Taking Iran’s Anti-Semitism Seriously JEFFREY HERF June 2, 2014
When U.S. policymakers focus on Iran, they tend to look at technical issues—its military capabilities, its economy, its nuclear ambitions. But they seldom pay enough attention to its ideological beliefs.
Radical, theologically based hatred of Judaism, Zionism, and the state of Israel is part of the core ideological beliefs of the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Yet U.S. policymakers all too rarely consider Iran’s endemic anti-Semitism. In fact, it’s hardly ever discussed outside of Israel and a few Western intellectual circles. To be sure, the Iranian regime’s radical anti-Semitism is of deepest concern to Israel, but a regime driven by such violent hatred also endangers the world, especially modern, Western, democratic nations.
While the U.S. Congress has held hearings about the technical details of Iran’s nuclear programs and the impact of economic sanctions, as far as I know it has never publicly discussed the core ideology of the Iranian regime and how it affects Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons. Such hearings are long overdue. The radical anti-Semitism voiced by Iranian leaders is a worldview so delusional, so removed from actual realities, that those who advocate it will almost certainly not operate according to the customary norms of what constitutes reasonable behavior in international affairs. Indeed, U.S. policymakers cannot assume that Iran will value its own survival more than it does the goal of eliminating the hated Jewish enemy.
The scholarship on the history of anti-Semitism hasn’t yet had a significant impact on the policy discussions in Washington about Iran. Perhaps too many of our policymakers, politicians, and analysts still labor under the mistaken idea that radical anti-Semitism is merely another form of prejudice or, worse, an understandable (and hence excusable?) response to the conflict between Israel, the Arab states, and the Palestinians. In fact it is something far more dangerous, and far less compatible with a system of nuclear deterrence, which assumes that all parties place a premium on their own survival. Iran’s radical anti-Semitism is not in the slightest bit rational; it is a paranoid conspiracy theory that proposes to make sense (or rather nonsense) of the world by claiming that the powerful and evil “Jew” is the driving force in global politics. Leaders who attribute enormous evil and power to the 13 million Jews in the world and to a tiny Middle Eastern state with about eight million citizens have demonstrated that they don’t have a suitable disposition for playing nuclear chess.
Iranian anti-Semitism has been well documented, in particular by Meir Litvak of the Dayan Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Tel Aviv and the Middle East Research and Media Institute (MEMRI). They have offered abundant evidence that hatred of the Jews and a determination to destroy the state of Israel are paramount goals for the Islamic Republic and have been ever since its founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, gave such views theological sanction. Like his fellow Islamists, Haj Amin el-Husseini and Sayyid Qutb, Khomeini asserted that Jews were bent on destroying Islam, a mission he claimed found modern expression in the establishment of Israel. Indeed, he saw no difference between his hatred of Jews and Judaism and his hatred of Israel.1 His successor shares Khomeini’s views: as reported by the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated in 2001 that “the occupation of Palestine [by the Jews] is part of a satanic design by the world domineering powers, perpetrated by the British in the past and carried out today by the United States, to weaken the solidarity of the Islamic world and to sow the seeds of disunity among nations.”2 As Meir Litvak writes, both Khomenei to Khamenei see Jews and Judaism as a threat to Islam and the Muslims. Khomenei made uncompromising, theologically-based assertions that Israel and Zionism were enemies not only of Islam but of humanity in its entirety, and Khamenei has said the same. Such evil enemies, they believe, must be wiped out for the good of all.
As a historian of modern German history, specializing in the Nazi era and the Holocaust, I know the pitfalls of misplaced historical analogies. Israel’s enemies commonly make such analogies; the Soviet Union, the Arab states, Palestinian organizations, Islamist terror groups and the government of Iran have all compared Israel to Nazi Germany. Yet our current policy debates suffer from the opposite problem. Policymakers are unwilling to openly and frankly discuss radical anti-Semitism when it comes from Islamist sources. Despite their differences, we must remember that the Islamic Republic of Iran is the first government since Hitler’s in which anti-Semitism constitutes a central element of its identity. An Iran with nuclear weapons would thus be the first government since Hitler’s to be both willing and able to threaten a second Holocaust.
No high-ranking member of the Obama Administration has admitted that this is the case—neither the President nor his Secretaries of State and Defense have ever publicly discussed Iran’s anti-Semitism. The issue has faded into the background, replaced by a preoccupation with technical details about centrifuges, percentages of uranium enrichment, and lengths of “break-out times.” When policymakers fail to consider the core beliefs of the Iranian leadership, they foster the impression that Iran is a smaller, Islamic version of the Soviet Union—that is, a state which would act in its own self-interest if it had nuclear weapons. Yet the Soviet Union was governed by atheists who disdained notions of a life after death and would have laughed at the idea of a “12th Imam” descending to earth after an apocalyptic disaster. If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it would likely be the first such state not to be deterred by the prospect of nuclear retaliation. Yet the irrationality of Iran’s government has received scant attention in the United States government, which seems unable to believe that people could put their faith in a post-apocalyptic messiah. That is both a failure of imagination and a failure of policy.
It is not clear why there has been such consistent disinclination to publicly examine and discuss what the Iranian leaders believe. Part of the blame may lie with the tendency of realist scholars of international relations and politics to dismiss the importance of ideology. Or perhaps it is the fact that Israelis have done the best and most careful work on Iran’s ideology that leads some foreign policy analysts to ignore it. President Obama’s repeated assertions that “the tide of war is receding,” his decision to leave Iraq and Afghanistan, and his refusal to intervene in Syria suggest a different explanation. A close and honest look at the beliefs of Iran’s leaders would undermine the hope that the Islamic Republic is actually a normal, rational actor in world affairs. For if the Iranians actually do believe what they say, and then the unavoidable conclusion is that they are lying about the purposes of their nuclear program and have been playing Western leaders, including the President, for fools. Further, it means that they will not cease their pursuit of the bomb unless, at the very least, they are threatened with more severe damage to their economy—though more likely not, unless the United States credibly thereatens military action against them. Since no one knows how such a military campaign—not an invasion but a naval and air campaign—would end, policymakers understandably wish to consider Iran a “normal” state and tend to neglect the inconvenient evidence of its ideological fanaticism. Yet denying the reality will not make it disappear.
There are other and more familiar reasons why the United States does not want Iran to get the bomb. A nuclear Iran could deter military action against its terrorist proxies, Hamas and Hizballah, and threaten to disrupt the flow of energy in the Persian Gulf. If Iran were to acquire the bomb after several American Presidents had asserted that this must not happen, America’s credibility would be damaged. Without the U.S. as a reliable guarantor, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty would seem less stable, and many other states might begin to develop their own nuclear weapons programs—not least Japan and South Korea.
On February 6, 2014, Senator Robert Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee delivered an historic yet underreported speech on the Senate floor about the state of the negotiations with Iran. Stating his opposition to the relaxation of economic sanctions by the Geneva Agreement of November 2013, the Senator said that “years of obfuscation, delay, and endless negotiation have brought the Iranians to the point of having—according to the Director of National Intelligence—the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons.” The Iranian’s strategy of using “these negotiations to mothball its nuclear infrastructure program just long enough to undo the international sanctions regime” has “brought them to a nuclear threshold state.” The Obama Administration must surely know this to be true as well. Policymakers must understand that Iran has not invested billions of dollars and weathered years of international isolation only to change course and stop pursuing nuclear weapons. Perhaps the officials involved in the P5 Plus One talks know that the most likely outcome of the current policy is that Iran will get the bomb it claims not to want. If the plan is to contain and deter a nuclear Iran rather than to prevent it from getting the bomb in the first place, then the refusal of the President and other European leaders to consider the Iranians’ ideology makes a certain sense. Such a policy can only rest on a willful ignorance of the regime’s core beliefs.
The United States has the economic and military resources to prevent Iran from getting the bomb. If it becomes necessary to use force to achieve that end, the Administration must present the full range of reasons for that decision. A regime animated by radical anti-Semitism not only poses a threat of a second Holocaust, but due to its dangerous irrationality, poses a threat to the whole world. President Obama and his leading officials insist that their policy remains one of prevention, yet they do not seem to understand the very people they are seeking to deter. Iran’s ideological extremism has become lost in the fog of technical details. If we are to have an effective policy on Iran, we must first understand what makes the country tick, as well as its bombs.
1Meir Litvak, “Iranian Antisemitism: Continuity and Change,” in Charles Asher Small, ed., Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity, Volume IV, Islamism and the Modern World (Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism, 2013), p. 60.
2Alyatollah Ali Khamenei, cited by Litvak, “Iranian Antisemitism,” p. 60.
Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor in the department of history at the University of Maryland, College Park. His most recent book is Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (Yale University Press, 2009).