There was a time when Middle East despots could say things like “Israel should be wiped off the map,” and such remarks would pass unnoticed by the civilized world.
That time is gone. Since the rise of Muslim terror, Islamic watchdog groups like the Middle East Media Research Institute have been vigilantly documenting and translating the idiotic and dangerous comments of radical Islamic leaders for all to enjoy. And the despots know it. That suggests that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statements last week were aimed not only at Iranians and Israelis, but at the world press. The new president’s message seems clear: No more talk of reforms and democracy. Iran must focus on its real enemies: Israel and the U.S.
Not that there was ever any real hope of reform. Former presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami were hailed as reformers by a naive Western press, but as anyone who has thumbed through the pages of Reading Lolita in Tehran knows, the only true Iranian reformers are either dead or languishing in the Ayatollah’s chamber of horrors. It was during the tenure of these so-called reformers that Iran earned the designation as a member (with North Korea and Iraq) of the Axis of Evil.
Prior to Ahmaninejad’s election, the New York Times had been pulling for their man in Tehran, former President Rafsanjani, an influential cleric who regularly uses his Friday prayer services to denounce the U.S. Earlier this year the Times editorialized that Rafsanjani, if elected, would curb the excesses of hardliners, something no former president (Rafsanjani included) has done before. The Western press was so intent on seeing reform that both Rafsanjani and Khatami were greeted as Persian Martin Luthers, despite failing to implement substantive reforms and despite “reformist control of parliament.”
Why am I not surprised? Perhaps because the Great Reformer Khatami was only given the go-ahead to run after the government banned 234 other candidates it considered too liberal. And both former presidents were allies of the late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini. Rafsanjani was both his adviser and disciple. Khatami’s father was a well-known ayatollah and Khomeini confidant.
Of the two so-called reform presidents, Khatami was seen as the truer liberal. But not only did he fail to implement substantive reforms, he presided over the most severe crackdown of dissidents since the revolution. The former cultural minister also permitted the destruction of many pre-Islamic sites, including Stone Age artifacts. As minister of culture, he banned perhaps 90 publications and censored 600 books, according to the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Rubin. As for relations with Israel, while attending the funeral of John Paul II, Khatami found himself seated next to President Moshe Katsav. According to the latter, the two greeted each other and shook hands. Upon his return to Iran, Khatami, realizing his mistake, vociferously denied shaking hands with the Israeli president.
Reformer or waterboy, it hardly matters who holds the title of president. The real power lies with the unelected Khamenei, the Supreme Leader and military commander-in-chief, who controls the judiciary and the media, and appoints half of the Council of Guardians, the group of geezer clerics who have veto power over any laws or decisions by the legislature or president. (The head of the judiciary recommends the remaining six members of the Council of Guardians, but he in turn has been appointed by Khamenei.)
All presidential candidates must be approved by the Council of Guardians, and the Council is not about to pick a genuine reform-minded president, even as a figurehead. When Ayatollah Khomenei ordered the recent arrest of the prominent human rights activist and lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani and threatened Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, he certainly didn’t need President Ahmadinejad’s approval, though he most certainly would have received it.
FOLLOWING AHMADINEJAD’S anti-Israel tirade, the mainstream media reported that thousands of Iranians demonstrated across the country in support of the president’s remarks. That and the president’s near-landslide victory in June seem to suggest that the Iranian people have had enough empty talk of democracy and human rights.
But have they?
It is all but impossible to know what the Iranian people think, for Iran remains a Sharanskian fear society ruled by unelected despots. Likely the ayatollah has a handful of true believers, but the majority is either silent, or goes along with the government out of fear. Common sense, however, argues that the Iranians are like people everywhere and long for a free society.
A snake, the Iranians say, cannot give birth to a dove. But that hasn’t stopped the U.S. and the U.N. from initiating discussions with Iran’s new “democratically elected” president, particularly on the issues of Iran’s alleged sponsorship of Iraqi jihadists and uranium enrichment. Just because President Ahmadinejad preaches the old Zionist conspiracies — that Israel was founded as a base for Western imperialists to take over the Islamic world — or because he fondly recalls Khomeini’s vision of a world without the U.S., or even if he is the man former hostages say was one of the kidnappers during the 1979 U.S. Embassy hostage taking — that doesn’t mean we cannot have a nice dialogue with him, right?
The U.S. can’t afford not to, particularly in the case of Iranian plutonium production. Iran would seem to be one of the last countries in the world that needs to go into the nuclear power business. It has huge oil, gas, and coal reserves. More to the point, however, President Ahmadinejad insists that Iran has an “inalienable right” to nuclear power. Not only does the Iranian government insist on building nuclear power plants, but it is building at least one heavy-water plant, the kind that can provide it with enough plutonium to, say, “wipe Israel off the map.”
Experts say Iran is five to ten years away from developing a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile Ahmadinejad likes to point out that its original nuclear program was started under the Shah. Maybe, but the Shah wasn’t a threat to Israel or to the American people. He was only a threat to the Iranian people.
The obvious conclusion is that Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons, and what it might do with those is anyone’s guess. Hopefully President Ahmadinejad’s recent comments were not an indication of Iran’s intent.
Christopher Orlet is a frequent contributor and runs the Existential Journalist website.