- Professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco
- Senior policy analyst at the “Foreign Policy in Focus” project of the Institute for Policy Studies
- Harsh critic of American foreign policy
- Claims that the U.S. is awash in racism and Islamophobia
- Accuses Israel of “systematic human rights violations,” “ethnic cleansing,” and “crimes against humanity”
Stephen Zunes was born in 1956 in Salisbury, North Carolina, to parents who were active in civil-rights, nuclear-disarmament, antiwar, and pro-Palestinian causes. He earned a B.A. in Government from Oberlin College in 1979, an M.A. in Government from Temple University in 1983, and a Ph.D. in Government from Cornell University in 1989. Zunes subsequently worked as an Assistant Professor of Politics at Ithaca College (1986-89), Whitman College (1989-91), and the University of Puget Sound (1993-94). Since 1995 he has been a Professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco, where he also chairs the Middle Eastern Studies Department. In addition to his teaching duties, Zunes has served since 1999 as a senior policy analyst at the “Foreign Policy in Focus” project of the Institute for Policy Studies, and since 2006 as a member of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict‘s academic advisory council. Moreover, he is an associate editor of Peace Review, and a contributing editor of Tikkun.
An inveterate critic of American foreign policy, Zunes wrote in May 2006 that: “[T]he United States is … out of step with the vast majority of the international community regarding the treaty banning land mines, the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, and the embargo against Cuba. Similarly, two decades ago the United States was also out of step with the vast majority of the international community in regard to the mining of Nicaraguan harbors and support for the Contra terrorists as well as opposition to sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa and allying with Pretoria in supporting the UNITA rebels in Angola.”
In a similar vein, Zunes characterized the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq as an “illegal and immoral war of aggression” where President George W. Bush “deliberately misled us, exaggerating the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and Iraq in order to justify” military action. And in December 2015, Zunes wrote that the rise of the terror group ISIS was “a direct consequence of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.” “Had Congress not authorized President George W. Bush the authority to illegally invade a country on the far side of the world that was no threat to us,” he elaborated, “and to fund the occupation and bloody counter-insurgency war that followed, the reign of terror ISIS has imposed upon large swathes of Syria and Iraq … would never have happened.”
Zunes is particularly opposed to American support for Israel. In his 2003 book Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism, he writes that U.S. financial aid to the Jewish state “has generally increased as the [Israeli] government’s repression in the occupied territories has worsened,” to the point where “it is the most generous foreign aid program ever between two countries.” Tinderbox received glowing reviews from such noteworthy leftists as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Richard Falk, Saul Landau, and Rabbi Michael Lerner. “This book does a wonderful job of explaining the tragedy of U.S. policy in the Middle East,” said Lerner. “Professor Zunes powerfully illustrates how the more the United States has militarized the region, the less secure we have become. Perhaps more importantly, he shows how we have become the target of terrorists not because of our values but because our foreign policy has strayed from those values.”
A supporter of the Hamas-inspired Boycott, Divestment, & Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, Zunes has voiced his contempt for the Jewish state on many occasions. “The identification many Americans have with Zionism in the Middle East,” he suggests, is “a reflection of our own historic experience as pioneers in North America, building a nation based upon noble, idealistic values while simultaneously suppressing and expelling the indigenous population.” Moreover, Zunes has condemned “Israel’s colonization of occupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank and greater East Jerusalem”; denounced the “Israeli annexation of territories seized in the 1967 war”—a war that in fact was precipitated by a joint Egyptian-Syrian-Jordanian effort to annihilate the Jewish state militarily; falsely claimed that “during the period of Israel’s war of independence between 1947 and 1949, Zionist forces forcibly removed many tens of thousands of Palestinians from their homes who were never able to return, what is today known as ‘ethnic cleansing’”; accused Israel of repeatedly and unjustifiably launching “devastating attacks” designed to kill innocents in “crowded residential neighborhoods” in the Gaza Strip; and accused Israel’s government of engaging in “a pattern of gross and systematic human rights violations” and “blatantly violat[ing] a series of UN Security Council resolutions and other international legal principles.” After the longtime peace activist Daniel Berrigan died in April 2016, Zunes praised him for his “prophetic voice” and his harsh criticisms of Israel’s “militarism,” “racism,” and “crimes against humanity.”
In January 2012 at the Revolution Books store in Berkeley, California, Zunes spoke on a panel titled “U.S.-Israeli Assault on Iran Escalates: The Danger of War Grows.” All who came to the event were handed a copy of Revolution, the newspaper for the Revolutionary Communist Party USA. They were also given a flier for International A.N.S.W.E.R.‘s then-forthcoming “national day of action” in San Francisco, whose rallying cry was: “No War on Iran, No Sanctions, No Interventions, No Assassinations!” Some noteworthy excerpts from, and facts about, Zunes’s remarks:
- Affirming fellow panelist Larry Everest’s assertion—based on an already-discredited 2007 National Intelligence Estimate—that the Iranian regime had given up pursuing the development of nuclear weapons in 2003, Zunes said: “No one who is intellectually honest could disagree with your analysis.”
- Zunes reiterated a position he had taken in 2009—on the heels of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s stolen presidential election in Iran—titled, “Why U.S. Neocons Want Ahmadinejad to Win.” In that piece, Zunes had written: “What’s important is that Neocons and the imperialists in this country want the green revolution crushed. They need each other to justify the kinds of policies the U.S. imperialists want.” (But as authors Cinnamon Stillwell and Rima Greene point out: “This logic, such as it is, concludes that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad provides a handy excuse for so-called warmongers in the U.S. to block the Obama administration’s diplomatic overtures to Iran. Such a conspiracy theory ignores the fact that Neoconservatives and others on the right were strong critics of the Obama administration’s refusal to offer moral support to the green revolution at its outset.”)
- Zunes insisted that U.S. intervention would only cause the Iranian people to side with their government: “Everyone emphasizes the Islamic characteristics of Iran, but what’s really kept the regime in power is nationalism. The Iranians are the most nationalistic people in the entire world…. [I]t’s something the regime can capitalize on when it hears these threats [of sanctions]. What we don’t hear in the media is that the opposition supports the government in its conflict with the U.S. They oppose U.S. intervention.”
- As for the Iranian regime’s threats to annihilate Israel, Zunes assured the audience that: “Iran is not going to nuke Israel. Get real. It’s a repressive regime, but they are not suicidal. Israel has massive deterrents as does the U.S. and other allies…. And by the way, Ahmadinijad, he’s really hardcore, he’s anti-Semitic, but he never said ‘Israel should be wiped off the map.’ That idiom doesn’t even exist in Farsi. What he’s doing is quoting Ayatollah Khamenei from twenty years ago…. What he said was the regime occupying Jerusalem should ‘vanish from the pages of time’… Ahmadinejad clarified that in a later interview. He’s talking about a unified Palestine. He’s not talking about killing the Jews…. he’s talking about regime change.” (Contrary to Zunes’s claim, Nazila Fathi of the New York Times Tehran bureau provided a translation of Ahmadinejad’s October 26, 2005 speech at “The World Without Zionism” conference in Tehran—the source of the quote in question. Ahmadinejad’s exact words were: “Our dear Imam said that the occupying regime must be wiped off the map and this was a very wise statement.” In addition, and as noted by Iran expert Michael Rubin, “[T]he Islamic Republic provides its own clarification. In its official translations, it headlined Ahmadinejad’s call to ‘wipe Israel off the map.'” Moreover, the Iranian regime’s genocidal incitement could been seen on propaganda billboards across the country and heard in countless statements from stateofficials, including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who once called Israel a “‘cancerous tumor that should be cut and will be cut.”)
On August 5, 2012, Zunes made his seventh appearance at the hilltop Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley (UUCB), whose “Social Justice Council,” according to the UUCB website, “sponsors forums focusing on social justice topics” and the creation of “a better, more just world.” Zunes’s topic, on this occasion, was “The United States and Iran.” Some noteworthy excerpts from, and facts about, Zunes’s remarks:
- In keeping with his past talks on the subject, Zunes assured the audience that Iran was not a threat; that Iran’s nuclear weapons would not be ready for several more years; that Iran would never strike first with nuclear weapons; that there were no Hezbollah terrorist cells in South America and on America’s southern border; and that reports of Iranian-sponsored global terrorism were exaggerated. Moreover, he emphasized repeatedly that sanctions and threats were counterproductive because they increased the regime’s repressiveness, and that attacking Iran would ignite Persian nationalism and cause dissidents to ally with the regime.
- Referring to two bills supported in the House of Representatives by large bipartisan majorities, Zunes asserted that “Congress is really pushing the United States to go to war.” He continued: “It’s a bipartisan calling for war. Never before has Congress forbid negotiations and deterrence. Obama’s threshold is Iran actually starting to build nuclear weapons. Congress lowered the threshold [to] Iran simply having the capability of developing nuclear weapons, which some in Congress say they already have.”
- Zunes pushed for a “Middle East nuclear-free zone,” thereby ignoring the fact that Israel—surrounded by enemies sworn to its destruction—could never trust such a zone. He alluded to the U.N. General Assembly’s push for a nuclear-free Middle East, which in essence was a means of pressuring Israel to disarm unilaterally, and he urged those in the audience to contact their members of Congress for the same purpose.
- Zunes said that “at this point … no evidence suggests” that Iran’s existing nuclear program “is anything but peaceful”; that “even the U.S. government acknowledges that as far as it can tell it is an exclusively civilian nuclear program”; and that the Iranians “are unlikely to have a single deployable nuclear warhead for four or five years. In other words, there’s plenty of time.” (But these claims failed to acknowledge International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] Director General Yukiya Amano’s January, 2012 statement that the Agency had “credible information that Iran is engaged in activities relevant to the development of nuclear explosives.” Zunes’s claims also failed to acknowledge that in August 2012 — the very same month as when Zunes delivered his address at UUCB — Haaretz reported that the Obama administration had received a National Intelligence Estimate report demonstrating that “Iran has made surprising, notable progress in the research and development of key components of its military nuclear program,” and that “the Iranian development of a nuclear weapon is progressing far beyond the scope known to the International Atomic Energy Agency.”)
- Zunes mocked Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s concerns that Iran might give small nuclear weapons to Hezbollah, its proxy in South America: “[Hezbollah] will bring them into Latin America and smuggle them over the Mexican border and set them off in an American city—there’s all kinds of crazy scenarios…. This is how desperate people are to justify an attack.” (But as Cinnamon Stillwell and Rima Greene wrote soon thereafter: “In fact, there is ample evidence to support this scenario. Iran and Hezbollah have long had a foothold in South America, and America’s porous southern border provides ample opportunity for Hezbollah to team with Mexican drug cartels and move northward. Ilan Berman has argued that had Iran succeeded in its October, 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. with the assistance of a Mexican drug cartel, it ‘would potentially have killed scores of U.S. citizens in the nation’s capital in the most significant terrorist event since 9/11’.”)
- Despite decades of Iranian-sponsored global terrorist attacks, Zunes claimed that Iran’s ties to international terrorism were overstated. He would only concede that there were some “pretty sketchy groups that would be willing to attack Americans and their interests worldwide.”
- During the question-and-answer period, a member of the audience asked, “What is the rationale for resolutions against Iran in the American Congress?” Zunes responded: “The concern about Iran getting the bomb is not about Israel being nuked, but that Iran will have deterrence so the United States can’t throw its weight around. They aren’t going to bomb Israel.” Zunes then ranted about xenophobia and “privilege” in the United States, saying: “There is fear of having our privilege taken from us, that we are no longer exceptional. I come from the South. On my mother’s side were slave owners. They were afraid of the slaves. That’s why that [family] side is so dysfunctional . . . it’s fear of the unwashed masses—they will take our privilege. Fear is useful: Israel burning; images of the Holocaust; terror milked by politicians; internalized Jewish terror of anti-Semitism that is exaggerated for political reasons; the burning; the ovens. Fear is definitely a big piece.”
In a November 2013 article he wrote for AlterNet.org, Zunes described Iran’s newly elected president, Hassan Rouhani, as a “moderate,” and complained that “ hardliners in Washington” were trying to scuttle a potential negotiated deal designed to impose “strict safeguards to prevent the enrichment of uranium to a degree that could be used for the development of [Iranian] nuclear weapons.” (The agreement that was ultimately signed in 2015 virtually guaranteed that Iran would have the capacity to develop a nuclear bomb approximately a decade down the road. For details about the accord, click here.)
Zunes believes that “widespread racism toward Arabs and Muslims” is highly “prevalent in American society.” After a jihadist named Omar Mateen, who professed allegiance to the Islamic State (a.k.a. ISIS or ISIL), used a gun to murder 49 people and wound 53 others at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida in June 2016, Zunes emphasized that “the overwhelming majority of killings of LGBTQ people here in the United States,” as well as most mass shootings generally, “have been committed by Christians of European ancestry.” He described a recent (December 2015) Islamic terrorist attack that had killed 14 people in San Bernardino as “one of the exceptions,” and complained that “you had politicians jumping all over [it] … to justify … Islamophobic policies.” “So, this use of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment,” Zunes added, “serves purposes both to avoid looking at rational reforms in gun laws but also as a means of frightening the American people into supporting more U.S. military intervention in the Middle East.”
For additional information on Stephen Zunes, click here.