World-renowned analyst on Iranian and Central Asian Affairs, Pepe Escobar, sits down for a candid discussion on current Iranian Affairs. Known for his blunt style with a heavy dose of realism, Escobar sheds light on those aspects of geopolitical issues that are rarely, if ever, covered in the mainstream media.
Born in Brazil, Pepe Escobar , is the roving correspondent for the Hong Kong-based Asia Times. He has lived and worked as a foreign correspondent in London, Paris, Milan, Los Angeles, Singapore, Tehran, Seoul, and Bangkok. He has extensively covered Central Asia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Iran, Iraq and the wider Middle East. Escobar is the author of, among others, “Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War”, “Obama does Globalistan”, and “the Shia Power: Next Target Iran?”.
Pepe, what made you become interested in Iran and when was the first time you visited the country? Culturally, what has caught your attention most in Iran? Do you speak any Farsi?
I have been fascinated by Persian civilization since I was in high school. Darius, Cyrus and Xerxes really caught my attention. I always had the feeling that Persia was superior to Greece – a feeling later I would share with Gore Vidal, after I read his “Creation”. This whole outlook helped to move my attention early on towards Asia. Over the years I became addicted to Persian literature, art and architecture. And as a journalist I finally delved deeply into how the Islamic Revolution developed. My first visit to Iran was only in the mid-1990s. I was traveling overland to Iran in 1977 but for personal reasons had to go back to Europe before reaching the border. At the start of my journalistic career, when I was still writing about movies and pop culture, I followed the revolution from Italy – reading the top French, English and Italian papers at the time. But I had already set the goal of going to Iran to try to understand the country from the inside. In the 1990s, living in Asia and traveling extensively and digging deep in the Muslim world, I finally had the chance to do it. Unfortunately I don’t speak Farsi, although I understand some basic things, never had the chance to spend enough time in Iran to learn what is an extremely seductive, musical, language.
How do you see the current situation in the Middle East and where do you think the region is headed to over the next two years?
The Middle East is the proverbial powder keg. There’s simply no solution for the Palestinian tragedy – no matter what Washington spins – without the rampant colonization of the West Bank. Israel has become a fearful Sparta, although no less aggressive. Its solution for its self-inflicted strategic dead end is to bomb Iran. Saudi Arabia is (re)arming itself to the teeth (for what, falcon hunting?) The UAE will gleefully keep on chooglin’ as a privileged trade and smuggling corridor – and an (expensive) tourist trap. The new Tehran-Damascus-Beirut-Ankara axis is already a reality. Iraq will be ever closer to Iran. Israel is the odd elephant out which will keep raising hell. In an ideal world the Israeli elite would solve the Palestinian problem, do deals with everyone and his neighbor and the Middle East would flourish as a coherent entity. It’s not gonna happen. Blame it not only on Israel but on those US-backed petty dictators a la Mubarak and King Abdullah. I see Israel possibly attacking Iran within the next two years, and if wacko Sarah Palin is elected President of the United States in late 2012, certainly a US/Israel operation in 2013.
What are the main dynamics of big power rivalry (Turkey and Brazil included) in the region and where does Iran in particular fit in this picture? Is Iran today as influential in theMiddle East region as it was two to three years ago?
Turkey is positioning itself as a leader of the Muslim world (can anybody be demented enough to trust Saudi Arabia?) It has finally realized that its destiny is mostly linked to Middle East-Central Asia, more than with NATO and the EU (this does not prevent Turkey from trying to join the EU, or at least to find some kind of “special relationship”). China will keep on buying energy from anybody wiling to sell – no political conditions attached; a very wise policy. Russia is more concentrated in Central Asia-Caucasus.
Iran is increasingly more influential – even with the Atlanticist-enforced package of sanctions/blockades. It is positioning itself as an investment hub for Chinese, Russian and Indian companies. The EU shoots itself in the foot by adhering to Washington’s demands, when they should be investing like crazy in the Iranian energy sector. Decent intellects know this in Brussels, but try to get a consensus sitting on a table with 27 member-countries, including a lot of very disturbing leaders.
How strong is Syrian-Iranian alliance? Given the Turkish economic and political ascendancy in the region and its increasingly warm ties with Damascus, does Syria think it will have better geopolitical prospects with Turkey, and by default, with the West?
The ideal course – in terms of investment, trade – for all of them would be for the Tehran-Damascus-Ankara links to deepen. Geopolitically, both Syria and Iran would profit from being closely associated with Turkey and its new role as a bridge from east to west. Ankara is the key of this association – and both Tehran and Damascus cannot but see the benefits. For example, Turkey is essential for convincing Europe to do what is in its best interest, i.e. buy loads of gas from Iran; moreover,Turkey will profit from it as a key transit hub.
At present, does Iran have strong chances of playing a major role in geo-energy developments in Central Asia as they relate to politics of Pipelinestan (to borrow from your words)?
Iran is very well positioned in Pipelineistan. Major oil and gas deals with China. Pipelines linking it with Turkmenistan. The possibility of the IP – Iran-Pakistan – pipeline becoming the IPI – Iran-Pakistan-India – or even the IPC – Iran-Pakistan-China. Great possibilities regarding Nabucco – gas for the European Union. What Iran badly needs is $200 billion of investment in its energy sector for the next few years. If this does not come from Europe, it will have to come from Asia – Chinese, Indian, Russian companies. If Tehran knows how to manage the still unexplored wealth of its energy sector – and that’s not a given – it simply cannot lose.
Who is to be blamed for the gridlock in U.S.–Iranian relations since Obama assuming office and his offer of engagement with Tehran?
Realists gathered in the Obama administration know there’s gotta be an accommodation with Tehran sooner rather than later. The problem is ideologues – from conservatives to the Israel lobby to nutty neo-cons – hold key positions all across the establishment. Pentagon generals subscribe to the Full Spectrum Dominance doctrine, and that forcefully implies an Iran subjugated to Washington’s designs. Zio-cons don’t fear Iran as an “existential threat” – that’s rubbish; what they fear is an independent Muslim country which is the de facto most important regional power. Obama has basically lost the battle with his generals – and with the ideologues. If he loses in 2012 – and that’s a very strong possibility, because the economy will be in even worse shape – we’ll have neo-connism back in power, and we all know what that means.
Do you think Obama’s Iran policy is centered on geopolitics of the region (the nuclear issue included), or does he also genuinely take human rights into consideration?
Obama’s Iran policy is centered on the nuclear dossier. Realists in the administration who bother to read intelligence reports very well know that Iran is not building a bomb. What they don’t understand – in fact virtually nobody in Washington understands – is Tehran’s arguments for advancing a civilian nuclear program. They should read some Levi-Strauss; if you don’t try to understand The Other, how can you do business with The Other? As for “human rights”, that’s the usual dressing up for the State Department to look good.
What are Brazil’s and Turkey’s geopolitical goals by becoming involved in the Iranian nuclear saga?
Brazil and Turkey were both showing how to do diplomacy in a multipolar world. They acted according to what the Obama administration itself originally wanted. Their “mandate” came from the non-aligned movement, from Brazil’s position as part of the BRIC countries, and by Turkey’s natural position as a bridge between east and west. Brazil wants to prove its muscle as an emerging – and most of all neutral – power. Turkey wants to solidify its image as a leader of the Muslim – and of course developing – world. Turkey could be a member of BRIC; in fact the members already discussed the possible emergence, very soon, of BRICT. And it’s also a matter of business; both Brasilia and Ankara want to increase their trade with Tehran.
Is it fair to say that Brazil has its eyes set on influencing Middle Eastern politics?
No, because Brazil is too far away, and still an emerging power. But Lula and his foreign policy team know that if they improve their status in the Middle East as honest, respectable brokers – there are not many around – this will imply improved business opportunities with all the regional players.
How can Iran contribute to Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s stability? What does Tehran seek from the West in exchange for its contribution to stability in Iraq and Afghanistan?
In Iraq, Iran is now sure to always have a privileged channel to who’s in power in Baghdad (they should thank Bush and the neo-cons for it). Trade is bound to increase. There will always be a steady stream of Shi’ite pilgrims doing the Shi’ite holy sites. From Tehran’s point of view, Iraq is now more or less stable; they would love Maliki to remain in power. And they don’t exactly dislike the fact that Muqtada is the real power broker. In Afghanistan, the western part of the country around Herat is Persianized. The cultural, linguistic, political affinity with the Tajiks and Hazaras will always be there. What Tehran definitely does not want is the Taliban sharing power in Kabul. What Tehran seeks from the West is always the same thing: to be treated with respect, and not as a bunch of extremist lunatics. As much as the US and the EU may loathe the regime in Tehran, realist geopoliticians should know better than to keep advocating regime change.
What would Israel consider an ideal situation in the Middle East? Is Israel prepared for the implications of attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities? Or are Israeli threats only saber-rattling? Do you think Iran is socially and militarily prepared for an Israeli attack?
The Zionist project is at a dead end. They can’t go on annexing other people’s land with impunity (although they think they can). They can’t live antagonizing all their neighbors. Their army has lost the aura of invincibility. So when in doubt, launch a war. They can’t attack Iran by themselves without American help. They won’t get it from an Obama administration. They may bide their time – because they know they will get it from a Palin administration (just writing these words feels like a bad acid trip…)
To say that Iran is socially prepared for an Israeli attack is a temerity. No one can be prepared for such a thing. The whole country would certainly rally behind the government. From a military point of view, Iran has several, effective means of retaliation, but that depends on many variables. For instance, whether Israel will attack with US backing; and whether Israel would retaliate after an Iranian response by launching one of its nuclear weapons.
How prepared do you think the West is for the implications of an Israeli attack against Iran?
No one in a leadership position in the West has a clue – apart from Obama, because the Pentagon has war-gamed all sorts of scenarios. Acute minds in the West know how that would make the price of oil skyrocket and, by the way, leave the regime US/Israel right-wingers would like to change even more powerful.
What do you make of the new militarist administration of Sepah (IRGC) in Iran since the elections of June 2009? What are their fundamental challenges domestically and internationally?
Since last year I have been describing the current power arrangement in Tehran as a military dictatorship of the mullahtariat. It’s about to change, because the mullahtariat seems to be increasingly dropping out of sight, replaced by a good, old dictatorship. It seems fair to say the IRGC is now practically running the economy and the machinery of government; it does help that a great deal of the (urban) population has had enough of “the mullahs”. Domestically, they can’t seem able – or competent enough – to deliver jobs. Internationally, they are pariahs at least for the West. The US considers them a terrorist organization, the EU won’t do business with them. The solution is to do business with Asia. But I simply can’t see IRGC cadres, for instance, deciding on what are the best moves for the Iranian energy industry. Or opening up their monopolies for foreign investment. The horrible brain drain in the country is bound to persist.
Does the new Sepah-based administration in Iran have ideological tensions with the clergy? If so, why?
As an outside observer, I wish I was in Tehran and Qom full time to know better. The writing on the wall says yes – Khamenei and his circle losing power while Ahmadinejad and his circle increase theirs. If that’s the case, the sorry future of the Islamic revolution will be to dwindle as a classic military dictatorship. The key problem is that none of these players are well equipped to steer the Iranian economy out of its morass. Why? Because the best and the brightest are away – and are not even contemplating the idea of coming back.
To what extent, do you think, the current emphasis on Iranian nationalism within the administration of Ahmadinejad is tactical in nature?
It’s a brilliant, time-tested tactic. Unemployment is huge, jobs are scarce, brain drain is non-stop, with UN sanctions on top of it. But we won’t be cowed by foreign powers, and we can be self-sufficient, including by carrying our own, cherished nuclear program. This may work for far-flung provinces, but not in huge urban centers – not anymore.
Is the supreme leader Khamenei independent in his decision making, or is he subservient to top Sepah (IRGC) commanders?
If things keep rollin’ this way, sooner or later Khamenei will be under house arrest… Just joking. Of course the Supreme Leader remains the ultimate authority, and he’s still relatively young. But it’s not far-fetched to imagine a near future where the IRGC, like a Politburo, monopolizes all the decision-making, with the Leader kept as just a figurehead.
Where does the Green Movement stand today and what are its future prospects?
The military dictatorship of the mullahtariat, or at least the IRGC leadership, they were very clever – preventing the Green movement from the beginning from blossoming into a real, revolutionary movement. There was never any vertical integration in the movement, everything was very spontaneous; plus the repression was fierce. I really wonder nowadays how much the best and the brightest among the urban youth want just a reform of the Islamic system, and not a full-fledged revolution instead. Reform or revolution, good old Rosa Luxembourg; the more time passes, the more aspirations remain the same…
Given the post-election crackdown, do you think the Iranian society is impregnated with a potential for wide scale social unrest?
The potential is certainly there. The key now is how to conduct political organizing. Tweeter revolutions don’t work; you need vast grassroots support; you need to spread your message to the provinces; and you need real, inspiring, larger than life political leaders. Historical conditionalities apart, the Green movement in Iran needs a Che. A charismatic urban fellow. Just like the Islamic revolution had an old, exiled ayatollah. Maybe a start is to engage in what Deleuze theorized as nomadism; build an underground “war machine” to fight the system. If that sounds romantic, that’s because it is. But I’m sure many a young, wired Iranian is thinking about it.
What factors could be in play that, together, would pose a threat to Iran’s territorial integrity?
I don’t see it coming. The American attempts to provoke secessionism in Khuzestan or in Sistan-Balochistan are risible. No two-bit guerrilla attacks will make a whole province rise up in arms. Azerbaijan province is not going to attach itself to Azerbaijan, the country. Iranian Kurdistan is not going to join Iraq Kurdistan. More than territorial integrity, the leadership in Tehran should get their act together and think about the country’s economic well being. That would be their best shot at remaining in power still for a long time to come.