Iran: What Next?

The Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan, Murtaza Hussain, Vanessa Gezari, and Ali Gharib are this week’s guests.

Jeremy Scahill, left, hosts a discussion with Intercept senior columnist Mehdi Hasan, reporter Murtaza Hussain, national security editor Vanessa Gezari, and senior news editor Ali Gharib in New York City on Jan. 13, 2020. Photo: Elise Swain/The Intercept

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The Trump administration’s assassination of Iranian military official Qassim Suleimani in Iraq was an act of aggression and an offensive act of war. This week on Intercepted: Jeremy Scahill hosts a live discussion in New York on the unfolding crisis with Intercept Senior Columnist Mehdi Hasan, reporter Murtaza Hussain, National Security Editor Vanessa Gezari, and Senior News Editor Ali Gharib. They discuss what the latest developments mean for Iran and the U.S. and how tensions have rapidly escalated since Donald Trump came to office. Will Trump’s current posture hold, or will he order more violence?

John Travolta as Sean Archer: He has no conscience and he shows no remorse. He’s the mastermind behind numerous bombings and political assassinations. 

Donald J. Trump: The world is a mess. The world is as angry as it gets. Oh, you think this is going to cause a little more anger?

JT: It’s a felony list a mile long: murder, arson, kidnapping, terrorism, you name it.

DJT: I took the oil. The only troops I have are taking the oil. They’re protecting the oil.

JT: He’s the most dangerous and brilliant criminal mind I’ve ever known. 

DJT: They blow up our people and then we have to be very gentle with their cultural institutions. So that you call retribution.

JT: For years I’ve been watching him, tracking him, studying his every, every move. I know his every, every mannerism. I know him better than he knows himself. 

DJT: A hundred percent of my salary that I make as president, it goes to drugs. We don’t want to send you any texts cause we’re going to kick your ass. Buttigieg, Buttigieg, Buttigieg! Will not be tolerated any longer. We will make America strong again. 

JT: And now, after all this time I finally figured out a way to trap him. I will become him.

DJT: Our president will start a war with Iran because he thinks that’s the only way he can get elected. Isn’t it pathetic?

[Music interlude.]

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

[Music interlude.]

JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City and this is episode 112 of Intercepted. To kick off this new season of Intercepted we are sharing with you a live show that we recorded just last night in front of an audience at New York’s Cooper Union. The discussion focuses on the question: Iran, what next? Here is the event.


JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill from The Intercept and host of the Intercepted podcast. And we have a really great lineup of people tonight to talk about a very dire situation that’s unfolding in the Middle East, specifically in Iran and Iraq. 

I think we need to be very clear about what the Trump administration has already done toward Iran, and that is to declare war by assassinating a senior military official of the Iranian government. This isn’t about is there going to be a war with Iran? What the United States has done in killing, assassinating Qassim Suleimani is in and of itself an offensive act of war. And we see this unfolding of shifting justifications for why Qassim Suleimani needed to be assassinated at the time that he was killed. We were told that he was in the process of plotting “imminent” attacks against the United States, its people, its interests or its allies. And yet, when the defense secretary and the Secretary of State were asked to respond to the specific allegations that President Donald Trump made, saying that four U.S. embassies were potentially going to be attacked, they said that they hadn’t seen that intelligence. Ultimately, what the Trump administration has landed on is very similar to what the Bush administration landed on when the weapons of mass destruction lies were fully uncovered, for those who weren’t paying attention. And that is to say, well, he’s been doing bad things for 20 years, and therefore we were justified in assassinating him.

Now, of course, there is a context to the assassination of Qassim Suleimani that is important to talk about. But it’s not the context that begins with the Iranian-backed militia in Iraq attacking U.S. military bases. It’s a context that begins many decades ago when the United States and Britain and other Western imperial powers decided to overthrow the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 in Iran, and of course, Mosaddegh had come to power promising to nationalize oil in Iran and he also had a pretty progressive social platform that he was promising to the Iranian people. And when he finally was toppled and the Shah was installed in Iran, there was a 26 year brutal reign that was backed up by the United States. Then you had the U.S. bolstering and supporting Saddam Hussein as he rose to power in Iraq. In fact, the CIA provided to Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Iran’s neighbor, the list of people who were suspected to be communists, as they overthrew the regime of Abd al Karim Qasim, who was also a popular leader of Iraq and had moved to nationalize their oil. 

And when the Islamic revolution happened in Iran in 1979, the United States began to redouble its efforts to backup Saddam and make him the premier U.S. client in that region. And they actually under the Reagan-Bush administration lifted Iraq off of the nations that were categorized as state sponsors of terrorism so that the U.S. could openly sell weapons to Saddam Hussein to be used in his war against Iran. And for more than eight years, Iran and Iraq fought a mercilessly bloody war where more than a million people were killed and the United States was arming both sides in that war, but disproportionately favoring Saddam Hussein. In fact, when Saddam was at his most brutal in the 1980s, when he was using chemical weapons, and by the way, those chemical weapons attacks were aided by the United States selling attack vessels to deliver those chemical weapons, Saddam was at his most brutal when the U.S. was offering him the most support.

The policy in Washington was regime change in Iran from the moment the Islamic Revolution began and ultimately, the Iran-Iraq war failed to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime, but the United States wanted payback. Payback that extends to Donald Trump’s threats to bomb 52 sites in Iran, including cultural institutions. Iran has basically been in a permanent state of siege since 1979 and since the United States supported Saddam Hussein in Iraq and his brutal regime. Throughout the 1990s, you had this sort of high stakes diplomacy, negotiations, threats of sanctions, threats of war going on. But on 9/11, when the 9/11 attacks happened, Iran’s response, at first was to offer support to the United States in a clandestine way, including from the Revolutionary Guard Corps, because the Taliban government in Afghanistan was also an enemy of the Iranian regime. Once George W. Bush gave a speech written by #resistance figure, David Frum that identified Iran as part of the “axis of evil” that door was basically slammed shut and throughout the Bush administration’s eight years in power at any moment war with Iran, overt war with Iran could have happened. 

You had the same kinds of very hawkish neocons that now pepper certain quarters of the Trump administration, pushing for an all out war against Iran and regime change against Iran. Among them, the not that long ago departed National Security Adviser John Bolton. When Barack Obama took office, he implemented sanctions and continued sanctions in Iran that did target Iranian civilians. But the Obama administration’s approach was to try to resolve the nuclear issue in a manner that ultimately would lead to some form of negotiation. While all of this was happening, you had Iranian nuclear scientists being assassinated. You had covert operations taking place in Iran, but generally speaking, in both Teheran and in certain quarters politically of the United States, the Obama nuclear deal was about as good of a deal that Iran could get under the current structure of the U.S. government and understanding that in both the Democratic and Republican parties, you had very hawkish individuals that would love to see regime change in Iran. 

Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to commit war crimes and in fact, he openly tweets threats to commit war crimes. And he has even campaigned during this election season with actual war criminals that the U.S. military has acknowledged are war criminals. So this is a different front facing facade of the U.S. empire even though much of Trump’s foreign policy is consistent with presidential administrations throughout history outside of the context of the rhetoric. 

So, which brings us to the present moment where you have had in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, Iran, which is directly next door to Iraq, playing an increasingly important role in various aspects of Iraqi society. Some of it has been good — social services, basic organization of society — and some of it has been playing proxy war games — facilitating militias, facilitating attacks. Qassim Suleimani definitely was a major player in that. He also was a major player in the fight against ISIS. At times the United States even offered air cover for operations that Qassim Suleimani’s forces were conducting on the ground. 

And when the Trump administration said that they were taking Qassim Suleimani out to prevent an imminent threat from being carried out, we have to wonder then about the reports that say that he’s been on the kill list in the Trump administration, for some seven months. The Gang of Eight, the ranking member of the House and Senate Intelligence Committee, the chairs of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, the leadership of both parties in both houses of Congress were not informed in advance that the United States was going to be assassinating a foreign military official on a third country’s soil. No, who was informed? Well, there were hints given apparently to guests at Mar-a-Lago. I don’t believe that that Title 50 of the U.S. Code mentions anything about warning guests of a covert U.S. military action that could have global ramifications. But nonetheless, those partiers and revelers at Mar-a-Lago were given more information than the Speaker of the House, the third in line to succession of the presidency. Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel was also told in advance and came very close to just blurting it out before it occurred. 

And when the Trump administration finally did send representatives to Capitol Hill to first brief the Gang of Eight, and then brief a wider group of lawmakers, it was Republican Senator Mike Lee, a prominent Trump supporter, who came out and said that what they are trying to do in these briefings is unconstitutional. He said it was he worst briefing that he’s been to in nine years on military matters, and said that Mike Pompeo and the Chair of the Joint Chiefs were basically saying to lawmakers, you are not allowed to debate this in public because it’s going to undermine the security of the United States. So, we are in this moment right now when there are fears of a wider war but it is so important to understand that this assassination that the Trump administration carried out against General Suleimani followed by more sanctions, economic sanctions that are overwhelmingly targeted at civilians, these are acts of war. So it’s not just a discussion about what happens next in Iran? Is the U.S. going to go to war? We have to recognize that the war is already on. And the question is, how can it be stopped and who will stop it? 

And finally before I bring on our guests, I want to say that there is the issue of the Iranians shooting down this Ukrainian civilian airliner that killed more than 170 people, the majority of them Iranian. And yet the media reporting was focused on the more than 60 Canadians who were on that flight, but most of the people killed on that flight were in fact Iranians. And I think that what we’re seeing in Iran right now is legitimate, overt anger at their government, for the perception that they were lied to, for the perception that this was a murder of their fellow countrymen and coming after the stampede at the massive funeral procession for Qassim Suleimani where more than a couple of dozen people were killed. The anger is understandable to anyone around the world. 

One of the questions we’re going to try to grapple with tonight is how we should understand the various factions in Iran, the protests that are happening, what people are saying in those protests, but also recognizing that in this country, our primary responsibility as journalists is to hold our own government accountable, and to hold warmongers, regardless of what party they belong to, accountable. So with that, I would appreciate it if you would give our guests tonight a warm welcome.


JS: So, I’ll begin coincidentally to my left, Mehdi Hasan, senior columnist at The Intercept, host of our —

Mehdi Hasan: Thank you very much.

JS: He hosts our excellent podcast, Deconstructed. Mehdi has been covering the Middle East for more than a decade. And he’s interviewed both the vice president and foreign minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He also not too long ago interviewed the founder of Blackwater, Erik Prince, who plays a minor but perhaps important role in this story that we’re going to discuss tonight. 

Murtaza Hussain is a reporter at The Intercept focusing on national security and he was one of the lead reporters who did the reporting on the Iran cables series that The Intercept did, in part, in conjunction with the New York Times. 

And by the way, Farnaz Fassihi from the New York Times was supposed to be here tonight, but is unable to because of responsibilities at the New York Times this evening. In fact, I’m sure she’s probably tweeting right now, instead of being with us, but I understand the work and why this is so important to her. But we have some very able replacements. 

My colleague, Vanessa Gezari is the national security editor of The Intercept and the main editor of the Iran cables series. 

And my colleague, Ali Gharib who is a senior editor at The Intercept and is also an Iranian American. Thank you all for being with us. 

Mehdi, I want to begin with you. Where things stand right now where we see protests in Iran, we see the Trump administration offering up totally implausible scenarios for why this assassination was necessary at this moment, just give us a sense of where you see things headed right now. What is important to focus on?

MHa: It’s a good question. Good evening, everyone. Thanks for coming out. It’s funny because when we came up with this panel, but a week ago, I think our original title was, why is the U.S. starting a war with Iran? Then Trump gave a statement. We all had a huddle. We were like should we change the title? Because things were moving so fast as they do in Trump world. A day is like a dog year. And I think people are complacent if they think this has gone away. If people think — I see some even liberals online saying, you know, we shouldn’t have got worried. It’s not World War III. People who were hyping it up were wrong. I think that’s a completely mad and self destructive approach. Anyone who thinks this has gone away is completely deluded. In fact, I would argue that we’re probably going to see another crisis similar to this between now and the election, not just for domestic political purposes. And we know Trump is on record saying Obama will attack Iran in order to get reelected and with Trump, everything is projection. But also because the Iranians in the midst of all this, not many people noticed, formally announced that they were out of the Iran deal. Till now they kept saying, we’re going to push the limits because the U.S. has pulled out but last week, they said we’re done. We’re finished. 

So that means they’re gonna start enriching a bit more than they were. That means we’re gonna go back to the same old, the world hyperventilating about are they building a weapon in secret? Trump, you noticed, in a statement, the first thing he said that day, opening line was, “Iran will not have a nuclear weapon,” which he knows his base loves. He knows it’s a good belligerent position. So, this crisis is not going away. It’s just being postponed. The idea that he’s de-escalated is nonsense. They’ve increased sanctions on Iran. I don’t know how you can de-escalate if you’re increasing sanctions, which for many Iranians, understandably so, is an act of economic warfare. And as you mentioned, the shifting justifications means we need to keep asking questions. We need to have events like this and do the journalism that we do because every day we see that these people are lying their asses off in a way that even Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld may have blushed at. I don’t know if you saw NBC reporting today that Trump authorized the assassination of Suleimani in June 2019 — that is seven months ago. So, if you authorize the killing of someone, and they get killed seven months later that is not imminent, right? I know he likes to invent words like “covfefe” and “foistering” but imminent has its own meaning and these people have butchered the meaning of the word imminent. 

JS: I will say in fairness, though, it was under the Obama administration that a Justice Department white paper was leaked showing that in fact, the Obama White House had come up with this incredibly insane new definition of imminence to basically be anybody who’s ever done anything bad in the past represents an ongoing imminent threat. So, I mean, there’s a lot we can pile on Trump, but I do think it’s important, particularly because it’s an election year, that we understand that there was an opportunity for eight years of Obama to rein in some of these executive authorities, to put rules in place before Obama left office. Trump utilized the one-two punch that Obama sort of perfected for him which is use the drone, do a so-called targeted strike, and then claim that imminence means whatever we want it to mean.

MHa: He handed this mango Mussolini a loaded gun and he has to take responsibility for that. 

JS: Murtaza, I think it’s important because there is a lot of misinformation and you know, you remember sea monkeys as a kid. You pour this powder into the water and then you get these little sea creatures. That’s kind of like the expert class now. Everybody is an instant expert on everything. And I think we’ve seen that certainly with the simple question of “Who is Qassim Suleimani?” Where all of a sudden, you have a million experts on it.

You have gone through secret Iranian intelligence files detailing years of Iranian work inside of Iraq in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion and occupation that were published as part of the Iran cables series. But just give us an overview of some of the important facts that we should know about who Qassim Suleimani was.

Murtaza Hussain: Thanks, Jeremy. Thanks, everyone for coming out. For those who don’t know, Qassim Suleimani was the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force which is the name of its external operations force. He ran Iranian-backed militias throughout the Middle East. And he played a major role in the proxy wars of the past 16-17 years. He was a nemesis to U.S. officials like David Petraeus, and so forth. Now, Mr. Suleimani, they wanted to kill him for a very long time. And, you know, in fairness, he’s a combatant, he takes part in wars. He’s not someone who’s just an activist or something. Having said that, the killing of Qassim Suleimani by an American drone, an attack which is claimed by the United States publicly and directly was, what I found to be, an absolutely chilling escalation of the nature of the drone program. We’ve been told for so many years, the drones and assassinations were to target non-state actors. These are people who theoretically were outside of the state system, and thus their violence was deemed legally illegitimate. I have a lot of contentions with that rationale, but OK, that was the rationale used for X number of years. Now, all of a sudden one day [an] extremely reckless president kills a major official in a foreign government and does not do it covertly, does not do it through proxies indirectly. Suleimani’s a proxy warrior, so he may die in a proxy war. He assassinated him brazenly, claimed responsibility, and said that it was justified under previous legal authorities which had never been used to kill foreign government officials. 

Now, in theory, this could be used to target all sorts of people, could be used to easily kill officers in the PLA, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, could be used to kill officers of the Pakistani ISI, even fighting a proxy war against the United States in Afghanistan. And it’s not to say these people are not combatants, but you’ve essentially arrogated power to Donald Trump and any future president to carry out assassinations of foreign officials that’s within their legal purview. 

Mr. Suleimani, you know, in those documents you mentioned, there’s a lot of information about him. And I think what our reporting contributed was some black and white facts because there’s so much conjecture. I think a lot of people didn’t know who Qassim Suleimani was until last week and are commenting about him. Essentially, no one’s making him out to be an angel. He’s fighting a war the same way U.S. generals fought a proxy war in Iraq. They armed militias who in many cases carried out atrocities. Those documents show that those militias were carrying out atrocities in Iraq. The MOIS which is the agency from which those documents came with somewhat of a rival to the Revolutionary Guards, they wer critical of Mr. Suleimani’s role, and yet, you know, to be killed directly in act of war by the United States which is deemed not to be war, assassination has become something closer to U.S. government policy. It’s a very chilling degradation of the laws of war such as they still exist.

JS: Maz, in the aftermath of Suleimani’s killing, there were some interesting competing narratives to what he was actually doing when he got to Iraq. He took a flight from Damascus to Baghdad and according to the versions put forward by U.S. officials, it was something like he was going there in pursuance of these imminent plots that he was going to be participating in. But Adil Abdul-Mahdi, the Prime Minister of Iraq actually said that the reason that Suleimani was in Baghdad at that particular moment was because he was delivering a response to Saudi Arabia that was using Iraq as a mediator to go between Iran and Saudi Arabia in their own proxy wars. Who do you believe in this?

MHu: This is a very intense information war —

JS: Just so people understand — what the Prime Minister of Iraq is saying essentially, is that Suleimani was there as part of a peace process and the United States which is occupying parts of Iraq and refuses to leave even though Iraq has told them to go, assassinated him while he was on what they were characterizing as a peace mission or part of a negotiation.

MHu: Right, there’s a very intense information war, as you alluded to. There’s many different narratives going on around what took place. I think it’s become clear now the Trump administration’s narrative is completely spurious. It keeps changing day by day, imminent attack, plots against embassies, retracting all that the next day. It’s very possible he was on this peace mission that the Iraqi Prime Minister said he was on. I think that it’s very possible because he’s also Iran’s viceroy to Iraq, more or less, and he was delegated roles far beyond just military commanding. He was a known figure and player politically in the region. I think that unfortunately, we’ll never have any transparency, at least in the immediate future, about what the U.S. rationale was for killing him. But I will note that it was reported Mike Pompeo did not want to retire as secretary of state until he killed Qassim Suleimani. So, this was his chance.

JS: Vanessa, when we — and I should say Vanessa was the main editor on the Iran cables series. A lot of people throw around the phrase “proxy war” or “proxy militias,” and talk about Iranian backed groups in Iraq and I think it’s important to always keep in mind that this was a U.S.-made reality when the United States decided to invade and occupy Iraq and shatter any semblance of civilian society in Iraq. But what are the facts about Iran’s role in actual fighting in Iraq and support for armed groups? And is it just by default, illegitimate because the U.S. says so? Or is Iran operating with a bigger strategy and its support for armed factions inside of Iraq?

Vanessa Gezari: Thanks. Thanks, everybody for being here. Yeah, I mean, I think that’s a really interesting question. You know, it’s — Iran lives there in that neighborhood and has a long and complicated relationship with Iraq and with those other countries in its neighborhood. And so, you know, the idea that it would be involved in backing certain groups to support genuine and long term foreign policy objectives in its immediate sphere of influence is just not shocking at all. 

I mean, one thing that we didn’t talk about and with the documents that we wrote about focus on in large part is a period of time when Iraq and the U.S. and Iran were collaborating to fight ISIS. And so one thing that that’s not been talked about as much in the wake of Suleimani’s killing, is that, you know, yes, there’s a lot of criticism in the documents of the way that Suleimani’s Shiite militias dealt with Sunnis in Iraq and the kind of sectarian damage that was done there. But those militias actually weren’t targeting Americans for the most part. 

So when Donald Trump and others talk about the hundreds of Americans who were killed by Iranian proxies, what they’re mostly talking about is deaths between 2003 and, you know, 2008, during the height of the Iraq War that were caused by this particular kind of improvised explosive device that Iran was helping certain militias to, I mean, it’s believed to have been helping certain militias to make. So, you know, in the period, sort of, after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, it seems to me there’s a lot to suggest that Suleimani and others who are running Iran policy, and he was really the sort of the lead person on Iran policy in Iraq, were really trying to not attack Americans because they wanted the Americans to leave. So the idea that, you know, they would be planning more attacks, I think they’re smart enough to know that that would draw the U.S. in further and that was not their objective.

JS: You know, it’s interesting also that, in all this discussion about militias and sectarian warfare and violence in Iraq. I don’t recall hearing anytime in the past week since this crisis started to intensify of the fact that the United States created its own militias in Iraq that the United States, particularly under General David Petraeus’ tenure in Iraq began what U.S. officials referred to as the Salvador option, referring to the dirty wars in Central America where the U.S. essentially localized its imperialism by trying to build up death squads. And that was the U.S. policy for years following the 2003 invasion and occupation. I just think it’s important always to remember this that if we were to refer to them as countries X, Y and Z, we would have a different discussion. But as soon as you say Iran, “Oh, Iran is backing militias there.” It’s meant to sound dark and devious but Iran is literally right next door to Iraq. They shared a million deaths during the Iran-Iraq war and the U.S. funded and armed both sides during that war. There’s context here that is so seldom discussed in the broader media context. 

And on that note, Ali Gharib, with the protests that are happening right now, in Iran I think that you see some media figures really salivating at the notion that this is it. This is going to be the overthrow of the regime. There’s highlighting of protesters who say they want Khomeini to resign, and that they want the Iranian government to be brought down. I know we can’t say what do the Iranian people think, but give us a sense of some of the political landscape right now in Iran in the aftermath of the downing of this flight, the stampede that took place at the funeral, and the way that Iran responded in apparently a coordinated way with the Trump administration when it launched missiles at the U.S. base at Anbar that killed no one.

Ali Gharib: Oh, yeah. Thanks, Jeremy and thanks — I’m also grateful to everybody for being here. It’s you know, your question about the thing that we can’t say that what are people in Iran thinking is exactly right. I mean, that just no one is willing to look at this country and think about it in a way that’s not a monolith. Everybody kind of wants to make these sweeping generalizations about what every protest means. And, you know, we’ve seen over the past two and a half months, two months, a raft of different protests about different things. We had the protest in November, that were Iranians in the streets against the cutting of gasoline subsidies which are really important for a lot of people in that tight economy that’s being squeezed by sanctions. And these were massive protests that were kind of across class groups. And people in the streets of cities and towns that have never come out and protested before weren’t part of the green movement, the kind of pro-reformist protests of 2009 and it was a completely different demographic getting to the street and the Islamic Republic responded by shutting off the internet and the most deadly crackdown with the toll of some hundreds of dead protesters since the Shah’s regime. 

And then you know this was, it was followed pretty quickly by just last week by the strike against Qassim Suleimani and that put a whole new group of people in the street that, you know, you could refer to as pro-regime, but that’s not exactly clear either. You really had a lot of people in the street for nationalistic reasons. And you know, you see a lot of these kind of instant experts, the sea monkeys, if you will, of Twitter talking about how like it’s an authoritarian regime and you can’t believe the fact that you’re seeing protests and if they’re allowed to happen, that must mean that they’re just being filled with like whatever paid actors along the Soros lines. But that’s, you know, the Islamic Republic doesn’t really work like that. It is definitely a regime with an authoritarian bent, but they can’t put people in the street in those kinds of ways. Now that said, I mean, this is the further complexity of it is that you have people out in the streets also because of Trump’s comments that even if you weren’t a fan of Qassim Suleimani, I mean, people in November that were protesting, were invoking in a negative way the wars that Qassim Suleimani was waging in the Middle East, in Syria and saying, why are you focusing all this attention on Syria? We want to talk about what’s happening here in Iran, people are really struggling. And so some of those folks are now in the street because of the strike against the nationalist leader who they criticize, but also, in a way largely because of the ISIS war. You know, some people recognize the Qassim Suleimani was also a protector of the nation, himself a nationalist whether you supported him or not, and the nature of the strike against him in this completely lawless way, which Iranians aren’t fools to understand. 

And then, you know, there’s just more and more layers. You keep peeling back the onion. You know, I was talking to a friend just this weekend in Iran who was talking about how streets were being closed down surrounding the funeral marches. And so what that did is it forced anybody who was out in the street into these narrow corridors which the Islamic Republic’s news agencies would then fly the drones over and get those images that I think a lot of us saw on the Internet and on TV news, of these kind of jam-packed protests which of course then become their own talking points for everybody’s kind of like, back and forth purposes and the narratives they want to impose on all these protests here. And then the tragic downing of this Ukrainian International Airlines flight kind of brought back the more sort of frustrated anti-regime elements. You had, you know, a lot of the protesting in the past couple days has been centered around universities and their people. And there really is a real crisis of confidence happening in the regime, I think, because of this. Because if there’s one thing that the Islamic Republic has tried to claim to do, it’s that they were protecting the nation.

And, you know, blowing up some, some hundreds of your own citizens, you know, many that — even though for example, the Canadians who were on that flight were also Iranian Canadians and it really is viewed as a tragedy for many Iranians that the Islamic Republic is responsible for. It’s responsible for the slaughter, accidental or not, of its own citizens and people were incensed by this. And then you know, the next onion layer, the students protesting come out with this statement that they reject imperialism and that imperialism and that like the U.S. being in the region. You know, the statement said, I’m loosely paraphrasing here, that, you know, they recognize the U.S. had sowed chaos in the region and they have long opposed that but also wanted to recognize that the foreign adventurism of the U.S. has become an excuse for crackdowns at home and that’s unacceptable. So, you really get the kind of complexity of these Iranian social movements in this extremely constrained environment and you know, that the sea monkeys just are never going to capture that sort of nuance.

JS: Mehdi, we also have, of course, the ready-made generals who are appearing on cable news across the board, who were agitating, including Barry McCaffrey on NBC who is, among other things, one of the people who represents the maker of the Reaper drone that was used in the strike against Qassim Suleimani. And at the same time you have Donald Trump celebrating that his poorly translated tweet in Persian is the most liked tweet in the history of the Persian language. You know, the overlap between Twitter and Farsi and Ivanka Trump celebrating that. But at the same time, this is the man who wants to ban all Iranians from coming into the United States.

MHa: And, you know, I couldn’t help tweeting this afternoon at Kevin McCarthy who said, House Minority Leader saying I’m putting forward a resolution to stand with the Iranian people against protests. And I couldn’t help but tweet and say, does that mean you’ll be letting them in as refugees if they’re fleeing the violence? If not, shut the fuck up. I mean, there’s just, literally, you can’t have it both ways. But they want to have it both ways, because that’s what this administration does. 

In terms of just the experts, I just want to pick up on the lines we just made about experts. Couple of things about experts and context: what’s so fascinating about Suleimani is that he literally became the boogeyman almost overnight, in the sense that at least with other kind of evil enemies that the U.S. empire uses to justify wars abroad, we build them up over time. When Baghdadi died and Trump stands up and says, I’ve killed the world’s worst terrorist, we get it. You know, Baghdadi was there, evil ISIS, bin Laden, of course, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, you always have to kind of create the Bond villain, cartoon character nemesis for the U.S. to go and take out. Gaddafi, Noriega, some of them were our old friends, you know, there’s a friend one night before, the next day they’re the world’s worst enemy. 

With Suleimani what’s so fascinating is no one knew who the fuck this guy was until he was taken out. Donald Trump didn’t know who he was when he was running for office. Many of you have heard that exchange with Hugh Hewitt, where he says, what do you think of Suleimani? And he says, tell me a little bit more. And he says, what do you think about the Quds force? And he says, the Kurds have been treated horrifically. I mean, Trump, you might say, OK, that’s Donald Trump. What do you expect from Donald Trump? But all of them, everyone, you know, Mike Pence came out and did a multi-part Twitter thread about how bad Suleimani was. And there’s a guy I don’t know who he is, I have to go back and look him up. Somebody in my timeline popped up with an amazing thing that he did. The best thing I’ve seen on Twitter all year. He went through every single right-wing nutcase who’s come out on Suleimani — Mike Pence, Kevin McCarthy, all of them, Ben Shapiro — and he went through their Twitter feeds, and he just searched Suleimani and none of them had ever said the name Suleimani until January the second when Trump took him out. Fascinating. Mike Pence had never mentioned Suleimani before that. So it’s amazing how this guy overnight becomes the world’s worst terrorist to quote Donald Trump, and yet apparently no one was talking about him. I mean, people were talking about him obviously people in the know, but these guys, the bloviators, the kind of armchair warriors, the chicken hawks were not mentioning his name until then. So I think that’s important to take into account. 

The other very quick point I want to make is about, you know, the context. You mentioned context, and you talked very eloquently at the beginning about the history. As the only not non-North American on this panel, let me just say people in the U.S. and to a lesser extent Canada, Maz, aren’t that familiar with their own history, let alone Middle East history. And the problem is if you go to somewhere like Iran or Iraq, people are discussing what happened 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago. It matters. It influences events today, whereas we reset the clock every two minutes. We can’t remember what happened last year, let alone 50-60 years ago. 

So this is a very well informed crowd of Intercept members, readers, listeners, quick question here: how many people, if I say Operation Ajax does that mean anything to you? Raise your hand if that means anything to you. Not many people. Operation Ajax is the 1953 CIA coup against Mohammed Mosaddegh, right? If I say to the Island of Stability speech, does that mean anything to you? Jimmy Carter went to Iran. Jimmy Carter, lovable grandpa Jimmy Carter, went to Iran, New Year’s Eve 1977, stood up, guest of the Shah and said, you know, I praise the Shah for making Iran an island of stability in a troubled region and said the people loved the Shah. That was at the same time that Amnesty was saying that the Shah had killed more people in executions than any other government in the world. Torture was beyond belief. That was Jimmy Carter. Iran Air 655, we’ve been talking about a little bit in recent days. But until last week, I don’t think anyone in the U.S. media at least talked about the fact that in 1988, the United States Navy —

JS: We did on Intercepted but — sorry. 

MHa: I know you did, Jeremy, I’m talking about the rest. Shot down Iran Air 655, killing 290 people, 66 kids, majority of them Iranian civilians. No discussion of this —

JS: George H.W. Bush said in response to that “I’ll never apologize for the United States of America ever. I don’t care what the facts are.”

MHa: Yeah, and Ronald Reagan expressed regret but never apologized. They never took legal liability. They made a payment to the families of the people who died and then they gave a medal to the captain of the ship who shut down the airline. Can you imagine if the Iranians shot down a U.S. flight of 290 Americans now or back then and then gave a medal to the captain? We would be rightly outraged. This stuff isn’t just forgotten in places like Iran. Then we say why do they hate us? Why are they shouting? Why do they protest? We have to understand the basics of our history of the relationships between the U.S. and Iran, the U.K. and Iran, otherwise, we’re never going to get out of this shithole.

JS: Ali, I think it’s — Well said. I think it’s important to recognize that there is an Iranian group that has had disproportionate influence over not just U.S. policymakers, but some very prominent figures from both the Democratic and Republican parties. And I also am going to ask Maz about this as well, but just Ali briefly give an overview of who the MEK are and the kinds of U.S. officials that have been purchased essentially by the MEK.

AG: How long do we have? I could go on for —

JS: That’s why I said give a very brief overview. I know this is one of your favorite subjects.

MHa: He had a big smile on his face as you were building up to that question. 

AG: The MEK is really a fascinating, fascinating group. They have this wild history of being an Islamist, Marxist revolutionary group kind of through the late 60s and 70s. They ended up fighting with Saddam Hussein against Iran in the 80s and then ended up in exile in Iran. They played a strange, small role in the justification for the Iraq war because George W. Bush claimed that Saddam was harboring terrorists because he was harboring this group. And then, they were disarmed as part of the Iraq war and then just suddenly, they started to slowly incrementally buy influence in Washington. 

They had all these cut out groups in the states despite the fact that they were listed as a terrorist group by the State Department. They started getting people like you know, making concerted — I actually did a piece for The Intercept in 2015 about this. They started making a concerted campaign of donations to politicians like Bob Menendez, Robert Torricelli, “the torch,” the old Bob Menendez’s predecessor, the senator from New Jersey, and started to enlist especially former officials. And this is where it gets really interesting because so many of these former officials ended up either close to or part of the Trump administration, especially Rudy Giuliani and John Bolton, who’ve been paid extraordinary sums by the MEK sometimes, you know, $60,000 for 10 minute speeches to go speak at their conferences in France. And they basically are presented as the leading opposition group to the Iranian government, but the truth is that they’re actually kind of like a really freaky cult. And it’s just extraordinary for me to watch as an Iranian American knowing how little purchase these people have inside Iran, even with people like my own family who are generally not very pro-regime and everybody just detests the MEK. And they’re a relatively small group, you know, we’re talking, it’s impossible to say for sure, but we’re talking maybe somewhere in the like 10,000 to, if you want to give the high estimates, maybe 50,000 dedicated supporters. It’s just not very much when you’re talking about a nation of 80 million people with a massive diaspora.

JS: But it’s not just neocons and Republicans also figures like Howard Dean.

AG: Howard Dean, yeah, once called me an asshole in an elevator for asking him about how much he got paid by the MEK. Yeah, and Democrats too as I said, Robert Torricelli, Bob Menendez.

MHa: I got a name for you, Congressman John Lewis.

AG: Yeah, John Lewis. 

MHa: Went to MEK conference, took money, and gave a speech.

AG: Yep, yeah, it’s very bipartisan and it’s really, it’s an extremely disturbing example of what a little bit of cash can get you in Washington, and especially in an area like foreign policy where there’s not that many, you know, like massive popular campaigns being organized and it sort of does play out as an elite game until something like a near war happens.

JS: Now, Maz, the head of Hezbollah and one of the most important figures, if not the most important figure right now in Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah gave a lengthy in-depth analytical speech in the aftermath of the killing of Qassim Suleimani and essentially predicted that this is the beginning of the end for the U.S. presence in the region. And of course, you know, Nasrallah is viewed by Israel as public enemy number one in the neighborhood but I’m wondering how you believe what the United States is doing right now with regard to Iran impacts Hezbollah, and also the situation in Syria?

MHu: I just want to make a point too about history, what Mehdi was saying, that you know, the whole history of how this started is because the U.S. withdrew from the JCPOA two years ago under Trump. So even now, having this event, talking about this war, people have forgotten the context, didn’t need to happen. The reason for the JCPOA, also known as the Iran Deal was to prevent the war. So, he reneged on that because he didn’t like Obama and now we’re all here. 

Now with regards to this question about Hezbollah, and the U.S. ejecting the U.S. presence from Iraq and the rest of the region, ironically, it’s actually a quote by Christopher Hitchens at the time of the first Iraq war it’s very ironic given his later trajectory. Someone asked him, how long do you think this war will last? And this is about 1991. He thought for a moment and he said, I think it’ll last around 100 years. So, if you start a conflict like this in the Middle East, you get the United States involved, the war is not going to end first of all, and it’s going to take new permutations that draw the U.S. in, regardless whether they want to leave or not.

In 2011, the Obama administration technically made a big show of withdrawing from Iraq. They were tired of Iraq. It was a bitter experience for Americans and of course, for Iraqis. And then very shortly thereafter against their own will they were drawn back by ISIS. So now the U.S. is in a war with the people it was in a tacit alignment with against ISIS the last few years. And now these Shia groups, these Iranian-backed groups are being targeted for airstrikes by the Americans. Qassim Suleimani, again, not an angel, but he certainly was one of the major commanders of the war against ISIS on the ground and ISIS released a statement celebrating the killing of Qassim Suleimani after that. So now you have a conflict which is brewing between Hezbollah, Iraqi militias, groups in Syria, all gearing to target the United States or the U.S. presence in the region. I think it’d be very difficult to eject the U.S. in a short period of time but if we’re in a 100s years war, we still have 63 years to go. So, you know, it could take some time and they’re not going anywhere. It’s their home.

JS: You know, some of the reporting in The New York Times recently indicated that the default ruler of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman was very nervous about this situation, dispatches his brother to Washington to meet with Trump and then the brother apparently is satisfied with what Trump has told him. But the reality is, you know, Trump’s first visit as president to Saudi Arabia where the bizarre orb incident took place. And, of course, then after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Trump administration essentially playing defense for the royals in Saudi Arabia. And I’ll throw this to anyone who feels informed enough to answer it. What should we think right now or what should we be looking at with regard to Saudi Arabia’s perception of the U.S. posture on Iran? Because clearly, one of the unifying threads of this coalition of the Trump administration, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and to an extent, Turkey is regime change in Iran. But how are we to understand Mohammed bin, the reports that Mohammed bin Salman was very concerned about Trump whacking this guy?

MHa: Can you imagine how batshit crazy you have to be on foreign policy that MBS is the sensible, sober guy in the room? Imagine how far off the reservation you have to be as Trump and Pompeo and Pence that the Saudis are saying, cool your heels. Calm down.

JS: Yeah, I mean, he was probably skiing indoors when he heard that —

MHa: These are the people who like wrecked Yemen and slapped around the Lebanese Prime Minister and dismembered a journalist. They’re like this is too crazy, even for us.

JS: OK, fair enough. But on a serious note, because —

MHa: No, but they’ve been pushing this for a while, but they realized —

JS: Saudis have been, as we know —

MHa: They never wanted to fight the war though, Jeremy. Bob Gates, who was defense secretary under Obama, former Republican, he had this great line. He said, look, the Saudis and the Israelis want to fight Iran to the last American, right? The Saudi Arabians have always wanted to fight but, they don’t want to fight it themselves. They’ve always wanted the American government to do the fighting. I think in recent months with Trump being so erratic and reckless, you saw that after the drone strike that allegedly the Iranians carried out on the Aramco oil fields, was it last September? It feels like 10 years ago. You saw then when Trump refused to take action at that time, that’s when the Saudis started allegedly putting out feelers via the Iraqi Prime Minister, via the Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, trying to get them to be a mediator between them and Iran because they realized this is not going to work out well for us. We can’t rely on this guy. He’s all over the place. You know, look at North Korea. I always say if Qassim Suleimani had written a love letter to Trump, he’d still be alive today. But Saudis looked at that situation and they said we got to do something about it. So that’s what allegedly Suleimani was in town in Baghdad responding to Saudi overtures via the Iraqi Prime Minister. So the irony of ironies, you know, I’m joking about MBS but on a serious note, if there was this plan by the Emiratis and the Saudis to try and cool tensions in the region, most other American presidents, including some crazy Republican ones, might have thought this is a good thing for everyone. But not Pompeo and Pence and Evangelicals who want to bring about the rapture. 

JS: Murtaza, go ahead.

MHu: The WikiLeaks cables that came out about a decade ago, they showed that the previous Saudi King had begged the U.S. to “cut the head off the snake,” the Iranian snake in the region. If you notice now that the U.S. is at the point of conflict with Iran, they’ve been very muted. All the Gulf Arab states muted because they realized that if there’s a war, the people who are going to suffer are us right away. They’ve had cold feet. This missile attack by the Iranians on the American base was obviously a response to the killing of Qassim Suleimani. It was a message to the Americans, but also it was a message to the Emiratis and the Saudis that we have highly accurate missiles, ballistic missiles. And the UAE has had this sort of golden era for the last two decades of foreign presence, you know, expatriates, investment. It’s been predicated on having perfect security in Dubai, in Abu Dhabi and these places. If you have one attack in the UAE that’s all over and it’s not like Israel, for instance, where people who live in Israel and you know, they’ll have a war but you know it’s their home so we’re going to stay here. Everyone will leave Dubai, 90% of people are expatriates.

JS: Well, it’s interesting timing too that the New York Times had this big piece on Mohammed bin Ziyad walking around the Dubai shopping mall, no security at all. It really clearly, the timing of it seemed to be, to indicate exactly what you’re saying that like we’re actually safe, everything is OK here. We’re keeping the country safe so much so that one of our, you know, emirs can just be walking around the shopping mall in Dubai.

AG: Like Bush to go shopping again after 9/11 —

JS: Or something, yeah. On this issue, what I’m getting at with Saudi Arabia is, what I was thinking is if Mohammed bin Salman was truly disturbed by this, the most logical conclusion would be that Abdul-Mahdi was telling the truth, that the Iraqi Prime Minister was being truthful that there was some kind of a negotiation that was going on. We may never fully know the truth of that unless there are documents somewhere, but at the same time you have Saudi Arabia continuing to wage its genocidal war in Yemen. You have the Trump administration fighting against very late in the game congressional moves to try to to halt it. But Saudi Arabia clearly tried to pull Iran further into a militarized proxy conflict in the territory of Yemen. How does the situation between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen relate to the events that we’ve seen unfold, Vanessa?

VG: Yeah, I mean, I think this is like a really important point. These countries that are viewed as Iran’s chief enemies, and this is just sort of to echo what others said, but, I mean, they really do not want a crazy war to happen right on top of them. And I mean, in Yemen, you know, I think you see Saudi Arabia increasingly isolated, I mean, their alliance with the Emirates has changed a lot over recent months and become a lot less strong. I think those two countries want different things in Yemen. I think it’s not entirely clear, it’s never been entirely clear how involved Iran is in that war, or whether they’re just kind of doing it to bother the Saudis. There was actually another strike on the night that Suleimani was killed in Yemen that was targeting a Quds Force commander. It did not hit the right person, hit another person who was believed to be a mid-level person in the Quds Force there. But again, I mean, it’s really unclear how many Iranians are even on the ground in Yemen, it’s thought to be a very small number. 

There’s something that I think we’re kind of talking around here that I just want to come back to, which is Iraq and the fact that this killing of Suleimani took place in Iraq and that Iraq, which you know, before this all happened, this whole fall was convulsed by protests about corruption in the government and against overweening influence by Iran in the government, you know, and now finds itself having had its territorial integrity abrogated in this strike, and is just like looking at more horror to come because it’s the playground for these countries. So, I just think, you know, it’s worth thinking about, you know, Abdul-Mahdi’s in a very difficult position, and has, you know, a lot of connections with Iran and other things. But it’s interesting that he’s asking the U.S. to leave. The U.S. is not leaving right now or says it’s not leaving. But I think just things don’t look good in Iraq.

MHa: What do you call a country that refuses to leave another country when asked to leave? Oh, it’s not an occupation. I mean, just to a context again, five U.S. presidents in a row have bombed Iraq, right? It’s like a rite of passage for being President of the United States. You get into office, Donald Trump came into office and bombed Iraq. Every president since Bush the senior has bombed Iraq. That country has been through so much war, both internally and externally imposed. Vanessa is right to point out that now and those protests that were going on before, the irony of ironies for people who hate Iran, they were actually anti-Iran protesters in Iraq, in Najaf, one of the most holy cities in Shia Islam where Iran has a massive presence. They burned down the Iranian consulate. That’s a big deal and yet most of those protesters are now protesting against the U.S. So great job Trump administration in turning that around. 

One other country we haven’t really mentioned is Israel, obviously. Only one country in the world, as far as I’m aware, came out fully behind this strike and that was the Israelis. Netanyahu came out and said it’s a great job, job well done. The Israelis have obviously been agitating against Iran, even before the Saudis have, for many years now. Back in 2002, Ariel Sharon was telling the Bush administration, why are you going to war with Iraq? You should be going to war with Iran. This has been going on for a while. Netanyahu in his previous avatar when he was Prime Minister early on was pushing it then. He’s pushing it now. The Israeli security establishment actually, ironically were in favor of the U.S. staying in the JCPOA. I interviewed the former head of Mossad, Efraim Halevy who said Iran is not an existential threat. This is just political bullshit from Netanyahu. Netanyahu, though, of course, was very keen again, who was the only country that came out in favor of America pulling out of the JCPOA? Israel, again. So, the Israelis in the form of Netanyahu, not necessarily the entire Israeli political spectrum have been very keen on this. They see Iran as the last remaining kind of country in the Middle East that can inhibit them, stop them, prevent them, threaten them in multiple ways. That’s been a huge factor for Trump, who values his friendship with Netanyahu and the Israelis. It’s also a big faction with the Christian Zionists in the U.S., who are, unfortunately, do see the rapture as a very real thing that could happen imminently to use a word in the news. And it’s not a coincidence that the two biggest hawks right now on Iran in this administration are Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo, both of whom are hardcore evangelicals. And for those of you who don’t follow this stuff I mean, just dig into it when you go home tonight. It’s scary shit.

I mean, Iran — Queen Esther — Mike Pompeo is on record saying he thinks it’s valid to compare Donald Trump to Queen Esther from the Bible. Queen Esther being the queen who saved the Jews from the evil Persians. They genuinely see historical biblical analogies here. John Hagee, pastor from Texas, who was a big Bush supporter, now a big Trump supporter. I think he was at the embassy, U.S. Embassy relaunch in Jerusalem. He’s been advocating for a preemptive strike against Iran since 2005 because he believes it will bring back Jesus. So, when we talk about the rapture, when we talk about kind of Christian Zionists and Evangelicals, it’s not just about backing Israel against the Palestinians, Iran plays a massive role in this weird view of the world. And I don’t know if you can discount that. I mean, Trump doesn’t believe in anything, but the people around him are pushing this shit. You can’t undermine, you know, where Pompeo’s coming from. Pompeo has been advocating for striking Suleimani for a while. Part of that under no doubt, is to do with this kind of hardline, right-wing messianic Christian Zionist view of the Middle East.

JS: I mean, as you are referencing here, I mean, it is kind of amazing how little discussion there is about Mike Pence’s role in this administration. And you know, part of it is understandable because of the cartoonish nature of how Trump acts and the fact that he is the, you know, the president. But Mike Pence in a way, you know, I think Allan Nairn was right when he said that Donald Trump pulled the oligarchs, right-wing oligarchs kicking and screaming into power. And in a way I think that Mike Pence and his radical right-wing Christian supremacists view Trump is kind of their Trojan horse into government. And, you know, I’m kind of astonished that we didn’t ever get the full story of how Pence was placed on that ticket. But Mike Pence embodies everything that you’re talking about there. And unlike Trump, Pence actually does have like long-term vision, at least until the rapture happens but he does have, he does have a plan.

MHa: As you say, the problem is the cartoonish view of this administration which is sometimes justified and understandable, but sometimes makes us miss the wood from the trees. So, you know, if you talk to liberals about Mike Pence, you’ll get Mike Pence won’t have dinner with a woman who’s not his wife, which is a problem, yes. But the bigger problem is he wants to bring about armageddon quickly in the Middle East. And I would argue that’s what we should also be focused on, his foreign policies. This is a guy who not just supported the Iraq War, he went in front of Congress in 2004 a year afterwards and said, we found the WMDs. That’s the guy who’s now going out on TV shows and saying, we must trust Donald Trump on the intelligence about Suleimani.

JS: And you know, and Ali, we also had Mike Pence did his own which was kind of uncharacteristic, his own tweet storm in the aftermath of the killing of Suleimani where he made this wild allegation. He said that 10 of the 12 hijackers on 9/11, their travel was facilitated into Afghanistan by Qassim Suleimani. Of course, there were 19 hijackers and then that was pointed out and then Pence’s people said no but only 12 of them went into Afghanistan. Do you think we’ve reached a point where to call them out on a lie, it’s almost like passé at this point? Because it’s just by default, they’re just lying all the time. I mean, it’s really fucked with this nation’s brains because they are gaslighting everyone all the time about everything including whether it’s snowing or not. 

MHa: It’s snowing in D.C. I was there on Sunday.

JS: So OK, Qassim Suleimani, he basically was the 9/11 conspirator you know, he was the mastermind.

AG: Yeah, I mean, the most depressing thing about it is just the astounding number of people that believe that kind of bullshit and I still you know, after what three and a half, four years of this haven’t managed to wrap my mind around it. But also I mean, there’s a context in history here which is a long campaign by think tanks like the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, by right-wing, often pro-Israeli legal groups that are funding lawsuits to try and make Iran accountable for 9/11. That, you know, Iran doesn’t, because they won’t honor these lawsuits, so they don’t show up to defend themselves. And then the stuff just gets entered into the record, judgments get made. And it’s really been a long term campaign to do things like blame Iran for 9/11. It’s a wild, you know, really, the comparisons to the Iraq war are astounding and they kind of never stop. It’s whoever you want to pin 9/11 on. I mean, I think we all remember in 2002, in 2003, some of the allegations that were made about Iraq’s links to al Qaeda, which were totally bogus, and this is a concerted campaign now that in the intervening 17 years, the same thing has been happening with Iran, people have been pushing these ideas. So when Mike Pence tweets it, it’s not coming from nowhere. I mean, I think it is like willful and brazen lying and with lots of people believing it but these are parts of long campaigns to try and just make these associations about, as Mehdi was saying before, that you make these bad guys and make people hungry for war with them. I mean, it’s a very long game plan.

JS: Just briefly, Nancy Pelosi reportedly is going to be delivering the impeachment articles to the Senate. And there’s some back and forth-ing going on about how that’s going to play out. And there’s the question of witnesses and I don’t want to discuss anything about the impeachment right now, unless it directly relates to Iran. But it is interesting. It is interesting what’s going on with John Bolton that it’s a news story that someone says that if they are subpoenaed that they will comply with the law, but such is the nature of things now. But Bolton was when he entered that administration with a non-U.S. Senate confirmed position, it was every religious holiday combined for John Bolton because that’s as powerful of a position that John Bolton probably could ever get into when we talk about established government power in the United States, and it was somewhat short lived. But clearly, Bolton was agitating for this scenario with Suleimani and has spent his entire public life agitating for regime change in Iran since 1979. Is there anything of note that we should look at when we talk about the possibility of John Bolton testifying as it relates to the Suleimani assassination?

MHa: I mean, I don’t think he’s gonna testify on anything to do with that.

JS: I don’t either. 

MHa: I do think Trump should be impeached over Iran. You can impeach him for everything. Frankly, I think the impeachment articles being two is ridiculously low. In terms of Bolton testifying, I mean, we know that the Ukraine stuff is bad that Bolton’s on, that Bolton feels strongly about that stuff. I just find it ironic that we always knew Bolton wanted regime change. It’d be ironic if he brought regime change to Washington, DC. That would be an ironic —

JS: I don’t have any illusion that Bolton would get up there and be like, let me tell you all of Trump’s crimes and I’m going to tell you what I meant by that drug deal thing.

MHa: Ironically, he almost didn’t get the National Security Adviser job because of his mustache, remember? We almost avoided him. We were all like, oh, we’ve avoided World War III because he has a mustache. And then he hired him.

JS: I think people may think you’re joking about that but it’s legitimately true that Trump hated his mustache.

MHa: And then he fired him and then everyone went again, oh, we’ve avoided World War III. The problem with that, again, is number one, as we mentioned, there are many other hawks in the administration, like Pence, like Pompeo, outsiders like Erik Prince pushing for action. And of course, Trump himself is a hawk. I mean, we have to put on the record. It’s all very well blaming Pompeo, blaming Pence, blaming Bolton but ultimately, as Truman said, the buck stops with the President. Trump made it very clear when he ran for election, I’m going to commit war crimes. I’m going to take out the families of terrorists. We’re going to take their oil, as he said again on Fox News last week. I mean, this is a president who brags about wanting to commit war crimes, who is deeply belligerent. I’m not surprised he took out Suleimani. I’m amazed it took this long. I thought we’d be going to war with Iran in year one when Mike Flynn, remember General Flynn who was National Security Adviser for all of what 21 days? He came out I think in day seven or something, came up to the White House podium and said we’re putting Iran on notice. This was an administration full of Iran hawks led by a hawk from day one. As I said, I’m just amazed it took this long to get to this point.

JS: Of the Democratic candidates that are running right now. You had Bernie Sanders out of the gate, calling it an assassination. Elizabeth Warren initially released a statement that sort of played it both ways. It started by talking about the horrible nature of Qassim Suleimani and then expressed concern about a wider war now being sparked and then later, with a much more forceful statement on it, Tulsi Gabbard has, even though she’s not going to be in the debates, has been making this one of her major focuses on the campaign trail. Joe Biden, of course, voted for the Iraq War and has been pretty hawkish on Iran including during his time as the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But what about the Democrats’ response to this? Let’s begin with Ali Gharib and we’ll come back down to Mehdi.

AG: Can I say something nice about the Democrats? It was actually remarkably unified. I mean, there was a lot of the like hemming and hawing the sort of things like the Elizabeth Warren statement.

JS: Has Joe Biden put out a statement yet? Because his response was, I’m gonna like think about this and then put out something in a few days. After my nap.

AG: He talked about the recklessness. And I think like, also, you know, Murtaza hinted at this before that this all started because of kind of Trump’s racist obsession with undoing everything that Obama did, and withdrawing from the Iran deal which really was kind of the off ramp between the historic path for confrontation between these two nations. And, you know, Biden, I agree he’s been hawkish at various points on Iran, but he played an instrumental role in kind of ramming the Iran deal through Congress. But it was just kind of extraordinary to see, to see you know, even with the caveats about Qassim Suleimani being a murderer and all this stuff that people like Bob Menendez, who is as close to the Israel lobby as it gets in the Democratic Party, people like Eliot Engel, the head of the Foreign Relations Committee in the House, to see these people come out and oppose Trump’s actions and say that he was reckless, and vow to kind of boost Congress’s war powers. It was actually a fairly remarkable show of unity on some of the you know, not every detail, and not the perfect statements, but on many of the kind of larger political points. 

JS: Vanessa.

VG: Yeah, I tend to agree. I don’t have much to add to that. I mean, I think you can definitely criticize elements of the responses. But at this point, I mean, I just, sort of, I just want something different from what we have coming out of the White House and the administration. And so when I hear that, even if it’s from Mike Lee, I’m pleased.

MHu: You know, one point is that the Iran deal — the historic off ramp — is actually not totally dead. It’s on life support. But the Iranians said we’re going to reduce our compliance to the lowest level. It’s still, they’re leaving a window open for a future administration to re-enter the deal because they need the sanctions relief, ultimately. So I’ll say that every Democratic candidate asked at the debates said they would re-enter the deal. And so I will say —

AG: Except for Cory Booker.

MHu: Except for Cory Booker. 

MHa: He’s no longer a candidate. Breaking news.

MHu: This is one of the few times I would say almost unequivocally that literally any of these guys would be a huge improvement over what we have right now. I would vote for Tulsi Gabbard who I really do not like. She’s definitely better than Donald Trump on this issue. And people like Menendez and others, you know, it’s such a shocking, just to reiterate what I said at the beginning, it’s a shocking development to assassinate a foreign government official. And whether he’s a bad guy or not is kind of to the side of the point. There’s a lot of bad guys in governments including the U.S. government, and everyone should recoil from that because if we don’t, we’ve established a new norm which will be extremely dangerous in the coming decades.

MHa: You know, the only thing people are going to remember from tonight is that you said “I’ll vote for Tulsi Gabbard.”

MHu: Crop that part out.

MHa: What about Andrew Yang? 

MHu: Yeah, Andrew Yang.

MHa: Give $1,000 to every Iranian.

VG: A thousand dollars!

MHa: A thousand dollars to every Iranian every month solves the 40-year-old crisis. I’m going to descent a little bit from Vanessa and Ali and Murtaza. I think the Democrats’ response is better than I thought it would be but it’s not enough to prevent a crisis coming down the track. And I look at some of the candidates, you know, Pete Buttigieg came out on the day and said, as a former intelligence person, I want to know what intelligence was behind all this. That’s a crap response to an illegal assassination of a foreign government official based on lies. Biden did come out and condemn it strongly. But then I don’t know if you saw the ad he put out a couple of days ago. It could have been a Rudy Giuliani or a John Bolton ad. It had crowds in black shouting, screaming “Death to America” and standing on a flag and they’re like, you need a man. You know, you had the movie guy saying, he’s the guy with the experience. Yeah, the wrong experience of invading Iraq. So that kind of hawkishness is not helpful. Bernie was the only guy who came out with a very comprehensive statement calling it an assassination, not just calling assassination, but as Ali pointed out, the key part of the statement was not even the assassination, it was he didn’t do the throat clearing of he’s a murderer and took American lives and no one will weep for him, which is all true. And no one here — let’s be clear, Qassim Suleimani did kill lots of innocent people in his long career in the Middle East as a general in the Iranian special forces. And you don’t have to defend his record. But the point is, when a president commits a reckless act like that illegal, perhaps in defiance of the Constitution and international law, may be setting off a war, you have to come out strong and condemn it. You can’t — and saying, oh, he was a bad guy. Does it help them in any way? 

This morning, Trump tweeted a picture of Nancy Pelosi in a headscarf, Chuck Schumer in a turban accusing them of being supportive of the Ayatollahs. Democrats saying any kind of throat clearing won’t stop them from being accused of being pro-terrorist, won’t stop them from being accused of being socialist. There’s no point playing that game of trying to appease the Republicans or appease Fox News or waving a flag before you do this. That’s why Bernie’s statement was so strong. I wish other Democrats would speak out so strongly. The problem you have right now is on the Iran debate — I know we’re gonna — just to make one last point to wrap up what we said at the beginning, which is you have this history of bad blood, you have these misunderstandings, you have grievances on both sides. Democrats, Democratic leaders need to be able to address that. They need to go back and say, you know, what we need to start from scratch. It’s not just enough to have a nuclear deal, which Obama did, which was good. But we need to look at the whole thing again, why are we in this Cold War? Why do we “hate each other?” Why for 40 years have we wrecked our two countries? What do we have against each other? There has to be a complete reassessment of the relationship between U.S. and Iran. And I don’t see any Democratic figures, apart from probably Bernie Sanders, who’s willing to do that right now. And that’s a problem if we’re gonna avoid a war down the line.

JS: All right, let’s hear it for our panel here.

Mehdi Hassan is the host of Deconstructed, senior columnist for The Intercept. Murtaza Hussein is an investigative reporter focused on national security. Vanessa Gezari, the national security editor of The Intercept, and Ali Gharib senior editor at The Intercept. Thank you very much for joining us. Thank you everybody for being here.

MHa: Thank you, Jeremy.

JS: Our discussion was recorded Monday, January 13, 2020 at New York’s Cooper Union. 

[Music interlude.]

JS: And that does it for this week’s show. You can follow us on Twitter @Intercepted or on Instagram @interceptedpodcast. If you like what we do on this program, you can support our show by going to the 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. 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.

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