Iran: Setting the Record Straight


I’ve read and heard about some silly misinformation being spread around regarding my trip last year to Iran – and I’m thinking it might behoove me to set the record straight.

I will say at the outset that I gave a Yom Kippur sermon on this topic and I blogged extensively from Iran. If you haven’t read these posts yet, please do so. They will give you a pretty good sense of the why, what and how of my Iran experiences.

Right off the bat: I did not meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Now that I’ve gotten that straightened out, I’d like to address one particular quote of mine that’s being bandied about out of context:

While I prefer not to weigh in on the rhetorical hairsplitting debate on [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s notorious 2005 threat to wipe Israel off the map, I’ll only suggest that our attitudes and foreign policy must be based on real intelligence and understanding, and not fear-based, knee-jerk assumptions.

I still think this quote should pretty well speak for itself, but apparently I need to explain further.  I know of at least two instances in which this quote was used to somehow imply traitorous intentions on my part – i.e., that I prefer not to “weigh in” on the serious threats posed by Iran toward the Jewish state.

To those who doubt where my ultimate loyalties lay, I was actually referring with this quote to the rhetorical debate over the actual Farsi meaning of Ahmadinejad’s words from this oft-quoted speech. There has been an important ongoing debate as to whether these words were intended as a threat of genocide against the Jewish state or a predication of the eventual dissolution of the “Zionist regime” from within.

A recent blog post by Juan Cole represents this point of view well:

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did quote Ayatollah Khomeini to the effect that “this Occupation regime over Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time” (in rezhim-e eshghalgar-i Qods bayad as safheh-e ruzgar mahv shavad). This was not a pledge to roll tanks and invade or to launch missiles, however. It is the expression of a hope tha the regime will collapse, just as the Soviet Union did. It is not a threat to kill anyone at all.

As I myself am not a scholar of Farsi, I don’t consider myself qualified to weigh in on this debate, but I do believe that “our attitudes and foreign policy must be based on real intelligence and understanding, and not fear-based, knee-jerk assumptions.” I continue to stand by this assertion – I’m simply not a fan of fear-based foreign policy.  I am well aware that there are those who will say, “maybe Iran does intend to destroy Israel or maybe it doesn’t, but can we really take that chance?” I’m more inclined to say it this way: “when we jump to conclusions and base our reactions on fear rather than true understanding, we may ultimately cause our deepest fears to actually come true.”

By the way,  I encourage you to read Cole’s entire post, entitled “Top Things You Think You Know About Iran That Are Not True.” Whether or not you agree with his analysis, I believe his perspective provides a thought-provoking corrective to so many of the fear-based assumptions currently being bandied about regarding Iran.

Here are a few excerpts:

Belief: Iran is a militarized society bristling with dangerous weapons and a growing threat to world peace.

Reality: Iran’s military budget is a little over $6 billion annually. Sweden, Singapore and Greece all have larger military budgets. Moreover, Iran is a country of 70 million, so that its per capita spending on defense is tiny compared to these others, since they are much smaller countries with regard to population. Iran spends less per capita on its military than any other country in the Persian Gulf region with the exception of the United Arab Emirates.

Belief: Isn’t the Iranian regime irrational and crazed, so that a doctrine of mutually assured destruction just would not work with them?

Actuality: Iranian politicians are rational actors. If they were madmen, why haven’t they invaded any of their neighbors? Saddam Hussein of Iraq invaded both Iran and Kuwait. Israel invaded its neighbors more than once. In contrast, Iran has not started any wars. Demonizing people by calling them unbalanced is an old propaganda trick. The US elite was once unalterably opposed to China having nuclear science because they believed the Chinese are intrinsically irrational. This kind of talk is a form of racism.

PS: By the way, did I mention I didn’t meet with Ahmadinejad?

11 thoughts on “Iran: Setting the Record Straight

  1. YBD

    Cole says “Iran has not started any wars”. Sure, not with massed formations of tanks, infantry and aircraft. Too expensive, as Cole himself pointed out. But they are VERY involved in subversion, they spend huge amounts of money supporting HIZBULLAH and HAMAS in addition to pushing Shi’ite proseltizing throught the Sunni Muslim world, which is against the law in most Sunni Arab states. This may sound rather trivial to our Western ears but is also considered “subversion” by these Sunnis since someone who becomes a Shi’ite will start following Shi’ite religious leaders, many of whom are Iranian, instead of their local Sunni leaders who are under the thumb of the local regime in power.
    Also, dont’ forget the two big terrorist attacks against Jewish targets in Argentina which were made under Iranian auspices. They certainly had no problem killing people (most of whom were Argentinian passers-by) there. Iran clearly has imperial aims but they don’t have the industrial or financial base to implement it so they use fear, propaganda, terrorism and Israel-bashing to garner support.

    I am glad you didn’t fall into the trap Cole and others lay in saying “when the Iranians say Israel is evil, a cancer, a threat to all of humanity and we guarantee it will disappear they don’t REALLY mean they will do anything about it”. Talking out of both sides of their mouth is an old trick of totalitarian regimes. The listener takes away what he wants from it. Cole says “there is no EXPLICIT threat” whereas the HAMAS follower says there is. Both are happy. Meanwhile, we here in Israel, have to be concerned that they DO mean to take action and it is irresponsible to simply dismiss it as does Cole. If you had a neighbor who talked that way about you, then went around brandishing a rifle and tellling the rest of your neighbors that “you are going to disappear soon”, you certainly would be concerned. The point is to maintain a cool head.

  2. Lisa Pildes

    Okay, let me get this straight: Ahmadinejad is not a madman and I am racist for thinking so; he doesn’t really want to wipe Israel and the Jews off the face of the earth, he was just doing some wishful thinking about the results of the next Israeli elections; Iran spends less than Singapore on it’s military so I should be more worried about Singapore than Iran. Gee, Brant, if he is such a nice guy, maybe we should have elected Ahmadinejad President instead of Obama.
    And I LOVE the way it is just thrown in as an aside about Israel invading it’s neighbors. You reprinted that with narry a comment.
    I can’t even begin to respond to every point, I am just sputtering angry now.

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author

      I’m sorry to have angered you, Lisa. It was my intention to challenge some of the “conventional thinking” on this crisis, much of which I believe is misguided.

      To respond:

      – Cole’s point as I understand it was not to claim that one is racist to consider Ahmadinejad a madman, but to suggest that there are racist underpinnings in the assumption that the Iranian political establishment is simply irrational. Many political analysts have pointed out that Iranian decisions are based far more on practical concerns than out and out “madness.” I agree with him that it is not uncommon to dismiss different cultures that we don’t understand as “crazy.” I don’t think it is overstating the case to say that prejudice might be playing a role in the assumptions we make about Iranian behavior.

      – Yes, I do believe it is alarmist and simplistic to claim Ahmadinejad seeks to “wipe Israel off the earth.” I don’t think it is appeasement or wishful thinking to try and separate political rhetoric from fear and misunderstanding. And I think it is especially dangerous to allow fear or ignorance to guide our foreign policy/military decisions.

      – No, we shouldn’t be more afraid of Singapore than Iran. But we should attempt to bring some perspective and balance to our discussion of the military power dynamic at work here.

      – I’ve made it clear in many of my posts that I consider Ahmadinejad to be an odious and repressive leader. I don’t think it’s very fair to assume that just because I seek to understand him and his statements in context that I automatically condone him in any way.

      – I think it is fair to point out that Iran has never invaded any of its neighbors – unlike other countries. Yes, even other countries such as Israel or the US. Among other things, this might help us to understand why Iran feels so vulnerable – a point that was made to us by many whom we spoke with on our visit.

      Lisa, it’s not my goal to make people sputtering angry here. I hope we can have a respectful dialogue about these important issues, even when we clearly have some fundamental disagreements.

    2. Eric Selinger

      I’m not angry, Brant, but I don’t find Cole’s arguments about military spending persuasive at all.

      The rockets fired by Hezbollah on northern Israel were probably not terribly expensive. Qassams and car bombs and explosive belts and IEDs are even cheaper. Al-Qaeda managed to do some pretty serious damage for, what, the cost of some box cutters? It ain’t what you spend, it’s the way that you use it, so to speak, especially if your goal is to make life unbearable for someone else, rather than to conquer and hold territory.

      As for not invading neighbors proving that the Iranian leadership isn’t made up of “madmen”–well, that sets the bar very oddly. What was “mad” about Saddam invading Kuwait? Which was “madder,” Iraq’s using chemical weapons against Iran or Iran sending children out to clear mines during their war in the 80s? Is the North Korean leadership mad for ruining their country while living (I suspect) like kings? Madness isn’t necessarily the issue one way or the other.

      I don’t support an attack on Iran, for a variety of reasons. But Cole doesn’t strike me as a very convincing advocate here–much less than you yourself have been in other columns and venues, in fact.

      1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author

        Granted Cole has his own obvious biases, but I still think his points are valid. If you want the same essential argument made with a bit more subtlety, I’d recommend this recent Newsweek piece by Fareed Zakaria:

        …Israel’s massive nuclear force will deter Iran from ever contemplating using or giving away its own (hypothetical) weapon. Deterrence worked with madmen like Mao, and with thugs like Stalin, and it will work with the calculating autocrats of Tehran. The Iranian regime has amply demonstrated over the past four months that it is interested in hanging on to power at all costs, jailing mullahs and ignoring its own clerical elite. These are not the actions of religious rulers about to commit mass suicide.

  3. Daniel

    Reb B,

    Juan Cole’s allusion to the Soviet Regime is an interesting one. The U.S. hoped for the Soviet regime to collapse but did not call for genocide. Meanwhile, the U.S. armed and trained proxies (including the Taliban) and eventually tore the regime down.

    Iran, through Hizballah (and now Hamas) is pursuing a similar strategy vis a vis Israel…

    So, yes, maybe they do not call for genocide in public, but they were more than happy to supply the missiles that struck apartment buildings in Haifa.

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


      No, the US did not call for genocide in the Soviet Union, but Reagan did repeatedly state that it was an “evil empire” and would eventually end up in “the ash heap of history.” Can we really say for sure how these kinds of comments were actually experienced by Soviets?

      He also was once heard saying:

      My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.

      American citizens knew that this was just a stupid joke, but I’m not sure it was understood that way in the Soviet Union.

      For what it’s worth, I personally disagree with your assesment that the SU was ultimately brought down by American military proxies. (After all, there were plenty of proxy wars on both sides during the Cold War years.) I tend to agree with view that the SU’s bloated and corrupt bureaucracy ultimately caused it to implode from within.

  4. David Bernstein

    Why should it cheer us that Iran hasn’t INVADED other countries, but arms and trains Hezbollah and Hamas, and was responsible, among other things, for the murder of Americans in Lebanon in the 1980s and the terrorist bombing of a Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires in 1992? There are other ways to project power beyond invading.

    And here’s a thought experiment: If Iran did get a nuclear bomb, and threatened to nuke Tel Aviv if the “Zionist regime” didn’t capitulate within 48 hours what would you advise Israel to do? (Or what if it gave the weapon to Hezbollah to make the same threat?) Given that it’s not at all clear what Israel could do at that point, and given that Iran, as a “rational actor”, has already expressed its wish that the “Zionist regime” disappear, on what possible basis to you think it’s a bad idea to prevent Iran, by force if necessary, from getting nuclear weaponry.

    Note that I am totally accepting your view that Iran’s political class is rational, and that its goal is the dissolution of Israel, preferably without murdering anyone.

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author

      On the issue of Iran’s support for Hamas/Hezbollah:

      This was actually a question I posed to the gentleman in the picture above…

      There is no question that these groups pose a threat to Israel and that Israelis have every right to point to Iran’s support of them.

      My point is only that we need to keep perspective. The threat of groups such as these is real and intolerable, but we also need to be mindful of the actual balance power here. Iran’s support of these groups in no way constitutes an existential threat of a “second Holocaust” – and it is unhelpful to couch Iran’s threat toward Israel in such terms (And David: your nightmare “what if” scenario, above might make for an interesting “thought experiment,” but I personally believe it makes for very dangerous foreign policy.)

      And lest we be tempted to take the moral high ground over Iran’s support of military proxies, it is worth bearing in mind that Israel (and the US) have also armed and supported some pretty nasty insurgent groups throughout the world as well. (I think it’s fair to say that we generally find the moral wherewithal to speak out against the existence of these kinds of groups when we ourselves are actually threatened by them.)

  5. Gabriel Sehr

    This is my first post to this blog, though I suspect that between the content and the comments I will have many opportunities to participate in the discussion and look forward to doing so.

    Based on my own previous study both in the classroom and in my own time, it is my personal opinion that the Coleman piece is flawed and only partially accurate in several ways (some of which have been noted in the comments above).

    HOWEVER, the fact that a piece like that needed to be written speaks to how virulent and misinformed the debate can occasionally get on both sides when discussing Israel and Iran. A year ago one could have easily penned a “10 Things You Know about Obama that Aren’t True” article, or today someone really should be writing a “10 Things You Know about Healthcare Reform that Aren’t True” article. Note: I am NOT comparing the relative looniness of “deathers” and “birthers” with those concerned about the current Iranian regime. I personally think that some of the “fear-based” concerns many have with Iran have some merit.

    But making the comparison does show the weakness of our position and means that we aren’t doing the best job we could be to defend Israel’s cause and actions.

    So for fear of devolving into the kind of debate we see on cable news, I think we all owe it to ourselves as Jews and allies of Israel to do our homework and gain a “true understanding” of the issues. In that sense, Rabbi, your point is well taken.


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