Like many talk show hosts the world over, Menashe Amir tells his callers just to give him their first names. No last names necessary. And certainly no need to spell out on air which city they’re phoning from.
But on Sunday’s weekly phone-in, as is often the case, some of his callers were happy to fully identify themselves – insistent even. Which is pretty remarkable when you consider that Amir’s is a Farsi-language show on state-sponsored Israel Radio, and that his callers are phoning in, via a relay station in Germany, from the Islamic Republic of Iran.
“Many of them are not scared about saying exactly who they are,” says Amir. “They don’t want to hide.”
In the 25 years that he’s been doing the phone-ins, Amir hastens to add, he knows of not a single case in which a caller has been harassed by the Iranian authorities in any way after participating in the program. But the courage of the callers is astonishing, he says, particularly in these days of regional ferment.
And it reflects his conviction, he says, that “the end is near” for the ayatollahs. The regime is artificial,” he says in an interview at his home outside Jerusalem, choosing the word with the unhurried care of a lifelong broadcaster. “It doesn’t resonate with the Iranian public.
“Iranians love life. They’re friendly. They want peace. They loathe wars and disputes,” he believes. “And along comes a regime that stands for the opposite of all that.”
It won’t go quietly, Amir stresses. “Iran isn’t Egypt. The Revolutionary Guard isn’t the Egyptian Army that refused to fire on the protesters.” But the regime’s ethos is foreign to the Iranian culture, he argues. “And it won’t be able to hold on.”
The mood of Iranians, exemplified by this week’s defiant return to the streets, he says, has radicalized still further since the mass protests following June 2009’s fraudulent presidential elections. People don’t want a correction of that election fraud. They want real freedom.
“They’re saying, ‘After Egypt and Tunisia, it’s our turn.’ They’re done with supporting Hamas and Hezbollah. You heard the slogans this week. The demonstrators were urging, ‘Not Gaza, Lebanon, but Tunisia, Egypt and Iran.’”
NOW 71, Menashe Amir has been broadcasting back to the land of his birth for more than half a century. He visited Israel as a budding Tehran high school journalist, tagging along with a Jewish Agency-organized trip for Iranian Jewish teachers in 1957, when he was only 17. Encountering a “new, developing, enthralling” country, he made aliya two years later.
Impelled by the need to earn a living to finance his Hebrew University studies, he joined Israel Radio’s Farsi service in June 1960, and has been there ever since, though he handed over the management of the department to his deputy seven years ago and has since greatly reduced his workload.
Fifty years ago, the service was putting out 30 minutes of daily programming. Over the years it rose to 60 minutes, and then to the current 90. It achieved astronomical resonance during the Iran-Iraq war, when it broadcast information on which Iranian cities Iraq was planning to target each day, enabling Iranians to assess whether it would be safe for them to sleep at home on any given night, or whether they’d be better off out in the fields.
Despite working under heavy financial constraints at the Israel Broadcasting Authority, “We’re perceived in Iran as a broadcasting superpower,” Amir notes. “And I certainly think that this has helped protect and strengthen the status of the Iranian Jewish community.”
Programming through the decades has focused a third or so on Israeli current affairs, and two-thirds on Iranian-related material. “People listen to overseas broadcasts when they lack adequate information about what’s happening at home,” Amir reasons. And along with the BBC, the Voice of America and other services that have followed Jerusalem’s lead, Israel Radio has filled the information vacuum, notably since 1979.
“We’ve been part of formulating the [Iranian] people’s critical attitude to the regime,” Amir says bluntly, making no effort to sound dispassionate. “The Iranian public’s interest, Israel’s interests and the free world’s interests require a different regime in Iran,” he adds, gathering momentum. “We have no sympathy for it whatsoever. It denies the Holocaust. It calls for Israel’s destruction.”
Iran’s current rulers, he goes on, “are crazy people. Crazy people who have missiles with 2,000 km. and 5,000 km. and 6,000 km. ranges, and planning for 10,000 km. If they get a nuclear bomb tomorrow, they’ll be able to threaten Berlin, London and Paris. Eventually, New York.
“They say that they lost 500,000 people in the eight-year war with Iraq (and other sources suggest the number was twice that high), but note that millions more were born in the same period. And that, in any case, ‘all is permissible in the cause of Islam.’ They believe that the messiah’s arrival is imminent, and that he will turn the whole world Islamic.
“So yes,” he adds, somewhat unnecessarily after those comments, “I do believe that if this regime stays and widens, that’s a disaster for the entire world.”
GIVEN THAT only an Israeli journalist with a death wish would set out to report first-hand from Iran, Amir has long been the next best thing – uniquely equipped, via his decades of radio connection, to feel the pulse of that nation. Given that Iran is doing its utmost to keep out all foreign media these days, he’s also currently much in demand among international journalists.
Even as the phone rings repeatedly through our conversation, he exudes unflappability and courtesy. He asks me graciously if I mind him interrupting our lengthy interview to do another, shorter one over the phone, schedules a third for a little later on, plies me with an assortment of nuts and nosh, but never loses his train of thought.
He cautions repeatedly against the expectation that Iran will swiftly go the way of Egypt, that anything parallel to the 18-day uprising that unseated Mubarak is unfolding now. But he did detect, in the insistent return to the streets this week, the “first spark of revolution.” He had not anticipated tens of thousands of people defying the regime in dozens of cities across Iran, “and staying out there for hours.”
He likens Mubarak’s fall to that of the shah in 1979 – two men “drunk with power”; two men refusing to acquiesce to a gradual opening of their regimes; two men arguing that the time was not yet ripe, that the people of the Middle East were not ready for democracy. And he worries that, in Egypt today as in 1979’s Iran, the autocratic leadership’s refusal to countenance opposition means that the only well-organized potential successors are the Islamists.
“The shah’s dictatorship and ban on the media meant that no Iranian intellectual knew who [Ayatollah] Khomeini really was. They hadn’t read his books. They didn’t understand his agenda,” Amir points out simply. “They knew Khomeini was anti-American and that he professed support for the proletariat. They liked that. And then, a few months later, Iranian women, who had played so central a role in ousting the shah, found themselves forced to wear the chador [cloak with head-hole].” The bid for freedom was subverted by the Islamists. “They fell into Khomeini’s trap.”
What also undermined the 1979 push for democracy, Amir remembers, were the US government’s Cold War considerations. “The US was terrified that, if there was no reform in Iran, it could fall into the hands of the Communists. It got the opposite result.
The US president of the day,” he recalls, without dignifying Jimmy Carter by so much as naming him, “was doubtless a fine peanut salesman, but he had no understanding of the psychology of Middle East nations. He pushed the shah for reforms, the shah was incapable of gradually opening up the regime, and it all exploded. If the shah had been smarter, just as if Mubarak had been smarter, capable of gradual liberalizing, this wouldn’t have happened.
AMIR DOESN’T claim to know how the revolution will play out in Egypt. He sees innumerable potential scenarios, including the possibility that the army will conclude that conditions are not ripe for a transfer of authority to civilian rule.
But he does want to highlight the Muslim Brotherhood’s capacity to take a leading role. “It is committed to jihad not in the sense of ‘holy war’ but in the sense of ‘the struggle’ for religious strengthening,” he emphasizes. “It has lots of money – sustained by charitable donations from ordinary believers – good organization, passion and clear goals. Its slogans, like ‘God is Great’ and ‘Islam is the Solution,’ are compelling and have enormous power to move the masses. You saw the crowds kneeling in prayer in front of the tanks in Tahrir Square – Islamic prayer in the face of military might. Scenes like that move people. They influence people.
“And remember,” Amir cautions, “Egypt’s economic problems are getting worse by the day. They’re hard to fix. The best national management would have an arduous task grappling with the lack of resources, the high unemployment. And the Middle East suffers from poor management across the region.”
And when all else fails, it is tempting to take refuge in religion? “Yes,” says Amir, “in the long term, the attraction of religion is immense. There’s that slogan: ‘Islam is the Solution.’”
And therefore, argues Amir, the free world must urgently mobilize to invest in the economies of Egypt and other destabilizing relative allies. “The West needs to build factories, to create jobs, to pour in billions. Believe me,” he reasons, “in the long run that’s a much better course than investing in China and the Far East.”
IN IRAN, too, Amir urges the international community to invest... in regime change. He reels off a half-dozen key points that could expedite the demise of the ayatollahs, “in the interests of all humanity.”
Points one and two are familiar: Intensify international sanctions to close down the Iranian economy, and create a credible threat of military force. He also suggests that the West help mobilize the various disgruntled minorities – including the Baluchis, Turkmen and Kurds – at Iran’s corners to demand wider rights. “They’ll take up arms against the regime,” he says.
He says the West must also do more to practically aid both the public in Iran – “find the ways to provide practical assistance to workers going on strike in the oil, gas, electricity and water industries – and the three million Iranian exiles worldwide, most of them in Europe.
And finally, he urges the outside world to offer assistance to Iranians in reversing the Iranian narrative.
In the Iranian Majlis on Tuesday, the regime’s parliamentary loyalists chorused the demand that opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi be executed for their ostensibly treasonous activities against the Iranian people. Amir suggests efforts be made to create a climate, including via online social networks, in which it is those who are truly acting against the interests of the Iranian people, the regime’s violent bullies, who are named and shamed.
“Help the Iranian people publicize the identities and phone numbers and addresses of the leaders of the Basij [paramilitary forces] and the Revolutionary Guard” who murderously suppressed the 2009 protests and were deployed again to disperse protesters this week, he recommends. “Participation in the repression has to be turned into a crime.”
Amir underlines that he did not expect Monday’s protests to swiftly develop into an unstoppable display of people power. The masses, he assesses, are still waiting, watching, looking for weakness.
The context is far from entirely encouraging. America did not support those who took to the streets 20 months ago. And it’s not easy, certainly not from within Iran, to shrug off President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s assertion that Islam is the world’s rising power and that the sun is setting on the West.
But the Tunisia-initiated regional uprising has brought new momentum, Amir says, and the US administration has signaled solidarity with the opposition this time. Comments from President Barack Obama on down, exposing the hypocrisy of the regime in siding with the people’s right to freedom in Egypt while denying that freedom at home, were very important, says Amir. So, too, if only symbolically, was the State Department’s opening of a Farsi Twitter dialogue.
Obama “wasted more than a year in the false hope of engagement [with the regime on its nuclear weapons program], when any young diplomat could see that was futile,” he says. This time, Obama “completely supported” the Egyptian people’s protests, and has weighed in on the right side in Iran.
Critical, too, is the gradual, ongoing decline of the Iranian economy. New subsidy arrangements have left ordinary Iranians much worse off, says Amir. Echoing assessments I’ve heard from other close Iran watchers, he adds that Ahmadinejad, having centralized ever-greater economic authority, is personally proving a lousy economic steward. “When the workers and the middle class can’t manage financially, that too will bring them out into the streets,” he says.
Already, he notes again, “the people who call in to our program, they’re
not afraid. In fact, what I hear from some of them is that they’re
ready to sacrifice their lives for Iran and for their children.”
As it poured vast contingents of security forces into the streets this
week to disperse protesters, and placed opposition leaders under house
arrest, the regime evidently hears them too.