In a recent New York Times op-ed, Iranian-American journalist Hooman Majd wrote that sanctions against Iran are “turning into a form of collective punishment” and are unlikely to bring about the change western governments are after.
Western nations have increased bilateral sanctions in recent years as Iran forges ahead with its nuclear energy programme, which some outside the Islamic Republic say is really a programme to create an atomic bomb. Recently, calls for a military attack against Iranian nuclear sites have become more frequent in the Israeli government and US media. Both Israel and the US are nuclear-armed countries.
Majd, who’s been described as "100 per cent Iranian and 100 per cent American," has written two books on Iran and spent most of 2011 in Iran working on a third book due out later this year. Majd has often written about his friendship to former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and his support for opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi in the contested 2009 presedential elections.
Majd spoke to Al Jazeera by phone from the US about the talk of war in western media and the effect sanctions are having on people in Iran.
Matthew Cassel: Do the calls for an attack or all out war on Iran that we're hearing in some US media have you worried?
Hooman Majd: It depends on which media we're talking about, because I think that some media in America is a little bit more cautious. There is plenty of debate here about whether this is similar to the run-up to the Iraq war (in 2003).
I think, obviously, the difference this time is that the administration is not trying to prepare the public for war and is not manipulating the media, which is actually the ironic thing because in some ways they're trying to step back a bit … it's the media this time that has just jumped on this idea that we're going to go to war.
And I certainly think there’s an influence from the Israeli media and the Israeli propaganda machine, which is very powerful and permeates the American media all the time. I think there is a concerted effort on (their) part to prepare people, particularly Americans, that it's a righteous war.
That is a narrative they are describing: Israel is about to be annihilated by an Iran that is apocalyptic and wants to throw Jews into the sea and completely annihilate the country. So that if there is war, and they're suggesting that there might have to be, then it is a righteous war.
And I am not saying that people are (falling) for the Israeli propaganda machine here … but it does affect the conversation, it does affect the narrative. So yes, it does concern me.
MC: Has the US government’s policy on Iran changed at all since Barack Obama took office?
HM: Obama came into office saying that they were going to engage Iran and they never really did. … Telling Iranians 'take it or leave it' on deals that they think are good deals for the west, is not diplomacy. You don’t tell people to ‘take it or leave it,’ there is back and forth.
Outright rejection of a Brazilian-Turkish initiative (in 2010) to alleviate the crisis on the part of the US administration and going for more sanctions, that’s also not diplomacy … You can’t argue that the US administration has engaged Iran. That is nonsense.
MC: What effect are the sanctions having on the people? Are they increasing support for the hardliners in Iran like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei?
HM: It's hard to say, I don’t know that it's increasing support for the hardliners, but I think there is definitely a nationalistic sense that we're under siege among a big part of the population. And the people who oppose the regime or want to oppose the regime ... also feel like they're being unfairly targeted.
America and Israel are really saying: ‘capitulate. Stop enriching uranium, which is (Iran’s) right. Of all the countries in the world that have the right to enrich uranium - whoever signed on to the NPT (nuclear nonproliferation treaty) - you're the ones we're saying can’t do this.’
People (in Iran) don’t view the nuclear issue as a mullahs' issue or ayatollahs’ issue they see it as a national issue.
MC: Are the sanctions making any Iranians say, "We've had it, this is enough. Let's just give up our nuclear programme"?
HM: I think there are some people who feel that way but that really hasn't happened yet. In the same way that very few people in Cuba think that Castro should just bend over and take it from America and say ‘enough of the blockade, I'll do whatever you want me to’. People just don’t tend to do that.
Also a lot of people aren’t sure that sanctions would be lifted, you know the Iranian propaganda machine is pretty good, it’s telling its people ‘look, the nuclear issue is an excuse. They’ll say this now and if we give in on this, they’ll say something else the next time … they’re going to continually put pressure on us.’
Lifting the sanctions is not an easy feat on its own. In Iraq, sanctions weren’t lifted until six years after the invasion. And that was when the US controlled the damn place ... It’s not like Obama can just wave his hand and say ‘alright, sanctions are over.’
MC: So the bottom line is that sanctions are not working?
HM: Ironically, this is the one place where I agree with (Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin) Netanyahu when he says sanctions aren’t going to work. He’s right. Now his conclusion that sanctions aren’t going to work so we need to therefore bomb them, that I don’t buy. Because his conclusion, according to his statements, is that Iran is building nuclear weapons. I don’t buy that argument because, one, I don’t think Iran is building nuclear weapons right now, and secondly (because it assumes that Iran) will build nuclear weapons if we don’t do something about it.
Because I think it’s actually the opposite, I think Iran could very easily be disincentivised from taking the steps to building weapons.
But I think the one thing he’s also right about is that Iran has or will have the knowledge and the ability to build nuclear weapons, but that doesn’t mean that they’re going to.
There are 40 plus countries in the world that have that knowledge and ability (to build nuclear weapons). Everyone refers to Japan as the most technologically advanced, and Norway could build a weapon -- but why should (they) build one?
Everything that we’re doing, not just the west but even the pressure that some of the Arab countries are putting on Iran by going along with the sanctions is actually incentivizing Iran to build a nuclear weapon.
MC: More and more military specialists have been saying this lately, that an attack would actually encourage Iran to build a bomb because they’ll have no deterrent otherwise.
HM: I have no (doubt) that a strike will, but even if there is pressure and talk of war and continual pressure and threats I think even that will incentivise them to do it if they haven’t done so.
I think that’s true and I think very little of that is portrayed in the western media. I think the western media is guilty of parodying certain lines about Iran, headlines tend to be very alarmist, and you have to read into certain articles just to see all the caveats.
MC: A New York Times headline a couple weeks ago read, "Iran raid seen as huge task for Israeli jets". Forget the Iranians and what effect a war would have on them and the surrounding region, the concern is for the war planes that would carry out the attack.
HM: Headlines tend to form peoples opinions. You get headlines like, ‘Iran’s nuclear programme,’ they always refer to this. And sometimes they'll sneak in ‘nuclear weapons programme,’ when it doesn't exist and even the US intelligence community says it doesn't exist. Leon Panetta and President Obama say it doesn't exist, and our media still talks about it as if it exists. If you repeat it enough times it becomes true.
If you report that Ahmadinejad wants to kill all the Jews of the planet it becomes true even though he’s never said that. He's never said that he wants to wipe Israel off the map, he’s always said that the ‘Zionist regime will disappear.’ And he’s even explained it in interviews with American media with Charlie Rose he’s said ‘it’s clear what I meant. The Soviet Union doesn't exist on the map anymore, now it’s Russia. Doesn't mean all Russians are dead. South Africa the apartheid regime doesn't exist anymore, doesn't mean that all South Africans (are dead).’
And the other thing is that no one in the American media ever want to talk about fact that Israel has 200 nukes and nuclear powered submarines in the Persian Gulf and a second strike ability. (Israel) could destroy Iran in a matter of minutes, but nobody wants to talk about that. And Iran has no such ability and even if they built and tested a nuclear weapon would probably still not have the ability to target Israel that is in a way effective and not kill millions of Palestinians who are they supposedly support. You drop a nuclear weapon on Israel you destroy the third most holy site in Islam, which is Jerusalem, and you destroy the lives of millions of Palestinians. It’s nonsensical.
And I partly blame the Iranian government. They’re very bad at explaining themselves (and) countering a lot of this stuff. On top of that you have the 2009 elections in Iran, which did not present Iran in a good light. You’ve got a regime that in the minds of people in the west is already a horrific, brutal, despotic, illegitimate regime, and the Iranian people want to be free from this tyranny. It plays well into the whole thing.
MC: You spent much of the past year in Iran, are people talking about the possibility of an attack or war? What are their thoughts on the future?
HM: A little bit, some people are afraid. Towards the end of last year it was really heating up, this idea of a potential war. People started taking it more seriously than before. And you saw at the end of the last year there were all kinds of things like the British embassy being run over by hardline activists, the closing of the British embassy, the sanctions on the central bank by the UK then followed by the US.
(For) the average Iranian it’s hard to see what comes next if you have these crippling sanctions, if you try everything to destroy the Iranian economy, which is what basically America is set out to do. And President Obama said himself that (Iranians) are going to hurt, and that's the idea to continue trying to do that. But to what end? To try to get Iran to capitulate on its nuclear programme? Well, like I said before that's not going to happen.
So what is the next step and when you have Obama and basically everyone else saying well if it doesn't work then we’re going to bomb, then you start thinking ‘ well it’s not going to work so its just a matter of time before they bomb.
Unless something happens, unless president Obama changes tact here and suddenly decides the US has to compromise as much as Iran in the negotiations, people are pessimistic about the chances.