My email to George Monbiot:
George - thank you for an excellent piece in today's Guardian drawing attention to the great unmentionable in respect of WMD in the Middle East: Israel's nuclear weapons.
Given how important it is for this subject to be raised prominently in a mainstream newspaper, I'm reluctant to find fault with what you've written. However, there are a couple of aspects of your piece which I think will counteract what I suspect is your aim, i.e. to help the campaign against a war on Iran. I refer to instances where you reinforce some of the erroneous assumptions upon which the drive to war is based.
First, you say that "I believe that Iran is trying to acquire the bomb". May I ask what the basis of this belief is? Do you think that reliance on "belief" can be an adequate position for anyone – especially a Western newspaper commentator - to take on such a serious issue? Given the potentially cataclysmic dangers inherent in any US-Iran war, should we not confine ourselves strictly to the facts and, where there are gaps in our knowledge, admit to our ignorance rather than filling the gaps with "belief"?
The limits of our empirical knowledge of Iran's nuclear program are set by the findings of the IAEA. The agency has, after several surprise and intrusive inspections consistent with the NPT (it is the Additional Protocol, not the treaty, that Iran has withdrawn co-operation from) stated in its latest report (as it has many times previously) that it has no evidence of the "diversion" of enrichment activities towards a weapons programme.
I refer you to this informative commentary from Farideh Farhi on the dissonace between what the IAEA report said and how the media have been reporting it.
Second, it should be noted (though it never is) that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued a religious ruling banning the construction and stockpiling of nuclear weapons.
Now of course, Khamenei, like any other powerful person, is perfectly capable of telling untruths. But when a person whose authority flows from his religious piety issues a ruling that impacts on his own behaviour he stakes not only his credibility but his power on his adherence to that ruling. Few people have ever accused members of the Tehran regime of being indifferent to personal power. So one has to admit that the existence of this explicit fatwa at the very least reduces by a significant degree the likelihood of Khamenei subsequently authorising an Iranian nuclear weapons programme.
This highlights a further point, scrupulously ignored by those who favour war: that it is Khamenei, not Ahmadinejad, who is in ultimate charge in Iran. It is he who has the last word on foreign and security policy. Indeed, one might well argue, with reference to Iran's complex political hierarchy, that Ahmadinejad is not even second in command.
Yet in your article, you say: "Yes, Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a dangerous and unpredictable state". It is by no means true that Iran is "under" Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad does not have the power to start wars, for example.
You go on to say that "The president is a Holocaust denier opposed to the existence of Israel." Of the problematic turns of phrase in your article, this is possibly the most serious. I'm sure you're aware that Ahmadinejad never threatened to "wipe Israel from the map", as the hawks often claim. But your choice of words - in its formulation of an Iranian nuclear threat - is functionally identical to that disproven "wiped off the map" claim.
Let us be clear. Ahmadinejad - odious Holocaust denier though he undoubtedly is - has never threatened or advocated the physical, violent destruction of Israel. He has advocated the dissolution of what he views as an unjust regime, similar to the dissolution of the Shah's regime in Iran and the Soviet regime in Russia, neither of which resulted in either of those countries being "wiped off the map". He has advocated a single democratic state for Jews and Palestinians on all of mandate Palestine. You imply (whether you mean to or not) that he threatens a holocaust to destroy Israel. In reality, he calls for an election to dissolve it and effect a one-state solution. Believe him or don't. View his idea as foolish if you like. But lets at least acknowledge the facts.
Two more things should be mentioned on this point. First, even if we dismiss the available evidence and believe in the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, do we really suppose that Iran would consider for a moment the idea of initiating a war against an Israel armed with x amount of warheads and therefore also against the US with its many thousands of warheads? By what rationale do we argue that the Iranian regime wishes to commit suicide?
Secondly, noting that it is Khamenei that runs Iranian foreign policy, not Ahmadinejad, should we not acknowledge that Khamenei was "directly involved" in formulating and proposing a comprehensive peace deal to the US and Israel, including acceptance of a two-state solution?
You see, then, why I believe these turns of phrase in your article to be problematic. Iran has no proven nuclear weapons programme, and is governed ultimately by a man who has forbidden the construction of nuclear weapons and who has offered to accept a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict. Yet your article gives the impression that Iran has an active nuclear weapons programme and is run by a man who may wish to use the weapons he is constructing to destroy Israel.
Any hawk would be delighted that even The Guardian's George Monbiot is prepared to give this impression to his readers - and that’s a big shame given the excellent points you make in your article regarding Israel's nuclear weapons.
As you know, it is when someone at your end of the spectrum accepts the claims of power that those claims pass from points of view or allegations into accepted and unquestionable truths. Its a sad irony that I should be making this point in respect of this article, since your aim was plainly to challenge some of the received wisdom on this issue. However, unfortunately, you have reinforced many other aspects of the received wisdom in doing so. I wonder - is there any chance of your offering a corrective in a future piece?
I hope you accept these criticisms in the constructive and fraternal spirit in which they were intended. Because the issues raised deserve airing beyond private correspondence I am publishing this email on my website. I look forward to any reply from you and would be happy to post that on my site as well, with your permission.
Reply from George Monbiot:
Hi David, thanks for your message. No time for long reply, but v briefly:
[dw - George quotes my original email]
"First, you say that "I believe that Iran is trying to acquire the bomb". May I ask what the basis of this belief is? Do you think that reliance on "belief" can be an adequate position for anyone - especially a Western newspaper commentator - to take on such a serious issue? Given the potentially cataclysmic dangers inherent in any US-Iran war, should we not confine ourselves strictly to the facts and, where there are gaps in our knowledge, admit to our ignorance rather than filling the gaps with "belief"?"
Well, what do you think is going on? Why the insistence on enriching uranium? Why the long drawn-out dance with the IAEA? What do you think this is about (from latest IAEA report):
"Contrary to the decisions of the Security Council, Iran has not suspended its enrichment related activities, having continued the operation of PFEP and FEP. Iran has also continued the construction of the IR-40 and operation of the Heavy Water Production Plant."
Given the huge diplomatic and economic costs of Iran's nuclear programme, it looks to me as if it intends to derive a major benefit from it. Generating electricity does not seem to me to be sufficient, given that it has other readily available means (some of the world's largest natural gas reserves). I can't prove that it's seeking to develop a bomb, but I believe it is.
[dw - again, Geroge quotes my original email]
"You go on to say that "The president is a Holocaust denier opposed to the existence of Israel."
Of the problematic turns of phrase in your article, this is possibly the most serious. I'm sure you're aware that Ahmadinejad never threatened to "wipe Israel from the map", as the hawks often claim. But your choice of words - in its formulation of an Iranian nuclear threat - is functionally identical to that disproven "wiped off the map" claim.
Let us be clear. Ahmadinejad - wretched Holocaust denier though he undoubtedly is - has never threatened or advocated the physical, violent destruction of Israel. He has advocated the dissolution of what he views as an unjust regime, similar to the dissolution of the Shah's regime in Iran and the Soviet regime in Russia, neither of which resulted in either of those countries being "wiped off the map". He has advocated a single democratic state for Jews and Palestinians on all of mandate Palestine. You imply (whether you mean to or not) that he threatens a holocaust to destroy Israel. In reality, he calls for an election to dissolve it and effect a one-state solution. Believe him or don't. View his idea as foolish if you like. But lets at least acknowledge the facts."
I'm well aware that "wiped off the map" was a mistranslation. But if we are to use Juan Cole as our source, look at his translation of the same passage:
"The Imam said that this regime occupying Jerusalem (een rezhim-e ishghalgar-e qods) must [vanish from] from the page of time (bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad)."
Does that not suggest that Ahmadinejad is opposed to the existence of the state of Israel? What other regime did he have in mind? Of course, being opposed to the state doesn't mean he intends to destroy it.
See these too, which I am sorry to say come from Wikipedia:
"A synopsis of Mr Ahmadinejad's speech on the Iranian Presidential website states:
He further expressed his firm belief that the new wave of confrontations generated in Palestine and the growing turmoil in the Islamic world would in no time wipe Israel away.
The same idiom in his speech on December 13, 2006 was translated as "wiped out" by Reuters:
Just as the Soviet Union was wiped out and today does not exist, so will the Zionist regime soon be wiped out."
"In a speech given on 14 December 2005 in the city of Zahedan, and carried live on Iranian television, Ahmadinejad made the following comments:Why have they come to the very heart of the Islamic world and are committing crimes against the dear Palestine using their bombs, rockets, missiles and sanctions. [...] The same European countries have imposed the illegally-established Zionist regime on the oppressed nation of Palestine. If you have committed the crimes so give a piece of your land somewhere in Europe or America and Canada or Alaska to them to set up their own state there. Then the Iranian nation will have no objections, will stage no rallies on the Qods Day and will support your decision."
I think you would have to stretch things somewhat to argue to MA is not opposed to the existence of Israel.
We are both against an attack on Iran. But I do not understand how the case against an attack is strengthened by seeking to whitewash the Iranian government.
With best wishes, George
Hi George. I'm grateful for your response. Thank you.
Let me address your last paragraph first, where you say
"I do not understand how the case against an attack is strengthened by seeking to whitewash the Iranian government"
I'm tempted to now write a long paragraph in flowery language listing and denouncing the many crimes of the Iranian government in order to prove my moral decency. But there is no need for this because the question of my "seeking to whitewash the Iranian government" does not arise, and there is no basis - none - for your suggesting that it does. What I have done is simply to insist on the facts. The factual record by itself condemns the Tehran regime to hell and back several times over. There's no need for anything else.
You've noticed that my position on this issue is informed greatly by Juan Cole. When discussing the "wiped off the map" issue, Cole said: "I personally despise everything Ahmadinejad stands for, not to mention the odious Khomeini, who had personal friends of mine killed so thoroughly that we have never recovered their bodies."
Despite these personal circumstances, Cole still absolutely insists on the facts regarding Iran, however those individual facts happen to reflect on the Iranian government. I think that sets a fine example to the rest of us.
It would be nice if you could retract your statement about my "seeking to whitewash the Iranian government".
Does Iran have a nuclear weapons programme? There are good reasons for believing it may do. Iran lives in the neighbourhood of a nuclear Israel, Pakistan and India. A nuclear armed United States is committed to regime change in Tehran. The US has occupied Iran's neighbours Iraq and Afghanistan. There are also US forces and allies surrounding Iran in the Gulf, the Emirates, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Pakistan. The last time the current ideological trend was in the White House they backed Saddam in war that nearly destroyed Iran. If Iran wants nuclear weapons in those circumstances, then we hardly need fantasies about Iran wishing to commit collective suicide by launching a pointless attack on Israel (and therefore de facto the US) to explain the reasons why. Iran has very compelling reasons indeed for starting a weapons programme.
However, there are also compelling reasons for believing it may not have such a programme. Like the fact that the Supreme Leader has effectively staked his religious credibility and therefore the essence of his power on their not building nuclear weapons. Like the fact that the empirical evidence points to there not being a weapons programme.
Why insist on enriching uranium when you're rich in gas and oil? Well why squander that wealth in domestic consumption when oil prices are astronomically high? Sensible economics would surely dictate that you maximise the amount of oil and gas for sale on the world market, no?
Why insist on enrichment in defiance of the UNSC? Well why wouldn't any small country insist on their rights under the NPT if it felt it could (Tehran seems to be banking, perhaps overconfidently, on Moscow and Beijing's eternal backing)? Why instead accept being walked over by the permanent nuclear states? Maybe this is just a state seeking to maximise its utility in the normal course of things.
Why the "long-drawn out dance with the IAEA"? Well ask North Korea. After a lot of bluster, Washington was finally forced to do a deal with Pyongyang. Iran tried to do a deal with the US in 2003. A generous deal from the Iranian point of view. The US responded by chastising the Swiss diplomat who brought them the letter from Tehran. Well now Tehran has a lot more bargaining chips, and its not giving them up lightly. That's a possible interpretation. You don't need actual nuclear weapons to be taken seriously on the world stage - just the threat that you might get them soon unless people play nice with you.
So there are many strong reasons to suppose that there is and that there isn't an Iranian nuclear weapons programme. My point is simply that it is not remotely adequate to skip lightly over all this complexity and just say you "believe" the programme exists. What's more, given the real threat of war, doing so is highly irresponsible - especially from someone in your position. Why not just acknowledge the fact that we don't know whether Iran is aiming to build nuclear weapons? That's not "whitewashing". Just a fair reflection of reality.
On Israel, you say:
"Of course, being opposed to the state doesn't mean he intends to destroy it."
This is precisely my point. Ahmadinejad's cretinous utterences on the Israel-Palestine issue are irrelevant to the question of Iranian nuclear weapons. You referred to his position specifically as constituting a threat to Israel. This is silly. Ahmadinejad has not threatened to destroy Israel. He and the Iranian government government have repeatedly said that they do not intend to attack Israel. Iran has offered to accept the Arab plan for a two state solution. Ahmadinejad does not even run Iranian foreign policy. And even if none of those things were true, by what rationale are we to suppose that Iran wishes to commit suicide by pointlessly attacking Israel (which would mean de facto attacking the US)?
"I think you would have to stretch things somewhat to argue to MA is not opposed to the existence of Israel."
I argued nothing of the kind. And you did not simply argue that MA is opposed to the existence of Israel. You went far beyond that, suggesting that he was a threat to Israel's security. This is doing the war-party's job for it. I know that was the opposite of your intention with yesterday's article, which is why I thought it worth mentioning it to you.
Again, I'm very grateful for your response and would more than welcome any further reply. Since you didn't say otherwise when I asked, I'm assuming you have no objections to my making this exchange public on my website.
Reply from George Monbiot:
"And you did not simply argue that MA is opposed to the existence of Israel. You went far beyond that, suggesting that he was a threat to Israel's security."
Where and when?
"Yes, Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a dangerous and unpredictable state involved in acts of terror abroad. The president is a Holocaust denier opposed to the existence of Israel."
Is the second sentence not intended to support the statement that Iran "under Ahmadinejad" (which it isn't - its "under" Khamenei, if anyone) is "dangerous"?
If not, I think it this part of the article could have been better expressed.
p.s. it really would be nice if you could retract your statement that I am "seeking to whitewash the Iranian government", unless you can point to where and when I've done this of course.
Labels: air strikes, Iran, Israel/Palestine, Media, Nuclear weapons, US Imperialism