Just World Podcasts

Story-Backstory ep. 13: Bolton: pushing the United States into a war against Iran?

May 17, 2019 Season 1 Episode 13
Just World Podcasts
Story-Backstory ep. 13: Bolton: pushing the United States into a war against Iran?
Chapters
Just World Podcasts
Story-Backstory ep. 13: Bolton: pushing the United States into a war against Iran?
May 17, 2019 Season 1 Episode 13
Helena Cobban / Chas Freeman
Show Notes Transcript

On this week’s podcast, Just World Educational's president, Helena Cobban, discusses the currently high tensions between the United States and Iran with Amb. Chas W Freeman, Jr., a very distinguished former American diplomatist and the author of a number of very informative books. The most recent of these are collections of his essays on, respectively, US-Chinese relations and US policies in the Middle East.

This week’s podcast is linked to a column Ms. Cobban wrote that ran May 15 on the Mondoweiss website, under the title “Bolton pushing United States to over-reach in Iran”.

In Ms. Cobban's interview with Amb. Freeman, he warns of some of the very dire effects that Pres. Trump's withdrawal from the six-party, 2015 Iran deal has already had on the rule of law internationally and on the continuing erosion of the safeguards the U.S. Constitution always placed on the executive branch's ability to enter willy-nilly into wars of choice. He warns of the dire consequences to be expected if Washington should get into a shooting war with Iran, and he assesses the roles that China, Russia, and the European countries that were also parties to the Iran deal might be able to play in defusing the tentions and de-escalating the conflict.

Helena Cobban:
0:09
Today, on Just World Podcasts: Bolton-- pushing the United States into a war against Iran?
Helena Cobban:
0:20
Hi, I'm Helena Cobban, the president of Just World Educational. This week's podcast is a special treat for the season finale for this current season. It's also number 13 in our multi-week "Story-Backstory" project, which explores Washington's current policies in the Middle East and the Middle East itself in a broader historical perspective. On this week's podcast, as we discuss the high tensions between the United States and Iran, my guest will be Ambassador Chas Freeman Jr., a very distinguished former American diplomatist, who served as US ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the military operations to oust Iraq from Kuwait in 1990-1991 and later was the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs.
Helena Cobban:
1:18
Ambassador Freeman is an accomplished linguist and also an expert on China and the US Chinese relations. In 1972, he was president Nixon's interpreter when Nixon made his historic first visit to meet Mao in Beijing. A decade later he found himself negotiating in Spanish with Fidel Castro over the withdrawal of Cuba's forces from Angola.
Helena Cobban:
1:46
Ambassador Freeman is also the author of a number of very informative books. The most recent of these are collections of his essays on respectively US-Chinese relations and US policies in the Middle East that were published by my company, Just World Books. Be sure to look for these volumes if you want to learn about these key aspects of US diplomacy. He is a superbly well-informed analyst and an engaging often very witty writer.
Helena Cobban:
2:20
The weekly podcasts in this Story-Backstory project are all linked to opinion columns written by me and published a couple of days earlier. This week's column ran May 15th on the Mondoweiss website under the title "Bolton Pushing United States to Overreach in Iran?" -- and this broadly is the subject I'll be discussing with ambassador Freeman in the current episode. In the column, I reviewed some of the alarming things that have happened in the past couple of weeks that represent a significant escalation of tensions between the United and Iran and I placed them in the context of the deterioration of relations that has been continuous ever since President Trump unilaterally pulled the United States out of the six-party denuclearization deal that President Obama and five other countries concluded with Iran in 2015.
Helena Cobban:
3:24
Like many other analysts, I had noted that exiting the Iran deal clearly seemed to be a project of national security adviser, John Bolton, who has long sought complete regime change in the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the article, I also reviewed the broad network of alliances that the Iranian government has built with counterparts all across the eastern Arab world, from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq to Yemen, and I briefly assessed the role of Israel in stoking US belligerency against Iran.
Helena Cobban:
4:02
Then at the end of the column, I made a comparison between Bolton and Antony Eden, the amphetamine-addled British Prime Minister, who in late 1956 worked with France and Israel to launch a military aggression against Egypt with the goal of galvanizing the Egyptian people to rise up and topple their feisty nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. There are many fascinating points of similarity between the two situations though of course, the analogy is not perfect. Most crucially, perhaps, John Bolton has not yet actually succeeded in triggering or launching an outright American military aggression against Iran.
Helena Cobban:
4:50
But I do urge you to go and read the whole of the article on Mondowise, which acted as something of a jumping off point for the interview I conducted with Ambassador Freeman that follows.
Helena Cobban:
5:02
Before I get into the interview with Chas Freeman, let me make my standard disclaimer that all the opinions and analysis that I express in this project are my own personal ones and they don't represent the views of Just World Educational or any other body. Let me remind you that you can find a lot of great resources on our website www.justworldeducational.org. On the homepage there, you'll see a button that will send you to all the content we've now produced in this Story-Backstory project.
Helena Cobban:
5:40
We have also been putting some great new blog posts onto our website in the past few weeks. There's a handy tab at the top of the homepage that will send you to the blog and another that tells you how you can donate to support our work. Please consider doing so. I urge you to explore all the resources that we make available at no cost online through our website and through our lively Just World Ed accounts on Twitter and Facebook. So now my conversation with ambassador Chas Freeman, which was conducted over a slightly imperfect connection for which I apologize.
Helena Cobban:
6:22
Chas, I'm delighted to have you on the podcast.
Chas Freeman:
6:27
Great pleasure to be here.
Helena Cobban:
6:28
So, this week we're looking at what's happening in the US-Iran relationship and the threat of escalation, which might be, it feels very unpredictable. And as you know, I wrote a column earlier this week pointing out some of the dimensions of this unpredictability. So, with your expertise, and from where you sit, how do you assess the consequences of a war that might break out who knows how, between the US and Iran.
Chas Freeman:
7:04
If there is a war, I don't think it will be inaugurated by Iran as a deliberate act of policy. Iran is very much on the defensive. I don't think it's likely that the Gulf Arabs who would applaud some sort of war, as long as they themselves are not involved in it-- I don't think they will inaugurate a war. Israel is, has been pressing a great deal for a war with Iran over many years hoping to have the United States do its dirty work. But mostly I think the Israelis, as you pointed out in your article, do this to distract from other things they're doing, particularly the absorption of the Palestinian lands, and the dispossession of Palestinians from.
Chas Freeman:
8:03
So if there's a war-- and I don't think Mr. Trump wants a war, he's just said he doesn't, and I think he's probably sincere about that-- but there are people in his entourage who have been consistently pressing for the use of force against Iran, notably John Bolton, and now he is assisted in that role by Secretary of State Pompeo. So if there is a war, it's most likely going to be the result of either some sort of false flag operation by Israel or one of the people around Mr. Trump, providing a pretext for conflict.
Chas Freeman:
8:52
And were such a war to happen, the results of course are entirely unpredictable except one can say a few things. The Iranians have had decades to plan against this contingency because there had been strident warnings of warfare from both Israel and the United States, constantly repeated over decades. So, the Iranians have the ability to retaliate against American bases and facilities and presences in the region, either with missiles or with unconventional warfare, which of course is indistinguishable from terrorism in the mind of the target. Iran may also have taken the trouble to place agents, actors on its behalf in the American homeland. It does not have the capability to strike the American homeland with conventional weapons, but it certainly has the ability to do so unconventionally again, and what we would see as a terrorist response.
Helena Cobban:
10:11
If I could just interject a moment and ask, when you're talking about unconventional warfare, what kind of things are you talking about? I've seen some reference to the possibility of cyber warfare.
Chas Freeman:
10:24
Yes, indeed, unconventional warfare includes both guerrilla action, the possibility of suicide bombers from Hizbollah for example, which pioneered that technique in response to the Israeli invasion and occupation of southern Lebanon. It includes cyber warfare. Yes.
Chas Freeman:
10:50
In fact Iran was the victim of the first known use of cyber warfare, which was Stuxnet, an attack on its centrifuges, apparently launched by the US and Israel acting together. And that precedent has ensured that Iran itself has developed quite a formidable capability to use cyber warfare against the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, UAE.
Chas Freeman:
11:24
Unconventional warfare also includes the possibility of sabotage, either direct as in the case of the apparent Houthi effort to use drones to knock out a pipeline in Saudi Arabia the other day, or on the ground through operatives in the Shiite community or Saudi Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran. Bahrain, which is the headquarters of the Fifth Fleet for the United States is also rife with pro-Iranian elements, who are quite capable of acting unconventionally, as it were, to use force against that American presence. So Iran is not without its ability to retaliate, even if it lacks conventional forces or a nuclear weapon that could counter those things on the US side or the Israeli side.
Helena Cobban:
12:32
So that would be, let's say an immediate, sort of the first two weeks of a war scenario. But as we both know, doing those kind of what are horribly called these days "kinetic actions" which actually means, you know, active warfare, also comes with massive after-effect. So, you know, you could knock out, as people have talked about knocking out, this or that Iranian facility or striking against something in Tehran, and then some retaliation. But to me, the more interesting question is what happens six months or six years down the line in terms of a political outcome? What kind of consequences would you see within that kind of a timeframe?
Chas Freeman:
13:25
Well, the sort of scenario we were just talking about, very likely results in the US invasion of Iran, which would make either Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan look like nothing much at all. Iran has also had time to prepare for that and it has done so, So, we're talking about a war that isn't going to end immediately, and since the objective of the war is essentially regime change in Iran and the Iranian people have every incentive to resist foreign attempts at imposing a regime, then I think we're talking about a longterm situation of warfare and that's very dangerous.
Chas Freeman:
14:20
You know, we should remember that the Trump administration, I think rather foolishly, designated the Iranian Republican Guard as a terrorist force. This is the first time that an element of a foreign state's army has been so designated.
Chas Freeman:
14:39
The Iranians immediately reciprocated by designating troops under the command of the Central Command, or Centcom, as terrorists. What this means is that each side declared that it considers the other's soldiers to be exempt from the protections of Geneva Conventions, to be subject to attack at will, and this is not a good precedent. So, I think we have to be prepared if we do get into a conflict with Iran for a very, very nasty set of punches and counter-punches-- some of them probably here at home in the United States.
Chas Freeman:
15:25
Anyway, the basic point I suppose is before you start a war, or even threaten one, you should ask yourself two questions. If I do this, what happens then? And then what? What does the other side do? And second, how do I end this? On what terms negotiated with whom?
Chas Freeman:
15:50
I think the great fallacy of the theories of maximum pressure that we're now seeing at work with Iran, with Venezuela, with North Korea, with Cuba, maybe a little bit with Russia, now with China, is the assumption that somehow or other coercion automatically leads to surrender. I know of no instance where it ever has. If you want to end a conflict, you have to reach a negotiated outcome that both sides can live with even if they consider it less desirable than it might be. So, I think we're talking about starting a war with no clear objectives, no war termination strategy, and with an enemy that will not feel bound by the rules that we insist others follow, even if we don't.
Helena Cobban:
17:01
I guess the war termination strategy, if there is one, is that Mariam Rajavi will ride into Tehran on an American tank and declare peace and democracy in our time, don't you think?
Chas Freeman:
17:17
Heaven help us!
Helena Cobban:
17:21
She is, for those listeners who are not familiar with the lady in question, the head of this organization that until recently was designated a terrorist organization the Mujahdeen E-Khalq, which, for a while had a contractual relationship with John Bolton before he became the National Security Advisor.
Helena Cobban:
17:39
Chas, you mentioned a little bit about China there and that leads me to ask another set of questions. Well, mainly one question. So the Iran Deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that was concluded by President Obama with the Iranian government had five or six co-signatories and co-negotiators, three of whom were European powers, Britain, France and Germany. And then there was Russia and China and the EU as a body and the UN as a body. But of those actors, you would hope that the all the non-American ones would have some stake in somehow, reinstating the JCPOA, the Iran deal, or in trying to-- I mean, you've seen some attempts by them to save it in the year since Trump left the Iran deal. But which of those actors is capable of doing anything at this point to defuse the crisis, both capable and willing?
Chas Freeman:
19:01
Well, there are multiple crisis have to be addressed, Yes, it's true that the Europeans, including the EU as an independent signatory joined with Russia, China and the United States to conclude the so-called JCPOA. That is true. More Important, the United Nations Security Council endorsed it. It is the subject of a Security Council resolution. The United States now finds itself in an odd position of sanctioning anyone who complies with the Security Council's resolution for which the United States itself voted. This is a frontal assault on international law and it is deeply resented.
Chas Freeman:
19:51
The Europeans understand very well that they need a relationship with Iran. They also, would like to see the sanctity of contract preserved in the new world disorder we have entered. They don't appreciate the habit of the Trump administration of undoing deals. So far they haven't done any deals, but they have undone a number of them, including the Paris climate accord, and some other things.
Chas Freeman:
20:28
So, I think this is a crisis in US-European relations. I think the Chinese and the Russians have had much lower expectations of the United States having experienced American unilateralism on multiple occasions over the years. The Russians have limited capacity to do much of anything to undermine the U.S. sanctions on their own. They could act in common with China, to do so. And here we are at a moment that is most uncertain and difficult to predict, because the Trump administration is going all-out to try to trip up China's progress in development and to pin it to the earth, if you will.
Chas Freeman:
21:20
You know, it's trying to exclude China from a role in global governance. It's trying to smash Chinese companies. It's arresting Chinese corporate executives. It is embargoing sales to Chinese companies. It is engaged in a trade war, which has resulted in terrible losses for the American agricultural sector-- but also the American semiconductor industry which, 60 percent of whose sales to China now is going to be cut off from that apparently. And, all of this is driving China to conclude that the United States considers it an outright enemy and that it must, it must take that into account. And this is why the trade deal basically foundered, in my view. The negative signals from the United States were overwhelming and positive signals almost nonexistent-- other than the sycophantic flattery of Mr. Trump at summits, which is not a substitute for diplomacy, it turns out.
Chas Freeman:
22:30
So I think the Chinese-- who consider Iran an important partner, in terms of trade, who feel an affinity with the ancient Persian culture, which with which they've interacted for millennia, and who have major investments in Iran and who deeply resent the unilateral American effort to control financial flows generally and punish Chinese companies for acting in accord with UN Security Council resolutions--may be on the verge of actually doing something to undercut the dollar dominance that has been the norm in global affairs for the past 70 years.
Chas Freeman:
23:22
In your article you mentioned I think the decision by President Eisenhower to react to the British, Israeli and French invasion of Egypt, by withdrawing support from the pound. Financial things do matter and the Chinese already have in place a rather feeble substitute for SWIFT, the clearing house in Belgium through which dollar transactions are conducted. They could get together with the Russians and the special vehicle that the Europeans have created to sustain trade with Iran and seriously undercut American influence and power internationally. We don't know whether that will happen or not. They're not involved militarily in the Middle East, and would be deeply opposed to any US invasion of Iran. They don't have the capacity to do anything military themselves. But they do have a financial and economic capability that is not to be dismissed as irrelevant.
Helena Cobban:
24:38
You described what Trump did with the imposition of secondary sanctions against countries that still want to be trading with Iran under the JCPOA as a frontal assault on international law. But there are also, as you had mentioned to me a little earlier, many serious constitutional issues here at home in the United States that are raised by the kind of warmongering that Trump and his administration are engaged in. Could you expand on that a little bit?
Chas Freeman:
25:15
Sure. There is a constitutional crisis in the United States over executive usurpation of congressional authority, often with the de-facto collusion of spineless members of Congress. The Constitution is a radical document only in one respect. The Founding Fathers entrusted the authorization for wars of choice to the legislature. This is the first time in history this had been done. Article One, section eight, clause 11 reserves the right to authorize wars of choice exclusively to the Congress. And it was respected right through the mid-part of the 20th century. For example, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to respond as commander-in-chief to the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, he went to Congress for authorization to prosecute the war. I mean, he took immediate action of course as commander-in-chief, but he understood that he needed a congressional authorization to proceed.
Chas Freeman:
26:27
Harry Truman sought no such authorization for Korea. In fact, he denied that it was a war; he said it was a police action. And from there, we have gone forward with the Congress increasingly delegating or defaulting on its authority to authorize wars. And, there are some people in the United States, for example, one presidential candidate, Tulsi Gabbard, who has very forcefully condemned the possibility that the president could on his own bat launch a war against Iran. Constitutionally, he doesn't have the authority to do that. I would add that, politically, he does not have the support of the American people for that. Although, with a sufficiently contrived incident, a sort of "Remember the Maine!" or the Tonkin Gulf approach, arguably he might obtain that support for a while. But we're talking about a long term conflict here, not an instantly resolvable, quick, victorious war. And so, I think the constitutional issues are terribly important. They need to be addressed.
Chas Freeman:
27:57
The Founding Fathers knew what they were doing when they demanded deliberation over things like this rather than decisions by tweet. And one can only hope that the Congress will somehow find the backbone to live up to its constitutional responsibilities.
Helena Cobban:
28:19
Are you hopeful about that in terms of the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives now holding some investigations, issuing some subpoenas, but nothing really in the realm of foreign affairs that I can see?
Chas Freeman:
28:37
Well, there has been-- this constitutional argument has gained currency mainly because of distress over American co-belligerence in the Emirati-Saudi war in Yemen. And both houses of Congress actually disapprove of that war. Under the constitution, that should be enough to end it. That can't be, you know should not be, veto-able by the president. Although, he did veto it and the Congress has not found a way to enforce it, that is enforce their withdrawal of support for that war.
Chas Freeman:
29:12
But, you know, we are in a period in which the president is going out of his way, apparently because he believes that an impeachment proceeding would benefit him in the 2020 election, to provoke one. And war, the war power, is one of the most serious, if not the most serious, impeachable offense that he could commit. So we shall see, whether the Republican majority in the Senate has infinite patience with a president who clearly has no loyalty to them at all, is a question that has yet to be answered.
Helena Cobban:
30:04
Well, as you say, we shall see. Thank you very much.
Chas Freeman:
30:06
Okay, well, I hope you can make something of all that!