If talks in Vienna fail to revive the Iran nuclear deal, which former President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled the United States out of, in violation of the agreement, would Israel take matters into its own hands and attack Iran? In Noam Chomsky's view, Israel "very well might."
"They're constantly talking about this—about having the capability of attacking Iran freely, no matter what agreements are made," Chomsky told Democracy in Exile in an interview. "Netanyahu talked about that openly, but the same is true of the current government. They certainly are thinking of it and developing the capability."
But whether Israel would ultimately bomb Iran's nuclear facilities "depends," Chomsky said, "on the United States." Israel would need a green light from Washington. "If the United States orders them not to do it, they'll follow the orders. You have to follow U.S. orders, particularly when you're a client state."
Chomsky, the renowned linguist, philosopher and outspoken critic of American foreign policy, spoke to Democracy in Exile amid another round of indirect negotiations between Iran and the U.S. in Vienna, which have so far failed to make progress on salvaging the nuclear deal. He argued that the threat of Iran is inflated, and that there is a better solution to prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East—establishing a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the entire region—if only the U.S. would support it.
Reflecting the breadth of his political writing and his decades of staunch criticisms of American power, from Vietnam to Iraq, Chomsky also challenged the growing consensus of China's threat to the United States and its interests. "It's worth looking closely and seeing exactly what the China threat is," he said. "The China threat is basically its existence, which the U.S. cannot tolerate if it wants to dominate the whole world."
Widely considered the founder of modern linguistics, Chomsky joined the University of Arizona in 2017, as the Laureate Professor of Linguistics and the Agnese Nelms Haury Chair in the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice, after a long career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that started in 1955. Chomksy was the Institute Professor at MIT and later Professor of Linguistics Emeritus.
As a public intellectual and anti-war activist, Chomsky has often focused on how other intellectuals and much of the media help justify American wars and abuses around the world, by sanitizing U.S. foreign policy. As he wrote in "The Responsibility of Intellectuals," his seminal 1967 essay on the Vietnam War and the "experts" who sold it, "our basic concern must be their role in the creation and analysis of ideology." In his interview with Democracy in Exile, he offered unsparing views on everything from the perceived threats that the U.S. faces today, to the continuities between Donald Trump and Joe Biden's foreign policies, to the brutal and intentional impact of U.S. sanctions.
The following transcript has been edited lightly for clarity and length.
What are the major threats the U.S. faces when it comes to foreign policy, and what keeps you up at night?
The main threats that the U.S. faces are, first of all, the threats that we all face: destroying the environment that can sustain human life; the growing threat of nuclear war; the threats of uncontrolled pandemics. The United States is not taking a useful position on these. In fact, it's a harmful one.
Now, the U.S. claims to be facing a threat from Iran and from China, but those are alleged threats. When you start looking at and asking yourself exactly what is the threat, it pretty quickly dissolves. In the case of Iran, the threat is supposedly that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Well, there was a way to prevent that, namely the joint agreement [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA], which the U.S. pulled out of and destroyed. The so-called Iran threat could be dealt with by establishing a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East. Everyone is in favor of that, including Iran. The U.S. blocks it, because they would have to open up Israeli nuclear weapons to inspection, and the U.S. won't permit that. So, the so-called threat, if you even believe it, could be overcome, but U.S. policy blocks it.
Now, what about the China threat? That is supposed to be the major one. It's worth looking closely and seeing exactly what the China threat is. There are plenty of things to condemn about Chinese behavior. There is internal repression in China, which is quite harsh in the western provinces. There are China's moves to essentially assert almost total control over Hong Kong. There is China reinforcing islands in the South China Sea, which is in violation of international law. The United States is not in a strong position to object to that, since the U.S. is the only maritime power which hasn't even ratified the law [the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea] and refuses to accept it. These are all serious problems. But they're not a threat to the United States.
In fact, when you look through the threats, the best analysis I've seen was given by a distinguished statesman, the former prime minister of Australia, Paul John Keating. He went through the various claims about a China threat, and he finally concluded, I think realistically, that the China threat is China's existence. China exists; it will not follow U.S. orders, unlike Europe, which follows what the U.S. demands. When the U.S. imposes sanctions on Iran, Europe opposes them, but it obeys. It obeys U.S. commands. China doesn't. China can't be intimidated, unlike others. So, there is a China threat.
China is doing things which harm U.S. interests. It's carrying out extensive development in Central Asia, by now beginning to reach as far as East and Central Europe. The Belt and Road Initiative is a huge development and investment project which is tying the whole region into the China-dominated global system. China is establishing 1,000 vocational schools in Southeast Asia and Africa, in which students are trained to use Chinese technology, which means it will, over time, draw these countries into the Chinese orbit—and the U.S. has no counter to that.
So, in all of those ways, China is a threat. Its major economy goes its own way, and the U.S. can't stop it. The only way the U.S. can try to stop it is by military force. In fact, China, on its eastern coast, is ringed with U.S. military bases, with nuclear weapons, missiles aimed at China, nuclear submarines—very advanced, far beyond anything China has. One U.S. nuclear submarine can destroy almost 200 cities anywhere in the world, including all of China. That's one submarine, now being replaced by more advanced ones. In military terms, China is basically surrounded by U.S. military force, and, of course, on its other borders it also has conflicts. So, I think Keating is correct: The China threat is basically its existence, which the U.S. cannot tolerate if it wants to dominate the whole world. Those, I think, are the main threats.
The so-called Iran threat could be dealt with by establishing a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East. Everyone is in favor of that, including Iran. The U.S. blocks it, because they would have to open up Israeli nuclear weapons to inspection.
- Noam Chomsky
Many in foreign policy circles, including you, have said that President Biden has picked up many of Trump's foreign policies. Why is this happening? Did you expect this to happen, particularly when it comes to countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel?
Well, Trump had one major foreign policy achievement, the Abraham Accords, which formalized relations which had been tacit for many years among the most reactionary states of the Middle East region. U.S.-Egyptian and Israeli-Egyptian relations already were very tight. The al-Sisi dictatorship is probably the harshest and most brutal in the history of Egypt. As President Trump said, al-Sisi was his "favorite dictator." He is also Israel's favorite dictator. So that relation is fixed.
The Abraham Accords brought the tacit relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates up to a formal relationship. Under Saudi pressure, Bahrain was compelled to join. Sudan was forced to join under U.S. threats, so it's part of it. Now, with the new military dictatorship in Khartoum, it is a more natural part of the alliance. Morocco joined in and has just received its first shipment of Israeli arms, to tighten the relation. This is an alliance where Israel provides the muscle, by military technology and so on, as in its recent sales to Morocco, and also to the other members of the alliance. Saudi Arabia is a tacit member, not formally.
Biden has pretty much taken this over and hasn't indicated any change. With regard to China, his positions are more provocative, harsher than Trump's were. With regard to the Middle East, there are a few changes. Biden withdrew Trump measures that had no purpose. They were just gratuitously savage, to try to crush and torture a weak people as much as you can. That's Trump's personality. So, Biden withdrew those. Trump, for example, had cut off the lifeline that enables people in Gaza barely to survive, barely: the UNRWA lifeline. In a gratuitous act of savagery, Trump cut that off. Biden has restored a few other things like that. But, apart from that, it's pretty much the Trump strategy.
To what extent were the Abraham Accords possible because of Iran's regional policies? If Iran had acted differently in the region—regarding its presence in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, its alliance with Hezbollah—do you think it would have been possible for Trump or Israel to have this accord with Arab countries in the Persian Gulf?
Iran is acting like every other state. It's seeking to extend its influence in the region, and it's doing it mainly in the Shia or near-Shia areas. In Lebanon, of course, Hezbollah is very close to Iran; it's the main representative of the Shia population in Lebanon and is also very close to Iran. In Iraq, the main victor of the U.S. invasion was Iran. The U.S. destroyed Iraq, excited ethnic conflict which had not existed before and spread over the region, tearing it to shreds. But that meant that the Shia majority in Iraq did finally have a voice, often a brutal voice, tied closely to Iran. In Syria, Iran is supporting the official government [under Bashar al-Assad], the government that is recognized by the United Nations, a brutal and harsh government. I don't like it, I'm sure you don't like it, but it is the government. You can hardly accuse Iran of illegal or criminal behavior by supporting the recognized government. I don't think they should be doing it, but that's a different story.
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE attacked Yemen with U.S. and British support, creating a horrendous humanitarian disaster using U.S. and British arms, blockades and so on. Iran does support the Houthis, the north Yemen tribal resistance.
Iran's policy from the inception of the revolution in 1979 was to marginalize and isolate Israel, in collaboration with Arab countries. But what actually happened, 40 years after the revolution, is that more Arab countries have basically been brought together with Israel. In general, it seems, that defied the purpose of what Iran aimed to achieve regionally.
I think that's putting things a little backwards. Iran does not assassinate Israeli scientists, does not carry out sabotage, cyberwar—mildly, but nothing like what Israel does—does not threaten Israel with destruction by nuclear attack. It's the other way around. Israel is the aggressor against Iran. The idea of Iran isolating Israel is a joke. Israel is by far the most powerful military force in the region. It bombs other countries at will. It bombs Syria whenever it feels like it. It invades Lebanon whenever it wants to. It's a rogue state which can do whatever it wants because of its military power and because it's backed by the United States, the global superpower.
What actually happened after the Iranian revolution was a little different. As soon as the Shah was overthrown in 1979, President Carter sent a military mission to Iran, headed by a NATO general, Robert Huyser. The purpose presumably was to try to instigate a military coup which would restore the Shah and return Iran to basically a satellite state of the United States. That was pretty open. The U.S. national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, openly said that we could restore the previous relationship by a military coup. Israel was even more outspoken. Theoretically, Israel and Iran were at war, but in practice they were very close allies. It turned out that the whole highest level political echelon in Israel was going up and back from Iran throughout the whole period of the Shah. Israel had a de facto ambassador in Iran, and as soon as the revolution took place, he publicly said that if the military in Iran is willing to kill 10,000 people, they can restore the Shah. And that's what he advised. Well, the military wasn't willing to do it.
The next thing that happened is that Saddam Hussein's Iraq invaded Iran with strong U.S. support. Donald Rumsfeld [then President Ronald Reagan's special envoy to the Middle East] went to Iraq. There's a famous photograph of him shaking hands with Saddam Hussein and making deals to supply weapons and so on. The U.S. supported Iraq, and it was a very harsh and costly war for Iran. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Saddam was using chemical weapons against Iran with U.S. support all the way. Huge destruction. That's probably the point at which Iran began to think about a nuclear deterrent, because the United States and Europe were supporting even chemical warfare against Iran, and it had no support anywhere in the world. Saddam used chemical warfare against his Kurdish population—the al-Anfal massacres. The U.S. supported him all the way. The Reagan administration tried to pretend that Iran was responsible for it, which of course was a total lie. Reagan himself blocked Congress from issuing any criticism of Saddam's chemical warfare.
Eventually, the U.S. entered the war directly and sent U.S. naval forces into the Gulf to support Iraqi shipping. In fact, Saddam was so beloved by the United States that he got a gift that no other country can get, except Israel. He was able to attack a U.S. ship in the Gulf, killing several dozen American sailors, and he just got a tap on the wrist. Nobody can do that. Israel did it in the case of the USS Liberty in 1967, but no other country could ever do that. It's a sign of the great affection that the United States had for Saddam Hussein.
Finally, a U.S. vessel, the USS Vincennes, shot down an Iranian airliner in commercial airspace, killing 290 people. The Vincennes went back to its home port back in the United States, where they were treated as heroes. Vice President Bush gave medals of honor to the commander and the flight deck officer who had shot down the airliner. Khomeini understood at this point that you can't fight the United States, so he basically capitulated. Right after that, Bush became the president. He invited Iraqi nuclear engineers to the United States for advanced training in weapons production—another serious threat to Iran.
Well, all of this ended when Saddam invaded Kuwait. He wasn't supposed to do that. When you violate orders, the godfather punishes you. So there was severe punishment. But up until then, Saddam was the darling of the United States, right through his worst atrocities. When the United States invaded Iraq later, Saddam's atrocities were used as the excuse, the pretext for the invasion, without mentioning that the United States supported all these atrocities, strongly supported them. But that was kept quiet, and the media and the intellectual community were polite enough to keep quiet about that.
That's the Iranian threat. You look at China, it's basically their existence. The United States is doing what it can to prevent Chinese development. It's trying to compel other countries to ban Chinese technology. The United States could greatly benefit from purchasing Chinese high technology equipment, 5G equipment, Huawei equipment. Right where I live, for example, happens to be a suburban area, semi-rural, so the internet barely works. If you could make a deal with Huawei, you could have 5G technology right away, but you can't do that. And we have to compel other countries not to use it, the pretext is that there might be spyware in it. It's possible. There might also be spyware in U.S.-created computers. It's not impossible to imagine that the National Security Agency is able to tap the private cellphone of the German chancellor. Not hard to imagine because it happened. But we don't talk about that.
No one's been able to find any spyware, but we've got to stop Chinese technological development because it could strengthen China as a major force in the world. Of course, it's way behind the United States, but we can't tolerate anything. China happens to be way in the lead internationally in developing cheap, inexpensive and highly advanced sustainable energy, like solar panels—the most advanced in the world and least expensive—and wind turbines. The United States needs them but can't get them from China because that would help China. So, we have to hurt ourselves by not getting them. This is pretty natural imperial policy. An imperial hegemon, the United States has pretty much dominated the world since the Second World War, almost totally after the Russians collapsed. And it's not willing to abandon that position. So, that's the China threat.
To go deeper on Iran, how should the U.S. approach Iran so that it is able to remove the economic pressure on the people from sanctions, but send a signal to Tehran that its extensive human rights violations are going to have consequences? Is it possible to do both?
The Iranian government is a terrible government, and it is a great threat to its own people. Iranian society is run by a brutal clerical government; it's not the only one in the region. Saudi Arabia has a much harsher, more brutal government. In Saudi Arabia, if a woman wants to drive, she has to have a male escort. That may be beginning to change. In Tehran, you can find a woman taxi driver. Iran has advanced science and technology, a distinguished intellectual class. Saudi Arabia is bitterly repressed. So yes, it's a rotten government, it's a threat to the Iranian people, not as bad as some others like Saudi Arabia, but pretty bad. Is that a justification for sanctioning Iran? Why don't we sanction Saudi Arabia? Why don't we sanction ourselves? We have plenty of human rights abuses. That has nothing to do with it. The sanctions are directed against the population of Iran, not against the leadership.
That's the way sanctions work, almost universally. You sanction formally, you sanction the leadership; the fact is the sanctions harm the population. We've had endless experience with this. Take the sanctions against Iraq, when the United States shifted from loving Saddam Hussein to making him our main enemy and imposed extremely harsh sanctions. The sanctions devastated the population of Iraq and strengthened the tyrant. We have plenty of evidence about this. There was an oil-for-food program which was the humanitarian side of the sanctions, supposedly. It was working through the U.N., but it was U.S.-British sanctions. There were distinguished international diplomats who were in charge of them—Denis Halliday, then Hans-Christof von Sponeck. Halliday resigned in protest because the sanctions were genocidal against the Iraqi people, and he didn't want to be part of it. Von Sponeck came in, he had inspectors all over the country, more information about Iraq than anybody in the West. He said the same thing. When he finally resigned, he said: These are virtually genocidal, they're destroying the population, they're strengthening the tyrant, for pretty obvious reasons.
Saddam, for all his brutality, was running a pretty efficient government. He had an efficient rationing system. When the population was being devastated by the U.S.-British sanctions, they had to huddle under Saddam's umbrella even to survive. So it strengthened the tyrant and probably kept him in office. He might very well have been overthrown from within, as was happening with many other dictators—Marcos, Suharto, Ceaușescu, Duvalier—and it could have happened to Saddam, but the U.S. worked to prevent that by strengthening Saddam and devastating the population so they couldn't even think of such things. That is what sanctions are like, almost universally.
An imperial hegemon, the United States has pretty much dominated the world since the Second World War, almost totally after the Russians collapsed. And it's not willing to abandon that position. So, that's the China threat.
- Noam Chomsky
How do you see the prospect of a new nuclear agreement between Iran, under new President Ebrahim Raisi, and the other countries negotiating now in Vienna?
Well, what's happening now is that the United States destroyed the deal—pulled out, basically killed the JCPOA, in violation of Security Council orders. Iran continued to abide by the agreement for some period, and the U.S. imposed very harsh sanctions to punish Iran because the U.S. pulled out of the agreement. Right? We're punishing Iran because the U.S. violated the agreement, and the world is supposed to accept that. Well, finally, the Iranian government realized that the U.S. was not going to withdraw the sanctions, so it began to move to violate the agreement. That's an obvious consequence of the U.S. destruction of the agreement. No expectation that Iran would continue to abide by it.
Now, there are negotiations taking place. Notice the U.S. is not a party to them. The U.S. is off in a separate room because the U.S. pulled out of the agreement. The European countries who want the agreement, and Russia, are negotiating with Iran's harsh nationalist government now. Iran is saying that they want to go back to the original agreement, and then they will abide by it. The U.S. is saying, "We won't go back to the original agreement, it has to be a much more extensive agreement." So, the U.S. position is that we will not go back to the agreement that we violated. Well, Europe is in the middle here trying to somehow find a way between U.S. total intransigence and brutal sanctions against the population on the one hand, and a harsh Iranian clerical government, which is insisting on going back to the original negotiation. How Europe finds a way between these, I don't know.
As I said, there's a much simpler solution, which nobody talks about. Establish a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region with intensive inspections. We know that inspections work. There is the experience of the JCPOA. Iran completely lived up to its commitments. U.S. intelligence agrees with that. The International Atomic Energy Agency agrees with that. There's total agreement that under the inspections, Iran lived up to them. Actually, the U.S. didn't, if you look back. Part of the JCPOA was that no one would disrupt the economic transactions of Iran, but the U.S. continued to do it in violation of the agreement. But again, the U.S. is the world hegemon, so it's not subject to law and agreements. But Iran lived up to them. Now, let's continue. Establish a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region with intensive inspections. That's the end of the threat.
Including Israel in that nuclear-free zone?
If it doesn't include the one nuclear state in the region, it's a joke. The New York Times had an editorial a couple months ago, where they said, "Why don't we impose a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region?" And then it added, "Israeli nuclear weapons are nonnegotiable." So, the U.S. client state has to have overwhelming nuclear capacity, a nuclear arsenal, and that can't be touched. In fact, if you look at the record on this issue, it's quite interesting. The Arab states have been strongly supporting a nuclear-weapons-free zone for 25 years, initially initiated by Egypt, then joined by others. Iran strongly supports it. The Global South Group of 77 strongly supports it. Europe supports it.
Why doesn't it happen? Because when it comes up in an international forum, the United States vetoes it. The latest was Obama in 2015. It came up in the meetings of the Non-Proliferation Treaty review—total support. Obama vetoed it. Various pretexts, but everyone knows the reason. The reason is that the Israeli nuclear arsenal is untouchable. In fact, the United States does not officially recognize that Israel has nuclear weapons. Of course, that's a joke, everybody knows they have them, but it doesn't recognize it for a good reason. If the U.S. were to recognize that Israel has nuclear weapons, U.S. law—not international law—would come into play. You get into technical, legal arguments here, but there is an argument that all U.S. aid to Israel is illegal because Israel is developing nuclear weapons outside the framework of international agreements. Neither political party in the United States wants to open that door. The media won't touch that. The intellectual community won't say a word about it. This is total censorship without censorship. It's an impressive performance. But that's the nuclear problem in the Middle East. You want to solve it? Trivial. Establish a nuclear-weapons-free zone with inspections, including the Israeli nuclear arsenal. And that's finished. No Iranian threat.
Do you think that in the next five to 10 years, other countries in the Persian Gulf region, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, would move toward having nuclear weapons as well?
It's possible that U.S. policy, which is the driving force, may lead other countries to develop nuclear weapons. It's crazy. It's insane. None of these countries can use a nuclear weapon—including Iran, incidentally. Suppose Iran had nuclear weapons, would it be a threat? Not at all. If Iran went as far as loading a nuclear weapon on a missile, the country would be vaporized. The Iranian clerics are a rotten group, but they've shown no interest in suicide. So, the whole Iranian threat story is a fable. Even if they had nuclear weapons, it wouldn't make the slightest difference. Israel is opposed to Iranian nuclear weapons because they are a deterrent. The United States and Israel do not want a deterrent in the region. There are two countries, rogue states, that want to rampage freely in the region: the United States and Israel.
Take a look at the history. That's the way it is. The United States and Israel attack anyone they want. You want to kill Iranian nuclear scientists? Fine. You want to sabotage their equipment? Fine. You want to bomb Syria? No problem. You want to invade Lebanon, half destroy it? No problem. Anything you do is fine. The U.S., of course, does what it likes. You want to invade Iraq? Fine. Invade Iraq and destroy it. There are these two rogue states, and they do not want a deterrent, obviously. That's the Iranian threat. Kind of similar to the China threat, except that's bigger. It does deter U.S. aggression and violence.
If the nuclear negotiations don't succeed, would Israel actually attack Iran's nuclear facilities, as they have been talking about for many years now?
It very well might. In fact, if you follow the pronouncements of high Israeli officials, including the top military officials, they're constantly talking about this—about having the capability of attacking Iran freely, no matter what agreements are made. Netanyahu talked about that openly, but the same is true of the current government. They certainly are thinking of it and developing the capability. Whether they would do it, we don't know. They might. It depends, again, on the United States. If the United States orders them not to do it, they'll follow the orders. You have to follow U.S. orders, particularly when you're a client state and you have no other support in the world. But that's back in the White House.
If the U.S. backed off and said we don't care, Israel could do it. Just as happens when they murder an Iranian nuclear scientist, or carry out sabotage at Iranian facilities, or when they bomb Syria, attack Lebanon or anything else. In fact, it's open and overt.
During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden called Saudi Arabia a "pariah" state with a government of "no redeeming social value." But the Biden administration has refused to hold Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman accountable for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. What type of message will this give to authoritarian regimes in the region?
The U.S. favors the authoritarian regimes. They're the U.S. allies. Take al-Sisi's Egypt: 60,000 political prisoners, torture and all kind of human rights abuses. Is he sanctioned? No. He gets a huge amount of U.S. military aid—half as much as Israel, second-largest [in the world]. Doesn't matter what they do, as long as you follow U.S. orders, you can do anything you like. Same with Saudi Arabia.
But to ask, why don't they punish human rights abuses? It's not an issue. They have no interest in human rights. It's not even a question. You can use human rights as a pretext when you want to attack some enemy. Take Saddam. When the U.S. wanted to invade Iraq, it appealed to the al-Anfal massacres—not pointing out that the U.S. supported them and defended Saddam. If you have a very subservient, intellectual class that follows orders and doesn't raise questions, when you have media that supports state power, you can get away with things like that. So, nothing about human rights.
Unless there are major changes inside the United States, which there may be, that's not going to change. Forces inside the United States might compel the government to live up to some of its fine words about human rights.