One on One: Short wave's long arm

Voice of Israel Farsi broadcaster Menashe Amir urges US to help Iranians rise up against their regime.

manashe amir in office (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
manashe amir in office
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Officially retired, yet unofficially as busy as ever, Voice of Israel Farsi broadcaster Menashe Amir greets me at the door of his home in a flurry of activity. With Iran the hot topic of the hour, Amir is in high demand these days. Having spent the better part of a century becoming a renowned radio personality in his native land through transmissions from his adopted one (he made aliya in 1959), his daily contact with Iranians who phone in comments to his programs is probably as good a gauge of Iranian public sentiment as you can get. And his assessment - in a nutshell - is that the people of Iran are desperate to be rescued from the repression of their current regime. Entering his Arab-style house in the Jerusalem suburb of Har Adar, one might initially mistake the venue for Teheran. Persian carpets, cabinets and art abound - items purchased, Amir says, during his many pre-revolution visits to his country of origin. A large, flat-screen TV facing the dining table (cluttered with dog-eared Hebrew newspapers) is tuned in to Al Jazeera, which is airing footage of Osama bin Laden, apparently in connection with the fifth anniversary of 9/11. Amir turns down the volume to focus on our hour-long interview, in which he asserts that the Iranian people "don't buy [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad's view" of the world. He also emphasizes the urgency of American intervention to inspire insurgency in Iran, before the nuclear capabilities of its "fanatical" Shi'ite leaders catch up with their cause: global jihad. As a former Iranian who has spent most of his life encouraging and working toward internal reform and regime change in Iran, what odds do you give that option today, in the face of Ahmadinejad's nuclear program and declarations of intent? What's happening in Iran causes me great sadness. I always perceived the Iranians to be quiet, peace-seeking, life-embracing, culture-loving people. Since the [Islamic] revolution [in 1979], however, Iran has undergone a kind of national metamorphosis, and become increasingly war-driven and xenophobic. We used to love foreigners and considered them special. We were always hospitable to visitors from abroad. Today, the Iranian regime encourages hatred of foreigners, particularly those from the West. The current regime cultivates two main concepts - jihad (holy war) and shehada (martyrdom) - according to which you go to war to kill others, and if you yourself are killed in the process, you go to Paradise. You say Iran has undergone a kind of national metamorphosis. Do you believe there are nations which lend themselves to such transformations more easily than others - such as the Germans under the Third Reich? There are indeed similarities between Ahmadinejad's rise to power and Hitler's. Up until World War I, the Germans were cultured, peace-loving people who underwent a form of brainwashing when Hitler arrived on the scene. As Hitler did, Ahmadinejad goes around the country making speeches in which he praises the people - the youth, the women, the religious - telling them how wonderful and capable they are. He says things like: "We'll build Paradise together." Is he charismatic? Not in the least. But he's gradually learning. And he is aiming his tactics of persuasion outside of Iran, as well. For example, he sent a letter to [US President George W.] Bush praising the American people, while criticizing their leaders. He also sent a letter to [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel in which he wrote that the Holocaust was a fabrication of the Allies created to keep Germany in a state of humiliation and defeat. You're saying that he stresses the positive in order to be able to preach the negative? He strokes egos; he flatters. This is his way of arousing sympathy and support. He always says, "The Iranians want..." He doesn't say, "I want," or "The regime wants..." Look, Ahmadinejad is not a new phenomenon in Iran; he's simply more direct. He says the same things that [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini said and that [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khameini says. Nevertheless, I'm slightly uncomfortable about comparing the Nazi regime to the Iranian, because Iran has not talked about exterminating the Jews. It distinguishes between Israel as a political, geographical entity and the Jews as a people. Jews are supposedly protected in the Koran, and Islam needs religious minorities - Jews and Christians - in order for the picture to be whole. In addition, the world is much more open than it was during the period of Nazi Germany. Mass communication enables the Iranians to know more or less what is going on in the rest of the world. And they don't really buy the regime's or Ahmadinejad's view of it. When you say, "The Iranians don't really buy Ahmadinejad's view," which Iranians are you referring to? Mainly those in the cities - the middle class - who comprise more than 60 percent of the population. These are the ones who are exposed to TV, radio and the Internet. The Voice of Israel in Farsi has a few million listeners every day. There's also the Voice of America, the BBC, Radio France, a German station, and even a Voice of America TV program which is broadcast three hours a day. How does the regime allow this? Why aren't the transmitters shut down? There are too many of them, so while the regime does jam many radio stations, it can't jam all of them. Nor is jamming hermetical. The same goes for satellite dishes. Though there's a law against them, there are more than two million. But they're visible on rooftops. Yes, and for a month now, there has been a crackdown. People from the regime have been climbing the rooftops and throwing the dishes to the ground. The next step will be entering people's homes to remove the dishes from their balconies. But there are simply too many. Which is why on our broadcast, we keep telling our listeners that maybe the regime can do away with 100, 1,000 or even 10,000 dishes. But they can't do anything about 70 million Iranians. How do your listeners respond? They say: "You're right, but there's no one to lead our struggle against the regime." They claim that if there were someone to take that role on, it would be possible to topple it very quickly. Do you actually mean to say that in spite of a majority of Iranians opposing the regime, the only reason they're not taking action is the absence of a single individual to lead them? And if so, isn't that a harsh statement about Iranian mentality? Repression is so strong that any potential leader who arises is arrested, punished and sometimes even killed. As a result, no such leader can emerge from within the country. As for outside of Iran, neither of the two potential opposition leaders is really an option. One is Massoud Rajavi, the leader of People's Mujahedin; the other is Reza Pahlavi, the son of the late shah. Rajavi is hated in Iran for having cooperated with Saddam Hussein in Iraq and for promoting an Islamist-Marxist state. Pahlavi has many admirers, but they haven't forgotten the bad things his father did during his reign. This lack of opposition leadership is a major problem. Another problem is that the Iranians have shown that material goods are more important to them than lofty notions such as freedom. There have been some violent demonstrations in Iran over the former, yet the people aren't so willing to take to the streets and risk getting killed for the latter - especially since the last time they took to the streets and succeeded in toppling the regime, they saw what they got in its place. Are you not saying, then, that the Iranian people are responsible for their plight? Being willing to demonstrate to better their material condition, yet unwilling to fight for "lofty notions such as freedom" means that they see no connection between freedom and the ability to thrive economically. That's true. Yet you continue to make a distinction between the regime and the people. Absolutely. The people are peace-loving and humane, while the regime is made up of a group of extremists who believe in holy war and martyrdom. How do the people view the United States? Iranians love America. They love American music; they love the English language; they love the good life of the US. The fact is that of the three million Iranians who fled the country, at least half went to the US. Today, according to official data, there are 900,000 Iranians in the US. Unofficially, the number is far greater, probably around a million and a half. This is why the current Iranian regime hates America, and why Khameini and Ahmadinejad keep portraying it as a hub of prostitution and crime and a repressor of other nations. It is also why, when the US invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein, listeners phoned in to our broadcast and said: "Please tell Bush that we also need a visit from him." The Iranian people are waiting for the US to save them? Yes. And another caller said that if an American soldier arrives in Iran, "We not only won't kill him, we'll cooperate with him, shoulder-to-shoulder, to topple the regime together. When I asked why he was hoping for the intervention of a foreign country, he said that neither the regime in Afghanistan nor the regime in Iraq fell until the US intervened. "And we're unable to do it by ourselves," he said. So, from a moral, political-international perspective, it is important for the US to aim its efforts toward Iran. The bulk of the ills of the Middle East today emanate from Iran. If there were an America-friendly regime in Iran today, the situation in Iraq would be far better. Much of the current bloodshed in Iraq is due to Iran's inciting the Shi'ites against the US on the one hand, and providing Sunni groups with money and weapons with which to fight the Shi'ites on the other. This is because Iran knows that as long as America is ensconced in the Iraqi quagmire, it won't be freed up to deal with Iran. Then there's the Palestinian front and peace with Arab states. Iran is the state most actively fighting peace treaties. It transferred weapons to the PA; it established and funds the Islamic Jihad; it is the greatest supporter of Hamas; it created Hizbullah; it is engaging in attacks against American and NATO forces in Afghanistan; it is contributing to the Islamization of Turkey; and it is bolstering immigrants in Europe and radical African-American groups in the US. Furthermore, Iran is in the process of developing missiles with a 5,000-kilometer range, which could hit the heart of Europe. It is working on a 10,000-km missile - the Shihab 5 - which could reach America's East Coast. It produces all kinds of military materiel, including tanks and planes. It has close to a million soldiers. Soon, we'll be hearing about its occupying outer space. If the Iranian people want to topple the regime, and much of the rest of the world is beginning to grasp the danger it is in, how do you explain the lack of action against Ahmadinejad, who is merely a man - a lone despot? I'll answer that by paraphrasing Ahmadinejad: "The Western world is a setting sun. It is old, tired, lazy, war-weary, fond of the 'good life,' and very fearful of death. Islam, on the other hand, is a rising sun. It is dynamic, young, dedicated, decisive, and willing to die. Islam will soon take over Europe demographically, and is steadily growing in the US. Global Islam - the one that calls for jihad - is strengthening. This is attractive to the younger generation, who are in a conceptual vacuum, now that Communism is finished - and Western capitalism can't attract youth." Where are all the supposedly moderate Islamic religious leaders? Are there none in Iran who counterbalance the focus on jihad? Unfortunately, the number of peace-loving religious leaders in Iran and the rest of the Islamic world is decreasing. This is due in part to the failure of secular Islamic and Arab regimes - such as Egypt and Jordan - to improve the lot of the masses. Furthermore, Iran's repressive regime silences any Ayatollah who thinks differently. Basically what you're saying, then, is that it makes no difference whether the Iranian people have an affinity for the West; nor does it make a difference that there is a consensus in the West about the Iranian threat. So why bother encouraging regime change, if it has no practical application, and no chance of success? The Iranian regime is Shi'ite. The meaning of "Shi'a" is that its followers determine their leaders. In other words, they decide to follow a certain ayatollah. It's like with the Satmar Jews. Shi'ite Muslims choose their rebbe. The greater the number of believers in an ayatollah, the greater he becomes. His followers give him money with which he creates a financial empire, establishing religious schools and other tools for spreading his word. Because the Iranian regime is religious, it claims to have been given legitimacy by the people. The minute the people take to the streets to denounce it, it will lose its legitimacy. This is what distinguishes it from a military regime. But you said that the masses won't take to the streets. This shouldn't prevent the world from taking action. There is potential there, and - rightly or wrongly - the people don't feel equipped to deal with it on their own. And it's in the world's interest to take the task on, because as soon as the regime changes in Iran, many Mideast issues will resolve themselves: the nuclear problem; the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan; Syria will collapse; and the obstacles to peace between Israel and the Palestinians will be removed. The US can and should invest resources to bring this about. There is no need for it to invade Iran militarily. How then? By providing the Iranian people with the financial and political tools to stage an uprising. Money is all it takes? Also a lot of painstaking work. Establishing cells of resistance, among other things. If a military invasion isn't necessary, why can't Israel do the job? Our listeners often raise that question. They say that Cyrus the Great [the founder of the Persian empire] liberated the Jews from Babylonia, gave them money and told them to rebuild the Temple. So, the logic goes, the Jews owe a historical debt to Cyrus, and now is the time for them to repay it by rescuing us. Here, I have my reservations. Israel is too small and economically weak to pioneer this mission. A country that can't afford to help its own poor and elderly certainly can't handle such a major undertaking. Part of the reason that Israel has no money is its being under endless existential threat, which eats up large chunks of its resources. If toppling the Iranian regime would solve many of the problems in the Middle East, including - as you claim - the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, wouldn't its funds be freed up to deal with domestic ailments? Much of this subject is classified, but I will say that I have never favored Israel's spearheading this endeavor. But once the US paves the way, Israel could certainly contribute its wealth of experience and knowledge to to it. Weighing Iran's imminent nuclear capability against the "painstaking" work of toppling the regime by assisting internal resistance, what is the likelihood that regime-change will precede the bomb? According to Intelligence estimates - barring sudden Iranian breakthroughs - it will take another five years for Iran to have a bomb. This is a sufficient time in which to topple the regime through internal uprising, which is the cheapest, fastest and least bloody of all solutions. Having said this, however, I'm not so optimistic about the West's willingness to undertake it.