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Why Is a Liberal Israel Analyst Echoing Neocon Fearmongering on Iran?

MJ Rosenberg buys into the 'Iran as existential threat' frame.

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And what about countries that don't afford even a semblance of democracy?

China has a significant nuclear arsenal, and more than 150 people have been killed in the rioting in Xinjiang province. Yet nobody has suggested that the Chinese government is acting irrationally in putting down the protests or that the repression is a worrisome sign that the Chinese regime might suddenly decide to nuke Japan.

The fundamental flaw here is using right versus wrong as a proxy for rationality. Controlling the political process and breaking the heads of those who stand in the way are certainly abhorrent acts, but there is absolutely nothing irrational about them from the perspective of those holding the levers of the state.

As long as a regime calculates that it can get away with such abuses, consolidating power in such a way is, in fact, the height of rationality.

Now, it may be that in this case the regime miscalculated in its cost-benefit analysis (we'll see), but that in absolutely no way suggests that Iran's leaders have  suddenly become suicidal en masse .

Rosenberg sees it otherwise:

If the people running Iran were rational -- if they were primarily interested in preserving their regime -- they would not have stolen the election for [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad (with a fabricated landslide, no less).

They would have understood, having hand-picked Ahmadinejad's main opponent, Mir Hussein Mousavi, that he would threaten neither the continuation of the regime nor Iran's nuclear program. They would have understood that their regime would be more, not less, secure if they allowed an election that looked relatively free. 

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If they were rational -- if they were interested only in preserving their regime -- they would either have dumped Ahmadinejad or, at the very least, prohibited him from blabbing about the Holocaust. Every time Mad Mahmoud indulges in his penchant for Holocaust denial, he makes the regime look ridiculous.

Yes, he's a fool. This is a man who told an audience at Columbia University that there are no gay people in Iran (at the same time that his regime was executing gay teenagers).

There are two fundamental flaws here. First, Rosenberg acknowledges that "there is apparently a struggle going on right now between various factions," but dismisses the logical conclusion of that analysis.

The reality is that Ahmadinejad has a potent political base, making it all the more rational for those who share his worldview to attempt to consolidate their power and influence over the future of the Islamic republic. For Rosenberg, Ahmadinejad may be nothing more than an embarrassing loon -- and I won't disagree -- but that's a caricature of how he's viewed by both friend and foe in Iran, and as such, it's analytically unhelpful.

A closely related error is viewing Iranian politics through a distinctly Western lens. It is certainly true that Mousavi brought up Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial during the campaign, but it was part of a larger narrative about how Ahmadinejad's icy relationship with most of the the rest of the world had resulted in political isolation and economically painful sanctions. But the issue wasn't much of a focus for Iranians unto itself.

The heart of Mousavi's argument about Ahmadinejad's rants about the Holocaust was that it wasn't Iran's business -- it was European history. More broadly, from an Iranian perspective -- necessary when considering whether its actors are rational -- Ahmadinejad's speech at Colombia -- and comments about gays in his country were non-issues.

Finally, in arguing that Israeli fears of nuclear annihilation are somehow justified, Rosenberg omits any discussion of the larger proliferation issues at play. He ignores the fact that there exists no evidence that Iran is intent on developing nuclear weapons (as opposed to "break-out capacity") or that Iran is guaranteed the right to develop nuclear technology for civilian purposes under the (deeply flawed) Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

 
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