One on One: 'You can't make a deal with a cause'

Amir Taheri Talks about Israel's last war, about Iran and about the concept of war in general.

idf lebanon great 298 (photo credit: AP [file])
idf lebanon great 298
(photo credit: AP [file])
When Iranian-born intellectual Amir Taheri addressed The Jerusalem Post editorial staff late last month, he casually mentioned having met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "What did he say?" we naturally asked the world-renowned columnist, editor and author, whose op-eds have appeared regularly in these pages, as well as in the American, European and Arabic press. Taheri was charmingly evasive, though he did agree to throw us a little bone: He made mild fun of Olmert's attitude to Syrian peace overtures. "Oooh," Taheri imitated the prime minister as saying, "the president of Syria made a speech about peace. I have to respond positively. "I said, 'You've got to be kidding. Why do you have to respond positively? This guy, 200 times, said he wants to kill you, and once he says he wants peace... You know, you don't have to do anything after that.'" "But what did he say about Iran?" we pressed. "And what did you advise him?" "That would take another hour, which I don't have," he quipped. Little did we know at the time that the content of his conversation with the Israeli premier would become the subject of an unpleasant exchange between Olmert and the German magazine Focus, in which Taheri's interview appeared last week. In the published interview - which the Prime Minister's Office claimed was supposed to have been a briefing and nothing more - Olmert was reported to have said that military action against Iran might not be a wise move at this stage, and that UN sanctions should be given a chance. The article also quoted the PM expressing doubts as to the nuclear capabilities of the regime in Teheran and asserting that "it would take about 10 days and 1,000 Tomahawk missiles to severely damage [Iran's nuclear] program." It was not only Olmert who denied having said the things attributed to him, however. Taheri himself, who allegedly phoned the prime minister to assure him that the piece would be removed from the magazine's Web site, denied having written the text as it appeared. This is not the first time Taheri has been associated with a media controversy. In May 2006, the Canadian daily The National Post published an article by him on the significance of Iran's having passed a law to impose an Islamic dress code. "I speculated about what they were then going to do about religious minorities," Taheri explained to Jerusalem Post editors. "Then I went back to history - how Jews were distinguished; how Christians were distinguished; how Zoroastrians were distinguished. The Canadian paper presented this as a news story - as though it had already happened [as though Jews were going to be forced to wear the equivalent of the Nazi-imposed yellow star] - and everyone started attacking me [for giving false information]. It was really a big, big misunderstanding." On his second trip to Israel (his first was years ago and so brief, he said, that it didn't really count) - on the eve of the Winograd Committee's release of its interim findings - the articulate and humorous Taheri took time out of his own fact-finding tour to let us pick his brain for an hour. As an expert on Middle Eastern affairs, what is your general impression of Israel today? What I have found surprising is all the gloom and doom I have encountered on this trip. It's difficult to understand why this should be, considering that, by all indications, the Israeli economy is doing very well - and considering that Israel won the war against Hizbullah in Lebanon last summer. Really? Hasn't Hizbullah emerged strengthened as a result of the war? No, it has been destroyed. You know, Hizbullah was a major player in the Lebanese and Israel-Lebanon configurations in a certain context. That context has changed. As long as it controlled southern Lebanon, it could exert "proximity pressure" on Israel. That situation has changed; that status quo no longer exists. Now, whether Hizbullah is stronger or better armed today is a different question - one of speculation. Even if it has better arms, it doesn't have an area from which to launch new attacks without doing so from southern Beirut. But if it does that, the rest of the Lebanese population will say, "What is this business? You want to provoke us into a war from the middle of our city!" That Hizbullah tried to camouflage its defeat by provoking a political crisis in Lebanon is also an indication of its understanding that the situation has changed and of its trying to find a new place in this new situation. It may become stronger in the future - I don't know; I'm not a prophet. But look, the Israelis killed 637 Hizbullah warriors out of a full-time fighting force of about 2,000. Usually in war, you talk of "decimation" - an army's losing one-tenth of its manpower. In this case, Hizbullah lost about a quarter of its fighters. It also lost literally all of its missile launching pads in the south, many missiles and arsenals. In other words, it lost manpower, territory and weaponry. What else do you want? But, you know [he laughs], Jews always want something more. Still, isn't there a feeling in the Arab world that Israel's deterrence has gone down? Initially there was, because the international media is more sympathetic to Hizbullah than to Israel. But then Hizbullah made the mistake of revealing its sectarian colors. For example, [Hizbullah leader Hassan] Nasrallah's cable of congratulations on the hanging of Saddam Hussein angered the Sunni Arabs and showed them that Hizbullah is now acting as a Shi'ite group. Altogether, Hizbullah is in a very dangerous situation, because it found out that the Islamic Republic in Iran does not want allies; it wants agents. Suddenly, Hizbullah is so tied to the Islamic Republic that it has lost its maneuverability. Could Hizbullah even exist without Iran? Once it could have. But now, no. Finished. Nasrallah's big betrayal of Hizbullah was to transform it into an exclusively Iranian instrument of power, and become involved in a fight which doesn't have anything to do with it. Anyway, while asking myself, "Why all this doom and gloom on the part of the Israelis?," I realized that a lot of it is imported from the West. Israel should guard against the danger of becoming too Westernized - too American - because the Americans are so powerful, nothing will happen to them, even if they are gloomy and doom-ridden. They can afford this luxury. You can't. But can we afford to be more Middle Eastern, in the Arab sense of the word? Well, fortunately, what I have found out from the little time that I have spent here is that this doom and gloom is almost exclusively limited to the elites, and that the ordinary people don't share it at all, which is a good thing. It is a disease of the intellectuals and sophisticated people. In any case, in history, adversaries always end up resembling each other and adopting aspects of each other's strategy and life. Otherwise they couldn't cope with each other. And there is no doubt that the Israelis could learn a lot from the Arabs, just as the Arabs have learned a lot from the Israelis. Yet, whenever we try to employ "Arab" tactics - or even express a certain kind of nationalism or patriotism characteristic of the Arabs - we end up in an internal battle. So, in our democracy we are not only unable to fight our enemies the way they fight us, but we are even unable to develop the sense of our own legitimacy to the extent that, say, the Palestinians have developed it. Yes, because again you have adopted more from the Western world; you have become more Westernized than is good for you. Isn't the fact that we "have adopted more from the Western world" the reason we have a booming economy - as well as so many "gloomy" intellectuals? How would Israel look if it imitated its neighbors and not the United States? Well, I don't want you to imitate your neighbors entirely, but rather to learn aspects from them. Israel, first and foremost, must be very Israeli, otherwise it's useless. It must be very Jewish, as well - otherwise, what's the point of it? So, the idea of having a cosmopolitan, Western, democratic, pluralist, hi-tech society, as such, is useless. I mean, you could have this anywhere in the world. The important thing is that the Israelis should not lose touch with their mythology, with their narrative. But, above all, they can't afford the luxury of self-loathing. You know, the Westerners can do that "we-are-guilty-everything-is-our-fault" routine. You are too small for this kind of luxury. Should Israel, then, not have disengaged from Gaza? No, I think you should not have disengaged from Gaza, unless in a broader context which becomes evident in the future. If you look at the history of the past 50 years or so, you see something very interesting. Israel has fought several wars with the Arabs and has won all of them. But these are the only wars in history where the winner was not allowed to impose the postwar status quo, because they all happened after the United Nations came into being. Every war in history has had a loser and a winner - which is the purpose of war. Otherwise it is useless. Its task is to change a situation through the use of force. If I have the force, I change the situation I don't like. If I don't, I accept the situation. In the case of Israel's wars, the strange thing is that this principle didn't apply, because a third party intervened. You had others interfering in something that has nothing to do with them. They pass resolutions, and they say, "You should do this; you should do that." Like this, there will never be peace. I mean, there is no example of this kind of peace-making. Once war is taken out of its natural role, people start speaking of a "just peace." The concept of "just peace" is stupid, because peace cannot be "just" when somebody thinks it is unjust. Then they speak of "comprehensive peace." Peace is peace. If you modify it with an adjective, it's like saying somebody is half pregnant or fully pregnant. You're either pregnant or you're not. Then there's the "peace of the brave" - another ridiculous expression, because the brave don't make peace, they fight. Cowards make peace after they are defeated. The specificity of war is the clarity it creates. And you obfuscate that by adding all these modifiers. The only way that there can be peace in this region is to go back to the normal routes of war. So withdrawal from Gaza has no meaning unless Israel decides where it is and what it wants. When you say Israel should decide what it wants, do you mean that it should decide where its borders are and defend them? If so, this is supposedly the philosophy of the unilateralism that led former prime minister Ariel Sharon to disengage from Gaza. It is also the approach that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert adheres to. There is no other way. You know, I may be against it, it doesn't matter. Israel draws the border. When I talked to Prime Minister Olmert the other day, he said, "Oooh, the president of Syria made a speech about peace. I have to respond positively." I said, "You've got to be kidding. Why do you have to respond positively? This guy, 200 times, said he wants to kill you, and once he says he wants peace... You know, you don't have to do anything after that." The task of the Israeli PM is to decide what peace is good for Israel. As Ben-Gurion once said, "It doesn't matter what the goyim think. What matters is what the Jews do." This is the only way for an effective war leader to think. There is no solution that satisfies everybody - one that makes the Americans happy, Vladimir Putin happy, Jacques Chirac happy, the Arabs happy, the Turks happy, the Persians happy. For example, they created this "quartet." A quartet is for giving concerts. What good is it? They say, "We want to build." Shimon Peres told me, "We want to build confidence before we make peace." This is dumb. How can you have confidence when a guy wants to kill you? What you need is peace first - and then confidence. Which brings us to Iran. If Israel attacks Iran, will the Jews there be in a lot of trouble? The Jews in Iran are already in a lot of trouble. They can't live normal lives there, just the way nobody there can. The difference between the Jews in Iran (I prefer to call them "Iranian Jews," because they have always been there; they didn't come from somewhere else, like the Jews in Europe) and those in other countries is that Iran is the only country outside of Israel where there are Jews in all walks of life. You have Jewish peasants, Jewish taxi drivers, Jewish factory workers. In Iran, the Jews are not all violinists or bankers or lawyers. They are Iranians. All of them have Iranian names; they have Iranian ancestry; they have their own holy places. And they are in trouble, not because they're Jews. They're in trouble because they're Iranians. Yet Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has placed focus on the Jews by denying the Holocaust and by threatening to wipe Israel off the map. The reason for this is that there are two Irans, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. You have Iran as an expression of the Islamic Revolution, and you have Iran as a nation-state. As a nation-state, Iran has no basis for enmity with Israel. The two countries are not fighting over borders or access to markets or natural resources. But Iran as an expression of the Islamic Revolution must hate Israel and vow to destroy it. This way, the regime can tell the Arabs, "Forget about the fact that we are Shi'ites; accept our leadership politically, and we will realize your dream of liberating Jerusalem and doing all the other nice things that you can't do yourself." So, as an Islamic Republic, Iran is a mortal threat to Israel, but as a nation-state, it is a strong friend. There is no anti-Israeli sentiment or anti-Semitism in Iranian society. There's no Iranian writer or poet or filmmaker or playwright or artist who is an anti-Semite. It is something completely concocted by the regime. Furthermore, you here may think that Iranians are knowledgeable about Israel. But they're not. Most Iranians don't even know where Israel is. Iran is a huge country with 70 million people, many of whom don't know where Pakistan is, or where Egypt is - let alone Israel. Nor do they care. Nor do the masses even know what the word "Holocaust" means. The fact is that you don't have any cultural expressions of anti-Semitism anywhere in Iran. This is something very important, and distinct from Europe, that has deep literary and cultural roots of anti-Semitism. What are the prospects for Iran's reverting to a nation-state? There are many people in Iran fighting for this, including within the establishment, because they realize that at some point the revolution must close as a chapter. France could not continue its revolution forever; nor could Russia. Even in China, this phase ended. It's been ending in Iran, too. I think the process has already started, but the outside world can help by supporting Iran's civil society, its internal opposition, the trade union movement, which is now fighting very hard, the women's movement, the teachers' movement. People forget that Iran is a dynamic, lively and very contemporary society. As a nation, it is very much in the 21st century and wants to play a role in it. But the world is obsessed with this business of getting Ahmadinejad and his mullahs to make a few concessions - which is completely meaningless, because you can't make a deal with a cause. You can only make a deal with a nation. How dangerous is Ahmadinejad? Well, he is dangerous, because he controls the resources of a major and powerful state. If he wants to go to war, will that happen? Of course. He can provoke it. Even if [the leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran and commander-in-chief of the Iranian Armed Forces Ayatollah Sayyid Ali] Khamenei says no? Isn't Khamenei the one calling the shots? It doesn't work this way - with Ahmadinejad saying, "Let's go to war," and Khamenei saying, "No." This is not only the wrong way to look at it, but it is imprudent. Prudence dictates taking Ahmadinejad seriously and assuming that he has the power - even if he doesn't. It's like when Hitler came to power, and the British and the French said, "But there's still [president Paul von] Hindenburg." Systems like that don't work according to the law. The most recent example is the showdown over the captured British sailors. Ahmadinejad seized control of the issue and handled it how he wanted before the others could maneuver. The same goes for the nuclear issue. The natural tendency of Khamenei and the others was to fudge a bit, to call [EU Secretary-General] Javier Solana and say, "Let's have some kebab together," then give him a carpet as a present and say, "Let's negotiate in three months," and "Keep hope alive." This was the phrase. But then Ahmadinejad came along and said, "You know what? This train doesn't have a rear gear; it doesn't have a brake - it's going to go straight ahead." Now, how could Khamenei come and say, "No, you're wrong. You're going to stop this train"? In a revolutionary situation, the person who pushes for the most radical policies usually has the upper hand, because a revolution is like riding a bicycle. As long as you pedal, you keep going. If you stop pedaling, you collapse. Ahmadinejad understands this and is using it to his advantage. Does he control the Revolutionary Guards? No, they are not controlled in administrative terms. But he sets the agenda politically, emotionally, by rhetoric, by discourse. The others have to follow, because they cannot separate themselves from what looks like the mainstream of the revolution. Who is the supreme commander of the Revolutionary Guards? Constitutionally, the supreme commander of all the forces is Khamenei: He is the head of the state and all three branches of the government. Ahmadinejad is the head of the executive. He is like a prime minister, but with the title of "president" and elected directly, rather than appointed. But it doesn't work like that, because it's not a legal system. As I explained, in a situation like this, there are two parallel Irans, and the revolution does not obey all the imperatives of Iran as a state. In Iran, you have two of everything: you have a regular standing army and the Revolutionary Guards; you have the Islamic courts and the old courts, based on the Napoleonic Code. Experts on Iran have told me that it is better for America to assist the Iranian people in bringing about regime change than to launch a military attack. One of the reasons given for this was that an attack from outside would cause in the Iranian people a surge of anti-Western sentiment and Iranian nationalism. If this is true, can you explain how the Iranians oppose their regime, yet would rally around it in the event of an attack against it? This sort of question has so many variables in it that it is difficult to untangle it. Iran as an Islamic Republic is a mortal threat to Israel, and it is also a challenger to the United States. There are three ways of dealing with this: You can surrender to Iran - by saying, "We'll give you the Middle East and then we'll go away." (Some Americans want to do this, because they don't have the stomach for anything else.) Or you can make a deal with it, like Clinton wanted to, by giving some zones of influence to Iran, and some zones of influence to the United States and then wait until Allah decides what happens - like a mini-Cold War. Or you can resist it - by saying, "You want to create Khamenei's Middle East; we want to create Bush's Middle East" - in which case, it is us or them. And when it is us or them, if you have to go to war, you go to war. If you don't have to go to war, you don't go. You do not know in advance what instruments you might need to use. So how can anybody say we are not doing this in advance, or we are not doing that in advance? It's like saying you can't chew gum and walk at the same time. You can do two things at the same time. Joshua Freeman contributed to this article.