Sunday, March 1, 2009

Some sane comment about Iran

Roger Cohen's piece in the IHT today is welcome indeed, especially when on the same day the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff hit the morning news shows (Fox News among them) to stir up more fear of evil Iran, its "mad mullahs," and the likely holocaust that they will inflict on the world. As Cohen notes up front, he has been well and duly raked over the coals for his recent reports from Iran, especially his reports that Iran's Jews have prospered there, by and large, over the centuries, and have not been persecuted since the time of the 1979 revolution. And note well: his assertions are remarkable, in that they're being made by a prominent mainstream journalist in a major paper co-owned by the New York Times, the US's "paper of record," which has itself been a regular fount of demonizing reportage and commentary on the Islamic regime and its supposed existential threat against Israel (including the constant reference to Iran president Ahmadinejad's supposed threat to "wipe Israel off the map" - which he never said, but has nonetheless become the go-to quote if someone wants to sum up what he and his country supposedly are all about.) Cohen puts it succinctly and well: 2009 Tehran is not late 1930s Berlin, Ahmadinejad is not Hitler, and Iran is not a totalitarian state.

I think we can trust that the new National Intel Director, Chas Freeman, is on the same page with Mr. Cohen, and I want to believe that President Obama and Sec of State Hillary Clinton are as well, although they will not be as direct in saying so. I also want to believe that Dennis Ross, who's now Ms. Clinton's chief advisor on Iran, has not swallowed the Iran=Satan nonsense hook-line-and-sinker - he's reputed to brighter than that - but in keeping his options open in terms of working witha a variety of actors on this issue, he surely will need to act at times as if he's willing to nibble at the bait.

Roger Cohen: Iran, the Jews and Germany
Sunday, March 1, 2009

NEW YORK: So the Jerusalem Post thinks I'm "hardly the first American to be misled by the existence of synagogues in totalitarian countries."

The Atlantic Monthly's Jeffrey Goldberg finds me "particularly credulous," taken in by the Iranian hospitality and friendliness that "are the hallmarks of most Muslim societies." (Thanks for that info, Jeffrey.)

A conservative Web site called "American Thinker," which tries to prove its name is an oxymoron, believes I would have been fooled by the Nazis' sham at the Theresienstadt camp.

The indignation stems from my recent column on Iranian Jews which said that the 25,000-strong community worships in relative tranquility; that Persian Jews have fared better than Arab Jews; that hostility toward Jews in Iran has on occasion led to trumped-up charges against them; and that those enamored of the "mad mullah" caricature of Iran regard any compromise with it as a re-run of Munich 1938.

This last point found confirmation in outraged correspondence from several American Jews unable to resist some analogy between Iran and Nazi Germany. I was based in Berlin for three years; Germany's confrontation with the Holocaust inhabited me. Let's be clear: Iran's Islamic Republic is no Third Reich redux. Nor is it a totalitarian state.

Munich allowed Hitler's annexation of the Sudetenland. Iran has not waged an expansionary war in more than two centuries.

Totalitarian regimes require the complete subservience of the individual to the state and tolerate only one party to which all institutions are subordinated. Iran is an un-free society with a keen, intermittently brutal apparatus of repression, but it's far from meeting these criteria. Significant margins of liberty, even democracy, exist. Anything but mad, the mullahs have proved malleable.

Most of Iran's population is under 30; it's an Internet-connected generation. Access to satellite television is widespread. The BBC's new Farsi service is all the rage.

Abdullah Momeni, a student opponent of the regime, told me, "The Internet is very important to us, in fact it is of infinite importance." Iranians are not cut off, like Cubans or North Koreans.

The June presidential election pitting the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, against Mohammad Khatami (a former president who once spoke in a synagogue) will be a genuine contest as compared to the charades that pass for elections in many Arab states. No fire has burned down the Majlis, or parliament.

If you're thinking trains-on-time Fascist efficiency, think again. Tehran's new telecommunications tower took 20 years to build. I was told its restaurant would open "soon." So, it is said, will the Bushehr nuclear power plant, a project in the works for a mere 30 years. A Persian Chernobyl is far more likely than some Middle Eastern nuclear Armageddon, if that's any comfort.

For all the morality police inspecting whether women are wearing boots outside their pants (the latest no-no on the dress front) and the regime zealots of the Basiji militia, the air you breathe in Iran is not suffocating. Its streets at dusk hum with life - not a monochrome male-only form of it, or one inhabited by fear - but the vibrancy of a changing, highly-educated society.

This is the Iran of subtle shades that the country's Jews inhabit. Life is more difficult for them than for Muslims, but to suggest they inhabit a totalitarian hell is self-serving nonsense.

One Iranian exile, no lover of the Islamic Republic, wrote to me saying that my account of Iran's Jews had brought "tears to my eyes" because "you are saying what many of us would like to hear."

Far from the cradle of Middle Eastern Islamist zealotry, she suggested, "Iran - the supposed enemy - is the one society that has gone through its extremist fervor and is coming out the other end. It is relatively stable and socially dynamic. As my father, who continues to live there, says, 'It is the least undemocratic country in the region outside Israel."'

This notion of a "post-fervor" Iran is significant. The compromises being painfully fought out between Islam and democracy in Tehran are of seminal importance. They belie the notion of a fanatical power; they explain Jewish life.

That does not mean fanaticism does not exist or that terrible crimes have not been committed, like the bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires 15 years ago, for which Argentina and Israel have accused Iran.

But the equating of Iran with terror today is simplistic. Hamas and Hezbollah have evolved into broad political movements widely seen as resisting an Israel over-ready to use crushing force. It is essential to think again about them, just as it is essential to toss out Iran caricatures.

I return to this subject because behind the Jewish issue in Iran lies a critical one - the U.S. propensity to fixate on and demonize a country through a one-dimensional lens, with a sometimes disastrous chain of results.

It's worth recalling that hateful, ultra-nationalist rhetoric is no Iranian preserve. Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's race-baiting anti-Arab firebrand, may find a place in a government led by Benjamin Netanyahu. He should not.

Nor should racist demagoguery - wherever - prompt facile allusions to the murderous Nazi master of it.

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