The Iranian worldview in a nuclear deal

May 28, 2015

The Iranian worldview in a nuclear deal

Update from AIJAC

May 28, 2015
Number 05/15 #07

This Update features three articles which both provide information and raise questions about the Iranian worldview – and how this might inform efforts to negotiate and then police and maintain a nuclear deal, which Iran and the P5+1 countries (US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) are trying to finalise before a June 30 deadline.

We lead with some discussion of the recent defiant statements coming from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei on the nuclear agreement – and other issues, such as Yemen and “Palestine.” Collected and analysed by Washington Institute expert Mehdi Khalaji, this article makes it clear that Khamanei believes there are two “discourses”, Islamic discourse and “jahiliyya discourse” (“Jahiliyya” refer to the corrupt and barbarous disorder which Islam teaches existed in Arabia before the prophet Mohammed), with the latter an “unjust, bullying, arrogant, selfish discourse” represented by the world’s powers. Moreover, he says, “reconciliation and rapprochement between these two discourses would never be possible”. Khalaji also notes how Khamanei rejects as a “arrogance” and “bullying” most of the international community’s demands vis-a-vis inspections under any nuclear deal. For this important insight into Khamanei’s overall views in his own words, CLICK HERE. More on Khamanei’s recent statements – including ruling out any IAEA interviews with Iranian scientists – here.

Next up is American foreign policy pundit Walter Russell Mead, discussing an interesting point about international policy toward Iran that arose in an interview US President Barack Obama did with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg last weekend. Basically, Goldberg suggested that the vehement antisemitism coming from Iranian leaders may indicate that they cannot be trusted to be entirely rational, and President Obama rejected this with a long answer that suggested that their antisemitism, ugly as it may be, will not affect the core calculations about their interests by Iranian leaders. Mead, who was actually cited as an authority in Goldberg’s question, responds by suggesting that the President may be failing to appreciate the “possibility that his counterparts in Iran don’t see the same world that he does, that they don’t think political cause and effect works the same way that he thinks it does” and cites some of Obama’s policy failures with Putin of Russia and Erdogan of Turkey to support this view. For Mead’s  full argument, CLICK HERE. More on the problems with the assumption that the antisemitism of Iranian leaders will not affect their rationality comes from Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens and Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin.

Finally, veteran author and commentator on Iranian nuclear affairs Emanuele Ottolenghi deals with the Holocaust denial which has been a costly constant of Iranian foreign policy for decades. Taking on those who object to bringing up experiences with Nazi Germany in the context of discussion Iran, he notes that this Holocaust denial invites such comparisons, especially since it was former Nazis who largely invented Holocaust denial. He goes on to contest claims by Obama that the US is strong enough to test Iranian intentions without major risk by noting that Israel and other Middle Eastern countries may not be. For this additional discussion of how the conspiratorial Iranian worldview complicates nuclear negotiations, CLICK HERE.

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No Voice of Reconciliation: Khamenei Targets the West

Mehdi Khalaji

PolicyWatch 2428,
May 21, 2015

The Supreme Leader’s latest statements, harping on “unreasonable” demands, are not preparing the Iranian public for compromise.

Since May 16, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has spoken publicly on three occasions, covering topics including the Yemen crisis and the nuclear negotiations. The third of these speeches, on May 20 at the graduation ceremony for Imam Hossein University — the official training center for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — was characterized by especially inflammatory language and a harsh tone.

Tough Language, but Modest Steps, on Yemen

In this latest speech, Khamenei warned as follows: “I have [received] some news that our enemies, in cooperation with some of the stupid officials [governments] in the region…intend to extend the proxy war to the Iranian borders…The Pasdaran [IRGC] and all those who are in charge of protecting the national security are alert and ready. Everyone should know that if there is mischief, Iran’s reaction will be very tough.” The specific reference here is unclear, but the Supreme Leader may have been referring to threats in the Persian Gulf, echoing his May 16 statement addressing government officials, ambassadors, and consular officials from Muslim-majority countries that “an insecure Gulf would be insecure for all.” He accused the United States and the West of generating a “proxy war” in the Middle East by inciting animosity and sectarian conflict among the region’s nations. Addressing U.S. officials, he said, “It is you who are terrorist; terrorist acts are enacted by you.”

Yet paired with Khamenei’s statement, the Islamic Republic made something of a concession by agreeing that an Iranian cargo ship sailing to Yemen with 2,500 tons of food and medical supplies would submit to international inspections in Djibouti before continuing on to Yemen’s Hodeida port, which is under control by the Iran-backed Houthis. “We have decided to dock our ship in Djibouti so the United Nations inspection protocol can take place,” said Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, according to the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA). The vessel’s voyage had threatened to further escalate the regional confrontation over Yemen. In an interview after a meeting between Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and UN undersecretary Valery Amos, Amir-Abdollahian remarked, “Iran has prepared various kinds of aid. The plan was to send, at least in the first phase, three cargo loads carrying food to Yemen from Djibouti and two cargo loads carrying medication from Oman.” He added, “We suggested that Kish Island [a free zone in the Persian Gulf] become one of the main depot zones for transmitting international aid to Yemen.”

Khamenei Elaborates on His Worldview

Aside from the Yemen issue, Khamenei has elaborated more broadly on his worldview in his recent speeches. For example, he claimed that “in today’s world” there are only “two discourses: the new Islamic discourse and jahiliyya discourse.” In both Islamic theology and modern Islamism, jahiliyya is a significant Quranic term. In theology, it refers to the pre-Islamic era in the Arab Peninsula — a period seen as lacking order and civilization and ending with the emergence of Islam. The term also denotes the moral corruption and barbarian violence that the Prophet Muhammad fought against by offering Islam to the peninsula’s inhabitants. In the twentieth century, the term was used by Islamists to describe “modernity” and the “West” as elements yet to submit to Islam and therefore governed by a savage and corrupt system. Muslim Brotherhood theoretician Muhammad Qutb (1919-2014), the brother of Sayyed Qutb, wrote The Jahiliyyat of the Twentieth Century, which was published in Cairo in 1965 and translated to Persian two years later. Reflecting the heavy intellectual influence of the Brotherhood on Khamenei, he translated several of Sayyed Qutb’s books from Arabic into Persian before the revolution.

On May 20, Khamenei defined “the new Islamic discourse” as that “created by our Imam [Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini] and whose flag was raised by the Iranian nation with altruism and sacrifice.” For him, today’s “jahiliyya discourse” is an “unjust, bullying, arrogant, selfish discourse [produced and held] by the world’s dominant powers.” He continued, “Islamic discourse advocates justice and human rights and annihilating exploitation and colonialism and ending imperialism.” Further: “The reconciliation and rapprochement between these two discourses would never be possible, because one discourse believes in injustice and fighting with nations while the other believes in supporting suppressed people and confronting oppressors.”

In his May 16 speech, the Supreme Leader emphasized that “Yemen, Bahrain, and Palestine are oppressed, and we protect oppressed people as much as we can.” His comments prompted the summoning of Iran’s charge d’affaires in Bahrain on Sunday to protest what was characterized as “blatant interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Bahrain” and “unacceptable statements.” Bahrain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs undersecretary Abdullah Abdul Lateef Abdullah stressed the need for an immediate end to “such irresponsible remarks,” because they “disregard the United Nations, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and international laws that emphasize respect for the sovereignty of all countries and the principles of independence.” Shortly after Khamenei’s speech, Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed bin Muhammad al-Khalifa, tweeted, “I advise Khamenei to contain his malice against Arabs in their countries and worry about his own people’s wrath against him. I remind him that lying is a sign of being munafiqin [literally, hypocrites; but religiously referring to those who falsely claim they are Muslim].”

Divergent Views on a Nuclear Deal

Both Iranian and U.S. officials have repeatedly said that the nuclear deal is expected to address only the nuclear program and associated sanctions imposed on Iran. In his May 15 interview with Al-Arabiya, President Obama reiterated his recognition of Iran’s troubling behavior in the region: “I’ve been very clear that just because we are able to resolve the nuclear issue does not negate the very real problems that we’ve had with [Iran’s] past state sponsorship of terrorism, with the potential for mischief in the region. And that’s something that we will continue to address jointly with our GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] partners.”

Khamenei, for his part, expects a nuclear deal to generally relieve pressure on the Islamic Republic. And he has repeatedly insisted that a deal would not prompt a change in Iran’s behavior. Indeed, he would never tolerate a nuclear deal if the perceived outcome were increased pressure on Iran over its regional activities. On the other side of the coin, while Obama is working to reassure Washington’s Gulf allies that a deal would not herald a softer U.S. policy toward Iran’s regional interventionism, these allies fear that lifted sanctions will invariably strengthen Iran’s hand in conflicts across the Middle East. 

For now, on both the nuclear and the regional files, Khamenei dwells on what he sees as impertinent foreign demands. On May 20, he angrily asserted that “we will never yield to pressure…We will not accept unreasonable demands…Iran will not give access to its [nuclear] scientists.” Elaborating on the last point, he said: “I will not allow foreigners to come and talk to the nation’s dear scientists and children and interrogate them…our rude and brazen enemy expects us to let them talk to our scholars and scientists about a fundamental national and domestic [achievement], but such permission will never be issued…this should be clear for the enemies of Islamic government and all those who are waiting for the government’s decision [on the nuclear deal].” More generally, Khamenei repeated his philosophy about how the enemy should be treated and said that the “only way to confront the brazen enemy is by firm determination, not passiveness.” He explained that “one of the challenges [of the nuclear negotiations involves] the other party’s bullying and unreasonable demands…our enemies still do not know Iranian people, Iranian officials. This is why they are bullying us. The nation and the government that emerged from it will not yield to bullying demands.”


Even as Ayatollah Khamenei has intensified his rhetorical objections to foreign “arrogance,” Iran’s actions have not kept pace in their toughness, as exemplified by Iran’s submission to the UN inspection of the Yemen-bound ship. And the nuclear negotiations continue. All the same, Khamenei is inflaming public opinion, not preparing the Iranian people for compromise.

Mehdi Khalaji is the Libitzky Family Fellow at The Washington Institute.

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Obama, Anti-Semitism and Iran


The American Interest, May 25

Are anti-Semites ultimately rational actors who happen to hold despicable views? Or does their prejudice warp their perception of the world so fundamentally that they calculate risks and rewards differently from most Western elites?

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Why the Iran Nuclear Deal Could Be Catastrophic for Israel

Holocaust-denying rhetoric masks Nazi-like fantasies

In a recent issue of National Interest, former CIA analyst Paul Pillar lamented “the near-obligatory reference to Nazis in any anti-agreement writing about Iran.” The comparison, he argues, is “an emotion-based effort to foster distaste for doing any business with such an ogre-like regime,” which exaggerates the regime’s sinister disposition at a moment when it is showing a clear desire to become “a more integrated member of the international community.”

In fact, Pillar speaks for a sizable group of foreign policy commentators, including Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Daniel Brumberg of the United States Institute of Peace, Ryan Costello of the National Iranian American Council, and Ariane Tabatabaei at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. They contend that a nuclear deal would facilitate a US-Iran détente and forge a new moderate course in Tehran.

Furthermore, Pillar has a point because the differences between the Islamic Republic and Nazi Germany are significant.

For one, Iran is not the industrial powerhouse that Germany was in the 1930s, though it could quickly become one once its economy is unshackled from crippling international sanctions. Iran’s regular military is ill-equipped, poorly trained, and underfunded. There is no Iranian Rommel ready to send tank divisions storming into neighboring countries (though Iran does have plenty of ruthless and well-trained proxies ready to fight on its behalf).

And Iran is not a totalitarian monolith. It might be possible to cut a deal with Tehran, which in turn might facilitate American-Iranian engagement. As President Obama recently told Thomas Friedman of the New York Times: “We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk.”

But what about other countries, such as Israel? Is President Obama putting that nation at risk? 

When the Israeli government looks at Iran it sees dimensions of its behavior that Pillar—and those who agree with him—blithely dismiss. The Islamic Republic, for example, openly calls for Israel’s destruction while investing considerably in those who fight Israel at its borders. Iran may have no Afrika Korps, but it possesses dangerous capabilities—and proven intentions—to use them.

These intentions invite a direct comparison of Iran with Nazi Germany. For decades, Iranian leaders have accused the world of exaggerating Jewish suffering in order to legitimize Israel’s existence and excuse the Jewish state’s actions, while assiduously promoting the spread of Holocaust denial and acting as a safe haven, sponsor, and sounding board for its advocates.

Last October, Iran organized a new edition of the “New Horizons” conference, an international gathering of Western Holocaust deniers, advocates of boycotting Israel, 9/11 “Truthers,” and other conspiracy theorists. This month, Tehran is hosting the second international Holocaust cartoon contest. Iranian officials present these events, in part, as a response to the West’s satirical attacks on Islam, although the Iranian government’s denial of the Holocaust predates the recent wave of cartoons mocking Mohammad.

Indeed, Iran’s Holocaust denial, like the regime’s anti-Semitism, follows a Nazi script. As Bettina Stangneth brilliantly notes in her recent biography of Adolf Eichmann, the first to call the Holocaust a fabrication were the Nazis themselves.

After the war, Nazi fugitives who fled to South America and the Middle East sought to obfuscate their own part in the twentieth century’s worst crime with hope that Nazism could yet make a comeback. They depicted the Holocaust as a gigantic lie that Jews concocted in order to smear German reputation; and so they could pose as victims and blackmail the world to support their dark designs.

But theirs was not just an effort to rehabilitate Nazism. They were also seeking allies—in the Middle Eastern and elsewhere—who could finish the job. And Arab nationalism, with its resolve to eradicate both Western influence and Israel’s existence from the region, was the perfect candidate. Nazi-era war criminals like Alois Brunner, who died in Syria, and Johann von Leers, who died in Egypt, worked in the service of propaganda departments of Arab nationalist regimes, and introduced Holocaust denial to the Arab world as a staple of anti-Zionist propaganda.

From there, the wave of Holocaust denialism made its way to Iran, where both secular and religious opponents of the Shah embraced themes of modern anti-Semitism, which they had absorbed from radical left circles in Europe, and Islamists in the Middle East. These Iranians viewed Israel as an extension of the hated American superpower, and found the theme of Jewish world domination a compelling scapegoat through which to express their rage. And once the revolutionaries gained power, those themes became so integral to the new regime’s world view that the embarrassment they would later cause—brazen Holocaust denial did not exactly endear Iran to Western audiences—was always treated as an inconvenience to manage, and not a nefarious libel to discard.

As Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian-American Council, conceded in his 2007 bookTreacherous Alliance, domestic opposition to Holocaust denial during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was merely expedient. Its critics viewed it as damaging to Iran’s image; they did not argue its merits.

According to Parsi, when Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei realized that Ahmadinejad’s incendiary rhetoric on the Holocaust was damaging Iran’s nuclear stance, he moved to prohibit flat-out Holocaust denial in order to safeguard Iran’s international image. But the regime could not completely turn its back to it. Instead, Iran’s leaders shifted their rhetoric to a softer version of Holocaust denial. Rather than flatly denying its historicity, they spun support for Holocaust revisionist historians as a free speech exercise and a legitimate historical inquiry. This spin was designed to show that, regardless of the magnitude of Nazi atrocities, the Zionists had callously exploited them in order to blackmail world opinion in support of their Palestine grab. This new theme is not as brazen as accusing the Jews of “having staged the whole thing themselves,” as writes Bettina Stengneth’s in Eichmann Before Jerusalem, which Nazi fugitives posited in the 1950s. But it’s close enough.

Despite his reputed moderate credentials, current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani fully embraces this new, softer version. In September 2013, when CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour confronted him over Holocaust denial, Rouhani dodged the question by pontificating that the Holocaust deserves more historical scrutiny to determine what really happened: What the Nazis did is condemnable,” he said. “The dimensions of whatever it is, the historians have to understand what it is.”

Rouhani then went on to repeat the accusation that the Holocaust is a pretext for Israel’s actions. “I am not a historian myself,” Rouhani said, “but we—it must be clear here—is that when there is an atrocity, a crime that happens, it should not become a cover to work against the interests or justify the crimes against another nation or another group of people.”

Given how entrenched and pervasive Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism are within the Iranian regime, it is hard to dismiss the possibility that the regime’s principal motivation for embracing this narrative is to provide justification for its recurrence. Holocaust deniers, after all, have long sought to excuse the crime’s perpetrators and shift guilt onto its victims as a prelude to repeating that same crime.

But maybe Pillar is correct. Maybe the time, effort, and resources that Iran devotes to demonizing Israel and foraging Israel’s sworn enemies are not indicative of any serious intentions. Maybe its just rhetoric. And yet it’s intellectually dishonest to not admit that the opposite might also be true. After all, what would cause Iranian leaders to defame the memory of the Holocaust so obsessively, other than deeply malevolent intentions?

Even under its current, more presentable incarnation, the Iranian regime embraces Nazi-like fantasies. The United States can certainly afford to take a calculated risk and assume that Iran will never act on them. But if Obama’s gamble falls flat, it won’t be the Americans who will pay the price.


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IDF spokesperson, reserve Lt. Col. Peter Lerner in conversation with AIJAC’s Joel Burnie

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