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Pepe Escobar is unquestionably one of the world’s leading progressive, anti-war journalists. He is Brazilian and has lived in several countries around the world, including the United States, France, Italy, Singapore, Thailand, and Hong Kong. He runs a regular column on Asia Times Online titled “The Roving Eye” in which he writes commentaries and articles about the Middle East and Asia affairs and U.S. foreign policy. He has been interviewed by Russia Today, Press TV, Al-Jazeera, and The Real News Network.
Pepe’s articles have also appeared in such magazines and news websites as Huffington Post, Tom Dispatch, The Nation, Voltaire Net, Salon, Common Dreams, Information Clearing House, and Antiwar.com. His first book, “Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War”, was published in 2007, and his fourth book will be released soon.
Pepe Escobar believes that the United States and its European partners have waged an economic war against Iran by imposing crippling sanctions that are affecting the lives of ordinary Iranian citizens. He also points out that if Iran had assassinated U.S. civilian scientists, as the U.S. and Israel have done to Iran, an all-out nuclear war would have been unleashed against Iran.
With regards to controversy over Iran’s nuclear program, Pepe Escobar says that Iran and the West should reach a sustainable, face-saving solution which both ensures Iran’s entitlement to its essential rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a signatory, and also alleviates the West’s concerns about the peacefulness of Iran’s nuclear activities.
In order to delve into the prospect of improved Iran-West relations in the wake of the standoff over the country’s nuclear program, the impacts of the U.S.-engineered sanctions on Iran’s economy, the upcoming nuclear talks between Iran and the six world powers in Kazakhstan, and the possibility of a diplomatic reconciliation between Iran and the United States in the wake of the appointment of John Kerry as the U.S. Secretary of State, I conducted an in-depth interview with Pepe Escobar and asked him some questions on these subjects.
My Spanish friend and colleague Moises Herrezuelo helped me a great deal with the conduction of the interview. What follows is the full text of the interview.
Kourosh Ziabari: Dear Pepe; what’s your viewpoint regarding President Obama’s appointment of John Kerry as the Secretary of State and Chuck Hagel as the Secretary of Defense? Does he intend to send a signal that he wants to solve the challenging issues of the U.S. foreign policy, especially the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program in a peaceful and diplomatic manner? Of course John Kerry would be far more lenient than Hillary Clinton, and Hagel is said to have opposed military action and economic sanctions against Iran with a less pro-Israeli attitude. What’s your take on that?
Pepe Escobar: Both Hagel and Kerry narratives in the US are enveloped in a fog of misconceptions.
Unlike the usual Washington brand of armchair warrior, Hagel saw the real thing in Vietnam. Whether he learned the lesson in terms of how imperialism is defeated on the ground is debatable—but at least he learned to be cautious in terms of foreign policy adventures. Those same armchair warriors say he opposed Bush’s surge on Iraq after he had first supported the war/invasion in 2003. That’s not the point; the point is he saw an escalation would lead to nothing, as it did—in fact, it led to less than nothing; the myth that General David Petraeus “won” the war with the surge.
Hagel also dared to suggest—discreetly—that the US, always blindly following whatever Israel concocts, lethally and with its fabricated “facts on the ground”, would never help in finding a way out of the occupation/ethnic cleansing of Palestine. To say something like this is practically anathema in Washington, even though a lot of well-informed Israelis who live in Israel—and not in Manhattan—share the same position.
There’s also one extremely petty reason for the Hagel nomination being stalled by Republicans senators; in the 2008 US presidential election he refused to endorse the awful John McCain. No, this will never be explained to unsuspecting US citizens by the Washington Post or the New York Times.
Now to Kerry. There was a lot of noise in Washington about the Supreme Leader’s comments on the renewed P5+1 negotiations. The official narrative was that Ayatollah Khamenei wants no deal. Wrong. What the Supreme Leader said is that Tehran won’t negotiate under threat. He has always stressed that the condition for any negotiation is mutual respect—with the Islamic Republic recognized as representing legitimate national interests. When we look at the record in detail, Tehran has countless reasons not to trust Washington. One example is enough; after Iran helped a lot delivering intel—and even actual jihadis—to the Americans in late 2001 in Afghanistan, its reward was to be branded as an “axis of evil” member state.
This time Kerry was wilier. He said the US is “ready to respond” if the meeting in Kazakhstan yields “real substance”. He did not repeat the same old scratched CD—“all options are on the table”. His response was written, not a quote, which means this is serious, straight from the top: diplomacy—at least in theory—should prevail.
In Kerry’s words, “they [Iran] have to prove to the world that it [the nuclear program] is peaceful and we are prepared to sit reasonably and negotiate how they can do it.” This is certainly better than what I called the “roll over and die” school of diplomacy that was being applied by two Bush terms and the first Obama administration.
In December, Kerry told the Emir of Qatar that “the United States recognizes Iran’s ambitions to be a regional player, and wants a dialogue about what sort of power it will be”. Rhetorically, that’s a sea change. Let’s look at the facts in a few months, especially after the Iranian presidential election.
Kourosh Ziabari: President Obama came to office while he had promised that he will reach out to Iran for dialogue on equal footings and based on mutual confidence and respect. But although some progress was made in the Iran-P5+1 negotiations, the stalemate over Iran’s nuclear program still remains in place. Why has Obama failed to realize the promise he had made and failed to reach a compromise with Iran? Why did he renew the sanctions the very first year he came to office?
Pepe Escobar: In this article published last December, I outlined the key reasons why Obama has not fulfilled his promise.
I also went much further, stressing that the Big Picture goes way beyond the Iranian nuclear dossier. It involves not only Iran’s right to use civilian nuclear energy but also what I call Pipelineistan, the complex chessboard of oil and gas pipelines all across Eurasia; Washington’s future relations with China, a serious ally of Iran as well as the rest of Asia; and who will dominate the 21st century energy, transport, and trade versions of the old Silk Road across Eurasia.
Obama may have been filled with good intentions in early 2009. But what he may have wanted was, essentially, aborted by the Israel lobby—of which AIPAC is the most vocal component—and Congress. Hardcore pressure also came from the House of Saud and France under that bling bling entity, King Sarko, who later got the boot from French voters. There are plenty of other reasons. The June 2009 election drama in the streets of Tehran was not helpful, to say the least—because the impression was firmly set in Washington that the election was stolen; thus Obama could not justify diplomacy under these circumstances. Also right from the beginning—when we look at the long record, which I detail in a chapter included in a forthcoming book about Obama’s foreign policy—the Obama administration actually adopted a very confusing “dual track” policy, combining diplomacy with the relentless ratcheting up of sanctions. After a while, it was obvious that Obama did not have the balls to challenge the status quo in Washington—which, for all practical purposes, identifies the Islamic Republic as a mortal enemy.
Kourosh Ziabari: One of the reasons why the Iranian leaders cannot trust the United States is that Washington will certainly push for more political concessions if Iran agrees to halt its 20% uranium enrichment. In the past three decades, the United States has militarily and financially assisted such anti-Iran terrorist groups as MKO and Jundallah to carry out acts of sabotage and terrorization in Iran and kill Iranian people, officials, and even civilian scientists. Iran also has complained about the allocation of sizeable budgets to fund anti-Iranian media propaganda and finance the so-called pro-democracy NGOs. So Iran is probably right in being suspicious of the United States and its sincerity in entering the talks. What’s your viewpoint in this regard?
Pepe Escobar: Let’s examine how the world sees it. The BRICS group of emerging powers, as well as the absolute majority of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)—just check their summit last year in Tehran—they all support Iran’s nuclear rights. Japan and South Korea, when not bullied by the West—and they are Iran energy clients—also support a civilian nuclear program, under the NPT. On the other side, there’s essentially the US and Canada, the EU, and Israel. The case of the EU is pure theater of the absurd. Especially Club Med nations, in southern Europe, have suffered because of the US/EU sanctions on Iran. And still whenever you talk—off the record—with specialists in Brussels, they tell you they wish Europe could do business and invest in Iran’s energy industry because that is the fastest way for Europe to get rid of its (dreaded) dependency on Gazprom. On top of it, US Big Oil is also excluded from doing business in Iran—very bad for business from their point of view. And even Hillary Clinton herself—in her unguarded moments—has admitted that the sanctions mostly hurt Iranian civilians, as in shortage of medicine and food supplies.
Kourosh Ziabari: The United States assumes that by imposing hard-hitting economic sanctions on Iran, it can pit the people against the government and cause a popular uprising or widespread anti-government resentment; while the reality on the ground is that the sanctions are adversely contributing to the expansion of anti-American sentiments among Iranians and bringing them closer together to confront the perceived enemy. What’s your viewpoint on that?
Pepe Escobar: That’s another instance of theater of the absurd; (supposedly) grown men in Washington actually believing Tehran must come to the negotiating table while under what for all practical purposes is economic war; attacked by cyber warfare and covert ops; and under relentless threat of regime change. Any average, well-informed Iranian can see that—whether or not he agrees with the powers that be in Tehran. People all across the developing world also see it clearly. If we stick purely to the nuclear dossier, there’s an extremely simple solution; Washington recognizes Iran’s right to enrich uranium up to 20%. After that, a deal is a detail. It won’t happen, though, because for Washington, as it stands, Tehran has the right to enrich nothing.
Any informed Western observer— immune to the perennial hysteria of the Bomb, Bomb Iran lobby would agree with Ambassador Hossein Mousavian, former spokesperson for the Iranian nuclear negotiating team from 2003 to 2005. I have been quoting him for a while, because, technically, this is a solid, fool proof solution to the nuclear dossier. Once again:
“To satisfy the concerns of the West regarding Iran’s 20% stockpile, a mutually acceptable solution for the long term would entail a ‘zero stockpile’. Under this approach, a joint committee of the P5+1 and Iran would quantify the domestic needs of Iran for use of 20% enriched uranium, and any quantity beyond that amount would be sold in the international market or immediately converted back to an enrichment level of 3.5%. This would ensure that Iran does not possess excess 20% enriched uranium forever, satisfying the international concerns that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons. It would be a face-saving solution for all parties as it would recognize Iran’s right to enrichment and would help to negate concerns that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.”
There’s another aspect which I consider even more important; Iran not using the petrodollar for its energy trade. Be it in yuan, rubles, gold, barter, this is surely pointing the way towards the exit. China, Russia, even US ally India, a host of developing countries would see nothing better than finally ditching the petrodollar. Saddam and Gaddafi both tried to; look what happened to them. But Iran is not an unarmed Iraq, or a disorganized Libya. Chris Cook has soundly pointed out the wave of the future: an energy-based currency.
Kourosh Ziabari: Has the European Union’s oil embargo against Iran had any effects on the already troubled economy of the continent? The Western media have largely remained silent on the possible consequences of the anti-Iran sanctions on the European economy, but in one of your articles last year you talked about the hike in the prices of crude oil as a result of the embargo and that Iran’s Asian clients continue to buy its crude despite the U.S. pressure. How is the situation right now? Can Iran continue to manage its economy without the oil revenues?
Pepe Escobar: Washington’s financial blockade of Iran’s oil sales is in fact all-out economic war—once again making a joke of international law. But even applying what was in fact Mob-style pressure over Iran’s energy clients, and forcing Saudi Arabia to flood the market with an extra 2 million barrels of oil a day was not enough, because some countries fought for exemptions and others continued to trade bypassing the Western-dominated financial system.
Japan, which always bends over backwards to do whatever Washington wants, is indeed getting cozier with Saudi Arabia; they want guarantees they will get emergency oil supplies for the next 20 years. In this case, imports from Iran would not be needed. But Japan is not the norm in Asia. True, the sanctions did bite; Iran’s energy exports fell by 40% in 2012. But then they started going up again, because Iran started to implement some very creative solutions—as in buying oil tankers from China, insuring them, and filling them with oil bound for China. Iran may be on the way to set up its own oil distribution network—self-sufficiency is always a good idea. India, for its part, pays for Iranian oil in rupees. The bottom line; whatever Washington concocts, it won’t interfere with the energy requirements of these two crucial BRICS members. On the losing side, once again, there’s only the Europeans.
Kourosh Ziabari: Can the Israeli regime finally drag the United States into a war with Iran? Will the Obama administration heed the calls of Netanyahu and other hawks in Tel Aviv to enter a war with Iran over its nuclear program? Does Obama have enough courage and authority to resist the pressure by the Israeli lobby and take up diplomacy instead of military confrontation?
Pepe Escobar: The Israel lobby and what we could label as the War Party—mostly Republicans but also Democrats, plus operatives in key positions in the Pentagon, CIA, the industrial-military-security complex, plus corporate media (from Fox News to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post)—these are the actors who want a war against Iran. Predictably, the Israel lobby unleashed all its artillery against Chuck Hagel, from AIPAC to the Washington Institute of Near East Policy (WINEP), where notorious lobbyists Dennis Ross and Elliott Abrams dwell; after all, Hagel was not putting Israel’s interests above Washington’s, as is the norm. They will not prevail, but they won’t go away either; the “Bomb Bomb Iran” mindset will continue even with Hagel and Kerry, and that includes routine wacko pieces on the Wall Street Journal warning, for instance, about Iran ready to attack Saudi Arabia with nuclear weapons, or routine dismissals every time the Supreme Leader insists nuclear weapons must be eliminated.
There are, of course, pockets of intelligence in this debate—but they are a minority. Check out, for instance, Flynt and Hillary Leverett’s excellent book, Going to Tehran: They are Washington insiders, they have been to Iran, and they are staunchly pro-diplomacy.
Kourosh Ziabari: What’s your viewpoint regarding the United States’ sponsorship of such groups as Jundallah, whose aim is to create sectarian conflict in Iran, and the MKO, which has openly bragged about its intention for regime change in Tehran? The U.S. and Israeli-backed terrorists have so far assassinated four Iranian nuclear scientists, but the UN chief and the Security Council haven’t raised any voice in protest. What’s your analysis of these events?
Pepe Escobar: These tactics are classic Divide and Rule—inherited from the British Empire. Jundallah is little more than a gang, trained by the CIA. Mounting the odd cross-border operation in Sistan-Balochistan, killing the odd policeman, and then retreating, that may create a nuisance for Tehran, but it’s a detail. Much more dangerous would be the CIA’s capacity to instigate a nationwide Sunni-Shiite conflict on a mass scale; they don’t have the intel, or the contacts, to do it. MKO is a laughable cult, discredited since Saddam times and with absolutely no support inside Iran; their capacity of mobilization is negligible. The fact that the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists—which, if conducted by Iran inside the US or Israel, could even provoke a Western nuclear attack—has not raised an eyebrow in the UN Security Council is a graphic illustration of its cosmic incompetence and irrelevance; as absurd as Israel never being condemned for its slow-motion genocidal practices in Palestine.
Kourosh Ziabari: One of the reasons why no solution has been found for Iran’s nuclear deadlock can be Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Iran has always complained about Washington’s exercising double standards on Israel’s underground nuclear facilities. Can we imagine that the controversy may be resolved if Israel is disarmed and the idea of a nuclear-free Middle East, which Iran and the Non-Aligned Movement have proposed, is realized?
Pepe Escobar: That’s ultimate wishful thinking; the idea that Israel would ever get rid of its (“secret”, undeclared) nuclear arsenal of several hundred warheads. That’s one of the dirty secrets behind Israel’s hysterical campaign against the Iranian nuclear program. If Tehran, hypothetically, decided to go for a nuclear weapon, abandoning what could be described as a latency period (having enough enriched uranium to build a weapon even on short notice), Israel’s strategic advantage would be erased. It would cease to be the only military nuclear power in the whole of Southwest Asia (Middle East, once again, is a silly Westernized concept, same as “Far East”). Every actor in Southwest Asia—except Israel—is in favor of a nuclear-free region, even Saudi Arabia.
Kourosh Ziabari: How much impact will the Syria crisis have on the future of Iran-West relations? From one hand, the U.S. and its European allies have explicitly expressed that they will accept no solution for the crisis in Syria but the removal of Bashar Al-Assad from power, and from the other hand, Iran has promised to do its best to make sure that Assad will not go anywhere. Will confrontation on the Syrian front lead to further hostilities and animosities between Iran and the West?
Pepe Escobar: Contrary to a tsunami of predictions that had the Assad regime falling virtually on a daily basis, the awful situation in Syria has reached a stalemate. NATO can’t go for a no-fly zone because Russia and China drew the red line, at least three times. So it won’t be Libya 2.0. Washington has no stomach for a new Middle East war. Turkey—with its “zero problems with our neighbors” policy turned into “a lot of problems with one neighbor”—started seeing this for the quagmire it really is; in fact Prime Minister Erdogan recently started distancing himself from NATO and the EU and making seducing noises towards the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is led by China and Russia. The so-called Free Syria Army has been repeatedly unmasked; little else than weaponized gangs of thugs. Washington—after Benghazi—finally woke up to the fact that Salalfi-jihadis are instrumental in the fighting in Syria. What’s left is the diverging agendas of Saudi Arabia and Qatar; the Saudis financing hardcore Wahhabis and the Qataris anything that allies with the Muslim Brotherhood. The new coalition opposition—forged by Washington/Doha—is a joke; the leader, Moaz al-Khatib, announces they must talk to the regime, but the others say no way, Assad has to leave first (that has always been the one and only mantra). This spells out, unfortunately, a long, protracted, civil war where the real victims will continue to be vast swathes of the Syrian civilian population—drowned by the usual Western crocodile tears about “the suffering of the Syrian people.”