Posted by: Dick Wesley | November 3, 2007

Targeting Iran ~ David Barsamian at the Roundtable

David Barsamian is an independent journalist as well as founder and Director of Alternative Radio ( ). He presented his critique of US policy toward Iran and the American media coverage to the Citizen Roundtable on October 30, 2007. Like Picasso, Barsamian sees things from a different perspective. He raises a number of provocative questions:

1) Is US policy in the Middle East the product of a desire to promote freedom and democracy or does it stem from a desire to control a major source of the world’s oil?
2) When does American-Iranian history begin? Does it begin with the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979? Or does it begin with the CIA-assisted overthrow of the democratically elected leader Mohammed Mosedegh and installation of the Shah in 1953?
3) Why do Americans learn of British Imperialism, French Imperialism, German Imperialism, and Soviet Imperialism but not American Imperialism?
4) Why did Henry Kissinger support the development of an Iranian nuclear program in 1974 and condemn the development of an Iranian nuclear program in 2004?
5) Barsamian asks why the debate on US policy toward Iran seems to be limited to either sanctions or pre-emptive war and does not include discussion of negotiations.
6) Why is the autocratic government of Egypt’s Mubarak described as moderate and the theocratic government of Iran described as part of the axis of evil?
7) Why is Iran being blamed for ruining the success of the American invasion of Iraq? Could it be that the US decision to invade Iraq or that the US strategy of the occupation was flawed?
8 ) Why do 50% of Americans feel that an attack on Iran is justified? Why did 50% of Americans feel that an attack on Iraq was justified before it occurred? Is the US media providing objective information or publishing Bush Administration propaganda?
9) Why in 2005 did the New York Times require 14,000 words to describe the faulty reporting of Jason Blair but less than 1400 words to analyze a self-described failure of reporting before the Iraq invasion?
Please share your answers to thes questions with us. What additional questions do you think that engaged citizens should be asking?

Dick Wesley



  1. I asked DB about the possible difference between Democrat and Republican approaches to international relations. He felt there was very little difference in this dimension. He may be right that the differences are more within the parties than between them.
    Certainly it is true that the neo-cons got their start with Sen. Henry Jackson (D-WA) and that there is a legacy (mostly now gone) of internationalists in the Republican party. It also seems to be true that it is a policy shared by both parties that the primary purpose of American foreign policy is to make the world safe for American corporations. While it may be that this is one wholly legitimate objective of a foreign policy, the problem is that for some it is their only foreign policy objective.
    It is also true that not all Democrats share the philosophy enunciated by Kennedy and LBJ: “Your Nation must always be prepared to have its leader go anywhere, talk to anyone, make any plan that can honorably be made to achieve understanding. The day and the time and the era for government by ultimatum was yesterday and is gone forever.”
    The reaction to Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Syria, in this Democratic tradition, was remarkable, especially in the editorial pages. Even worse was the reaction to comments by Sen. Obama when he said something similar – other Democrats accused him of naivete at best and stupidity at worst.

  2. Perhaps the American people have learned something from Iraq — even though the news media seem to be reporting Iran much as they reported Iraq: from the perspective of the Bush administration.

    Recent polls suggest that Americans want negotiation not military action. A CNN poll showed that even though 77% believe that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, 68% oppose military action. A September CBS poll showed that 59% favor diplomacy.

    How can these wishes of the public be made more effective?

    For more polls on Iran, check out polling report.

  3. As someone who has lived and reported on much of the turmoil David was talking about that evening (from the birdseye view of “corporate media” in the Middle East and as an embedded correspondent in the Iraq war), I will confirm that his own research and reporting is impeccable. There’s no doubt that what I like to call the “military entertainment complex” has a cozy relationship, and that at least in network TV news, U.S. foreign policy is often embraced and applied.

    I don’t necessarily agree with all his conclusions. I think Iran is dangerous and deeply paranoid. It sponsors global terrorism. It supports Hezbollah (I’ve seen those mammoth posters of Khomeini in southern Lebanon). It kills its dissidents. It wants to eradicate Israel. Yes American foreign policy is often misguided and responsible for much of the strife we have around the planet.

    But we cannot afford to stick our heads in the sand on Iran. They were always more of a threat than Iraq (well, at least since 1979, again, the U.S. is partly to blame for that). War won’t work. Sanctions don’t help. However, we should not suddenly believe that open dialog is going to convince a pro-apocalyptic regime to suddenly play nice. Ultimately, I think the USA needs to speak out of both sides of its mouth (an age-old practice in that part of the world) — no public threats, but a lot of behind the scenes machinations to contain Iran. And let the Iranian people do the rest.

  4. While it’s always enlightening to hear people who are intimately informed about both our current situation and our history, I’m afraid that I kept closing my eyes and hearing again the polemics of Noam Chomsky. In contrast with Hans Blix, who spoke on this campus a week or so ago and was equally — though more tactfully — critical of the many mistakes the United States has made and keeps making, Barsamian offered no positive steps we can still undertake, and presented only the dismal past and the dismal future. Speaking to an audience of activists, he might have been more effective if he had spent less time on history with which most people were familiar and more on envisioning a future we can influence.

  5. Nancy makes an excellent point. Once we identify areas in US policy toward Iran which we would like to alter, how best do we have an effect on our country’s policy?

  6. Nancy is concerned that Barsamian offered no positive path and Dick wonders what a positive path might be. I have delayed jumping in because I have only a longish answer. I suggest that the only thing that will work is constructive engagement and, further, that we are not likely to get it while the current U.S. Administration is in power.

    As Barsamian noted, the United States orchestrated the imposition and support of the long, repressive, regime of the Shah. The U.S. military is now heavily ensconced in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait, essentially hemming Iran in (even if we did Iran the great favor of removing both the Taliban and Saddam Hussein). We are allied with the other states on Iran’s borders. One ally, Saudi Arabia, sits heavily armed (again, supplied by us) just across the Gulf, and is ruled by Sunnis who despise the Shi’ites of Iran. Note also that we have aircraft carriers threateningly poised off-shore in the Persian Gulf. Iran suffered enormous casualties at the hands of a U.S. supported Iraq in the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s. As Joost Hiltermann noted yesterday at his excellent presentation at the Batelle Institute, when Iran begged in 1984 for the prosecution of Iraq for violating Geneva Convention prohibitions of the use of biological and chemical weapons in the war, the international community shrugged and looked away. Cheney and other Administration figures now regularly pronounce, in the same manner that they made pronouncements about Iraq in late ’02 and early ’03, that they hope they won’t have to go to war with Iran. What should Iran make of such statements? Our Administration declares that Iran refuses to negotiate, but the Administration itself refuses to negotiate unless Iran first discontinues its nuclear power or weapon (they are blurred) development processes and proves that it has done so.

    Amadinejad is a tyrant and Iranians who don’t love the mullahs are oppressed. He makes bellicose statements about Israel. We are not likely to develop a friendship with this man. Should we invade, or more likely perhaps, just drop bombs, Amadinejad and the mullahs will only find it more imperative to build up strong defenses – such as a nuclear weapon. They also can use our aggression to whip up nationalistic fervor and support, thus actually strengthening their hold on power.

    Frankly, it is possibly too late to deter Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. We are experiencing blowback from a lot of past – and even ongoing – actions. If the historical tables were reversed, if another government had imposed a brutal dictatorship on us, if we had never developed powerful weapons, if we had been ravaged in war by an enemy using WMD, if our historical enemy now sat, massively armed, in Canada and Mexico and off-shore and demanded that we roll over, would we? Or would we be determined to build our defenses?

    We need to negotiate with Iran – without preconditions. We may, ultimately, need to accept that Iran is going to seriously arm itself – really, why wouldn’t it?. So why then negotiate? We have to do what we can, regardless of the nature of the Iranian government, to negotiate mutual security. We will need to offer carrots and not just threats. We will need to make tradeoffs. We did that with the Soviet Union and neither of us dropped bombs on each other. If I may echo Hanson above, we must seek containment. Maybe, if we are really good, we might even convince Iran not to develop a nuclear weapon.

    If Cheney and company decide to destroy Iraq’s suspected nuclear program with our bombs, be prepared to worry for a very long time about Iranians orchestrating an attack with a dirty bomb or even a purchased nuclear weapon at one of our ports. Maybe they’ll even succeed. We cannot bomb our way into security under the current circumstances.

    Such a negotiation process will likely take a long time and evolve. I honestly don’t believe the current U.S. regime is capable of such practical, patient, diplomacy here. I’d love to see real regime change in Iraq, but we desperately need it here at home too. Barsamian stated (or seemed to) that there was no significant difference between the Republicans and Democrats. I understand this conclusion, especially when we see someone such as Senator Clinton passively voting to let Bush go to war with Iraq (I don’t accept her spin about that vote) or more recently voting to declare part of the Iranian military a terrorist organization. Nonetheless, I do not believe that any one of the Democrats now running for president would drop bombs on Iran under these circumstances. It is also more likely that these potential presidents would negotiate. Respectfully disagreeing with Barsamian here, that is a significant difference between Democrats and this Republican administration (even if we’d all like much more difference). We still have 14 months left on this Administration, however. Impeachment looks unlikely. Things do not look good right now. Barsamian had good reason to be bleak. This Administration may simply not be concerned with public opinion that opposes a new war. Others, such as Hans Blix, are more optimistic and do not believe the Administration will do anything so extreme. I hope Blix is right.

    So – this is what our government can do and might and might not do. Maybe Dick was actually asking about what we, as citizens, can do. Well, we can write letters to the editor, write op-eds, speak out, organize rallies, and march in the streets – all acts our Constitution’s authors viewed as essential rights – and even duties – in a republic. I have already opined that the current Administration may not, however, care about public opinion. Such dissent may thus have no effect on actual policy. Such manifest dissent may, at least, communicate to the rest of the world that U.S. citizens want a saner course – and it may influence the subsequent administration.

    This is almost a postscript, but there is one other critical thing we must do that will positively affect our relationship with Iran – and all other Muslim lands. We must make it one of our very highest priorities, and forcefully act, to establish an authentically independent Palestinian state and then, regardless of whether we like its government or not, employ something like a mini-Marshall Plan to set up industries and farms, build its economy, and employ its people. This is so long overdue. We must simultaneously continue to help Israel defend itself, but Israel would also need to step forward strongly and truly in support of the independent state. Yes, there will still be extremists who seek the total end of the Israeli state. But there likely will be far, far, fewer than there are now. Palestinians are exhausted and most, I think, will accept this outcome. If we actually lead the way, however belatedly, in liberating the Palestinians from their shameful occupation and subjugation, we will likely gain new and significant respect in the Middle East. Such action will also, likely, greatly deplete the ranks of potential recruits for those who support aggression against either the United States or Israel. It would also be, simply, the right thing to do.

  7. I appreciate this discussion, and wanted to chime in on the subject of civic/citizen engagement. I apologize for getting too off-topic.

    While I can only speak to my own experience, I wanted to flesh out the importance of youth involvement to long-term systemic change (as opposed to immediate, current administration affect as Mr. Jansen touched on).

    I am currently putting together an Op-Ed piece that addresses the collective psyche of the college student (in this case, at UW). To frame this premise, I am using the example of Friday’s FCC hearing on media ownership. David Barsamian helped to promote this when he was here, which I think illustrates his concern for there *to be* positive solutions — *to be* access in the media.

    Along with a wonderful grad. student in the Communications program, I helped organize and facilitate a workshop for undergrads, grads, and the public alike to learn about the background and reason for the hearing, and to learn about creating effective testimony. Although there was short notice, there was disappointingly low turnout.

    Further, although there were a few UW students sprinkled throughout the audience at the hearing itself, the UW community was vastly underrepresented. I don’t have numbers yet, but I can say with confidence there were probably more high school students participating in this very important, very relevant civic dialog. What does this mean?

    I plan to survey those UW students who were aware of the workshop and hearing but could not participate. I hope to uncover the different reasons and rationale for the lack of participation, and hope that will contribute to the broader discussion about civic engagement, youth, and social change.

    Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any suggestions, criticisms, feedback, etc. Thanks!

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