Should Roger Cohen Have a Conversation with my Daughter?
Or Why Belittling the Iranian Threat Is a Clever Sort of Folly
April 13, 2009
Dr. Eran Lerman
Director, Israel/Middle East Office
American Jewish Committee
There are moments when I try to imagine what a conversation would be like between Roger Cohen, the well-traveled and sophisticated New York Times columnist who has made it his personal project, in recent weeks, to undermine Israel’s case on the Iranian nuclear threat, and my youngest daughter. True, she is not an intelligence officer (I am, or rather was, once upon a time); nor is she a “bellicose” (Cohen’s choice of words) Israeli general or politician. She is just a vulnerable 17-year-old with a tendency to take very seriously being told she is marked for destruction. She has often demanded to know what I have done, and what Israeli and American leaders have done recently, to make sure that she gets to be 25—given that she sees, in the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the embodiment of a design to have her dead.
I wish I could tell her that Mr. Cohen, a knowledgeable man, has recently been to Iran and is now in possession of a mature understanding—which all of us here, hysterical children that we are, sorely lack—of the mullahs’ real (and relatively benign) intentions. Even better, I would have loved to let him come over for dinner and have a go at soothing her fears, which are deep and real, and shared by many in Israel, young and old alike, who are not playing strategic games; they are simply frightened. But somehow, reading his recent spate of essays, I am not sure he is up to the task. Neither am I.
Cohen’s case, favoring a firm American rejection of what he describes, in effect, as Israeli manipulative tactics, rests on several foundations. They need to be taken seriously—and addressed, one by one: that Israel is “crying wolf”; that Iran was never all that dynamically engaged in pursuit of the bomb; that the problem is Israeli hegemony, not the Iranian threat; that the Arab leaders are not really worried; that the mullahs are, in fact, rational; and that they are nice to their Jews (they were apparently nice to Mr. Cohen, in any case). And then, if this all turns out to be wrong—a delusional gamble with our lives and the stability of the region at stake, not to mention the future of the nonproliferation regime—Cohen’s argument is that we still have time, plenty of time, to make amends.
· The familiar phrase “crying wolf” may be more appropriate here than Cohen intended. After all, the wolf of the parable was real enough, and while the hapless shepherd may have been discredited, the disaster he warned against, albeit prematurely, did come about in the sad end. In our case, it is true that Israeli leaders and intelligence services have, in some cases, used worst-case scenarios when trying to predict—always a thankless task—at what point the Iranians will come within reach of a military nuclear capacity. (And from a professional point of view, I would readily admit that there is a lesson therein, that this tendency to err on the side of caution is not a cost-free exercise.) But we were right all along—as most objective observers now concede—in warning against the danger itself, even when many in the West were simply uninterested in listening to such dire predictions: The Iranian nuclear effort was, all along, a military project, with little to justify it in civilian terms, and it is difficult nowadays to find public officials in Europe (let alone the U.S. or Israel) who think otherwise. Are the French (and Germans), too, seized by a bellicose convulsion? Why does Cohen conveniently ignore their tough stance on Iran?
· As it happens, some of the avenues Iran pursued turned out to be dead ends, and early fears raised in the 1990s turned out to be overstated. This proves nothing as regards present realities. Later estimates were much closer—although in 2003, when the Iranians were, in fact, approaching their goal, the easy manner in which U.S. forces overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq frightened them enough to cause, in effect, a temporary suspension of activities. Again, they lost time, but they slowly recovered and resumed activities. It is, in any case, fair to assume that it was the pressure already applied and the fear of punitive or even military measures that then led them to adopt a more sophisticated and incremental approach to the International Atomic Energy Agency requirements (while rejecting out of hand the UN Security Council demands), and in the process, accept longer timetables than those Israel originally predicted. This only goes to prove that a tough stance, not a credulous one, is likely to have the right impact.
· Whereas Cohen, seduced by simplistic equations (Israeli “Goliath” vs. Palestinian “David”) speaks of “Israeli hegemony”—as if the Zionist project encompasses some secret wish to dominate the region, for territorial or other material gain, rather than simply the challenge of staying alive in a hostile environment—it would make much more sense to simply posit the term “survival.” After all, to argue that Israel can do with a much narrower margin of error, citing that we are safer now than in the precarious early years after 1948, is like suggesting that if a diabetic is still alive (and indulges now and then), this is reason enough to put him off insulin. To use the language of survival, however, would counter Cohen’s claim—put forward more fervently than the evidence allows—that the exterminatory rhetoric of Iran, and of some of our other neighbors, is not reflective of their real intentions, but rather a “figure of speech” by essentially pragmatic players. Step by step, Cohen’s need to argue away an unpleasant reality thus gives rise to systematic denial; and in this respect, he seems closer in intellectual practice to elements within the administration of the “decider” he so obviously despises.
· It is ironic, in this respect, that his series of apologia for Iran has come out at the very moment when Arab fears about Iranian ambitions and active subversion have been spelled out in vivid detail, in stark contradiction to his claim that it is Israel, not Iran, that frightens them. He is confusing loathing with fear, not a good thing to do—even in Las Vegas, let alone the Middle East. True, the Arab “street” harbors a fierce dislike, even hatred, of Israel (and of Jews as such); but equally true, the Arab governments know that Israel is not actively pursuing a policy of “regime change” that could easily turn into a bloodbath, as indeed happened in Algeria after 1992. Iran does. (Ask the Algerians—or their local rivals, but equally the target of Iranian subversion, the Moroccans, who broke off relations with Tehran just the week before.) First came Ali Akbar Nateq Nuri’s heavy hints about Bahrain as a former Iranian province—language so loaded with echoes of Saddam in Kuwait that no sane man would have used it “unintentionally,” as Iran’s foreign minister later averred. Then we were told, a few weeks after the arrests took place, about Hezbollah’s blatant breach of Egyptian sovereignty—and Hassan Nasrallah, it should be recalled, is not only the leader of a local movement, but the official representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamene’i, in long-suffering Lebanon. What was inflicted upon that small country in pursuit of Iranian ideology (and Syrian strategy) should have been enough to give Cohen pause. The same applies to Mahmoud Abbas’s urgent plea for Iran to stop meddling in Palestinian internal affairs. The level of fear in much of the Arab world, and in particular among the smaller Gulf states (except perhaps for Qatar, which may have bought a temporary truce by dancing to Iran’s tune) is acute, not least because they suspect that Cohen’s line of argument may reflect Barack Obama’s intention to “sell” them to their enemy. Personally, I believe that they are wrong, and that the U.S. still has some principled sinews within the extended velvet-gloved hand: but neither the Arab monarchs, nor my daughter, would know this from Cohen’s articles.
· As for the mullahs’ pragmatism, Cohen’s case deserves careful scrutiny. We do ourselves no favor by being swept into descriptions of Iran—with all its political complexity and layered social reality—as a monolithic Bedlam (and, in fact, when we plead their insanity, we reduce the validity of our own case in favor of sanctions that would alter their cost-benefit analysis). True, anxious warnings—about the intrusion into the mainstream of Iranian politics of apocalyptic interpretations of history; and about the impact of Mahdist or “messianic” ideas, regarding the imminent appearance of the Hidden Imam, on Ahmadinejad’s thinking and conduct—have come, not from manipulative Israeli propagandists, but from well within the Iranian governing elite. Equally true, the practice of crass Holocaust denial—or, for that matter, the declaration that homosexuality does not exist (in Iran)—cannot easily be squared with the common usage of the term “rational.” And yet we should also admit that real power over Iran’s strategy is not in the Iranian president’s hand, and that over the years, the regime did respond soberly to various challenges. What we need to address—and what Cohen’s argument fails to cover—is not the crazy scenario of Iran, “out of the blue,” launching a nuclear attack on Israel or another neighbor; rather, it is the very real possibility that the irrational pride that the present leadership takes in its rejection of Israel’s right to exist, when combined with a manifest nuclear capability, could shape the trajectory of escalation in a crisis situation (say, another messy war in Lebanon or Gaza, triggered by the abundant supply of missiles and the assumption of the local clients that they now have an Iranian nuclear umbrella). The likelihood is much higher, and the consequences could easily be the same as those of a sudden lurch in the dark. After all, the more we read about the history of the Cold War (in Richard Rhodes’s The Arsenals of Folly or in Gordon Barrass’s The Great Cold War), the less reassuring it is to attribute our planet’s survival to the “rationality” of the game as it was played then; to expect the mullahs, and others in the region who would soon follow suit, to do even better than the U.S. or the Soviets is truly stretching it.
· They don’t really hate Jews, do they? Cohen left Tehran with a positive impression about the lives of Jews under the present Iranian regime. (Luckily for the mullahs, he did not ask too many questions about Baha’is, gays, or women’s rights activists.) To write as he did about the perspectives of those among Iran’s Jews who chose to stay when the majority left is in itself a hidden problem, and apparently he was confronted on this issue by the strong community of formerly Iranian Jews now in the Los Angeles. area. But beyond that, it should have been obvious to him that, as a Jew, he was being used to promote Iran’s alleged distinction between “good” Jews (anti-Zionists) and the bad or even false Jews of the “unnatural regime occupying Palestine.” This is not a new trick. Arab states used it in the 1940s, coercing local Jews to march with anti-Zionist banners. Observing this practice, our great poet of that period, Natan Alterman, wryly commented—in rhyme that I cannot hope to reproduce—that nothing proves the absolute necessity of Jewish freedom, in a sovereign state, more than these forced displays of servility.
It is at this point that we come to the most specific and policy-oriented question: What is our margin of error when it comes to making decisions? Is it true that we still have time, anyway—perhaps two years, perhaps more? What if we do not? The occult knowledge that, in his mind, authorizes Cohen to make such judgments is—quite frankly—beyond me. Huge efforts by formidable analytical agencies have bred little by way of conclusions on the matters upon which he declaims with an air of certainty. The real question, in any case, is not how long we have before Iran has the bomb, but rather, at what point do we have to decide whether to negotiate—with, or without, real leverage. Given that he is an ardent supporter of “engagement” with Iran, Cohen may be surprised to learn that people close to Binyamin Netanyahu are equally willing to welcome Obama’s first steps in this direction. Cohen should be an avid supporter of measures that would enable the effort to succeed, rather than end in a limbo like Javier Solana’s talks. To go into the engagement with Iran without proper leverage, armed only with the kind of wishful thinking Roger Cohen offers us, would be the sort of intellectually embellished folly for which nations have often paid dearly.