03 March 2015

The Netanyahu speech and Islamic 'aggression'

Prime Minister Netanyahu was more diplomatic toward President Obama in his much-vaunted, much-dreaded speech before Congress than his Republican fanboys usually are. The Israeli leader made a point of mentioning several "not widely known" cases of Obama's assistance to his country while hinting at further services that "might never be known" for security reasons. Understandably enough, Netanyahu saved his rhetorical venom for Iran. He spun a word portrait of Persian enmity toward the Jews dating back to the time of the Book of Esther, with the mullahs of the Islamic Republic as the heirs of the hated Haman He did not mention that the Persians ruled the Jews at the time and were in fact hailed by them as liberators from the hated Babylonians; that Esther was a queen of Persia in the story; and that Haman was destroyed by his own master, the Persian emperor. Instead, Netanyahu hailed Esther for winning "for the Jewish people the right to defend themselves," though he looked to the U.S., or more specifically today to Congress, to defend them from Iran. And for what it's worth, it's unclear whether Haman was ethnically Persian at all, in scripture or in reality.

Netanyahu portrayed the Iranians as the aggressors in the entire Middle East since the Islamic Republic came into existence in 1979. According to his reading of the Iranian constitution, the Revolutionary Guards are mandated to "fulfill the ideological mission of jihad." To clarify his meaning, he quoted the Ayatollah Khomeini's exhortation to "export the revolution throughout the world." The Islamic Republic, in stark contrast to the American Republic, is dedicated to "death, tyranny and the pursuit of jihad," Netanyahu said. They are the aggressors in Lebanon, in Iraq and in Yemen. By supporting the Assad government in Syria they promote slaughter and tyranny, and through their sponsorship of Hezbollah they are aggressors against Israel itself. Their current head of state pines for the annihilation of Israel and his Hezbollah puppet itches to massacre Jews.

It's easy to argue that Iran is a tyranny to the extent that the Supreme Guide and principal ayatollah is accountable to no one, and to the extent that many citizens find many of the Republic's religiously-based restrictions oppressive. But even if we concede that the Islamic Republic is a tyranny by any standard other than its own, does that make it inherently an aggressor? The Iranians themselves, naturally, don't see things that way. Like Islamist movements everywhere, the partisans of the Islamic Republic see theirs as a defensive struggle against Imperialism, Zionism, and an international Sunni (or "takfiri") conspiracy. From their perspective, the 1979 revolution liberated Iran from the secular tyranny of the Shah and his American backers, the 1980s war with Iraq was motivated at least partly to liberate that country's Shiite majority from Sunni domination, and the liberation of Palestine from Zionism is an enduring obligation.  All of this can be dismissed as rhetoric, of course, and it can still be argued that the Islamic Republic is inherently aggressive because it expresses an illegitimate will to power on the part of the mullahs. But that isn't the Israeli argument. Netanyahu's position is that Iran's pretense of a liberating mission is spurious because the settled order of the Middle East, such as it is but above all inclusive of the existence of a Jewish State, is indisputably legitimate. Neither Persians nor Arabs nor Muslims as a whole have a veto on Jewish nationhood and the nation's entitlement to a geographic state. To deny the legitimacy of Israel (or its "right to exist") is aggression from this perspective.

Who ever actually boasted of being the aggressor in a war? Even Hitler had to claim that the Poles fired on Germany first, and so Israel sees Iran as the aggressor and Iran sees Israel and the U.S. as aggressors. Islam sees Christianity (and its Jewish client) as the aggressor ever since Islam itself went off the offensive after 1683, if not ever since the Crusades, while Christianity sees Islam as the aggressor ever since the successors of Muhammad began building an empire in the 7th century A.D. No matter who the objective aggressor is, each side accuses the other of aggression in order to claim moral superiority or deny the other some right it claims -- in this case, Iran's asserted right to develop nuclear power and its inferred desire to build nuclear weapons. Iran must not have nuclear power of any weaponizable potential, Netanyahu insists, because the Iranians are proven aggressors and explicitly desire the destruction of Israel. The U.S. must pressure Iran into surrendering its ambitions, and Congress if necessary must pressure an otherwise helpful President into firmness against the aggression of the Iranian nuclear program should Obama waver out of weakness or some obscure sense of evenhandedness. The American public most likely agrees with Netanyahu about the menace of Iran, even if many don't see it as our special job to protect Israel in particular from such a menace. Few if any of us would argue for favoring Iran over Israel, but fewer want more war in the Middle East. The only reason to deny nuclear power to Iran is a conviction that fanaticism would motivate the mullahs to launch a first strike against Israel, being indifferent to reprisal since it would only mean martyrdom. But if we assume that the mullahs and their more secular collaborators in Iran are aggressors out of a desire for power, aren't their motives ultimately selfish and therefore subject to deterrence, just as those of the Soviet Union's leaders were? Netanyahu's reasoning may not stand scrutiny, but he's probably stuck with it. He must call the Iranians aggressors, even in preference to "fanatics," because it's always possible that a fanatic, unlike a pure aggressor, has a grievance that might be entitled to consideration. Whether Iran, a nation somewhat far from Israel, has any real grievance with the Jewish State -- whether Palestine is any of its business -- is a fair question, but in that case distance should diminish American interest in the entire region. Ours is a free country, however, and our people can take interest in any nation they wish and try to make their government take interest as well. That might be as good a definition of aggression as any we've heard lately.

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