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The likelihood of a U.S. war with Iran is increasing, despite alternately isolationist and provocative messages coming from Trump administration officials.

The U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln is now sitting off the coast of Iran, and the U.S. has asked its non-emergency personnel to leave nearby Iraq. Meanwhile, there is a debate about images of what the New York Times described as “missiles on small boats in the Persian Gulf that were put on board by Iranian paramilitary forces.” Whether those missiles photographed were offensive or defensive is important in determining whether the U.S. is  misrepresenting Iran’s actions as threatening.

Director of the Tri-Continental Institute for Social Research and Chief Editor of Left Word books Vijay Prashad and The Real News Network’s Sharmini Peries discussed the U.S. and Iran, Trump’s supposed isolationism in contrast to National Security Advisor John Bolton’s warmongering, and how little the rest of the world, including many U.S. allies, support war with Iran.

“Something that we need to also consider is that unlike the U.S. move to attack Iraq in 2003, when world governments, particularly governments that are part of the U.S. alliance, sort of lazily went along with the United States in this case,” Prashad told Peries. “I think people are less interested in a war on Iran. And the evidence for that perhaps can be seen in two different places: One, the European Union certainly is not interested in this war … They are not even interested in a tightening of the sanctions regime.”

Peries stressed the effects of the sanctions on Iran: “The U.S. is escalating their economic war against Iran daily. I mean, the sad situation was that when when there was terrible floods in Iran, the Red Cross wasn’t able to mobilize the way they would in another country because of these economic sanctions.”

The actual bombing of Iran, if it did happen, would be devastating, Prashad explained. “It’s going to be an all-out bombardment of Iran which Iran will not be able to defend against, you know, if it’s merely an aerial bombing. The United States has the capacity to flatten cities in Iran,” Prashad said. “I think we have to be very sober about this.”

Prashad pointed to the fact that Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister of Iran, recently met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. It is telling, Prashad explained, because Japan is a close U.S. ally, and even Abe has stressed that Iran is a stabilizing force in the Middle East: “Japan is not going to go along, it seems to me, with any kind of a U.S. adventure against Iran,” Prashad said.

Then there are the contradictory statements coming out of the U.S. administration, with Trump, Bolton, and Pompeo alternately agitating, aggravating, threatening, and provoking Iran.

“Remember that during the campaign [Trump] sounded almost like an isolationist. I mean, he said that the United States must remove itself from its entanglements. Before that he criticized the Obama administration for using threats against Iran for electoral gain, and so on. So he has an open record here of being wary of entering into a conflict,” Prashad said. “[But] Mr. Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton has made some very dangerous statements about Iran. There are provocations from the United States made against Iran trying to egg Iran towards a conflict. So one should not be the sanguine about this, I think one has to take this very seriously.”

Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

This week, US-Iran tensions escalated to new heights. The United States deployed the [Abraham] Lincoln carrier strike group and a bomber task force the region, claiming there was a credible threat by the Iranians in the Persian Gulf. Then two Saudi tankers and Norwegian ships were apparently attacked near the Persian Gulf, which some say was a false flag operation. The attacks took place against the backdrop of US-Iranian tensions, which followed Washington’s decision this month to try to cut Tehran’s oil exports to zero, and beef up its military presence in the Gulf in response to what it called Iranian threats. Then on Thursday, the New York Times reported the Pentagon was drawing up a war plan, and sending 120,000 troops to the Middle East in case the US decides to strike Iran. The Pentagon also noted that 120,000 troops were insufficient if a ground invasion was ordered. Then the State Department ordered non-emergency government employees in Baghdad, and in the consulate in Erbil, to leave the country because of an escalating threat from Iran.

Adding fuel to the fire, Iran has announced that it will stop complying with parts of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal, and resume high-level enrichment of uranium in 60 days if other signatories to the deal do not take action to shield Iran’s oil and banking sector from U.S. sanctions.

To discuss all of this we are joined by Vijay Prashad. Vijay Prashad is the director of the Tricontinental Institute, and he’s also the editor-in-chief of LeftWord Books. Vijay, good to have you here.

VIJAY PRASHAD Thanks a lot.

SHARMINI PERIES All right. Vijay, explain these contradictory messages that are coming out of Washington about their war plans for Iran.

VIJAY PRASHAD It, I think, would be silly not to be very alarmed by what we’re hearing from Washington–the arrival of the USS Abraham Lincoln, the fighter group that is now sitting off the coast of Iran. I think it’s also alarming that the United States has asked its personnel to leave Iraq. I think this is something that people need to take very seriously, largely because Mr. Trump’s National Security Adviser, John Bolton, has made some very dangerous statements about Iran. There are provocations from the United States made against Iran, trying to egg Iran towards a conflict.

So, one should not be sanguine about this. I think one has to take this very seriously. On the other hand, Sharmini, I think this is something that we need to also consider, unlike the US move to attack Iraq in 2003 when world governments, particularly governments that are part of the US alliance, sort of, lazily went along with the United States. In this case, I think people are less interested in a war on Iran and the evidence for that perhaps can be seen in two different places. One, the European Union certainly is not interested in this war. In fact, it’s dismayed that Mr. Trump had walked away last year from the nuclear deal. It’s dismayed that the US government has pushed for much deeper, much more harsh sanctions against Iran with the withdrawal of the waivers on the 1st of May. The Europeans are certainly not interested in a war. They are not even interested in a tightening of the sanctions regime.

But I think the indications must be seen also elsewhere than Europe. You know, on Thursday, Mr. Zarif, the Foreign Minister of Iran, met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in his home. They had a long and fruitful conversation, at the end of which the Japanese made it very clear that they are opposed to the sanctions regime. Earlier, the Japanese Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, Mr. Seko, said that Japan would try its very best to continue to buy oil from Iran. But I think most importantly, Shinzo Abe, a man of the right, a man with the propensity to keep very little daylight between his government’s policy and that of Washington DC, nonetheless said that Iran is a factor of stability in West Asia. This is, I think, something people need to pay quite serious attention to because the Trump administration, and of course the Obama administration before that, has portrayed Iran as a meddler in the region– meddling, as it were, in Iraq, in Syria. Of course, the United States meddling there is perfectly acceptable, but they’ve tried to portray Iran as a, sort of, rogue state in West Asia, but here is Shinzo Abe, a very close ally of the United States, an important actor in the G7 and in the G20. Here is Shinzo Abe coming with a very different approach towards Iran, saying Iran is in fact a force of stability and not a rogue state. I think this needs to be paid attention to. Japan is not going to go along, it seems to me, with any kind of a US adventure against Iran.

It’s important to remember that Mr. Trump is a highly unpredictable leader, and an unpredictable leader with an immense military is a very dangerous combination. On the other hand, one of the important things about Mr. Trump is that he has made almost a religion of saying that he keeps his campaign pledges. You might remember that during the campaign, he sounded almost like an isolationist. I mean, he said that the United States must remove itself from its entanglements. Before that, he criticized the Obama administration for using threats against Iran for electoral gain, and so on. So he has an open record here of being wary of entering into a conflict, let’s say, of the Iraq scale. I think this is part of the thinking, the DNA as it were, of conversations in the White House. At the same time, of course, he has brought on board probably one of the world’s most dangerous people, and that’s John Bolton. The combination of Bolton and Trump’s relative isolationism, I think, is what is probably causing a great deal of furious conversation inside the White House. It’s obvious that Mr. Bolton wants some sort of conflict with Iran. He wants to provoke Iran. He wants to squeeze Iran. He wants to create chaos further in that region.

I mean, let’s expand this conversation just a little. The United States, under the leadership of Zalmay Khalilzad, had attempted once more a dialogue with the Taliban and to try to bring some sort of resolution in Afghanistan. Those talks went nowhere. I’m told that the talks went nowhere because there was inadequate leadership from the White House about where they should go, but let’s be fair to Mr. Khalilzad. These are not easy talks. I mean, we’re dealing with on the one side, the government of Ashraf Ghani, who is the president of Afghanistan. We’re dealing with the Taliban, we’re dealing with Pakistan, different factions, and so it’s not an easy set of talks. Nonetheless, the talks have failed. The Taliban immediately struck against mainly aid offices in Kabul, killing aid workers, and so on. I mean, you already have a situation of mere chaos in Afghanistan, which is on the eastern flank of Iran. On the western flank in Iraq, you’ve barely got a country that’s starting to get stable after that war of aggression by the United States in 2003. Further west, you have Syria, where it’s not clear there’s sufficient resources to help build that country up. And then, in the middle of all this, you want to start another war on Iran, opening Pandora’s Box once more, creating terrible chaos. By the way, you know people may not realize this, but Iraq has a population of about 23-24 million. Iran is three times the size of Iraq in population terms. You have to understand that we’re dealing now with people who are willing to, in a very adventurous way, start a bombing run against Iran, which is going to open an area to further chaos when we’re coming slowly perhaps to some situation of normalcy, near normalcy, in Iraq. We hope to open a chapter in Syria which is not going to entail war.

This is a very dangerous thing that Mr. Bolton is proposing, with the backing of the government in Israel and so on, to bomb Iran and create further chaos– from the Pakistani border all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. I think this is very disturbing.

SHARMINI PERIES All right. And then, add to that, Vijay, what is going on in the Persian Gulf. Saudi oil tankers were sabotaged just recently and, of course, Iran said they would carry out an investigation over this. And then, of course, the US [is] preparing for some sort of turbulence in the area because they have evacuated the US embassy in Iraq. What is this all about, and your assessment of the role of the Saudi’s in all of this?

VIJAY PRASHAD First, I think it’s important to say that the Iranians are infinitely weaker, in military terms, than the United States, and, in fact, the Gulf Arab states, which have built up their arsenal over the years and have shown well that they can’t win wars as in Yemen, but they can really destroy a country. I mean, they are very well-equipped. The Iranians, because of this asymmetrical situation, have not been able to say that they’re going to be able to defend themselves against an all-out onslaught. I mean, look, they’re not a suicidal government. They’re not going to try to provoke some kind of attack that’s the scale of what took place against Iraq. So, I think that needs to be understood, that this is a government in Tehran that’s not keen on having a war, because it’s not going to be a war. It’s going to be an all-out bombardment of Iran, which Iran will not be able to defend against if it’s merely an aerial bombardment. You know, the United States has the capacity to flatten cities in Iran. This is not something that government wants to do. Yes, there has been some sort of attack on the Saudi oil tanker, and I think we have to be very sober about this, because the United States has shown that it’s capable of doing all kinds of mischief in order to provoke wars. I’m putting on the table here the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. We don’t know what happened there. The press just jumps into this, accepting whatever the US State Department and the White House says, as if it’s true. Let us proceed with an investigation. The Iranians are correct. Call in the United Nations, if need be. Investigate how these oil tankers were struck. Was this drone an Iranian drone? Was it something that was not from Iran, but from elsewhere? I mean, why take an incident like that at face value–in other words, at the value that the White House wants to place on it–and then move to something as dangerous as a war? Why not take a pause, study it, look and see what happened, and understand that in this case it’s quite clear that not only do the Iranians not want a war, but nor do people like the Qataris, the Iraqis, nor many countries in the region.

SHARMINI PERIES Right. Vijay, finally, let’s unpack the meeting that Pompeo did have in Moscow, both with the President Vladimir Putin, as well as Pompeo’s counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister. What came of that meeting that is noteworthy?

VIJAY PRASHAD I mean, look, for at least four or five years, Mr. Lavrov has demonstrated the ability to appear as the adult in the room. I mean, this is a very shrewd diplomat. He understands the platform of speaking on behalf of no conflict, multilateralism, and so on, has a certain purchase around the world. People are, I think, quite fed up with the, kind of, bullying attitude of the US government when it comes to foreign policy. Mr. Lavrov, in that sense, at least in the court of public opinion around the world, has an advantage and he’s had an advantage when he’s talked not only about Iran in this case, but about Venezuela as well. He’s talked about soberness, the necessity of dialogue, phrases that I think are quite welcome on the world stage around the world. Mr. Pompeo, I think, understands that he is at a disadvantage. Talking about how Iran is dangerous is not credible for most of the people around the world. Even when the Japanese Prime Minister is saying that Iran is a force of stability, that the Japanese want to continue to trade for oil, when a country like Japan is not going to tow Pompeo’s line, he is decidedly out of step with international public opinion. I think that was very clear at this meeting once more, where it was Pompeo who had to try hard to put his message across. Look, in Jerusalem at the same time, the US Ambassador, Mr. Friedman, stood with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, and said that the Israeli people have an enormous advantage. In other words, God is on their side. That kind of comment coming from the Trump administration is totally out of step with international thinking, and I think this is now something that people like on Pompeo, intelligent people, people who understand where the world is, I think they have come also, perhaps, to see how out of step they are.

SHARMINI PERIES Vijay, China has clearly stated it’s carrying on business as usual with Iran in terms of oil, in spite of the US economic sanctions against Iran. Also, Germany and the EU are trying to find ways to continue to do business with Iran. Obviously, even with the constraints that Russia is feeling, they’re going ahead, and you’ve so clearly stated here that Japan is also in that camp. Yet, the US is escalating their economic war against Iran, daily. I mean, the sad situation was that when there was terrible floods in Iran, the Red Cross wasn’t able to mobilize the way they would in another country because of these economic sanctions. What do you make of the current sanctions, and will these other forces who challenge the US, in terms of the implementation of those sanctions, will they win out here?

VIJAY PRASHAD Well, an important person in Beijing, a professor who is one of the leaders in formulating Chinese thinking about the world, said late last year that by the year 2023, we will no longer be living in a unipolar world, nor will we be in a multipolar world, but we’ll be in a bipolar world. What he was suggesting was that you are now seeing the emergence of two major powers that are contesting not only territory, but contesting the idea of how the world order should be managed, and obviously, these two powers are the United States and China. The US moves against China, whether it’s the trade war that Mr. Trump has put in place, or this attack on Iran, which has got a lot to do with Chinese authority over Eurasia. I think this is another indication, in other words, the Iranian situation is another indication of this bipolarity, emergence of bipolarity, and the American attempt to prevent it. I mean, look, for the Europeans, for the Germans and others, it’s clear that they want Iran to continue to provide them with fuel. That’s their solitary interest and much the same for Japan, but the Chinese have another interest.

It’s not merely about the provision of oil and natural gas to China, but Iran plays a very important geographic role for the Chinese project of the Belt and Road Initiative. I mean, if Iran is no longer part of it, China’s attempt to build a massive rail and road infrastructure and a port infrastructure–You’ve got to remember that the Chinese have ports in the Indian Ocean trying to link this region. It’s called the String of Pearls strategy. The String of Pearls, the Belt and Road, all of this requires Iran to be a stable country so that the roads and rail lines can run through Iranian territory, all the way into Europe. That’s part of the Belt and Road Initiative. You’ve got to see, this pressure on Iran, in particular, it’s not just about Israel and the fears of Iranian aggression in the areas, as they put it. It’s not just that. It’s also, I think, a very powerful way for the United States to challenge the Belt and Road Initiative, which is largely a fait accompli across Eurasia. That’s the reason why the Chinese, I think, are so obstinate and stubborn about this. You know, they’re not going to walk away from their partnership with Iran. It’s not just about buying oil. It’s also about developing the infrastructure for the Belt and Road and String of Pearls initiatives.

SHARMINI PERIES All right. We’ll leave it there for now, Vijay, but I thank you so much for taking us around the world here. Of course, there is the BRICs countries, and where countries like Brazil and India would, of course– where they would locate themselves in this Iran question is also interesting, but we can take that up another time. I thank you so much for joining us.

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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.