Foreign policy realists – those who think that a state’s actions, not its words, are what really counts – counsel us to ignore inflammatory statements like Iranian Press TV’s blaming Israeli “death squads” for the Newtown, Conn., school shootings. But JNS.org columnist Ben Cohen asks that western negotiators do the Iranians the honor of taking their words – all of their words – at face value.
It often seems like there are two Irans.
There’s the Iran deemed by western political leaders and diplomats to be a rational agent with whom it’s possible to negotiate over that country’s nuclear ambitions. It’s a common position on both sides of the Atlantic. In America, former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel, currently the object of much speculation over his prospects for being appointed the Obama Administration’s next Secretary of Defense, has been an ardent advocate of talks with the Iranian regime. An opponent of tougher sanctions on Tehran, Hagel urged President George W. Bush, back in 2007, to engage in direct negotiations with the mullahs.
And in Europe, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, has gone out of her way to praise Iran’s “constructive and useful” approach to negotiations, advocating at the same time for more talks.
But there’s also another Iran: a country whose leadership is possessed by an apocalyptic messianism, which loudly incites genocide against Israel, and which is additionally regarded by some conservative Arab states as an existential threat.
That second Iran was displayed in all its hideous glory in the aftermath of the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., during which gunman Adam Lanza slaughtered 20 young children and six staff members. Except that, according to the Iranian regime’s English-language mouthpiece, Press TV, Lanza was a “fall guy” for the real authors of the massacre: Israeli “death squads” angered by the recent UN vote granting “Palestine” non-member status at the international body.
The originator of this repulsive conspiracy theory, Mike Harris of the anti-Semitic “Veterans Today” website, was encouraged by Press TV’s presenter as he laid the blame on “Zionists” not just for the Newtown horror, but for the shootings of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others in Tucson, Ariz., in January 2011 as well. Harris also ranted about the “filth” put out by “Zionist-controlled” Hollywood, and, in a nod to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, stated that he wants “Israel off the face of the earth.” The U.S. Congress, he asserted, is “bought and paid for by the Israeli Lobby in the U.S.” (That same phrase, incidentally, has also been used by New York Times columnist Tom Friedman.)
Here’s the point: by giving Harris an unchallenged platform just hours after the funeral of 6-year-old Noah Pozner, a Jewish victim of Lanza’s, the Iranian regime, wearing its Press TV hat, was deliberately and sadistically rejoicing in America’s national trauma. Remember the scenes of celebration in the Muslim world after the 9/11 atrocities? This episode was disturbingly similar.
I, for one, may have been disgusted by what I saw, but I wasn’t surprised. Anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism have always been bedfellows, never more so than in the imagination of the Iranian regime.
Yet the question remains: how does one reconcile an apparently rational Iran, concerned with its national interests, with the Iran motivated by loathing of western cultures, values and peoples?
Foreign policy realists—those who think that a state’s actions, not its words, are what really counts—would counsel us to ignore such inflammatory statements. It’s just the Iranians, they would say, letting off steam, or playing to the anti-American gallery. It doesn’t really mean anything, and it certainly won’t impact their “constructive and useful” approach to the nuclear negotiations.
Actually, if I was an Iranian leader, I’d feel weirdly insulted by that approach. I would counter that, as an adult, my views should be respected as genuinely held, however outlandish or shocking these might be.
In some ways, the villains of this particular piece are not the Iranians, who are completely candid about their opinions, but those western voices who think that we can nonetheless negotiate with them in good faith. True, the Iranians have lied to us for almost a decade when it comes to their nuclear program, but why would they do anything else? The idea that Iran is basically an intelligent child given to the occasional tantrum is, in this context, a far more troubling deceit.
Now consider that, on Jan. 16, negotiators from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are scheduled to visit Tehran for a new round of discussions. Yukiya Amano, the shrewd diplomat in charge of the IAEA, has already pointed out a number of major stumbling blocks that are likely to arise. These include Iran’s demand that once IAEA questions on a particular issue have been addressed, the matter should be considered closed. Tehran is also insisting on access to western intelligence files on the military uses of its ostensibly civilian nuclear program. Finally, there’s the established Iranian strategy of playing for time—as one western diplomat told Reuters, “We really want to avoid a structured approach that is simply a gateway to further process.”
Continued “process,” however, suits the Iranians, because they have no intention of reaching a compromise that would prevent the weaponization of their nuclear program. Why? Well, it’s simple. They hate us and everything we stand for, and they know that possessing a nuclear weapon is the best way of defying us. If the Tehran regime were a good faith negotiating partner, it would not authorize its media outlets to crow over the Newtown murders.
Finally, there’s an additional question which advocates of negotiations should ask themselves: Why do we not take Iran’s insults seriously? Is it because we have low expectations of Muslims to begin with? That while we can never presume that they’ll say what’s right, they can probably be persuaded to act in their own interests?
I suspect that is the case. And that, plainly, is a form of racism that, ironically, enables the Iranians to promote their anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism with impunity!
I don’t, therefore, assume that anything positive will come from further negotiations. But I would request that western negotiators do the Iranians the honor of taking their words— all of their words—at face value.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.