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


MJ Rosenberg is a progressive analyst with the Israel Policy Forum. He's no friend of the neoconservative foreign policy establishment, opposes the idea that "might makes right" in international affairs and is generally someone whose opinions I respect.

All of which is why his column tying the contested Iranian elections to Israeli security is so disconcerting:

The stolen Iranian election, and the ugly events that followed it, cannot help but raise new fears about the possibility that Iran will soon join the list of nuclear armed states: the United States, United Kingdom, Israel, France, Russia, China, India and Pakistan.

He takes a few well-aimed shots at the neocons and their constant clamor for war with Iran. He writes that it's important, however, to "look at the Iranian threat, such as it is, without focusing unduly on those who endlessly hype it." He then reinforces their basic premise:

And the fact is that the Iranian threat appears more serious today than it did before the election, because the regime looks significantly more deranged in July than it did in May. It is simply no longer possible to argue with confidence that Tehran is rational and would accordingly refrain from using a nuclear weapon on Israel. The election fiasco put that argument to rest. Israel's concerns are legitimate.

To be fair to Rosenberg, in the next paragraph he writes, "No, I do not believe that Israel should pre-emptively attack Iran. I think an Israeli attack would be disastrous." But coherent caveats aside, he's advancing the "mad mullah" argument, one much beloved by the militaristic right.

It holds that because Iran's leaders are crazy, wild-eyed "Islamofascists" who yearn for a long eternity in paradise being fed grapes by nubile virgins, the rules of deterrence that govern other nuclear states don't apply. In short, there's every reason to believe they would nuke Israel just for the hell of it and without regard to the simple fact that such action would, as Rosenberg readily acknowledges in the piece, bring about the certain destruction of their homeland.

So the key sentence is: "It is simply no longer possible to argue with confidence that Tehran is rational and would accordingly refrain from using a nuclear weapon on Israel." But that's simply untrue -- the logic doesn't follow.

Rosenberg, and others making this argument, need to address some fundamental questions about their line of reasoning. Specifically, why does it follow that a contested election in Iran, and subsequent skull-cracking of protesters, legitimizes Israel's fears about the country possibly obtaining nuclear weapons at some point in the future, when the same kind of political strife is not uncommon elsewhere?

After all, we see political repression similar to what's playing out on the streets of Iran today in states that already possess nuclear weapons.

In recent years, Russian elections have not been considered free and fair, journalists have been killed and dissent has been tightly controlled. Yet nobody suggested that it was a sign Russia might unleash its nuclear arsenal in a fit of madness.

In the U.S., while we've seen little that compares to the unrest on the streets of Iran, authorities have also cracked down on dissent. But while many people have decried actions like the mass pre-emptive arrests during the lead-up to the GOP convention in Minnesota last year, or the brutal police riots that have accompanied various "free trade" meetings during the past decade, nobody ever suggested that they were an irrational act. It was assumed, correctly, that these were acts of repression by those in power and not manifestations of mental instability.

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. 


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.

The bottom line here is that rationality doesn't correlate with a love of democracy, a belief in free speech and free expression, or anything that has or has not happened in Iran since the election. Ever since the revolution, regardless of who has been in power at the time, Iran's leadership has been interested, above all else, in self-preservation.

Roger Cohen wrote in response to an interview in which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invoked the specter of mad mullahs with their finger on the button, "Every scrap of evidence suggests that, on the contrary, self-interest and survival drive the mullahs."

And while Rosenberg goes out of his way -- admirably and necessarily -- to distance himself from those using essentially the same argument to push for an attack on Iran that would prove utterly disastrous, he is still reinforcing his ideological opponents' framing of the issue.

His piece, however cautious, is another arrow in the quiver of those seeking a military confrontation -- it'll be yet another example of, "see, even liberal critics of Israeli foreign policy agree that Iran is an existential threat to the Jewish state."

To paraphrase E.J. Dionne, the stakes are simply too high to risk "talking the other guy's talk" on such a dangerous subject.

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