American foreign policy Anti-Semitism Far left Israel

My Iranian problem…and ours

When I was a teenager, I learned not to take at face value anything Robert McNamara or Lyndon Johnson said about U.S. military behavior in Vietnam. Later, I didn’t automatically accept what Sharon and Begin said about the first Israeli invasion of Lebanon or what the IDF said about its behavior in Lebanon this past summer. After the misguided invasion of Iraq, the world has learned not to accept anything the current Bush Administration says about anything.

In fact, I’m in the p.r. business, so I don’t fully believe anything I read about current events except for sports scores and death announcements (not obituaries, BTW, as they are often slanted by publicists or bored reporters).

But what if the warnings about Iran’s nuclear intentions are accurate?

There are reasonable observers with no special ax to grind who think that there is at least a chance that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his Revolutionary Guard backers and his Imman in Qum are deadly serious about their threats to Israel. Here are Israelis Yossi Klein Halevi and Michael Oren in the New Republic:

The threat of a theologically motivated nuclear assault against Israel tends to be downplayed in the West; not so here. The former head of Israel’s National Security Council, Giora Eiland, has warned that an apocalyptically driven Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be willing to sacrifice half his country’s population to obliterate the Jewish state.

Military men suddenly sound like theologians when explaining the Iranian threat. Ahmadinejad, they argue, represents a new “activist” strain of Shiism, which holds that the faithful can hasten the return of the Hidden Imam, the Shia messiah, by destroying evil. Hebrew University Iranian scholar Eldad Pardo goes further, arguing that the ideology founded by Ayatollah Khomeini represents nothing less than a “new religion,” combining Shia, Sunni, and Marxist beliefs and resembling Western messianic cults that have advocated mass suicide.

And so Ahmadinejad pronouncements about the imminent return of the Hidden Imam and the imminent destruction of Israel aren’t regarded as merely calculated for domestic consumption; they are seen as glimpses into an apocalyptic game plan. Ahmadinejad has reportedly told his Cabinet that the Hidden Imam will reappear in 2009 — precisely the date when Israel estimates Iran will go nuclear. In a recent meeting with outgoing U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the Iranian president predicted that, while the United States and Great Britain won the last world war, Iran will win the next one.

And, two weeks ago, an Iranian government website declared that the Hidden Imam would defeat his archenemy in a final battle in Jerusalem. Notes one former top-ranking Israeli defense official: “We may not yet have located a clear theological line connecting the dots, but there are a great many dots.” At least one ayatollah, though, has made that theology explicit: In 2005, Hussein Nuri Hamdani declared that “the Jews should be fought against and forced to surrender to prepare the way for the coming of the Hidden Imam.”

I have 2 Iranian problems. One of them is that I don’t trust the Bush Administration –and the neo cons who remain in the Pentagon, Foggy Bottom and Cheney’s office–to pursue a sensible policy. I don’t trust Bush Cheney/Rove as far as I could throw ten pianos. If 50% of what Seymour Hersh has been writing in the New Yorker is true, and there are American forces already gearing up for a new war in Iran, that is truly terrifying.

The slim possibility of a religiously motivated use of nuclear weapons against Israel does not mean that progressive American Zionists should march in lockstep with Bibi Netanyahu, AIPAC and other groups that have made standing up to Iran the first item on their political agendas. Americans for Peace Now is one Jewish organization that has called for an approach to Iran that calls for a combination of carrots and sticks, a strategy of isolating Ahmadinejad –rather than obsessing over him — by dealing with other Iranian political figures, as well as other sensible measures.

There are plenty of other voices offering policy suggestions that appear to be reasonable alternatives to the Bush Administration’s hard-line approach. It’s not my purpose to list them here. My purpose is to get to my second Iranian problem:

I can’t discount the possibility that Ahmadinejad and his pals are serious about wanting to wipe Israel off the face of the earth.

Yet stop-the-next-war ideologues on the far left and their anti-Israeli allies in the blogosphere don’t seem to have one shred of concern about this possibility.

Go to any of the anti-war web sites, the United for Peace and Justice/ANSWER rallies, and comments by the most virulent Israel-bashers on liberal blogs like Huffington Post, and you will search in vain for anyone who acknowledges that it is wrong for the head of a large Muslim state and his religious allies to call for the destruction of the Jewish state.

Some on the left try to obfuscate by becoming instant experts on Persian dialects, claiming that the Iranian President was mistranslated and that he never called for the removal of the “Zionist entity.” But check out Ethan Bronner’s piece on this matter in the New York Times on July 6, 2006:

EVER since he spoke at an anti-Zionism conference in Tehran last October, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran has been known for one statement above all. As translated by news agencies at the time, it was that Israel “should be wiped off the map.” Iran’s nuclear program and sponsorship of militant Muslim groups are rarely mentioned without reference to the infamous map remark.

Here, for example, is R. Nicholas Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs, recently: “Given the radical nature of Iran under Ahmadinejad and its stated wish to wipe Israel off the map of the world, it is entirely unconvincing that we could or should live with a nuclear Iran.”

But is that what Mr. Ahmadinejad said? And if so, was it a threat of war? For months, a debate among Iran specialists over both questions has been intensifying. It starts as a dispute over translating Persian but quickly turns on whether the United States (with help from Israel) is doing to Iran what some believe it did to Iraq — building a case for military action predicated on a faulty premise.

“Ahmadinejad did not say he was going to wipe Israel off the map because no such idiom exists in Persian,” remarked Juan Cole, a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan and critic of American policy who has argued that the Iranian president was misquoted. “He did say he hoped its regime, i.e., a Jewish-Zionist state occupying Jerusalem, would collapse.” Since Iran has not “attacked another country aggressively for over a century,” he said in an e-mail exchange, “I smell the whiff of war propaganda…”

But translators in Tehran who work for the president’s office and the foreign ministry disagree with them. All official translations of Mr. Ahmadinejad statement, including a description of it on his Web site (, refer to wiping Israel away. Sohrab Mahdavi, one of Iran’s most prominent translators, and Siamak Namazi, managing director of a Tehran consulting firm, who is bilingual, both say “wipe off” or “wipe away” is more accurate than “vanish” because the Persian verb is active and transitive…. [Emphasis added by DF]

…The final translation issue is Mr. Ahmadinejad use of “occupying regime of Jerusalem” rather than “Israel.”

To some analysts, this means he is calling for regime change, not war, and therefore it need not be regarded as a call for military action…. But to others, “occupying regime” signals more than opposition to a certain government; the phrase indicates the depth of the Iranian president’s rejection of a Jewish state in the Middle East because he refuses even to utter the name Israel. He has said that the Palestinian issue “does not lend itself to a partial territorial solution” and has called Israel “a stain” on Islam that must be erased...

When combined with Iran’s longstanding support for Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah of Lebanon, two groups that have killed numerous Israelis, and Mr. Ahmadinejad refusal to acknowledge the Holocaust, it is hard to argue that, from Israel’s point of view, Mr. Ahmadinejad poses no threat…

…So did Iran’s president call for Israel to be wiped off the map? It certainly seems so. Did that amount to a call for war? That remains an open question..

But even if it were not an open question, even if the death-to-Israel interpretations of Ahmadinejad’s pronouncements were verifably true, the far left apparently would not care. They are not willing to consider that perhaps America has a moral interest in preventing Israel from vanishing, as opposed to a mere strategic interest. It is not exactly anti-Semitism at work here, or at least not classic anti-Semitism. It is more like these people treat Israeli Jews as a kind of anti-matter; the Jews might be there, living in Tel Aviv and Netanya, but they are barely detectable or discernable, and they are certainly not worth worrying about when planning the next rally.

The fact that it doesn’t occur to these lefties to care one whit about preserving the lives of Israeli Jews (and Israeli Arabs) is frightening. It is almost as frightening as the fact that incompetent neo cons may well propel us into another war before they are kicked out of office.

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