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.

17 thoughts on “My Iranian problem…and ours

  1. Excellent and incisive! Very refreshing to read cogent analysis that focuses on facts rather than preconceived notions.

  2. Chris,

    I live in Israel so I take the threat from Iran very seriously. That is why I sounded nasty. I am alarmed. But this is not just a problem for us here. It is America’s problem, too. Americans for Peace Now might think they are trying to help but the only thing the mullahs will understand is the threat of force. This “Realistic Dove” does seem to be waking about about the realities of the region but he needs to wake up a little more

  3. Why? Because I don’t think either Israel or the US is dealing with Iran as if it were a really serious threat (at least not at the moment), but rather as if it’s a nice juicy screaming-point for their own imperial ambitions. That is, they are doing no serious negotiations, as far as I know.
    The runup to Iran is too much like the runup to Iraq to be credible. To put it at its simplest, it’s the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” syndrome. Also more than a little “projection.” If nobody else seems to care that Iran might really be a terrible danger (which I doubt very much it is anyway, but for the sake of argument let’s say it’s a possibility), then Israel and the USA have themselves to blame. What IS apparent to most people is that a “preemptive’ attack on Iran would be disastrous for both Israel and the US. At some point, and it better be soon, Israel is going to have to learn to live with herneighbors.

  4. Itzikl,

    I think it’s a little bit daffy to claim that Israel has “imperial ambitions,” or at least that its ambitions extend to the Persian Gulf. What are you talking about?

    That said, I do want to welcome you to my blog. I am, now it can be told, the “Tough Dove” who sometimes contributed to MondoWeiss when it was under the rubric of the NY Observer. I always found your comments very intriguing and hope you’ll stir up the waters here.

  5. Itzikl,

    You wrote:

    “I don’t think either Israel or the US is dealing with Iran as if it were a really serious threat (at least not at the moment), but rather as if it’s a nice juicy screaming-point for their own imperial ambitions. That is, they are doing no serious negotiations, as far as I know.”

    Why does the fact that they are not doing serious negotiations mean they don’t think Iran is a serious threat? The US and Israel think it’s better not to negotiate, not now, and leave open the possibility of negotiations if Iran’s leaders come to their senses. I guess you and Realistic Dove disagree with that, but that has nothing to do with the threat perception.

    You also wrote something even more bizarre:

    “If nobody else seems to care that Iran might really be a terrible danger (which I doubt very much it is anyway, but for the sake of argument let’s say it’s a possibility), then Israel and the USA have themselves to blame.”

    Ma zeh? Nobody else cares? The Europeans don’t also care? Then why have they approved sanctions? Why did the UN Security Council, not exactly a friend of Israel, tighten sanctions? i dont think the sanctions are tough enough but it’s impossible to believe that these countries “don’t care.” The Sunni Muslim states aren’t worried? Hah? There is a lot of evidence that much of the world does not want Iran to have nuclear weapons, not just the U.S. and Israel.

  6. I think it’s likely that Iran is trying to make a nuclear bomb, not refine uranium for peaceful purposes. My guess is that the strategic goal of this project is to increase its regional and international leverage. Iran’s leaders feel threatened by Israel and by the U.S. and are in competition with the Saudis for regional dominance. They are probably assuming that these countries will need to deal with them at a different level if they have nuclear capability.

    Would Iran make a first strike on Israel? I doubt it, for the simple reason that it would be suicidal. If Israel were not in a position to counter-bomb, the U.S surely would. Launching a nuclear strike on Israel is not at all in Iran’s interest. Ahmadinejad may be a maniac, but Iran is a stable state with an interest in security and economic growth. Iran’s President has relatively limited powers and is not in a position to start a nuclear war. There are many cooler heads in actual control of the state.

    Recall that the United States, for decades, faced a Soviet Union whose stated goal was world conquest – a declared enemy of the U.S. armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons. What prevented a nuclear war was not the good intentions or trustworthiness of Russia’s leaders. It was the mutual fear of destruction by both sides.

    It is unlikely that Iran would drop the bomb on Israel, but is it possible? Yes, absolutely. Countries on hostile terms can find themselves in escalating confrontations and act aggressively and impulsively. I can imagine circumstances where either Iran or Israel launched a nuclear strike on the other.

    I think there’s widespread agreement on the right and the left that Iran developing a nuclear bomb would be a bad thing. For that matter, Israel having a nuclear bomb is a bad thing. The Mideast is an extremely volatile region and for the conflicts there to turn nuclear would be disastrous.

    The moral question isn’t whether it’s acceptable to allow Israel to vanish in a nuclear attack. The answer to that question is completely obvious and it is not being debated by any serious person anywhere on the political spectrum.

    The question is how far it is reasonable to go in preventing Iran from enriching uranium, given the residual uncertainty over the goal of its program, and the low (but non-zero) probability that it would use a bomb offensively if it had one.

    Unfortunately, the U.S. has squandered a great deal of its military and diplomatic strength with our foolish invasion of Iraq (looks like your far-left anti-war radicals were actually right about this).

    If not for Iraq, we might have been in a position to mount an effective international campaign to pressure Iran to open its nuclear program to inspection and abide by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, with the threat of invasion as a last resort. Our allies are now less cooperative and the threat much weaker because of our position in Iraq; and, so far, international pressure has been a failure.

    Should the U.S., then – or Israel – attack Iran? Given how spread out and well-fortified its nuclear production facilities are, it would take more than a few air raids. It would mean a very big, very destructive, very lengthy, very expensive ground war followed by an occupation; or, perhaps… a nuclear first strike.

    It seems to me you evade this question by turning to inflammatory accusations of “lefties” who don’t care whether Israel is destroyed. You’ve thrown Shmuel a bone. Now what is your position on the use of force to stop Iran’s nuclear program?

  7. Andrew,

    I don’t think the military option is a sound one. That is why I called attention to the Americans for Peace Now statement, which is worth looking at. I thought that was clear but perhaps I should have spelled it out. I’m on the APN Board and was proud that we released that statement, as no other American Jewish organization that is part of the so-called “mainstream community” has bucked AIPAC on the Iran issue…

    Here’s another approach to Iran that makes sense, again mixing carrots and sticks, from 3 experts in the Winter issue of Washington Quarterly:

    It’s much to complicated to summarize here.

    As to your last point, I do think that there are reasonable people on the non-Zionist left. And I believe they have an obligation to think more clearly about the implications of completely ignoring ort discounting the possible threat to Israel from Iran and not denouncing the President of Iran.

    It is part of a reflexive anti-Israelism that, in the long run, makes it harder for moderate Jews to speak out against AIPAC and its ilk, as they don’t want to feel like they are making common cause with people who are hostile to the very idea of a Jewish state. That same, reflexive anti-Israelism also made Jews like me feel like lepers on the left when we went to demonstrations to try to stop the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

    Plus, I find it offensive.

  8. Hi Dan,
    I kind of thought you might have been “Tough Dove,” but I wasn’t completely sure. Nice to be here, thanks.
    What I meant by “Israel’s imperial ambitions,” was to be a junior partner in America’s imperial ambitions.
    Shmuel, as far as my comment “if nobody else seems to care that Iran might really be a terrible danger,” perhaps I didn’t get my point across very well. Perhaps I shopuld have said “imminent danger.” They are obviously concerned for the long term, but if you analyze what that concern consists of, a good part of it comes down to the danger of Ahminejad recklessly provoking an attack by either Israel or the US which would plonge the whole Middle East into turmoil. I don’t see one other country besides the US and Israel even remotely suggesting that an attack on Iran is an urgent imperative, let alone a viable option.
    You also ask, “The US and Israel think it’s better not to negotiate, not now, and leave open the possibility of negotiations if Iran’s leaders come to their senses.”
    Since Iran’s leaders have continually indicated not only a willingness, but a desire, to negotiate,
    There seems to be this tradition established by Israel and the US of late, that all points of disagreement have to be given up by the other side BEFORE negotiations can begin. That is not the way diplomacy ever works, and it’s a non-starter. It’s like saying to my boss, I’d like to talk to you about my salary, and him replying, fine, I’ll be happy to talk to you about your salary, any time, anywhere — on condition that you don’t ask me for a raise. So, when you come to your senses about that, we’ll talk.
    Nobody addressed my point about the similarity to the runup to the Iraq invasion. Then too, it was an urgent necessity. Something just HAD TO BE DONE! And damn it, if other countries didn’t see it, the US would GO IT ALONE! DOesn’t that sound familiar? Except this time, nobody’s buying it. That’s what I emant, Shmuel, I don’t see anything bizarre it.

  9. Oops, several corrections to the above.
    “Since Iran’s leaders have continually indicated not only a willingness, but a desire, to negotiate, we should take them up on it.

    Also, at the end, that should have been “meant” and “bizarre about it.”

    One final point. I don’t see any attention given to what Ahminejad’s actual position is in Iran, what he represents and doesn’t represent. From what I understand, he is in many ways like Bush — a popularly-elected president (a position which in Iran does NOT include military command), but also a nutcase widely disliked in his own country, but whose source of power is his own people’s fears, which he does everything to stir up.

  10. Michael Oren & Yossi Klein Halevi “don’t have an ax to grind?” Wow, you must know something I don’t know about them. They wrote the article you quote for Marty Peretz’s New Republic. Oren works at the Likud-oriented Shalem Center. Klein Halevi is pretty right-wing as well.

    Why would you trust their analysis of Iranian motives as unbiased & objective? I know I wouldn’t.

    In your discussion, you have left out the many Iran experts who have said that Iran is NOT trying to develop nuclear weapons to use against Israel, but rather in its struggle for regional power with its neighbors. It feels (mistakenly imo) that it needs such weapons in case a future Saddam arises among any of its neighbors.

    Netayahu has gone off the deep end w. his comparisons bet. Iran & Hitler Germany (“It’s 1938…”). Let’s not jump off the cliff with him. Let’s rather keep our cool while the wingnuts around us lose theirs.

    If we think of this situation in apocalyptic terms then it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Remember the terms Bush used to defend his attack on Iraq?? Where did that sort of holy warrior rhetoric lead us? To a good place?

  11. Richard,

    Just as I want to look at Muzzlewatch and glean useful information from it, if the New Republic offers something worth reading, I will pay attention to it.

    Look, there are some daunting political and intellectual challenges here. One challenge is not to agree with Bibi’s cheap comparisons with Munich, 1938, and not to support bellicose rhetoric by AIPAC and other American Jewish organizations…but to keep our eyes wipe open about the tangible threat that exists to Israel. Israelis across the political spectrum who have intelligence experience or access to intelligence all seem alarmed by what is going on in Iran. Ephraim Sneh probably agrees with most of your positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but he has been sounding an alarm about Iran for years.

    One can accept the slim possibility that the Iranian President is serious about his threats and still not support preemptive military actions.

    The fact that the Bushies misrepresented and/or lied about WMDs in Iraq makes it much tougher to face this challenge. The fact that the far left uses that shameful record of deceit as an argument to do NOTHING about Iran is disturbing to me.

  12. Dan,
    What’s disturbing to me is to see you characterizing the problem in such crudely reductionist terms as “the far left” arguing to “do NOTHING” about Iran. The real problem is what the FAR RIGHT is arguing TO DO about Iran. Who listens to the “far left” anyway? Unfortunately, the far right has very great influence today through the US and Israeli administrations. I agree with Richard. Something should be done, but not along the lines of neocon/ likudnik hysteria.
    What? Talk and see what happens. That would be a completely different dynamic than this “me, superpower, you, piece of crap” routine we keep seeing.
    I think this is pretty much the view of everybody EXCEPT the far left and far right, in other words, the vast majority of thinking people around the world.

  13. Itzikl,

    My original post and my responses to Andrew and Richard indicate that I agree completely with you about the dangerous Iran policy being pursued by the Bushies, with support from the likes of Richard Perle. I also concur that what the neo-cons are doing is a much more important problem than the far left’s adamant refusal to acknowledge that Israel might be in danger.

    My intention was not to claim that the problems are of the same magnitude. I was making a few observations, not trying to reduce the whole situation to the concerns I conveyed.

    That said, it may be true that, at present, not enough people listen to the far left to have an impact on American politics or Presidential decisions. But these lefties are a potentially important source of grassroots activism against a war on Iran that I, too, oppose. So their rhetoric matters to me.

    Moreover, they are not ignored in the blogosphere or on campus. There is a public conversation going on out there about Israel. I am concerned about the distortions and the utter demonization of Israel that are being promulgated not only by what’s left of the American left, but also by radical libertarians, Liberty Lobbyists, David Duke acolytes and outright lunatics who are telling the world that the Talmud commands Jews to kill Christian babies. My second “problem” was based on that concern. It’s difficult to sum up those concerns without writing a massive treatise, but I’ll have more to say about it in future posts.

  14. I see your point. But ultimately, it’s Israel that’s making it so hard to defend Israel. That’s why I’ve just completely had it with the AIPAC types and tgheir counterparts in israel.We’re so used to our worst enemies being external. But under present circumstances, the first priority is to clean up our own house.

  15. Dan – sorry to take so long responding, I got busy and had to leave the web alone for a bit. I’m sorry, I didn’t realize the Peace Now link was to your statement on Iran – but, now that I’ve read it, I think it’s a good and courageous one, and a applaud the group for taking this stand. It’s especially important since it does come from a Zionist group.

    As far as “reflexive anti-Israel-ism” on the left… I do think the mutual mistrust between moderate Zionists and Jewish (and non-Jewish) activists is real, and will require some effort on both sides to overcome.

    I agree that there are some on the left who respond to the realities of the day-to-day oppression and humiliation of the Palestinian people with a blanket anger at Israel, or even at all Jews (who are seen as helping to perpetuate Israel’s policies). This sometimes leads committed activists to take positions that are disrespectful of the mixture of loyalty and criticism that is the basis of progressive Zionism.

    In the interest of building bridges, though, it’s worth considering the roots of this anger before dismissing it as offensive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.