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'Conversations with Terrorists': Face to Face with the Bogeymen

by DAN GEIST in New York

26 Oct 2010 01:092 Comments
ReeseErlichMinefield.jpgAuthor Reese Erlich on the exploitation of a label and a deadly phantom war.

Writing on "Politics and the English Language" in 1946, George Orwell offered a list of political words "used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly [... :] class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality." Of this "catalogue of swindles and perversions," he noted in particular that "Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies something not desirable."

In his new book, Conversations with Terrorists: Middle East Leaders on Politics, Violence, and Empire (PoliPointPress), independent U.S. journalist Reese Erlich prominently deploys that vogue signifier for the politically undesirable, the morally indefensible -- "terrorist" -- and then proceeds to debunk the uses to which it is routinely put.

The book is structured around a half-dozen portraits of Middle Eastern figures associated in various ways with terrorism. Some represent groups with which the United States has been in conflict for years: Mohammad Is'haq Nizami was head of the Afghanistan radio and television network under the Taliban. Others evoke potential crusades: Mohsen Sazegara was one of the founders of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (today he is a U.S.-based, neoconservative-affiliated anti-regime activist). And one interview underscores the fact that the employment of terrorism is hardly exclusive to a particular ethnic or religious group: As a member of the Stern Gang during Israel's War of Independence, Geula Cohen helped publicize numerous actions involving terrorist tactics against British colonial officials and Palestinian civilians. Erlich cites the American edition of her 1966 autobiography, with its proudly provocative title Woman of Violence: Memoirs of a Young Terrorist. A more literal translation of the original Hebrew, Sipurah Shel Lohemet, would be Saga of a Warrior. Variable meanings, indeed.

Erlich -- who has reported previously on the Middle East in Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn't Tell You (with Norman Solomon), The Iran Agenda: The Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis, and extensively in newspapers, periodicals, online, and on air -- recently spoke with Tehran Bureau about terrorism and about "terrorists."


Could you describe your original inspiration for the book?

I had interviewed a number of people for my regular reporting, including Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas; Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria; Mohammad Fadlallah, the Lebanese cleric. And it occurred to me that a pattern was emerging: A lot of the people I was interviewing were either accused of being terrorists, or state sponsors of terrorism, by the United States. And so I approached my publisher, PoliPointPress, with the idea of putting together profiles of these different people and exploring the idea of who really is viewed as a terrorist today. And then I went out and did a bunch more interviews.

Basically, the book looks at how the U.S. has distorted the term "terrorism" as part of a phony War on Terrorism. So anybody who opposes U.S. policy and uses violence is termed a "terrorist"; anyone who supports U.S. policy and uses the same kind of violence is a "freedom fighter."

Related to that, you make quite clear that the nominal goal of the Global War on Terrorism is invalid on its face -- that terrorism is a tactic, and you can't wipe out a tactic. How would you describe what you see as the actual goal of the Global War on Terrorism?

Well, we know that the U.S. is not spreading democracy to Iraq or Afghanistan. We know that al-Qaeda hasn't been crushed -- ostensibly the reason for these various invasions to begin with.

What really has happened is that, with each war, the U.S. has expanded its military bases. Its naval presence has become a permanent feature of the Persian Gulf and the Middle East in general. The U.S. seeks control of strategic oil and other key resources around the world, not because we want to buy and sell them on open markets, but because we want to control those markets and deny access to them, when needed, by perceived adversaries, like China and Russia. The U.S. oil companies are the ones that benefit from this because they're the most reliable, and so they make billions in profits. You need pipelines and secure sea lanes for the oil, so you have to have a navy and army presence. And you need governments pliable and favorable to the United States, so you install dictators who occasionally hold elections, and call them "emerging democracies."

So it's a whole system of empire that is really constantly being expanded -- or at least attempted to be expanded -- that is really at the heart of the issue. It has nothing to do with fighting terrorism or spreading democracy.

In fact, one might call the Global War on Terrorism itself a tactic in this grand strategy?

Yes. We go back historically to the Cold War and the fear of communism, which used to play that role. We had to support horrible dictators all over the world because they were anti-communist, and we're stopping global communism. Well, that ceased to be an issue in 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, so the U.S. had to find a new enemy. And they fished around for awhile -- remember, there was a period in the '90s when the U.S. continued its massive military presence around the world but had no enemy. And then they finally found an enemy: the terrorists.

Yet it makes absolutely no sense to continue to have massive numbers of aircraft carriers and fighter-bombers and all manner of sophisticated armaments that are particularly unsuited for fighting groups like al-Qaeda. What you need is intelligence and people on the ground undercutting them politically. So why do we need a fleet in seven seas around the world to fight a group like al-Qaeda? We don't. But we do need it to expand the empire.

How, if at all, in practical terms has the Global War on Terrorism changed under the Obama administration?

Well, they stopped using the term, which initially was a hopeful sign. And there were some tactical shifts. The U.S. indicated it might be willing to negotiate with Iran, for example. It brought Palestinian and Israeli leadership together for peace talks. So there was a shift in emphasis. But at the core, the Obama administration is still carrying out the same policies as Bush. It hasn't changed its basically unreasonable demands on Iran. It hasn't changed the goal of wanting to overthrow the government there and bring in a pro-U.S. regime.

Look at Latin America. There was a coup in Honduras that the U.S. supported. There was a coup attempt in Ecuador that they attempted to downplay. The U.S. is still aligned with the same conservative and ultra-conservative forces around the world. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has largely maintained that position.

You state explicitly in the conclusion of the book that you would prefer that the term "terrorism" be dropped altogether. But you acknowledge that's unlikely to happen anytime soon...

Right. If I was the style editor of the New York Times, I would ban the use of the term "terrorism," except in direct quotes or when describing specific terrorist acts. There clearly are people who blow up civilians and otherwise intentionally harm civilians for political reasons, but the term -- who constitutes a "terrorist" and who doesn't -- is so open to manipulation that I would like to see it dropped from popular discourse. But I'm a realist, I'm a working journalist, and I understand that's not going to happen. So I think the best we can hope for is stopping the false labeling of groups based on the U.S. definition.

In the introduction of the book, you state, "Any definition of terrorism should consider whether the action takes place in the context of a war, including wars of national liberation." Could you expand a bit on how it should be considered in that light?

Well, look at the example of the resistance in Europe during World War II. In France and other countries, resistance fighters assassinated Nazis, they killed collaborators, they planted bombs. And, of course, the Germans did call them "terrorists," among all manner of things. I think history is clear that they were not terrorists, because they were fighting wars of national liberation, fighting to get rid of Nazi occupation of their countries.

Similar anti-colonial wars and national liberation wars that the U.S. doesn't like -- they always label them as "terrorists." Another perfect example is Nelson Mandela and the ANC in South Africa. For a long time -- in the '60s, '70s, '80s -- the U.S. labeled Nelson Mandela a terrorist and a communist. Once he got out of jail, his party won free and fair elections and he is now held up as a national hero, an international hero. But not that long ago he was a "terrorist."

And the ANC, on occasion, did use terrorist tactics in the fight against apartheid. I think that should be avoided -- the killing of civilians is not acceptable in any war, including wars of national liberation. But you have to make a clear distinction between the people fighting for apartheid, to repress the black majority, and those fighting against it.

You might look at it a different way, but the interview that strikes me as most relevant to the U.S.'s dealings with its growing bête noire, Iran, is your interview with President Assad of Syria.

Oh, I thought you were going to say Mohsen Sazegara.

I did interview the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, twice. For Syria, the key to all of its international dealings is getting the Golan back. The Israelis stole and later annexed the area known as the Golan in 1967. The excuse was that it was a prime area for Syrian artillery to fire on Israel and it was a matter of national security. That argument was invalid at the time, and it's certainly invalid today in the era of missiles, when you don't need mountains to attack a country.

If Israel returns the Golan to Syria, returns Shebaa Farms to Lebanon, and reaches a reasonable agreement with the Palestinians, that will incite a tectonic shift in Middle East policy, including allowing Syria to evaluate its relations with Iran, with Hezbollah, and so on. Right now, Iran and Syria have very close economic and political ties, but they do not see eye-to-eye on every issue. Syria is a secular dictatorship; Iran is a theocratic dictatorship. If those seemingly endless problems I mentioned were ever to be resolved, the two countries' divergent interests would become much more apparent.

How productive or counterproductive have U.S. dealings with Syria been, and what are the lessons for U.S. dealings with Iran?

The Bush administration tried to isolate Syria, claiming it was sponsoring terrorism through its support of Hamas and Hezbollah. It hoped the invasion of Iraq would lead to regime change in Syria, and Iran as well. Assad himself is convinced that the U.S. engineered an attempt to overthrow him. These efforts were unsuccessful, and Assad remains firmly in command.

In any event, the U.S. goals have nothing to do with establishing a democratic government in either country. In the case of Iran, the U.S. focuses on nuclear weapons, though the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] has repeatedly found that there is no evidence of a nuclear weapons program there.

What about the recent targeted sanctions against particular individuals on the new basis of human rights? Is that a productive turn, or a hollow, ineffective one?

I've spoken to Iranian friends and colleagues. Some of them praise the recent sanctions against eight Iranian officials for human rights violations as a positive development. Others say it will have zero impact and will be used by Ahmadinejad for propaganda purposes. We'll have to see if it signals a broader shift in U.S. policy and emphasis, or not.

Turning to your interview with Lebanon's Ayatollah Mohammad Fadlallah, who maintains a loose relationship with Hezbollah -- the situation there raises the question: Is the clerical establishment in Iran pulling the strings of Shia leaders and organizations all around the Middle East?

No. The Iranians have a certain amount of influence, but Hezbollah, for instance, is an independent group that has its own interests and makes its own decisions. They fought Israel to a standoff. Partly as a result, they have their own strong base of support. They are an important player in domestic Lebanese politics. While their relationship with Iran is a significant one, they are by no means its puppet.

Hezbollah has its own internal dynamic -- it's a militia and a political party. It's primary focus is on the return of Lebanese territories and the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories. If Israel addressed those chronic issues, it would shake up everything, both in Lebanon and the entire Middle East. Relationships and rhetoric everywhere would be reconsidered, in ways that would also deeply benefit Americans' interests.

But given the explanation you provided earlier of the litany of compelling reasons for the United States to continue the Global War on Terrorism, why should it ever end?

That's an interesting point. We have to have an excuse to keep it going, and we always seem to find one.

Ultimately, however, the U.S. empire can't afford to keep losing trillions of dollars on wars it's not winning. The American people are clearly growing tired of endless war and the loss of thousands of lives, and the whole rationale for the Global War on Terrorism is becoming less and less convincing. It's not indefinitely sustainable.

Finally, how would you characterize a potential war or military strike on Iran?

In 2007, the Bush administration seriously considered a military strike on Iran. It's still possible today. But It would be a disaster.

It's not possible politically or militarily, for either the United States or Israel. If either country were to launch an attack on Iran, the consequences would be immediate and disastrous. U.S. troops in Iraq would come under intense attacks from Shia forces there. Hezbollah would instantly reignite its violent conflict with Israel. There would be conflagrations around the world, and outright warfare would spread to much of the Middle East.

And the U.S. intelligence and military services know this. While the U.S. and Israel may bluster about a possible "surgical strike" or even an invasion, it's not going to happen any time soon. It would be a disaster, a catastrophe.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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Thank you for the interview. I enjoy reading Mr. Erlich and it was nice to read his views on the very "loaded" term in the headline.

On a topic related to US-Iran relations, I do vaguely recall an article by Mr. Erlich (probably 2009) regarding Presidential elections in Iran in which he suggested that there was proof of fraud.

I wonder if Mr. Erlich has followed up on the topic of fraud and if he is aware of any definitive analysis on the topic that he could share with the readers.

Jay / October 26, 2010 6:34 AM

My new book, Conversations with Terrorists, has a chapter on Iran in which I discuss the issue of fraud. The Iranian government maniuplated votes by closing polling stations early, stuffing ballot boxes and failing to count ballots from pro-reformist areas, among other tactics. Deatils are in the book.

Reese / October 27, 2010 4:21 PM