"Do not ask about the harvest; ask about the plowing," says the Chinese proverb. In Targeting Iran, award-winning journalist David Barsamian follows that advice. He asks his interviewees, Noam Chomsky, Ervand Abrahamian and Nahid Mozaffari, about all the plowing and planting that culminated in the demonization of Iran by the U.S. since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and vice versa.
Alternative Radio founder and director Barsamian's listeners and readers know what to expect: clear, straightforward questions, often preceded by some background information—and to borrow imagery from farming one more time—sowing insight into the intricacies and complications of a region that has long suffered in the hands of those worshipping at the altars of oversimplification, trivialization, decontextualization et al.
In his introduction, Barsamian provides a brief history of Iran and U.S.-Iranian relations. He concludes by quoting Iran's Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi's favorite couplet, which rings as true regarding U.S. foreign policy as it does about Iran's current state of affairs:
If there is no justice,
then those who are deprived
may one day take to the streets and rise up.
(Hafez, a renowned 14th century Persian poet)
The first interview—the shortest of the three—is with Noam Chomsky, whom Barsamian has interviewed dozens of times, culminating in five Chomsky/Barsamian books. Chomsky, talking about U.S. policy with regard to Iran, demonstrates the self-destructive logic of preemption. "By U.S. standards, Iran ought to be carrying out terrorist acts in the United States," he says. "In fact, adopting U.S. standards, we ought to be demanding that they do it. They're under far greater threat than anything Bush or Blair ever conjured up, and that's supposed to authorize what they call anticipatory self-defense, namely attack."
Talking about Iran's resumption of uranium enrichment, Chomsky says, "[J]ust do a media search and find out how often it has even been mentioned that when Iran began enriching uranium again, it was after the Europeans had rejected their side of the bargain, namely, to provide firm guarantees on security issues." He then charges that the press knew about the Europeans backing down—under U.S. pressure—but chose to ignore the story.
Chomsky's interview centers on Iran, but—surprise!—his analysis and examples take us on a roller-coaster ride from the U.S., South America and Europe to Palestine, Iraq, and China, spanning almost half a century. Always at ease and at his best with Barsamian, Chomsky pulls out examples and arguments from his memory with the skill of a seasoned magician pulling out all kinds of objects from a hat and leaving the audience at awe. However, the interview would have benefited from a few footnotes or editor's notes, providing exact information and percentages, when, for example, Chomsky says, "I forgot the exact number, but I think they're [China] getting maybe 10-15 percent of their energy imports from Saudi Arabia." Or when he says, "He [Moqtada Sadr, an Iraqi Shiite cleric-politician, opposed to the U.S. presence] gained, I think, 50 percent or so in the last parliamentary elections."
Providing the global and historical contexts Chomsky sets the stage for Iranian-born history professor Ervand Abrahamian's in depth look at Iran's political structure and the U.S-Iran confrontation today, with emphasis on the nuclear issue.
"If Iranians are hit by air strikes, they will hit back where they have the upper hand, which is Iraq and Afghanistan," Abrahamian says. "They are obviously not going to attack the U.S., nor will they attack Israel, although people have this paranoid view about that," he adds.
Abrahamian maintains that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad engages in Holocaust denial and calls for the destruction of Israel to bridge the gap between Sunnis and Shiites and to "pitch for Arab support." He says that this rhetoric does not resonate in Iran as much as it does in the Arab street.
Asked about Tehran's connection with the Lebanese Shiite armed group Hezbollah, Abrahamian says that Iran does not use this party to threaten Israel: "One major mistake the Israelis are making is thinking that Hezbollah is so closely tied with Iran that once the U.S. attacks Iran, Iran would automatically use Hezbollah against Iran. I don't think that's in the works."
As reading the first two interviews, the reader has the impression that the book is a critical look at U.S. foreign policy with very little insight on Iran's internal dynamics. Then comes the interview with Iranian-born historian Nahid Mozaffari. Barsamian and Mozaffari take the reader on a journey inside Iran's vibrant literary life (yes, they DO have literature) from the early 20th century to the present; from poetry to novels and memoirs; from dissidents to female voices. He notes how Iranian writers, who visit the U.S., are treated as "human rights guinea pigs," but also expands on the censorship, oppression and persecution they suffer in Iran, as well as the rise of the bloggers. Mozaffari deals with women's issues (divorce, custody rights, property right, dress codes, etc.) in some detail. He also talks about the development of cinema in the post-1979 period and the clampdown on the rock groups and rappers under Ahmadinejad's rule.
"The Islamist conservatives regard developments in civil society as threatening and susceptible to foreign manipulation," explains Mozaffari.
One of the book's main messages is in the concluding lines of this last interview: "This tough resolve by those who desire change within Iran, along with their [i.e. the Iranians'] equally strong determination to be independent of outside pressure and manipulations, should serve as a stern warning to the U.S. and other states who contemplate any military action against Iran."
David Barsamian with Noam Chomsky, Ervand Abrahamian and Nahid Mozaffari Targeting Iran (City Lights Books, 2007).
Khatchig Mouradian is a Lebanese-Armenian journalist, writer and translator, currently based in Boston. He can be contacted at: email@example.com.