In a speech at Columbia University, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defended Iran’s right to nuclear power but denied Iran was seeking to build nuclear weapons. Ahmadinejad’s appearance sparked widespread protests at Columbia. We speak with Trita Parsi, author of "Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States," and Baruch Professor Ervand Abrahamian, co-author of "Targeting Iran." [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: For more on Ahmadinejad’s visit, we’re joined by two guests. Ervand Abrahamian is an Iran expert and CUNY distinguished professor of history at Baruch College here at the City University of New York. He’s the author of several books on Iran, co-author of a new book from City Lights called Targeting Iran. And joining me from Washington, D.C., is Trita Parsi. He’s the president of the National Iranian American Council, the largest Iranian American organization in the United States, author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States.
First, Ervand Abrahamian, can you talk about the president’s visit? Did anything he said — this is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — surprise you?
ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: Well, I was surprised because he didn’t really use the opportunity to try to lower the tempo, the serious problem we have now, which is we’re at the abyss of war, basically. And there are people pushing for war in the next few months. And this would have been a very good opportunity to try to smooth things over, try to calm the tempo down.
And it’s not just he who missed the opportunity. I think Bollinger missed the opportunity. In fact, Bollinger’s speech was like a drumbeat for war. And most of the questions from the audience missed the opportunity. They dealt basically with important identity questions, but they didn’t really deal with the issue that we are really on the abyss of war. And this is a far more serious issue than, you know, either ethnic or gender issues.
And he, actually, I think — although he made some statements about Iran is not interested in nuclear weapons, he could have been more forthright and more categorical about the policies of Iran in terms of the nuclear project.
AMY GOODMAN: Does this remind you of Saddam Hussein before the war?
ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: It does. In fact, Ahmadinejad didn’t say it last night — yesterday, but his policy is that there is no likelihood of war, because no one in their right senses would think of invading or attacking Iran. And that’s the premise he works on, which is, I think, a completely wrong premise, because he doesn’t seem to understand American politics, the same people who gave us the war on Iraq, the same people who are running foreign policy now. But he begins from the premise that no one in their right senses would think of attacking Iran.
AMY GOODMAN: Trita Parsi, you have written a very interesting book, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States. Can you take us back in time and talk about the relationship, the secret dealings, between these three countries?
TRITA PARSI: Israel has for a very long time been a critical factor in America’s formulation of a policy vis-à-vis Iran. But what’s really interesting is that the influence of Israel has gone in completely different directions, if we just go back 15 years. During the 1980s, in spite of the Iranian Revolution, in spite of Ayatollah Khomeini’s many, many harsh remarks about Israel, far, far worse than what anything Ahmadinejad has said so far, Israel at the time was the country that was lobbying the United States to open up talks with Iran to try to rebuild the U.S.-Iran relations, because of strategic imperatives that Israel had. Israel needed Iran, because it was fearing the Arab world and a potential war with the Arabs.
After 1991, '92, that's when you see the real shift in Israeli-Iranian relations, because that’s when the entire geopolitical map of the Middle East is redrawn. The Soviet Union collapses. The last standing army of the Arabs, that of Saddam Hussein, is defeated in the Persian Gulf War. And you have an entirely new security environment in the Middle East, in which the two factors, the Soviets and the Arabs, that had pushed Iran and Israel closer together suddenly evaporate. But as their security environment improves, they also start to realize that they may be ending up in a situation in which they can become potential threats to each other. And that’s when you see how the Israelis shift 180 degrees. Now the Israeli argument was that the United States should not talk to Iran, because there is no such thing as Iranian moderates.
And ever since, the Israelis and the pro-Israel interest in the United States have lobbied to make sure that there is no dialogue or there’s no rapprochement between the United States and Iran. And the Iranians have done similar things. They have undermined every U.S. foreign policy initiative in the Middle East that they feared would be beneficial to Israel. So the real shift in Israeli-Iranian relations come after the Cold War, not with the revolution in 1979.
AMY GOODMAN: But I also do want you to go right back to 1948 and talk about that period up to 1991. What were the secret relationships?
TRITA PARSI: Well, immediately after Israel was founded, Iran was actually one of the states on the committee at the U.N. who was preparing a plan, and they were against the partition. They were against the idea of creating two states. And Iran, at the time, said that this would lead to several decades of crisis. But once Israel was a fact, the Iranian government felt that because it was facing a hostile Arab world, as well as a very hostile Arab ideology, Pan-Arabism, Israel was a potential ally for the Iranians, particularly as Israel started to shift closer and closer to the Western camp and the United States. So throughout the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, the Iranians and the Israelis were working very, very closely together, had a very robust alliance.
They tried to keep it secret. It wasn’t necessarily very secret, but Iran never recognized Israel de jure. They recognized it de facto. They had an Israeli mission in Tehran, but they never permitted it to be called an embassy. They had an Israeli envoy to Tehran, but they never called him an ambassador. When the Israeli planes were landing at the Tehran airport, they created — they built a specific tarmac off the airport for Israeli planes to land, so that no one would really see that there are so many El Al planes flying to Tehran. And the reason why the Iranians were doing this is because, on the one hand, they needed Israel as an ally because they were fearful of the Arab world, and, on the other hand, they felt that if they got too close to Israel, they would only fuel Arab anger towards Iran.
AMY GOODMAN: Trita Parsi, you have a number of revelations in your book. One of them is that the Iranian prime minister asked Israel permission to assassinate Khomeini. Describe the circumstance.
TRITA PARSI: Circumstances was right before the revolution, in which the Israelis were very, very concerned. They were fearful that the new regime would be very hostile to Israel, and they weren’t certain that they would be able to build the same type of secret relations with Iran as they had during the time of the Shah. It later on turned out that they actually did have that ability, not to the same extent, but they still could do it.
But the Iranian prime minister was eager to be able to get rid of Khomeini, fearing — thinking that by Khomeini being eliminated, the revolution would be able to move in a different direction. And he asked the Israelis if they could do it, because Khomeini at the time was in Paris; the Iranians did not have the ability to do anything, but they thought that perhaps the Israelis would. The Israeli answer was apparently that this is not Israel’s job and that Israel is not the policemen of the world.
AMY GOODMAN: What about Israel reaching out to Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War?
TRITA PARSI: After the first Persian Gulf War, there was a thinking in Israel at the time that Saddam had now been weakened, he was no longer a real threat, and at the end of the day the real potential threat in the future, the rising power, was Iran. So the Israelis were trying to find different ways of being able to find some sort of a modus vivendi with Saddam Hussein.
This significantly angered the Clinton administration, that was pursuing a policy of isolating both Iran and Iraq at the same time, and they were very annoyed that the Israelis were trying to find some sort of a relationship with Saddam in the midst of all of that.
Now, the Israeli initiative didn’t go anywhere, but it was guided by the thinking that Iran was going to be the major threat. And even though Iran at the time really was not a threat to Israel, Israel already at that time treated it as an actual threat.
AMY GOODMAN: The United States foiling Iran’s plan to withdraw support from Hamas and Hezbollah.
TRITA PARSI: We talked about that before, that there was a 2003 proposal that the Iranians sent over to the United States trying to find a larger accommodation between the United States and Iran, in which they basically put all the different issues on the table, including an offer, within the framework of the negotiations, to disarm Hezbollah and turn it into a mere political organization — had that happened, there would probably not have been a war last year between Israel and Lebanon — secondly, to end all support for Islamic jihad and Hamas and encourage the Palestinians to go a political route, rather than military route, in their dealings with Israel.
But what’s revealed in the book, as well, that has not been out in the media a lot is that prior to giving this proposal to the United States, the Iranians were fishing it around in Europe, trying to create some support for it. And, most importantly, they went to places that they knew Israelis were going to be. And they were presenting the framework, the concept of this grand bargain, and they wanted to make sure that the Israelis felt that this would not be something that would come at their expense, because they were concerned that the Israelis would try to undermine it. So they were basically sending a signal: Look, if we can have this accommodation with the United States, we will disentangle and basically not be so involved in the Israeli-Palestinian issue anymore.
AMY GOODMAN: Trita Parsi is author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States. Our guest also, Ervand Abrahamian, Iran expert, distinguished professor at Baruch College. I wanted, Professor Abrahamian, to read from Juan Cole’s piece, who says, talking about Ahmadinejad, "He has been depicted as a Hitler figure intent on killing Israeli Jews, even though he is not commander in chief of the Iranian armed forces, has never invaded any other country, denies he is an anti-Semite, has never called for any Israeli civilians to be killed, and allows Iran’s 20,000 Jews to have representation in Parliament," that Khamenei is the one with the real power.
ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: He is right on target, yes. I think Juan Cole sums it up. And the question is, then, why is basically in American politics so much focused on Ahmadinejad? I think he serves the function that Saddam Hussein played. He’s an easy person to demonize. And yesterday’s Bollinger’s introduction, when he described him as a dictator, I think, shows how little people like Bollinger really know about the Iranian political system. One can call Ahmadinejad many things, but a dictator he is by no means. He can’t even — he doesn’t even have the power to appoint his own Cabinet ministers. It’s a presidency with very limited power. And to claim that he is in a position to threaten the United States or Israel is just bizarre, frankly. I think someone like Bollinger should know more about Iran before they sling around smears like terms such as "dictator."
AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about Khamenei, then, if he is the one with real power.
ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: Here, again, he is, you can say, the Supreme Leader, but the Iranian system is actually very sort of a collective leadership. The foreign policy is made in a council, where the supreme leader appoints those members, but there are very different views there. And Ahmadinejad does not run that committee. Someone like Rafsanjani has a great deal of influence. The former President Khatami has a great deal of influence. And they are much more willing to negotiate.
In fact, they were, I think, the people who offered this grand bargain in 2003 to settle all the issues with the United States. And for reasons that are not clear, the White House just basically brushed it aside. They were not interested in pursuing this. And this is why it leads me to think that this administration is adamant in resolving the nuclear problem by military force, because if it was interested in resolving it through diplomacy, there were offers made to them to follow that route, and they have very consciously decided not follow the diplomatic routes. So if you don’t follow the diplomatic route, the only other route there is is the military route. And, of course, it’s only a question of time when they decide on air strikes.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Trita Parsi, about this Newsweek magazine report that says that Vice President Cheney considered provoking an exchange of military strikes between Iran and Israel in order to give the U.S. a pretext to attack Iran. A few months before he quit, the Middle East adviser to Cheney, David Wurmser, told a small group of people that Cheney had been mulling the idea of pushing for limited Israeli missile strikes against the Iranian nuclear site at Natanz and perhaps other sites, in order to provoke Tehran into lashing out. Citing two knowledgeable sources, Newsweek put out this report. Your response?
TRITA PARSI: I think it’s definitely a plausible scenario, because one thing that we know for certain, with great certainty, is that the Israelis lack the military capability to take out Iran’s nuclear program. They can attack it, but they cannot destroy it. And the only thing that it would result to is some sort of Iranian retaliation, which would then suck the United States right into the conflict, because the United States would not be able to stand without it — outside of it, and obviously many elements in the White House would probably prefer to immediately get into it.
One of the things that I describe in the book that I think is extremely important is that when you take a look at how Iran has made its decisions vis-à-vis Israel, it’s actually been geopolitical and strategic factors that have been driving their decisions. It’s not been ideology. And I think this is a critical point, because right now you have a metaphor being presented by Bibi Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud Party, in which he’s saying that it’s 1938 and Iran is Germany. And then he goes on to imply that Ahmadinejad is Hitler. If we accept that premise, that it is 1938, that Iran is Germany and Ahmadinejad is Hitler, then who, which leader, in his or her right mind, would want to play the role of Neville Chamberlain? It’s a metaphor whose premise basically puts us in a situation in which conflict is completely inevitable. And there’s no other way, because negotiations and diplomacy simply cannot be pursued.
Fortunately, this is a false premise. Iran and Israel and the United States and Israel are not engaged in an ideological zero-sum game battle. This is a strategic rivalry. It is solvable, but it requires a tremendous amount of diplomacy to be able to find a way out of it. And unfortunately, right now, diplomacy is the last thing that one can describe the foreign policies of these countries, particularly the Bush administration.
AMY GOODMAN: I interviewed exiled Iranian activist Azar Derakhshan earlier this summer. She’s the editor of the Women of March 8 magazine and helped organize the 2006 European march against anti-women laws in Iran. I just want to play an excerpt from my conversation with her. This is Azar Derakhshan.
AZAR DERAKHSHAN: I have seen a portrait in the media, Western media. In the media, there is two sides. There is the United States and government of Iran. There are clashes. And the people, the voice of people is absent completely. And the opinion of — foreigner opinion, they think that this thing, the future of Iran is going to be decided by these two powers.
I try to tell to the people in foreigner countries, in European countries, it’s not true, this portrait. There is another fact, very important. The people of Iran, the movement, they are going to take the future. They are not forced to choose between neither the United States, neither the government of Iran. There is another force in Iran. If really somebody wants to prevent the war, the clashes, should be support this movement, this movement for equality, for freedom.
We don’t need United States to liberate us. First of all, we are here, and this is our legitimate to liberate ourselves. We want to decide about our future ourselves. We want to fight our native enemy by ourselves. We don’t need — that’s first. Second one, we already have seen, because Afghanistan and Iraq, they are neighbor of Iran. And the women of Iran, they can see it. Maybe before, not, but right now it’s really — it’s enough to know what kind of program they have for the people of Iran.
AMY GOODMAN: Iranian dissident, Azar Derakhshan. Professor Abrahamian, your response?
ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: Well, I think she’s right in that there are — Iran is a very complicated society. There are very different political movements. And the idea that somehow it’s a frozen system, that it’s not going to change, already precludes any type of possibility of negotiations and changes. In fact, the Iranian system has an electoral system — is and electoral system. We are going to come up with elections very soon. There is no guarantee that Ahmadinejad would be re-elected again. It’s very possible that reformers, liberals, would get in into power again.
AMY GOODMAN: When is the election?
ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: In less than two years’ time. And the base, in fact, of Ahmadinejad’s — I would say the core base — is very similar to Bush’s core base. It’s about 25 percent. For him to get re-elected, he has to stretch out and find independents and others, and this is going to be very hard. If the reformers can actually rally around one candidate, as they did in the 1990s, they could have landslide victories, in which over 70 percent of the electorate was voting for liberals and reformers.
AMY GOODMAN: And what direction would a U.S. attack on Iran push the election?
ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: Oh, it would play right into the hands of Ahmadinejad, because you would have a national emergency. He would declare, basically, the country’s in danger. Everyone would have to rally around the flag. People who disliked him would keep their mouth shut. At a time of when the existence of the state is in question, you don’t mess around with the leaders. He would basically be able to act as a much more of a strongman national leader.
AMY GOODMAN: Trita Parsi, you’ve had unusual access to U.S. decision makers, Israeli decision makers, Iranian leaders. What is your sense of a strike, the U.S. or Israel, on Iran? Is it imminent?
TRITA PARSI: Well, I don’t think an Israeli strike is imminent, unless there is some sort of coordination with the United States with the aim of being able to draw the U.S. into the conflict. I do believe that some sort of a conflict between the United States and Iran is quite probable right now, mindful of the lack of diplomacy that is taking place.
And I also do believe that this is not necessarily something that will go away automatically just because there’s going to be a change of government in the United States within the next two years. Many of the decisions that are made right now have the impact of limiting the maneuverability of future administrations. We’re making it more and more difficult, not only for this administration, but also for future administrations, to pursue diplomacy.
And what we’re seeing in the Middle East right now is not necessarily just a conflict over what’s going on in Iraq or about Iran’s nuclear program. This is a conflict that, at the end of the day, is about two powerhouses in the region, and it’s a conflict about hegemony, for lack of a better word.
And these type of shifts, with the United States currently declining and finding itself in a more and more difficult situation in Iraq and with Iran finding itself in a stronger position and acting very, very confidently, these type of shifts historically do not take place peacefully, unless there is a tremendous amount of diplomacy. And again, we’re not seeing that right now.
And I’m very concerned that even if we manage to avoid war for the next two years, the next U.S. administration may find itself in a position in which its maneuverability is so limited that the military option once again becomes a very viable one for them.
AMY GOODMAN: Could Ahmadinejad be playing a game like Saddam Hussein, where if it is clear he doesn’t have nuclear weapons, he’s weaker, the U.S. would be more likely to attack? He looks at the example of North Korea, where they do have nuclear weapons, and now the U.S. is just pursuing a diplomatic option?
TRITA PARSI: I think there’s a combination of two. On the one hand, I think a lot of his statements and his behavior is aimed to be a deterrent against the United States. He’s acting confident, and he’s talking about the United States not being able to attack. This is a way of saying that the U.S. can’t do it, and if you do it, you will face a tremendously difficult situation. So he’s doing this partly, too, as a deterrence. It has the negative impact of scaring the daylights out of a lot of people, including a lot of Iran’s neighbors that are now gravitating towards the United States’s position, because they are very fearful of what Ahmadinejad may be capable of doing.
At the same time, I do believe that, to a certain extent, but not fully, he has actually convinced himself that Iran is in such a strong position, the United States is in such a weak position, that it can’t do it. But I think it’s a combination of these two. And I think it’s important to keep in mind that most of the belligerence that he’s doing is probably for the purpose of deterrence, not necessarily as an offensive strategy.
AMY GOODMAN: Iran’s role in Iraq?
TRITA PARSI: Sorry?
AMY GOODMAN: Iran’s role in Iraq?
TRITA PARSI: I think the Iranians have played a game in Iraq in which they basically have invested in every potential faction in Iraq, making sure that whoever comes up on top is going to be a player who has strong relations with Iran, because it’s in Iran’s hardcore national interest to make sure that Iraq never again becomes a hostile state, so they never have to experience the eight-year war that they had with Iraq in the 1980s. So, again, I think we’re seeing a policy by the Iranian government there that is quite independent of whether Ahmadinejad is in power or not. It’s probably something that another Iranian government would be pursuing, as well, at least under this regime that we’re having in Iran right now.
And I think the only way for the United States to be able to find a way out of Iraq is not only to talk to the Iranians, but really include all of the other neighbors of Iraq into the process, giving these neighbors not only a stake in the outcome, but also a stake in the process itself. We have a tremendous amount of problems with what the Saudis are doing in Iraq and also what the Jordanians are doing. We’re not talking about that at all. On the contrary, we’re just focusing on Iran’s role.
AMY GOODMAN: Saudi’s role, very briefly?
TRITA PARSI: Saudi’s role — well, a military report just came out about two months ago — it was leaked in the L.A. Times — that showed that about 45 percent of all the suicide bombers in Iraq are Saudi nationals. We’ve known for quite some time that there’s a lot of money flowing into Iraq from Saudi Arabia that is going to the Sunni insurgents, because their belief is that they’re fighting a war against Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq. We’re not talking about that.
On the contrary, Saudi Arabia got praised by Ambassador Crocker during his testimony. And I think it’s a very one-sided way of looking at the problems we’re facing in Iraq. And as long as we pursue a very political perspective on the Iraqi situation, then I fear that we will continue to be in a rather difficult mess over there.
AMY GOODMAN: Trita Parsi, I want to thank you very much for being with us.
TRITA PARSI: Thank you so much for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: Your book, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States. And a final question for Professor Abrahamian: Are you afraid for your people? Are you afraid for the people of Iran?
ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: Yes. I’m very much concerned that in the next few months there will be air strikes. I think what we saw before with Iraq, we are having a rerun of that, very much the same rhetoric. The same type of people are pushing for war and using even the same sort of arguments that often — unsubstantiated arguments blown out of proportion. For instance, the constant drumbeat that Iran is actually supplying weaponry to the insurgents that are killing Americans, this is basically saying that Iran has already declared war on the United States. When you try to actually pin down what is the evidence for that, it boils down to the yellowcake stories and the stuff about Saddam Hussein being behind al-Qaeda. Until the United States actually gets real evidence that Iran is providing lethal weapons to the insurgents, I would not accept any of those arguments at face value.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Abrahamian, thank you, as well, for being with us. Ervand Abrahamian is author of the book Targeting Iran.