Discussing Iran with Stephen Kinzer

“Ironically, the NIE may have made war with Iran more likely,” Kinzer, author of All the Shah’s Men, says in this exclusive interview for The Agonist

American corporate media may not believe it as they throw primary and caucus results at us in a daily staccato, but the world keeps spinning. As important as the question, who’s going to be the next American president, certainly is, there are other issues that require our constant attention and us not letting our guard down. With the publication of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran last December, the media has declared Iran no longer an issue. The military option is off the table for the foreseeable future. Matter closed.

We shouldn’t let ourselves be deceived or lulled into false of security by the recent NIE. The Bush administration has quite a reputation of actually being that quick on the trigger. The danger of war with Iran during this administration is not avoided until January 20, 2009. Not a second earlier we should allow ourselves the luxury of sighing in ultimate relief – or not, depending on the outcome of November’s election.

As veteran journalist and prolific author Stephen Kinzer argues in this exclusive interview with TheAgonist, contrary to common belief, the NIE may have made war with Iran even more likely. Kinzer believes the threat so immanent that he has enriched his All the Shah’s Men with a new foreword, titled “The Folly of Attacking Iran,” and launching an eponymous coast-to-coast tour in partnership with JustForeignPolicy.org and a wide host of prominent anti-war organizations such as Americans for Informed Democracy, the National Iranian American Council, and Peace Action. With my own author’s tour for The Writing on the Wall almost being completed, I thought it interesting for all of us to learn how Mr. Kinzer asses the current situation and what goals he has set himself for his The Folly of Attacking Iran-Tour.

Hannes Artens: Stephen, as we speak, you and your organizer, JustForeignPolicy.org, have embarked on a 22 cities, one month, coast-to-coast tour warning the American public against war with Iran. Besides you having worked as a veteran foreign correspondent for, and bureau chief of The New York Times and the Boston Globe, you’re the author of All the Shah’s Men, detailing the ’53 CIA orchestrated coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeqh, as well as more recently, Overthrow. America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. You launching such a tour now, almost appears as a premonition of another regime change in Iran actively being in the works. How likely is it that instead of writing a new foreword for your book, you’ll soon find yourself writing another chapter for Overthrow dealing with Iran?

Stephen Kinzer: I certainly hope this doesn’t happen. That’s the reason why I’ve embarked on this tour and why I’ve published this new edition of All the Shah’s Men. I do think that the danger of an American attack on Iran has not receded, has not evaporated. I believe that if Americans allow this prospect to fall off their radar screen and stop worrying about it, that’s one thing that could make war even more possible. It will lead people in Washington to believe that Americans don’t care, one way or the other. The release of the recent National Intelligence Estimate should have been enough to take this option off the political agenda. Nonetheless, we’ve heard from senior officials in Washington, including the president, that the NIE doesn’t change their opinion at all. We’ve heard from President Bush that even if Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapon and is not building one, just acquiring the knowledge that would allow it to develop one some day, that would be almost enough to justify harsh actions, including perhaps military action. The release of the NIE makes it also highly unlikely that the United States would find allies in the world for tougher sanctions on Iran. I fear this may lead some in Washington to reason that since the sanctions option is off the table, the military option is in fact all that’s left. I believe that President Bush feels the urge to address this issue once and for all before the end of his term, that he has to address this before it materializes. I think he’s making a leap in reasoning and applying this logic to Iran, he believes that the Iranian threat is gathering and that it would be irresponsible not to launch an attack before it’s too late. For all this reasons, I think, the military option is still on the table and hope Americans will realize that and act as if this is a real possibility.

Hannes Artens: That’s what I’ve encountered on my tour, that the presidential race and the economy overshadow all other issues now. There’s a general belief that due to the NIE, the threat of war has been banned. It’s no longer worth paying attention to. As you’ve said, this lack of attention, basically letting Bush off the hook, together with sanctions having become a non-seller, this may actually result in a military option being considered again. So I don’t think that you can exaggerate this threat, as I was told once. I’d like to discuss a bit with you how this NIE, that was basically a slap in the face for the Bush Administration, came about. It was completely unexpected and pretty much put Israel and Bush’s European allies off. What are your thoughts on the background of this becoming public?

Stephen Kinzer: I’m no Washington insider, so I don’t know if I can answer this. But it must be true that many people in the intelligence establishment were very disturbed how intelligence was misused in the run up to the Iraq war. They wanted to make sure this is not repeated. They took a course of action this time that not only led to this NIE, but also to it being made public. This signals a serious, deep division within the U.S. government. There are experts in the policy process who want to try to influence the decisions being made by elected officials. In a perfect world, you may like to think that decision makers are influenced by the opinions of experts. On the other hand there are people in the White House who clearly resent experts not only voicing their opinions but having made these public. So they want to demonstrate their independence from those experts and may pursue actions that are the complete opposite of what these experts have recommended.

Hannes Artens: This gets me to the recent incident in the Strait of Hormuz that has been interpreted by many in the left blogsphere and Daniel Ellsberg as an attempt to repeat the Gulf of Tonkin. Personally, I think this is exaggerated. This incident has been cooked up to add additional drama to President Bush’s visit to the Arab Gulf States and rally their support behind his hawkish stance. What’s your take on this incident?

Stephen Kinzer: Honestly, the more interesting incident to me was the seizure of a dozen British marines a couple of months ago. I recall that Prime Minister Blair was very clear that he would use diplomatic means only, that there would not be anything on the table than negotiations. He was repeatedly asked, what are you going to do if negotiations don’t work. And he kept saying, they have to work, there’s no alternative; this will be resolved diplomatically, there’s no other option. And I kept asking myself, what if a similar episode would happen with American marines? Do you think the U.S. might be that insistent on resolving this matter diplomatically? On the contrary, I fear it might be seized on as a proof that Iran is inherently hostile to the U.S., that we’ve been attacked, and have no choice but to strike back with cruise missiles.

Hannes Artens: Given this constellation we’ve been outlining, I think, the wild card in all this is Israel. They feel abandoned, betrayed by this White House. How do you asses the likelihood of Israel launching preemptive strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities, counting on the situation to escalate and dragging America into the conflict? This clearly is the scenario Dick Cheney is banking on now.

Stephen Kinzer: I think that is a possibility, but I don’t think Israel would launch an attack, if it was told by the U.S. that this is something the U.S. doesn’t want. Israel would only act unilaterally in a way that isn’t really unilateral. Israel will do it, if it does it, in a way that will seem unilateral. But Israel won’t take such a huge step without some tacit approval or encouragement from Washington.

Hannes Artens: That’s exactly what I’m asking. What if it gets this tacit encouragement through the back door?

Stephen Kinzer: That’s a definite possibility. To prevent this, Washington would have to make clear, in public and in private, that an attack on Iran isn’t a good idea. But this is something we’re clearly not going to see with this administration. And that’s another reason why the danger of an attack is so high over the next eleven months.

Hannes Artens: Concerning your and my anti-Iran-war tour, one problem we analysts, academics or investigative journalists are facing, is that we tend to preach to the choir. We don’t have to convince CODEPINK or the Iran Action Network that war with Iran would be the ultimate catastrophe, but we often fail to reach the broader public informing themselves on Fox News. This is why I have written The Writing on the Wall: to interest and engage ordinary Americans, who are no subscribers to Mother Jones, in these issues through fiction. I deliberately depict a worst case scenario of what could happen, if the U.S. were to attack Iran, how this would affect the lives of each and every American in order to arouse them from their listlessness. How does The Folly of Attacking Iran-Tour address this dilemma and try to reach out to a broader public?

Stephen Kinzer: One thing we’re trying to do on this tour is to reach beyond people who are political activists. One way you can do this is through the press. We’ve made a special effort to reach out to editorial boards, have enlisted people for this tour with close contacts to the media, and we’re organizing radio interviews and other kinds of press contacts that would not be possible if we all weren’t that engaged in this tour. I think one of the reasons why many Americans are not focused on the increasing hostility between the U.S. and Iran is because they don’t hear about it in the press they read every day. The press needs to focus more on this. And to bring the press to focus on it, is one of the major reasons why I have launched this tour. The press has not given the American people enough information for them to make a decision on whether it’s a good idea to attack Iran. On the other hand the press has given every American more than enough information to decide on whether Brittney Spears is a good mum. To reverse that and to provide people not so much with opinions but just facts so that they can exercise a rational judgment is what we try to accomplish with this tour.

Hannes Artens: Right. And this is what I found most shocking about the incident in the Strait of Hormuz. That corporate media took the press release from the Pentagon at face value and without checking facts immediately went on air with it. Let’s talk a bit about the future. Next year we’ll have presidential elections in Iran that could result in a victory of more moderate forces – the more so with the Iranian economy at present being in greater shambles than the American. If Iran were to reach out to the U.S. then, as they did in 2003, it is pivotal for them to find an interlocutor in the White House who is not only willing to listen to them but also to talk with them. How do you asses the chances of a moderate victory in Iran next year, and what are your thoughts on the current survivors of the presidential race here concerning their Iran policy?

Stephen Kinzer: The reason we’ve been not engaged in serious diplomacy with Iran is that the presidents of both countries are caught in a paradigm of conflict. It serves their interests. Both are people who favor confrontational policies to allow them to justify their own refusal to negotiate. In some way, they’re mirror images of each other. They feel that if you speak to the world in a language of force, it is a way to rally people behind them. There’s no doubt that just the way the attack on the U.S. in 2001 has rallied the American people behind their government, an attack on Iran would do the same. President Ahmadinejad doesn’t only not fear an attack, but feels that an American attack would be his key to history. The only way that President Ahmadinejad will ever be remembered as a hero by his people and as a defender of Islam is, if the United States attacked Iran. He knows that and that’s why he tries to bait the U.S. in doing it. I think that the fact that there are no willing interlocutors on both sides can change dramatically over the next one and a half years. I think it quite possible that we will have a very different kind of president not only in Washington but also in Iran. The great challenge is to prevent an attack from happening until the people of these two countries have had a chance to express their political will.

Hannes Artens: I couldn’t agree more with you, but what’s your take on the positions of the presidential candidates in the U.S. concerning Iran. I mean the positions of Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain on this are as different as day and night?

Stephen Kinzer: I was clearly taken aback by the militancy of Sen. McCain; I was pleased that Sen. Obama expressed his willingness to negotiate not only with countries that are your friends but also with those you may not like. But the idea that negotiations with Iran can produce long term stability and contribute to U.S. national security isn’t an idea of the left or right. There’s actually no reason why a conservative Republican should not embrace this view. And I was deeply disturbed by Sen. McCain issuing these hostile provocations. I’d like to think that he’s just throwing red meat to his base, but it may also be that he wants to maintain this paradigm of hostility. And this will keep playing into the hands of his counterparts in Tehran.
Hannes Artens: Stephen, thank you very much for your time and sharing your insight with us. Good luck on your tour, and I hope that you’ll manage to convince thousands that war with Iran would be the ultimate folly.

To learn more about Stephen Kinzer’s The Folly of Attacking Iran-Tour, his tour dates and co-speakers – Barbara Slavin, Chris Hedges, and Trita Parsi among them – click on the link above.
My own The Writing on the Wall-Tour on Iran still will have me speaking at Ithaca College/NY tonight, at Boston University and at Borders/School Street, Boston on February 14 and 15 respectively.

Hannes Artens is the author of The Writing on the Wall, the first anti-Iran-war novel.

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Who among the two Democratic candidates talks of no blank check for war against Iran?

    Who signed on the Kyle-Liberman legislation fascilitating the process of mobilization against Iran?

    You have got your answers as to how the whole Iran affair may play out. At least if people are not distracted by the cult of personality issues, ultimately designed to cover exactly the differences discussed above.

  • …of interesting articles by Mark Fitzpatrick who used to be with State that are interesting to read with the contents of the NIE in mind.

    Fitzpatrick, M. (2006). Assessing Iran’s nuclear programme. Survival, 48(3), 5-26.

    Fitzpatrick, M. (2007). Can Iran’s Nuclear Capability Be Kept Latent? Survival, 49(1), 33-58.

    “A survey data set containing imputed values should not be analyzed uncritically as if all the data were real values.” ~ Graham Kalton

  • Obama wasn’t even present when they voted on the Kyle-Lieberman legislation. He didn’t want to vote on it or thought that his rally in NYC was more important. Now, this is obviously better than Clinton actively voting for the legislation, but it still stinks imo.

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