An interview with global counterterrorism expert Fiamma Nirenstein

In a discussion with the Gatestone Institute, Nirenstein weighs in on Israel, Europe, the US, and their relationships with the rise in terrorism and the situation in the Middle East.

Fiamma Nirenstein (photo credit: OFER ESHED)
Fiamma Nirenstein
(photo credit: OFER ESHED)
AS AN expert in global terrorism, antisemitism, Middle East wars and European policy, Fiamma Nirenstein has been following the popular uprising in Iran with particular interest. Nirenstein – an award-winning journalist, best-selling author, former MP of the Italian Parliament and a fellow at the JCPA – says that just as former US president Ronald Reagan’s election and foreign policy were instrumental in the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, President Donald Trump is probably responsible for the street demonstrations across Iran that could lead to the downfall of the ayatollah-led Islamic Republic.
Nirenstein says that Europe, which has been silent on the uprisings in Iran, can no more take credit for this welcome turn of events than it could for the defeat of the USSR – or even of Hitler’s Third Reich. It is America, she asserts, that has always been at the forefront of the struggle for freedom from the bondage of dictators; it is America that always saves Europe.
Gatestone Institute: Why is it not the other way around? Europe, after all, is geographically closer to those struggles than America.
Fiamma Nirenstein: Europe's key approach always has been one of appeasement, because when you are weak, you try not to interfere too much, not say what you think. Deep in its heart, Europe probably would have liked to stop Hitler from the beginning, and see the Soviet Union collapse earlier, but it did not have the courage to voice this opinion loudly or strongly enough. The same applies to the situation with Iran today.
Gatestone: But hasn't Europe been expressing, loudly and clearly, its antipathy to fascism? And hasn't America exhibited what you call “weakness”?
Nirenstein: Europe is split. It has been both fascist and communist, and also has fought against fascism and communism – if not early enough. It therefore might suffer from guilt and humiliation relating to its past. The United States, too, seems to have guilt and humiliation relating to racism in its history. But there is a difference between Europe and America: As is the case with individuals, nations must confront and untangle their feelings. When a person does this, he becomes an adult. One could say that while America matured into adulthood, Europe never did.
Gatestone: Has Europe not changed dramatically in the past decades?
Nirenstein: Only cosmetically. Take the example of French President Emmanuel Macron. Everyone thought that he was going to be the new leader of Europe. He was the candidate who defeated the extreme Right in France, under the banner of the European Union. Everyone thought his presidency signaled the rebirth of the EU under this very young, very strong, very Western leader – one who was not anti-American and anti-Israel.
But look what has happened since his election. Faced with global realities, including Iran’s imperialism and race for nuclear weapons, Macron not only has failed to realize this fantasy; the most he has been able to do is represent the heritage of the same old Europe that it has always been.
When Washington, Jerusalem and Riyadh responded to Iranian protests against the regime, Macron said, “The official line pursued by the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia, who are our allies in many ways, is almost one that would lead us to war.”
Meanwhile, French Ambassador to the UN François Delattre shamefully told a meeting of the Security Council that the events in Iran “do not constitute a threat to international peace and security,” and therefore the crisis should not be “exploited for personal ends.”
Macron called for the same old failed policy of appeasement: keeping a “permanent dialogue” open with Iran, so as not to risk sparking a “conflict of extreme brutality” and “rebuilding an ‘axis of evil.’” The implication is that those who oppose the ayatollahs are liable to cause a war. This is outrageous. It is Tehran that is spreading terrorism, building a nuclear capability, and fomenting wars all over the world. It is Tehran that has caused the immense number of refugees from Sunni or half-Sunni states, such as Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and other places, who have been fleeing to Europe to escape the Shi’ites trying to take over their countries It is simply not true that Europe has no interest in this situation; the extreme degree to which it is terrified of the brave revolution taking place in Iran against this repressive Islamist regime is surprising. On paper, such a crisis for the regime in Tehran should be a wish fulfillment for Europe; it might even benefit from a reduction in immigration.
In addition, Europe boasts of favoring human and civil rights, while Iran is a place where women are stoned, homosexuals are hanged and dissidents are imprisoned, tortured and executed.
Europe in 1959 established a whole court in Strasbourg for the protection of human rights. Europe should be very happy with the uprising against the Iranian regime. But this is not how it is behaving.
On the contrary, Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, used the language of both appeasement and false moral equivalence in her statement to the press on the protests. She said, “We have been in touch with the Iranian authorities. In the spirit of frankness and respect that is at the basis of our relationship, we expect all concerned to refrain from violence.”
Gatestone: If, as you say, it is not in Europe's interest to enable Iranian-backed Shiite imperialism, because it has led to a flood of Sunni refugees, why did German Chancellor Angela Merkel respond to the influx of migrants and asylum-seekers by touting the policy of “Wir schaffen das” – “We can do it” – a phrase she said last year that she decided to stop using, due to the barrage of criticism it generated?
Nirenstein: Germany probably has more guilt than any other EU country, and rightly so, because of its responsibility for committing the worst slaughter in the history of man. It is no accident that Merkel approximated the slogan “Yes, we can” made famous by former US president Barack Obama in 2008, because Obama was not only like a European leader, but he even pushed Europe to be more Europe than Europe.
He himself sometimes acted as if he would have preferred to be European. He was anti-American and anti-Israel, as Europe has always been. More significantly, Obama relieved Europe of the great burden of having to be thankful to the United States – the country that saved it during World War II. In addition, his basic message was that America must stop feeling superior to other countries.
Gatestone: How are Europeans responding to Trump?
Nirenstein: They are horrified by him.
Gatestone: Are they horrified because he demanded that NATO members meet their financial obligations?
Nirenstein: It goes much deeper than that; it is almost anthropological in nature.
In Europe, there is a sort of aristocratic snobbery that cannot tolerate what it sees as Trump's vulgarity. When Trump told the UN that it cannot keep taking American money and then “vote against us at the Security Council,” Europeans gasped and said, “Oh, money, what a disgusting word.
It is so horrible to hear this businessman, who is not a politician, reduce everything to money. It is simply blackmail.” This is wildly hypocritical, of course, as money plays a key role in all of Europe’s attitudes and policies – not least in its apparent preference to keep doing business with Iran’s regime to hearing the Iranian people’s pleas for freedom. Europeans claim to despise politicians, whom they consider corrupt, ignorant and inefficient. Whenever elections are held in Europe, every political party attempts to recruit as many candidates as possible from the business community, because they are viewed as people who are serious about civil society and know what they are doing professionally.
The anti-Trump snobbery – like Macron’s behavior – is part of a reactionary mindset characteristic of both Old Europe and new Europe.
Gatestone: How is this mindset evident in Europe's attitude to the Middle East?
Nirenstein: The “Lawrence of Arabia” syndrome goes back to Old Europe. It is the snobbery of people who become enamored with exotic cultures. There is a romanticism surrounding the Middle East, associated with magic carpets and Aladdin lamps. But with that romanticism comes fear, as well – fear of what the great historian Bernard Lewis called the “first assassins,” invading Islamists who slit people’s throats. There is a common expression in Italian that best describes this fear: “Mamma, li Turchi” – “Mom, the Turks are coming” – which refers to the Ottomans, but it is still used today to denote fear of “barbarians” arriving to commit brutal murders. This fear has led European states to try and do business with terrorist groups. In the early 1980s, for example, Italian officials forged a secret deal with Palestinian terrorists, which culminated not in cooperation, but in a series of deadly attacks: the 1982 attack on the Great Synagogue in Rome; the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, in 1985; and, also in 1985, the simultaneous attacks on the Rome and Vienna airports.
In addition to snobbery and fear, Europeans have interests, particularly in relation to oil. This issue is only about 100 or so years old, when oil first became a crucial global commodity, and Middle Eastern countries were found to possess large quantities of it.
Then there is the matter of the sheer number of Muslims. When the Islamic nations band together in an international assembly, such as UNESCO, they have an automatic majority with the “Non-Aligned Movement” countries. The Soviet Union understood that by uniting the Third World in this way under its auspices, it would have even greater power. In the past, Europe was paralyzed in the face of this majority. It remains so, in spite of the fall of the Soviet Union nearly three decades ago.
Gatestone: Is this why Europe voted with UNESCO when it rejected the historical connection of Jews to Jerusalem?
Nirenstein: Yes, but there is an even more disturbing trend responsible for this.
There is no more important issue – other than hostility towards Israel – around which the EU is able to unite. They do not agree about the economy; they do not agree about migration; they do not agree about the nature of Islam. But they all vote together to condemn Israel. It is a theater of the same hate that they now pretend to regret. Luckily, because of Eastern Europe, this maybe starting to change.
Gatestone: What makes Eastern Europe different?
Nirenstein: Eastern Europe lived and suffered under both the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years, and Communism. It is therefore both less naïve and free of guilt; Eastern Europeans do not feel the “white man’s burden.” All they want is to live free, good lives. They do not want migrants to import a patriarchal and often fundamentalist culture, as well as terrorism. Many Western Europeans cannot even admit that many migrants import terrorism.
Western Europe is also in denial about the concept of human rights and values. That is how Paris today is a city in which hundreds of thousands of its residents live in polygamous families. As a European, can you admit that you have polygamous families? No, you cannot. Can you admit that women are not safe in the streets of Denmark, Holland and Sweden? No, you cannot. The only people who acknowledge it, and that its origin is Islam, are on the Right, and this is why the right wing is growing in Europe.
This is tricky, because there are antisemites among these right-wingers, and such elements must be condemned. On the other hand, most of the right-wing parties do not hate Jews; on the contrary, the majority of them like and support Jews and Israel. The fact is that the most dangerous antisemitism today comes from the Left, and that the most dangerous antisemitism is that which is directed against Israel.
The Left thinks that the worst violation of human rights is to impose Western culture on other people – something they associate with colonialism. They do say that it is wrong to beat women, for example, and they do support implementing the law against those who violate it. But, when you allow a culture that segregates and persecutes women to flourish, you necessarily have a lot of honor killings and other behavior that is unacceptable in the West and should be unacceptable anywhere.
Gatestone: Trump has been called a racist for banning unfettered travel to the US from eight Muslim countries, unless there is a way of vetting people entering the country. What do you think of his policies?
Nirenstein: I think his policy is sound, but it is often impossible to make a distinction between innocent victims of terrorism and terrorists arriving from Middle Eastern countries. Many of the people come to Europe on boats, fleeing persecution and terrorism. Those who make it without drowning at sea are taken to shore half-naked and wrapped in blankets. They do not have documents on them for the authorities to examine. But what are you going to do? Let them drown? The problem is that in 2015, when these migrants began arriving in droves, Europe again closed its eyes, and did not consider the necessity of providing help to enable them to remain in their countries of origin.
There is now an attempt to reverse the trend of Europeans simply opening their arms to refugees, but it is too slow a process and very late to begin it.
Gatestone: How does Europe view the legal immigrants, or their children, who return to the Middle East to receive training from ISIS and other terrorist groups, in order to commit attacks in Europe?
Nirenstein: The problem here is Islam, not immigration. “Islam” is the word that Europeans must learn to utter if they intend to confront the difficult issues posed by unfettered immigration, both legal and illegal.
Gatestone: Returning to Iran, the regime in Tehran is accusing “foreign enemies” – implying America, Saudi Arabia and Israel – of being behind the current demonstrations.
Nirenstein: That is as false as it is ridiculous.
Those countries are simply conveying messages of support for the Iranian people.
This is just the opposite of how the Obama administration reacted to the 2009 “Green Revolution,” which was quickly quashed by the regime.
Gatestone: What are the chances that the current uprising will topple the regime?
Nirenstein: A revolution succeeds when the leaders and security forces of a country are broken from within, and its members begin to defect. This is how the Soviet Union fell. As soon as the leaders were weakened, the security forces and police abandoned them. In Iran, the Revolutionary Guards and Basij militia are tightly aligned with the regime religiously, ideologically and financially.
So it is hard to imagine that there will be mass defections. Here, again, we arrive at the conclusion that Islam is the problem.
It is a problem the world over. We have to recognize that when we speak about a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, for example, it is actually between Israel and Islam – which rejects the very existence of Israel. This is why there has been no peace.
Gatestone: How do you explain, then, the recent cooperation of some Arab and Muslim countries with Israel? Can political Islam be lumped into a single category? Don't different Islamic countries have different interests?
Nirenstein: Currently, there is a strong Sunni alliance against Iran’s rampant Shi’ite imperialism, which makes Sunni states natural allies of America and Israel. But alliances in the Middle East fluctuate. Today, Egypt has an interest in being a strong ally with the West. However, just before President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power, there was a Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo, and who knows who or what will come next?
: One could make the same argument about the United States. Before Trump became president, Obama was in power for eight years, and nobody knows how long the current administration will last.
Nirenstein: The two are not comparable.
In America, the rules remain the same, no matter who becomes president. In Egypt and the rest of the Middle East, the rules change with every shift in power.
Gatestone: Why, then, would regime change in Iran really make a difference? After all, Russia today is ruled by Vladimir Putin, a KGB officer and prominent member of the old Soviet regime.
Nirenstein: Usually when a regime is toppled, it goes down with the main values it represents. This is especially relevant when talking about Iran, which is Muslim, but not Arab, and has a rich, historical Persian tradition, which includes Zoroastrianism.
Gatestone: What scenario do you envision for Iran?
Nirenstein: In general, what the world needs today is a diplomacy of truth. This is what Netanyahu has been so good at engaging in, courageously warning the US Congress and the UN against the nuclear deal with Iran, in spite of Obama's wrath.
Too many lies have been the basis of international relations. These include “dialogue” between religions to counter Islamist terrorism; the false notion of the “peaceful aspirations” of the Palestinians; the view that Turkey is a “bridge” to the Muslim world; the ridiculous view of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as a “moderate”; the belief in a “united Europe” as the future of the old continent; and faith in the UN as a legal arbiter for international affairs. Policies based on these lies are not only fruitless, they are dangerous. The diplomacy of truth, adopted by Trump and his UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, is the only hope for stability and peace.
Ruthie Blum is the author of ‘To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’’ This article was originally published by the Gatestone Institute: https:// nirenstein-interview