The threat from Iran toward the United States is routinely overblown and hyped. American government and media both uniformly present Iran as a grave and looming menace, poised to attack the U.S. and its allies. It is assumed that Iran desires and intends to attack, and is lacking only the means to do so. That large numbers of Americans seem to accept this assumption is understandable, since there is very little chance of hearing alternative views, but I believe that Americans, once they have all the facts, are inclined toward fairness and dislike hypocrisy.
The president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejhad, is relentlessly attacked by American government officials and media pundits alike. I have read and heard dozens of references in the press to Ahmadinejhad's call to “wipe Israel off the map”, a translation that was first widely reported in the New York Times. The implication is that Iran is an anti-Semitic state, bent on exterminating the Jewish people, but according to Juan Cole, a University of Michigan professor of Middle Eastern History, “wipe Israel off the map” is an erroneous translation. First of all, there is no such idiom as “wipe off the map” in Farsi, the language of Iran, and second, it does not convey the intended meaning of the statement. Cole and other scholars debunked this translation almost as soon as it was made, but that clarification hasn't stopped media analysts and the highest government officials from using it over and over again. According to Cole, Ahmadinejhad was quoting the Ayatollah Khomeini as saying that “this Jerusalem-occupying regime must disappear from the page of time”, which Ahmadinejhad described as a “wise statement”. In other words, “this too shall pass” (Cole). Though this might not be friendly toward the Israeli government, it is not the same as “(we are going to) wipe Israel off the map”. It also does not follow, as American government and media voices almost always imply, that the Israeli government is the same as the Jewish people as a whole. Some scholars have taken exception to Cole's interpretation, while seeming not to dispute his translation. Joshua Teitelbaum, a critic of Cole's, writing in the Jerusalem Post, admits that the New York Times' translation was “non-literal”, but goes on to claim that it conveys the spirit of Ahmadinejhad's statement. Why? Because he says so.
The idea that Iran might have real grievances against the United States and Israel is rarely, if ever, presented in the American media, but consider what those grievances might be. Israel has on many occasions threatened to attack Iran. It was speculated widely in the press that Israel might attack certain Iranian sites with nuclear weapons in the wake of Ahmadinejhad's announcement in September, 2007 (Katz/Weiss), that Iran had three working centrifuges. Iran also has grievances with the United States going at least as far back as 1953, when the U.S. orchestrated the overthrow of the popular, democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddeq, and installed the Shah, a quite ruthless and repressive dictator who ruled over the people of Iran until their revolution in 1979. The United States also armed and supported Saddam Hussein of Iraq in his eight-year war against Iran in which over a million Iranians perished.
These examples (and they are not the only ones) are not to excuse or apologize for Iran's hostility to the U.S. and Israel, but to show that its mistrust is, to some degree, understandable. The level of personal demonization of Ahmadinejhad is bizarre, given that being president of Iran is nothing like being president of the United States. Ahmadinejhad has no direct power over foreign policy or the military. He does not have the authority to order an attack on Israel even if one accepts the assumption that he wants to. Iran, though totalitarian, is a republic, with a complex, functioning government containing competing interests: various ministries, parliament, the Council of Clerics, all under the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamene'i.
The fear expressed constantly by the United States and Israel is that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, in violation of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (N.P.T.), with which it will attack Israel, and possibly Europe, as soon as it can. There is reason to doubt this. For one thing, what ever happened to the idea of “deterrence”? The concept was practically religion for foreign policy makers for decades during the Cold War, when “mutually assured destruction” meant that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union would attack the other first. Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons; the U.S. and Europe have thousands. If Iran, after many years, got one or two nuclear weapons, and presumed to launch them, it would be instantly vaporized. It would be suicidal of Iran to use nuclear weapons, and there is no evidence that Iran's leaders or its people are suicidal.
However, the possession of nuclear weapons by Israel is, as long understood under the theory of deterrence, a perverse incentive for Iran to desire similar weapons. With Israel's threats and U.S. invasions of neighboring countries, one can see why they might want some deterrence. U.S. officials are typically quick to point out that the Iranians are signatories of the N.P.T., and are therefore forbidden to develop nuclear weapons, but that same document also gives all signatories, including Iran, the absolute right to have nuclear power and all the technologies and capabilities that go with it. When dire warnings are given about Iran enriching uranium, the fact that Iran is enriching to the low percentages used in civilian nuclear power, and not to the high percentages required for nuclear weapons, is uniformly omitted.
In fact, in spite of ongoing claims to the contrary, there is no evidence that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Of course, it's possible that they are. Given the threats against them and the other reasons I have discussed, and if they share the assumptions of the same geostrategic thinking that informs our own government's actions, it would be understandable. The evidence, however, is to the contrary. Iran has been participating in the International Atomic Energy Agency's inspection process, and the Supreme Leader has issued a legally-binding fatwa that nuclear weapons are against Islam. Conversely, The United States itself is in violation of the N.P.T., which seeks to prevent “wider dissemination of nuclear weapons”, and to “achieve at the earliest possible date the cessation of the nuclear arms race and to undertake effective measures in the direction of nuclear disarmament”(U.N.). I don't think that any reading of U.S. history since the signing of the N.P.T. could conclude that the U.S. made good faith efforts toward disarmament. How can we, who abhor hypocrisy, take Iran to task for violations, alleged on the flimsiest of grounds, of a treaty of which we ourselves are in violation? Iran would have every right to withdraw from the treaty if it chose to do so, but it has not.
We should also consider the source of charges against Iran. The United States has a long and colorful history of demonizing countries much smaller, poorer and weaker than itself, of claiming an imminent threat of some kind, and then attacking those countries either by proxy or by direct invasion. We should be very skeptical of such talk now, especially in light of Washington's record of duplicity and double-standards, reinforced by the press and fed to the American people like baby food.
While it is true that the Iranian government has a hostile attitude toward the United States government, to say that Iran is an existential threat to the U.S. is absurd. The opposite is actually true. The U.S. and Israel have all but called for the destruction of Iran, and Iran has very little defense against their overwhelming military might. It is also well-known that the Iranian people have very high regard for the American people in spite of their experience with our government.
Shouldn't we, as Americans, who believe in fairness and detest hypocrisy, look for the truth in our relations with Iran? If we don't want them to develop nuclear weapons, which we can all probably agree would be a bad idea, why not seek to remove their incentive for developing them, namely, Israel's (and, ultimately, our own) possession of them?
Of course it's always possible for a small country or, more likely, non-state groups or individuals, to launch terrorist attacks on the United States, but even though those attacks might sometimes be successful, they do not threaten the existence of the United States. The possibility of terrorists obtaining and using nuclear weapons is a real concern, but the possibility will not be lessened by demonizing Iran, while condoning and even enabling other countries to build nuclear stockpiles. If we Americans could base our attitude toward Iran on a more realistic appraisal of its stature as a threat, I don't know how we could fail to take Iran's point of view into account, and to promote justice in the Middle East.
Cole, Juan. "Ahmadinejhad: We Are Not a Threat to Any Country, Including Israel." Informed Comment . 27 August 2006.
Katz, Yaakov, Mark Weiss and AP. “US Afraid of an Israeli Strike in Iran.” Jerusalem Post 9 2007, Friday, News; pg 3. print.
Teitelbaum, Joshua. “Iran's Talk of Destroying Israel Must Not Get Lost in Translation.”Jerusalem Post 22 June 2008, Sunday, News; pg. 9. print.
United Nations. 2005 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) 2-27 May 2005.Text of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). http://www.un.org/events/npt2005/npttreaty.html>, 16 April 2009.