Noam Chomsky is a noted linguist, author, and foreign policy expert. On February 9, Michael Shank interviewed him on the latest developments in US policy toward Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Venezuela. This is Part I of a four-part series.
Shank: With similar nuclear developments in North Korea and Iran, why has the United States pursued direct diplomacy with North Korea but refuses to do so with Iran?
Chomsky: To say that the United States has pursued diplomacy with North Korea is a little bit misleading. It did under the Clinton administration, though neither side completely lived up to their obligations. Clinton didn’t do what was promised, nor did North Korea, but they were making progress. So when Bush came into the presidency, North Korea had enough uranium or plutonium for maybe one or two bombs, but then very limited missile capacity. During the Bush years it’s exploded. The reason is, he immediately canceled the diplomacy and he’s pretty much blocked it ever since.
They made a very substantial agreement in September 2005 in which North Korea agreed to eliminate its enrichment programs and nuclear development completely. In return the United States agreed to terminate the threats of attack and to begin moving towards the planning for the provision of a light water reactor, which had been promised under the framework agreement.
But the Bush administration instantly undermined it. Right away, they canceled the international consortium that was planning for the light water reactor, which was a way of saying we’re not going to agree to this agreement. A couple of days later they started attacking the financial transactions of various banks. It was timed in such a way to make it clear that the United States was not going to move towards its commitment to improve relations. And of course it never withdrew the threats. So that was the end of the September 2005 agreement.
That one is now coming back, just in the last few days. The way it’s portrayed in the US media is, as usual with the government’s party line, that North Korea is now perhaps a little more amenable to accept the September 2005 proposal. So there’s some optimism. If you go across the Atlantic, to the Financial Times, to review the same events they point out that an embattled Bush administration, it’s their phrase, needs some kind of victory, so maybe it’ll be willing to move towards diplomacy. It’s a little more accurate I think if you look at the background.
But there is some minimal sense of optimism about it. If you look back over the record -and North Korea is a horrible place nobody is arguing about that – on this issue they’ve been pretty rational. It’s been a kind of tit-for-tat history. If the United States is accommodating, the North Koreans become accommodating. If the United States is hostile, they become hostile. That’s reviewed pretty well by Leon Sigal, who’s one of the leading specialists on this, in a recent issue of Current History. But that’s been the general picture and we’re now at a place where there could be a settlement on North Korea.
That’s much less significant for the United States than Iran. The Iranian issue I don’t think has much to do with nuclear weapons frankly. Nobody is saying Iran should have nuclear weapons, nor should anybody else. But the point in the Middle East, as distinct from North Korea, is that this is the center of the world’s energy resources. Originally the British and secondarily the French had dominated it, but after the Second World War, it’s been a US preserve. That’s been an axiom of US foreign policy, that it must control Middle East energy resources.
It is not a matter of access as people often say. Once the oil is on the seas it goes anywhere. In fact if the United States used no Middle East oil, it’d have the same policies. If we went on solar energy tomorrow, it’d keep the same policies. Just look at the internal record, or the logic of it, the issue has always been control. Control is the source of strategic power.
Dick Cheney declared in Kazakhstan or somewhere, that control over pipeline is a “tool of intimidation and blackmail. When we have control over the pipelines it’s a tool of benevolence. If other countries have control over the sources of energy and the distribution of energy then it is a tool of intimidation and blackmail exactly as Cheney said. And that’s been understood as far back as George Kennan and the early post-war days when he pointed out that if the United States controls Middle East resources it’ll have veto power over its industrial rivals. He was speaking particularly of Japan but the point generalizes.
So Iran is a different situation. It’s part of the major energy system of the world.
Shank: So when the United States considers a potential invasion you think it’s under the premise of gaining control? That is what the United States will gain from attacking Iran?
Chomsky: There are several issues in the case of Iran. One is simply that it is independent and independence is not tolerated. Sometimes it’s called successful defiance in the internal record.
Take Cuba. A very large majority of the US population is in favor of establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba and has been for a long time with some fluctuations. And even part of the business world is in favor of it too. But the government won’t allow it. It’s attributed to the Florida vote but I don’t think that’s much of an explanation. I think it has to do with a feature of world affairs that is insufficiently appreciated.
International affairs is very much run like the mafia. The godfather does not accept disobedience, even from a small storekeeper who doesn’t pay his protection money. You have to have obedience otherwise the idea can spread that you don’t have to listen to the orders and it can spread to important places.
If you look back at the record, what was the main reason for the US attack on Vietnam? Independent development can be a virus that can infect others. That’s the way it’s been put, Kissinger in this case, referring to Allende in Chile. And with Cuba it’s explicit in the internal record. Arthur Schlesinger, presenting the report of the Latin American Study Group to incoming President Kennedy, wrote that the danger is the spread of the Castro idea of taking matters into your own hands, which has a lot of appeal to others in the same region that suffer from the same problems.
Later internal documents charged Cuba with successful defiance of US policies going back 150 years – to the Monroe Doctrine – and that can’t be tolerated. So there’s kind of a state commitment to ensuring obedience.
Going back to Iran, it’s not only that it has substantial resources and that it’s part of the world’s major energy system but it also defied the United States. The United States, as we know, overthrew the parliamentary government, installed a brutal tyrant, was helping him develop nuclear power, in fact the very same programs that are now considered a threat were being sponsored by the US government, by Cheney, Wolfowitz, Kissinger, and others, in the 1970s, as long as the Shah was in power.
But then the Iranians overthrew him, and they kept US hostages for several hundred days. And the United States immediately turned to supporting Saddam Hussein and his war against Iran as a way of punishing Iran. The United States is going to continue to punish Iran because of its defiance. So that’s a separate factor.
And again, the will of the US population and even US business is considered mostly irrelevant. Seventy five percent of the population here favors improving relations with Iran, instead of threats. But this is disregarded. We don’t have polls from the business world, but it’s pretty clear that the energy corporations would be quite happy to be given authorization to go back into Iran instead of leaving all that to their rivals. But the state won’t allow it. And it is setting up confrontations right now, very explicitly. Part of the reason is strategic, geo-political, economic, but part of the reason is the mafia complex. They have to be punished f
or disobeying us.
Part II will appear in tomorrow’s issue.
Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Michael Shank is the policy director for the 3D Security Initiative.