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Prof. Sabah Alnasseri and Paul Jay discuss a front page NYT article that blames ‘Iranian expansionism’ for sectarian war in Iraq and the region; says the U.S. invaded Iraq to establish democracy

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PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. In a Sunday New York Times front page article titled “Iran Dominates in Iraq After U.S. ‘Handed the Country Over’” written by Tim Arango from July 15th, the case for Iranian expansionism is laid out. The term itself is much preferred in Saudi Arabia, Israel, and of course the United States. The article comes at a time when the Trump administration has made its real foreign policy agenda not ISIS but confronting Iran. Here’s Trump speaking in Saudi Arabia in May. DONALD TRUMP: Starving terrorists of their territory, of their funding and the false allure of the craven ideology will be the basis for easily defeating them, but no discussion of stamping out this threat would be complete without mentioning the government that gives terrorists all three: safe harbor, financial backing, and the social standing needed for recruitment. It is a regime that is responsible for so much instability in that region. I am speaking, of course, of Iran. PAUL JAY: The thesis of Arango’s New York Times piece is that America invaded Iraq to promote democracy while Iran conspires to take advantage of the crisis to dominate Iraq. Arango writes, “When the United States invaded Iraq 14 years ago to topple Saddam Hussein, it saw Iraq as a potential cornerstone of a democratic and Western-facing Middle East, and vast amounts of blood and treasure — about 4,500 American lives lost, more than $1 trillion spent — were poured into the cause.” The cause being democracy. “From day one, Iran saw something else: a chance to make a client state of Iraq. If it succeeded, Iraq would never again pose as a threat, and it could serve as a jumping-off point to spread Iranian influence around the region. In that contest, Iran won, and the United States lost.” There’s so many things to unpack here, it’s hard to know where to start. There’s no mention of the false claim of weapons of mass destruction or the fact that almost everyone that’s ever studied the reasons for the U.S. invasion has come down to one simple conclusion. As stated by Larry Wilkerson on The Real News, he was former chief of staff to Colin Powell, “But if I boil it down to the purest strategic ingredients, oil is the only thing that makes any sense.” That’s Wilkerson. Trump has openly called for a second chance to seize and hold Iraqi oil. All this will come under the banner of fighting terrorism and blocking Iranian expansionism. Here’s Trump at the CIA in January. 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], if you 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: Just as The New York Times helped beat the drums for the Iraq invasion in 2003, they’re doing it again in support of Trump’s plan to get back into Iraq and confront Iran. Now joining us from Toronto, Canada is Sabah Alnasseri. He’s an associate professor of Middle Eastern politics at York University. His most recent publication is titled Arab Revolutions and Beyond: The Middle East and Reverberations in the Americas. Sabah is from Iraq. We did a whole series of interviews with Sabah’s own history, which you can watch on Reality Asserts Itself. Thanks for joining us, Sabah. SABAH ALNASSERI: Good to be with you, Paul. PAUL JAY: What do you make of this piece? United States went in to fight for democracy, and Iran sought to create a client state, as if the United States didn’t go in hoping for a client state. SABAH ALNASSERI: Right. The title is telling. “Handing over Iraq to Iran” sounds like as if Iraq is nothing but an object of desire for the United States and was taken away by Iran. The second thing is the timing is also very telling. It’s about Trump’s strategy of warmongering against Iran and de facto reoccupying Iraq. Remember, Paul, mid-May, May 14th, two days before President Trump went to Saudi Arabia, we discussed three major objectives of his trip to Saudi Arabia. These three major objectives now as [inaudible] messages are reflected in this articles. The first one is, of course, Iran is the major threat, is the absolute evil that threaten the whole stability in the region. The second message is that Iran is taking over not over politically and economically and culturally and so on, but it de facto rules in Iraq, something that the United States actually wished to do since the occupation of Iraq. The third thing we talked about is about the Minister President Abadi, and his trip to Washington before May 2017. I believe the agreement between the Trump administration and Abadi to push back against Iranian influence in Iraq and to slowly but surely bring back U.S. troop and military bases, de facto reoccupying Iraq and using Iraq as a stepping stone to threaten Iran. But not also Iran, I would say also Turkey and the strategy of the so-called anti-terror alliances with Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirate, and Israel. So the article is clearly written on the perspective of the Trump administration and its current strategy in the Middle East, especially in the Gulf region. The timing, as I said, is important in another aspect. Remember, Paul, a few days ago when Trump and Putin met at the G8 meeting in Hamburg, they agreed on the so-called deescalation zone in Syria. I believe Iran looks at this agreement as weakening of its position in Syria because they did not consider Iran in this scenario. So again, here Trump think through The New York Times that it is time now to escalate the conflict with Iran since he somehow had a sort of deal with Putin to push back against Iran, but I think he’s mistaken. PAUL JAY: The main argument here is, in fact, part of the Trump argument that there’s such a thing called Iranian expansionism, and this is the threat to the region. I’ll read another 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.” So what do you make of that? SABAH ALNASSERI: I can’t help but feel that the article is written actually, is about more the U.S. than Iran because all the fact listed are twisted in a way that it’s not the United States but it’s Iran that actually destabilizes Iraq. It’s not the United States but Iran who create all these militias that controls Iraq. It’s not the United States but Iran that introduced corruption to the country. It’s not the United States but Iran that actually tortured and killed hundred thousand of civilian in Iraq. It’s not the United States but Iran that actually seeks regional expansions and control and military presence. So it feels like the authors are writing about the U.S. desire, the U.S. wishes in the region rather than about the fact about Iran. In this sense, the facts are so twisted [inaudible] there’s [inaudible] of justification for Trump administration to go back again to Iraq, reoccupy Iraq, and reload the 2003 occupation in a different form, i.e., to control Iraq politically, control Iraq economically, to control Iraq militarily, and to control the geopolitics of the region, to threaten Iran and probably Turkey. So it’s much more actually about the U.S. desire, U.S. objectives rather than the factual presence of Iran in the region. PAUL JAY: And- SABAH ALNASSERI: Then … Yeah. PAUL JAY: I was going to say, and the other country that’s been very actively expanding and involved in overthrowing regimes and destabilization is Saudi Arabia, the great ally. Whether it was the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya or the destruction of Syria, Saudi Arabia’s been- SABAH ALNASSERI: Yemen. PAUL JAY: Yemen, of course. Saudi Arabia’s been in the middle of it all. SABAH ALNASSERI: Yeah, exactly. As I’m saying, the facts are put on their head, so it’s not like the United States and Saudi Arabia and their allies who actually introduced sectarianism in Iraq and in the region to pursue their policies there. It’s not the United States and Saudi Arabia and their allies who actually commit war crimes in Yemen and in Iraq and Syria and so on, but they are accusing Iran of doing things that they themselves actually committed and are still committing in the region. So the facts are put on their head as such that the victims appears as perpetrators and vice versa. PAUL JAY: In 2016, Tim Arango, the author of The New York Times piece that we’ve been discussing, writes quite a different story. It goes like this. “The gulf war began in January 1991, and so by now the United States has been using its military to shape events in Iraq for more than a quarter-century. And there is no end in sight: The next American president will almost surely be the fifth in succession to order airstrikes in Iraq.” Later in the article, he writes, “In considering the American legacy here, Iraqis weigh the benefits of being relieved of a cruel dictator against the seemingly unending costs, in destruction and death.” “We had been Sunni and Shiite living together, and they divided us,” a retired school teacher, Mr. Jamal, said about the 2003 invasion. “They divided the people. They destroyed the cities.” Later in the article, Taiseer Mahdi, 31 years old, a former soldier says, “They helped us get rid of Saddam Hussein, but they brought us a thousand Saddam Husseins.” Why there was not a hint of this type of reporting in the current piece blaming everything on Iran seems to point to what the agenda of this piece really was. So what do you make of this? Arango obviously gets how bad U.S. policy was for Iraq, he gets how the U.S. invasion destroyed Iraq, and none of this context is in the piece about Iranian expansionism and how Iranian dominance of Iraq is the cause of the problems now. SABAH ALNASSERI: Right. As we said before, the timing is very telling. We can add two dimension to the issue. The first one is, as we discussed also in May on The Real News, the current crisis in the GCC in the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Egypt accusing Qatar of supporting terrorism is de facto about Iran because they see Qatar as somehow [inaudible] Iran economically, especially when it comes to gas and oil fields and so on, and that the Qataris support the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and Egypt and Saudi Arabia, an organization that threatens their power politics. So if we add this dimension, the current Qatar crisis, and the second one, we discuss also at that time, Abadi’s visit to Washington and the shift in the Abadi’s administration much more toward the United States rather than Iran, we can understand now why the messages of this articles and their tone of it is completely different than 2016. I think it is written in a way to give legitimacy to the current Trump administration in the region, hoping that with the United Arab Emirates and the Saudis and the Egyptian and Israel and so on, they can again rearrange the political landscape in the region that suits the interest of the U.S. and their allies under the cover, of course, fighting terrorism, and the main cause in this scenario is Iran. I think, yeah, if I may, our job is not to engage in fake news but to bring facts that since 2003, as you said, or before everyone knows, and even the same journalists who wrote the article in 2016 knows very well that A, the United States would not been able to occupy Iraq without the support of Iran. If we think about all the allies of the United States in Iraq, the Shiite parties, Al-Dawa, the Badr Organization, the militias were all trained and supported by Iran. Second, all the government in Iraq since 2003 and the stabilities of the U.S. allies in Iraq, the Shiite and the Kurds, were supported and facilitated by Iran. Third, all the Iraqi minister president were picked by the United States ambassador, not the Iranians. Fourth, as we said before, all the destruction, the corruption of Iraq and, above all, the destruction of the security apparatus of Iraq that made the country vulnerable to all possible intrusion from all possible sides, from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey among other, ISIS in 2014, without the destruction Iraq and its military and its security, it would’ve not been possible either to Iran or to ISIS or to anybody else to enter the country and influence its politics and so on. So the main cause, the real fact here is the U.S. occupation and destruction, not Iran. PAUL JAY: Right. Just one final thing to add, the supposed argument in the beginning of this article that the United States invaded Iran for the sake of democracy- SABAH ALNASSERI: Iraq, yeah. PAUL JAY: If that’s true, that would be a war crime because the United States has no right under international law to go into any country and overthrow its regime and install democracy. That’s called a war crime. Anyway, thanks for joining us, Sabah. SABAH ALNASSERI: My pleasure. Thanks, Paul, for having me. PAUL JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Sabah Alnasseri was born in Basra, Iraq, and earned his doctorate at the Johann-Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. He teaches Middle East politics and economy at the Political Science Department at York University in Toronto, Canada. His publications cover various topics in Marxist political economy, Marxist state theory in the tradition of Gramsci, Poulantzas and Althusser, theory of regulation, and Middle East politics and economy.