Dealing with Iran

Sep 26, 2007 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

September 26, 2007
Number 09/07 #07

In view of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s well publicised visit to New York, in which he declared, among other things, that Iran’s nuclear program is “closed” as a political issue and that there are no homosexuals in Iran, this Update is devoted to reactions to the continuing problems posed by Iran’s behaviour.

One of the more controversial aspects of the Ahmadinejad visit was the decision by Columbia University to invite him to speak. While the wisdom of this decision can be debated, given the positive publicity it has given Ahmadinejad in the Iranian media and in others such as al-Jazeera, the introduction given by Columbia President, Professor Lee Bollinger, is well worth reading. Prof. Bollinger eschewed the normal practice of welcoming guests with at least a polite introduction, instead launching into an attack on the President’s many shortcomings and challenging him to answer a series of pointed questions. For this scathing and well-aimed speech, as reproduced on the website Salon.com,  CLICK HERE.

One method that has often been mentioned as a way to possibly prevent Iran acquiring nuclear capabilities is harsh economic sanctions. Unfortunately, progress here through the UN is difficult due to Russian and Chinese opposition. However, the US and its European allies look likely to impose their own harsh sanctions should the UN fail to do so. For an article by Robin Wright of the Washington Post outlining the latest in negotiations both within and outside the UN on these sanctions, CLICK HERE.

Finally, there has been much comment on what exactly it was that Israeli Air Force jets did over Iran’s ally Syria, and why. The general consensus now seems to be that some kind of WMD facility, probably nuclear, was bombed. Former Ambassador and Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross, now of the Washington Institiute for Near East Policy, subscribes to this belief, and looks at what Israel gained from this action and the subsequent events, including the Arab world’s silence. He also believes that the Israeli action will have a significant impact on Iran. For this interesting analysis, CLICK HERE.

My questions for President Ahmadinejad

The full text of the speech that Columbia University president Lee Bollinger delivered Monday blasting the Iranian president — with Ahmadinejad present.

By Lee Bollinger

Sep. 25, 2007

I would like to begin by thanking dean John Coatsworth and professor Richard Bulliet for their work in organizing this event and for their commitment to the role of the School of International and Public Affairs and its role in training future leaders in world affairs. If today proves anything it will be that there is an enormous amount of work ahead for all of us. This is just one of many events on Iran that will run throughout this academic year, all to help us better understand this critical and complex nation in today’s geopolitics.

Before speaking directly to the current president of Iran, I have a few critically important points to emphasize.

First, since 2003, the World Leaders Forum has advanced Columbia’s long-standing tradition of serving as a major forum for robust debate, especially on global issues. It should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas we deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas, or the weakness of our resolve to resist those ideas or our naiveté about the very real dangers inherent in such ideas. It is a critical premise of freedom of speech that we do not honor the dishonorable when we open the public forum to their voices. To hold otherwise would make vigorous debate impossible.

Second, to those who believe that this event never should have happened, that it is inappropriate for the university to conduct such an event, I want to say that I understand your perspective and respect it as reasonable. The scope of free speech and academic freedom should itself always be open to further debate. As one of the more famous quotations about free speech goes, it is “an experiment, as all life is an experiment.” I want to say, however, as forcefully as I can, that this is the right thing to do and, indeed, it is required by existing norms of free speech, the American university and Columbia itself.

Third, to those among us who experience hurt and pain as a result of this day, I say on behalf of all of us we are sorry and wish to do what we can to alleviate it.

Fourth, to be clear on another matter — this event has nothing whatsoever to do with any “rights” of the speaker but only with our rights to listen and speak. We do it for ourselves.

We do it in the great tradition of openness that has defined this nation for many decades now. We need to understand the world we live in, neither neglecting its glories nor shrinking from its threats and dangers. It is consistent with the idea that one should know thine enemies, to have the intellectual and emotional courage to confront the mind of evil and to prepare ourselves to act with the right temperament. In the moment, the arguments for free speech will never seem to match the power of the arguments against, but what we must remember is that this is precisely because free speech asks us to exercise extraordinary self-restraint against the very natural but often counterproductive impulses that lead us to retreat from engagement with ideas we dislike and fear. In this lies the genius of the American idea of free speech.

Lastly, in universities, we have a deep and almost single-minded commitment to pursue the truth. We do not have access to the levers of power. We cannot make war or peace. We can only make minds. And to do this we must have the most full freedom of inquiry.

Let me now turn to Mr. Ahmadinejad.


Over the last two weeks, your government has released Dr. Haleh Esfandiari and Parnaz Axima; and just two days ago Kian Tajbakhsh, a graduate of Columbia with a Ph.D. in urban planning. While our community is relieved to learn of his release on bail, Dr. Tajbakhsh remains in Teheran, under house arrest, and he still does not know whether he will be charged with a crime or allowed to leave the country. Let me say this for the record, I call on the president today to ensure that Kian Tajbaksh will be free to travel out of Iran as he wishes. Let me also report today that we are extending an offer to Dr. Tajbaksh to join our faculty as a visiting professor in urban planning here at his alma mater, in our Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. And we hope he will be able to join us next semester.

The arrest and imprisonment of these Iranian Americans for no good reason is not only unjustified, it runs completely counter to the very values that allow today’s speaker to even appear on this campus.

But at least they are alive.

According to Amnesty International, 210 people have been executed in Iran so far this year — 21 of them on the morning of Sept. 5 alone. This annual total includes at least two children — further proof, as Human Rights Watch puts it, that Iran leads the world in executing minors.

There is more.

Iran hanged up to 30 people this past July and August during a widely reported suppression of efforts to establish a more open, democratic society in Iran. Many of these executions were carried out in public view, a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a party.

These executions and others have coincided with a wider crackdown on student activists and academics accused of trying to foment a so-called “soft revolution.” This has included jailing and forced retirements of scholars. As Dr. Esfandiari said in a broadcast interview since her release, she was held in solitary confinement for 105 days because the government “believes that the United States … is planning a Velvet Revolution” in Iran.

In this very room last year we learned something about Velvet Revolutions from Vaclav Havel. And we will likely hear the same from our World Leaders Forum speaker this evening — President Michelle Bachelet Jeria of Chile. Both of their extraordinary stories remind us that there are not enough prisons to prevent an entire society that wants its freedom from achieving it.

We at this university have not been shy to protest and challenge the failures of our own government to live by these values; and we won’t be shy in criticizing yours.

Let’s, then, be clear at the beginning, Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.

And so I ask you:

Why have women, members of the Baha’i faith, homosexuals and so many of our academic colleagues become targets of persecution in your country?

Why in a letter last week to the secretary general of the U.N. did Akbar Gangi, Iran’s leading political dissident, and over 300 public intellectuals, writers and Nobel Laureates express such grave concern that your inflamed dispute with the West is distracting the world’s attention from the intolerable conditions your regime has created within Iran? In particular, the use of the Press Law to ban writers for criticizing the ruling system.

Why are you so afraid of Iranian citizens expressing their opinions for change?

In our country, you are interviewed by our press and asked to speak here today. And while my colleague at the Law School Michael Dorf spoke to Radio Free Europe [sic, Voice of America] viewers in Iran a short while ago on the tenets of freedom of speech in this country, I propose going further than that. Let me lead a delegation of students and faculty from Columbia to address your university about free speech, with the same freedom we afford you today? Will you do that?


In a December 2005 state television broadcast, you described the Holocaust as a “fabricated” “legend.” One year later, you held a two-day conference of Holocaust deniers.

For the illiterate and ignorant, this is dangerous propaganda. When you come to a place like this, this makes you, quite simply, ridiculous. You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.

You should know that Columbia is a world center of Jewish studies and now, in partnership with the YIVO Institute, of Holocaust studies. Since the 1930s, we’ve provided an intellectual home for countless Holocaust refugees and survivors and their children and grandchildren. The truth is that the Holocaust is the most documented event in human history. Because of this, and for many other reasons, your absurd comments about the “debate” over the Holocaust both defy historical truth and make all of us who continue to fear humanity’s capacity for evil shudder at this closure of memory, which is always virtue’s first line of defense.

Will you cease this outrage?


Twelve days ago, you said that the state of Israel “cannot continue its life.” This echoed a number of inflammatory statements you have delivered in the last two years, including in October 2005 when you said that Israel should be “wiped off the map.”

Columbia has over 800 alumni currently living in Israel. As an institution we have deep ties with our colleagues there. I personally have spoken out in the most forceful terms against proposals to boycott Israeli scholars and universities, saying that such boycotts might as well include Columbia. More than 400 college and university presidents in this country have joined in that statement. My question, then, is: Do you plan on wiping us off the map, too?


According to reports by the Council on Foreign Relations, it’s well documented that Iran is a state sponsor of terror that funds such violent groups as the Lebanese Hezbollah, which Iran helped organize in the 1980s, the Palestinian Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

While your predecessor government was instrumental in providing the U.S. with intelligence and base support in its 2001 campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan, your government is now undermining American troops in Iraq by funding, arming and providing safe transit to insurgent leaders like Muqtada al-Sadr and his forces.

There are a number of reports that also link your government with Syria’s efforts to destabalize the fledgling Lebanese government through violence and political assassination.

My question is this: Why do you support well-documented terrorist organizations that continue to strike at peace and democracy in the Middle East, destroying lives and civil society in the region?


In a briefing before the National Press Club earlier this month, General David Petraeus reported that arms supplies from Iran, including 240 mm rockets and explosively formed projectiles, are contributing to “a sophistication of attacks that would by no means be possible without Iranian support.”

A number of Columbia graduates and current students are among the brave members of our military who are serving or have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They, like other Americans with sons, daughters, fathers, husbands and wives serving in combat, rightly see your government as the enemy.

Can you tell them and us why Iran is fighting a proxy war in Iraq by arming Shi’a militia targeting and killing U.S. troops?


This week the United Nations Security Council is contemplating expanding sanctions for a third time because of your government’s refusal to suspend its uranium-enrichment program. You continue to defy this world body by claiming a right to develop peaceful nuclear power, but this hardly withstands scrutiny when you continue to issue military threats to neighbors. Last week, French President Sarkozy made clear his lost patience with your stall tactics; and even Russia and China have shown concern.

Why does your country continue to refuse to adhere to international standards for nuclear weapons verification in defiance of agreements that you have made with the U.N. nuclear agency? And why have you chosen to make the people of your country vulnerable to the effects of international economic sanctions and threaten to engulf the world with nuclear annihilation?

Let me close with this comment. Frankly, and in all candor, Mr. President, I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions. But your avoiding them will in itself be meaningful to us. I do expect you to exhibit the fanatical mind-set that characterizes so much of what you say and do. Fortunately, I am told by experts on your country, that this only further undermines your position in Iran with all the many goodhearted, intelligent citizens there. A year ago, I am reliably told, your preposterous and belligerent statements in this country (as in your meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations) so embarrassed sensible Iranian citizens that this led to your party’s defeat in the December mayoral elections. May this do that and more.

I am only a professor, who is also a university president, and today I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for. I only wish I could do better.


U.S., Europeans Planning Own Iran Sanctions

By Robin Wright

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Washington Post

The United States and its European allies are preparing to impose their own broad military and economic sanctions against Iran if Russia and China balk at voting for a tough new resolution at the United Nations, according to U.S. and European officials.

The breakaway diplomacy would impose a kind of “sanctions of the willing” on Iran, a Western diplomat said, playing off the “coalition of the willing” that was mobilized after diplomacy at the United Nations did not produce support for military action in Iraq.

The State Department yesterday hosted all-day talks with the four other permanent members of the Security Council — Britain, China, France and Russia — and Germany, to try to hash out the parameters of a new resolution on the eve of the U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York.

In talks the State Department described as “serious and constructive,” the six agreed to proceed, after months of delays, with a third U.N. resolution punishing Iran. But deep differences remain on both substance and timing, with the United States and the Europeans on one side and Russia and China on the other, said officials from several delegations.

The Bush administration is pushing for the world’s top powers to impose punitive measures that could include sanctioning branches of Iran’s military — such as parts of the Revolutionary Guards’ al-Quds Force — rather than individual military leaders of those units, as in past resolutions, U.S. and Western officials said. The goal is to pressure entities that have allegedly participated in weapons of mass destruction programs, the sources said.

Washington is also looking to curtail Iran’s ability to import military equipment, such as Russian air defense systems. It also wants to tighten the noose on banks and companies connected to the acquisition of suspicious military materiel. And it wants to strengthen the travel ban that prevents Iranian officials from traveling, vacationing and performing other activities abroad, the officials said.

“We want to close all loopholes and suck the oxygen out of the room,” said a U.S. official involved in the diplomacy. Winning agreement from all five veto-wielding members of the Security Council, however, will be a “Sisyphean undertaking,” he said.

Russia and China have resisted both the scope and the timing of punitive measures proposed by the Bush administration. Moscow and Beijing would prefer to let the new process started by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) play out for another two months and possibly longer, U.S. and European officials said. The IAEA plan calls for Iran to account for questions about its past activities, something that Washington maintains will allow Tehran to stall.

“The IAEA work plan to resolve past questions is well and good and a necessary part of the answer, but it’s insufficient. You must address the present as well as the future of the Iranian nuclear program, and [the IAEA plan] doesn’t do that in any form,” said a senior State Department official knowledgeable about the talks.

Russia also does not want any action on a new resolution before a scheduled Oct. 16 visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Tehran, his first visit to the Islamic republic, European sources said.

By contrast, Washington has wanted a new resolution since June. The time requirement of the previous U.N. resolution — which demands that Iran suspend uranium enrichment, a process for peaceful nuclear energy that can be subverted to make a bomb — expired in May.

Frustrated by the delay and the diplomatic divide, Washington and its allies are developing a parallel track to the U.N. effort in the event that a third resolution ends up only modestly increasing pressure on Iran, after the first two resolutions passed in December and March proved weak and difficult to implement, the sources said. “We’re not talking about either/or tracks. We’ll continue on the U.N. track, but we also have the track of the U.S.-EU,” the State Department official said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to meet with the foreign ministers of the “P5-plus-1” countries Friday at the United Nations to hash out final positions. Participants describe the U.S.-led diplomacy yesterday and next week as a last-ditch effort to find common ground.

U.S. and European envoys are pessimistic about uniting behind a tough resolution anytime in the near future. They have made clear to Moscow and Beijing that they intend to move forward on a U.S.-European Union sanctions package if a third U.N. resolution is delayed or is too weak, senior officials involved in the diplomacy said.

“We have to follow the negotiations. Meanwhile, we are working with experts in order to organize real, efficient sanctions, apart from an eventual . . . resolution in the U.N. system,” French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told reporters and editors at The Washington Post yesterday. Working with Russia and China for a strong resolution would be “much better,” he added. In the meantime, “we are working on sanctions with the British, the Germans, the Dutch; and the Italians have said they are not in disagreement.”

The dynamics of the international diplomacy on Iran have shifted significantly since the election in May of conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Once leading the skeptics of the Iraq war, France has become the most outspoken U.S. ally in the campaign to pressure Iran on its nuclear program.

Staff writer Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.


What Israel Really Gained by Bombing Syria

By Dennis Ross

New Republic Online, September 24, 2007

Sometimes in international relations it is good to preserve mystery. The irony is that often when an action has been taken but not admitted, everyone seems to know anyway. That certainly seems to be the case with Israel’s military strike against a target in northern Syria.

The Israelis aren’t talking about it or acknowledging anything. The Syrians are describing an episode in which they fired on Israeli aircraft, the aircraft dropped something, and fled Syrian airspace. The President of the United States won’t comment on the event — of course, by not denying it, he leaves the impression that something significant absolutely took place.

And, it appears, something did. The sketchy reports that have emerged, again all citing anonymous sources in Israel or in the intelligence community here, are that Israel took out a facility in northern Syria in which North Korea was helping Syria develop a nuclear capability. The absence of leaks coming out of Israel lends credence to the reports. Israel used to be one of the best keepers of secrets. Excluding this episode, it has become one of the worst. Everything seems to leak — and not in drips, but in torrents. (Once when I was negotiating, the Israeli prime minister at the time insisted on a one-on-one meeting with me because, he told me, this was the only way he could ensure that nothing would leak out of the meeting. He wasn’t concerned with my side, but his.)

In this case, Israel has played it very smartly. Much is being made about the silence of Arab criticism of the apparent Israeli raid and what it says about Arab attitudes toward Syria. In fact, had Israel taken credit for the raid, Arab states would have felt duty-bound to condemn it, Israel’s resort to force, and its unilateral effort to impose its will once again.

Why would Israel carry out such a raid now? Anything involving a Syrian nuclear development is going to be a concern for the Israelis — and their threshold of tolerance is going to be low. Israel has tracked the North Korea-Syrian military relationship very closely for a long time. North Korea has provided Syria with advanced missile technology and surface-to-surface rockets of increasing range, accuracy, and payload. Moreover, the Israelis know that North Korea has practically never developed a weapons system that it has not sold. Given that history, North Korea’s nuclear developments and continuing military cooperation with Syrian has drawn extremely close Israeli scrutiny.

So, on one level the Israeli raid simply reflected an effort to blunt North Korean-Syrian nuclear development before it could allow the Syrians to develop a nuclear capability. But that is only part of the story.

The Israeli security establishment has become increasingly concerned about significant Syrian weapons acquisitions, forward deployment of forces, training exercises, and directives about a possible war. Israeli military officials to whom I have spoken have become convinced that Syria’s president, Bashar al Assad, has begun to believe that he could fight a limited war against Israel. Using as many as 20,000 rockets — with some chemically armed as a reserve and a deterrent to prevent Israel from striking at the strategic underpinnings of his regime — he appears, at least according to many in Israel’s intelligence community, to believe he could fight a war on his terms. He was impressed by what Hezbollah did in the war with Israel in the summer of 2006 and believes he, too, could win by not losing in a limited war.

Israel has been looking for ways to convince Assad that he is miscalculating; that he will not be allowed to fight a war on his terms; and that he had better not play with fire. This summer, Israel has conducted military exercises designed not just to improve Israel’s readiness but to convey a message to Assad. The raid not only blunts Syria’s nuclear development but also reinforces the Israeli message of deterrence. In effect, it tells President Assad that Syria has few secrets it can keep from Israel. For a conspiratorial and paranoid regime, this is bound to keep its leaders preoccupied internally trying to figure out what Israel knows and doesn’t know.

Beyond this, the raid sends the message that Israel can hit what it wants — no matter how valuable and sensitive to the regime — when it wants, and Syria is powerless to stop it. Here the silence from the Arab world, even if a function of Israel’s silence, can provide small comfort to President Assad. No one in the Arab world much cares if Syria suffers blows to its prestige and losses to its military capabilities.

So, the raid is as much about preemption of a potential nuclear threat as it is about reestablishing Israel’s deterrent in the eyes of the Syrian regime. Indeed, Major General Amos Yadlin, the head of Israel’s military intelligence, was quoted as telling the Israeli cabinet that Israel had “restored its deterrence.”

From this standpoint, Israel may also have had Iran in mind. The press is now reporting that an accident took place in July in Syria at a chemical plant at which a number of Iranian experts were killed. Perhaps this is just a coincidence. Or perhaps Israel is also sending messages to Iran that it has the capacity, and more importantly, the will to protect itself from those who would seek to threaten it with weapons of mass destruction.

At a time when Iran appears to be determined to press ahead with its nuclear program and may have doubted Israel’s will to do anything about it, Israel may well be acting to show it will do whatever it takes to ensure its security. With the United States bogged down in Iraq and apparently unable or unwilling to prevent Iran’s nuclear developments, the Israelis may be signaling everyone, including the Bush Administration, that if the international community doesn’t take more decisive action, it will.

Statecraft involves using all the tools of the state to affect the behavior of friends and foes alike. Israel’s raid against the Syrian plant reflects the use of a military instrument applied quite selectively to affect the psychologies of many different actors on the world stage. Whether it will have the affect the Israelis desire remains to be seen. But for now, the Israelis have made a statement without triggering a wider conflict in the process.

Dennis Ross is counselor and Ziegler distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of Statecraft: And How to Restore America’s Standing in the World.



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Large anti-Israel protest in Washington, DC, in October. No other issue turns out so many protestors so consistently and globally (image: Shutterstock/ Volodymyr Tverdokhlib)

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Image: Shutterstock

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Image: X/ Twitter

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