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Vijay Prashad and Trita Parsi join Paul Jay to discuss the New York Times article, ‘Iran Dominates in Iraq After U.S. ‘Handed the Country Over”

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PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. On Sunday, The New York Times ran an article front page titled “Iran Dominates in Iraq After U.S. ‘Handed the Country Over’” written by Tim Arango. The basic thesis of the article is the United States fought or invaded Iraq, I don’t think he even uses the word “invasion,” fought in Iraq for democracy, whereas Iran was sitting conspiring to turn Iraq into a client state. He goes on to write that Iran is expanding, and the implication is a threat. Here’s a quote from the article. “The country’s dominance over Iraq has heightened sectarian tensions around the region, with Sunni states, and American allies, like Saudi Arabia mobilizing to oppose Iranian expansionism. But Iraq is only part of Iran’s expansion project; it has also used soft and hard power to extend its influence in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, and throughout the region.” This, of course, this article comes at a time when Donald Trump recently was in Saudi Arabia more or less calling for war on Iran, calling Iran the greatest threat, the state sponsor of terrorism, that there’s no way to fight terrorism without confronting Iran. Now joining us to discuss this article in The New York Times and the real Trump foreign policy, which seems not to be ISIS but to be far more about Iran, is Vijay Prashad. Vijay is the George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and Professor of International Studies at Trinity College. He’s the author of 20 books including The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution. Also joining us is Trita Parsi. He’s founder and president of the National Iranian American Council. He’s the author of the book Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy. Trita, you recently wrote something that war against Iran is back on the table with Trump, and it seems to me this New York Times piece helps bolster Trump’s argument. What do you make of this moment? TRITA PARSI: The way it does bolster the argument is because there is this misperception as to why the nuclear deal could be struck in the first place. There is this perception that the sanctions were so crippling that the Iranians were forced to the table and to negotiate, and had the Obama administration just continued with the pressure a little bit longer, the Iranians wouldn’t have just come to the table, they would’ve capitulated as well. However, as I reveal in the book, that’s actually not at all what happened. The secret negotiations in Oman reveals that a very different reality existed, and a reality in which the sanctions pressure that the U.S. was bearing on Iran, which was immense, nevertheless was outpaced by the advances in the Iranian nuclear program, meaning that the Iranians would have a nuclear fait accompli much sooner than the economy would collapse, forcing the United States to choose to either stick with that path and then only have the option of accepting an Iranian nuclear capability or going to war or, alternatively, shift over to diplomacy and try to find a better solution, which is what the Obama administration did. A lot of the critics of the deal say what that did is that it did not address the expansion of Iran or its policies in the region, and it wasn’t intended to either. In fact, it was these very same critics that said that the nuclear issue was an existential issue, and as a result, they were responsible for pushing it to not only be on the number one of the agenda but to completely dominate the agenda. Then, once that issue was resolved, they’re complaining that other issues were not addressed, even though they themselves were opposed to other issues being included in the agenda. One of those issues, of course, is that Iran does have a far greater influence in Iraq right now than the United States does, and it is very much a result of the American mistakes and the fact the Iranians play their cards much more cleverly. PAUL JAY: Vijay, the underlying issue here is that Iran is the destabilizing expansionist influence in the region. The fact that The New York Times chimes in on this right at the same time Trump is making this really his main foreign policy issue reminds me of the 2003 invasion when The New York Times played a similar role. VIJAY PRASHAD: It’s upside down really. If you look at it analytically, it was the two American wars, that is the U.S. war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and the U.S. war against the Ba’ath government in Iraq, it was these two wars that actually provided Iran an opportunity. After all, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein’s government were historic enemies of Iran, and when the United States essentially decapitated Iran’s enemies, it provided Iran with an opportunity to have a much more robust regional engagement. In fact, what’s interesting, Paul, is that since the illegal American war and invasion of Iraq, the United States has desperately tried to push Iran back to its borders, including using techniques such as, of course, this nuclear weapons threat and the war that Israel then launched against Hezbollah. It’s actually not quite accurate to say that the United States might go to war against Iran. In fact, in many ways, the United States has already been at war with Iran, if not against the territory of Iran, certainly against Iranian allies in the region, and most recently, at the Syria-Iraq border where there’s been quite pitched fighting at some of the border posts between the Iranian-backed forces and the U.S.-backed forces. PAUL JAY: The article, Trita, it makes a very big point about the influence Iran has over Iraqi politics, that members of parliament, they listen more to Iran than they do to United States, and so on. But isn’t it kind of natural that if you’re Iran, who was subject to a terrible war with Iraq for many years and lost hundreds of thousands of people, now has on its borders an Iraq that’s in complete chaos with sectarian fighting raging and militias of all kinds back and forth, isn’t it kind of natural that a country would then try to do something to subdue those forces so they don’t spill over its border? TRITA PARSI: It’s been a paramount interest of the Iranians to ensure that Iraq is not again in the hands of a government that would be vehemently anti-Iran or to be a government that is a proxy of the United States, mindful of American hostility towards Iran. So the Iranians’ absolutely top priority is to make sure that Iraq would ever again be able to launch such a vicious and bloody attack against Iran as it did in 1980. I think that is obviously quite understandable. What is so absurd, to be completely frank with you, with the article is that it is painting all of America’s intent in the absolute brightest and most loving way. The invasion of Iraq was because of our passion for democracy. Iran selling detergent and fruits to Iraq is because they’re trying to subjugate the Iraqis. The combination of putting all of the American intent in the best possible way and everything Iran does in a negative light, I think actually reveals something – what it ultimately is about is control. The United States and Iran have been at odds with each other because the United States established an order in the region after the end of the Cold War. The Iranians oppose that order. It was an order that was based on their isolation and exclusion, but it was actually not the Iranians that managed to bring down that order. It was the United States itself. By going into Iraq, it destroyed the dual containment policy and the order that existed. Because Iraq and the invasion of Iraq ended up being such a disaster, the United States weakened itself to the point that it was no longer in a position to reestablish an order. Ever since, the region has essentially been orderless, and in an orderless region, that essentially means that it’s a region that is transitioning from one balance of power to the next, which by definition is the most unstable periods for a region. That is a period also, of course, in which the rivalry between countries that have the capacity to potentially impact the future balance of power is going to intensify. That’s exactly what we’re seeing. The underlying context of that article is this pain that Iraq is not an American proxy state, that some other countries have managed to expand their influence there instead of the United States being able to be the dominant power in Iraq. PAUL JAY: Vijay, Trump, when he spoke at the CIA, spoke about a second chance to get hold of Iraqi oil. Here’s that clip. DONALD TRUMP: The old expression “to the victor belong the spoils,” you remember I always used to say, “Keep the oil.” I wasn’t a fan of Iraq. I don’t want to go into Iraq, but I will tell you, when we were in, we got out wrong. I always said in addition to that, keep the oil. I said it for economic reasons, but if you think about it, [Mike 00:09:47], if kept the oil, you probably wouldn’t have ISIS because that’s where they made their money in the first place. So we should’ve kept the oil, but okay. Maybe we’ll have another chance. But the fact is, should’ve kept the oil. PAUL JAY: Vijay, they seem, the Trump administration, to want to pick up where the Cheney-Bush administration left off. They didn’t like the removal of troops in Iraq, and they seem to want to go back, both in terms of the Iraqi oil and they want to support the current prime minister of Iraq who’s more pro-American than most of the other Iraqi government and parliament is, and using as a staging ground against Iran. Do you think that’s a correct assessment, and then how serious are they about this? VIJAY PRASHAD: It’s interesting that in Tim Arango’s piece, he doesn’t say anything about Iraqi Kurdistan. Iraqi Kurdistan, since 1991, has largely been a protectorate of the United States. In fact, if you travel to Erbil, it’s quite interesting. It begins to look like a Texas city. That is a place with a great amount of Iraq’s oil. It is announced last week that there is a consideration to have a referendum on Iraqi Kurdistan’s, perhaps, independence. So there was no mention there of a place where the United States actually has what is tantamount to a colony, which is Iraqi Kurdistan. There is no real need to have the rest of Iraq in American hands for a staging ground into Iran if Iraqi Kurdistan is a full colony of the United States. So I don’t think one should assume that Trump’s interest with Iraq is to have it as a staging ground against Iran, but he does reveal very strikingly the kind of ulterior motives, the kind of subterranean motives that Trump quite often brings to the surface. The talk about seizing the oil was a vulgar way of putting it, whereas in the Bush administration, they may have been slightly more cagey. Tim Arango may have forgotten that even during the time of the 2003 invasion, American officials quite frequently said that they’d get Iraq to pay for the invasion and occupation, which is another way of violating international law, seizing assets by the occupying power for its own use. I think that, in a sense, the Trump administration has been ramping up the pressure against Iran. There’s been already attacks on Iranian forces inside Syria. I think the pressure is certainly very high inside this administration, dangerously high, but I don’t think there’s any real need for the Trump administration to use Baghdad to launch a war when there are so many other options that it has. PAUL JAY: I think, yeah, the people making the argument say it’s primarily about the oil, but the stabilization of Iran seems to be a primary objective. Trita, the fact that the New York Times weighs in on this, I think goes to show how much this is a bipartisan consensus, this focus on Iran, that this isn’t just Trump. TRITA PARSI: Certainly. I think we have to keep in mind that, and what I called in the book, is an institutionalized enmity between the United States and Iran. There are plenty of people in the bureaucracy and the media who frankly have made a career out of just being able to vilify the other side. That is also true in the Iranian case. It’s very important to understand that, to a very large extent, this is a two-way street. I think what we’re seeing here is that when it comes to taking military action, when it comes to pursuing policies that one could perhaps call imperialistic, that is not just something that has support on the neo-conservative end of the spectrum. It does have plenty of support elsewhere within the foreign policy elite. We saw that when the president launched missile strikes against Syria, for instance, how much that- PAUL JAY: Nobody cheered more than Chuck Schumer. TRITA PARSI: So there’s a plenty amount of hostility there. I think what it really does come down to again is that there is strong elements within the U.S. foreign policy establishment that believes that the United States needs to hard hegemony in the Middle East. If you’re seeking hard hegemony in the Middle East, then you are automatically on the opposite side of Iran because the Iranians have opposed any extra-regional power having a dominant position in the region. That was also the case during the time of the Shah, and it will likely be the case once there’s a different regime in Iran as well. It will also mean that you will turn a blind eye to the many sins of the Saudis including their killing of Americans by spreading terrorism because the Saudis, at the end of the day, want and yearn for American hegemony. They want to live … In fact, they want it more than some Americans want it. As a result, so the primary objective of hegemony trumps the fact that the Saudis are supporting terror. The primary objective of hegemony also trumps the fact that the U.S. and Iran do have common interest against ISIS and in other areas in the Middle East. So that is a very strong driving force. This is where the previous administration differed because they believed that the Middle East, frankly, had lost a tremendous amount of strategic significance and that it laid in the U.S.’ interests from a global perspective to not be as engaged in the Middle East, leave the region in a way, not leave the region but enable the region to stand up for its own security rather than having the United States becoming a proxy of Saudi Arabia to fight every battle and war for them, and shift its focus instead eastwards. With Trump coming in, we’re back to the more standard American approach in which almost in an unquestionable way, hegemony in the Middle East is seen as an automatic national U.S. interest. PAUL JAY: Vijay, what do you make of progressive left politics in the United States to the extent to which how much of it, both in terms of news sites and political organizing and such, is completely quiet about the Iran issue? Is it because the leadership of the Democratic Party is so much on board with this focus on Iran or what? We’re one of the few outlets that keeps going at this issue. VIJAY PRASHAD: The Iran issue has dropped off the table, certainly. I think this obsession with the Russian meddling in the election and so on has put blinkers on progressives about the very, very great expansion by Mr. Trump of the bombings in Syria and in Iraq. Airwars has a report out which just shows how the Trump bombings were almost double what we saw under the Obama administration, much more vicious bombings in Mosul and now in Raqqa. So there’s been a kind of blinkered vision of critique vis-à-vis Mr. Trump, but I think that’s not the only reason, Paul. The other reasons is this great debate around how to understand the war in Syria has certainly fractured sections of the American left, one part of it which believes, I think quite erroneously, that the problem in Syria is Iran and the problem in Syria is Russia. That part of it doesn’t understand the genesis of the conflict inside Syria and doesn’t understand this regional issue of Iranian attempts to be a regional power and how the Americans, since at least 2003, have tried to block Iran, have used sectarian rhetoric borrowed from Saudi Arabia to once more try and encage Iran into its borders. This split in the American left over Syria has also, I think, confused people around the question of Iran with some people buying into the mainstream narrative that Iran is a problem in the region. PAUL JAY: All right, Trita, Vijay, thanks very much for joining us. I hope we do this again soon. VIJAY PRASHAD: Thanks. TRITA PARSI: Thank you so much. PAUL JAY: And thank you for joining on The Real News Network.

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Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor, and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and (with Noam Chomsky) The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power.