The Trump administration is waging a propaganda campaign aimed at war against Iran. This week on Intercepted: National security adviser John Bolton is more powerful than ever and is obsessed with regime change in Tehran. His boss is threatening to bring the “end of Iran,” as some news outlets help spread the administration’s unveiled attempt to gin up a Gulf of Tonkin-style justification for war. Iranian author and analyst Hooman Majd explains how we got here and how Iran’s leaders view the Trump administration. Trump loves to talk about locking up his political opponents and with William Barr as his attorney general, it may not be unthinkable. That is precisely what the former president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, is charging happened to him. Lula, the once popular leftist president of Brazil, is serving a 12-year prison sentence on corruption charges. But, in an exclusive prison interview with The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, Lula says his prosecution was an attempt to destroy him and the Workers’ Party he built. Greenwald discusses his interview and plays highlights of his conversation with Lula.
Announcer: It is cold, airless —
Donald J. Trump: Wow!
Announcer: Forbidding, silent —
DJT: What’s going on there?
DJT: Something very strange.
Announcer: There are those among us who can comprehend its physical forces.
Jeff Bridges as Dr. Mark Powell: I’d like to begin by asking you if you know why you’re here.
DJT: Doctor what are you doing?
Ajay Naidu as Dr. Chakraborty: He claims to be not human.
DJT: Thank you, doctor. Thank you.
AN: Visitor from another planet.
DJT: Is there any way they can turn those lights down?
AN: Definitely has a sensitivity to white light but I think it’s his range that you will find interesting —
DJT: Crazy lights.
AN: He can detect light at a wavelength of up to 300 to 400 angstroms.
DJT: Are those lights bright enough?
JB: Chuck, I didn’t think human beings could see ultraviolet light.
DJT: You’ve got to think all the sun! You saw that. I don’t know who got those lights but they’re very bright. A real genius got those lights.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City and this is episode 94 of Intercepted.
DJT [at rally]: I also withdrew the United States from the horrible Iran nuclear deal.
DJT [at press conference]: We’ll see what happens with Iran. If they do anything, it will be a very bad mistake, if they do anything. I’m hearing little stories about Iran. If they do anything, they will suffer greatly. We’ll see what happens with Iran.
DJT [at rally]: And unfortunately, just today I felt compelled to authorize new sanctions on Iran’s iron, steel, aluminum, and copper industries.
JS: It’s been about a year since Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear agreement. Under that 2015 deal that was negotiated with the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Russia, China, and the European Union, Iran agreed to tighter restrictions on its enrichment activities.
As part of its maximum pressure campaign on Iran, the Trump administration has been ratcheting up the belligerent rhetoric, issuing new economic sanctions and officially designating a branch of Iran’s military a terrorist organization. In recent days that pressure has escalated even further, raising fears that the U.S. is preparing for war with Iran.
Over the past few weeks, the U.S. public has been subjected to a propaganda campaign similar to that during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Anonymous administration officials have accused Iran of attacking four oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. Last week, the Trump administration initiated a partial evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, as well as a consulate in the northern Kurdish sector of Iraq. While Team Trump has been fanning the flames for war, some U.S. officials have anonymously told the New York Times and other news organizations that the threat is being inflated. Trump’s response to that has been to attack what he has alternately characterized as criminal leakers and fake officials who don’t exist and are nonetheless being quoted in the media.
On May 5th, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton released a statement saying, “the United States is deploying the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force to the U.S. Central Command region to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.”
While some reports have indicated that Trump has pushed back against Bolton and to a lesser extent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, it’s clear that both men have the public support of Donald Trump. This is without question a very dangerous moment. On Sunday, Trump blurted out a tweet that read, “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again.”
To discuss how we got to this incendiary moment, I’m joined by Hooman Majd. He is the author of three books on Iran: “The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in Iran,” “The Ayatollahs’ Democracy,” and “The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran.”
Hooman Majd, welcomed to Intercepted.
Hooman Majd: Thanks very much.
JS: So, before we get into the current situation explain what U.S. policy looked like with regard to Iran on Obama’s last day in office.
HM: The policy looked like the U.S. was trying to normalize its relations with Iran. When I say normalize, I don’t mean have diplomatic relations, but be completely out of any potential conflict with Iran. And at that point, he had assumed that whoever succeeded him would continue that policy because there was no upside to reigniting a conflict or a bad relationship with Iran. Short of Iran moving toward developing a nuclear weapon, in which case many countries in the world would suggest confronting Iran on, there was no reason to. So, I think on the last day in office Obama had, probably, the right idea about what the U.S. should do.
Barack Obama: Yesterday marked a milestone in preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Iran has now fulfilled key commitments under the nuclear deal.
HM: That said, I don’t think Obama gets a pass on Iran policy. And the reason I say that is because in the one year from the implementation of the nuclear deal, January of 2016, until he left office, there were many things he could have done to cement the nuclear deal which would have made it much more difficult for someone succeeded him to get out of it or to sabotage it. For example, it took them months and months and months to authorize Boeing to sell planes to Iran. Now, why? Why would you not want Boeing employees sitting on the ground in Tehran servicing these jets, passenger jets, which would make it a fact on the ground as it were? Is Trump going to have those Boeings returned to the United States? The Iranians didn’t think at that point that this deal was going to be broken by the United States. They thought maybe the U.S. was going to be slow in implementing their side of the bargain, the U.S.’s side of the bargain.
JS: Give an overview of what the nuclear agreement with Iran was.
HM: It came about after a good 12 years of negotiations. There were gaps in the negotiations, but Obama decided and Rouhani, who is the president of Iran, decided in 2013 when Rouhani was elected after Ahmadinejad who was a very hard line person when it came to the nuclear issue and had expanded Iran’s nuclear capabilities in terms of enriching uranium and so on so forth. Both sides decided we have to put an end to this crisis because there were very heavy sanctions on Iran. Iran wanted those sanctions lifted. It wanted access to its own money, which was sitting in banks because of sanctions couldn’t repatriate that cash and the U.S. wanted better guarantees beyond the words that Iran was saying that it wasn’t developing nuclear weapons.
So, in these two years of negotiations they were able to come to with France, Germany, Russia, China, and the European Union, they were able to come to an agreement whereby Iran restricted its uranium enrichment, shipped out excess uranium enrichment, shipped out excess heavy water, which is a byproduct of uranium enrichment and voluntarily implemented the additional protocol to the treaty which is the non-proliferation treaty Iran is a signatory to.
CNN: To help prevent cheating the deal also provides for more intrusive inspections of the entire nuclear supply chain, even tracking uranium from the time it leaves the mine.
HM: The additional protocol means that there can be snap inspections. Basically, there are 24-hour cameras on streaming live feed to Vienna where the international agency is that monitors nuclear programs throughout the world. So, they can tell very quickly the international organization, can tell very quickly if Iran exceeds any limits that it had agreed to.
One of the accusations of its opponents [was] that there were some sunset clauses and Iran was like we’re not going to do this forever. Under the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty], we have a right to develop nuclear energy. We have a right to have nuclear power. We have a right to use our own energy, which means we have to enrich uranium because we can’t rely on a foreign country to supply us with power. And one of the arguments they used to make over these years was if France gets 40 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, why can’t we? If that’s a clean energy source for us, why should we not be able to do that?
JS: Isn’t part of the line of the John Bolton worldview that yeah, Iran says all of that stuff, but the whole point of this is [that] they want a nuclear bomb?
HM: A lot of people will refuse to believe that Iran doesn’t want a nuclear bomb. People who are most generous in their analysis will say yeah, they probably don’t want a nuclear bomb right now because that would just invite too much conflict or anything with the entire world, but they want to reserve the right to do that at some point. I mean, I think a lot of Americans, I think even Obama probably believes, I think John Kerry probably believes that Iran is holding that in reserve. If you have the capability to enrich uranium at high levels, it’s a long weekend to build a bomb.
JS: Was it your sense that the agreement made under the Obama administration, the very end of Obama’s time in office had effectively stopped the Iranian work on any weaponized nuclear power?
HM: Yes, I think the, you know, NIE, the National Intelligence Estimate, had said that they had stopped it in 2003. And some people argue that even in 2003, prior to 2003, it was just research. It was an actual real work in testing of components and stuff like that other than centrifuges. But yeah, I think it did, I mean, Iran saw this at least the way they express it to the world we have no reason to build a bomb now. This is a first step. The supreme leader of Iran had said, you know, we’ll see about other issues that the U.S. and Iran have. If this deal works and things are better than we can talk about other issues. Well clearly this deal now hasn’t worked which is why they’re saying well, we’re not going to talk about other issues now because you can’t even abide by this deal.
JS: What were the biggest benefits to Iran from that deal with Obama?
HM: Sanctions being lifted. being able to import goods, being able to jump-start their economy, getting, for example, Renault and Citroën and these big car companies that come back into Iran that provides jobs. I mean, it was a big boost for the economy. The cash that was sitting and you know, Donald Trump keeps going on about $150 billion in cash and pallets that were shipped to Iran —
DJT: I withdrew from that horrible deal where they paid 150 billion to Iran. They paid 1.8 billion in cash probably for hostages. … We gave 150 billion dollars, 1.8 billion dollars in cash. What does that look like? It was a horrible stupid deal. … We gave them 150 billion dollars and they used it to fight us. We gave him 1.8 billion in cash, airplane loads of cash.
HM: Well that was because of the way the sanctions had worked, it was one of the only ways we could give them their money which was their money. It had just been sitting in escrows, not even in escrow, in bank accounts that they couldn’t access.
JS: So, Obama didn’t just like raid the taxpayer’s funds in the United States to give them to Iran?
HM: No, no, we, in fact, still have some of their money sitting in our banks.
JS: So, Donald Trump wins the Electoral College and then has some gap between that victory and taking office. What’s going on in Trump World regarding Iran at this point?
HM: Trump in his campaign had been threatening to get out of the nuclear deal.
DJT: I’ve been doing deals for a long time. I’ve been making lots of wonderful deals, great deals. That’s what I do. Never, ever, ever in my life have I seen any transaction so incompetently negotiated as our deal with Iran.
HM: He was itching to get out of the deal. I’m not sure, based on the fact that the people he picked for his cabinet — Tillerson, Mattis, people like that who are not necessarily friends of Iran, but not necessarily the kind of hawks that you would think well, let’s tear up this deal. They’re more rational kind of people. Well, Tillerson for sure being an Exxon employee, love to have Exxon back in Iran.
JS: Mattis had been on record as making very hawkish, belligerent, threatening comments about Iran.
HM: Yes, yes —
JS: But you’re saying that he was living in a real world rather than being obsessed about the regime in Tehran?
HM: Correct, and I think Mattis’ view as a U.S. general was that if Iran hits us — as it had been doing at least from the perspective of the U.S. in Iraq — if they keep hitting us, we should retaliate in a big way. He wasn’t talking about going to war, changing the regime. I don’t think Mattis cares one whit whether the regime is there or not, but I think based on that no one really thought that Trump was going to go through with actually getting out of the deal. And in fact, I think it was based on what we know, Mattis and Tillerson who tried to persuade him not to get out in the first year and he didn’t get out in the first year. He was not very happy about it and watching Fox News and watching John Bolton come on and tell him that he should be getting out of this deal.
John Bolton: This is yet another reason why the President should get out of the nuclear deal with Iran, should resume all of our previous sanctions, putting increased economic pressure on the regime. We should provide material financial support to the opposition if they desire it. We should work with intelligence services from other countries, Saudi, Israel to provide more pressure. There’s a lot we can do and we should do it. Our goal should be regime change in Iran.
HM: All that stuff made him probably think well, I should have this guy on my side.
JS: Before we get to the moment when Bolton then becomes National Security adviser, what had John Bolton’s career been like with regard to Iran and the groups that he was working with?
HM: Bolton, he’s been a bureaucrat for many, many years. [He] was at the State Department, was [an] appointee to be the ambassador to the U.N., couldn’t get confirmed by the Senate but Bush put him in a recess appointment, always extremely extremely hawkish when it came to the Middle East, big supporter of the Iraq War still to this day will say he thinks it was a good idea, always thought that Iran should be the next country that the U.S. should confront. Since he left his post as ambassador to the U.N., which I think was in 2004, maybe 2003 since then he has been a featured speaker at the MEK rallies in Paris.
JB [at MEK gathering]: So, for the first time in at least eight years that I’ve been coming to this event, I can say that we have a president of the United States who is completely and totally opposed to the regime in Tehran.
HM: MEK is a group, an Iranian opposition group that fought against Iran for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war which killed approximately 1 million people on both sides. They are generally despised both in the diaspora — the Iranian diaspora — and inside Iran. They have a rally once a year, prominent people, especially Americans get flown first class, get paid $50,000 to give a 10-minute speech. And he has consistently, throughout the years where he has spoken at the rally said that they are, the MEK, this group with their president-elect, Maryam Rajavi, are the alternative to the regime in Iran.
JS: So, John Bolton comes in and this is without question Bolton’s one moment to really do whatever he wants to do in government. He is the National Security Advisor. He has the ear of the president. He clearly has all this influence. He does not need to be Senate-confirmed. I mean, this is the John Bolton moment and now you have very similar propaganda tactics and public statements that are reminiscent of some of how the United States got into Iraq. We had Reuters reporting last week that these anonymous U.S. officials are saying that Iran was behind the attack on four ships off the United Arab Emirates and then the New York Times reports that three U.S. officials speaking anonymously said that there are intelligence photographs allegedly showing Iranian paramilitary forces placing missiles on small boats in the Gulf. What is your response to these reports and then the reactions that followed from the Trump administration?
HM: John Bolton and other administration officials have been, including Trump himself, have been threatening Iran. They’re sending a big naval armada into the Persian Gulf with aircraft carrier and other ships, sending B-52 bombers to bases in the Middle East from the United States ready to, basically to threaten their Iran to say we can bomb you. If Iran is loading missiles onto ships to hide them somewhere or put them somewhere or if it’s preparing to react to an attack, why would that be surprising? I’m not saying it’s good that they’re doing that. I’m just saying why is it surprising that they’re doing that?
Whether they, Iran, was responsible, I have no idea if they were. I have no idea if some person took it upon themselves inside the Iranian regime to attack a ship or to be, you know, the guy who started the conflict because there are definitely people in Iran who want conflict with the U.S. I mean, who knows but I think whenever you see these things you have to take it with a grain of salt. I mean, is this the Gulf of Tonkin? I mean, is it possible that we could get pulled into a war, into conflict, if not a war with Iran over something that is either manufactured or an accident, one or the other?
JS: Let’s talk about this coalition that has — it’s not that it didn’t exist prior to Trump taking office, but it seems to have been solidified under Trump. Even beginning on the campaign, when you had these meetings like the one that took place in Trump Tower. What is the interest of the members of this kind of coalition Israel, the Emirates, the Saudi’s and now the United States governed by Trump?
HM: I think one interest is regime change among some of them so that the regime becomes subservient to the United States. The next regime in Iran becomes subservient to the United States and is a weakened country, doesn’t threaten them in any way from a power standpoint. I think in other cases, for example, I don’t think the Israelis necessarily care about regime change. I think the Israelis care more about weakening Iran and having an Iran that doesn’t threaten Israel’s dominance over the region because it does threaten the dominance both through its support of Hezbollah, obviously, also, as a potential nuclear power. And the Saudis want to be the predominant Muslim force in the region.
JS: What is the foreign policy outlook of Iran right now?
HM: It seems to be that it’s a very regionally-based foreign policy outlook. They have to have in their mind — the Iranian government — needs to have influence in places where there are Shiites certainly Lebanon, Syria —
HM: Iraq, they need that because they understand that there is no way because of sanctions, because they have arms embargoes against Iran that it’s impossible for Iran to have a traditional hardware-based military that can fight off an attack. They need to have this deterrent and the deterrent is exactly what we’re seeing, what the media is actually talking about. The fact that they have these proxy forces that can help them if in the case of an attack by the U.S. And I think that there’s always been in Iran a sense — and this certainly comes from the supreme leader on down — that the U.S. is never going to be okay with an Islamic Republic that doesn’t bow to the U.S. that isn’t subservient or won’t listen to the U.S. when the U.S. says please do this.
So, the foreign policy is to create a situation where the conflict becomes impossible for the U.S. or for any force such as Israel or Saudi Arabia that may decide. Having gone through one invasion by an Arab neighbor, they certainly don’t want to see that again.
To be cynical, you could say they would like to keep Iraq weaker and they would like to keep Afghanistan weak because they’re not happy with the Taliban either. In Yemen, I think they would like to see a representative government that includes the Houthis. In Syria, they absolutely need to have Assad. The Assad situation I think is a little bit more complex than people would recognize immediately.
JS: How so?
HM: The Assad family were the only Arab country to support Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. Every other country on the planet supported Saddam Hussein in the war. There’s the Hezbollah connection. There’s the route to the Mediterranean. So there’s a lot of reasons why Assad remaining in power was important or at least a friendly-to-Iran regime, even if it wasn’t Assad. The fear that Iran had was that between the U.S. and the other Arab countries in the region they were going to overthrow Assad and impose an anti-Iranian regime in its place, a Sunni anti-Iranian regime.
So again, they wanted to build a strong country and at the same time, they wanted to be able to project their power in the region in a way that protects Iran. The Iranian system has always claimed that their stance is always defensive. It’s not offensive. They don’t want to attack anybody. They don’t want to go to war with anybody. We sometimes think that they do. They claim that they don’t and if you look at the history and you look at their record, I don’t think you see very much aggression other than in places like Iraq or Syria where they’ve gone to protect their interests.
JS: When Trump says if Iran, you know, so much as sneezes in our direction, there won’t be an Iran anymore, you have to assume he’s talking about a nuclear bomb. Because if the United States were to engage in a conventional war against Iran and wanted to even think of putting troops on the ground, Iranians are going to fight. Not just the IRGC or the Quds Force or the Basij, but ordinary Iranians are going to fight against [the] United States regardless of what they think of the regime in Tehran. So, what are the consequences of Trump making a statement like that basically saying if you attack us, there won’t be an Iran anymore?
JS: Trump didn’t say I will chop the head off the regime and the Iranian people will be saved if they attack me. He said it’ll be the end of Iran after 3,000 years of history. So, I mean, as you point out, it could mean nuclear bomb. It could mean an invasion but yes, most men, women, and children in Iran would take up arms if they could against an invader which they’ve done in the past. It happened in the Iraq War.
I mean, Saddam Hussein did the greatest favor by invading Iran to the Islamic system because he thought it was going to be a cakewalk. He was going to be celebrated. He’s gonna have lunch in Tehran the next day when he invaded Iran because Iran in his mind had been weakened. The military been weakened because of the revolution. The Shah’s generals, many of them have been executed and there was a very weak military and he thought oh, I can defeat Iran and take over Tehran. And of course, what he saw was millions of people, you know mobilizing to fight off the invader.
ABC: With dawn in Baghdad came the first day of truce in the Iran-Iraq war. The ceasefire between the warring nations took effect at 7:00 a.m. But long before sunrise, the people of Iraq were on the streets celebrating the end of a conflict that has claimed up to a million lives.
HM: We have a lot more force than Saddam Hussein had but short of using nukes, I don’t think we can defeat Iran. I mean, the same thing with Vietnam. Short of using nukes, we weren’t going to be able to defeat Vietnam, North Vietnam.
JS: We don’t talk so much about the specifics of how sanctions from the United States and other countries, but primarily the United States have impacted Iran. Just give an overview of that impact, of the kind of economic warfare the U.S. has waged on Iran as part of this path to either no nuclear weapons or no deals anymore with Iran.
HM: I mean, it’s primarily affected the people, the most vulnerable people which are the poor people in Iran. Inflation has caused many things to be unaffordable for Iranians. Iran has a pretty good supply of goods and food. It is also much more self-sufficient in food than a country like Venezuela is. It relies less on imports. But the devaluation of their currency which means there’s been currency flight out of Iran because of the fears of conflict has meant that many things are now unaffordable, certainly many things that they did import. One of the most important things that Iran did import was medicine and it’s become very, very difficult to import medicine.
Medicine and medical equipment is supposed to be exempt from the sanctions but when you sanction banks, there is no way for Iran to pay for the medicine that it wants to import because the banks are sanctioned. So, no bank in Europe will accept payment from an Iranian bank and therefore if you’re a pharmaceutical company and want to sell Bayer Aspirin to Iranians, you can’t. Now, the Europeans have said they’re trying to create this mechanism. It’s called the INSTEX where Iranians are able to pay for medicine, but for the Iranians, it’s a little bit of the food for oil kind of thing —
JS: Yeah, the oil-for-food program under I mean — first of all, you, on the one hand, Saddam Hussein was able to game that system and you know, he and his crew were doing just fine while ordinary Iraqis suffered. But also there was corruption from the international community on their end. I mean, the whole thing was essentially a fraud.
HM: The big effect on people is a lack of hope now for their future. Unemployment is at sky-high levels. There [are] all kinds of things that happen once you have these kinds of brutal sanctions on Iran. Then you’ve got, you know, all kinds of other issues like the Muslim travel ban and Iranians not being able to visit their families.
JS: I mean Iran has some extremely experienced foreign diplomats because of having been in the crosshairs of powerful nation states for a very long time. How are Iranian diplomats dealing with Trump?
HM: Well, I think it took them a long time to kind of figure it out. But I think now they understand or at least, it seems that they understand that Trump is unpredictable and purposefully so. The diplomats have consistently said in both private meetings and in press conferences and other kinds of venues that you know, we can’t talk to someone who is, first of all, violated the deal the United States signed on to, violated a UN Security Council resolution.
Mohammad Javad Zarif [on CNN]: We are not willing to talk to people who have broken their promises. Because we talk to people we did not believe that our nuclear program, our nuclear energy program required us to provide any concessions or provide any confidence-building measures, but we engaged. We acted in good faith. We negotiated. We reached a deal. What the United States is saying is that we make a deal, whatever we can get you in the negotiations through the deal is fine, whatever we cannot get you, we will come back to try to get you. This is not the way serious countries deal with each other.
HM: If he gets back in the deal, then we can talk. Sure, because that brings things back to a normal situation. There are people argue that Iran should take up Trump on talking to him because they’ll probably be able to con Trump into, you know, lifting sanctions because what he cares about in the minds of some people, is the photo op. Then the diplomats come back and say that’s all well and good but he’ll have his photo op, he’ll say I solved Iran, then he’ll leave everything to John Bolton and Mike Pompeo.
Now, John Bolton and Mike Pompeo will get on a plane and go to Geneva and meet with Iranian diplomats and tell them no, we’re not doing that. You know, what they’ve done with North Korea. When you speak to an Iranian diplomat, you can see if you say well, if Trump had the ability to sign a deal on his own in a room with Rouhani, well, then it would make sense for us to meet with him.
JS: What is missing or being misreported or misunderstood in the broader U.S. media about Iran and the situation?
HM: There is a knee-jerk reaction by the media to kind of take what the U.S. government says on face value: Iran is a threat; Iran is putting missiles in boats; Iran did this; Iran is preparing to attack; Iran has proxy forces preparing to attack the U.S. All these things are just like, you know, some of which may be true, but Iran is always painted as the villain and the U.S. is not the villain here. And in some cases, yes, the Iran can be a villain but in many cases we’re potentially the villain because we’re the ones who have gone out and abrogated the deal, the nuclear deal that Obama made and all these other countries made.
Let me give an example. We had nuclear sanctions which were lifted under the nuclear deal. There are waivers that were given so that Iran could enrich uranium because that was the raison d’etre of Iran actually making this nuclear deal. They wanted the recognition that we can create our own fuel for our nuclear power plants. So Trump signed these new waivers a couple weeks ago, except two of them. Two waivers he refused to sign. The waiver that allowed Iran to export its excess production of uranium and the waiver on heavy water. What it was doing was sending excess uranium, enriched uranium, which it was doing on a small scale, whatever was over 300 kilograms it was shipping to Russia. Russia was turning that into fuel rods for their reactor and sending it back.
So, no danger of a nuclear weapon because 300 kilograms does nothing for you. The heavy water that was coming out of it, they were shipping to Oman. So now they can’t ship it to Oman and they can’t because there’s no waiver for that and they can’t ship the excess uranium. So, the only way they cannot violate the nuclear deal is to not enrich which is the only reason they made the deal in the first place.
Now, the media has generally said oh, Iran’s about to violate the nuclear deal. Iran’s about to violate, you know, and making a big deal out of Iran. Well, look at why they’re about to violate the nuclear deal. They’re in a catch-22: We either violate the deal or we don’t violate the deal and then don’t enrich and so the whole point of the JCPOA is gone.
The whole point of it was to get this right to have enrichment which was actually the only thing that was popular among the Iranian population. From a nationalistic standpoint what they cared about was what it the Iranian government had very cleverly portrayed for them is that the West doesn’t want you to have a right that every other country that is a signatory to the NPT has.
JS: Hooman Majd, thank you very much for being with us.
HM: Thank you very much, Jeremy, pleasure.
JS: Hooman Majd is the author of three books on Iran. Among them, “Iran: The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in Iran,” and “The Ayatollahs’ Democracy.” You can find him on Twitter @hmajd.
[Crowd chants “Lock him up!”]
DJT: And you took back your country.
[Crowd chants “Lock him up!”]
DJT: And if things keep going like they’re going. We’ll go and we’ll do what we have to do. We’ll do a three year, and a four, and a five. They’ll have tomorrow. We knew he — I don’t want to say it.
JS: Donald Trump produces a lot of words at his rallies and on Twitter. We are bombarded with his words and sometimes those words join together to form sentences and often those sentences are expressing something truly horrible. He has openly threatened to wipe out not one, but two countries off the face of the planet — North Korea and Iran. He seems truly enamored of some of the most authoritarian figures in power in countries across the world and will often defend those leaders unprompted from rightful criticism and protest.
I think many people have to actively force themselves to resist becoming numb to what has become a consistent stream of tyrannical rhetoric. But history teaches us that we must take his threats or his trial balloons seriously. One of Trump’s favorite threats, which he makes almost daily, is that he wants to lock up his political opponents—most famously Hillary Rodham Clinton.
[Crowd chants “Lock her up!”]
JS: Unfortunately, it is decidedly not beyond the pale to imagine Donald Trump and his attorney general, William Barr, putting into action a plan to make such prosecutions of political opponents a reality. In fact, in Barr’s little media blitz last week, he spoke in cryptic terms about some of this thinking on all of this.
William Barr: Because I think people have to find out what the government was doing during that period. If we’re worried about foreign influence for the very same reason, we should be worried about whether government officials abused their power and put their thumb on the scale. And so, I’m not saying that happened but I’m saying that we have to look at that.
JS: So, will we see a real effort to lock up Hillary Clinton? Or to indict Obama-era officials on treason charges? What if it looks like Trump may actually lose to one of the 23 or so Democrats running for office? Are we going to hear chants to lock up Bernie, the socialist? Or Joe Biden?
This may seem like a leap, but this is effectively what one of Trump’s fellow brethren in the authoritarianism movement is doing right now in Brazil. That country’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known popularly as “Lula,” is currently spending most of his day inside a prison cell. Officially, Lula is there serving a 12-year sentence on corruption allegations.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva: [Translated] No! I’m not hiding, I’m going to go there and see their faces so they know I’m not afraid, and so they know I’m going to prove my innocence.
JS: His conviction came at the culmination of a sweeping corruption probe into a phenomenon known as Operation Car Wash that involved charges of bribery relating to the state-owned oil company Petrobras, off the books renovations of a beachfront property owned by Lula and other alleged crimes. Now, in a moment, we’re going to dig into what this scandal was all about. Now, Lula and his supporters say this prosecution is political and aimed at destroying the Workers Party that Lula had built up as well as ridding Brazil of the leftist agenda that came to be known as Lula-ism. Four days into Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency, the prosecutor in the Lula case, Sergio Moro, was named the Minister of Justice and Public Security, basically the attorney general.
Lula has been in prison for more than a year, much of it in what amounts to solitary confinement. He has been barred from speaking to the press and has largely been silenced. But just last week, my colleague Glenn Greenwald managed to get into the prison where he conducted a wide-ranging interview with Lula. We are going to hear some highlights from that interview and Glenn Greenwald joins me now from Rio de Janeiro.
Glenn, welcome back to Intercepted.
Glenn Greenwald: Jeremy, thank you so much for inviting me back on.
JS: How did you go and visit Lula and where did you see him?
GG: It’s really fascinating because in order to interview Lulu, you have to travel to a previously totally unknown town called Curitiba. Lula is kept in this kind of special prison that’s really a makeshift jail built inside the federal police headquarters. We have actually been petitioning the Brazilian courts for over a year now to be able to interview him. Obviously his input about the 2018 election as Bolsonaro ascended and the possibility of a Bolsonaro presidency became more likely made Lula’s analysis something of great interest to the country.
The courts just refused to allow us to interview him. They just silenced him throughout all of 2018 and yet now suddenly in 2019 now that Bolsonaro was safely elected and the election is over, this spate of judicial authorizations was issued one of which was for us that allowed us to interview him. So, the timing of it was very strange, particularly since the country’s most violent criminals are routinely interviewed in prison.
JS: Why is Lula in prison and how long has he been there?
GG: There’s this sweeping corruption scheme that has ushered in the country’s richest and most powerful politicians across the political spectrum into prison.
Newscaster: An investigation called Operação Lava Jato, Operation Car Wash —
Newscaster: Imagine if the Watergate investigation had led not only to the downfall of President Nixon, but also to allegations against his successor plus the Speaker of the House, the leader of the Senate, a third of the cabinet and more than 90 members of Congress.
Newscaster: Operation Car Wash, the sweeping probe that has rocked Brazil’s political class to the core.
GG: The case really began because they caught some guy who was laundering money through a carwash and that’s what led them to this sweeping corruption scandal that has led to the exposure of what really has for decades been systemic corruption in Brazil. It led to billionaires going to prison, the people who lead the biggest construction and oil companies. It involves massive graft with contracts at Petrobras, the huge state-owned oil giant that fuels a lot of Brazil’s social programs. And then ultimately, the most powerful leaders in Brazil.
And Lula is accused of essentially being the chief of that corruption scheme and yet none of the accusations that have actually formally been brought against him involved anything of that magnitude. But that isn’t at all what he’s been charged with. What they did instead was they took this case that was always regarded as this very kind of trivial, highly dubious, very petty case in the scheme of the corruption analysis. Namely that he received what they’re calling a triplex to make it sound glamorous, but which is actually this ratty run-down apartment in São Paulo that Lula would have been able to buy on his own a thousand times over and claimed that it was given to him in exchange for favors that he did for a construction company.
A judge who is now Bolsonaro’s Justice Minister chose that case because of how small it was, which meant that they could process it really quickly through the courts, get him convicted in time to make him ineligible for the 2018 presidential race, particularly since we should all recall Lula was actually leading in all the polls. He has been sentenced to first, it was nine years. On appeal, it was increased to 10 years. If for good behavior, if he serves 1/6 of his term, he may be able to be released and serve the remainder of his sentence in what’s called semi-open regime which means he could essentially be a prisoner based in home using an ankle bracelet. But he’s been in jail now for a year and two months and he’s going to be there for at least another six months under what is now nine-year prison sentence.
JS: Glenn, what kind of conditions is Lula being held in right now?
GG: So, the first question I asked him is has your treatment been professional and humanitarian? And he basically said:
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva [translated from Portuguese]: I don’t know what humanitarian treatment in a prison means. I’m locked up and I’m in solitary confinement and it really is solitary because most of the time, I’m completely alone. I meet with my lawyers and that’s it and with my family once a week. I don’t know whether to consider is decent. What allows me to endure this without hate and with hope is knowing that there are millions and millions of Brazilians living in freedom who even so, are in worst conditions that I am.
GG: But what he really then pivoted to was saying that the strategy of these prosecutors which really is true is —
LILS [translated from Portuguese]: No, listen, we’ve been fighting for years to end torture. These days, torture has more sophisticated forms. It’s based on plea bargaining, on the thousands of lies told simultaneously over and over and people imprisoned for two or three years until they say what the prosecutor, or police commissioner wants to hear. I could cite the example of Antonio Palocci’s plea bargain where he’s lying in the most unbelievable manner.
Or take Leo Pinheiro for example, who is in prison and lying through his teeth to get out. The secret is to talk about Lula. This has been going on for five years. You know that I’m here even though neither the judge, the prosecutor, or the federal police commissioner who launched the investigation have any proof against me. They know that the apartment isn’t mine. They know that the ranch is in mine, but they keep up these lies.
GG: That’s how they got Lula was essentially by coercing these people who never were convicted, who were never even charged but who nonetheless were “preventatively imprisoned.” They wouldn’t let them out unless they fingered Lula for crimes that Lula insists he never committed but that they accused him of in order to get out of prison. So, he feels the whole system itself is inherently abusive, inherently inhumane because it’s designed to isolate people from society until they start giving people what they want. But he’s not being physically tortured but I think he feels like he’s being certainly psychologically abused.
JS: Now I want to ask you about two very serious allegations that Lula made during this interview with you. The first saying he said that he was certain that the U.S. Department of Justice was behind his situation.
LILS [translated from Portuguese]: I have no doubt, Glenn, that everything that’s happened in connection with the Operation Car Wash has been to prevent Lula from running for president. Nowadays, I’m certain of this. The same way that I’m certain that the U.S. Department of Justice is behind this.
JS: And also that interests in the petroleum resources of Brazil was at the center of what not only happened to him, but also the coup against Dilma Rousseff the former president of Brazil.
LILS [translated from Portuguese]: I can only have my own convictions. That’s all. In the same way that I’m certain that what happened to me and Dilma is also connected to Brazil’s oil resources. Namely the coup against Dilma, my imprisonment, the accusations.
JS: Talk about what he is talking about there.
GG: So, let’s just remind everybody about the geo-strategic importance of Brazil. It’s not just a huge country. It’s the fifth largest most populous country on the planet. It has massive oil reserves as well as the most important environmental resource on the planet, which is the Amazon which is not just important environmentally but economically as well. Remember back in 2013 and 2014 when we were doing the Snowden reporting, one of the stories we did with the largest international repercussions was that there was massive NSA spying along with GCHQ in Canada on Petrobras as well as Brazil’s Ministry of Mines and Energy.
So, the energy industry in Brazil has long been of great interest to the United States and its western allies. So anytime the U.S. is this directly involved in any country and it’s long been involved in Brazil — it overthrew its government in 1964, supported a military dictatorship for 21 years — of course, its interest in oil is a major factor. And Lula strongly believes and there’s starting to be some evidence that is emerging — and I can’t actually talk a lot about it because we’re currently involved in the reporting of it — suggesting that the U.S. was working hand-in-hand with the Brazilian prosecutors in order to ensure that Lula ended up in prison.
And a big part of why that suspicion has taken hold is because the head judge Sergio Moro as well as his primary deputy were both trained in the U.S. at Harvard. Bolsonaro’s Finance Minister who wants to privatize everything was trained at the University of Chicago. There’s all kinds of links demonstrated by the Wikileaks cables between the opposition to Lula working hand-in-hand with the U.S. government to undermine the Brazilian government and destabilize it for exactly these reasons. So, I’m not ready to back up Lula’s accusation yet and say that it’s absolutely confirmed and true, but I will say that it’s far more than just some kind of fever dream or conspiracy theory. There is starting to emerge concrete evidence that the U.S. had a bigger role in all of these events than has been previously known.
JS: In the interview, Lula actually mentions that he considers himself a friend of Hillary Clinton’s and I wonder if you see some parallels between what’s happened to Lula and then Trump’s seeming obsession with putting his political opponents in jail, most prominently without question Hillary Clinton.
GG: I’d be surprised if he were really friends with Hillary Clinton. I think he more is emphasizing the fact that he always had a positive relationship with the Democratic party and interestingly that was in the context of my asking him because he has blamed in the past the failures of neoliberalism for the rise of right-wing extremism. He doesn’t blame Russia. He doesn’t blame Wikileaks. He doesn’t blame the New York Times. He blames the failures of neoliberalism and yet in many ways, his government, Lula despite his reputation as a leftist, governed more as a neoliberal party, even though he helped the poor, the banks, and the oligarchical companies, and the oligarchical class in Brazil thrive during his presidency.
So, there’s always been this question, this kind of difficult to reconcile narrative between on the one hand, Lula saying he’s in jail because the rich and the elite hate him and on the other, the reality that the rich and the elite thrived under his government. I think what they were most worried about wasn’t so much let’s just put him in jail because he’s the enemy of Bolsonaro. I think what they were most worried about was that they thought that they had finally the conditions once they removed Dilma to put in a real center-right, banking-friendly, austerity eager politician who was going to win the presidency and the only thing that stood in the way between that wet dream of theirs and the realization of it was Lula. And the only way to stop Lula from running again and winning again was to render him ineligible by quickly convicting him of a crime. That’s certainly what Lula believes and there’s a lot of reasons to believe that that’s true.
JS: Explain this to us, Glenn.
GG: So, there’s always been this tension between this elite versus PT narrative and the reality that the elite thrived. And Lula’s point was a really interesting one that I’ve never heard him articulate before. It was yes, they were happy with the way that our government help them economically, but it isn’t only about economics. It’s about culture.
LILS [translated from Portuguese]: Glenn, when we started this interview, I said clearly PT’s biggest problems come not from its errors but its successes. Every time that a president tries to enact socially minded policies in Latin America, they’re eventually ousted. The elite in Brazil and in other countries, don’t accept economic development policies that contain social inclusion. PT managed to enact, and this is according to the U.N., not me, the greatest changes in social inclusion in the history of this country.
It’s important to remember that during our mandate, it was the only time in history that the poor had a higher rate of economic upturn than the rich. The rich made gains too but the poor at an even greater percentage. It was the only time in history and this bothered people. You should have heard it in the Rio de Janeiro airport, in the Sao Paulo airport, when people said this airport is beginning to look like a bus station with these poor people all around, people who have never taken a plane in their life.
GG: It’s about who are the people who run the country? Is it the kind of people like me who come from poverty, who didn’t learn to read until I was 10, who don’t speak perfect Portuguese, who wasn’t educated in the best schools, who put black people and indigenous people in my cabinet, who put the first woman president in power because I chose her as my successor or is it going to be the rich, white people from the noble families who are going to continue to run Brazil and hold all the power? It’s more of a cultural clash.
And the reason they were so hostile to PT was because the left was starting to change Brazil, not economically but culturally and it was a way of saying you’ve encroached too far on what are our inherent privileges. People aren’t just motivated by money. They’re also motivated by a sense of their own privilege and power and entitlement and class allegiance that they’ve always viewed Lula, someone is kind of a pretender to the throne, as threatening.
JS: Explain the Brazil that Lula was born into and the changes that have occurred over the decades culminating with Lula’s election as president of Brazil.
GG: Honestly, one of the things that emotionally affected me in having to travel to a prison to interview Lula, a politician of singular charisma and force and really greatness, is that Lula radically transformed one of the most important countries on the planet. Remember Brazil is one of the worst countries when it comes to inequality of all kinds. It was the last country to eliminate slavery even after the U.S. by about 20 years. Pervasive racism continues to be one of the most important characteristics of how the country is run. And for decades people who were born into poverty, into favelas had zero hope, zero, of not just themselves ever getting out but their children getting out as well. And Lula radically transformed all of that really single-handedly.
So, to see him sitting in a prison cell withering away when just eight years ago, he left office with 86 percent approval rating is a real tragedy and it kind of reflects this trajectory of Brazil that was prospering for so long in such a promising way only to see everything unravel and collapse so quickly. Lula sitting in a prison cell was a really stark metaphor for that.
JS: Now, Glenn, you and your husband, David Miranda, who now is a member of the Brazilian Congress were close to Marielle Franco who was a city council person that was assassinated. David Miranda, of course, is also regularly subject to threats. You as well have had to take precautions because of the risks that both you and David are taking by speaking out at a particularly dangerous moment.
At the same time, you also Glenn, are being widely criticized for your repeated appearances on Fox News — and you know, you and I have talked about this before and we have our disagreements on that — but when you were on Laura Ingraham’s show on Fox News, and it seemed to me that she wanted you to come on to bash Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats. But you changed the script up when you discovered that Bolsonaro was going to be interviewed right after you. It was a pre-taped segment, but they were going to air it. Talk about what you did that night on Laura Ingraham’s show and the context of it.
GG: Interestingly, when they did finally apprehend the two ex-police officers who murdered Marielle, they still don’t know who paid them to kill her. But when they apprehended their cell phones and computers what they discovered was that there were about six or seven left-wing activists, journalists, and politicians whose public events they were continuing to monitor in the wake of Marielle’s murder. One of whose was David’s and one of whose was mine. And so we obviously are taking those threats very seriously.
And I do the same thing in Brazil, nonetheless, that I do in the U.S. which is like go on right-wing shows including pro-Bolsonaro ones for a lot of the same reasons which is I think it’s important to try and influence them. The thing that happened on Fox that was really interesting was the right-wing in Brazil reveres Fox News because Bolsonaro reveres the U.S. It’s called a “vira-lata” complex here in Brazil that certain Brazilians just looked up to the U.S. have kind of an inferiority complex to it. And so, I knew Bolsonaro was going on Fox News as part of his trip to the U.S. It was a huge deal in Brazil, but particularly for his followers. And so, I went on live knowing that all of Brazil was waiting to watch Bolsonaro coming on 15 minutes after I was and she asked me a question which I then ignored and talked about Bolsonaro instead so that right before he was on, he had to hear me saying —
GG [on Fox News]: Exactly, I mean, you know, Laura, I know you know, we’ve been working on an exposé about some really incredibly criminal acts on the part of the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro who’s in Washington this week.
Laura Ingraham: Yes, he’s here.
GG [on Fox News]: To meet with Donald Trump and actually he’s going to be on Shannon Bream’s show next, I believe. There you see like what a real scandal looks like. He’s only been in office for two months. There’s incredible amounts of concrete tangible evidence that has been publicly disclosed linking him to the world’s worst paramilitary gangs and extrajudicial murderers in the country. That’s what a real scandal looks like. Instead in the U.S. we have two years of speculation —
GG: And that night was particularly difficult because I knew that that was going to really make me a major target because Bolsonaro being on Fox News was a major, major event particularly for Bolsonaro’s followers here in Brazil. And so to have to watch me in their eyes, defame him on Trump TV was something that created a kind of fury that I haven’t quite experienced in the 13 years that I’ve been working as a journalist.
JS: Recently your husband David Miranda was profiled by Time Magazine. And the headline was “Next Generation Leaders: How This Black Gay Politician is Standing Up to the Far-Right Government in Brazil.” Explain how David who grew up in one of the poorest favelas in Brazil ended up being a member of the Brazilian Congress.
GG: Yeah, so, you know, just like we were talking about Lula before and his argument that it’s more about culture than economics and Lula was always treated like he never belonged in the halls of power. David very much is treated the same way. He speaks with an accent that immediately identifies him as somebody who grew up in a favela. In 2016, David ran for city council as part of the left-wing Socialist Party along with Marielle Franco who you mentioned earlier who was assassinated. And the two of them have very similar backgrounds. They both come from favelas. They both are black. They’re both LGBT. They both work against police brutality and the abuses of the state and they were best friends.
And so, what made their election so remarkable was that it’s so rare for people like that to be in the halls of power. And Marielle’s death is what inspired David to want to run for Congress in 2018. He came in the fifth spot. His party got four seats. The fourth seat was won by an incumbent Jean Wyllys, who for a long time was the only openly gay member of the Brazilian Congress. For 10 years, he was physically bullied in the Congress. Members of Congress would bump into him, would push him against walls, would call him a faggot because he was the only openly gay member of the entire Congress. He was basically alone and once Bolsonaro’s movement got strength, he started getting very specific death threats. Here’s a picture of your license plate and your address. We know where you live. You can’t hide from us. We’re going to murder you and he just reached the point where especially being in Brasilia with the Bolsonaro movement dominant, he felt like his life was in serious danger and psychologically, he couldn’t endure it anymore. And he announced that he was leaving the country. He doesn’t speak any other languages. It’s the only other country that he knew. That’s how extreme that decision was and that spot opened up and it automatically was David’s because he was next in line in the election. And now David has become the leader essentially of the LGBT movement. On top of which being black and also from the favelas makes him a particularly visceral target for the kind of hatred that caused Jean to flee the country.
You know, one of the reasons why we also have become a target and I think it’s so important to point this out, is in 2016, The Intercept got behind the funding of The Intercept Brazil and we put together a team of mostly young, all Brazilian editors and journalists whose courage and journalistic persistence I cannot overstate and the work that they have done in uncovering corruption by Bolsonaro and uncovering by the far-right has really contributed to a big part of why I’m the target even though it’s them on the front lines and them doing the work, it’s associated with me. So, The Intercept Brazil deserves a huge mention. I think when you and I started The Intercept, the kind of journalism we imagined is exactly the kind of journalism that they’re now doing in Brazil at a time when it’s most needed at great risk to themselves as well and so that’s a big part of the picture also.
JS: Glenn Greenwald, thank you very much for being with us.
GG: Thanks, Jeremy.
JS: My colleague Glenn Greenwald is co-founder of The Intercept, the founder of Intercept Brasil. Look for the video of Glenn’s prison interview with Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva at TheIntercept.com. And if you speak Portuguese, make sure to check out the incredible journalism being done by our colleagues in Brazil at theintercept.com/brasil.
JS: And that does it for this week’s show. You can follow us on Twitter @intercepted. If you like what we do, you can support our show by going to TheIntercept.com/join to become a sustaining member. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro, our producer is Laura Flynn. Elise Swain is our associate producer and graphic designer. Our executive producer is Leital Molad. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription for this program is done by Nuria Marquez Martinez. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.