Considered the father of modern linguistics and one of the most influential public intellectuals, Noam Chomsky is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, political theorist, and activist. He has written more than 100 books and is one of the most cited scholars in modern history.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
As you know there have been widespread protest in Iran against the regime following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality police. The protests are unique in being led primarily by young people, particularly women. How can the West approach supporting the protests in Iran without applying more economic pressures on the people?
Noam Chomsky: That’s a tricky question. It’s quite true that these protests are quite remarkable: it is mostly young people. The regime claims that the average age of those imprisoned is about fifteen. The young woman who died herself was Kurdish, and there has been harsh repression in the Kurdish areas. There was a prison fire, we don’t know much about it yet, but it could be a monstrosity with the suspicion that the regime set it.
What can the U.S. do? Well, it’s a complicated story. Part of the uprising is against economic difficulties. There are very harsh economic conditions. These are largely a result of U.S. sanctions, and the U.S. cutting off Iran from much of the rest of the world. It is worth bearing in mind that the U.S. is uniquely powerful, and U.S. sanctions are third-party sanctions. Europe is strongly opposed to the sanctions, but they obey them. The threat of confronting the U.S. is quite high, and very few are willing to dare to do so, which means that Iran is pretty much cut off from its natural trading partners. Interestingly, quite generally, U.S. policy is heavily determined by the concentration of power in the economic system by the corporate sector. But in this interesting case the corporate sector is opposed to the sanctions. The energy corporation would love to get into the Iranian market, and the same is true of much of the industrial system. It is interesting that the same thing happened in 1953 when the U.S. intervened to overthrow the parliamentary regime, which is what set Iran on its ugly history since. Part of the arrangement was that the Eisenhower administration wanted the American oil companies to pick up 40 percent of the British franchise, which they were taking over. And the corporations did not want to: it wasn’t profitable for them. They could have made much more money lifting Saudi oil. So, on business grounds the corporations just didn’t want to bother. But the U.S. government forced them to do it by threatening antirust actions and other threats. This is one of those interesting cases where corporate interests and states interests conflict. Even if you look at the state managers, they come straight from the corporate sector, but they have a different picture of policy. For those interested in formation of policy, this is one of a number of interesting cases and it is being replicated today.
Well, that leads to the question of what should the U.S. do? If it harshens the sanctions, that punishes the population and doesn’t punish the leadership. That is quite typical: sanctions harm the population, but the leadership, mostly kleptocrats of one kind or another, find ways to enrich themselves and we see that over and over. The sanctions themselves are at best dubious and, in my view, criminal. And to extend them doesn’t seem like a healthy way to deal with the problem.
My own feeling is that if the sanctions were lifted, it might lead Iran to open up a bit and offer more opportunities for those who are trying to institute some significant change in the highly repressive regime. But that does not fit with U.S. policy. That leaves the U.S. with very limited means to do anything because it has a substantial responsibility for the conditions that are causing the rise of the protests. There are people, friends of mine in fact, who are calling for ending negotiations with Iran and I think, again, that is a very dubious step. That means blocking the possibly of renewing the nuclear arms agreement that the Trump administration pulled out of and destroyed. The options are quite limited. The American people can express support and help in indirect ways. But I don’t see a great deal that we can do because of the nature of U.S. policies. And this is not just today it’s seventy years now.
You have talked about how the 2011 Arab Spring began in North Africa and then inspired similar movements in the region and the world. Do you think that the current movement in Iran has the potential to have a similar effect of inspiring other protests?
Chomsky: Well, the regime has strong means of violence and repression. The Revolutionary Guards are deeply embedded in the regime and their own wealth and status depends on the survival of the regime. And they have the monopoly of force. It is not even clear that the regime could withdraw them if they wanted to. So, I think it is a very hazardous situation. If we take a look to the Arab Spring and see what happened, almost every country was repressed and destroyed by violence, some more severe than others. Syria, of course, had horrible violence. In Egypt it led to the most vicious dictatorship in the country’s history: 60,000 political prisoners tortured, and vast repression supported by the United States. In Libya, it was the three imperial powers, France, Britan, and the United States, that smashed the country and left it a reck. Tunisia was the one partial exception, but now it is declining into a kind of dictatorship. So, the outcomes of those wonderful, amazing uprisings were such that the outcomes turned out quite ugly. It is hard to say what will happen in Iran, I’m frankly surprised it has gotten this far, but we don’t know whether the regime will come down with all its means of force, which could be a real horror story.
Following up on sanctions, how have the sanctions placed on Iran and Russia impacted their relationship over the past few years and how are we seeing the impacts of that currently play out?
Chomsky: In Iran, the sanctions have contributed significantly and are the primary factor in the current economic catastrophe. In the case of Russia, the sanctions are probably harming Western Europe as much or more than Russia because Western Europe and Russia have a very natural alliance. Western Europe has a German-based, advanced industrial system standing over the whole of the region from the Netherlands to Slovakia. It is heavily dependent on Russian minerals, not just oil. In fact, if Europe tries to move towards sustainable energy development, as it must do if we are going to survive, it’s going to be reliant on Russian minerals. Some commentators have described it as a marriage made in heaven. Russia doesn’t have much of an economy. Its economy is about the size of Mexico’s, but it is extremely rich in natural resources. Of course, it has heavy weapons and a scientific establishment, but that is about it. Europe is complementary: advanced science and technology. Germany is the most advanced state capitalist country in the world, but it is very mineral poor. And there is more than that involved in the break down between Russia and Western Europe. Europe is largely cut off from the rich and expanding China-based system extending all through Eurasia. In fact, China was a major market for Europe, and I think it is unlikely that Europe, especially Germany, is going to tolerate this hanging onto U.S. coat tails.
Recently, thousands of Haitian people took to the streets to demand the resignation of the prime minister after the de facto government requested military aid to quell the rising gang violence. Canada and the U.S. have already sent military equipment. How will military assistance impact the current humanitarian crisis in Haiti? What does it mean in terms of Haiti’s sovereignty?
Chomsky: That is a major horror story. Haiti has been viciously tortured for over two centuries for the crime of becoming the first free country of free men in the Western Hemisphere. Nobody was willing to tolerate that. France imposed very harsh indemnity on Haiti, which was unpayable. This was to compensate for the fact that Haiti was France’s richest colony and one of the richest parts of the world before the French ruined it. The U.S. refused to even recognize Haiti. The U.S. was the leading slave society. The idea of a free republic of black men was totally intolerable to the U.S. The U.S. recognized Haiti only in 1862 when it also recognized Liberia, and the reason was strict racism. They were going to free the slaves, but they did not want them to stay here. They recognized Haiti and Liberia to send free blacks there. Most of the liberals supported this including Lincoln. In a way, from their point of view, this was out of benevolence: blacks don’t have the intelligence to survive in an advanced, white society, so it would be just unfair to free them and leave them here. The U.S. decided to help them move to places where there were other backward creatures of man. That was the liberal view.
The right-wing view was much harsher of course. After that came regular U.S. interventions in Haiti. In 1915, Woodrow Wilson invaded Haiti and virtually restored slavery and indentured labor. He established a national guard: a brutal paramilitary organization whose only role was to crush Haiti. The U.S. disbanded the Haitian parliament because they refused to accept U.S. imposed legislation, which allowed Americans to buy up Haitian land and turn the place into an American colony. Under the eyes of the Marines, the new parliament established by the U.S. voted for the legislation by 99 percent. That was hailed in the U.S. as a great victory for democracy, and this pattern goes on and on until the present. President Clinton was one of the worst. He strongly supported the vicious terror of the junta in one of the worst periods in Haitian history. Right now, the country is beyond wreckage. I don’t know what can be done. The country is currently run by murderers and gangs, and it is almost impossible to survive. The West has a lot to answer for, but what can we do? It is hard to imagine the U.S., France, and Canada doing anything given their record.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has attracted a lot of attention in international media in the past several months. But you recognize how the actions of the U.S. towards Taiwan might represent the greater threat to international security. You criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan as inflammatory and the recent Senate bill on Taiwan as virtually calling for a war with China. You point out that in escalating its relationship with Taiwan, the U.S. is following a similar playbook as it did before the war in Ukraine. What do you see as the underlying causes of the seemingly self-destructive hunger for war demonstrated by Congress?
Chomsky: You are speaking of the September 14 legislation proposed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is very dangerous and provocative. The legislation has not been passed by Congress yet; it has just been proposed by the Committee almost unanimously. The legislation calls for turning Taiwan into what they call a non-NATO ally. In other words, it is virtually the same as being in NATO but not without official NATO membership. It is interesting that recently NATO has been officially expanded to the Indo-Pacific region meaning the whole world was at the last NATO summit a few weeks ago. For the first time, NATO invited Japan and Australia and officially extended the reach of NATO to the Indo-Pacific, which meaning everywhere. Taiwan is being proposed as a non-NATO ally and given the same treatment as other countries in terms of diplomatic relations and increasing U.S. military spending and operations. All of this is poking the eye of China.
For the last 50 years, U.S.-China relations concerning Taiwan have been governed by the so called One China policy, which was established in the 1970s and recognizes that Taiwan is part of China. It has held for half a century. But now the U.S. is severely disrupting it, and China is certainly not going to accept it. Pelosi’s visit was bad enough. The Chinese responded by military maneuvers, which were aimed at demonstrating that China could blockade Taiwan and strangle it. And there is nothing much the U.S. could do about that except move on to a terminal nuclear war: we are playing with fire here. This is one part of a much broader U.S. strategy shaped by Trump and it has been sharpened by Biden. The official goal is to, as they put it, incircle China with sentinel states—South Korea, Japan, Australia, and trying to bring India in but India is ambivalent—armed with advanced weapons, precision weapons aimed at China backed by the U.S. The U.S. meanwhile is carrying out enormous military maneuvers aimed at China. The U.S. is sending advanced nuclear submarines to Australia aimed at China. If you look at what is going on in the world this is beyond lunacy. We are facing crises of survival. If the U.S. and China don’t cooperate on global warming, pandemics, or nuclear war we are finished. We have got to move towards accommodation. Moving towards provocation and conflict is beyond lunacy.
The Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company is the world’s leading producer of semiconductors and uses U.S. components in its chips. The U.S. Congress recently passed a bill that bans all chips with U.S. components in them from entering China. This bill appears to indirectly restrict Taiwanese chips from entering the Chinese market. Do you think this will incentivize China to potentially launch any counter measures in response?
Chomsky: Right now, Taiwan is the major center for advanced chip production, about 90 percent of it. A lot of it goes to China, a lot of it comes back to the U.S., and some goes to other countries. U.S. components are in most of the chips, advanced programming software and so on. If the U.S. cuts off chip exports, that would be very harmful to Taiwan and harmful to China. The only counter measure that China can take, and is taking, is to develop its own chip manufacturing. It will take time, but there is no reason why they cannot do it. It is not magic. They have plenty of engineers, advanced technology, and are training more engineers than we are.
So, we will very likely drive China to pouring more money and research into developing more advanced technology instead of relying on ours. We should be developing our own technology not trying to harm China. In fact, what China is doing is setting up technological schools, about a thousand of them I think, in Africa and other parts of Asia training students in China-based technology. That means that means that the people trained in these schools all over the world
will be using Chinese technology. The U.S. has been trying to prevent other countries from using Chinese technology by force. But China’s way around is to just set up schools training people how to use this technology. This is a very strange competition. It is not to the benefit of either the U.S. or China.
This interview was conducted by Liam Will, Noor Kareem, Andrew Lake, and Ethan Chiu.