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations. And Phyllis Bennis in Washington, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, who has written the book, among many others, Understanding the US-Iran Crisis.

Negar, let’s start with you. Is this attack on Soleimani going to unite people across the political spectrum in Iran?

NEGAR MARTAZAVI: It definitely is, and it already has. We see various political factions inside Iran — I’m not talking about dissidents or the opposition base outside, but the political factions that are operating within the country, including the ones who are considered opposition to the government who had been cracked down during the 2009 Green Movement. Some have been to jail but still are operating inside the country. We see messages of condolences. We see messages of condemnation coming from almost every faction. This includes the reformists, the moderate factions and, of course, the hard-liners, who saw Qassem Soleimani as a hero. So, it was probably the best, the fastest, the quickest way to have a unifying and rallying cry for Iranian political establishment.

AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis Bennis, as a U.S. activist, scholar, organizer, your response to what has taken place?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: History is shaped by when you start the clock. This crisis did not begin with the killing of one U.S. military contractor last week. We still don’t know who was responsible for that strike. But this was not the beginning of the escalation as we’re being told in much of the mainstream media. This crisis goes directly back to the Trump administration decision, implemented in 2018, to abandon the Iran nuclear deal. That’s what destroyed the potential for a diplomatic, rather than war-based, approach in the region. I don’t think that this attack was a reflection of a new strategic approach on the part of the Trump administration. There’s no evidence that this actually was based on a strategic approach at all. So I think that we have to be very clear at looking at the trajectory from 2018, from the withdrawal of the Iran nuclear deal, right up through the increasing tensions that have led to potentials for clashes between the U.S. and Iran and between U.S. allies and Iran throughout the region.

And we now have reached the most reckless, the most dangerous provocation that we’ve seen so far. There’s a very serious possibility that this action, which will force some kind of Iranian reaction — we don’t know what it will be. We don’t know what form it will take, whether it will be a direct military attack on a U.S. base, on a U.S. ally, whether it might take the form of cyberattacks of one sort or another. But we know there will be a response.

And then the question will be: What will be the response of the Trump administration to that? Are they prepared to set the region ablaze in another full-scale war that would pit the United States and its allies — Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel, potentially others, some of the forces in Lebanon — against Iran and its allies throughout the region? This could be a devastating war, far greater militarily, if it came to that, than the already horrific history of the U.S. invasion and war in Iraq.

And to have done so without any care about congressional consultation, as we heard from Representative Ro Khanna a few minutes ago, the notion that this went forward without any effort to consult with Congress to get authorization — we should remember that the authorization that does exist, that did exist, for U.S. troops to be sent back to Iraq, was a very, very narrow decision, without direct authorization, but was based on a claim by the White House, by the Trump White House, that troops were being sent back only to challenge ISIS. This was not an attack on ISIS, as we’ve already heard. General Soleimani was one of the leading forces against ISIS, and his forces and the U.S. forces were on the same side in Iraq throughout much of the years of war against ISIS.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring in Ervand —

PHYLLIS BENNIS: So, there is no legitimacy here.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring in Ervand Abrahamian. You are a historian. You’ve long covered the U.S.-Iranian relationship, including 1953. That has no significance, that date, probably, for many people in the United States, but it’s the moment that the U.S. funded the overthrow of the democratically elected leader, Mohammad Mosaddegh. To give that historical context, in this last minute we have, and the significance of it today, as you heard that Soleimani was killed — also, apparently, his son-in-law was killed, as well — by the U.S. at the Baghdad airport.

ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: Well, in the past, Iran has seen United States as a conspiratorial power that carries out coup. Now I think it’s become a different ball game. They can describe United States as a state terrorist power, that actually goes out and not only kills someone, but kills them at an international airport at a foreign country. This, by any definition, this would be described as terrorism. So, in that way, they have, actually, a new basically propaganda weapon to use against United States.

And I suspect what the National Security Council in Iran will do, instead of doing something rash — people are expecting some sort of military reaction, so — they think politically, and they are going to say what we’re going to do politically. And politically, they will use basically the whole issue to rally the public. There are elections in a few weeks’ time. The right-wing populist will sweep the elections. That will sweep away the more moderates who had been talking about peace negotiations and normalization. So, you’re going to have, in the long run, increasing tension. I don’t expect war in the near future, but if Trump is re-elected, I would say it’s 110% chance of war after that election.

But, meanwhile, I think the person who’s having the best laugh at this moment is the former caliph, al-Baghdadi, in his grave, because what the killing of Suleimani has done has actually provided a wonderful opportunity for ISIS to recover. There will be a resurgence of ISIS very much in Mosul, northern Iraq. And that, paradoxically, will help Iran, because the Iraqi government will have no choice but to rely more and more on Iran to be able to contain ISIS. After all, ISIS was contained earlier by the U.S., the Kurds and Iran. Trump has pulled —

AMY GOODMAN: These very militias


AMY GOODMAN: And these pro-Iranian Iraqi militias.

ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: Yeah, yes. And Trump has pulled out of north Iraq, of the area where ISIS was, pulled the rug out from the Kurds, and now he’s declared war on the pro-Iranian militias. And the Iraqi Army has not been in the past capable of dealing with ISIS. So, the obvious thing is now, the Iraqi government, how are they going to deal with the revival of ISIS? Possibly they could turn to Russia, but I think Russia has its hands full in Libya and Syria, so they will have no choice but to actually rely more and more on Iran. So, Trump has actually undermined his own policy, if he wants to eliminate Iran’s influence in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave this discussion here, but of course we will continue it next week. I want to thank you, Ervand Abrahamian, a historian, a journalist. I want to thank Negar Mortazavi, the Iranian-American journalist, speaking to us from Washington. Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll go quickly to Australia, ground zero for the climate crisis. We’ll speak with Tim Flannery. Stay with us.

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