In the Imperial Crosshairs

Against the Current No. 211, March/April 2021

David Finkel

Retargeting Iran
By David Barsamian with Trita Parsi, Ervand Abrahamian,
Noam Chomsky, Azadeh Moaveni and Nader Hashemi
San Francisco: City Lights Books/Open Media Series, 2020,
184 pages, $14.95 paperback.

“AMERICA IS BACK,” proclaimed Joe Biden in his first presidential foreign policy address. It never actually left, of course; the imperial ambition to rule the world is a constant. But among the many challenges the Biden/Harris administration faces — as it seeks to restore stability and predictability to foreign policy — is what to do with the regional political, military and humanitarian mess that team Trump has created around Iran and its neighbors. The disaster includes the continuation of a war in Yemen that has virtually destroyed that country.

The multilateral Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, known as the Iran nuclear deal), from its inception in 2015 until Trump’s withdrawal in 2018, successfully constrained Iran’s nuclear development program and promised lifting of crippling economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic — promises that were never really fulfilled. At the present moment, Biden is making the first exploratory attempt to restore it, but refusing to lift the sanctions that make life in Iran close to unbearable.

“It’s ironic,” says Noam Chomsky, “that when Iran was a loyal client state under the shah in the 1970s, the shah and other high Iranian officials made it very clear that they were working to develop nuclear weapon. [Henry Kissinger when later asked] said, very simply, ‘They were an ally then.’” (75)

As one participant in David Barsamian’s new collection of interviews acidly observes, it’s doubtful that Trump could have located Iran on a map. But Trump’s trashing the JCPOA and imposing “maximum pressure” with devastating effects on Iran’s economy and population appealed to the hardline militarist, rightwing evangelical and militant Zionist components of his political support.

“In addition, a big part of Trump’s opposition to the Iran nuclear deal is simply that it has Barack Obama’s name on it,” suggests Nader Hashemi. (158) The effects have been appalling for the Iranian population, while also seriously damaging U.S. global standing among its imperialist allies.

Trump himself never wanted a real U.S.-Iran war — unlike Israel’s prime minister Netanyahu and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, who didn’t want to attack Iran themselves but hoped the United States would do so.

In fact, a series of provocations and counter-provocations ensued with U.S. and Iranian drones shot down, and a serious Iranian-backed attack on Saudi oil facilities.

These culminated with the U.S. assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani at Baghdad’s international airport, followed by Iran-backed militia rocket attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, causing no confirmed deaths but multiple serious brain injuries. And then the catastrophic, apparently accidental shootdown by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps of a Ukrainian civilian airliner taking off at Tehran.

At one point, a U.S. air strike against Iran was called off by Trump shortly before the planes were to reach their target. The possibility of a regional war jumping off by accident or miscalculation was not trivial. “In my view,” says Hashemi, “had American troops been killed [in the retaliatory attack following the Soleimani assassination], Trump would have likely retaliated against Iran, and there goes the Middle East.” (182)

That many of these events barely remain in our memory attests to the chaotic state of current realities, where one week’s disaster is superseded by the next — and how easy it is to forget the sheer human damage that U.S. “foreign policy” inflicts.

Understanding the Crisis

In Retargeting Iran, a followup to his earlier collection Targeting Iran (2007), the prolific interviewer and Alternative Radio host David Barsamian presents a set of conversations that put the present situation in context. The discussions and the book’s publication preceded the U.S. election, but they greatly help us understand how we got here.

Trita Parsi is co-founder of the National Iranian American Council and author of the definitive work on the JCPOA, Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy.  Ervand Abrahamian, professor emeritus of Iranian and Middle Eastern history and politics at Baruch College, City University of New York, is author among other works of The Coup: 1953, the CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S. –Iranian Relations.

Noam Chomsky, of course, hardly needs an introduction. He’s been interviewed by Barsamian on numerous occasions and topics. Azadeh Moaveni, now Senior Gender Analyst at the International Crisis Group, is a veteran journalist, expert on social justice struggles in Iran and co-author with feminist activist Shirin Ebadi of Iran Awakening. Nader Hashemi is Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, and author or co-editor of several books including Sectarianization:  Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East.

I cite these credentials in order to make the point that these expert observers are hardly obscure or difficult to find. Yet with rare exceptions they are hardly if ever seen on mainstream U.S. media, including the liberal cable CNN and MSNBC channels with their endless hours of coverage of Trump’s antics, Ted Cruz’s aborted Cancun vacation, or the latest pseudo-events in the life of the British royal family.

Is their absence perhaps because they’re partisans or apologists for the Iranian clerical dictatorship and its brutal human rights record? Not at all.

I’d particularly recommend Nader Hashemi’s review of the popular democratic movements in recent Iranian history — the Green Movement following the 2009 rigged election, the hopeful 2013-15 period with the election of Hassan Rouhani and negotiations leading to the JCPOA,  and the protests of 2017-2019 of the poor and unemployed against rampant corruption and disastrous economic conditions. As to the brutality of repression, Hashemi notes, “When it comes to regime survival, the Islamic Republic observes very few moral limits.” (166)

Equally notable is Azadeh Moaveni’s careful discussion of both advances as well as setbacks for women since the 1979 revolution in areas of education and employment, health  and divorce, going beneath the surface issue of repressive dress codes  which, she says, “has always been weaponized by the West against Iran. This has undermined the Iranian women’s movement, because it has encouraged the government and the security services to view women’s activism around dress codes (and even more broadly) as a security concern.” (119)

To Break the Logjam

Indeed, a recurring theme throughout the discussions is how U.S. aggression and Iranian regime repression are mutually reinforcing. As Trita Parsi points out of the “hard-liners” who control much of Iran’s economy, “their opposition [to president Rouhani and the JCPOA] was ultimately rooted in fear that an opening up of Iran to the West entirely would be very detrimental to their interests.  They are not incorrect in that analysis.” (25)

Ervand Abrahamian, in the chapter surveying “four decades of hostility” between the United States and Iran, states: “Donald Trump and the people around him are mistaken to think that economic pressure from the U.S. is going to unravel the Iranian system. In fact, it might even strengthen the hard-liners in Iran against moderates who believe in negotiating with the West.” (45)

This highly readable collection will illuminate how the malignant U.S.-Iran conflict emerged, but also what needs to be done to break the logjam. Nader Hashemi (175-6) concisely lays out the program for ending the war drive as well as constructively assisting human rights and democratic struggles inside Iran.

For U.S. activists it must begin, of course, with demanding the immediate end of sanctions imposed on Iran and its people. On this critical necessity there can be no compromise or “honeymoon” with Biden’s administration as it seeks to bring back “stability” and “normality” to imperialist policy. As Noam Chomsky characteristically puts it, “what is needed is for the population of the U.S. to ‘normalize’ their own country, and matters can then proceed from there.” (93)

March-April 2021, ATC 211


  1. great synopsis…David,
    Iran must remain the scapegoat, by America & Israel…that is the dastardly plan …

    thanks for your “right-on” work.

  2. While comrade Finkel’s anti-interventionist positions are commendable and principled, alas the same cannot be said about National Iranian American Council (NIAC) or its yuppie/yuppie wanna be base; since their ultimate goal in opposing the sanctions is to be part of further opening up Iranian economy to privatization and neoliberalism.

    The so-called “Reformist” faction of Islamic Republic (IR) which NIAC supports and acts as its lobby in the US, are actually the ones responsible for injecting Neoliberal policies in IR since the late 80’s. [1]

    Fortunately for readers of _ATC _there’s no need to explain why opposing IR’s “hardliners” doesn’t mean supporting the so called “reformers.” Nonetheless it should be noted that collapse of IR’s economy in the past few years is mainly due to intrinsic structural factors (institutionalized corruption, incompetent management, currency devaluation, inflation…) with sanctions enhancing and aggravating these structural deficiencies. Even after sanctions are lifted majority of Iranians will continue to live below poverty level, as they are now, since IR has reached a level of political, economic, social decay which no reform could save.

    Iranian social movements (women, labor, students & youth, national minorities…) are the forces opposing IR’s fascistic rule at the moment and also the forces which shall have the honor of overthrowing it. [2]

    Sanctions against Iranian people have got to go.

    So does Islamic Republic of Hell.

    Down with Islamic Republic of Iran!

    –Hooshang Tarehgol


    2-Council power in the Iranian labor movement

  3. “to normalize ‘our’ own country . . .” might be too much to ask. But might be required to realize or even to identify any worthwhile goal.
    Thank you for your thinking and your work . . .

  4. Here is another comment from Hooshang, which he was unable to post:

    Anti-Interventionism has always been a cornerstone of radical and progressive politics in the US. Though some of the allies which these anti-interventionist movements have had might not necessarily qualify to be so. In that regard two contributions from this book (Parsi and Moaveni) come to mind.

    It’s a bit ironic to say the least that Chomsky has an article in here, next to Parsi, whose advisor for his PHD thesis was none other than Zbigniew Brzezinski. Eventually when “bigZ” (as Parsi affectionately refers to him) passed away, Parsi wrote an emotional obituary for his “beloved teacher.”

    Last week Ms. Moaveni in an interview with a Persian cable news service, unconditionally condemned all 2019-2020 protests and protestors, calling them hooligans and vandals. And not a word about vandalism and hooliganism of Islamic Republic’s Neoliberal policies which leaves no option other than street protest for Iranian people.

    Needless to say, after that interview all progressive and radical Iranian social media began referring to Ms. Moaveni with the hashtag

    #enemey of the people.
    دشمنان_مردم #

    She works for “The International Crisis Group”, below is an article from New Left Review, on the true nature of this outfit:

    Complicity of the International Crisis Group

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