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More On Iran

I'm hesitant to get into a full-blown debate about Iran and Israel because I don't want to preempt Yossi Klein Halevi and Michael Oren, whose upcoming piece addresses the subject thoughtfully and in great detail. Unlike me, Yossi and Michael actually know what they're talking about. So I'll leave the big questions to them.

But I do want to make a few narrow points. Brad, you note that Khamenei has issued a fatwa against developing nuclear weapons. But just about every reputable observer--left, right, dove, hawk, American, Israeli, European--believes that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. This is not exactly a source of controversy. So Khamenei's fatwa was a lie. I'm not sure why you would bring it up. It only proves that Khamenei is, in addition to a hateful man, a liar as well. I suspect you would counter that, since he is a liar, maybe he is also lying about his desire to see Israel destroyed. Maybe he is. Maybe he isn't. I have no way of knowing, and neither do you. But if a lying, hateful man got control of nuclear weapons in my neighborhood, I'd be worried. So would anyone. Can you really blame Israelis for being nervous?

Second, you suggest looking at the Iranian regime's past actions rather than its rhetoric. And I'm sure you can produce plenty of cases where the regime has acted pragmatically. But what do you make of the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires--an attack that is widely believed to have been orchestrated by Iran? That bombing took place long before Ahmadinejad arrived on the scene. According to Ze'ev Schiff of Ha'aretz, "The decision in principle to strike at the Jewish community center was made in August 1993 at a meeting chaired by"--guess who?--"Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei." Perhaps there's some way in which Khamenei's decision to blow up that community center and kill 85 Jews on the other side of the world was "pragmatic." If so, I'd be curious to hear it. Otherwise, I would suggest that, in addition to whatever pragmatic strains exist in Iranian foreign policy, there are some pretty scary strains too. Again, if I were Israeli, I'd be nervous.

Third narrow point: Matt Yglesias (whom I personally like and respect) accuses me of misrepresenting a quote from former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Since Yglesias has previously made this same accusation against TNR author Matthias Kuntzel, and since his reading of Rafsanjani's speech--then as now--is bizarrely naive, it's worth settling this once and for all. Here is the quote in its original context:

The colonialists will keep this base [Israel] as long as they need it. Now, whether they can do so or not is a separate issue and this is my next point. Any time they find a replacement for that particular instrument, they will take it up and this will come to an end. This will open a new chapter. Because colonialism and imperialism will not easily leave the people of the world alone. Therefore, you can see that they have arranged it in a way that the balance of power favors Israel. Well, from a numerical point of view, it cannot have as many troops as Muslims and Arabs do. So they have improved the quality of what they have. Classical weaponry has its own limitations. They have limited use. They have a limited range as well. They have supplied vast quantities of weapons of mass destruction and unconventional weapons to Israel. They have permitted it to have them and they have shut their eyes to what is going on. They have nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and long-range missiles and suchlike.

If one day ... Of course, that is very important. If one day, the Islamic world is also equipped with weapons like those that Israel possesses now, then the imperialists' strategy will reach a standstill because the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything. However, it will only harm the Islamic world. It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality.

My dispute with Yglesias is over what Rafsanjani meant by the last sentence. Does the phrase "such an eventuality" refer to the prospect of Iran attacking Israel with a nuclear weapon? Or does it refer to the prospect of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon and using it to deter Israel's nuclear threat? To me, the first reading is the obvious (and more likely) one, but the fact is that it's impossible to tell: It's an ambiguous phrase, and you can read it either way. But let's say Yglesias is right, and "such an eventuality" refers only to the prospect of Iran being able to deter Israel's nuclear capability with a nuclear capability of its own. Does Rafsanjani want deterrence so that Iran can live in peace with Israel? Um, not exactly. The entire theme of the speech is that Israel must be destroyed. Earlier in the speech, referring to Israel, Rafsanjani says, "[F]inally one day, this tumor in the body of the Islamic world will be removed and then millions of Jews who have moved there will be homeless again." Rafsajani isn't exactly proposing a cold peace with the Jewish state; he's proposing its destruction. So, even if Yglesias is right that "such an eventuality" refers only to the loss of Israel's nuclear superiority, Rafsanjani is celebrating that loss of superiority because it will allow Iran to pursue Israel's destruction by conventional means. Read the first three-quarters of the above excerpt, and the message is clear: that without nuclear superiority Israel is, strategically speaking, screwed. (Or, in Rafasanjani's phrasing, "the imperialists' strategy will reach a standstill.") This, too, is terrifying in its own way. And that's an optimstic reading of Rafsanjani's words.

Since Yglesias will probably label me a warmonger for explaining what Rafsanjani actually said, I'll reiterate what I wrote last week: I don't know what to do about Iran, and I am skeptical of arguments for bombing the country's nuclear facilities. But I am equally skeptical of the argument that Iran's development of nuclear weapons will not have terrifying consequences for Israel. If self-delusion is what you want, you can comfort yourself by noting that Khamenei has issued a fatwa decrying nuclear weapons or by coming up with strained interpretations of Rafsanjani's speech. If it isn't, you can face the unsettling truth that Iran is run by a regime that wants Israel destroyed. Too many liberals seem far too confident that such a regime acquiring nuclear weapons isn't that big a deal. "Just as they taught me in Hebrew school," Yglesias wrote last year, in an article that made the case against bombing Iran, "the Islamic world's governments like to talk a big game about Israel, but don't actually give a rat's ass about the issue and never have." I wish his blithe confidence wasn't so badly undermined by both history and contemporary reality. I really do.

--Richard Just