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On Contact – War with Iran? Stephen Kinzer

Host Chris Hedges talks to journalist and author, Stephen Kinzer, on efforts by Saudi Arabia and Washington to cripple Iran’s economy, inevitably putting Saudi Arabia, its Gulf allies and Washington on a collision course with the Islamic Republic that could end with war. Kinzer is the author of ‘Reset: Iran, Turkey and America’s Future’ and ‘All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror.’

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CH: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we discuss rising tensions with Iran with former New York Times Reporter and Author, Stephen Kinzer.

SK: I think Saudi Arabia wants something that's truly unachievable, which is to crush Iran as a force in the Middle East. 

CH: Militarily?

SK: If you look at the map of the Middle East, Iran is the big country in the middle.

CH: Right.

SK: It's--that jumps right out at you.  You can compare it to looking at a map of Europe and seeing Germany right in the middle.  After World War II, the allies decided that, to prevent this from happening again, the wise idea would be to create a security architecture in which Germany would have a place and wouldn't feel necessary--it wouldn't feel required to blow up the security of neighboring countries.  That should be the solution with Iran because Saudi Arabia, as the leading country of the extreme Wahhabi form of Islam and Iran as the Shia country, can never dominate each other.  It's--it would be impossible for either one to crush or rule the other.  The only possible solution there is for both to recognize that they each have a place under the Middle Eastern sun.  But the Saudi regime today cannot accept this.  They want to be the sole dominant power.

CH: On September 14th, a series of explosions from drone strikes rocked an oil processing plant in Saudi Arabia.  The rebel, Houthi forces in Yemen, who have endured relentless air strikes and a blockade for five years, imposed by Saudi Arabia, claimed responsibility for the attack on the Saudi oil facilities.  But Washington and Riyadh immediately blamed Iran for the strikes, which shut down half of Saudi Arabia's oil production, part of a steady escalation of tensions with Iran embraced by the Trump administration and pushed by Saudi Arabia and Israel.  The Trump administration unilaterally pulled out of the 2015 Nuclear Pact despite the fact that Iran was in compliance with the agreement and has imposed stringent new sanctions on Iran that has plunged Iran's economy into recession.  Saudi and Washington intend to reduce Iran's oil exports to zero, inevitably putting Saudi Arabia, its Gulf allies, and Washington, on a collision course with the Islamic Republic that could end with war.  Joining me in the studio to discuss the escalating tensions with Iran is former New York Times Reporter, Stephen Kinzer, who is the author of "Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future" and "All The Shah's Men: An American Coup and The Roots of Middle East Terror."  Let's begin, 1979, the Islamic Revolution in Iran overthrows the Shah, which your book--which you write about.  And this creates immediate tension especially with Saudi Arabia.  Explain from there forward.

SK: Well, first of all, I think it's important to understand that American perceptions of US-Iran relations and Iranian perceptions of US-Iran relations are very different.  For America, everything begins with 1979 and it ends in 1979.  We're still caught in the hostage crisis mentality.  For Iran, that was just a blip on the horizon with a lot of other blips.  And the real big moment came earlier in 1953 when the US participated in the overthrow of the last truly democratic regime Iran ever had.  So from the United States' point of view, the 1979 episode was crucial, although it's not for Iranians.  So what has happened since then?  The United States has never been able to adjust to the new government in Iran.  It's not even new anymore.  We're talking about decades.  The loss of our Shah, who had been such a crucial ally for so long, was shattering to the American geopolitical mindset.  Then it was followed by the hostage crisis, which got caught up in all kinds of publicity.

CH: This is where the, "Iranian students" took the embassy.  It was a huge embassy.  Took them and held them hostage for how long?

SK: Four-hundred and forty-four days.  So that episode was quite searing.  And I think that in the American political mindset, there's this view that they gave us a good hit in 1979.  And we've never really hit them back.  We've never gotten even with them.  And the idea that we should sit at a table with them without having bludgeoned them or punished them in some terrible way is inconceivable to us.  So we're still caught in the mindset of 1979.  And we're never asking ourselves what should be the fundamental question of all American diplomacy, which is what's good for the United States.  We're--have 20 questions that come before that, and we have this obsession with Iran that's quite divorced from the reality of Iran that is driving now policy that seems to be leading us toward a new confrontation.

CH: But we have the new factor is that we have Saudi Arabia deeply antagonistic to the Islamic Republic and Israel.  Both of whom were tacit allies of the Shah.

SK: You're absolutely right.  And the Israel situation hasn't really hanged.  They've always used Iran as the issue that they can blow up to say, "This is the key issue in the middle east."  It diverts attention from other issues including the Palestinian issue.

CH: Well, up until now, Netanyahu is essentially run on that issue.  You know, "I'm the person who can make you safe from, you know, the--from the--from Iran."

SK: Absolutely.  He has built up Iran more than anyone else as the threat.  And I think from his point of view, politically, I understand why he's done that.  Now the new piece of the equation is Saudi Arabia.  The United States has always had friendly relations with Saudi Arabia but not like we have now.  Now it seems that we are actually the subcontractor.

CH: Right.

SK: For Saudi Arabia's military and security policy in the Gulf.  So, again, we are doing something that, in diplomacy 101, they tell you not to do.  Don't subcontract out your core competency.  You do not allow another country to set your own foreign policy.  And that is exactly what we're doing in the Middle East with Iran right now.

CH: Why?  I mean, the revolution in '79 really frightened Saudi Arabia.  It's a very despotic--you've covered as have I, a very despotic country.  What does Saudi Arabia want?  And let's bring in Yemen.

SK: I think the crucial change happened when the young prince, bin Salman, came to power.  The previous Saudi Arabian regime had been ultimately conservative.  Had its own views but didn't want to disturb the status quo because Saudi Arabia was doing great from the status quo.  That's now changed.  So the new idea of Saudi Arabia is not to strengthen themselves and coexist in the neighborhood, it's to dominate the entire neighborhood.  And they've started with the horrific war that they're waging with American support against Yemen.

CH: Which they define as a proxy war against Iran.

SK: Exactly.  They see everything that is not directly allied to the form of Sunni Islam that they promote as Iran-centric.  So Iran, of course, is the world center of Shia Islam.  There are all sorts of different kinds of sects throughout the Middle East that are somewhat related to Shias.  They're not Twelver Shias like the Iranians are.  But they're somewhat related.  And that applies to the Houthis as well.  So the fact that they have some roots to the…

CH: These--let me just interrupt.  These are the rebels that overthrew the Saudi-backed president Saleh of Yemen.  And five years ago, we began this horrific, mostly bombing, campaign and siege.

SK: We call them rebels but they do control a huge amount of territory.

CH: Right.

SK: And the actual official president who's supposed to be recognized doesn't even live in the country.  He's under apparently house arrest in Saudi Arabia.

CH: Right.

SK: So the people that Saudi Arabia's bombing have a religious belief that is somewhat connected to Shi'ism.  That's enough.

CH: Right.

SK: It means that Iran must be behind them because Iran is behind every Shia-connected organization in the world.  That's the view of Saudi Arabia.  So that's all they need to know.  Now the Houthis in Saudi Arabia, unlike the United States, have their own goals, their own needs, and they pursue them without being pushed by other powers.

CH: You mean in Yemen?

SK: In Yemen.

CH: Right.

SK: So the idea that somebody in Iran can push a button and then the Yemeni Houthis go out and do something is greatly mistaken.  It's sort of the fantasy that we have of what we would like to be able to do.  But not so long ago, the United States, for example, asked Spain to join in the military patrols in the Persian Gulf.  Spain refused.  It means that this is a country that's our military ally.  We can't tell them what to do.  They have their own interest.  And it's the same, I think, with the Houthis in Yemen and their relationship with Iran.  There's a sympathy because Saudi Arabia has declared itself the mortal enemy of Iran so anybody that Saudi Arabia is bombing is naturally gonna find some sympathy in Iran.  But I guarantee that any kind of explosion or military attack or conflict that erupts any time in the Middle East in coming months and years, in which one of the factions involved is Shia, will immediately be blamed on Iran.

CH: Right.  Let's--what do you--what's driving Saudi Arabia?  What do they want and what does Israel want?

SK: I think Saudi Arabia wants something that's truly unachievable, which is to crush Iran as a force in the Middle East.

CH: Militarily?

SK: If you look at the map of the Middle East, Iran is the big country in the middle.  It's--that jumps right out at you.  You can compare it to looking at a map of Europe and seeing Germany right in the middle.  After World War II, the allies decided that, to prevent this from happening again, the wise idea would be to create a security architecture in which Germany would have a place and wouldn't feel necessary--it wouldn't feel required to blow up the security of neighboring countries.  That should be the solution with Iran because Saudi Arabia, as the leading country of the extreme Wahhabi form of Islam and Iran as the Shia country, can never dominate each other.  It's--it would be impossible for either one to crush or rule the other.  The only possible solution there is for both to recognize that they each have a place under the Middle Eastern sun.  But the Saudi regime today cannot accept this.  They want to be the sole dominant power.  As for Israel, I think the Israelis have now come up with this delightful idea that they can have Arab partners who actually are as--more against Iran than they are against Israel.  And Saudi Arabia-Israel as an alliance would've seemed completely bizarre only a few years ago.  The Israelis, I think, are focused specifically on making sure that their own project of occupation and siege in the West Bank in Gaza is not touched by the outside world.  And they do see Iran, perhaps legitimately as a leading critic of that project and an inspiration for those who are resisting the Israeli project.  So I think Israel's goal is to cleanse the Middle East of all countries that do not respond to Israeli influence and power.

CH: Well, that worked out very well in Iraq.

SK: The same groups that were telling us that the Iraq project would work are telling us the Iran project would work.  And in fact, I can specifically remember Netanyahu coming to the US Congress and saying, "I guarantee you that if you get rid of Saddam, a lot of good things are going to happen."  Well, he might've been right from the perspective of Israel.  But he wasn't right from the perspective of anyone else.

CH: Well, in fact, it--you--Iraq and Iran were major regional powers that, in many ways, balanced each other out, although they fought a horrific war for eight years.  And now Shiite influence or Iranian Shiite influence in Iraq is dominant.

SK: You're absolutely right.  So during the period when Saddam Hussein was in power, many of the prominent Shia leaders in Iraq couldn't live there.  They went to live in Iran.  They went there for many years.  When Saddam was overthrown, thanks to us, they went home and they, taking advantage of new democracy, established Shia rule because Shia are the majority there.  So effectively what happened with our interventions in that region is that we destroyed the two regimes that were keeping Iran in check.  Afghanistan on one side, Iraq on the other side.  It was a natural result that Iran would emerge.  And in fact, the old Saudi king predicted this.  He told the US Ambassador that, "If you invade Iran or try to crush Iran, there will be a massive explosions around this region."

CH: You mean Iraq or Iran?

SK: Iran.

CH: Iran?

SK: "If you invade Iran or Iraq, you are going--" and in fact, his line about Iraq was, "If you overthrow Saddam, you will be handing that country to Iran on a platter."

CH: Which was exactly what happened.

SK: And that's exactly what happened.  So we didn't listen to Saudi Arabia then, we're listening to them now.

CH: When we come back, we'll continue our conversation about Iran with Journalist and Author Stephen Kinzer.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about US relations with Iran with Stephen Kinzer.  So, before the break, we were talking about the animus between Saudi Arabia, Israel, Washington, and Iran.  And yet certainly an invasion of Iran by the United States is out of question.  Is it--is Saudi Arabia and Israel essentially pushing for a prolonged bombing campaign the way they did in Southern Iraq under Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War?  Is that what you think that they're driving towards?

SK: That seems to be the logical alternative since the US is not certainly going to send ground troops into Iran.  And when you protest that this is not going to have a political effect, it's not going to destroy the regime, I think the answer, if they were being honest, would be we don't care about that.  We just want to blow up a lot of stuff and make life miserable.  I saw that our Secretary of State said yesterday that the Iranians should start listening to us if they want their people to eat.  So, this is a real expression of collective punishment…

CH: Well…

SK: …in order to achieve a political goal.

CH: And we should be clear that the sanctions are destroying the Iranian economy in the way that our old friend, Elliott Abrams, from Central America, we both covered the wars there, are destroying the econ--is destroying the economy of Venezuela.

SK: Sanctions are the real tool of choice right now.  And they have become so devastating in so many countries.  Let me tell you a little story about sanctions.  When I was in Iraq, they were under sanctions.  It's a similar situation to what we have in Iran now.  The head of the United Nations Mission held up a pencil to me in Baghdad.  And he said, "I cannot import pencils for the school children in Iraq."  And the reason is this, we're not allowed to import what are called dual use items.  Items that are civilian but could have a military purpose.  So, they've told us that the lead inside the pencil could be ground down into a powder and that powder could be used to coat the front of an airplane that would make it invisible to radar.  And because of that, I cannot bring pencils to Iraq.  Now, we are seeing kids dying because they can't get medicines in Iran that are available at your local CVS for $1.00.

CH: Which also happened in Iraq.

SK: Absolutely.

CH: Hundreds of thousands, two hundred thousand of…

SK: I watched it happen.  I was in the clinics in Iraq seeing babies where the doctor told me, "These kids will be dead if you come back tomorrow morning."  And that's exactly what happened.  I actually think that American policymakers, as Madeleine Albright said in those days, consider this to be a good strategy.  In order to achieve a political goal at a particular moment, it's all right to devastate an entire nation whose only crime is living under a regime that we don't like.

CH: What do you--where do you think we're going?  I believe the US military is not anxious to add a war with Iran to its long list of failed wars in the Middle East from Syria to Libya to Iraq to Afghanistan.

SK: I think you're right.  I think the military's very reluctant to get involved with this.  And as for the president, he's listening to all sorts of different people.  I wish he would listen to himself as he was during the campaign.  He was tweeting about we should watch out that Obama might start a war with Iran in order to divert attention away from his troubles at home.  That's a Trump tweet.  Now, he's in that same position.  I do think that he seems more reluctant than some of the chicken hocks around him to start a war.  I think he probably realizes though how it's going to end up because the evidence of all the previous ones we've tried is quite clear.  So, it's odd that he has surrounded himself with so many people whose views are so completely different from some that he himself expressed.  Trying to read his mind is like trying to read a void and I wouldn't try to do that.

CH: Well, you have Pompeo, Giuliani, long advocates for "regime change."

SK: And I tell you, they are people who are abysmally ignorant about Iran.  Iran is not even a geographical place to them.  It's just the name that we give these days to the force of barbarism that has always been out there since the tribes overran Rome.  It is an abstract concept.  The level of ignorance about Iran and Washington is stupefied.  Iran is probably the most misunderstood country in the world, certainly among Americans.  Iran is a stable society.  It looks very much like ours.  Has a very high literacy rate.  Americans would feel very at home there.

CH: Far less repressive than Saudi Arabia.

SK: It's a total difference.  If you went to Saudi Arabia as an American, you'd be shocked with everything you see around you.  If you went to Iran, you'd feel very normal and very calm and very at home.  But this is not the image that we get because none of the people creating the image have ever been in Iran.

CH: To what extent is Iran being scapegoated for our own failures in the Middle East?

SK: I think that's absolutely a very important point.  So, what--why has everything gone wrong for us?  It can't be that the policy was wrong, or that we executed it poorly, or that the whole concept is mistaken, or that the 5,000-mile screwdriver that we're trying to use to fix countries doesn't work and doesn't screw right.  It has to be that there was an outside force that messed it up.  And that means it has to be Iran.  So, every time an operation of ours reaches disaster, that's just another black mark against Iran whether or not Iran had anything to do with it.  We still cannot adjust to the idea that there's going to be a Middle East that we don't control.  The British controlled the whole Middle East.  We took over from the British.  But now, we can't control the whole Middle East and we're not going to stop until we can.  And that's dangerous because we're never going to be able to achieve that goal.

CH: If they start a bombing campaign, what will that mean in the Middle East?

SK: I think you will see all those groups that we describe as Iranian proxies, that actually are only groups that sympathize with Iran, exploding in violence.

CH: Well, you have huge Shiite population.  Sixty percent of Iraq is Shia.  Three million Shia in Saudi Arabia.  Huge Shia population in Bahrain.  To what extent will this be interpreted as a war against Shias?

SK: I think it definitely will.  And you will see Hezbollah exploding in the places you talk about.

CH: Let's explain who Hezbollah…

SK: Hezbollah is a political military organization that has a very important role throughout the Middle East and is part of the government in Lebanon.

CH: They control southern Lebanon.  And the Israelis invaded--what year was it?  A few years ago.  And Hezbollah essentially pushed them out--pushed them back.

SK: Wherever you go in the Middle East, if you go to a city like Beirut for example and you go to the really poor areas, those are usually the Shia areas.  Government services don't reach those areas.  Hezbollah has become very popular by providing services.  But it's also a military organization.  And it has tremendous support.  What Hezbollah can do throughout the Middle East is quite considerable.  And they're not going to stand by with their hands behind their back as the center of Shi'ism is destroyed by bombing from Israel, Saudi Arabia, or the United States.

CH: What will Iran do?  Because there are numerous targets.  A--US military facilities bases, the Green Zone that are within reach of Iranian missiles.  And then we have to talk about the bottleneck of the Straits of Hormuz.

SK: I saw the Foreign Minister of Iran saying, "We're not going to start a war.  But the one who start it will not be the one who ends it."  It would be foolish to underestimate the military capacities of Iran.  When you match them against the United States on the scale that we use, there's no comparison.  It's a thousand to one.  But that scale doesn't necessarily work.  When you have more F-35s and thousands of Abrams tanks, that doesn't help you in a situation like this.  You will see an up--an explosion of popular anger against the attackers.  Iran will certainly participate in retaliating.  And I could easily imagine them closing the Strait of Hormuz.  Actually…

CH: Where most of the world's oils supply has to…

SK: And actually, I sometimes think that for some Americans in Washington and people like Trump, that wouldn't be as bad as you might think because we're producing our own oil and gas now.  And there wouldn't necessarily be an economic shock in the United States.  So, in some ways, I think we've lost sight of the chain of events that an attack on Iran could set off.  And that's exactly what happened with our previous attacks in that region.  We don't stop to say, "How will they react?  How would we then react?  How would they react?  What would they then do?"  That's the normal way you plan an operation like this.  And we've just told ourselves, "Our military power is so overwhelming that we don't have to plan for what comes next."  And that's going to shock a lot of Americans if we find ourselves in a real confrontation with Iran.

CH: Saudi Arabia.  Let's talk about Yemen at the end because this has been, as you said earlier, one of the world's great humanitarian disasters, starvation, cholera, epidemics.  Where does Yemen play in this equation?

SK: I think Yemen is, for Saudi Arabia, the first place they want to crush and establish their hegemony so that…

CH: But it's been a complete failure.

SK: It has been.  And they don't seem to have any endgame.  It's just keep bombing…

CH: And their oil facilities have now been hit.

SK: Interestingly enough though in the United States, as we saw, there was an enormous outcry.  And the major figures in the United States were denouncing what had happened and considering that attack on that oil facility to be a world-shattering event.  A week before that, a Saudi missile had hit a school bus and killed 30 children.  That didn't even get an inch in most American newspapers.  Nobody was killed in the attack in Saudi Arabia.  But some oil was destroyed.  And in our perspective, that's more important.  So, what essentially we're telling the Houthis in Yemen is you are not allowed to fight back.  You have to sit back and accept Saudi bombing.  And anything that you do, we will consider not only a crime on your part but we're going to blame it on Iran.

CH: And so where do you go in Yemen?  I mean, it just seems endless like Afghanistan or Iraq.

SK: You're absolutely right.  The Yemen thing seems even more bizarre than those other two because even the Saudis seem to have given up on the idea that there's a political end.  And it goes back to Clausewitz, "War is the continuation of politics by another means.  War is supposed to be--to get you to a political goal."  There's no political goal there that's possibly feasible.  But the Saudi Prince has never started--this is his first big military operation.  He doesn't like the idea of starting one and then ending it without total victory.  And he's not going to achieve total victory.

CH: Well, it was very similar.  You see it from the Podesta emails that Hillary Clinton thought the invasion of Libya would burnish her credentials as a leader.  And I think it was much the same with bin Salman.

SK: Absolutely.  We saw it in the United States when Trump first launched his bombing raid against Syria, we had a famous commentator in Washington on TV saying…

CH: Fully--finally became president.

SK: …"Trump finally became president today."  Why?  Because he bombed another country.  That's what it takes to make you president.

CH: Right.  Thanks.  That was author, Stephen Kinzer, sp

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