Tensions between the U.S. and Iran are again ratcheting up as the Trump administration accused Iran of orchestrating an attack Thursday on Japanese and Norwegian oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Iran denied any involvement and accused the Trump administration of trying to sabotage diplomacy. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo directly accused Iran of attacking the oil tankers, and the U.S. released video of what it claimed was Iran’s Revolutionary Guard removing an unexploded mine from the side of the Japanese oil tanker that was attacked. However, the president of the Japanese company that owns the ship said it was not attacked by mines but two flying objects. He also said he doesn’t believe any objects were attached to the side of the ship. We speak with Vijay Prashad, director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.
AMY GOODMAN: Tensions between the U.S. and Iran are again ratcheting up as the U.S. accused Iran of orchestrating an attack Thursday on Japanese and Norwegian oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Iran denied any involvement and accused the Trump administration of trying to sabotage diplomacy. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo directly accused Iran of attacking the oil tankers, just hours after the incident.
SECRETARY OF STATE MIKE POMPEO: It is the assessment of the United States government that the Islamic Republic of Iran is responsible for the attacks that occurred in the Gulf of Oman today. This assessment is based on intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication.
AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday night, the United States also released video of which it claimed was Iran’s Revolutionary Guard removing an unexploded mine from the side of the Japanese oil tanker attacked. However, the president of the Japanese company that owns the ship said it was not attacked by mines but two flying objects. He also said he does not believe any objects were attached to the side of the ship. Iranian ships did approach the oil tankers after the attack, but, according to multiple news accounts, the Iranians helped rescue dozens of crew members from the tankers.
The timing of the incident also raised many questions as it came as the Japanese prime minister was visiting Iran in an attempt to bring Iran and the United States to the negotiating table. Iranian-American Trita Parsi said, quote, “Sounds like some are afraid Japan may succeed in starting diplomacy. The message appears to be: Don’t you dare stand in the way of my war plans,” Trita Parsi said. Last month, the U.S. blamed Iran for attacking four other oil tankers in the Persian Gulf but offered no evidence.
Well, for more, we’re joined now by Vijay Prashad, director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, chief editor of LeftWord Books. He’s also the chief correspondent of Globetrotter. He is the author of several books, including The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Vijay Prashad. Respond to what’s happening right now in the Gulf of Oman.
VIJAY PRASHAD: Hello, Amy. It’s, I think, important to pay attention to the words you just used. You said that only hours after the attack or the bombings in the Norwegian and Japanese tanker, the U.S. Secretary of State went out there and blamed Iran—hours after. You know, it’s very interesting. There’s a kind of rush to blame Iran for anything that’s been happening around the Gulf of Hormuz.
People who look closely at the oil business understand that 50% of the world’s oil goes through the Gulf of Hormuz. They understand that, you know, carrying oil is a dangerous activity. All kinds of things happen. There are accidents. There’s piracy. There are a series of quite common risks faced by oil tankers. Iran is not one of those high on the list as far as risk assessors are concerned. And yet, of course, this is the first thing the United States government has said, as you said, without any evidence. So, within a few hours and without any evidence, the United States government once more provoking some sort of response from Iran, perhaps, or at least to try to galvanize public opinion to believe that Iran is a threat to the world.
What’s really important here is, yes, the fact that Shinzo Abe, the first Japanese prime minister to visit Iran in 41 years, he goes to Iran shortly after the Iranian foreign minister visited him in Japan. In fact, Mr. Zarif visited Shinzo Abe in his home. They had a very important conversation, where Shinzo Abe said that the Iranian nuclear deal is a factor of stability for West Asia. You know, this goes directly opposed to the Trump administration’s view. And what’s very important here is we’re not talking about a country that’s far from the American orbit. This is Japan, a reliable ally of the United States, which is not only reliant upon Iranian oil but understands that the warmongering in West Asia is going to be very bad, not only for Eurasia, but for the world. And I think we need to understand that as Shinzo Abe is in Japan [sic], this attack or this, you know, sabotage, or whatever it is—
AMY GOODMAN: Is in Iran.
VIJAY PRASHAD: —took place on the Norwegian and Japanese tankers.
AMY GOODMAN: Again, as Shinzo Abe is in Iran.
VIJAY PRASHAD: That’s right. He was in Tehran, the first time in 41 years. And he has been saying, actually—interestingly, this is a right-wing prime minister; this is not a person of the left. He has been saying that there needs to be a return to the table.
It’s not only Japan saying this, Amy; it’s also the Europeans. The Europeans are very keen that the U.S. not break fully from this Iran deal. The Germans, in fact, have been looking for an alternative mechanism for payments. You know, India, which was one of the largest purchasers of Iranian oil, had to back off because of these new, very tight sanctions put in place by the U.S. government. But the Indians are also not that interested in this new approach by the Trump administration. They would like to continue to buy oil.
In fact, it’s a kind of isolation that the United States is facing. It’s isolated alongside the Israelis, the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates. Nobody else wants war. Nobody else wants this deal to end. And so, I think it’s really out of frustration that you see the United States jump the gun, come in very quickly and say that, you know, “Iran is doing this, Iran is doing that, and therefore we have to retaliate.”
It’s important to remember that in 2017 the CIA created a special unit called the Iran Mission Center, run by Michael D’Andrea. And this is an important outfit, because its entire mandate has been to ratchet up pressure on Iran. Now, I don’t know what happened to the Norwegian oil tanker or the Japanese oil tanker, but I’d be very interested to hear what the Iran Mission Center at the CIA has been up to since 2017.
AMY GOODMAN: Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted Thursday, “Reported attacks on Japan-related tankers occurred while PM @AbeShinzo was meeting with Ayatollah @Khamenei_ir for extensive and friendly talks. Suspicious doesn’t begin to describe what likely transpired this morning. Iran’s proposed Regional Dialogue Forum is imperative,” he said. Vijay Prashad?
VIJAY PRASHAD: You know, Mr. Zarif is a very capable diplomat, a very reasonable person. He has been leading Iranian diplomacy and has opened many doors to a diplomatic solution for the standoff around Iran. And I think we need to take seriously what Mr. Zarif is saying here. When he uses the word “suspicious,” I think we should underline that word. Again, I’m not saying what happened in the Gulf of Hormuz is very clear, that there are alternative explanations. We don’t know what happened. We should be suspicious of the narrative put forward by the U.S. State Department, but we should also be suspicious about what happened. We need to ask more questions.
I mean, consider this from a regional standpoint. The United States, the Russians and others are in the middle of a very serious diplomatic effort in Afghanistan. There are meetings that the U.S. has held in Doha, Qatar, there are meetings that the Russians have held in Moscow, to dial down the almost 19-year war that has been taking place in Afghanistan. Imagine if the United States strikes against Iran right now. It would bring catastrophe further to Afghanistan. It would open up the wounds in Iraq and in Syria. Mr. Zarif has made it very clear that an attack on Iran is not merely an attack on Iran, it’s going to create even more catastrophe in that region. That’s one of the main reasons, Amy, why the Chinese are very interested in not allowing any kind of war in that region. They have a lot at stake, especially in terms of their Belt and Road Initiative, which cuts right through this region, goes through Iran. Nobody wants a war here.
It’s important for Americans to understand that the U.S. government is deeply isolated on this issue of Iran and on the way that the U.S. government portrays Iran. In the rest of the world, Iran is seen as a stabilizing force in that region. For some strange reason, the U.S. government believes that Iran is an interloper. In other words, there are almost 80 million Iranians who live in West Asia, and they somehow are seen to be out of place, whereas the United States, which is, you know, thousands of miles away, portrays itself as a regional actor. This is very bizarre for people around the world. And I think Americans need to understand that.
AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday, members of the House Armed Services Committee from both parties said Pompeo told them in a classified briefing that the United States could use the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, to attack Iran without congressional approval. This is the Michigan Democrat Elissa Slotkin.
REP. ELISSA SLOTKIN: We were absolutely presented with a full formal presentation on how the 2001 AUMF might authorize war on Iran. Yes, I’m sorry, sir, Secretary Pompeo said it with his own words.
AMY GOODMAN: The AUMF was passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and authorizes the president to take military action against those responsible, along with any, quote, “associated forces.” Your response to that, Vijay Prashad? And what role do you think Saudi Arabia is playing in all of this?
VIJAY PRASHAD: I mean, look, this is very chilling, very disturbing. You know, they are marching us directly into a war. In other words, they are marching the world into war. They are pushing Iran. The sanctions have had a catastrophic impact on Iran’s external revenues, its ability to earn money. There is, you know, a serious medical crisis inside the country. I think focus should be on that. You know, we’ve already seen how sanctions destroy countries, how they put a lot of stress on the country. But that’s not the focus of anybody’s attention. You know, we’re allowing people like Mr. Pompeo, John Bolton and others to set the agenda here. They are being allowed to say that Iran is a criminal country and must be therefore attacked. I think this is very disturbing.
Saudi Arabia, of course, is playing a lead role in this. I mentioned the Iran Mission Center. Mr. Michael [D’Andrea] is very close to the Saudis, in fact has played an important role in the CIA’s drone program and is likely to have had some role in the Saudi war on Yemen. So, I mean, this is something for people to consider.
This very quick march to war must be stopped. I mean, the reason I’m saying this, it’s not just about Iran; it’s about the region, it’s about Eurasia. And the Trump administration, I think, is playing fast and loose with the facts and is being very reckless with world affairs on this. You know, we see the Trump administration behaving recklessly, mercurially perhaps, in other parts of the world. That’s true. But with Iran, I think their finger is right on the trigger. And the very fact that Pompeo gave this briefing should suggest to people that this is not the time to be cynical, to sit back and say, “I don’t think they’re going to do it.” It’s very likely that the United States is going to make some strike on Iran, and that strike is going to open further the gates of hell for the region.
AMY GOODMAN: Vijay Prashad, director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, chief editor of LeftWord [Books], we are going to break right now, and when we come back, I want to ask you about the extradition proceedings that have begun against Julian Assange, who’s in the Belmarsh Prison in London, and look at why one of his friends, the internet activist Ola Bini, has been jailed in Ecuador for over two months, picked up the same day as Julian Assange. This is Democracy Now! Back with Vijay Prashad in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: In London, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appeared before a magistrates’ court today, saying his life was “effectively at stake” if the U.K. honors an extradition request from the United States, where he faces 17 counts of espionage. Assange is the first journalist or publisher to be indicted under the World War I-era law.
While Assange’s case has dominated international headlines, far less attention has been paid to a friend of Julian Assange who’s been jailed in Ecuador since April 11th, the same day Assange was taken by force by British authorities from the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. Ola Bini is a Swedish programmer and data privacy activist who lives in Ecuador. He has not yet been charged with any crimes, has not been permitted to post bail for his release. The U.S. Justice Department has now said they want to question Ola Bini. Critics say Bini is being targeted because he knew and had visited Assange multiple times at the embassy in London, as well as for his own activism. This is a statement from his lawyers, Carlos Soria speaking last month.
CARLOS SORIA: [translated] This is an embarrassment. Our client is somebody who is innocent and who has contributed to the entire world the development of information privacy. And now, just because he is a friend to Julian Assange or because he travels, they put him in prison. There are no words for this, and we will denounce it both nationally and internationally. … We cannot allow Ecuador to look like this, like a state that persecutes people for the books they read, for the technology they use or for the simple reason of having a friend who is currently being reproached by the world. Before, Assange was appreciated for letting the world know the atrocities committed in other parts of the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Still with us is Vijay Prashad, the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. Earlier this week, he published a piece about Ola Bini in the Daily Hampshire Gazette titled “My friend is in a prison in Ecuador.”
Why is he there? Why was he picked up, Vijay Prashad? Why was Ola Bini picked up and jailed in Ecuador the same day Julian Assange was forcibly removed from the Ecuadorean Embassy and put in the Belmarsh Prison in London?
VIJAY PRASHAD: You know, Amy, this is a difficult story for me. I have known Ola Bini for many years. It is still perplexing to myself and to the friends of Ola of why he’s in prison, the El Inca prison in Quito, Ecuador. We don’t know why he’s in prison. There’s no charge against him. There has been some allegations made about his friendship to Julian Assange, but, you know, Amy, if that’s a crime, you and I should be in jail, as well. We have also met him. We have, you know, understood that meeting him is itself not a criminal activity.
Ola Bini is a programmer who spent most of his life trying to create tools to help human rights activists create a shield against surveillance by governments. People who are in the tech world might know the programs called the Tor Browser or Enigmail. These things were developed by Ola. He moved to Ecuador partly because he felt that with the government of Rafael Correa, it would be a good place to do the kind of work he was doing—precisely the opposite of what people are alleging of him, that he broke into this, that and the other government materials. In fact, the opposite: He would create shields to prevent governments from breaking into the kind of databases held by human rights defenders. You’ve got to remember that in the Snowden—Edward Snowden’s revelations, he said that the NSA had been routinely attacking the servers of human rights and other civil society organizations. It was precisely Ola’s mission in life to protect those organizations.
He was picked up on April 11th at Quito airport, while he was on his way to an advertised martial arts training course in Japan. He’s been held in prison for two months. There have been two hearings. No bail has been allowed. And no charge has been put forward. The prosecution in Ecuador has made it seem like a sinister thing that Ola has many computers and Zip drives and so on. You know, when I travel to places, I carry about 10 to 12 Zip drives. That’s because I keep a Zip drive for each story. It’s got nothing in it to seem to be something, you know, sinister or bizarre. These are things that software developers have. They tried to make him seem like a sinister character.
I was even told by another reporter that people were asking if Ola was the code cracker for Julian Assange, which he of course was not, and could not have been the code cracker at all when the materials passed on by Chelsea Manning came to the WikiLeaks organization. You know, that was one of the allegations that was floating around, not put on paper. Ola only met Julian when he was already in the Ecuadorean Embassy, long after the revelations of—very important, crucial revelations that came from Chelsea Manning, also now in prison.
I personally feel that the U.S. government, in trying to make a case against Julian Assange, has sort of swept up people that it thinks might have some evidence against Julian, for instance, having Chelsea Manning once more in prison, having Ola sit in a prison in Ecuador, squeezing them to see if they can either provide evidence against Julian—in Chelsea’s case, she has said she will not do so; in Ola’s case, he says, “I don’t have any evidence”—or that they will point the investigators in a direction to get Julian. I mean, we’ve got to understand that there is a vendetta by the American state against Julian Assange. That’s very clear. And I think there’s a lot of collateral damage around the world in the U.S. state’s attempt to put Julian either in prison for the full length of his life or near that.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Ola Bini speaking last month to CNN en Español, CNN in Spanish.
OLA BINI: They will find nothing, because I haven’t done anything. The only thing I’ve done is being the friend of Julian Assange. … The minister of the interior, María Paula Romo, goes on TV, the same day as I’m detained at the airport, and talks, five hours before my detention order is written—says on TV that I’m detained. That feels to me like the government is out to get me.
REPORTER: Why do you have the impression that Moreno hates you?
OLA BINI: I don’t say in my letter that he hates me. I wonder if he hates me, because subjecting me to something like this, this kind of process where I’m put in prison without any evidence, when I know that I’m innocent because I haven’t done anything, that feels personal to me.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ola Bini, again, speaking with CNN from jail. He was also asked by CNN about his relationship with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
OLA BINI: Just as me, he believes very strongly in the right to privacy. So, the first time I went, I actually went to talk to him about these kind of things. … I kept coming back because I like him, because he’s a friend of mine, and I kept coming back because more and more people abandoned him. … I felt that it was my responsibility to do it. But also, it was my pleasure as a friend.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Vijay Prashad, if you could comment further? Again, he’s speaking from jail to CNN. In the case of Julian Assange, we understand that Ecuador was handing over all of his electronic equipment, his hard drives, etc., to the British government. What’s happening with Ola Bini’s electronic equipment, his phones, his computers? Has the U.S. requested that equipment?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, the United States has been giving the Ecuadorean officials so-called, you know, expertise and help in breaking some of the barriers that Ola–you know, Ola is a very clever person. He has put all kinds of protections to his materials. These are basically off-the-shelf protections called OTR, Off the Record, and so on. So, the Americans initially said that they were going to just assist the Ecuadoreans. Now it seems that the U.S. government has asked for this material to be handed over to the United States directly.
I just want to say something about Ecuador. You know, Ola was asked in that interview if Lenín Moreno hates him. That’s the president of Ecuador. It’s very important to remember that shortly before the Ecuadorean government handed over Julian Assange to the British police, the International Monetary Fund provided Ecuador with a loan of $4.2 billion, and there was also a commercial package of about $6 billion, so a total of $10 billion was transferred to the Ecuadorean government by the auspices of the IMF. This happened just before Julian Assange was handed over to the British authorities, just before Ola was arrested. I mean, we’ve got to understand the position. When you look at these things in sequence, it looks like there must have been a deal. This big, huge package was given to the Ecuadoreans.
At the same time, you know, there’s been an enormous leak of private information from the phone and Gmail account of President Moreno. This information, called the I-N-A or INA Papers, shows direct corruption by Mr. Moreno, including an apartment in Madrid, Spain, and so on. He’s been deeply embarrassed by this and has been lashing out, saying that there are Russian hackers inside Ecuador. In fact, the first arrest of Ola at the airport, the piece of paper he was shown had a Russian name on it, and it was said that it’s a Russian person. When Ola said, “That’s not me. I’m not Russian,” they took the paper away, went back, made a new document with Ola’s name on it and saying he was Swedish, and picked him up.
So, there’s a very strange story here, Amy. We don’t know all the parts of it yet, but we need to put the IMF into the picture. I think we need to put the fact that there’s pressure from the United States on Ecuador now, first, of course, to hand over Julian Assange, and now to, you know, in a sense, do something—we don’t know what—to Ola Bini.
AMY GOODMAN: And very quickly, have you spoken to him in jail? What are the conditions like there?
VIJAY PRASHAD: The conditions are very difficult for Ola. Ola is a vegetarian. He has had a hard time there. And as he said very early into his arrest, that the conditions in Ecuador are bad for all prisoners, Ecuadorean and himself, who is a Swedish person living in Ecuador. He is a very decent and upstanding person. He refused to allow this to become merely about himself, saying the conditions for Ola Bini are bad; he said directly, they’re bad for everybody.
AMY GOODMAN: And Sweden—
VIJAY PRASHAD: But it’s been very difficult—
AMY GOODMAN: Is Sweden doing anything about getting him out?
VIJAY PRASHAD: The Swedish government called in the Ecuadorean ambassador, but Sweden has very little leverage on Ecuador. In fact, it doesn’t have an ambassador in Ecuador, just a counsel. We are hoping that pressure from the U.N. special rapporteur, David Kaye, who has called this an arbitrary detention, will have some impact on other European countries. Even the OAS special rapporteur has said that this is a very arbitrary, dangerous situation, should not be allowed. But, you know, the ability of these U.N. rapporteurs to move an agenda is very limited. And I’m afraid that the pressure from the United States government on Ecuador has basically invalidated the moral standing of European countries and even the United Nations.
AMY GOODMAN: Vijay Prashad, I want to thank you very much for being with us, director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. We will continue to follow Ola Bini’s case, as well as the case of Julian Assange, both picked up more than two months ago. Ola Bini remains imprisoned in Ecuador, and Julian Assange going through extradition hearings right now to the United States at the Belmarsh Prison in London.