I haven’t posted a lot on Iran because it’s not really an area I know a great deal about. But what I can recognize is the predictable tropes of cognitive egocentrism, and that’s what this latest by Fareed Zakaria is full of. I’ve been following his program on CNN segments of which we’ll be posting soon at the new Second Draft site for comment and criticism. There, it’s hard to know what he thinks aside from how he chooses his guests — Gerges is less of an analyst than an advocate, but Zakaria doesn’t seem to notice — but in this piece he’s wearing his colors loud and clear.
Lorenz Gude, one of our regular commenters here notes:
I found myself pretty surprised by Fareed Zakaria’s piece on Iran in Newsweek entitled “They May Not Want the Bomb.” It is an example of apologetic propaganda that reminds me of hagiographies of Stalin.
Inside a land poised between tradition and modernity
How’s that for a start. It may be somewhere between the two conceptually, but to call it poised between them is to suggest those are its two possible (and imminent) directions. On the contrary, Khoumeini’s “Islamic Republic of Iran” is a terrifying experiment in anti-modern apocalyptic Islam. To leave that out of the picture already marks Zakaria’s (or is it the Newsweek editor’s) conceptual framework as critically deficient.
How about: Inside a land hijacked by anti-modern Islamists on the painful path from tradition to modernity
By Fareed Zakaria | NEWSWEEK
Published May 23, 2009
Religion Versus Reality
Everything you know about Iran is wrong, or at least more complicated than you think. Take the bomb. The regime wants to be a nuclear power but could well be happy with a peaceful civilian program (which could make the challenge it poses more complex). What’s the evidence? Well, over the last five years, senior Iranian officials at every level have repeatedly asserted that they do not intend to build nuclear weapons.
And they wouldn’t lie to us, would they? Zakaria seems to think that having nuclear weapons is like having dessert — something you can take or leave. Does he really mean this? Is this deliberate misinformation or just breathtaking naivete? As the kept woman said to the court when told that her senator lover denied having any knowledge of her, “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?”
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has quoted the regime’s founding father, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who asserted that such weapons were “un-Islamic.” The country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa in 2004 describing the use of nuclear weapons as immoral. In a subsequent sermon, he declared that “developing, producing or stockpiling nuclear weapons is forbidden under Islam.” Last year Khamenei reiterated all these points after meeting with the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei. Now, of course, they could all be lying. But it seems odd for a regime that derives its legitimacy from its fidelity to Islam to declare constantly that these weapons are un-Islamic if it intends to develop them. It would be far shrewder to stop reminding people of Khomeini’s statements and stop issuing new fatwas against nukes.
Of course they could be lying. And they could be doing that for the sake of Islam. After all, the Shiites are the original practitioners of Takkiya. As the Supreme Leader Khoumeini put it:
Should we remain truthful at the cost of defeat and danger to the Faith? People say, “don’t kill!” But the Almighty himself taught us how to kill… Shall we not kill when it is necessary for the triumph of the Faith? We say that killing is tantamount to saying a prayer when those who are harmful [to the Faith] need to be put out of the way. Deceit, trickery, conspiracy, cheating, stealing and killing are nothing but means… (Murawiec, The Mind of Jihad, p.43).
Are these statements made in English and broadcast to us, or in Pharsee and broadcast to the Iranian public. Could it just be fodder for dupes?
And then, what about this:
Iran’s hardline spiritual leaders have issued an unprecedented new fatwa, or holy order, sanctioning the use of atomic weapons against its enemies.
In yet another sign of Teheran’s stiffening resolve on the nuclear issue, influential Muslim clerics have for the first time questioned the theocracy’s traditional stance that Sharia law forbade the use of nuclear weapons.
One senior mullah has now said it is “only natural” to have nuclear bombs as a “countermeasure” against other nuclear powers, thought to be a reference to America and Israel.
The pronouncement is particularly worrying because it has come from Mohsen Gharavian, a disciple of the ultra-conservative Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, who is widely regarded as the cleric closest to Iran’s new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Nicknamed “Professor Crocodile” because of his harsh conservatism, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi’s group opposes virtually any kind of rapprochement with the West and is believed to have influenced President Ahmadinejad’s refusal to negotiate over Iran’s nuclear programme.
The comments, which are the first public statement by the Yazdi clerical cabal on the nuclear issue, will be seen as an attempt by the country’s religious hardliners to begin preparing a theological justification for the ownership – and if necessary the use – of atomic bombs.
Does Zakaria know about this and doesn’t think it’s relevant? Is the Daily Telegraph misreporting?
Following a civilian nuclear strategy has big benefits. The country would remain within international law, simply asserting its rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a position that has much support across the world. That would make comprehensive sanctions against Iran impossible. And if Tehran’s aim is to expand its regional influence, it doesn’t need a bomb to do so. Simply having a clear “breakout” capacity—the ability to weaponize within a few months—would allow it to operate with much greater latitude and impunity in the Middle East and Central Asia.
This passage offers a full panorama of combined liberal cognitive egocentrism and appeasement rationalization. On the one hand, we’re told it’s more “beneficial” for Iran to constrain itself to the internationally acceptable civilian strategy (because they don’t have enough oil to produce heat?), as if Zakaria’s notion of “benefits” are the same as that going through the minds of the mullahs who run the show. Then he ends by saying, “okay, they may want the ‘big stick’ of nuclear weapons, but they don’t have to actually have them. They can just have all the materials they want two steps away from assembly and they can bully all they want. Fig leaf for us, full benefits for them. Everybody wins!”
Iranians aren’t suicidal. In an interview last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the Iranian regime as “a messianic, apocalyptic cult.” In fact, Iran has tended to behave in a shrewd, calculating manner, advancing its interests when possible, retreating when necessary.
This is precious. We had brilliant analysts coming up with exactly the same kind of analysis of Hitler in the 1930s. The evidence for Ahmadinejad’s apocalyptic preoccupations are legion, and the idea that, while he’s not in a position to act, he doesn’t show his full commitment to those ideas in acts, but rather his “shrewd and rational” behavior now is really what he’s about, constitutes a kind of willful ignorance that we should not have to see coming from our opinion leaders so late in this particular game.
The Iranians allied with the United States and against the Taliban in 2001, assisting in the creation of the Karzai government. They worked against the United States in Iraq, where they feared the creation of a pro-U.S. puppet on their border. Earlier this year, during the Gaza war, Israel warned Hizbullah not to launch rockets against it, and there is much evidence that Iran played a role in reining in their proxies. Iran’s ruling elite is obsessed with gathering wealth and maintaining power.
I don’t see either Ahmadinejad, nor Khameini, nor the other Mullahs into amassing great wealth, and in terms of maintaining power, the enmity of the world serves their purposes. This is more “rational economic” man.
The argument made by those—including many Israelis for coercive sanctions against Iran is that many in the regime have been squirreling away money into bank accounts in Dubai and Switzerland for their children and grandchildren. These are not actions associated with people who believe that the world is going to end soon.
One of Netanyahu’s advisers said of Iran, “Think Amalek.” The Bible says that the Amalekites were dedicated enemies of the Jewish people. In 1 Samuel 15, God says, “Go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” Now, were the president of Iran and his advisers to have cited a religious text that gave divine sanction for the annihilation of an entire race, they would be called, well, messianic.
This is a good example of Zakaria’s questionable faith when informing his audience. The number of explicitly messianic statements from the very mouth of the President of Iran are numerous and yet, Zakaria sweeps them away with a wave of his hand. He then takes an advisor’s off-hand remark — “Think Amalek” — which is Jewish shorthand for “existential threat” and reaches for the genocidal element of the story that the advisor surely didn’t intend (no one’s talking about wiping out the Iranian people), in order to score a cheap debating point.
The rhetorical bad faith here — dismiss serious evidence, and when necessary stretch flimsy evidence as a counter-argument — in a matter as weighty as our attitude towards Iran’s desire to have nuclear weapons strikes me as a grave indictment of Zakaria’s reliability as a source of information and considered opinion. On the contrary, this is cheap manipulation in the service of a desired position regardless of the evidence.
Iran isn’t a dictatorship. It is certainly not a democracy. The regime jails opponents, closes down magazines and tolerates few challenges to its authority. But neither is it a monolithic dictatorship. It might be best described as an oligarchy, with considerable debate and dissent within the elites. Even the so-called Supreme Leader has a constituency, the Assembly of Experts, who selected him and whom he has to keep happy. Ahmadinejad is widely seen as the “mad mullah” who runs the country, but he is not the unquestioned chief executive and is actually a thorn in the side of the clerical establishment. He is a layman with no family connections to major ayatollahs—which makes him a rare figure in the ruling class. He was not initially the favored candidate of the Supreme Leader in the 2005 election. Even now the mullahs clearly dislike him, and he, in turn, does things deliberately designed to undermine their authority.
This may well be true, but by this point, I don’t trust a word Zakaria has to say about this situation in Iran. He may be right, but it’s like listening to someone who’s trying to sell you his house, describe it: he only tells you what he wants you to know. The question is, why is Zakaria working as an Iranian PR flak?
Let’s not forget that just because the ruling religious elite doesn’t like Ahmadinejad, that doesn’t mean they don’t share many of his religious sentiments. Let’s not forget that Khoumeini, the godfather of this apocalyptic mafia, was the first Islamic figure to break onto the global scene (as opposed to, say, Sayyid Qutb, whose writings were largely unknown to the West), to embrace death and murder as religious values. Here’s some of Khoumeini’s thoughts as cited in Laurent Murawiec’s The Mind of Jihad, p.43-44:
Islam says: “Kill them, put them to the sword and scatter their armies!” Does this mean sitting back until they overcome us? Islam says: “Whatever good there is exists thanks to the sword and in the shadow of the sword.” People cannot be made obedient except with the sword. The sword is the key to Paradise which can be opened only for Holy warriors… Does all that mean that Islam is a religion that prevents men from waging war? I spit upon those foolish souls who make such a claim…
Islam grew with blood… The great Prophet of Islam in one hand carried the Quran and in the other a sword; the sword for crushing the traitors and the Quran for guidance…. Islam is a religon of blood for the infidels but a religion of guidance for other people…
War is a blessing for the world and for every nation. It is Allah himself who commands men to wage war and kill… The wars that our Prophet… waged against the infidels were divine gifts to humanity. Once we have won the war [with Iraq], we shall turn to other wars. For that would not be enough. We have to wage war until all corruption, all disobedience of Islamic law ceases [throughout the world]. The Quran commands: “War! War until victory!” A religiion without war is a crippled religion… It is war that purifies the earth… Our young fighters… know that to kill the infidels is one of the noblest missions Allah has reserved for mankind.”
Does Zakaria know anything about this? Does he think that he, and we — all we Westerners — aren’t infidels?
If he did, would he bother mentioning these ideas to his audience? Or is he just in pursuit of his goal — put people’s anxiety about Iran to rest/sleep?
Does he really think that the blandishments of the West — prosperity for the Iranian people, allowing in Western “rational” influences, the give and take of an economically dynamic society with its empowered “middle” class — will override these principles? Does he think Khoumeini’s world view is just passé, a brief and long-ago discarded summer squall of religious fanaticism that quickly ceded to Western rationality?
And what if he’s wrong? (Does that even occur to him?)
Iran might be ready to deal. We can’t know if a deal is possible since we’ve never tried to negotiate one, not directly.
And the failure of all the indirect attempts is not a significant factor to consider?
While the regime appears united in its belief that Iran has the right to a civilian nuclear program—a position with broad popular support—some leaders seem sensitive to the costs of the current approach. It is conceivable that these “moderates” would appreciate the potential benefits of limiting their nuclear program, including trade, technology and recognition by the United States.
This would all make sense, and would have been as true in 1979 when Iran broke every “rational” rule in the books as it is now. It is entirely conceivable that there are quite a few Iranians who want this. It’s also possible that they can’t be in a position of influence because those for whom such considerations represent intolerable concessions to a pro-Western sentiment that threatens the very foundations of Islam, have no scruples using any means to stay in power.
The Iranians insist they must be able to enrich uranium on their own soil. One proposal is for this to take place in Iran but only under the control of an international consortium. It’s not a perfect solution because the Iranians could—if they were very creative and dedicated—cheat. But neither is it perfect from the Iranian point of view because it would effectively mean a permanent inspections regime in their country. But both sides might get enough of what they consider crucial for it to work. Why not try this before launching the next Mideast war?
This would be a much better piece if, instead of just making light of the concerns of those who think Iranian nuclear weapons would be a disaster, he spent some time analyzing why the “negotiating” angle had, so far, not worked, and what kinds of elements we should use to make it work. But that would actually mean Zakaria had to think seriously about what’s going on, rather than fill the page with his supremely self-confident liberal projections. Who but a war monger could disagree with that?
I think this important because Zakaria is obviously being a stalking horse of Obama’s policy of engagement. I presume you have read both Barry Rubin’s analysis of the recent Obama Netanyahu news conference and Caroline Glick’s rather more gloomy view. Naturally, Zakaria’s article tends me to incline more to Glick’s view.