Muhammad Sahimi is Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, and holds the NIOC Chair in petroleum engineering at the University of Southern California. He is also lead political columnist for the website PBS/Frontline/Tehran Bureau. His recent piece, “Intervention Proponents Try to Scuttle Nuclear Talks with Iran,” takes media figures and neoconservatives to task for their insistence that war between the U.S., Israel and Iran is inevitable. Reporters like George Jahn of the Associated Press, for example, seem to respond with alarm to news of positive developments between the U.S. and Iran. Jahn, Sahimi writes, always responds to news of positive developments with an “exclusive” revelation of a dire nature, always provided to him by “an official of a country tracking Iran’s nuclear program,” or “an official of a country that has been severely critical of Iran’s nuclear program.” Threat construction is big business.
I had a good conversation with Professor Sahimi about what he perceived to be the reality of U.S.-Israeli-Iranian geopolitics.
politicalcontext.org: In your opinion, what is the most significant foundational mistake being made by mainstream analysis of U.S.-Iranian tensions? Where is the mainstream media getting it wrong the most?
Muhammad Sahimi: The mainstream media propagates what Israel lobby and the neoconservatives claim, namely, that Iran’s nuclear program is a threat to the security of Israel and/or United States allies. It is totally wrong.
The crux of the issue is not that if Iran develops nuclear weapons, it will use them to threaten Israel or the U.S. Iranian leaders, as despicable as they have been in treating their own citizens, have been very pragmatic when it comes to dealing with Israel and the U.S. Recall that this is the same regime that purchased weapons from Israel during Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. The Iranian leaders are fully aware of any foolish step on their part will be countered massively by the U.S. and Israel.
The crux of the issue is that if Iran has the capability to develop nuclear weapons on a short notice and in an emergency – the so-called Japan model – it will become unattackable. That will level the playing field in the Middle East, and Israel feels that it will lose its freedom of action when dealing with the Palestinians, Lebanon, etc. At the same time, the Israeli leaders believe that if Iran becomes unattackable, the elite Israelis may leave the country, which will hurt Israel’s prospects for the long term.
The United States does not want this situation either, because it will not allow it to be the hegemon of the region and dictate its wishes. In my view, it is not that the U.S. actually needs the Middle East oil; but that it want to have control on the oil reserves in order to be able to pressure China, which imports most of its oil from the Middle East.
The mainstream media also often present half-truths. For example, see my discussion of Parchin site below. The media do not say that Iran is under no obligation to allow a visit to Parchin, but they only report that Iran “may be hiding something.”
PC: How valid are the very recent reports by the New York Police Department concerning Iranian “plots?” Why does this seem to me to be the kind of threat manufacturing that preceded the U.S. invasion of Iraq?
MS: At this point, I believe it is totally manufactured. A narrative is being advanced by some corners in the U.S. that “war with Iran is inevitable” and, thus, everything is done to “prove” that the narrative is right. What happened to the allegations regarding Iran’s plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S./ After a few days of noise, everything died down completely. We have not heard anything since then, and the accused recanted everything.
PC: What does Iran gain politically or diplomatically by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz?
MS: Iranian leaders do want a nuclear deal with the United States. But, the U.S., after a relatively promising start, shifted its bars or redline. It is making demands on the Iranian leaders without offering anything meaningful in return, not even a PROMISE to relax some of the sanctions that only hurt the common Iranian people in the near future.
So, one goal of all the noise about the Strait of Hormuz is to say that “you [U.S.] should have deal with us, or else” But, two more important points are as follows. The hardliners in Tehran are losing their support among the faithful, due to Iran’s terrible economy and vast corruption cases that are being revealed one after another. Syria is also not looking good for them. Thus, they need to prop up their domestic support by inciting the nationalism of Iranians, which is fierce.
At the same time, given that Iran’s oil exports have reduced dramatically – they are at 20-year low – any tension in that region increases the price of oil, which compensates to some extent the loss of exports.
PC: 20 nations are participating in the International Mine Counter Measures Exercise, to practice countering efforts by a “hypothetical extremist group” to mine Gulf and nearby waterways. Is this a signal to Iran, and if so, what is this signal, exactly, designed to say?
MS: First of all, let me ask you to use Persian Gulf, not the Gulf.
Secondly, yes, it is a signal to Iran that if it tries to close the Strait, it will have to confront not just the U.S., but a large coalition of the countries. After the NATO Alliance sent its warships to the Persian Gulf in 1987-1988, during the so-called oil tankers war, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a powerful politician who was then Speaker of the Majles and in charge of war with Iraq, was quoted saying, “We can fight with Iraq, but cannot fight with NATO.” The idea here is the same.
PC: Is a U.S.-Iran maritime clash inevitable? It seems like even if there’s not a larger conflict, some kind of maritime incident seems to be in the works.
MS: Nothing is inevitable, if miscalculations are avoided, rhetoric is set aside, artificial redlines are not drawn, and both sides take a fresh look at the situation and recognize that the clash will benefit no one.
PC: Last week in the Jerusalem Post, Irwin Cotler called Iran’s nuclear strategy “denial, deception, and delay.” Is Iran in violation of international law or explicit agreements concerning its nuclear production? Is the Israeli position in any way reasonable?
MS: Cotler should change the mirror. He and Israel should see themselves in the mirror, not Iran.
After one of the most intrusive inspections of the any member state’s nuclear program in its entire history – the words are more or less Mohamed ElBaradei’s, the former Director General – the IAEA could only identify six minor non-compliance cases with Iran’s Safeguards Agreement, all of which were resolved by February 2008.
Iran has not violated NPT, because it has not produced nuclear weapons, has not helped another nation to do so, has not transferred its nuclear technology to any non-NPT state, and the IAEA has never ever found any evidence of diversion in Iran’s nuclear program from peaceful to non-peaceful purposes.
Iran implemented, ON A VOLUNTEER BASIS, the provisions of the Additional Protocol from October 2003 to January 2006. It also suspended its ENTIRE NUCLEAR PROGRAM from October 2003 to August 2005. The EU had promised Iran to reward it with expanded commercial relations, help with a civilian nuclear program, and security guarantees. It did none of it. So, Iran stopped implementing the AP. Who can blame it?
Much has been said about Iran not allowing IAEA to visit the Parchin site. But, what is not being said is that, (1) the IAEA did visit the site in 2004 TWICE, when Iran was implementing the AP and nothing was found about exactly the same allegations; (2) Iran has no legal obligation to allow any visit to Parchin, because it is not a nuclear site and AP is not in force, and (3) Iran wants to use a visit to extract concession.
And Yukiya Amano has brazenly politicized the IAEA, by reviving old, baseless allegations. All we need to look at to see this are the documents released by Wikileaks that showed what Amano had promised the U.S. in his push to become DG of the IAEA.
It is Israel that is contributing greatly to hysteria over a non-existent nuclear weapon program. It is Israel that has a large nuclear arsenal. It is Israel that helped the apartheid regime of South Africa to develop nuclear capability. It is Israel that has refused to sign NPT.
PC: “Liberal” commentators like Colin Kahl see sanctions as an alternative to war with Iran. What’s right about the “sanctions not war” position? What’s wrong with such a position?
MS: First of all, sanctions ARE WAR; they are economic war with consequences that may be even worse than the actual military wars. Just remember how many children died in Iraq as a result of the harsh sanctions in the 1990s.
Secondly, sanctions may be a preludue to military wars. “We tried everything, but nothing worked; so the only option left is military attacks,” warmongers would say. Again, this happened in Iraq. One cannot be “liberal” and support economic or military war. In that case, they are fake liberals!
PC: What about Kenneth N. Waltz’s position that a nuclear-armed Iran would be good for the region? Agree or disagree?
MS: See my above discussion about the crux of the issue. Waltz is saying the same, except that I had said this many years before him. But, hey, who do you pay attention to? A guy named Muhammad, or an all-American guy named Kenneth?!