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Investigative journalist Max Blumenthal explains that these sanctions punish Russia and Iran unnecessarily intensifies the conflict between the US and these countries
Sharmini Peries: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. With the exception of a Republican Senator Rand Paul and Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, the US Senate voted 98 to 2 to impose new sanctions on Russia, Iran, and a few other countries and to force President Donald Trump to get Congress approval before easing any existing sanctions. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson advised against such measure on Tuesday when he spoke to a Senate panel saying it would impede the hands of the administration, particularly in relation to Russia. With us to discuss this is Max Blumenthal. Max Blumenthal is an award-winning author, journalist, and senior editor for AlterNet Grayzone Project. Thanks for joining us, Max. Max Blumenthal: Good to be on with you. Sharmini Peries: Max, let’s lead here with why Senator Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders stood out voting against the sanctions. Max Blumenthal: Senator Rand Paul is sort of the voice of libertarian anti-interventionism in the Senate carrying his sort of a diluted version of his father’s legacy, so we expect this from him. For Sanders to stand against it is sort of remarkable. He’s standing against the Democratic Party. Although he’s not technically a Democrat, he usually votes with them, and he’s broken the Washington consensus here. I thought that was remarkable. It’s almost impossible to push back against the narrative of anti-Russian hysteria in Washington, so hopefully Sanders will be more forceful here. Sharmini Peries: Max, what’s in the bill? What applies to Russia, and what applies to Iran? Max Blumenthal: What the bill on Russia does is not only impose sanctions on Russia’s mining industry, its railways, cutting Russia out of international finance, which is actually going to take a toll on the Russian economy, and it’s consistent with what the US has been doing over the past five or ten years. It also imposes extraterritorial sanctions on European companies that are participating in a pipeline in the Arctic Circle with Gazprom, the Russian government-owned oil company. So you’ve seen vehement protests by the Austrian chancellor and the German foreign minister over the US attempting to pressure them not to participate in business deals with Russia. It’s actually remarkable to see NATO allies challenge Congress. Really, what this bill is about… And it also includes an Iran component. It also mentions Bashar al-Assad. It’s sanctioning Iran on the pretext of Iran’s possession and continued production of ballistic missiles. It’s not about ballistic missiles. It’s not about peace. It’s not going to have any effect on Iran producing ballistic missiles because Saudi Arabia possesses the same exact ballistic missile models that Iran has or at least they have the same capacity, and as long as Saudi Arabia has its missiles pointed at Tehran, Iran’s going to continue to produce them. But the US isn’t sanctioning Saudi Arabia. It’s actually signed a new landmark weapons deal with Saudi Arabia, which just passed in the Senate. Then the pretext for the Russian sanctions is that they supposedly hacked the DNC and interfered in our elections. This is not established at all. I can go into that in detail. But it’s not about actually punishing Russia for interference. It’s not about stopping Iran’s ballistic missile production. It’s about regime change. It’s about regime change from Iran to Syria to Russia. In fact, Secretary of State Tillerson, while protesting the fact that this sanctions bill could tie Trump’s hands as Congress attempted to do to Obama before and after the Iran deal, he also announced that there would be new funding for groups inside Iran, which are supposedly promoting a democratic transition. Iran just had national elections, free and fair elections, and they chose to continue this process of internal reform by reelecting the liberal candidate, President Hassan Rouhani, and this is how the US is rewarding Iran. It’s rewarding Iran by reinstituting or amping up funding for regime change internally. This is open and direct US interference in a country’s political process. So it’s the ultimate case of projection to pass this bill. Sharmini Peries: In Russia, they’ve been experiencing a recession for a long time now, and tying the corporations who deal with Gazprom and other dealings in Russia would seriously impede their economy further. Give us a sense of if there is any objective for Congress in taking such action. Max Blumenthal: Of course. It’s the objective that we’ve seen ever since Clinton held his big NATO expansion ceremony in the Rose Garden on the White House lawn. He’s sitting there signing a bill supporting the expansion of NATO onto Russia’s borders with a giant sign in front of his that says “NATO expansion.” It’s basically a sign that delivers a giant middle finger to Russia. Macedon, sorry, Montenegro was the latest little vassal state, little kind of abortion of a country that just was placed under NATO protection. It has a standing army of about 1,000, and now if there’s any conflict with Russia, NATO has to intervene. There’s little Latvia where former Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said Americans were willing to fight and die for against Russia. These are direct acts of aggression against Russia at its doorstep, along with sanctions that are intended to weaken the economy of Russia and punish the civilians, the regular people in Russia, lowering the morale so that they’ll supposedly, hopefully turn against Vladimir Putin and bring in some Western, pro-NATO figure, someone who can be easily controlled like Boris Yeltsin. It’s just not going to happen. All independent polling shows that Putin is at around 80% public support. If you watch Putin’s interviews with Oliver Stone, I think one of the most … The press is focusing on “Stone’s too friendly to him,” and they don’t analyze the policy at all. They’re not actually interested in what Putin has to say. But the point he keeps coming back to, at least in the first episode, is that he feels like he’s in a position of siege and that what these sanctions are doing and what NATO expansion is doing is pushing the Russian public and pushing the Russian government including him, someone who really doesn’t embody any ideology beyond nationalism, into a more hardline position where they’re going to have to take countermeasures. So this is about one of the most militaristic Congresses, substantially influenced by a variety of factors, the weapons industry, which is just reaping a massive windfall profit from the Russia hysteria along with the Saudi arms deal, and is deeply ideological. You have figures like John McCain driving these sanctions, someone who’s not only funded by the weapons industry but is also a hardcore, neoconservative ideologue. They’re going to tie the hands not only of the Trump administration, which came into office seeking to do detente with Russia around a variety of issues that related to deescalation in Syria and Ukraine, they’re trying to tie the hands of any future president, which means aggression and brinksmanship with the only country in the world that’s capable of destroying us with nuclear weapons. I don’t think the public grasps how dangerous this is. Sharmini Peries: Max, in that interview with Oliver Stone, Vladimir Putin came across quite even-tempered, quite rational in terms of his approach to what’s going on in the region and even the excursions into the borders of Russia by NATO. He was very cool in it all compared to what appears to be almost a rabid wartime attack on Russia when it comes to some of the spokespeople in Washington. How do you account for these two different approaches? Max Blumenthal: Russia’s clearly the weaker party. Its last military budget was one-tenth or one-fifteenth what the United States budget is, and that ratio will grow more disparate after the at least $55 billion increase in the military budget that Defense Secretary Mattis has proposed. Yet, we’re being told that Russia … We’ve been told by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of the Pentagon, Joseph Dunford, he testified before Congress that Russia is the main threat to the United States and that it poses an existential threat to the US. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran are essentially surrounded by US military bases and by NATO. Yet, Putin is kind of projecting calm in these interviews with Oliver Stone. If you listen to the rhetoric in Washington, it’s pure hysteria, and it’s hard to make sense of it. We believe that we have been attacked by Russia, and we have to respond. I think that hysteria in many ways in manufactured, and it’s calculated to drive the imperial machinations of what I think you could fairly call a deep state or a national security state or even a permanent war state. We’ve been at war for 15 years across the globe with no end in sight. How can you say there’s a deep state? These sanctions are the perfect example. Whenever there’s polarization in Washington … We just had several members of Congress shot at a baseball game yesterday by someone who appears to have been ideologically motivated, who hated the Republicans and hated their policies and what they were doing. We’ve never seen so much polarization in Washington, and yet, Congress comes together to pass this sanctions bill with only two dissidents, two dissenters, sorry. That follows another bill that was passed around sanctioning Iran where Bernie Sanders was the only person to speak from the floor against it. You can go back to Libya, the vote on NATO intervention in Libya, which has proven to be an unrequited disaster and contributed to a massive refuge crisis and destroyed not just an entire country but destabilized that whole region of Africa. That was taking place during the debate over the debt limit, which was a ferociously polarized debate. Yet, there was total consensus with Rand Paul as the only outlier. There’s always consensus within the Appropriations Committee for allowing some of the ‘Black Budget,’ the budget that’s sort of opaque to fund the CIA’s training and arming of Syrian rebels, and now we know that they’re substantially led by the Syrian franchise of al-Qaeda. This is always occurring amid polarization in Washington, so you have to ask yourself, “Why?” It is because we have an unelected, opaque, non-transparent deep state, which is driving these policies, and the people on Capitol Hill from Elizabeth Warren to John McCain to the right wing of the Republican Party are giving full consent. Again, I don’t think the public understands the danger of this. They see the Russia issue through the lens of partisan politics. Sharmini Peries: Max, just two days ago, Rex Tillerson appeared before the Senate panel and advised against passing this measure. It also now has to go to Congress, and then it has to go to Trump. Any chance that Trump will veto this bill given what’s going on in Washington with the Russiagate hearings? Max Blumenthal: But in the context of the investigation over Russia collusion, which has accused even Senator, sorry, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, someone who colluded openly with neo-confederate groups to subvert American democracy, accused Sessions of being a nefarious Russian plant who colluded with Russia. In that hysterical atmosphere, for Trump to veto this bill, it will only contribute … It would be like me going to Sea World and throwing raw tuna into the pool of seals. It would just be feeding the press and feeding Trump’s opponents who are just surrounding him over this Russia investigation with more chum and driving the investigation even further. I think that’s part of why the investigation has been deployed, is to hamstring diplomacy with Russia. Who’s stimulating the investigation? Who’s stimulating the partisan democratic grassroots known as the resistance? It’s figures from the national security state with these anonymous leaks. They only leak over Russian diplomacy. They only leak when Trump and his people are meeting with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak or meeting with Russian officials, Lavrov. They’re never leaking, for example, when Trump goes to meet with the Saudi Arabian monarchs. So that’s the situation Trump is in. Does he veto it? I think it’s very possible, but you’re going to see intensification of the manufactured outrage around Russia. Sharmini Peries: All right, Max, I thank you so much for joining us today. Max Blumenthal: Thanks for having me. Sharmini Peries: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.