'Fight against Iran nukes stymied by cultural gaps'

Veteran Pentagon analyst Harold Rhode says Iranians "want nothing more than to not be humiliated. Our job is to help them."

Harold Rhodes 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Harold Rhodes 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The latest iteration of the Herzliya Conference convened this week under the heading “The Balance of Israel’s National Security.” But the bulk of attention attention at this year’s forum fell squarely on a single issue: Iran.
The West believes the Islamic Republic is pursuing nuclear weapons, and last week the European Union joined the United States and Britain in implementing biting sanctions against its oil trade. Given Tehran’s record of denying or belittling the Holocaust, the classical anti- Semitic motifs of its rhetoric and incessant threats to eliminate the Jewish state, it was altogether expected that no topic would pack the conference halls more than the Iran-Israel war of words.
One man well-placed to weigh in is Harold Rhode. In 2010, Rhode retired after decades as an analyst of the Islamic world’s culture and politics in the office of the US secretary of defense. He has a doctorate in Islamic studies and Middle East history from Columbia University and knows all of the Middle East’s four major languages: Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Hebrew.
The 62-year-old has traveled widely across the region, but Iran is particularly meaningful to him – in 1978, he found himself at a university there on the eve of the Islamic Revolution that ousted the Shah the following year.
Rhode has obvious affection for Iran’s culture and people, but pulls no punches in denouncing the tyrants who now run its government. He reserves the same treatment for feckless Westerners unwilling to confront the threat its nuclear program poses.
“The outside world talks, talks, talks about Iran – but enough talking,” he said in an interview on the sidelines at Herzliya. “At some point a decision has to be made. I’m not arguing for a specific decision, though personally I believe regime change is the only answer.”
He said there was no reason to publicize the West’s next move by talking about it unnecessarily.
“Let’s assume we know where a lot of the nuclear facilities are, and we have the technology to reach them. That can be done in various ways, but I don’t want to talk about them,” he said. “You don’t want to show your cards to the Iranians; you want to use your cards to win.”
Any successor regime, he said, would be preferable to the current theocracy: “One can’t think of anything more extreme.”
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, he continued, “hated the people who are now in power. He kept them away from government because he feared they would lead Iran to its destruction.”
According to Rhode, Iran’s current leaders “believe that if they provoke a conflagration, their hidden imam, the mahdi, will return to save them. So Mutually Assured Destruction – MAD – that we used effectively with the Soviets is an incentive and an inducement, not a deterrent.”
Characteristically politically incorrect, he views the Iranian threat as too consequential for niceties. Contextual misunderstanding, he said, is leading the West to profoundly misunderstand the culture – the mindsets, religious sensibilities and ways of life – of Iran and the wider Islamic world.
“The Iranians think the way they do. Whatever we do, we have to use their context in which to understand it – they don’t think like Chinese or like Americans,” he said. “It is dangerous when you apply your mentality to try to understand another culture.”
In the Middle East, he said, “until you win, you show your enemies no mercy. But when you have them at your mercy, you must be magnanimous. There’s unfortunately no such thing as a win-win situation in the Middle East. Confidence-building measures are interpreted as weakness. You talk after you’ve won; if you do so beforehand, it is seen as weakness.”
In Iraq, he said, “we kept trying to appeal to Saddam. But in a culture based on honor and shame, he had no way to back down short of his own death."
“In the languages of the Middle East, the concept for compromise doesn’t exist – at least not as we understand it.... Instead, one who compromises is said to have brought ’aib, or shame, on himself. That’s why the Middle East is always in a state of tension,” he said.
“We talk about shalom and salaam and figure they mean the same thing,” he continued. “But in Arabic, ‘salaam’ is generally viewed to mean the joy one gets from submitting to Allah’s will through Islam. That’s not what peace is, to the best of my knowledge.”
When Israel's first prime minister David Ben-Gurion dealt with Arabs, he said, “he always started by saying the following: ‘We are coming home. This is our homeland. We were thrown out of here 2,000 years ago. We’re not coming here – we are returning home. We realize there are other people here, and in a modern, democratic society they’re going to have equal rights. But this is ours – all of this is ours.”
Ben-Gurion was “willing to compromise on that, but he understood intuitively who and what he was, and he wasn’t ashamed to say so to the Arabs,” Rhode continued. “Someone who says that today is looked upon as a fascist right-wing extremist in Israeli politics.”
Rhode referred to himself as “a nice liberal democrat.” “But what do you do when the reality that you are experiencing contradicts what you have known to be true?” he asked. “You can either push it away, or say, ‘Oh my God, if this is true, what do I do?’ An honorable and smart person will say, ‘I need to reexamine my basis of understanding.’”
He recalled undergoing such a reflection process himself.
“I had the usual liberal view of ‘Come, let us reason together.’ That’s why I started studying these languages and cultures – I came here when I was 13 or 14 and I wanted to be the nice American boy to solve it all,” he remembers. “That’s what Americans do. Unfortunately Americans don’t understand some problems aren’t solvable. You’ll never make a woman think like a man or vice versa – it isn’t going to happen.”
The Iranian people, he concluded, “want nothing more than to not be humiliated – to be respected for the wonderfully ancient culture they’ve had for 2,500 years and to rejoin the community of nations. Our job is to help them.”