Latest reports suggest that there could be a resolution to the nuclear dispute between Iran and the USA on the horizon? If it is so then Ahmadinejad had better if the Iranians kept Ahmadinejad out of the way. But before I come to these reports I would like to look at how the President of Iran may have influenced the process. He is portrayed, even by great instigative journalists as insane, but others have detected method in his madness. To do that you have to avoid getting distracted by the hysterical projections of his detractors and treat him seriously.
The great instigative journalist is Robert Fisk, who has a new article in Saturday’s Indie, The Middle East never tires of threats. Until the end of the article it is vintage Fisk, looking at the absurd, boastful theatrics that makes up so much of conflict, and especially Middle Eastern politics. His best shot comes when the boasts stop.
The problem about threats, of course, is that once you’ve made them, you’ve either got to carry them out or pretend you were misunderstood. I never believed George Bush would invade Iraq; not, that is, until I turned up at UN headquarters in New York and actually heard him ranting on about the powerlessness of the UN. And then he actually did invade Iraq. And I still have my notes of an interview with a certain Osama bin Laden, and his last words to me were: “I pray that God permits us to turn America into a shadow of itself.” And I wrote in the margin the one word “rhetoric?”. September 11 cleared that one up.
For those that haven’t already read Commander Huber’s essay on how we all walked into the trap, I recommend it, for it America has become a shadow of herself, even if, despite extensive south-west-Asian commitments, her ability wreak death and destruction remains formidable . I mean the American brand is a shadow of itself, though its not irreparable (and already underway?).
Unfortunately Fisk gets carried away with his story and finishes with the most hackneyed of comparisons, and following a narrative lovingly constructed by the purveyors of the meaningless, lazy and empty rhetoric that Fisk despises so much.
And when Ahmadinejad talks of annihilating Israel, he cowers, of course, under the shadow of Hitler. And he intends, I think, to make us fear him – although no Iranian military force would let him get his hands on anything nuclear. “Annihilating” Israel – always supposing anyone would truly contemplate it – also means annihilating the West Bank and Gaza and much of Lebanon and Jordan and probably the whole Middle East.
But Hitler is dead and we need to escape from the world of threats. Was it not King Lear who once shouted: “I shall do such things, what they are yet I know not – but they shall be the terrors of the earth.” Poor old Lear.
It is worth looking at just how we have got where we have, why Ahmadinejad is so successful in drawing the attention he does, and whether the things he says even make sense. For that we have to review what has happened to Iran since 2001, from the Iranian perspective.
We now know that in late 2001General Wesley Clarke, reported the following from a trip to the Pentagon:
“‘Oh, it’s worse than that,’ he said, holding up a memo on his desk. ‘Here’s the paper from the Office of the Secretary of Defense [then Donald Rumsfeld] outlining the strategy. We’re going to take out seven countries in five years.’ And he named them, starting with Iraq and Syria and ending with Iran.”
At this stage we had Ayatollah Khatami’s reformist government in power in Iran vigorously trying to repair relations with Washington. The reason that the USA was able to walk into Afghanistan was because Tehran had organised the whole show for them, the Northern Alliance being as much in Iran’s sphere as the Taliban was Pakistan’s (see Leverett & Mann interview and Parsi’s Treacherous Alliance, pp. 228-30). Iran was also one of the largest aid donors to Iran initially pledging $570m, later adding $100m.
In the January 2002, in his State of the Union speech President Bush announced that the Iranians were a part of the axis of evil. From John Richgardson’s interview of Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann, The Secret History of the Impending War with Iran That the White House Doesn’t Want You to Know:
The Iranians had been engaging in high-level diplomacy with the American government for more than a year, so the phrase was shocking and profound.
After that, the Iranian diplomats skipped the monthly meeting in Geneva. But they came again in March. And so did Mann. “They said they had put their necks out to talk to us and they were taking big risks with their careers and their families and their lives,” Mann says.
The Iranians kept the channels open and proposed shortly after the Americans swept into Baghdad a new strategic relationship with the Americans, settling all outstanding issues, including securing the Iranian civili nuclear programme, the demilitarization of Hezbollah, ceasing support of rejectionist Palestinian groups, de facto recognition of Israel and cooperation over Iraq. According to Colin Powel’s chief of staff, the Vice President had decided that ‘we don’t speak with evil’.
And here we have Scott Ritter in the Summer of 2005 in The US War with Iran has Already Begun.
Most Americans, together with the mainstream American media, are blind to the tell-tale signs of war, waiting, instead, for some formal declaration of hostility, a made-for-TV moment such as was witnessed on 19 March 2003.
We now know that the war had started much earlier. Likewise, history will show that the US-led war with Iran will not have begun once a similar formal statement is offered by the Bush administration, but, rather, had already been under way since June 2005, when the CIA began its programme of MEK-executed terror bombings in Iran.
It was at this point that Khatami’s government was swept from power and the populist mayor of Tehran scored a surprise victory over the establishment conservatives. Khatami’s party was spiked by the establishment through the Guardian Council which disqualified most of the liberal candidates from standing for election.
Is it remotely surprising that the Iranians should dump Khatami in the circumstances. Ahmadinejad’s point was that the Khatami government had been extremely naive in hoping that they would be taken seriously by merely offering to cooperate., that there is no point in the Iranians trying to appease this kind of aggression. Ahmadinejad’s logic was that it did the Taleban and Saddam Hussein’s government no good and Iran were simply being set up in the same way. (Added to this were the farcical nuclear negotiations with the US through the EU-3, which reinforces this same message, and makes clear that negotiating with the monkey in place of the organ grinder is pointless: see Ritter’s Target Iran: The Truth About the White House’s Plans for Regime Change, where the Europeans are designated ‘The Great Appeasers’ in the chapter headings.)
It was at this point that Ahmadinejad made his infamous speech to the World without Zionism conference, where he said:
The Imam [Khomeini] said this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time. This statement is very wise.
In doing so he cited three examples: the Shah of Iran, the Soviet Union and Saddam Hussein’s regime. The logic is inescapable, that Israel is being likened to corrupt and unjust regimes that must unravel through the fatal flaws in their architecture. The quote is an old one from Khomeini when Israel was one of the very few countries helping Iran to repel Saddam Hussein, backed as he was by almost everyone else. It seems that the ‘wiped off the face of the map’ quote came from the Iranian media—would this be the first time in history that a media organisation has sensationalized a politician’s words? (See “Wiped off the Map” – The Rumor of the Century for analysis of the speech and the source of the mistranslations.)
(Trita Parsi has pointed out in an email to me that ‘Both Ahmadinejad, Khamenei and other Iranian officials have called Israel a cancerous tumor that must be removed’.)
It also has to be said that there are some abiding contradictions in Israel and the policy that all governments have colonised the West Bank (see Uri Avnery, para 51) yet as Megan McCardle points out this is manifestly unsustainable. In a sense Ahmadinejad is quite right, that the current situation is untenable and it will have to be replaced by something else, something that accommodates the Palestinians. His way of saying it is incendiary (I will come to that), but he is by no means the first to say it—indeed it may be acknowledged by the majority of Israelis at some level.
You can accuse Ahmadinejad of many things—of being eccentric, of being divisive, of being particularly offensive where Israel is concerned—but you can’t accuse him of being mad or of wild blustery rhetoric, or of promising to annihilate Israel.
The Columbia Speech
It is worth examining the main occasion where Ahmadinejad sought to address Western audiences in his September 2007 address to Columbia University, from which it is evident (to me at least) that he is a disciplined thinker.
In fact I thought Ahmadinejad’s speech and handling of the occasion was courageous (bearing in mind the extraordinary hostility of the occasion) and quite brilliant. In order to understand and connect with anyone it is essential that the recipient have some kind of an open mind and that something in common is shared between speaker and listener, conditions that were here almost entirely lacking. He is clearly a religious thinker and tried to find some common ground with his audience in the Old Testament, but unfortunately a liberal University is one of the few places in the USA where you can be sure that references to the Old Testament will not act as a meaningful point of reference. My own experience is that there is a kind of thinking that religious people use that just doesn’t connect with those of a more secular disposition (see On Love and comments, and More Earthquake Follies and the article it responded to, Karma, Retribution and the Actress and its comments).
Ahmadinejad’s main power comes from his mouth. He has almost little power under the Iranian constitution, certainly none over defence, foreign affairs or the nuclear policy (as Fisk made clear); he must do as he is told in these areas and follow the agreed script.
However Ahmadinejad has been doing actually makes a certain kind of sense. He has been pursuing a course of total rhetorical defiance to the industrial powers, trampling on all of our sensibilities, and nowhere are we more sensitive than where Israel is concerned. This serves the Iranian purpose in two important ways. In the first place it makes him extremely popular with the ‘Arab street’ that resents their rulers’ servile client relationship with the imperial powers, making it even more unthinkable for these regimes to acquiesce in a US attack on Iran. (See this scurrilous attack on Musharaf, comparing him with the pious, ascetic Ahmadinejad, in the lead up to the Pakistani elections; this kind of thing is dynamite; the spontaneous response of an Iranian friend who is neither Islamic nor a friend of the regime was ‘I want to marry this guy’.)
Secondly it demonstrates that the Iranians will not be cowed or bullied, and makes sure that that while the industrial powers can of course hurt Iran militarily, everybody would lose terribly from such a move.
Ahmadinejad has been fighting a war of nerves and the longer this has gone on with the industrial powers running on bluster and laying down red lines, only for the Iranians to repeatedly walk though them (especially where enrichment of uranium is concerned), the more that their authority has been undermined.
It is difficult to be sure but the dynamics of this defiance may have made the difference between a catastrophic attack on Iran and averting it. We are all told to stand up to bullies and this has been the Iranian policy. But here is Gary Hart in September 2007 with some Unsolicited Advice to the Government of Iran:
For the vast majority of Americans who seek no wider war, in the Middle East or elsewhere, don’t tempt fate. Don’t give a certain vice president we know the justification he is seeking to attack your country. That is unless you happen to like having bombs fall on your head.
I couldn’t believe I was reading this, especially astonishing coming from an ex-senator. If the American people didn’t want such a war and had in 2006 delivered Congress to his party on an anti-war ticket, why on earth is he pleading with Ahmadinejad to start appeasing the Vice President. As he knows, the US constitution requires that the President get authorization from Congress before going to war. Could not Congress have taken a lead from the Iranians and grown some spine?
And look at what neoconservatives like Arthur Herman were writing in October 2007 (We’re Already at War with Iran):
2. At the same time, American Stealth fighters and bombers would target Iran’s air defense and anti-ship missile sites scattered around the Gulf, followed by what military analysts call an “Effects Based Operation,” as Air Force and Navy warplanes took out Iran’s extremely vulnerable military and economic infrastructure, including its electrical grid, transportation links, gasoline refineries, port facilities, as well as suspected nuclear sites.
From start to finish, such an operation would probably require no more than one more carrier group than is already in the area, as well as one Airborne Brigade Combat Team and one Marine Expeditionary Brigade, combined with Special Ops units-fewer troops than reinforced General Petraeus’s current surge in Iraq. In a matter of days or weeks, the key components of the Iranian oil industry would be in American hands even as Iran itself ground to a halt. Iranian crude oil would continue to flow to the world’s economy. Foreign investors in Iran’s energy industry like Russia and China would see their investments kept safe, which would help to defuse their predictable outrage over unilateral military action against Iran.
That this kind of thing can be written at all in public, even if it is sabre rattling, says a great deal about our collective contemporary sickness in the industrial world. If the concept of evil means anything I can’t see how it can avoid being applied to these kinds of fantasies, and it is difficult to imagine of any higher justification for this kind of public speculation.
And here is Scott Ritter in On the Eve of Destruction:
Don’t worry, the White House is telling us. The world’s most powerful leader was simply making a rhetorical point. At a White House press conference last week, just in case you haven’t heard, President Bush informed the American people that he had told world leaders “if you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing [Iran] from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.” World War III. That is certainly some rhetorical point, especially coming from the man singularly most capable of making such an event reality.
After the release of the NIE on Iran in November, where all of the US intelligence agencies agreed that there was evidence to that Iran had any nuclear weapons programme, Ahmadinejad lowers the volume:
“We do hope there will be one or two steps forward so as to make a different atmosphere for finding solutions,” he told reporters. “If further steps are taken, then our problems will be less complicated.”
The suggestion is unmistakable that Iran was willing to parley if it could find some serious negotiation partners that weren’t using the process as a cover for pursuing regime change, that the Iranians may be open to revisiting the kind of strategic bargain proposed in 2003. It is only the hint of a suggestion, of course.
A Resolution on the Horizon?
But yesterday the EU chief negotiator on the Iranian nuclear programme led an EU delegation to meet with his Iranian counterpart with proposals to help the Iranian civil nuclear programme in return for Iran ceasing to enrich Uranium, and Condoleesa Rice released a statement that she was seeking a diplomatic solution to the standoff. Despite the call for the Iranians to cease enrichment of uranium the Iranians said they would consider the proposal.
In a recent article in the Atlantic, My Amygdala, My Self, Jeffrey Goldberg, for whome ’30 percent of my brain is obsessed with the Holocaust’, reported the results of having his brain scanned while viewing various images. Images of President Carter and Osama Bin Laden triggered predictably negative reactions, but an image of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad indicated a serene response.
Bin Laden, I was pleased to learn, stimulated predictably negative brain activity, but the neuroscientists were flummoxed by my reaction to the sight of Ahmadinejad, who apparently stimulated, in a most dramatic way, my ventral striatum. “Reward!” Iacoboni said. “You’ll have to explain this one.”
Clearly a conventional explanation will reason that because Goldberg thinks the situation is under control he isn’t bothered by the sight of Ahmadinejad, but this strikes me as pretty feeble.
I was however intrigued to notice in a previous video interview of Goldberg at the Atlantic, at the end in the teaser section that advertised the next installment of the interview (which I never encountered) Goldberg suggested (maybe jokingly) ‘What should have happened after World war 2? The Jews should probably have been given Barvaria.’ (The video is excellent, by the way.)
This is just the same thought that Ahmadinejad has pursued in his inimtable offensive style (making a gratuitously offensive yet unserious proposals to move Israel to Alaska). Could it be that Goldberg finds Ahmadinejad so off the wall that he can’t take him seriously, or maybe his open antagonism is just easier to deal with. But reward? Perhaps there is some hidden, mystical connection!