Like most everyone I know, I find the prospect of a nuclear Iran terrifying. I am afraid for Israel, for the stability of the Middle East, and for the world. I am afraid of a regime I believe to be extreme and dangerously unpredictable. Still, the bellicose rhetoric coming from Republican presidential candidates and some Israeli government officials makes me nervous. Our country certainly doesn’t need another war based on an excess of high emotion and a dearth of thoughtful analysis.
In the midst of the deafening calls preparing for war with Iran, I attended a remarkable meeting of leaders of the American Jewish community and the Iranian-American community. The dialogue was convened by NIAC, the National Iranian-American Council, a ten-year old organization dedicated to promoting Iranian-American engagement in American civic life. A range of Jewish leaders and academics and Iranian-American scholars of Iranian history, sociology, politics, literature and culture participated in the dialogue. The day was spent learning about one another’s communities, exchanging perspectives on the political challenges of the current moment in U.S.-Iran-Israel relations, and thinking together about how to avert a catastrophic war.
It was exhilarating to sit in a room with so many knowledgeable people, engaging in high-level political analysis. But as a rabbi, I swallowed my pride and asked my Iranian-American colleagues a simple question: Can you give me an uncomplicated, 60-second reason why my community can afford to be a bit less afraid of Iran? Incredibly, I received twelve replies to my question. I didn’t find all of them equally persuasive, and neither will all readers of this column. But together, they cast creative doubt on the commonly held premise that Iran poses such a serious existential threat to Israel and to the world that we dare not stop to think about the wisdom of various actions the U.S. government may take. These perspectives, interrupting the usual flow of alarming thoughts about the Iranian regime, may allow us to think more calmly about a wise course of action.
(1)Those in the know consistently report that Ahmadinejad, the bellicose president of Iran, actually has very little power in his own country. Even if he wanted to bomb Israel or American forces, he would not have the power to do so.
(2)Ahmadinejad’s term of office ends in 18 months, and Iranian law prevents him from running for another term. By 2013, we will at least be dealing with a different elected leader.
(3)The official position of the Islamic Republic of Iran is to use weapons of mass destruction only in response to attack.
(4)The people of Iran keenly remember the trauma of the Iran-Iraq war and would not readily invite that kind of destruction again.
(5)The Iranian people as a whole, heirs to a rich religious and literary tradition, detest war and deeply value education.
(6)Nuclear war would be suicidal for Iran, and the state’s leaders care about their own political survival more than they hate Israel or the U.S.
(7)Iran has long felt vulnerable as a non-Arab Shiite nation in a sea of Sunni Arabs, and hence uses rhetorical attacks on Israel to inflate its sense of power in the region.
(8)Internal political sensibilities would prevent Iran from bombing Israel. Killing large numbers of Palestinians and damaging Jerusalem, sacred in Islam as well as in Judaism, would be untenable in a Muslim nation.
(9)Iran seeks nuclear capability not to use the weapons but for deterrence value, given its fear of its neighboring nations.
(10)It is nationalist pride more than real hostility that moves Iran to develop its nuclear capacity.
I’m not completely convinced by all of these, and perhaps, neither are you. I certainly wouldn’t want either the U.S. or Israeli governments to grow complacent about the threats Iran may pose, but there is little chance of that. But this set of thoughts, offered by an erudite and sophisticated group of Iranian-American scholars, may calm us enough to allow us to stop and think before embarking on a truly terrible course of action. These perspectives run counter to the predominant narrative that casts Iran as a terrifying threat to the stability of the world, and it is always difficult to absorb a narrative different from the one most often repeated. But if my new colleagues’ insights could allow some policy makers to think more calmly and clearly, the world might benefit greatly.