Drone, a Norwegian-made documentary: “We just made orphans out of all these children”

By Joanne Laurier
29 January 2016

Directed by Tonje Hessen Schei

Drone, directed by Norwegian filmmaker Tonje Hessen Schei, about the illegal CIA drone program, has been screened at various documentary film festivals and played in certain theaters in North America.

The use of drones by the United States for purposes of assassinations has greatly increased over the past decade. Hessen Schei’s movie brings together opponents of this specialized killing tool, including authors, commentators, human rights attorneys and investigative journalists.

The real heart and strength of Drone lies in its interviews with two former drone operators from the US Air Force, Brandon Bryant and Michael Haas, both young men suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Brandon Bryant in Drone

Bryant and Haas served in time periods that straddled the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. One of Bryant’s entries in his diary: “On the battlefield there are no sides, just bloodshed. Total war. Every horror witnessed. I wish my eyes would rot.”

Hessen Schei presents images and stories focusing on the northwestern Pakistani province of Waziristan, a region that has been a particular target of homicidal American drone bombing.

Reprieve, the British human rights organization whose founder, Clive Stafford Smith, is interviewed in the film, points out: “To date, the United States has used drones to execute without trial some 4,700 people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia—all countries against whom it has not declared war. The US’ drones programme is a covert war being carried out by the CIA.”

In the documentary, Chris Woods, author of Sudden Justice, further observes that “nowhere has been more bombed by the CIA than Waziristan. The first recorded CIA done strike in Pakistan took place in 2004. The number of those strikes has accelerated.” He calls it “an industrialized killing program.”

In Waziristan, a young drone strike survivor, Zubair Ur Rehman, shyly tells the camera that “the drones circulate 24 hours a day. Two or three at a time. Always two, but often three or four. When we hear the sound of the drones, we get scared. We can’t work, play or go to school. It is only when it’s cloudy that we don’t hear the drones.”

The barbaric strikes, which have increased sharply under the Obama administration, are illegal under international and US law and amount to war crimes. In the Hessen Schei film, Pakistani photojournalist Noor Behram displays his dossier of devastating photographs of child victims of drone attacks: “Every time I sleep, I hear the cries of the children.”

Drone also deals with the attacks on the would-be rescuers of the victims of the drone strikes. This is what the American military refers to as a “double tap.” Missiles are launched, killing and injuring people. Moments later, when nearby residents race to the scene to help the wounded, another round of missiles is fired. As one analyst points out, the US government, in many cases, has no idea whom they are killing.

Aftermath of drone attack in Pakistan

Imran Khan, Chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, affirms that “when people gather round to save the injured [from a drone strike], there’s another drone attack! … You can hear the cries of the injured for hours because no one goes to help them.”

Another of the movie’s commentators emphasizes, “It’s never been easier for an American president to carry out killing operations at the ends of the earth … and when you define the world as a battlefield, it’s a very broad range of operations you can carry out.”

According to Woods: “You’ve got the president signing off on particular death lists; you have the US Air Force flying the drones; the Central Intelligence Agency responsible for the strikes; CENTCOM [United States Central Command] involved in launching and targeting of strikes; NSA [National Security Agency] providing intelligence for strikes … the entire apparatus of the United States government has been bent towards the process of targeted killings over the past decade.”

As a means of recruiting drone pilots, the military has developed “militainment”—war presented as entertainment. In the warped minds of the armed forces’ top brass, video gamers have skill sets that it values.

Former drone operator Bryant, who served as a sensor operator for the Predator program from 2007 to 2011, movingly explains that “I didn’t really understand what it meant to kill at first. … We sat in a box for nearly 12-hour shifts. … We’re the ultimate voyeurs. The ultimate Peeping Toms. No one is going to catch us. We’re getting orders to take these peoples’ lives. It was just a point and click.”

One of Drone’s interviewed experts argues the more distant the perpetrator is from the victim, the crueler the act of killing. The separation in space creates and encourages indifference. He refers to “the psychology of distance.”

Haas, who served in the US military from 2005 to 2011, participated in targeted killing runs from his computer at the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada that ended the lives of insurgents and others in Afghanistan some 8,000 miles away: “I joined when I was barely 20 years old. I did not know what I was in for. I thought it was the coolest damn thing in the world. Play video games all day and then the reality hits you that you may have to kill somebody.

“In our control room, they had a picture of the September 11 [2001] plane hitting the second [World Trade Center] building. They make you pissed off all over again just before you go do your job. ‘These guys have to die. These guys deserve to die.’ And you’ve got to make it happen.”

As opposed to the remorse felt by the former airmen, Andy Von Flotow, chairman of Insitu, which builds unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) in the state of Washington, was in on the ground floor in the development of drones. He boasts that “we started this unmanned aircraft business in the early 1990s, shortly after GPS made it possible.” His company built a small airplane with a camera on it in 1999 to help tuna fisherman. While the fishermen did not buy the planes, “George Bush took us into his adventures.” Flotow claims that “we have 25 percent of unmanned flight hours in Iraq and Afghanistan. … War is an opportunity to do business.”

One of the most intense moments in the film occurs when Bryant opens up to the filmmakers: “I didn’t really understand what it meant to kill at first. It was horrible. The first time was horrible. The second time was horrible. The third time was numbing. The fourth time was numbing. But of course the first time sticks with you the longest [he describes the procedure]. … Then I watched this man bleed out … and I imagined his last moments. I knew I had ended something I had no right to end. I swore an oath, I did what I was supposed to do. I followed through with it. … It was like an image of myself was cracking up and breaking apart.”

Earlier in the film, he says: “Over the last five and one half years, 1,626 people were killed in the operations I took part in. … When I looked at that number, I was ready to put a bullet in my brain.”

Fellow drone operator Haas discloses that “you never knew who you were killing because you never actually see a face—just silhouettes and it’s easy to have that detachment and that lack of sympathy for human life. And it’s easy just to think of them as something else. They’re not really people, they’re just terrorists.” His military superiors, he remarks, “don’t have to take that shot or bear the burden—I’m the one who has to bear that burden. They don’t have to do the actions or live with the repercussions … and we just made orphans out of all these children. They don’t have to live with that. I do.”

The CIA drones program is global assassination without trial. The operations of this state-run murder machine are kept shrouded in secrecy by the Obama administration. While the outlook of the creators of Drone is not strong—essentially consisting of appeals to the United Nations and the Pakistani government—the movie provides further insight into the lawless and ruthless character of US foreign policy.



How the Internet changed the way we read


The Daily Dot

As a professor of literature, rhetoric, and writing at the University of California at Irvine, I’ve discovered that one of the biggest lies about American culture (propagated even by college students) is that Americans don’t read.

The truth is that most of us read continuously in a perpetual stream of incestuous words, but instead of reading novels, book reviews, or newspapers like we used to in the ancien régime, we now read text messages, social media, and bite-sized entries about our protean cultural history on Wikipedia.

In the great epistemic galaxy of words, we have become both reading junkies and also professional text skimmers. Reading has become a clumsy science, which is why we keep fudging the lab results. But in diagnosing our own textual attention deficit disorder (ADD), who can blame us for skimming? We’re inundated by so much opinion posing as information, much of it the same material with permutating and exponential commentary. Skimming is practically a defense mechanism against the avalanche of info-opinion that has collectively hijacked narrative, reportage, and good analysis.

We now skim everything it seems to find evidence for our own belief system. We read to comment on reality (Read: to prove our own belief system). Reading has become a relentless exercise in self-validation, which is why we get impatient when writers don’t come out and simply tell us what they’re arguing. Which reminds me:  What the hell am I arguing?  With the advent of microblogging platforms, Twitter activism, self-publishing companies, professional trolling, everyone has a microphone now and yet no one actually listens to each other any more. And this is literally because we’re too busy reading. And when we leave comments on an online article, it’s usually an argument we already agree with or one we completely reject before we’ve read the first paragraph. In the age of hyper-information, it’s practically impossible not to be blinded by our own confirmation bias. It’s hard not to be infatuated with Twitter shitstorms either, especially when we’re not the target practice.

E-novels, once the theater of the mind for experimental writers, are now mainstream things that look like long-winded websites. Their chapters bleed into the same cultural space on our screen as grocery lists, weather forecasts, calendar reminders, and email messages. What’s the real difference between reading a blog post online by an eloquent blowhard and reading one chapter of a Jonathan Franzen novel? We can literally swipe from one text to another on our Kindle without realizing we changed platforms. What’s the real difference between skimming an informed political critique on a political junkie Tumblr account and reading a focused tirade on the Washington Post’s blog written by putative experts?

What’s the real difference between skimming an informed political critique on a political junkie Tumblr account and reading a focused tirade on the Washington Post’s blog written by putative experts?

That same blog post will get reposted on other news sites and the same news article will get reposted on other blogs interchangeably.  Content—whether thought-provoking, regurgitated, or analytically superficial, impeccably-researched, politically doctrinaire, or grammatically atrocious—now occupies the same cultural space, the same screen space, and the same mental space in the public imagination.  After awhile, we just stop keeping track of what’s legitimately good because it takes too much energy to separate the crème from the foam.

As NPR digitizes itself in the 21st century, buries the “R” in its name, and translates its obsolete podcasts into online news features, every one of its articles now bleeds with its comment section, much of it written by posters who haven’t even read the article in question—essentially erasing the dividing lines between expert, echo chamber, and dilettante, journalist, hack, and self-promoter, reportage, character assassination, and mob frenzy.

One silver lining is that the technological democratization of social media has effectively deconstructed the one-sided power of the Big Bad Media in general and influential writing in particular, which in theory makes this era freer and more decentralized than ever. One downside to technological democratization is that it hasn’t lead to a thriving marketplace of ideas, but a greater retreat into the Platonic cave of self-identification with the shadow world. We have never needed a safer and quieter place to collect our thoughts from the collective din of couch quarterbacking than we do now, which is why it’s so easy to preemptively categorize the articles we read before we actually read them to save ourselves the heartache and the controversy.

The abundance of texts in this zeitgeist creates a tunnel effect of amnesia.  We now have access to so much information that we actually forget the specific nuances of what we read, where we read them, and who wrote them. We forget what’s available all the time because we live in an age of hyperabundant textuality. Now, when we’re lost, we’re just one click away from the answer. Even the line separating what we know and what we don’t know is blurry.

We now have access to so much information that we actually forget the specific nuances of what we read, where we read them, and who wrote them.

It is precisely because we now consume writing from the moment we wake until the moment we crash—most of it mundane, redundant, speculative, badly researched, partisan, and emojian—that we no longer have the same appetite (or time) for literary fiction, serious think pieces, or top-shelf journalism anymore, even though they’re all readily available. If an article on the Daily Dot shows up on page 3 of a Google search, it might as well not exist at all. The New York Timesarticle we half-read on our iPhone while standing up in the Los Angeles Metro ends up blurring with the 500 modified retweets about that same article on Twitter. Authors aren’t privileged anymore because everyone writes commentary somewhere and everyone’s commentary shows up some place. Only the platform and the means of production have changed.

Someday, the Centers for Disease Control will create a whole new branch of research dedicated to studying the infectious disease of cultural memes.  Our continuous consumption of text is intricately linked to our continuous forgetting, our continuous reinfection, and our continuous thumbs up/thumbs down approach to reality, which is why we keep reading late into the night, looking for the next place to leave a comment someone has already made somewhere. Whether we like it or not, we’re all victims and perpetrators of this commentary fractal. There seems to be no way out except deeper inside the sinkhole or to go cold turkey from the sound of our own voices.

Jackson Bliss is a hapa fiction writer and a lecturer in the English department at the University of California Irvine. He has a BA in comp lit from Oberlin College , a MFA in fiction from the University of Notre Dame, and a MA in English and a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from USC. His short stories and essays have appeared in many publications.  



How Facebook is making us all dumber. And racist.

An Orwellian, dystopian brainwashing of America is happening right now, but because it’s all virtual we don’t realize its hideous nature

Donald Trump, the sustainability of the KKK, Occupy anything, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Holocaust deniers, Climate Change doubters and everyone wearing man buns all share one insidious commonality: Facebook.

More specifically, they have in common the unnatural effects of rabid fans chattering on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, and hundreds more services that allow us to censor the information we allow into our smartphone windows on the world.

The self-sustaining buzz creates a lot of noise, but in a small group, allowing something that maybe isn’t always good for our culture to incubate, grow and eventually, to hatch.

Orwell got it wrong in 1984.
Bradbury got it wrong in Fahrenheit 451.
It won’t be a totalitarian regime that gives us a dystopian society.
It will be ourselves.

Facebook and other crack-like addictions are engineered to let us self-censor our perspectives, affecting how we view our neighbors, teachers, co-workers, and even our children, our understanding of geopolitical challenges, and our very understanding of ourselves.

What do you share? What do you read?

These networks create insulated, closed-minded communities that only read and share one perspective, repeated, parroted, memed, and repeated.

It’s peer pressure, writ large.

If you’re uncomfortable with this indictment of our ubiquitous behavior, I’ll cut to the point right now:

If you make one New Year’s resolution, make it this. Follow a new blogger  or news outlet with which you disagree.

More on this at the end of the article.  First, some perspective on just how often we’re consulting our circle of friends.

Realize that we’re checking Facebook 14 or more times a day.

We miss our child’s winning soccer goal because we were reading a post from our high school study buddy about his kid’s soccer game.

Why can’t we stop looking? Because Facebook is more addictive than cigarettes, according to the University of Chicago.

These shared “news items” are how the entire Internet learned about the blue and black (or was it white and gold) dress back in February.

It’s how this month, 119,997 people shared a fake Facebook post about a burned dog that actually had a piece of ham on its face. Pray for this poor burned dog. 1 share – 10 prayers.  And they believed the hamdog was truly horribly disfigured.  Until someone pointed out it was ham.

Meanwhile, hundreds of children, adults and the elderly were killed, or worse–raped then killed– last year in South Sudan and no one talked about it.  The story, still on SFGATE has 0 comments as of this moment. Maybe that will change.

We follow only those we like or agree with.  And that’s what we read. Then the algorithm serves us more of those posts.

And when something we dislike somehow manages to sneak past those software gates, we can instantly block that person or source forever, report it, or hide the post.  Done. No more of disagreeable ideas.  Just more of people agreeing with us.

And the way things go viral is when they’re so innocuous and so UNIMPORTANT that our right wing and left wing friends can talk about them with equal ignorance or wisdom, and we allow them through the filters. They make it to our feeds not because they’re important but because they’re inane.

Because we don’t care enough about whether a dog wears pants on its bottom half or on its back half to actually block our friends with whom we disagree.  We let this discord permeate our closed-minded, insulated circle. We comment on them, talk about them, and share them again.

And the important things going on?  We don’t even know they exist.

Consider all the fuming people, rending their garments to say the media never covered all those terrorist attacks on non-whites before the Paris attacks.  Many people got worked up, shaming the media about not covering the 147 killed in Kenya by gunmen.   Then the media fought back.


We simply posted the links to our stories and said, as San Francisco Chronicle editor in chief Audrey Cooper wrote on Facebook, “Don’t mistake reading your FB feed for being an active consumer of smart news.” Then she posted this article that explains it best.

Narrow mindedness is now normal mindedness.

I’m an anachronism.  I do something every day without fail. Something 70% of people my age do not do. (I’m 41).  I read a daily paper.  Cover to cover, at least the headlines.

The numbers of us reading a daily newspaper has been plummeting since the rise of social media in 2008.

The reason I do it is because I want to see the broad perspective on all the news. I know (personally) the vast team of editors, writers, layout staff, and the copy desk have meticulously gone over every part of this to make sure it’s an accurate reflection of what happened in the world and in the Bay Area during that 24 hour period.

The other alternative is also dying: the evening newscast. Along with it, balanced reporting

Fox News is rising, with an unapologetic bias.  I’m fine with the existence of the network. I’m just not fine that those who follow Fox News don’t hear any other opinions because they no longer read the paper, or watch the objective newscasts from ABC, CBS, and NBC that are broadcast for free to everyone.

Cable can narrowcast. The Internet can microcast. But now, anyone and everyone can broadcast something that will reach the entire world with their often un-researched and unconfirmed and unchecked views.

It’s how we can deny climate change because our feeds are cleansed of any points we disagreed with.

And Donald Trump’s “brilliant ideas” are lauded among his fervent followers while the context of his embarrassing, imbecilic, childlike rants are suppressed by the same algorithms.  The right get righter and the left get lefter.   And in the middle, the informed, the open-minded, and the intelligent get angrier.  Or give up.

The tyranny of personalization that leads to self-directed mind control, groupthink and xenophobia

A group that wants to win your hearts and minds doesn’t need to burn the books. How quaint was that.  We stopped reading them long ago.  These overlords merely need to create great memes, preferably with cats and clever white block, sanserif text.

The only solution I see to the homogenization of ideas in our culture?  We must purposefully subscribe to Facebook feeds with which we disagree.

If you make one New Year’s resolution, make it this.  Follow someone or preferably some media source with whom you disagree.

• If you’re a Democrat, follow Conservative Daily.

• If you’re a Republican, follow Occupy Democrats.

• If you want it lighter, and you’re an evangelical Christian who doesn’t believe evolution had anything to do with anything, follow IFLScience. (Warning, expletive).

• If you’re an atheist who thinks all Christians are naive hypocrites, follow Fr. James Martin.

And please, comment on this post.

Tell me how crazy I am. Tell me what an idiot I am. Tell me where I got a fact wrong, or missed some perspective, or am a crazy conservative or whackjob liberal.  Talk about this post.  Because that will make more people read it, and maybe, just maybe, they’ll seek other perspectives before making the important decisions that happen in the ballot box, and not in the Facebook feeds.



Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are killing the web

Iran’s blogfather:

Hossein Derakhshan was imprisoned by the regime for his blogging. On his release, he found the internet stripped of its power to change the world and instead serving up a stream of pointless social trivia

‘For a while, I was the first person any new blogger in Iran would contact’ ... Hossein Derakhshan
‘For a while, I was the first person any new blogger in Iran would contact’ … Hossein Derakhshan. Photograph: Arash Ashoorinia for the Guardian

Late in 2014, I was abruptly pardoned and freed from Evin prison in northern Tehran. In November 2008, I had been sentenced to nearly 20 years in jail, mostly over my web activities, and thought I would end up spending most of my life in those cells. So the moment, when it came, was unexpected. I was sharing a cup of tea when the voice of the floor announcer – another prisoner – filled all the rooms and corridors: “Dear fellow inmates, the bird of luck has once again sat on one fellow inmate’s shoulders. Mr Hossein Derakhshan, as of this moment, you are free.”

Outside, everything felt new: the chill autumn breeze, the traffic noise from a nearby bridge, the smell, the colours of the city I had lived in most of my life. Around me, I noticed a very different Tehran from the one I had been used to. An influx of new, shamelessly luxurious condos had replaced the charming little houses I was familiar with. New roads, new highways, hordes of invasive SUVs. Large billboards with advertisements for Swiss-made watches and Korean TVs. Women in colourful scarves and manteaus, men with dyed hair and beards, and hundreds of charming cafes with hip western music and female staff. They were the kind of changes that creep up on people; the kind you only really notice once normal life gets taken away from you.

Two weeks later, I began writing again. Some friends agreed to let me start a blog as part of their arts magazine. I called it Ketabkhan – it means book-reader in Persian.

Six years was a long time to be in jail, but it is an entire era online. Writing on the internet had not changed, but reading – or, at least, getting things read – had altered dramatically. I’d been told how essential social networks had become, so I tried to post a link to one of my stories on Facebook. It turned out Facebook didn’t care much. It ended up looking like a boring classified ad. No description. No image. Nothing. It got three likes. Three! That was it.

It became clear to me, right there, that things had changed. I was not equipped to play on this new turf — all my investment and effort had burned up. I was devastated.

Blogs were gold and bloggers were rock stars back in 2008 when I was arrested. At that point, and despite the fact the state was blocking access to my blog from inside Iran, I had an audience of around 20,000 people every day. People used to carefully read my posts and leave lots of relevant comments, even those who hated my guts. I could empower or embarrass anyone I wanted. I felt like a monarch.

The iPhone was a little over a year old, but smartphones were still mostly used to make phone calls and send short messages, handle emails, and surf the web. There were no real apps, certainly not how we think of them today. There was no Instagram, no SnapChat, WhatsApp. Instead, there was the web, and on the web, there were blogs: the best place to find alternative thoughts, news and analysis. They were my life.

It had all started with 9/11. I was in Toronto, and my father had just arrived from Tehran for a visit. We were having breakfast when the second plane hit the World Trade Center. I was puzzled and confused and, looking for insights and explanations, I came across blogs. Once I read a few, I thought: this is it, I should start one, and encourage all Iranians to start blogging as well. So, using Notepad on Windows, I started experimenting. Soon I was writing on hoder.com, using Blogger’s publishing platform before Google bought it.

Then, on 5 November 2001, I published a step-by-step guide on how to start a blog. That sparked something that was later called a blogging revolution: soon, hundreds and thousands of Iranians made it one of the top five nations by the number of blogs. I used to keep a list of all blogs in Persian and, for a while, I was the first person any new blogger in Iran would contact, so they could get on the list. That’s why they called me “the blogfather” in my mid-20s – it was a silly nickname, but at least it hinted at how much I cared.

The Iranian blogosphere was a diverse crowd – from exiled authors and journalists, female diarists, and technology experts, to local journalists, politicians, clerics, and war veterans . But you can never have too much diversity. I encouraged conservatives inside Iran to join and share their thoughts. I had left the country in late 2000 to experience living in the west, and was scared that I was missing all the rapidly emerging trends at home. But reading Iranian blogs in Toronto was the closest experience I could have to sitting in a shared taxi in Tehran and listening to collective conversations between the talkative driver and random passengers.

There’s a story in the Qur’an that I thought about a lot during my first eight months in solitary confinement. In it, a group of persecuted Christians find refuge in a cave. They, and a dog they have with them, fall into a deep sleep and wake up under the impression that they have taken a nap: in fact, it’s 300 years later. One version of the story tells of how one of them goes out to buy food – and I can only imagine how hungry they must have been after 300 years – and discovers that his money is obsolete now, a museum item. That’s when he realises how long they have been absent.

The hyperlink was my currency six years ago. It represented the open, interconnected spirit of the world wide web – a vision that started with its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee. The hyperlink was a way to abandon centralisation – all the links, lines and hierarchies – and replace them with something more distributed, a system of nodes and networks. Since I got out of jail, though, I’ve realised how much the hyperlink has been devalued, almost made obsolete.

Nearly every social network now treats a link as just the same as it treats any other object – the same as a photo, or a piece of text. You’re encouraged to post one single hyperlink and expose it to a quasi-democratic process of liking and plussing and hearting. But links are not objects, they are relations between objects. This objectivisation has stripped hyperlinks of their immense powers.

At the same time, these social networks tend to treat native text and pictures – things that are directly posted to them – with a lot more respect. One photographer friend explained to me how the images he uploads directly to Facebook receive many more likes than when he uploads them elsewhere and shares the link on Facebook.

Some networks, like Twitter, treat hyperlinks a little better. Others are far more paranoid. Instagram – owned by Facebook – doesn’t allow its audiences to leave whatsoever. You can put up a web address alongside your photos, but it won’t go anywhere. Lots of people start their daily online routine in these cul-de-sacs of social media, and their journeys end there. Many don’t even realise they are using the internet’s infrastructure when they like an Instagram photograph or leave a comment on a friend’s Facebook video. It’s just an app.

But hyperlinks aren’t just the skeleton of the web: they are its eyes, a path to its soul. And a blind webpage, one without hyperlinks, can’t look or gaze at another webpage – and this has serious consequences for the dynamics of power on the web.

More or less all theorists have thought of gaze in relation to power, and mostly in a negative sense: the gazer strips the gazed and turns her into a powerless object, devoid of intelligence or agency. But in the world of webpages, gaze functions differently: it is more empowering. When a powerful website – say Google or Facebook – gazes at, or links to, another webpage, it doesn’t just connect it , it brings it into existence; gives it life. Without this empowering gaze, your web page doesn’t breathe. No matter how many links you have placed in a webpage, unless somebody is looking at it, it is actually both dead and blind, and therefore incapable of transferring power to any outside web page.

Apps like Instagram are blind, or almost blind. Their gaze goes inwards, reluctant to transfer any of their vast powers to others, leading them into quiet deaths. The consequence is that web pages outside social media are dying.

Even before I went to jail, though, the power of hyperlinks was being curbed. Itsbiggest enemy was a philosophy that combined two of the most dominant, and most overrated, values of our times: newness and popularity. (Isn’t this embodied these days by the real-world dominance of young celebrities?) That philosophy is the stream. The stream now dominates the way people receive information on the web. Fewer users are directly checking dedicated webpages, instead getting fed by a never-ending flow of information that’s picked for them by complex and secretive algorithms.

The stream means you don’t need to open so many websites any more. You don’t need numerous tabs. You don’t even need a web browser. You open the Facebook app on your smartphone and dive in. The mountain has come to you. Algorithms have picked everything for you. According to what you or your friends have read or seen before, they predict what you might like to see. It feels great not to waste time in finding interesting things on so many websites. But what are we exchanging for efficiency?

In many apps, the votes we cast – the likes, the plusses, the stars, the hearts – are actually more related to cute avatars and celebrity status than to the substance of what’s posted. A most brilliant paragraph by some ordinary-looking person can be left outside the stream, while the silly ramblings of a celebrity gain instant internet presence. And not only do the algorithms behind the stream equate newness and popularity with importance, they also tend to show us more of what we have already liked. These services carefully scan our behaviour and delicately tailor our news feeds with posts, pictures and videos that they think we would most likely want to see.

Popularity is not wrong in and of itself, but it has its own perils. In a free-market economy, low-quality goods with the wrong prices are doomed to failure. Nobody gets upset when a quiet Hackney cafe with bad lattes and rude servers goes out of business. But political or religious opinions are not the same as material goods or services. They won’t disappear if they are unpopular or even wrong. In fact, history has proven that most big ideas (and many bad ones) have been quite unpopular for a long time, and their marginal status has only strengthened them. Minority views are radicalised when they can’t be heard or engaged with. That’s how Isis is recruiting and growing. The stream suppresses other types of unconventional ideas too, with its reliance on our habits.

Today the stream is digital media’s dominant form of organising information. It’s in every social network and mobile application. Since I gained my freedom, everywhere I turn I see the stream. I guess it won’t be too long before we see news websites organise their entire content based on the same principles. The prominence of the stream today doesn’t just make vast chunks of the internet biased against quality – it also means a deep betrayal to the diversity that the world wide web had originally envisioned.

The centralisation of information also worries me because it makes it easier for things to disappear. After my arrest, my hosting service closed my account, because I wasn’t able to pay its monthly fee. But at least I had a backup of all my posts in a database on my own web server. But what if my account on Facebook or Twitter is shut down for any reason? Those services themselves may not die any time soon, but it is not too difficult to imagine a day when many American services shut down the accounts of anyone from Iran, as a result of the current regime of sanctions. If that happened, I might be able to download my posts in some of them, and let’s assume the backup can be easily imported into another platform. But what about the unique web address for my social network profile? Would I be able to claim it back later, after somebody else has possessed it?

But the scariest outcome of the centralisation of information in the age of social networks is something else: it is making us all much less powerful in relation to governments and corporations. Surveillance is increasingly imposed on civilised lives, and it gets worse as time goes by. The only way to stay outside of this vast apparatus of surveillance might be to go into a cave and sleep, even if you can’t make it 300 years.

Ironically enough, states that cooperate with Facebook and Twitter know much more about their citizens than those, like Iran, where the state has a tight grip on the internet but does not have legal access to social media companies. What is more frightening than being merely watched, though, is being controlled. WhenFacebook can know us better than our parents with only 150 likes, and better than our spouses with 300 likes, the world appears quite predictable, both for governments and for businesses. And predictability means control.

Middle-class Iranians, like most people in the world, are obsessed with new trends. Since 2014 the hype is all about Instagram. There’s less and less text on social networks, and more and more video, more and more images, still or moving, to watch. Are we witnessing a decline of reading on the web in favour of watching and listening? The web started out by imitating books and for many years, it was heavily dominated by text, by hypertext. Search engines such as Google put huge value on these things, and entire companies – entire monopolies – were built off the back of them. But as the number of image scanners and digital photos and video cameras grows exponentially, this seems to be changing. Search tools are starting to add advanced image recognition algorithms; advertising money is flowing there.

The stream, mobile applications, and moving images all show a departure from a books-internet toward a television-internet. We seem to have gone from a non-linear mode of communication – nodes and networks and links – toward one that is linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking.

When I log on to Facebook, my personal television starts. All I need to do is to scroll: New profile pictures by friends, short bits of opinion on current affairs, links to new stories with short captions, advertising, and of course self-playing videos. I occasionally click on the like or share button, read peoples’ comments or leave one, or open an article. But I remain inside Facebook, and it continues to broadcast what I might like. This is not the web I knew when I went to jail. This is not the future of the web. This future is television.

Soon the internet will be a collection of mobile apps rather than of websites. And the money these apps generate will be out of monthly subscription, instead of advertising – something like cable television with its various theme-based packages, and its primetime. (Already if you want to post anything to a social network, you have to do it early morning or late night, when most people are using the app.)

Sometimes I think maybe I’m becoming too strict as I age. Maybe this is all a natural evolution of a technology. But I can’t close my eyes to what’s happening: a loss of intellectual power and diversity. In the past, the web was powerful and serious enough to land me in jail. Today it feels like little more than entertainment. So much that even Iran doesn’t take some – Instagram, for instance – serious enough to block.

I miss when people took time to be exposed to opinions other than their own, and bothered to read more than a paragraph or 140 characters. I miss the days when I could write something on my own blog, publish on my own domain, without taking an equal time to promote it on numerous social networks; when nobody cared about likes and reshares, and best time to post.

That’s the web I remember before jail. That’s the web we have to save.

Hossein Derakhshan (@h0d3r) is a Tehran-based author. He is currently working on an art project called Link-age to promote hyperlinks and the open web.




Max Blumenthal & Chris Hedges Discuss 2014 Assault on Gaza


‘Sadism and Savagery I’ve Never Seen Before’

As tensions rise in the occupied territories, last summer’s brutal siege of Gaza can’t be forgotten.

Photo Credit: via YouTube/teleSur

Recent tensions in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have brought the long-standing Israeli occupation of Palestine back into the news. Discussion of a third Intifada and a “wave of violence” have John Kerryrushing to the region to “calm things down” and pundits scrambling to lay blame. Missing from recent news is an important piece of context: Palestine is still reeling from the Israeli assault on Gaza last summer that left11,000 wounded and over 2,200 dead, 70% of them children.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Chris Hedges and AlterNet’s Max Blumenthal recently sat down to discuss the situation on Hedges’ new teleSUR show, “Days of Revolt,” a series that focuses on people around the world fighting injustice.

“The homes [in Gaza] are three to four stories high,” Blumenthal said, “and each floor represents a generation, so when it gets hit by a missile, you see a family liquidated.” His words play over video of explosions destroying apartment complexes and sometimes entire city blocks. The UN estimates that over 20,000 homes were destroyed and over 500,000 Gazans displaced during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge.

The two men also discuss a chilling economic angle on the carnage. A major sector of Israel’s economy is the design, manufacturing and exporting of weapons and weapons systems.

“These horrific weapons they are testing,” Hedges said. “I mean, they’re using the people of Gaza like guinea pigs.” The weapons in question, so-called DIME bombs (or dense inert metal explosives), are, according to Blumenthal, “tungsten-based and attack human tissue over a matter of days… [they have] a very small entry wound and result in the massive burning of the organs.” The use of these weapons, Hedges notes, creates a perverse incentive to test new, brutal weapons that can later be exported.

As the false symmetry of “tit for tat” framing plays out in our media, their discussion is a useful reminder that over the past few years, what’s happened in Palestine is anything but symmetrical.

Watch the video:

Adam Johnson is an associate editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter at@adamjohnsonnyc.



Obama’s “60 Minutes” interview and the crisis of US policy in Syria


By Barry Grey
13 October 2015

In an extraordinary interview Sunday evening on CBS News’ “60 Minutes” program, President Barack Obama sought to defend his policy in Syria against a mounting chorus of detractors within the foreign policy and military/intelligence establishment who are demanding an even more massive and reckless military escalation than that which he has authorized.

Under aggressive, bordering on belligerent, questioning from “60 Minutes” moderator Steve Kroft, Obama was unable to present a coherent explanation of either the purpose of the war in Syria or the reasons for the fiasco thus far of Washington’s four-year drive to topple the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The interview was broadcast a week after Russia launched a military intervention to prop up the Assad regime against the US-backed Islamist militias. These militias form the backbone of the so-called “rebels” carrying out the war for regime-change on the ground.

Conducted at the White House on October 6, the interview was aired just two days after Obama announced that he was ending the Pentagon’s disastrous yearlong attempt to recruit and train a “moderate” force to fight both Assad and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL), and was instead increasing US arms and air support for existing “rebel” militias. What Obama did not say was that these forces are dominated by Al Qaeda-affiliated groups such as the al-Nusra Front, which the US State Department lists as a foreign terrorist organization.

Obama’s announcement, far from a military retreat, marked an escalation of the American intervention in Syria, one that threatens to trigger a direct conflict with Russia, the possessor of the world’s second biggest nuclear arsenal after the US.

These steps, however, are deemed woefully inadequate within broad sections of the state and political establishment, including layers of the Democratic Party. What the “60 Minutes” interview revealed is the disarray and crisis of US policy and the existence of bitter divisions within the ruling elite. Powerful factions are pushing for the deployment of thousands of US troops to take out Assad, regardless the risks of war with Russia and the possibility of a Third World War.

One expression of the depths of the political crisis over Washington’s debacle in Syria and the broader Middle East was the inquisitorial posture adopted by Kroft. He repeatedly interrupted Obama and bluntly listed the failures of his policy.

Within the first minute of the interview, Kroft declared, “I mean, if you look at the situation and you’re looking for progress, it’s not easy to find. You could make the argument that the only thing that’s changed is the death toll, which has continued to escalate, and the number of refugees fleeing Syria into Europe.”

When Obama attempted to answer a question, he interjected, “I mean, what’s going on right now is not working. I mean, they [ISIS] are still occupying big chunks of Iraq. They’re still occupying a good chunk of Syria. Who’s going to get rid of them?”

On the Pentagon’s failed program to create a “moderate” anti-ISIS and anti-Assad militia, Croft said, “You have been talking about the moderate opposition in Syria. It seems very hard to identify… You got a half a billion dollars from Congress to train and equip 5,000, and at the end, according to the commander of CENTCOM, you got 50 people, most of whom are dead or deserted. He said four or five left?”

In response, Obama made the astonishing admission that he did not believe in the program from the beginning. The following exchange took place:

Obama: “Steve, this is why I’ve been skeptical from the get go about the notion that we were going to effectively create this proxy army inside of Syria. My goal has been to try to test the proposition, can we be able to train and equip a moderate opposition that’s willing to fight ISIL? And what we’ve learned is that as long as Assad remains in power, it is very difficult to get those folks to focus their attention on ISIL.”

Kroft: “If you were skeptical of the program to find and identify, train and equip moderate Syrians, why did you go through the program?”

Obama: “Well, because part of what we have to do here, Steve, is to try different things…”

Aside from the virtual acknowledgment that his policy lacked any coherence, Obama’s attempt at an explanation for the failure of the Pentagon plan amounted to an admission that his administration’s claims of the existence of a “moderate” anti-Assad military force were fraudulent. The only significant forces fighting to overthrow Assad are and always have been Islamist elements linked to Al Qaeda.

Kroft was careful not to press this point because it shatters the pretense that the bloody wars waged by Washington and its regional allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen—which have taken well over a million lives and destroyed entire societies—were carried out to fight terrorism.

On Russia’s intervention in Syria, Kroft was no less adversarial. Here is an excerpt from the interview:

Kroft: “Mr. Putin seems to be challenging [American] leadership.”

Obama: “In what way?”

Kroft: “Well, he’s moved troops into Syria, for one. He’s got people on the ground. Two, the Russians are conducting military operations in the Middle East for the first time since World War II, bombing the people that we are supporting…

“He’s challenging your leadership, Mr. President. He’s challenging your leadership…

“There is a perception in the Middle East among our adversaries, certainly and even among some of our allies that the United States is in retreat, that we pulled our troops out of Iraq and ISIS has moved in and taken over much of that territory. The situation in Afghanistan is very precarious and the Taliban is on the march again. And ISIS controls a large part of Syria.”

Obama’s response to this accurate description of the present situation in the Middle East was both highly revealing and ominous. After a half-hearted attempt to argue for a political settlement to transition Assad out of power—this supposedly being the only basis for defeating ISIS—he focused on the alternative being advanced within the ruling class to his reluctance to deploy large number of US troops.

Obama: “I guarantee you that there are factions inside of the Middle East, and I guess factions inside the Republican Party, who think that we should send endless numbers of troops into the Middle East, that the only measure of strength is sending back several hundred thousands troops, that we are going to impose a peace, police the region, and—that the fact that we might have more deaths of US troops, thousands of troops killed, thousands of troops injured, spending another trillion dollars, they would have no problem with that. There are people who would like to see us do that…

“And if, in fact, the only measure is for us to send another 100,000 or 200,000 troops into Syria or back into Iraq, or perhaps into Libya, or perhaps into Yemen, and our goal somehow is that we are now going to be, not just the police, but the governors of the region, that would be a bad strategy, Steve.”

These words should be taken as a warning by working people and youth in the US and internationally. Here Obama blurted out what is being intensively discussed and planned in the offices of the CIA, the Pentagon and various corporate boardrooms.

These plans for greater conquest and empire cannot be carried out by the forces available in a volunteer army, especially when American imperialism is preparing for even greater wars against rivals such as Russia, China and, eventually, potential challengers to US supremacy such as Germany and Japan. They require the reintroduction of the draft, to dragoon untold thousands of youth to serve as cannon fodder in the American ruling class’s manic pursuit of global domination.

These words describe a policy of all-out war that, opposed for the present by Obama on the basis of tactical considerations, is nevertheless the inevitable and logical outcome of the entire foreign policy of US imperialism, particularly since the dissolution of the Soviet Union nearly 25 years ago.

From the first Gulf War launched in 1991 by George H.W. Bush under the banner of America’s “New World Order,” to the Balkan wars of the 1990s, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the wars for regime-change in Libya and Syria and the latest war in Yemen, American imperialism has single-mindedly pursued a policy of world hegemony, seeking to utilize its military superiority to offset its economic decline.

This policy has produced one disaster after another, the Syrian debacle joining the creation of a regime in Iraq that aligns itself with Russia and Iran and the installation of a hated and despised puppet government in Afghanistan that cannot survive without the permanent presence of thousands of US troops.

American imperialism will not, however, accept its eclipse by one or another rival power. The crisis of US policy in Syria and the broader Middle East makes all the more urgent the building of a new antiwar movement based on the working class united internationally in the struggle against capitalism.



Rogue States and Diplomacy: a Conversation With Noam Chomsky

Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., told me that Barbara Mikulski’s vote was “a big relief”. She said that the Iran deal was “a huge victory for diplomacy over the real threat of war with Iran”. Trita Parsi and Reza Marashi of the National Iranian American Council agreed. Obama, they said, “has proven to the U.S. that security is better achieved through diplomacy than through militarism”. Emad Kiyaei of the American Iranian Council told me just after Barbara Mikulski’s announcement: “There is no ‘better’ deal and the opposition has not introduced a viable alternative, except more coercive policies that to date have not slowed—rather accelerated—Iran’s nuclear programme.”

In late August, Obama suggested that those who agreed with him were “the crazies”. This suggested the strong push the White House had made to get the deal through. No wonder that the American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka told me that Obama was more belligerent with the Congress than the Iranian negotiators. “I only wish the President had brought the same tenacity and purpose to the Iran talks,” she told me, “than he brought to bludgeoning the representatives of the American people.”

To get the wider context of the Iranian deal, I spoke to Professor Noam Chomsky, who laid out the geopolitical and historical context for this important agreement. — Vijay Prashad










Professor Chomsky, how would you characterise the Republican Party’s reaction to the Iran nuclear deal?

The Republicans are almost unanimously opposed to the nuclear deal. The current Republican primaries illustrate the proclaimed reasons. Ted Cruz, considered one of the intellectuals of the group, warned that Iran may still be able to produce nuclear weapons, and it could use one to set off an electromagnetic pulse that “would take down the electrical grid of the entire eastern seaboard” of the U.S., killing “tens of millions of Americans”. The two most likely winners of the primary, Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, are battling over whether to bomb Iran immediately after being elected or after the first Cabinet meeting. The one candidate with some foreign policy experience, Lindsey Graham, described the deal as “a death sentence for the State of Israel,” which came as a surprise to Israeli intelligence and strategic analysts—and which Graham too knows to be utter nonsense, raising immediate questions about actual motives.

It is important to bear in mind that the Republicans have long abandoned the pretence of functioning as a normal parliamentary party. Rather, they have become a “radical insurgency” that scarcely seeks to participate in normal parliamentary politics, as observed by the respected conservative political commentator Norman Ornstein of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. Since Ronald Reagan, the leadership has plunged so far into the pockets of the very rich and the corporate sector that they can attract votes only by mobilising sectors of the population that have not previously been an organised political force, among them extremist evangelical Christians, now probably the majority of Republican voters; remnants of the former slave-holding States; nativists who are terrified that “they” are taking our white Christian Anglo-Saxon country away from us; and others who turn the Republican primaries into spectacles remote from the mainstream of modern society—though not the mainstream of the most powerful country in world history.

The Republican suspicion of Iran seems to be shared across sections of the political spectrum, even among those who are for the deal. Could you address that suspicion of Iran?

Across the spectrum, there is general agreement with the “pragmatic” conclusion of General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the Vienna deal “did not prevent the U.S. from striking Iranian facilities if officials decide that it is cheating on the agreement”, even though a unilateral military strike is “far less likely” if Iran behaves. Former Clinton and Obama Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross recommends that “Iran must have no doubt that if we see it moving towards a weapon, that would trigger the use of force” even after the termination of the deal, when Iran is free to do what it wants. In fact, the existence of a termination point 15 years hence is “the greatest single problem with the agreement,” he adds, recommending that the U.S. provide Israel with B-52 bombers to protect itself before that terrifying date arrives.

The underlying assumption here is that Iran is a serious threat, that it would attack Israel with nuclear weapons. How credible is that threat?

To be sure, Israel faces the “existential threat” of Iranian pronouncements: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad famously threatened it with destruction. Except that they didn’t—and if they had, it would be of little moment. They predicted that “Under God’s grace [the Zionist regime] will be wiped off the map.” Another translation suggests that Ahmadinejad actually said that Israel “must vanish from the page of time”. This is a citation of a statement made by Ayatollah Khomeini, during a period when Iran and Israel were tacitly allied. In other words, they hope that regime change will someday take place. They do not say that they will attack Israel either now or later.

Ahmadinejad’s threats fall far short of regular U.S.-Israeli direct calls for regime change in Iran, not to speak of actions to implement regime change going back to the actual “regime change” of 1953, when the U.S. organised a military coup to overthrow the Iranian parliamentary regime and install the dictatorship of the Shah, who proceeded with one of the world’s worst human rights records. These crimes were known to readers of Amnesty International and other human rights organisations, but not to readers of the U.S. press, which has indeed devoted plenty of space to Iranian human rights violations, but only after 1979, when the U.S.-imposed regime was overthrown. The instructive facts are documented carefully in a study by Mansour Farhang and William Dorman.

None of this is a departure from the norm. The U.S., as is well known, holds the world championship in regime change, and Israel is no laggard either. The most destructive of Israel’s invasions of Lebanon, in 1982, was explicitly aimed at regime change, along with securing its hold on the Occupied Territories. The pretexts offered were very thin, and collapsed at once. That too is not unusual and pretty much independent of the nature of the society, from the laments in the Declaration of Independence about the “merciless Indian savages” to Hitler’s defence of Germany from the “wild terror” of the Poles.

No serious analyst believes that Iran would ever use, or even threaten to use, a nuclear weapon if it had one, thus facing instant destruction. There is, however, real concern that a nuclear weapon might fall into jehadi hands—not from Iran, where the threat is minuscule, but from the U.S. ally Pakistan, where it is very real.

In the journal of the (British) Royal Institute of International Affairs, two leading Pakistani nuclear scientists, Pervez Hoodbhoy and Zia Mian, write that increasing fears of “militants seizing nuclear weapons or materials and unleashing nuclear terrorism [have led to] the creation of a dedicated force of over 20,000 troops to guard nuclear facilities [though] there is no reason to assume, however, that this force would be immune to the problems associated with the units guarding regular military facilities,” which have frequently suffered attacks with “insider help”. In brief, the problem is real, but is displaced by fantasies concocted for other reasons.

Professor Chomsky, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, has said that the problem is the “instability that Iran fuels beyond its nuclear programme”. She echoed U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, who went to Israel’s northern border and said, “We will continue to help Israel counter Iran’s malign influence” by supporting Hizbollah. The U.S., he intimated, reserved the right to use military force against Iran. Could you comment on this?

Power’s usage is standard: she defines “stabilisation” according to a peculiar logic. For instance, U.S. policy in Iraq is defined as stabilisation. What does that stabilisation look like? The U.S. invades a country, with hundreds of thousands killed and millions becoming refugees, along with barbarous torture and destruction that Iraqis compare to the Mongol invasions, leaving Iraq the unhappiest country in the world according to WIN/Gallup polls. It also ignited sectarian conflict that is tearing the region to shreds and laying the basis for the ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] monstrosity along with its Saudi ally. That is stabilisation. The standard usage sometimes reaches levels that are almost surreal, as when liberal commentator James Chace, former editor of Foreign Affairs, explains that the U.S. sought to “destabilise a freely elected Marxist government in Chile” because “we were determined to seek stability” [under the Pinochet dictatorship].

Let us consider the case of Hizbollah and Hamas. Both emerged in resistance to U.S.-backed Israeli violence and aggression, which vastly exceeds anything attributed to these organisations. Whatever one thinks about them, or other beneficiaries of Iranian support, Iran hardly ranks high in support for terror worldwide, even within the Muslim world. Among Islamic states, Saudi Arabia is far in the lead as a sponsor of Islamic terror, not only by direct funding by wealthy Saudis and others in the Gulf but even more by the missionary zeal with which the Saudis promulgate their extremist Wahhabi-Salafi version of Islam through Quranic schools, mosques, clerics, and other means available to a religious dictatorship with enormous oil wealth. The ISIS is an extremist offshoot of Saudi religious extremism and its fanning of jehadi flames.

In generation of Islamic terror, however, nothing can compare with the U.S. “war on terror”, which has helped to spread the plague from a small tribal area in Afghanistan-Pakistan to a vast region from West Africa to South-East Asia. The invasion of Iraq alone escalated terror attacks by a factor of seven in the first year, well beyond even what had been predicted by intelligence agencies. Drone warfare against marginalised and oppressed tribal societies also elicits demands for revenge, as ample evidence indicates.

The two Iranian clients [Hizbollah and Hamas] also share the crime of winning the popular vote in the only free elections held in the Arab world. Hizbollah is guilty of the even more heinous crime of compelling Israel to withdraw from its occupation of southern Lebanon in violation of [U.N.] Security Council orders dating back decades, an illegal regime of terror punctuated with episodes of extreme violence, murder and destruction.

Iran’s “fuelling instability” is particularly dramatic in Iraq, where, among other crimes, it alone came at once to the aid of Kurds defending themselves from the ISIS invasion and it is building a $2.5 billion power plant to try to bring electrical power back to the level before the U.S. invasion.

The other argument made here is that Iran has a terrible human rights record. How can the U.S. cut a deal with such a state?

Leon Wieseltier, contributing editor of the venerable liberal journal The Atlantic, said that the U.S. should pursue “an American-sponsored alliance between Israel and the Sunni states”. This is in reaction to his and others’ outrage that the U.S. would make a deal with the “contemptible” regime in Iran. Wieseltier can barely conceal his visceral hatred for all things Iranian. With a straight face, this respected liberal intellectual recommends that Saudi Arabia, which makes Iran look like a virtual paradise in comparison, and Israel, with its vicious crimes in Gaza and elsewhere, should ally to teach Iran good behaviour. Perhaps the recommendation is not entirely unreasonable when we consider the human rights records of the regimes the U.S. has imposed and supported throughout the world. The Iranian government is no doubt a threat to its own people, though it regrettably breaks no records in this regard and does not descend to the level of favoured allies [of the U.S.]. But that cannot be the concern of the U.S., and surely not Israel and Saudi Arabia.

It might also be useful to recall —surely Iranians do—that not a day has passed since 1953 when the U.S. was not severely harming Iranians. As soon as Iranians overthrew the hated U.S.-imposed regime of the Shah in 1979, Washington at once turned to supporting Saddam Hussein’s murderous attack on Iran. Ronald Reagan went so far as to deny Saddam’s major crime, his chemical warfare assault on Iraq’s Kurdish population, which Reagan blamed on Iran. When Saddam was tried for crimes under U.S. auspices, this horrendous crime, and others in which the U.S. was complicit, were carefully excluded from the charges, restricted to one of his very minor crimes, the murder of 148 Shias in 1982, a footnote to his gruesome record.

Saddam was such a valued friend of Washington that he was even granted a privilege accorded otherwise only to Israel: to attack a U.S. naval vessel with impunity, killing 37 crewmen—the USS Stark, in 1987. Israel did the same in its 1967 attack on the USS Liberty. Iran pretty much conceded defeat shortly after when the U.S. launched Operation Praying Mantis against Iranian ships and oil platforms in Iranian territorial waters. The Operation culminated in the shooting down of an Iranian civilian airliner in Iranian airspace by USS Vincennes, under no credible threat, with 290 killed, and the subsequent granting of a Legion of Merit award to the Vincennes commander for “exceptionally meritorious conduct” and for maintaining a “calm and professional atmosphere” during the period when the attack on the airliner took place. “We can only stand in awe of such display of American exceptionalism!” Thill Raghu commented.

After the war, the U.S. continued to support Iran’s primary enemy, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. President Bush I, the statesman Bush, even invited Iraqi nuclear engineers to the U.S. for advanced training in weapons production, an extremely serious threat to Iran. Sanctions against Iran were intensified, including against foreign firms dealing with Iran, along with actions to bar Iran from the international financial system.

In recent years, the hostility has extended to sabotage, murder of nuclear scientists [presumably by Israel], and cyberwar, openly proclaimed with pride. The Pentagon regards cyberwar as an act of war, justifying a military response, with the accord of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation], which affirmed in September 2014 that cyberattacks might trigger the collective defence obligations of the NATO powers. When we are the target that is, not the perpetrators.

It is only fair, however, to add that there have been breaks in the pattern. President Bush II provided several major gifts to Iran by destroying its major enemies, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. He even placed Iran’s Iraqi enemy under Iranian influence after the U.S. defeat, which was so severe that the U.S. had to abandon its officially declared goals of establishing military bases and ensuring privileged access to Iraq’s vast oil resources for U.S. corporations.

There seems to be little evidence that the Iranians would ever use nuclear weapons. In 2005, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei delivered a fatwa (decree) against nuclear weapons. Why is there this belief that the Iranians are eager almost to use their non-existent nuclear weapons?

We can decide for ourselves how credible the denials from Iranian leaders are, but that they had such intentions in the past is beyond question, since it was asserted openly on the highest authority, which informed foreign journalists that Iran would develop nuclear weapons “certainly, and sooner than one thinks”. The father of Iran’s nuclear energy programme and former head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation was confident that the leadership’s plan “was to build a nuclear bomb”. A Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report also had “no doubt” that Iran would develop nuclear weapons if neighbouring countries did [as they have].

All of this was under the Shah, the highest authority just quoted. That is, during the period when high U.S. officials—Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Henry Kissinger and others—were urging the Shah to proceed with nuclear programmes, and pressuring universities to accommodate these efforts. As part of these efforts, my own university, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), made a deal with the Shah to admit Iranian students to the nuclear engineering programme in return for grants from the Shah, over the very strong objections of the student body, but with comparably strong faculty support, in a meeting that older faculty will doubtless remember well. Asked later why he supported these programmmes under the Shah but opposed them now, Kissinger responded honestly that Iran was an ally then.

Putting aside absurdities, what is the real threat of Iran that inspires such fear and fury? A natural place to turn for an answer is, again, U.S. intelligence. Recall its analysis that Iran poses no military threat, that its strategic doctrines are defensive, and its nuclear programmmes [with no effort to produce bombs, as far as intelligence can determine] are “a central part of its deterrent strategy”.

Who, then, would be concerned by an Iranian deterrent? The answer is plain: the rogue states that rampage in the region and do not want to tolerate any impediment to their reliance on aggression and violence. Far in the lead in this regard are the U.S. and Israel, with Saudi Arabia trying its best to join the club with its invasion of Bahrain to support the crushing of the reform movement by the dictatorship and now its murderous assault on Yemen, accelerating the humanitarian catastrophe there.

Could you talk a bit more about these “rogue states”? After all, this is not the typical characterisation of rogue states, a term developed in 1994 by U.S. National Security Adviser Anthony Lake to refer to North Korea, Cuba, Iraq, Iran and Libya. Your list does not include these powers. It has the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Fifteen years ago, the Professor of the Science of Government at Harvard, the prominent political analyst Samuel Huntington, warned in the major establishment journal, Foreign Affairs, that for much of the world the U.S. was “becoming the rogue superpower” considered “the single greatest external threat to their societies”. His words were echoed shortly after by the president of the American Political Science Association, Robert Jervis, who observed, “In the eyes of much of the world, in fact, the prime rogue state today is the U.S.”

Global opinion supports this judgment by a substantial margin. According to the leading Western polling agencies (WIN/Gallup), the greatest threat to world peace is the U.S. Far below in second place is Pakistan, its ranking probably inflated by the Indian vote. Iran is ranked below, along with Israel, North Korea and Afghanistan.

The U.S., by its own admission, is the gravest threat to world peace. That is the clear meaning of the insistence of the leadership and the political class, in media and commentary, that the U.S. reserves the right to resort to force if it determines, unilaterally, that Iran is violating some commitment. It is also a long-standing official stand of liberal democrats, for example the Clinton Doctrine, that the U.S. is entitled to resort to “unilateral use of military power” even for such purposes as to ensure “uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources”, let alone alleged “security” or “humanitarian” concerns. And adherence to the doctrine is well confirmed in practice, as need hardly be discussed among people willing to look at the facts of current history.

Turning to the next obvious question, what in fact is the Iranian threat? Why, for example, are Israel and Saudi Arabia trembling in fear over the threat of Iran? Whatever the threat is, it can hardly be military. U.S. intelligence years ago informed Congress that Iran had very low military expenditures by the standards of the region and that its strategic doctrines are defensive, designed to deter aggression. Intelligence reports further confirmed that there was no evidence that Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapons programme, and that “Iran’s nuclear programme and its willingness to keep open the possibility of developing nuclear weapons is a central part of its deterrent strategy.”

The authoritative Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) review of global armament ranks the U.S., as usual, far in the lead in military expenditures, with China in second place at about one-third of U.S. expenditures. Far below are Russia and Saudi Arabia, well above any Western European state. Iran is scarcely mentioned. Full details are provided in an April study of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), which finds “a conclusive case that the Arab Gulf states have … an overwhelming advantage [over] Iran in both military spending and access to modern arms”. Iran’s military spending is a fraction of Saudi Arabia’s, and is far below even the spending of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Altogether, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—outspend Iran on arms by a factor of eight, an imbalance that goes back decades. The CSIS observes further that “the Arab Gulf states have acquired and are acquiring some of the most advanced and effective weapons in the world [while] Iran has essentially been forced to live in the past, often relying on systems originally delivered at the time of the Shah”, which are virtually obsolete. The imbalance is, of course, even greater with Israel, which, along with the most advanced U.S. weaponry and its role as a virtual offshore military base of the global superpower, has a huge stock of nuclear weapons.

Finally, could you say a little on what you just mentioned—namely, on Israel’s stockpile of nuclear weapons?

Israel, of course, is one of the three nuclear powers, along with India and Pakistan, whose nuclear weapons programmes have been abetted by the U.S. and who refuse to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif welcomed the nuclear deal and said that it was now the turn of the “holdout”, namely Israel. The regular five-year NPT review conference ended in failure this April. One of the main reasons for the failure was that the U.S. once again blocked the efforts to move toward a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East [West Asia]. These efforts have been led by Egypt and other Arab states for 20 years. Two of the leading figures promoting them at the NPT and other U.N. agencies, and at the Pugwash conferences, Jayantha Dhanapala and Sergio Duarte, observe that “the successful adoption in 1995 of the resolution on the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East was the main element of a package that permitted the indefinite extension of the NPT”, the most important arms control treaty, which, were it adhered to, could end the scourge of nuclear weapons. Repeatedly, implementation of the resolution has been blocked by the U.S., most recently by Barack Obama in 2010 and again in 2015. Dhanapala and Duarte comment that the effort was again blocked “on behalf of a state that is not a party to the NPT and is widely believed to be the only one in the region possessing nuclear weapons”, a polite and understated reference to Israel. They “hope that this failure will not be the coup de grâce to the two longstanding NPT objectives of accelerated progress on nuclear disarmament and on establishing a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone”. Their article, in the journal of the Arms Control Association, is entitled: “Is There a Future for the NPT?”

A nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East is a straightforward way to address whatever threat Iran allegedly poses. And a great deal more is at stake in Washington’s continuing sabotage of the effort, protecting its Israeli client. This is not the only case when opportunities to end the alleged Iranian threat have been undermined by Washington, raising further questions about just what is actually at stake.

This interview originally appeared in Frontline (India).

Vijay Prashad, director of International Studies at Trinity College, is the editor of “Letters to Palestine” (Verso). He lives in Northampton.



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