Tonight, the Jewish federation held its conference, Understanding the Iranian Threat, at Seattle’s largest synagogue, Temple DeHirsh Sinai. Thankfully, I was able to attend with an Iranian-American who is working with me on the Iran-Israel conference I am planning for December. I also met Bill Alford there, producer of the cable access program, Moral Politics, who will be interviewing me for his show this Saturday night which is broadcast on Scan TV (channel 77 in Seattle). There was comfort to be among friends amidst such a hawkish anti-Iran presentation.
Frankly, I was surprised that the event was held in DeHirsh’s small sanctuary and only about 150 people attended. Given that this was to be a community-wide event hosted by federation and several other pro-Israel groups, I expected it would be housed in the Temple’s main sanctuary (seating 1,200). Dave Ross moderated and his questions were surprisingly challenging and at times slightly provocative. Though he wasn’t exactly a dubious moderator, he was no pushover. I was also surprised at the tenor of the audience questioning: almost half the questions seriously challenged the premises of the speakers regarding Israel and the alleged Iranian threat. I don’t know that this means that the Jewish community doesn’t buy what these three speakers were peddling. It might just as well mean that I stirred up the pot beforehand and the event attracted more than the usual right-wing pro-Israel suspects.
A fellow peace activist told me he was surprised at how lackluster the panel was. Generally, I agree with him. I said from the moment I first heard about this event months ago that the panelists had no particular expertise about Iran and therefore no special authority to speak about it.
But there was one thing that shocked me and it wasn’t anything spoken by a panelist. Actually, it was spoken by the host, Rabbi Daniel Weiner, one of Seattle’s most influential rabbis. In his short introduction, he spoke more virulently and passionately than all the other speakers put together. Among other things, he said:
Iran is enslaved by unqualified evil.
That sure made me sit up and take notice. After the event ended, I passed by Rabbi Weiner and had to make a split second decision about whether to engage him or let it go. I decided to throw caution to the winds and asked:
Rabbi Weiner, Iran is enslaved? By unqualified evil? Do you really believe this?
He replied that he did. I again was incredulous and asked him if he literally believed in what he said or whether he was speaking hyperbolically to make a moral point. He made clear that he literally believed it.
I asked, if he literally believed this, whether he also believed in overthrowing this “evil” regime. He said he did. He said people in their tens of thousands believe this regime is evil and are prepared to overthrow it. I replied: if the regime is as violent and despotic as you say, then how do you propose they would overthrow it? He replied if they could not do it non-violently, then he supported a violent overthrow. I asked him how tens of thousands of non-violent protestors would overthrow a regime backed with powerful military force? Would the U.S. provide them the means necessary to overthrow the mullahs? “If that’s what it takes,” Rabbi Weiner replied.
Then he proceeded to lecture me about the 1979 Iranian revolution and claimed it would be appropriate to overthrow the clerical regime by force since it had come to power by force. I told him that the only force used during the 1979 Iranian revolution was by the Shah and his dreaded Savak. In fact, hundreds of non-violent demonstrators were killed by the Shah’s forces. That is what brought about the revolution. If the protestors or the mullahs used force to topple the Shah, who provided them the guns to do so? No one did.
Rabbi Weiner, as he was fleeing this uncomfortable encounter, called out with his back to me: “You’re mistaken, you don’t know your Iranian history.”
I bring up this incident to illuminate both the level of misplaced passion and outrageous ignorance that fuels Israeli and American Jewish attitudes toward Iran. I find it unconscionable that one of Seattle’s leading rabbis would waste his moral suasion on such a foolhardy, historically bankrupt approach to Iran. Whatever sins the Iranian regime has committed (and there are many), this type of demonology, while satisfying to moralists like Rabbi Weiner, serves no useful purpose except to lead us closer to a military solution to this conflict (one the rabbi apparently embraces). Further, Weiner is clearly an intelligent person who possesses certain gifts. But to pretend to understand Iran as he does, when he knows next to nothing about it except what fits into his narrow moral compass, is inexcusable.
As far as I’m concerned Rabbi Weiner was the whole show tonight. The other speakers might just as well stayed home. But they didn’t. So we should review their statements which included some real eye-openers and even a few whoppers.
I’m going to convey this through my own notes so it won’t be a cogent essay, but more like an outline of the main points as delivered by the speakers (Jeff Colman of Aipac, Yaakov Katz of Jerusalem Post and Akiva Tor, Israel’s Northwest consul general).
Colman began his talk by saying that he was no expert on Iranian history, which he then proceeded to expound upon anyway. He claimed the Ayatollahs “hijacked” the Iranian Revolution after 1979. They have focussed obsessively on “external enemies” like Israel and the U.S., uniting the people against a common foe. Iran today is characterized as a state which “meddles in the affairs of its neighbors.”
Colman claimed, in contravention of everything that I know about the group, that Aipac doesn’t want to see an Israeli attack on Iran. He also claimed that current financial sanctions against Iran are having a “huge effect” on the Iranian economy. This flies in the face of what most Iran analysts say, which is that the current sanctions are ineffectual, and any pain they were designed to induce has long been circumvented by Iranian counter-measures.
To the obvious question, can you get U.S. allies to join in the sanction regime, the Aipac lobbyist replied diplomatically that Russia and China “are not cooperating enough.” What he left out is that neither country has expressed any interest in, or support for sanctions. In fact, if the U.S. devises such a punitive policy it is likely that these two nations will not only not go along, they will actively subvert our intent by filling the economic vacuum left by the withdrawal of us and any of our other allies who join us (Britain, Germany, France, etc.).
An Iranian bomb, Colman argued (without any support), would destroy the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. To this I would add a point raised by Judge Richard Goldstone in his telephone conference call a few days ago about his Gaza report: what peace process? Not only is it ludicrous to link an Iranian bomb to an Israeli-Palestinian peace process…right now there IS no such process.
Dave Ross asked Akiva Tor how he saw today’s announcement that Iran was prepared to ship all its low-grade uranium to Russia for further enrichment, an outcome long sought by the U.S. Tor called this agreement, if it held (and he suspected it would not), “a stopgap measure,” because Israel wants Iran to stop all uranium enrichment. At a later point in the discussion, Tor advanced the contradictory position that Israel only opposed Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon, with the inference being that Israel did not oppose nuclear research that could be guaranteed and verified to be non-military.
Tor claimed, without providing any proof, that an Iran with a nuclear weapon would be a threat to Europe, Russia and Sunni regimes in the Middle East. At a later point, Yaakov Katz claimed that “six” European nations were in range of Iranian missiles. What hawks like him always neglect to mention is that Iran has no bomb, nor a way to weaponize and deliver it. And finally, Iran has never threatened any country except possibly Israel, and even that claim of Iranian threat is dubious.
Ross asked Akiva Tor why Israel couldn’t live with a nuclear Iran just as the U.S. lived for decades with a nuclear Russia. Tor replied that MAD worked because the U.S. and Russia were “rational states,” while Iran is not. He supported this claim by saying that any nation that pursues a nuclear quest for 15 years despite the fact that such a quest makes them a “pariah” to the outside world is “not rational.”
When Ross brought up the subject of a possible Israeli attack on Iran, Tor said it was “not helpful” to talk about a military strike.
The moderator asked why Arab nations shouldn’t be nervous about an Israeli bomb. The Israeli consul general replied that “Israel didn’t threaten to destroy another country [as Iran allegedly has], so its nukes are not a danger.”
At that point, an audience member began shouting angrily that Israel destroyed his country, Lebanon, and how dare he [Tor] claim Israel never threatened any of its neighbors. This interchange added a dose of ice-cold reality to an otherwise torpid discussion.
Iran, Tor continued, is a “grave threat to world peace.” Those Arab nations who might pursue a nuclear bomb like Egypt would do so not because of an Israeli bomb, but because of the threat of an Iranian bomb. Tor conveniently omits the fact that Israel allegedly destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor last year which certainly wasn’t being built to counter an Iranian nuclear threat. The Israeli diplomat claimed that several Arab states are seeking missile defense systems, and that they aren’t buying these systems to defend from Israeli missiles, but from Iranian ones. Again, he provided no proof of his claim.
Turning to the issue of sanctions, the Israeli government representative said what was needed was “intelligent sanctions that won’t strengthen the Revolutionary Guards.” Considering that Roger Cohen argues persuasively that the Guards have exploited sanctions to control massive portions of the Iranian economy based on smuggling, the notion that there can be any sanctions that will not benefit the Guards is preposterous.
Yaakov Katz, the Jerusalem Post’s military correspondent, painted an idyllic historic picture of Israel-Iranian relations. In the old days, he claimed, we even sold them weapons. And it should be remembered that Israel has nothing against Iranians per se. It’s the Iranian government that is the problem. The Iranian and Israeli peoples, so he claimed, “share strong bonds.” Again, he provided no support for this claim short of the history of arms sales.
The Israeli journalist claimed, again without support, that sanctions could “influence Iranian behavior.” When Ross asked him about the “blowback” from a possible Israel attack, Katz noted an Israeli intelligence study that reviewed past terror attacks on Israel and Israeli targets, including the SCUD attacks during the Persian Gulf war, the Hezbollah rocket attacks on northern Israel, and the Argentine terror attacks on the Israeli embassy and Jewish cultural center (attributable, or so Katz claims, to Iran). The study estimated that the Iranian response to such an attack would be “three times” as severe as the cumulative effect of the above terrorist acts.
Ross then asked whether Israel would be prepared to pay that price. Tor replied that the outside world might be surprised to learn that Israel is united in its determination to prevent a nuclear Iran. The implication was that Israelis would be prepared to pay such a price. The only problem is that Tor really wasn’t answering the question Ross asked. I believe that Israelis do not consider the blowback from such an attack because that’s not the way their political/mental processes work. They respond from the gut without taking into account long-term implications for their actions. Taking out Iran’s nuclear weapons capability seems to the average Israeli the right thing to do. What comes after is not on their radar. It’s a strange way to approach statecraft to say the least. When Israelis come to understand the price they will pay in blood for such a foolhardy military adventure, they will think differently about it. But then it will be too late and the damage will be done.
When asked what impact an Israeli attack and Iranian response might have on the world economy, specifically oil prices, Yaakov Katz said:
I don’t know that skyrocketing oil prices would be at the top of Israel’s concerns.
To his credit, Dave Ross replied that he thought it might be at the top of the concerns of the U.S. Congress, inferring that the U.S. might take a dubious view of an Israeli military adventure that harmed our economy.
When asked whether the Israeli approach diverged from the U.S. government, the Israeli diplomat said Israel was “close to the U.S. position on Iran.” Considering that Israel’s deputy prime minister said this week on the Charlie Rose show that Israel would “prefer regime change in Iran” if it had its druthers, Tor’s claim that both Israel and the U.S. are on the same page regarding Iran rings hollow.
Katz spoke to the effect that an Israeli military attack might have on Iran’s tenuous political situation. He claimed, with a straight face, that there were reputable Iran analysts who claimed that the regime was so weak that an assault might so divide the people from the regime that they could topple it. This simply is not so and I have not read a single credible analyst aside from people like Michael Ledeen (who is ipso facto not credible) make such a claim. The Jerusalem Post correspondent at least conceded that there were those who believed Israeli force would unite the people behind the Ayatollahs and harm the reformers.
In one particular, Katz engaged in an outright lie. He said that Iran “has the elements required for a nuclear weapon.” He also claimed that it was “on the brink of making a nuclear warhead.” The truth is far different. Iran may be working on the various elements required to make a nuclear weapon. On some, it appears to have achieved progress. On others, it is far from being able to claim that it is ready to deliver a nuclear weapon. It is certainly nowhere near “the brink” of having one.
Regarding sanctions, Katz maintained that the Iranian economy was so dependent on oil revenue that sanctions would exert “heavy pressure.” Responding to a question from the moderator, he conceded that sanctions would hurt the average Iranian more than the leaders–“but that’s tough medicine,” was all he could muster in response.
To the claim that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fuels other conflicts in the Middle East, the Jerusalem Post reporter uttered a vehement denial. He proceeded to list multiple social and political conflicts in the region which he argued had no basis in the I-P conflict. He conveniently left off his list Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt, whose internal political conflicts ARE directly impacted by this festering issue.
“It’s not about Israel,” Jeff Colman said. Instead it’s about the “hegemonistic aims” of Iran against its neighbors. Once again, this speaker provided no proof for his claim of Iranian hegemony.
Tor offered as his own proof of the claim that Ahmadinejad “wants Israel wiped off the face of the map.” The only problem is that this little statement, bandied about by the Netanyahu government and its supporters forever has been mistranslated. The Iranian president said he wanted Israel to “disappear” from the map, which is quite different from the alleged quotation attributed to him.
A questioner asked Tor whether Israel would be willing to give up its nuclear weapons and create a Middle East nuclear-free zone if Iran gave up its nuclear aspirations. He refused to answer the question directly, but it was clear Israel, in his view, would not.
A second questioner asked whether Israel would agree to a nuclear-free zone if the U.S. and EU nations were guarantors of the peace. Jeff Colman disingenuously chimed in that Israel never wants to put itself at the mercy of other nations for its own defense. He neglected to mention the massive amounts of U.S. military weaponry Israel receives from the U.S., without which it could never maintain its own brand of regional “hegemony.”
Perhaps the most cynical stratagem of the night was Tor’s request of Washingtonians to lobby their state government to divest its pension funds of companies investing in Iran. Those with a memory going back a year or two will remember the “infamous” Initiative 97, which asked the city of Seattle to divest itself of stock in companies benefiting from the Israeli Occupation. At the time, the Jewish federation and StandWithUs spent an extraordinary $150,000 on a campaign that argued it was improper to mix municipal investment policy with foreign policy issues.
I know for a fact that members of the Jewish community warned the consul that Iran divestment would be a “no-go” here in Seattle because Jews here “shot their wad” on I-97. Despite these demurrals, Tor tried valiantly to gin up support for divestment. That’s because this is a policy directive from Tel Aviv to all Israeli diplomats here. Lieberman and Netanyahu somewhat cleverly are trying to use the divestment weapon being levelled at Israel by the BDS movement and turn it against an Israeli enemy, Iran. What this tells you is that the Israeli foreign ministry is entirely tone deaf when it comes to understanding local conditions in various Jewish communities. One size fits all is the MFA’s motto. If Seattle Jews are uncomfortable talking divestment because of past electoral experience, by God we in Israel will bring it up anyway.
Finally, to emphasize the Alice in Wonderland atmosphere of this conference, Akiva Tor claimed that Israel “welcomes dialogue with Iran” and that Pres. Ahmadinejad was “welcome anytime in Jerusalem.” Dave Ross was incredulous and asked how Israel would allow an Iranian leader to visit Israel (since such visits are illegal), Tor replied: “We’ll create a special visa for him.” Though people laughed, I wondered whether Israel might create a special “Auschwitz visa” to welcome him.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.