Friends, Enemies, and "Existential" Threats
In the ceaseless and invariably bellicose calls
for war (both open and clandestine) against Iran, perhaps one argument invoked
by pro-war pundits and politicians stands out and takes pride of place above
all others: Iran, it is claimed, "poses an existential threat to the state
of Israel." It's certainly been a favorite of Republican presidential
nominee, John McCain. Furthermore, Sarah Palin, McCain's running mate, when
asked about America's response in the event of a unilateral Israeli military
strike against Iran, repeated
an astounding three times the AIPAC-by-rote reply: "I don't think that
we should second-guess the measures that Israel has to take to defend themselves
and for their security."
The argument: because Iran has been cited as an "imminent threat"
to the security of Israel, a "nuclear Iran" is deemed unacceptable.
As a result, both Israel and the United States are permitted to avail themselves
of "all options" to neutralize the "Iranian threat." In
short, the Bush Doctrine holds, and preventive war with Iran is warranted.
Meanwhile, occupations and insurgencies continue to rage in Afghanistan, Iraq,
and more recently,
the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. In addition, and as anyone
familiar with the history of the modern Middle East can tell you, Israel has
proven in the past to have very few qualms about bombing its neighbors. It
has meticulously followed a policy of "bomb first, ask questions later"
in Lebanon, Iraq, and, most recently, Syria.
A story that has thus far received rather patchy coverage in the Western
media, however, Iranian Vice President for Cultural Heritage and Tourism Esfandiar
Rahim Mashaei's "controversial" comments
two months ago regarding Israel and the Israeli people. Mashaei's little-publicized
remark? "Today Iran is the friend of the people of the United States and Israel,
and no nation in the world is our enemy."
Not quite the apocalyptic banter readers of the Western press associate with
the Islamic Republic, that bunch of crazed, wild, and irrational zealots the
Bush administration contends it's impossible to negotiate with. This surreal
charade is maintained despite the fact that the U.S. has been negotiating
with Iran over the security situation inside Iraq and Afghanistan to great
effect (Patrick Cockburn in fact credits
the convergence of Iranian and U.S. objectives for the "success"
of "the surge," as without Iran's cooperation, stability in Iraq
can't possibly be achieved) and has also been on the sidelines of Iran's nuclear-program
negotiations with the European Union.
Though Mashaei's comments predictably sparked the ire of the right-wing establishment
(and have since been partly rebutted
by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at last week's Friday prayers, which
remains problematic), President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a news conference in
"Mashaei's position represents that of the government." Ahmadinejad
"Our nation doesn't have a problem with nations or people."
Ahmadinejad emphasized that Mashaei's comments were unrelated to the dispossession
of the Palestinian people. Despite stern opposition, Ahmadinejad, whose son
is married to Mashaei's daughter, has refused to yield to pressure from a number
of senior clergymen to sack the minister. Mashaei's comments are important
for a number of reasons; chief among them is that they show the Iranian political
establishment is not a monolithic entity. Even among so-called hardliners there
are cleavages on numerous issues about which there seems to be a chronic lack
of consensus. Factionalism among the hardliners was undoubtedly one of the
reasons why Mohammad Khatami was able to clinch the presidency in 1997, and
it will offer further opportunities for reformist gains and additional bilateral
negotiations with the U.S. in the future.
It must be said, however, that Ahmadinejad has slightly fudged the issue to
quell the tide of vitriol emanating from the right-wing establishment of which
he is an integral part. In this respect, the remarks should be greeted positively
but with caution.
Mashaei's comments are a far cry from the endlessly mistranslated comments
by Ahmadinejad in which he allegedly said that "Israel should be wiped off
the map." As anyone even slightly familiar with the Persian language can
testify; his words were willfully distorted to grab headlines and demonize
the Iranian president for reasons of political expediency.
Though Ahmadinejad's actual words were rightfully seen as offensive, they
in no way constitute a direct threat to the nation of Israel. The same cannot
be said for the words
of Israeli Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who has plainly stated
that any attack on the Jewish state would result in the "destruction of the
Iranian nation." Iranian politicians know this only too well, and for
this reason would never seriously consider launching an unprovoked attack against
With Israel's present nuclear arsenal said to stand at some 200 nuclear warheads,
even the more bellicose amongst the Iranian leadership grasp that a nuclear
strike against Israel would be tantamount to national suicide. However, even
this statement presumes that Iran has a nuclear weapons program in the first
place. According to the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, Iran's weapons
program was frozen back in 2003, making the premise of a "nuclear Iran"
propagated by Washington and Israeli hawks somewhat redundant.
Ben-Eliezer's threat of "retaliatory" genocide has gone unchallenged
by the same pundits who couldn't help themselves but warn the world of the
"genocidal ambitions" harbored by the Islamic Republic.
The chorus of threats and psychological warfare against Iran has even been
joined by high-profile Democrats such as Sen. Hillary Clinton, who infamously
said that in the event
of an attack on Israel, "we would be able to totally obliterate them [the
Oversimplifying Iranian-Israeli Relations
It's often claimed that the shah enjoyed good
relations with Israel prior to the revolution. Though this has some truth to
it, the reality was not quite so rosy, since the cordiality and warmth of Iranian-Israeli
relations was prone to vacillate according to Iran's regional aspirations,
rather than out of some kind of natural affinity between the two states. For
example, as Dr. Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian-American Council,
has observed, in his indispensable book, Treacherous
Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States,
upon the signing of the Algiers Accord in 1975 with Saddam Hussein, Iranian-Israeli
relations became quite fraught as the shah moved toward a more pro-Arab policy
in a bid to secure Arab recognition of Iranian regional hegemony.
Much to the dismay of the Israelis, the shah's government also voted in November
1975 in favor of UN General Assembly Resolution 3379, which stated that "Zionism
[the ideology upon which the Jewish state is predicated] is a form of racism
and racial discrimination."
That being said, there is little doubt that upon the cusp of revolution, opposition
to Israel's occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza was essential
to the ideological disposition of the revolutionaries on both the Left and
the religious Right. Among the Islamists, opposition to Israel stemmed from
solidarity with the Palestinian people and anger over the occupation of Jerusalem,
the Dome of the Rock, and al-Aqsa mosque, which is considered the third holiest
site in Islam. The shah was partially blamed by a number of clerics and secular
intellectuals for his role in facilitating Israel's military conquests, since
he had consistently satiated Israel's demand for oil over the decades.
Israel had also been a key participant in the establishment and training of
the shah's secret police, the SAVAK , who were responsible
for the torture, arbitrary arrest, and extrajudicial killing of dissidents.
For many of the revolutionaries, this fact helped crystallize their animosity
toward Tel Aviv. Finally, there was, of course, good old guilt by association,
which branded Israel an enemy of the Islamic state for its close ties to Washington.
The revolutionaries often disparagingly referred to Israel as "little
Beyond considerations of realpolitik, it's well-known that the ideological
fervor of the Islamic Revolution set itself up in opposition to the "twin
evils" of American imperialism and Zionism. However, the rhetoric of the
heady days of quoting Fanon, calling for the export of the revolution, and
demanding that the "wretched of the earth" revolt against their oppressors
mellowed long ago ; what has taken its place has been
the pursuit of the Islamic Republic's perceived national interests and regional
self-aggrandizement. Tehran's calculated use of inflammatory rhetoric has been
largely instrumental in shoring up support under the imprimatur of an Islamic
vanguard, a role that finds itself intrinsically limited by virtue of Iran
being a Shi'ite and non-Arab power. The shah similarly realized that he could
never achieve unchallenged regional hegemony without Arab acquiescence for
almost exactly the same reason. It should be said that this geopolitical dynamic
has been dramatically altered with the American-led coalition's overthrow of
the Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein in March 2003 and the effective empowerment
of Iraq's long-suppressed Shi'ite majority.
Distinguishing Between Judaism and Zionism
During the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini was explicit
in distinguishing between the Jewish religion, which he saw as part of the
"Abrahamic" tradition, and Zionism, which he deemed a modern ideology
with the sole aim of depriving the Palestinian people of their national rights
and cultural identity. Undoubtedly, such an understanding of Zionism is reductive,
one-sided, and ignorant of the historical realities that necessitated its emergence,
but it is not an understanding exclusive to political Islamists. Many others
of varying ideological hues have taken exception to what they regard as the
discriminatory and identity-centric logic of Zionism. This distinction has
been crucial to the post-revolutionary understanding of Israel and its place
in the minds of Iran's leadership and is maintained by Supreme Leader Ayatollah
Ali Khamenei to this very day.
Iranian Jews elect
their own deputy to the 270-seat parliament and enjoy certain rights of self-administration.
Jewish burial and divorce laws are accepted by Islamic courts, and like all
other Iranians, Jews are obliged to undertake military service.
It would be only half-true to point out that Ahmadinejad's rhetoric has been
willfully mistranslated in toto and that he has said nothing that can
be viewed as offensive or anti-Semitic. He has quite clearly questioned the
veracity of the Holocaust, under the sway of Mohammad-Ali Ramin, a close adviser
to the Iranian president, according to veteran Iranian journalist Kasra Naji,
author of Ahmadinejad:
The Secret History of Iran's Radical Leader. Ramin's fulminations against
Israel and Jews often regrettably slide from criticism of the Zionist project
to outright anti-Semitism , a European phenomenon without
historical precedent in Iranian history.
These comments and the circus that was the International Conference to Review
the Global Vision of the Holocaust in December 2006 leave little doubt that
Ahmadinejad's government has at times blurred the distinction between the Jews
as a people and Zionism as a political ideology, which had hitherto been a
mainstay of Khomeinist doctrine. These events were criticized not only by members
of the Iranian public and press, but also by Iranian-Jewish member of the Majlis
Maurice Motamed; the mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf; and even Baztab,
the newspaper chiefly associated with the Revolutionary Guard, which lambasted
the government for pursuing an unnecessarily provocative course with the West.
Ahmadinejad's own proposed solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict has often
been ignored or intentionally
obscured, however. Though I personally disagree with his proposal because
it diverges from the international consensus enshrined in United Nations Security
Council Resolution 242, it is worthy of quotation. The Iranian president has
on numerous occasions that "We believe that all the people who live there,
the Jews, Muslims, and Christians, should take part in a free referendum and
choose their government."
Some might find this hard to believe, but Ahmadinejad contends that only a
democratic solution can solve the 60-year impasse dividing Palestinians from
Israelis. Moreover, it would appear that if both peoples decided on a two-state
solution in a fair and transparent electoral process, Ahmadinejad would be
compelled to accept the results.
Ignorance and Bigotry Are Not a Casus Belli
Though there is little doubt that Ahmadinejad
thought his remarks on the Holocaust would get him headlines, it appears
that through a mixture of miscalculated provocation and ignorance – the tragic
history of the Holocaust simply doesn't have the same emotional resonance in
the Muslim world as it does in Europe, since it rarely features in the curriculum
and few know much about it – he greatly underestimated the offense and alienation
such remarks would cause.
Such comments ought to be roundly condemned, of course, but as repugnant as
they might be, they don't legitimize the case for war with Iran. Questioning
the Holocaust does not constitute a casus belli. Iran hasn't directly
threatened Israel; it has only threatened retaliation in the event of an Israeli
strike against its nuclear facilities. As we know, Israel has already undertaken
for such an attack, and the debate continues in Israel over whether to proceed
along the military route. Even hawkish analysts Ronen Bergman, author of The
Secret War With Iran: The 30-Year Clandestine Struggle Against the World's
Most Dangerous Terrorist Power, has stated
on al-Jazeera English's Riz
Khan Show that Iran would never unilaterally launch a nuclear
strike against Israel.
Mashaei's comments should be welcomed and rightfully seen as throwing into
doubt the propaganda claiming Iran has some kind of implacable enmity toward
the Jewish state. The idea that conflict is inevitable between these two nations
simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny. The two countries in fact had little problem
conducting business during the Iran-Iraq war in what was part of the fiasco
that has since been dubbed the Iran-Contra
Affair. In other words, where Iran's and Israel's interests have converged,
negotiation has been feasible.
Iran's relationship with Israel is more complicated than it has been portrayed
in the mainstream media. It is not one of unremitting hostility, and even Iran's
hardliners have in the past proven to be tempered by pragmatic considerations
and calculated self-interest. Mashaei's distinction between the Israeli government
and the Israeli people attests to the factional nuances that are so often overlooked
by those beating the drum for military conflict. Even if Ahmadinejad's support
of Mashaei is merely an instance of pragmatism, it shows that a combination
of sticks and carrots could result in fruitful negotiations and steer us clear
of the path to war. Iran's leaders are not beyond rational engagement, as some
may have us believe. Mashaei's comments show that the Iranian government is
willing to distinguish between the policies of the Israeli government
and the people of Israel. This approach has long had credence among the reformist
faction and those aligned to former president Khatami. It is now even steadily
penetrating the more fundamentalist factions who presently control all the
major levers of power inside Iran.
For a long time to come, there will be little love lost between Tehran and
Tel Aviv. Iran analyst Karim Sadjadpour is probably correct in his assessment
that a marked change in Iran's relations with the West or Israel will be untenable
until a new occupant with a less dogmatic adherence to Khomeinist ideology
replaces Khamenei as supreme leader. War, however, is not inevitable, and an
Israeli military strike cannot be justified on the charge that Iran poses either
an "imminent" or an "existential" threat to Israel, given
that the Ahmadinejad government has only threatened to retaliate against unprovoked
Israeli aggression, and, according to the 2007 NIE, Iran has no active nuclear
weapons program. Though some of Ahmadinejad's comments have unfortunately slipped
into the rhetoric of anti-Semitism, which should be condemned, bigotry simply
doesn't merit war. Israeli hawks have no legitimate casus belli for
going to war against Iran, and any future act of aggression by either side
must be staunchly opposed by antiwar activists.
 I'm not going to rehash the particulars of the "wiped
off the map" incident, since it has already been addressed in depth elsewhere.
The correct translation and clarification of Ahmadinejad's comments can be
in a trenchant essay by Arash Norouzi and here
on Professor Juan Cole's blog.
 Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel,
Iran, and the United States, Trita Parsi, Yale University Press, 2007,
 Ibid, p. 64.
 Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic,
Ray Takeyh, Times Books, 2006, p. 194.
 Iran experts tend to agree that the revolutionary government
entered its Thermidorian
period in the aftermath of the Iraq-Iraq War, perhaps even before. For details
see, After Khomeini: The Iranian Second Republic, Anoushiravan Ehteshami,
Routledge, 1995, p. 30.
 Ahmadinejad: The Secret History of Iran's Radical
Leader, Kasra Naji, University of California Press, 2008, Chapter 5.