Janine Jackson interviewed media scholar Gregory Shupak about the Soleimani assassination for the January 10, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Tens of thousands of Americans have been in the streets, protesting not only the Trump administration’s rogue state behavior in the assassination in Iraq of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani, but also the danger in which the escalation put civilians, in Iraq and Iran—and the US, where police have already been promised more military-grade equipment. Protesting not only the flimsy, shifting premises and imperialist presumption offered now by Trump and Pompeo and Esper, but also the backdrop of the ongoing violence of US sanctions on Iran, leading to shortfalls in food and medicine; sanctions now being threatened against Iraqis as well. US citizens are saying no to war with Iran for multiple reasons; what role is media coverage playing?
Joining us now to talk about that is Gregory Shupak; he teaches media studies at the University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto, and is author of The Wrong Story: Palestine, Israel and the Media from OR Books. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Greg Shupak.
Gregory Shupak: Thanks for having me.
JJ: A lot of politicians’ statements, media conversations and actual on the street conversations, begin with, “Look, I’m glad Soleimani’s dead. He wasn’t a good guy, but…” followed by an objection that is procedural or about blowback or consequences. Those objections may be valid, but there’s a world of assumptions in that tossed-off disclaimer at the beginning, and it frames the discussion. Whatever you think of its actions, the US’s “right to act” in Iraq, Iran, the whole region, is a silent guest at every media party, isn’t it?
GS: It’s really one of the fundamental assumptions underlying coverage of these recent developments, but also US imperial ventures for the longer term, this notion that America and its allies have the right to act forcefully, which really means violently, whenever and wherever they want. And, in fact, that’s rarely even conceived of as violence. Only when there’s some sort of countermeasure undertaken by people who are living outside of the empire’s grasp, only those measures are conceived of as violence, only those uses of force have their legitimacy called into question.
JJ: So far, the White House seems to be sticking to the line that Soleimani was caught red-handed, actively plotting a “big action” that would have killed US forces, even though Democrats and some Republicans say the evidence is utterly unconvincing, there really isn’t evidence, and when they’re asked for it, they kind of say, you know, “Look over there.”
But pulling back from Democrats, even, and their current outrage, you couldn’t really call this an accidental escalation. The US has been, not just threatening Iran for years, but actually hurting them with this policy of maximum pressure. We should know some more context when we think about events of the past week.
GS: Yeah, for sure. As you rightly noted in your intro, the sanctions are killing people, they’re causing cancer patients to die from not being able to access medicine, they’re interfering with the food supply in Iran. When there was devastating natural disaster in Iran in April, the Red Crescent criticized the sanctions for impeding their ability to get aid to victims. This is already, in many respects, a hot war that the United States is prosecuting against Iran.
Apart from whether or not we see this spectacular violence of a bombing campaign—which we do, we’ve seen plenty of those as well: The Soleimani one, as well as the attacks on the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units, got a lot of headlines, because it was such a brazen assault on one of the most powerful people in Iran. But these periodic bombings of Iranian-allied forces in Iraq and Syria have been going on for quite some time as well.
So you have this war that barely registers here that has taken place, with sanctions even predating Trump, long predating Trump, in fact; during even the Obama era nuclear accord, there was still sanctions on Iran. So these have very devastating and deadly consequences.
And I think that the other factor that we have to mention, as far as understanding the context here, is the military bases, which there are, I think, 54 US military bases on Iran’s doorstep. That is a very, very loud and clear threat to Iran, that it’s surrounded by the most powerful military on Earth. So any Iranian actions have to be seen with a view towards that, with a view towards the fact that they have not only many guns to their head, but also many powerful bombs at their head, and, of course, the overarching threat also is that the United States is a hostile nuclear power, not just a hostile power. So all these years the United States has been saying “all options are on the table” with regard to Iran, well, that, by definition, includes the use of nuclear weapons.
JJ: I saw a New York Times op-ed headed, “The Choice That’s Coming: An Iran With the Bomb, or Bombing Iran.” And I found that so chilling, you know, “we obviously have to kill them, rather than permit them to have”—and Gareth Porter, of course, has a whole book about the false narrative around Iran trying to get nuclear weapons. It’s been shown again and again that they don’t have a nuclear weapons program. But if you say, “There’s no evidence they’re trying to build these weapons,” it’s like you have to concede that they shouldn’t be allowed to do what other countries can do, in the region in particular. It’s such a weird argument. But mainly, I felt so sad for corporate media’s power to limit our perceived possibilities, and to limit them so miserably.
GS: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think, ideally, the world would be nuclear weapons-free.
GS: Given that that’s not the case, it’s really, I think, pretty hard to justify the present nuclear status quo, where we have a handful of nuclear powers that have selected for themselves the power to determine who else is allowed to have nuclear weapons and who isn’t.
JJ: Yeah. Continuing with media, I did wonder, where are we seeing Iranians in the conversation? I saw a Guardian op-ed by an Iranian-American organizer and city councilwoman, Mitra Jalali, saying that her family, and families like hers, feel “sick and terrified,” in the same way as they did after September 11, 2001. And she said, “We need you to see through imperial narratives.” For her community, it’s important that people get around this “official enemy” stuff that media put forward, because it really impacts their day-to-day lives.
GS: Yeah. And we’re seeing this in this perverse way now, where, because there’s seemingly at least a temporary halt being placed on the potential of a full-scale military war, this is presented as, “Oh, OK. Well, you know, it’s only sanctions, right?” The media coverage presents sanctions as though they’re somehow an alternative to war, rather than a part of war, and very often sort of the first phase, or an earlier phase, in a full-scale armed destruction of a country.
So we saw sanctions, as is well-known by your listeners, I’m sure, totally obliterate Iraqi society in the ‘90s. And apart from the 500,000 children that that killed, it also really softened Iraq up to make it a very easy target for invasion. And there’s a similar dynamic going on with regard to Libya.
One of the recurring tropes in the coverage—I’ve seen it in multiple New York Times editorials, the Washington Post has been publishing former US government officials, Leon Panetta, as well as others from the Bush and Reagan administrations, and running throughout all of this material is this assertion we hear ad nauseum, which is the murder of Soleimani was justified because he, and/or Iran more generally, are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of troops.
Well, for a minute, we can bracket the fact that there’s pretty thin evidence about that. And Gareth Porter, who you mentioned, documents this quite well in a piece he did for Truthout in July, where he makes clear that he pressed US officials for evidence of this, or some sort of proof, and they simply admitted to him that they didn’t have any to provide. So that’s really kind of a propaganda claim about Iranians being “responsible for hundreds of dead troops,” and it dates back, Gareth Porter documents—and Stephen Zunes documented it also, in the Progressive—to the peak of fighting, following the 2003 invasion, when, essentially, Cheney and others from his office started circulating this claim.
But I want to point also to this assumption that, well, OK, killing American servicemembers in Iraq justifies carrying out assassinations of Iranian government leaders. Even if Iran were behind that, I want to say that it troubles me, why does this coverage not say, “Why does the US think that it has the right to invade and destroy other countries”—killing, depending on which estimate you look at, 500,000 to a million, following the 2003 invasion? What is it that allows these media propagandists, and people in the US state and its allied states, to believe that they have the right to invade and ruin countries, and not be subject to any kind of retaliation or counter-violence?
The depth of imperial ideology is on display here, this presumption that we, the Empire, have the right to engage in a full-scale military invasion and years-long occupation, and any act that’s done to resist that is illegitimate, it is criminal violence, it is terrorism. But any violence carried out in pursuit of the invasion and occupation, that’s just fine. That’s allowed. That’s just sort of the natural order of things. So this, I think, is one of the more central and deeper and troubling assumptions in imperialist media, that the United States and its partners are allowed to kill whomever they want, wherever they want, and no resistance to that is legitimate.
JJ: Let me end, finally, with resistance. There’s a Marjane Satrapi quote going around about how the difference between US citizens and their government, and Iranians and theirs, is much greater than the difference between the citizens of the two countries. And that accounts for why more people are in the street, calling for actual diplomacy, calling for the US to actually get out—period—than on elite talking-head shows. But the protests that we’ve seen are big, and they’re across difference, and they have a class awareness that money going for weapons isn’t going to schools and so on. And we didn’t even mention all the former generals on TV, who are currently invested in defense contractors, who are on TV saying, “Yeah, you know, war does seem like a smart idea.”
But it just seems to me that folks are seeing through imperial narratives, and that’s part of why the demonstrations against escalation, but also sanctions on Iran, on Iraq, are so complex and are so vital and are so interesting. I guess my question is just, are the media who self-define as “resistance,” are they really up to the job of reporting what real resistance looks like?
GS: Yeah, certainly not the mainstream corporate media. They’ll be interested in presenting opposition to this war, or other wars carried out under Trump, to the extent that they can represent this as a challenge to Trump’s incompetence, or personal corruption, and so forth. They’re not interested in questioning the imperial system, and, in fact, they’re deeply invested in it. So I think that, as is the case in so many other matters, we need to do what we can to promote independent ideas and information, so that there’s some sort of countervailing force to give people access to different perspectives and different facts than they get in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal or Washington Post.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Gregory Shupak of the University of Guelph-Humber. His book is The Wrong Story: Palestine, Israel, and the Media. It’s out from OR Books. Thanks for joining us, Greg Shupak, this week on CounterSpin.
GS: Thanks so much for having me.Print