Targeting Iran: A book review

Targeting Iran: A book review
by Khatchig Mouradian
August 07, 2007

`Do not ask about the harvest; ask about the plowing,’ says the Chinese
proverb. In Targeting Iran, award-winning journalist David Barsamian follows
that advice. He asks his interviewees, Noam Chomsky, Ervand Abrahamian and
Nahid Mozaffari, about all the plowing and planting that has culminated in
the demonization of Iran by the U.S. since the Islamic Revolution of 1979
and vice versa.

Alternative Radio founder and director Barsamian’s listeners and readers
know what to expect: clear, straightforward questions, often preceded by
some background information – and to borrow imagery from farming one more
time – sowing insight into the intricacies and complications of a region that
has long suffered in the hands of those worshipping at the altars of
oversimplification, trivialization, decontextualization et al.

In his introduction, Barsamian provides a brief history of Iran and
U.S.-Iranian relations. He concludes by quoting Iran’s Nobel Peace Prize
laureate Shirin Ebadi’s favorite couplet, which rings as true regarding U.S.
foreign policy as it does about Iran’s current state of affairs:

If there is no justice,
then those who are deprived
may one day take to the streets and rise up.
(Hafez, a renowned 14th century Persian poet)

The first interview – the shortest of the three – is with Noam Chomsky, whom
Barsamian has interviewed dozens of times, culminating in five
Chomsky/Barsamian books. Chomsky, talking about U.S. policy with regard to
Iran, demonstrates the self-destructive logic of preemption. `By U.S.
standards, Iran ought to be carrying out terrorist acts in the United
States,’ he says. `In fact, adopting U.S. standards, we ought to be
demanding that they do it. They’re under far greater threat than anything
Bush or Blair ever conjured up, and that’s supposed to authorize what they
call anticipatory self-defense, namely attack.’

Talking about Iran’s resumption of uranium enrichment, Chomsky says, `[J]ust
do a media search and find out how often it has even been mentioned that
when Iran began enriching uranium again, it was after the Europeans had
rejected their side of the bargain, namely, to provide firm guarantees on
security issues.’ He then charges that the press knew about the Europeans
backing down – under U.S. pressure – but chose to ignore the story.

Chomsky’s interview centers on Iran, but – surprise! – his analysis and examples
take us on a roller-coaster ride from the U.S., South America and Europe to
Palestine, Iraq, and China, spanning almost half a century. Always at ease
and at his best with Barsamian, Chomsky pulls out examples and arguments
from his memory with the skill of a seasoned magician pulling out all kinds
of objects from a hat and leaving the audience at awe. However, the
interview would have benefited from a few footnotes or editor’s notes,
providing exact information and percentages, when, for example, Chomsky
says, `I forgot the exact number, but I think they’re [China] getting maybe
10-15 percent of their energy imports from Saudi Arabia.’ Or when he says,
`He [Moqtada Sadr, an Iraqi Shiite cleric-politician, opposed to the U.S.
presence] gained, I think, 50 percent or so in the last parliamentary

Providing the global and historical contexts Chomsky sets the stage for
Iranian-born history professor Ervand Abrahamian’s in depth look at Iran’s
political structure and the U.S-Iran confrontation today, with emphasis on
the nuclear issue.

`If Iranians are hit by air strikes, they will hit back where they have the
upper hand, which is Iraq and Afghanistan,’ Abrahamian says. `They are
obviously not going to attack the U.S., nor will they attack Israel,
although people have this paranoid view about that,’ he adds.

Abrahamian maintains that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad engages in
Holocaust denial and calls for the destruction of Israel to bridge the gap
between Sunnis and Shiites and to `pitch for Arab support.’ He says that
this rhetoric does not resonate in Iran as much as it does in the Arab

Asked about Tehran’s connection with the Lebanese Shiite armed group
Hezbollah, Abrahamian says that Iran does not use this party to threaten
Israel: `One major mistake the Israelis are making is thinking that
Hezbollah is so closely tied with Iran that once the U.S. attacks Iran, Iran
would automatically use Hezbollah against Iran. I don’t think that’s in the

Reading the first two interviews, the reader has the impression that the
book is a critical look at U.S. foreign policy with very little insight on
Iran’s internal dynamics. Then comes the interview with Iranian-born
historian Nahid Mozaffari. Barsamian and Mozaffari take the reader on a
journey inside Iran’s vibrant literary life (yes, they DO have literature)
from the early 20th century to the present; from poetry to novels and
memoirs; from dissidents to female voices. She notes how Iranian writers,
who visit the U.S., are treated as `human rights guinea pigs,’ but also
expands on the censorship, oppression and persecution they suffer in Iran,
as well as the rise of the bloggers. Mozaffari deals with women’s issues
(divorce, custody rights, property right, dress codes, etc.) in some detail.
She also talks about the development of cinema in the post-1979 period and
the clampdown on the rock groups and rappers under Ahmadinejad’s rule.

`The Islamist conservatives regard developments in civil society as
threatening and susceptible to foreign manipulation,’ explains Mozaffari.

One of the book’s main messages is in the concluding lines of this last
interview: `This tough resolve by those who desire change within Iran, along
with their [i.e. the Iranians’] equally strong determination to be
independent of outside pressure and manipulations, should serve as a stern
warning to the U.S. and other states who contemplate any military action
against Iran.’

David Barsamian with Noam Chomsky, Ervand Abrahamian and Nahid Mozaffari
Targeting Iran (City Lights Books, 2007).

Khatchig Mouradian is a Lebanese-Armenian journalist, writer and translator,
currently based in Boston. He can be contacted at: [email protected].