David Barsamian, the founder of Boulder, Colo.-based Alternative Radio and a prolific author, speaker and journalist, comes to Santa Fe this week to discuss “US-Israel War on Iran.” SFR sat down with Barsamian to talk about new developments in US-Iran relations; Syria and the legacy of the Arab Spring; and the failure of capitalism as described in his new book with Richard Wolff, Occupy the Economy: Challenging Capitalism. The interview has been edited slightly for clarity.
SFR: In Targeting Iran, your 2007 book with Noam Chomsky, you wrote that the United States and Iran were “on the brink of war.” After President Barack Obama was first elected, it seemed like that sentiment receded somewhat, but now—although temporarily suspended for the campaign—it’s back. What happened?
David Barsamian: Obama, like many Democratic presidents, is under tremendous political pressure to prove his national security credentials, so talking tough about Iran—using very threatening language like “all options are on the table”—has, I think, a political aspect to it. The political right is trying to paint Obama into a corner where he’s seen as being weak on Iran, appeasing Iranian leaders. If you look at the evidence, it’s fairly preposterous because Obama is leading the new sanctions regime, which is unprecedented, against Iran.
There’s an enormous amount of pressure on Iran to stop its uranium enrichment program. There’s something really left out of this whole equation, and that is [that] Iran is a signatory to [the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons]. As a signatory, Iran has a right to enrich uranium for the peaceful uses of atomic energy. I think it’s important to point out that three states [that] do have nukes are not signatories: Israel, Pakistan and India. And they all have developed nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver them…and they are not being subjected to any [United Nations] sanctions.
This goes back to the Iranian revolution of 1978-79, when the US lost a major strategic ally in the Middle East, the Shah. Ever since then, the US has been in a very antagonistic relationship with Tehran.
That’s the historical context: The US has always viewed the Middle East and its oil in a very special way, quite distinct from any other region in the world. A 1945 State Department document called it “a stupendous source of strategic power and one of the greatest material prizes in world history,” and so the US—whatever administration it is, Democratic or Republican—has always had its eyes on Middle Eastern oil. And Iran has tremendous oil and natural gas reserves, and that is part of the equation that informs the US policy in the region.
These threats on Iran of military action kind of ebb and flow like the phases of the moon. You hear very bellicose statements coming out of Tel Aviv and out of Washington and then they’re tempered down; then they rise again.
We’re going to see, I think, during this upcoming political season a lot of rhetoric threatening Iran because it plays well to the base of both political parties.
Back in 2009, I remember Obama’s symbolic outreach to Iran, but then Ayatollah Khamenei came back with what many people considered a slap in the face. Do you think that was a turning point in any sense?
It’s difficult to say with any certainty. The Iranian leadership doesn’t trust the United States. It is under cyber-attack from the United States—which might actually fit the UN definition of aggression, by the way—and also its scientists are being assassinated. Talk is one thing, and actions are another. Obama has greatly expanded the [George W] Bush cyber-warfare program.
Is there any reason to be concerned that Iran is not just enriching uranium for peaceful purposes, as it claims?
Well, I think one should be cautious. Let’s go back historically to the mid-1970s, when the Shah was in power and he approached the Gerald Ford administration and the Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, with a proposal to develop nuclear power for generating energy in Iran…Of course, Ford and Kissinger were only too happy to oblige…Then, when the Iranian Revolution occurred in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini said nuclear energy was un-Islamic and he completely shut down the program. That program has been revived.
Is Iran a threat to the United States militarily? I kind of doubt it. If you look at the map, Iran is basically surrounded by US military bases—in Turkey, in Afghanistan, throughout the Persian Gulf—and so it’s in a very vulnerable position militarily. It would be, I think, extremely foolhardy for Iran to take any aggressive military action…At this point, we should be skeptical of the allegations that Iran is enriching uranium—which it’s entitled to do under the treaty—for developing nuclear weapons. The evidence does not support it.
Does the media share some of the blame for perpetuating the idea that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon?
I think so. A lot of the assumptions about Iran are embedded in the media reporting, and also just sheer distortions. You’ve heard of this phrase that Iran has threatened to wipe Israel off the map? It’s frequently used…The problem is that no Iranian has ever uttered those words. It is a complete mistranslation of a comment that Ayatollah Khomeini made some years ago that he wished that Israel should “vanish from the page of time,” that it should somehow disappear. This was confirmed by the Israeli deputy prime minister, Dan Meridor, in an interview on Al Jazeera.
That’s just one example. The threat of Iran is hyped up just as the threat of Afghanistan and Panama and the Colombian drug cartel; there is such a pattern in US foreign policy to justify military action on an exaggerated threat, and the media play a role in that. They are very conveniently used by the White House and the State Department as a conduit for leaks.
What’s the point of a city ordinance like the one Santa Fe passed, declaring opposition to war with Iran? Is it just an empty gesture?
I think it’s symbolic. Santa Fe joins Boulder, Colo., and other communities around the United States to express its concern that a military attack on Iran is unjustified and illegal. I think it’s important for a community’s self-esteem and self-respect to go on the record in opposition to Washington foreign policy…Whether it will actually change or affect policy is another matter altogether. It’s important that citizens and communities stand up for what they believe is right and just.
What’s the end game? In all our decades of interactions with Iran, what do we need to do to resolve our differences?
First of all, tone down the rhetoric. The most severe sanctions regime is about to be imposed on Iran. We saw the effect that sanctions had on Iraq in the 1990s. Who suffered? Who will suffer during sanctions? Not the leadership, but ordinary Iranians. So I think this threatening, aggressive kind of rhetoric as well as actions needs to be toned down. Let’s talk to the Iranians. What are their concerns in the region? Again, they are in an extremely vulnerable military position. It’s unlikely that they would initiate any kind of military action. So Washington needs to talk to Tehran [in] open negotiations without preconditions…Iran has a history of 5,000 years; it has a singular culture and language; it has great poetry and music and culture. It wants to be treated with respect, and I think there’s a sense, in Tehran, that the US is using bullying tactics to get what it wants.
Doesn’t Iran share some of the fault for that, though, by also playing tough—threatening to block the Strait of Hormuz, for instance?
Well, they have very few cards to play. They have a domestic audience as well, and so the political leadership there has to respond to what it sees as threats from Washington. So, yeah, I’m no fan of the Iranian regime; don’t get me wrong. It’s a very repressive government—but there are a lot of repressive governments around the world.
Egypt seems not to be shaping up not quite how we expected. What we can learn from Egypt’s current situation, post-Arab Spring?
What we can learn is that revolutions are not dinner parties where you can put out names and placemats and all the cutlery and expect things to happen exactly on cue. The US supported the 30-year-old Mubarak dictatorship right ’til the very end, when it became impossible. And then of course the regime was overthrown; there has been this interim period; and now the Islamic brotherhood has been voted into office. I think the US has to respect the political processes in Egypt and in other countries as well, which it doesn’t always do…
What will happen now remains for the Egyptian people to decide…We have to see about creating a space for a democratic Egypt, an Egypt that respects the human rights of all of its citizens, be they Muslim or Christian or nonbelievers, and the US should work toward that end rather than to see Egypt as a chess piece to be manipulated on this gameboard of the Middle East, with oil always in the background.
But we’ve been trying to do that kind of constructive diplomacy in Syria, and it’s not working. When do we transition from diplomacy to other action—or should we just leave Syria alone?
Syria’s in a very critical situation. There is absolutely no excuse for what the [Bashar al] Assad regime is doing. Its attack on its own population is totally unacceptable. But I think, if the US were to intervene—and it is intervening, if we are to believe recent reports, in terms of providing intelligence and, indirectly, weaponry to what are called the rebel forces. Now, who these rebel forces are is not exactly clear. As we have seen in Libya, they may include Islamic fundamentalists. In the desire to overthrow the Damascus regime of Assad, the US may be making strange bedfellows.
Let me add another thing here: Iran is a close ally of Syria. Iran doesn’t have many allies. So this can also, by weakening Syria and perhaps even toppling the Assad government—which I think is doomed; sooner or later, it cannot remain in power; the scale of atrocities it has committed I think will secure its downfall. But by ousting the regime or at least weakening it, that also weakens Iran even further.
Do you think that’s part of our motivation for getting involved?
I think it’s a factor, for sure. Yes.
We interviewed you back in 2009, and you predicted the imminent demise of the news business, based on the declines in the quality of journalism and the number of outlets still in business. Has your view on that changed since? Why?
No, I think the trend in that direction continues. There’s been a sea change in media consumption in the United States. That is to say, people are still getting media, but they’re using—it’s more and more electronic-based…that trend, if anything, has accelerated. And it’s not just the trend; we also have to talk about the quality of information that people are getting. Does it address the communication needs of a democratic society? Are people getting a wide range of spectrum? I think so much of this new media is opinion and not fact-based journalism. It’s not driven by facts; it’s driven by ideology, and it’s fueled by very inflammatory rhetoric. So I think one has to be concerned about shortened attention spans, about ability of citizens to distinguish between opinion and evidence.
Yes, but when we do serious investigative work, we get a good response from our readership, so clearly there’s a market there.
Yes. But also, you know that you’re in a unique community in terms of awareness, in terms of political literacy, and so it’s not surprising that you would get that kind of response. But you know, how do we develop in the citizenry the discrimination between reasoned and logical arguments and information and, as I said, vis-à-vis opinion? That’s a very important thing. And yes, revenue models need to be developed to sustain fact-based, investigative journalism. It’s not going to come from TV or radio to a great extent. It’s still going to be people that go out there and do extensive reporting. I criticize the New York Times, but it’s also far and away our best investigative newspaper, and they’ve done terrific stories on the drug war in Mexico, on what’s happening in the border communities with Mexico. That kind of reporting is invaluable.
Then why are those kinds of investigative outlets branded as the “liberal media”?
That’s been a trope of the right wing for many, many decades. Any objective look at the media, who owns the media, cannot support that line that the media is somehow liberal.
If reporting facts and evidence is liberal, then perhaps that charge is justified, but I don’t put that to being liberal or conservative. I mean, the temperature is 98 degrees [Farherheit] in Chicago. There’s a fire burning in Colorado Springs. Those are facts! It’s not a liberal opinion; it’s not a conservative slant. And I think, again, we have to make those kinds of distinctions very, very sharp.
You have a new book out: Occupy the Economy: Challenging Capitalism. Give us a quick summary.
The book is a collection of interviews with this brilliant and articulate economist, Richard Wolff, whom I actually met in Santa Fe last September. I was so impressed with Wolff—and his not just command of statistics and facts, which economists have to have, but his ability to explain things in clear and accessible language. And so we did a whole bunch of interviews.
I think what Wolff points out, and which I’ve been talking about as well, [is that] the attention is always on the rotten apples. People can get very indignant and virtuous and righteous about crooked bankers and financiers who run Ponzi schemes, people like Bernie Madoff…but what is occluded and excluded from scrutiny is the barrel that produces these apples over and over again. Can we look at the barrel? Is there something about the economic system that is constantly producing these kinds of busts?
The whole history of capitalism is strewn with booms and busts. This current bust is the longest and most intense since the Great Depression. It shows no signs of ending, and I think it’s high time we start talking about the failure of capitalism, which has been basically a taboo subject.
But what’s scary about talking about the failure of capitalism is that nothing else has really worked. What’s the alternative?
Let’s think outside the box. Let’s try and use our minds creatively to come up with some kind of system that does not keep producing these kinds of severe economic crises. That may be a mix of some kind of socialism with capitalism. The last part of the book Occupy the Economy has an essay by Wolff where he talks about alternatives and what can be done…
Simply passing tighter regulations such as Dodd-Frank is just cosmetic. It’s not going to address the fundamental problems with the barrel. The people who have designed these so-called reforms have largely done so at the behest of the very corporations that will find the loopholes, who will again game the system because they have the accountants, they have the lawyers and they have the economic wherewithal to rig the system. And I think the American people, many of them, have seen that the system is working very, very well. One has to admit that. For the one percent, it is fabulously successful. But for the large majority of the population, it’s simply not working.
What role do you think campaign finance, and particularly the US Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, plays in that?
Citizens United is just another nail in the coffin of democracy. It has legitimized a tsunami of corporate money to flood the political campaigns. I think it’s a fundamental issue that needs to be addressed and addressed very, very quickly. There’s a tremendous amount of cynicism in the country about the political process…The cynicism is justified—but the response should not be apathy, but some kind of constructive activity to roll back these undemocratic measures.
Probably the most concerted response to that was the Occupy movement, but now it seems to have died out. Why? Where should it go from here?
It’s not clear which direction the Occupy movement is going to move into. It did create an enormous splash in popular consciousness, and I think the tents proved a point, but now it has to develop new tactics. What these tactics might be, I’m not sure. I mean, we’re not dealing with a traditional top-down movement here—that’s one of its charms, by the way, and perhaps one of its weaknesses…
It’s not going to engage in the electoral process; I think it sees that as thoroughly corrupt and corrupted and not a good use of its energy. So it’s going to, I think, in the coming months, be outside of that process and be focusing on issues of income inequality, wealth inequality.
And I would like to see it talk much more about US imperialism, about US foreign policy, which drains so much of the resources in this country that could be going to providing universal health care, free public education, protecting the environment, mitigating the onward march toward what can only be described as a kind of an environmental Armageddon…
And capitalism, to return to capitalism, is an economic system that is akin to a tumor. It is akin to cancer. It constantly has to metastasize. It constantly has to expand to generate more and more profits. But in the process of doing that, it is eating its host—that is to say, the planet.
If Obama were reading this, what are the first two things you’d tell him to do if he’s reelected?
Cut the military budget by 50 percent and public financing of all elections.
David Barsamian: “US-Israel War on Iran”
7 pm Friday, July 6
$5-10 suggested donation
Unitarian Universalist Congregation , 107 W Barcelona, 982-0439