Middle East studies in the News
Iranian Roulette [incl. Juan Cole]
by David Solway
At the infamous Evian Conference that met on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1938, the Jewish victims of Nazi oppression were betrayed by Western leaders, who protested against the Nazi atrocities but steadfastly refused to help the growing number of Jewish refugees. Today, once again on the shores of Lake Geneva, another international conference has been convened, ostensibly against racism, discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance, but as everyone knows its principal purpose is to shield the real abusers of human rights from censure while vilifying and scapegoating the Jewish state. Same approximate venue, same approximate agenda.
Thus, when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered his defamatory anti-Israeli speech at the Palace of Nations on Monday of this week, the general reaction was to be expected. It was unanimously deplored by duly offended European leaders, but the underlying reality was very different. Many walked out but, when it came to the conference itself, most walked straight back in.
Though properly scandalized, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner downplayed Ahmadinejad's virulent remarks as "predictable" and opined that the conference was "not a failure at all but the beginning of a success" (Jerusalem Post, April 21, 2009). Neither was the European Union much disturbed beneath its veneer of practised indignation, releasing a statement to the effect that it had "no outstanding difficulty of substance" with the Durban II draft document. It then committed itself, with the exception of a sprinkling of member states, to participate fully in the proceedings.
This capitulation was both as shameful and as "predictable" as Ahmadinejad's malignant speech, and betokened, to adjust Kouchner's rhetoric, not the beginning of a success but a careening failure of will, nerve and intelligence, shared by the West as a whole. Our political leaders, the majority of our public intellectuals and the mainstream media have not realized, or myopically refuse to realize, what is at stake as the historical drama in which we are implicated unfolds—a drama in which Iran and Israel are the central actors.
Let us imagine a terrifying possibility. We know that Iran has vowed to unleash nuclear havoc upon Israel. Should Israel respond in kind, as it would have every right to do, the damage may not be confined to a localized area. Many people are callous enough to accept the nuclear probability of Tel Aviv and Tehran reduced to rubble and ash, so long as they can get on with their lives. What they do not realize is that they too are in the line of fire.
An atomic missile falling on Kharg Island, for example, Iran's major oil depot in the Persian Gulf, would ignite a radioactive oil fire that could probably not be extinguished and the skies would gradually darken over us all. Such a conflagration would more likely than not have to burn itself out, when it might well be too late to recover from its effect on climate and agriculture. Israel would undoubtedly do its utmost to avoid striking such installations, but Iran remains one vast inflammable oil well. An errant nuclear-tipped missile, launched from either side, may have planetary consequences.
Krakatoa would be as nothing in comparison. Saddam lighting up a number of oil wells in Kuwait would not even qualify as a harbinger of what would occur—we recall that it took several months for American engineers to control a relatively minor irritation in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. We are now living what may be the most precarious moment in the recorded history of the world as we continue to play the dangerous game of Iranian roulette—the game in which not one but five of the six chambers are loaded.
Antisemites would probably argue that Israel and not Iran is the danger and therefore it is Israel that should be dealt with before an imminent Iranian attack. Such an attitude gets its priorities backwards and is, of course, pure evasive nonsense to boot. The fact is that Israel can only be bullied so far and no farther. It will not go docilely nor should it be expected to forgive an "international community" that has abandoned the Jewish people yet once again to the spectre of extermination.
In the current play of innocuous strategies vis à vis Iran, of abject appeasement and feeble sanction, juicy carrot and twig-like stick, this is not a fifth act we should placidly discount. Former American ambassador to the UN John Bolton, one of our most reliable analysts, has warned that "there are no incentives that will dissuade Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons" (Newsmax, January 28, 2009). And so far, no disincentives either. If Ahmadinejad gets his way, the still-concealed Twelfth Imam, who is said to bring a new "world order" in fire and brimstone and raise the Caliphate upon its embers, may not remain in occultation for much longer.
According to the Iranian newspaper Kargozaran for March 16, 2008, Cabinet Secretary Majid Doostali explained that "just as Imam Zaman's occultation had a prelude and a main period, his return too has a prelude and a main period," and that Ahmadinejad's administration "was the prelude to the return." The President of the Islamic Management Scientific Society at the Qom Seminary School, one Hojjatoleslam Sammameddin Ghavani, has even proposed the establishment of a "Ministry of Waiting" to facilitate the arrival of the Hidden Imam. Ahmadinejad has announced that the Imam Zaman would emerge from occultation within two years—the period of waiting (Rooz Online Iran, August 26, 2008).
Skeptical westerners who would pass this off as merely a quaint belief not to be taken seriously should reconsider. In Radical Islam: Medieval Theology and Modern Politics, historian Emmanuel Sivan warns of precisely this menace in his discussion of Shi'a belief and thought, its vision of an "ideal, legitimate state to be instituted by its leader, the Hidden Imam." Over the course of history, he writes, a "minority of Shi'ites, quite substantial and dangerous at times, would move from pessimistic idealism to an optimistic brand of the same approach—the imam's arrival is imminent, God's kingdom is bound to be brought upon earth by this messiah (mahdi), and one should help precipitate its descent by armed revolt" (emphasis added).
Ahmadinejad has made clear his intention to prompt the advent of the Mahdi by initiating an act of apocalyptic violence. It's not a bad plan from the Imamic perspective. Accelerate the Mahdi's arrival by bringing about a nuclear cataclysm and reap the reward of either of two outcomes. Israel is destroyed and Iran survives since, as Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani has informed us, Iran can absorb "thirty or forty million martyrs" in its march toward a global Caliphate. Alternatively, Iran is also consumed and very possibly the world along with it, a global conquest to be savored from a position of vantage in Jannah, the Garden of Eternal Delights. Either way, victory.
Fear-mongering? Think again. Those who would argue that such a scenario makes no sense and is in fact counter-productive have simply not grasped the metality in question. A nuclear weapon is only a bigger suicide bomb and there are prospective "martyrs" aplenty. You die the same whether you are wearing an explosive vest or, like Dr. Strangelove, riding a nuclear bomb to earth.
We are told by the pundits, secure in their upholstery, that the mullahs like the good life and Ahmadinejad relishes his junketing too much to jeopardize such advantages. Besides, the Iranians are busy signing trade deals with diverse European nations, which suggests they envisage a viable future. If that is the case, why then have they announced their morbid purpose in advance of carrying it out, putting Israel on alert and inviting a pre-emptive strike which would instantly deprive them of the perks they are said to enjoy and render their trade deals null and void? Why even take the chance?
The game is obviously not worth the radioactive candle—unless it is not a game at all. The aim is to ensure that Iran stays afloat while it prepares to accomplish its mission, predicated on the calculated risk that neither Israel nor America will intervene in time to deflect its trajectory. It's a gamble, but one the Iranians are confident they can win. (And they certainly have nothing to worry about from a flaccid and propitiatory Europe.) We should make no mistake about this. Iran itself is the missile that is gradually being armed and fueled. True, there is madness in the method, but the method is nonetheless singularly effective, given the intention.
We should do well to keep in mind that we are not treating with a cadre of lucid and sensible actors who can be trusted to be reasonable—as we understand reasonableness. They are labile, invidious and locked in a mental universe that is utterly foreign to our own. When, after the signing of the Balfour Declaration, Israel's first President Chaim Weizmann said, "We hear the steps of the Messiah," he was speaking metaphorically. When Ahmadinejad and his gang talk of the coming of the Mahdi, they mean it quite literally, and therein lies the peril. In his pledge to "wipe Israel off the map," the second part of Ahmadinejad's statement was not reported by the mainstream press: "as the Imam said."
The original statement delivered in Farsi at the "World without Zionism" conference held in Tehran on October 26, 2005 translates literally as: Israel "must be erased from the page of time," a slogan draped across Shihab-3 missiles at military parades, which makes the intent rather obvious. "Wiped off the map" is the non-literal translation provided by the New York Times. The Iranian newscaster who reported the address phrased the purport of the statement as "erasing Israel, this disgraceful stain, from the world."
Many of Iran's enablers in Western intellectual and political circles, such as Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, Jonathan Steele of the Guardian, Stephen Walt of "Israel Lobby" fame, the despicable Jimmy Carter and American Congressmen Denis Kucinich and Ron Paul, have tried to soft-pedal Ahmadinejad's threat. The Economist's Middle East correspondent Max Rodendeck speaks dismissively of Iran's "nuclear gadgetry." This is like putting Jimmy Carter before the hearse. The downward appraisal by the American National Intelligence Estimate of Iran's nuclear program, which reduced the threat index and thereby mitigated the urgency of the situation, turns out to have been totally misguided. It was subsequently reversed by director Michael McConnell at a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on February 5, 2008.
Ahmadinejad, who plainly belongs to Sivan's "substantial and dangerous" minority, is in many quarters regarded as a "clown" whose invitations to speak at prestigious political and educational institutions and whose media-reported rants are therefore harmless, as, for example, his ludicrous claim at the United Nations food summit in Rome in June 2008 that Zionism is responsible for rising food prices throughout the world. People forget that Hitler in the early days of his rule was similarly regarded, before he started another world war and presided over a genocide.
Ahmadinejad looks and acts like a small-time crook, but he will soon have his finger on a big-time button. Nor should we be deceived by his apparent buffoonery. He means what he says and he needs to be taken at his word.
Political madmen should not be indulged and coddled by presumably saner people since such madmen are usually far more ruthless and far shrewder—and far madder—than they are assumed to be. Political madmen need to be disarmed, neutralized or taken out, one way or another. The British government and the German industrialists who tolerated Hitler learned their lesson too late and were no less responsible than the German Chancellor himself for inflicting carnage upon the world. The Holocaust was their doing as well. For by their indifference to or secret sympathy with the Nazi project, they were equally complicit.
But the current situation is not strictly analogous. To begin with, we live in the nuclear age—there is no margin for error. Politically speaking, many of us appear to behave as if we were suffering from an advanced stage of retardation. We are still susceptible to a kind of Maginot-thought, always fighting the last war, or even the one before that. This leisurely approach to geopolitical reality is not only passé but potentially catastrophic.
Further, Jews now have their own nation and are no longer powerless to react or to exact vengeance. For if Israel finds itself in the throes of annihilation in a second Holocaust, left to smoulder in the world's guilty unconcern, no one can dictate to it what its response should be. And no one should consider himself exempt from the consequences.
It is time to rub the slumber from our eyes. Should Iran carry out its promise to destroy Israel, whether directly or by proxy, thus hastening the looming parousia of the long-awaited Mahdi, and Israel retaliate in nuclear reprisal, the region will be set ablaze. The fact that the world economy would crater far more severely than anything we are experiencing today is almost beside the point. Far worse, the effect on the global ecology might well be disastrous and possibly terminal, and we, too, like our foolish predecessors, will have learned too late that blindness and make-believe never work. The writing is not only on the wall; it is in the documents, the proclamations, the newspapers, the texts of speeches. All we need do is read.
Our attention has been distracted by other volatile nuclear powers, such as Pakistan and North Korea. Pakistan in particular, if the inchmeal approach of the Taliban toward the capital is not halted, will need to be robustly confronted. But in an oil-drenched region primed to go up in flames, in which one nation is acquiring offensive nuclear ordnance which it vows to use and another is ready to respond defensively, the immediate world-threat is Iran. It must be dealt with in short order, whether militarily or economically, and its nuclear designs effectively negated.
For if we do not wake up, the day may dawn when we do not wake up.
David Solway is the award-winning author of over twenty-five books of poetry, criticism, educational theory, and travel. He is a contributor to magazines as varied as the Atlantic, the Sewanee Review, Books in Canada, and the Partisan Review. His most recent book is The Big Lie: On Terror, Antisemitism, and Identity.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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