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Why Iran’s Anti-Semitism Matters


A close read of Obama and Kerry’s comments on whether Iranian leaders seek Israel’s destruction

A few days ago, I spoke with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry about the politics of the Iran deal (you can find the full interview here), and at one point in our conversation I put to Kerry what I thought was—to be honest—something of a gimme question: “Do you believe that Iranian leaders sincerely seek the elimination of the Jewish state?”

Kerry responded provocatively—provocatively, that is, if you understand Iranian leaders, and in particular the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the way I understand them: as people theologically committed to the destruction of Israel. Quotes such as this one from Khamenei help lead me to this conclusion: “This barbaric, wolflike, and infanticidal regime of Israel which spares no crime has no cure but to be annihilated.” The supreme leader does not specialize in nuance. (Here is a long list of statements made by Iranian leaders concerning their desire to bring about an end to Jewish sovereignty in any part of the ancestral Jewish homeland.)

Kerry’s stated understanding of the regime’s anti-Semitism is somewhat different from mine. He told me, “I think they have a fundamental ideological confrontation with Israel at this particular moment. Whether or not that translates into active steps, to quote, ‘Wipe it,’ you know …”He paused, and so I filled in the blank: “Wipe it off the map.”

Kerry continued, “I don’t know the answer to that. I haven’t seen anything that says to me—they’ve got 80,000 rockets in Hezbollah pointed at Israel, and any number of choices could have been made. They didn’t make the bomb when they had enough material for 10 to 12. They’ve signed on to an agreement where they say they’ll never try and make one and we have a mechanism in place where we can prove that. So I don’t want to get locked into that debate. I think it’s a waste of time here.”

Kerry’s understanding, in shorthand: Iran is dangerous to Israel at this moment (he repeated the term “at this moment” in his next statement, in fact); Iran has had plenty of opportunity to hurt Israel but has chosen not to; and, finally, the answer to the question concerning the true intentions of Iran’s leaders when it comes to Israel is unknowable, and also irrelevant to the current discussion.

I found many of Kerry’s answers to my other questions convincing, but I was troubled by what I took to be his unwillingness, or inability, to grapple squarely with Iran’s eliminationist desires. The way he and President Barack Obama understand the question of Iranian-state anti-Semitism is crucially important as we move closer to a congressional vote on the nuclear deal negotiated by Kerry and his team.

Proper implementation of the deal—and I’m in the camp of people who believe that the president will probably overcome congressional opposition and see the deal through—is everything. Stringent implementation of the deal could be to Israel’s benefit because the limitations placed on Iran should keep it south of the nuclear threshold for many years. (The Arab states may eventually have a more difficult time than Israel in battling the economically strengthened and hegemonically inclined Iran that will most likely emerge from this deal.)

Proper implementation does not simply mean the maintenance of a strong inspections regime, as well as zero tolerance for Iranian cheating. Proper implementation requires an eyes-wide-open American commitment to countering Iran’s nefarious terrorist activities across the Middle East, and it means that American leaders must have a properly jaundiced view of their Iranian adversaries, including a properly jaundiced view of their intentions toward Israel. This is why questions concerning the Obama administration’s understanding of the regime’s ideology are so important, and it is why I keep raising the matter with the administration.

“[The supreme leader’s] ideology is steeped with anti-Semitism, and if he could, without catastrophic costs, inflict great harm on Israel, I’m confident that he would.”

Late last week—a few days after the Kerry interview—I attended a by-invitation press conference with Obama in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. (My friend and colleague James Fallows was one of nine other journalists who attended; his report on the meeting can be found here.)

Kerry’s understanding of Iran’s intentions was still on my mind, and so I asked Obama the same question: Does the Iranian leadership seek the elimination of Israel? I had already discussed the nature of Iranian-regime anti-Semitism with Obama in a May interview—a discussion that was by turns reassuring and troubling—and Obama made reference to that conversation in his answer last week.

“Well, we’ve discussed this before, Jeffrey,” the president said. “I take what the supreme leader says seriously. I think his ideology is steeped with anti-Semitism, and if he could, without catastrophic costs, inflict great harm on Israel, I’m confident that he would. But as I said, I think, the last time we spoke, it is possible for leaders or regimes to be cruel, bigoted, twisted in their worldviews and still make rational calculations with respect to their limits and their self-preservation.”

In the May interview, I asked him to help me understand a seemingly contradictory set of ideas he has advanced relating to Iran. I noted that he himself has stated publicly that the regime is infected with an anti-Semitic worldview, and that those who are infected with such a worldview generally do not grapple well with cause-and-effect in international politics and economics, and cannot be counted on to interpret reality correctly. I then asked how he squares these two observations with a third observation he has made: that the regime in Tehran is in many ways capable of behaving according to its rational self-interest, as American politicians understand the notion of rational self-interest.

His answer: “Well, the fact that you are anti-Semitic, or racist, doesn’t preclude you from being interested in survival. It doesn’t preclude you from being rational about the need to keep your economy afloat; it doesn’t preclude you from making strategic decisions about how you stay in power; and so the fact that the supreme leader is anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that this overrides all of his other considerations. You know, if you look at the history of anti-Semitism, Jeff, there were a whole lot of European leaders—and there were deep strains of anti-Semitism in this country—”

Here I interrupted him: “And they make irrational decisions.”

He continued: “They may make irrational decisions with respect to discrimination, with respect to trying to use anti-Semitic rhetoric as an organizing tool. At the margins, where the costs are low, they may pursue policies based on hatred as opposed to self-interest. But the costs here are not low, and what we’ve been very clear [about] to the Iranian regime over the past six years is that we will continue to ratchet up the costs, not simply for their anti-Semitism, but also for whatever expansionist ambitions they may have. That’s what the sanctions represent. That’s what the military option I’ve made clear I preserve represents. And so I think it is not at all contradictory to say that there are deep strains of anti-Semitism in the core regime, but that they also are interested in maintaining power, having some semblance of legitimacy inside their own country, which requires that they get themselves out of what is a deep economic rut that we’ve put them in, and on that basis they are then willing and prepared potentially to strike an agreement on their nuclear program.”



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