Bomb Iran: For Israel and America!

Norman Podhoretz, editor-at-large of Commentary magazine and (with Irving Kristol) one of the grandfathers of the neoconservative movement, recently published an op-ed column in the Wall Street Journal that literally constitutes a prayer for President Bush to attack Iraq. Unsubtly titled “The Case for Bombing Iran: I hope and pray that President Bush will do it,” it is a work of eloquently simplistic and hysterical propaganda, truly a model of the genre. I recommend it as a seminal document of the Bush era, prior to what may well be its crowning disaster. It’s lengthy but worth reading closely as a concentrated statement of the argument we will probably hear in ever shriller pitch in the coming months.

Iran, Podhoretz declares, betraying no trace of self-doubt, wants to acquire nuclear weapons in order to destroy Israel. Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has “repeatedly and unequivocally” announced Iran’s intention to “wipe Israel off the map.” Not only that, Podhoretz avers (perhaps to deflect any suggestion that he’s narrowly concerned with Israel): Ahmadinejad cherishes “a larger dream of extending the power and influence of Islam throughout Europe, and this too he hopes to accomplish by playing on the fear that resistance to Iran would lead to a nuclear war.” “Islamization,” analogous to Finlandization, is already well-advanced in Europe. This will only get worse, Podhoretz charges (citing fellow neocon John Bolton) with “Iranian nuclear blackmail.” Moreover, Ahmadinejad wants a “world without America.” Thus the Iranian president and regime and nuclear program must be eliminated through the deployment of U.S. power.

Podhoretz has faith that this will happen, predicting that Bush will “within the next 21 months. . . order air strikes against the Iranian nuclear facilities from the three U.S. aircraft carriers already sitting nearby. . .” Since Podhoretz has the ear of very powerful people, this prophesy should set off alarm bells. (Notice how the day after Podhoretz’s piece appeared, International Atomic Energy Agency director IAEA chief and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei referred to “new crazies who say ‘let’s go and bomb Iran,'” adding that he did not want to see another war like the one in Iraq.) But the attack supplicant confesses some uncertainty on the point, expressing concern that “the respectable tool of diplomacy” (which he equates with craven appeasement) might win out over the bombing option he urges. Sanctions alone, he emphasizes, will not bring down the Iranian regime, and in any case, “there is simply no chance of getting Russia and China, or the Europeans for that matter, to agree to the kind of sanctions that are the necessary precondition” for regime change

He suggests hopefully however (quoting yet another fellow neocon, Robert Kagan) that in his less bellicose approaches to Iran Bush is merely “giving futility its chance.” (Several recent reports suggest that Cheney is contemptuous of the limited diplomatic process favored by Condi Rice and strongly backs a plan now in effect to disseminate propaganda and disinformation about Iran, and sabotage some of its currency and international financial transactions, preparatory to the bombing plan the neocons have long favored and which remains on track.)

In the background of Podhoretz’s discussion is an elegantly misleading periodization of recent history, borrowed from Eliot Cohen, a Johns Hopkins professor of Strategic Studies, who has been called “the most influential neoconservative in academe.” (Ominously, Cohen was recently appointed by Condoleezza Rice as the new Counselor of the State Department.) Over the last century there have been four world wars. In World War II the U.S. fought against fascism. In World War III (the term some neocons use for the Cold War) the U.S. fought against communism. We are now in World War IV, fighting against “Islamofascism.” (Podhoretz does not define the “ism” at issue during World War I, which might affect the model. I’d say it was imperialism on both sides, neither of them worth supporting, and that imperialism’s been at the root of all these wars. )

Islamofascism, Podheretz proclaims, is “yet another mutation of the totalitarian disease we defeated first in the shape of Nazism and fascism and then in the shape of communism.” Podhoretz does not identify the historical norm that became diseased and generated these pathologies, but presumably it is the bourgeois democracy that some see as the “end of History” to which all humankind, cured of these diseases, will ultimately gravitate.

The term “Islamofascism” has been around for a few decades, and no doubt has some degree of analytical utility in some contexts. But the neocons, and occasionally President Bush, have used it to refer to Muslim targets as varied as the Syrian and Iraqi secular Baathist states, the Iranian Shiite mullocracy, al-Qaeda cells, Palestinian militias—few of which offer a good match for any mainstream academic definition of fascism. The term is merely applied as an epithet, to conflate disparate phenomena, and to validate the “war on terrorism” as something analogous to World War II.

This historical model seems to me a parody of the worst sort of crudely stage-ist “Marxist” historiography. It abandons attention to historical detail and suspends any requirement of logical analysis in favor of a triumphantalist vision of the world as it will and must be: in this case, a world led by America, arm-in-arm with an Israel finally freed of its foes through a “final conflict.” Organically linked evil “isms” follow one after another, and drawing upon historical experience, “we” gloriously defeat them. Podhoretz (born in 1930) wants to link the war on “Islamofascism” to the Good War of his childhood (in its anti-fascist moral purity) and to the Cold War (in its expected multigenerational duration).

But one must really torture the facts to fit them into this paradigm and requisite system of historical analogies. The neocon project requires “regime change” throughout Southwest Asia, hence the vilification of leaders of Muslim nations as contemporary avatars of the twentieth century figure most universally regarded as both frightening and evil. While Podhoretz’s son John worked as a speechwriter for the first President Bush, the latter depicted Saddam Hussein as “a new Hitler.” It was a preposterous analogy. Adolf Hitler had ruled one of the world’s most powerful nations, which had been a world leader in science and industry from the 1880s and won and lost a colonial empire from Tanganyika to Samoa. Saddam ruled a Third World country dependent on foreign capital. Bushes I and II elevated this puny historical footnote to unwarranted epic status.

There was no comparison, but the first Bush administration insisted on conflating the two, deploying the emotions of the past (or at least the confused historical memories of the masses) to build the case for the first war on Iraq. This is a hallmark of the neocons, who boast that they are “more interested in history than economics or sociology”! What actually most interests them about the historical record is the possibility of raiding it to procure these false analogies that serve their objectives in the present. “Deception is the norm in political life,” Abram Shulsky (former Office of Special Plans operative, now heading the “Iran Directorate” at the Pentagon) wrote in 1999 in an essay entitled, “Leo Strauss and the World of Intelligence,” “and the hope, to say nothing of the expectation, of establishing a politics that can dispense with it is the exception.”

Today’s biggest deceptive analogy is between Hitler and Ahmadinejad, and between the Munich Pact (signed between British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Hitler in 1938 following the German annexation of the Sudetenland) and the possibility of western acceptance of Iran’s nuclear power program. Ahmadinejad, declares Podhoretz, “like Hitler”

“. . .is a revolutionary whose objective is to overturn the going international system and to replace it in the fullness of time with a new order dominated by Iran and ruled by the religio-political culture of Islamofascism. Like Hitler, too, he is entirely open about his intentions, although–again like Hitler–he sometimes pretends that he wants nothing more than his country’s just due. In the case of Hitler in 1938, this pretense took the form of claiming that no further demands would be made if sovereignty over the Sudetenland were transferred from Czechoslovakia to Germany. In the case of Ahmadinejad, the pretense takes the form of claiming that Iran is building nuclear facilities only for peaceful purposes and not for the production of bombs.”

One needs to repeat over and over again in the face of the latter assertion that the International Atomic Energy Agency has found no evidence for an Iranian nuclear weapons program. The September 2005 vote of the IAEA representatives labeling Iran in “non-compliance” with the Nonproliferation Treaty itself found no evidence of a military program but rather accused Iran of having concealed some nuclear activities. Of the 35 nations then serving on the IAEA board, 13 voted against the September report or abstained from voting The latter included highly significant countries like China, Russia, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa, Venezuela, Brazil, Pakistan, Vietnam. The resolution promoted by the bullying neocon U.S. UN Ambassador John Bolton passed because the NATO nations voted as a bloc.

Since that vote, the U.S.—Vice President Cheney and the neocons in particular—have relentlessly sought UN validation for an attack on Iran. They have now obtained UNSC resolutions demanding that Iran stop enriching uranium—something that the Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which Iran (unlike nuclear Israel) is a signatory, guarantees as a right to all signatory states. Iran’s refusal to suspend enrichment operations gives the attack advocates their rationale for answering Podhoretz’s prayer by the end of Bush’s term in office.

To demonstrate that Ahmadinejad has “repeatedly and unequivocally” announced Iran’s intention to “wipe Israel off the map,” and is “entirely open about his intentions,” Podhoretz can do no better than to recite the old tired canard about a speech the newly-elected Iranian president gave on October 25th, 2005 in a conference hall in Tehran. He quoted the Ayatollah Khomeini (who died in 1989): “The Imam said this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time. . .[Just as] the Soviet Union disappeared, the Zionist regime will also vanish and humanity will be liberated.” There was never any mention of a “map.” The statement was mistranslated and although it has been correctly translated many times, by Juan Cole and others, people who want to believe that it called for the destruction of Israel continue to misconstrue it. Recall how this story was preceded by false reports in June and July 2005 about Ahmadinejad being among the students who seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979. It was followed in May 2006 by the story planted in Canada’s National Post about a plan by the Iranian Parliament to badge all Iranian Jews—an obvious effort to depict the Iranian regime as a collection of latter-day Nazis. It was entirely false—but this is the sort of deception that Shulsky might regard as normative in political life.

What of the argument that even if Iran had the bomb, and wanted to wipe out the Jewish state, it would be constrained from doing so by “mutually assured destruction”? Podhoretz scornfully rejects this, citing at length a statement by Bernard Lewis, whom he calls “the greatest authority of our time on the Islamic world,” and whom others consider “perhaps the most significant intellectual influence behind the invasion of Iraq.”

The late great Edward Said described Lewis’s writings on Muslim history as “ppropaganda against his subject material,” adding that his work is “aggressively ideological” and constitutes a “project to debunk, to whittle down, and to discredit the Arabs and Islam. . .” especially before “conservative segments of the Jewish reading public, and anyone else who cares to listen. . .”

MAD, writes Lewis as cited by Podheretz

“. . . will not work with a religious fanatic [like Ahmadinejad]. For him, mutual assured destruction is not a deterrent, it is an inducement. We know already that [Iran’s leaders] do not give a damn about killing their own people in great numbers. We have seen it again and again. In the final scenario, and this applies all the more strongly if they kill large numbers of their own people, they are doing them a favor. They are giving them a quick free pass to heaven and all its delights.”

I expect that choice little quote will circulate widely in the coming months, along with the broader argument that Muslims are indifferent to human life, including their own. (Recall Gen. Westmoreland’s comment at the height of Vietnam War savagery: “Orientals don’t place the same value on human life as we do,” and former Attorney General Ashcroft’s remark, “Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you, [while Islam is] a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him.”)

What is the evidence for this judgment on the Iranian mentality? The following statement by former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani: “If a day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in [its] possession . . . application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel, but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world.” “In other words,” Podhoretz comments, “Israel would be destroyed in a nuclear exchange, but Iran would survive.” (Podhoretz by the way mentions nothing of the nuclear arsenal with which Muslim Pakistan is already duly equipped.)

It seems to me however that Rafsanjani’s matter-of-fact observation is of the sort any of us could make, perhaps in the context of arguing that Israel would not likely use its nukes against a Muslim target if it feared its own destruction. (Of course, someone might in response want to talk about the “Masada complex,” impute it to Jewish or Israeli leaders generally and argue that such people “do not give a damn about killing their own people in great numbers.” But in our society such talk would meet with immediate, appropriate condemnation. In expressing their assessment of the Iranian leaders, Lewis and Podhoretz don’t seem to fear or expect censure.)

It’s no secret that the Iranian regime considers the Jewish state illegitimate, created by settlers at the expense of the indigenous Palestinian people. Ahmadinejad apparently believes that it will not exist forever. (Benjamin Netanyahu for his part has warned out the “demographic threat” to the Jewish state posed by the high Arab birthrate. Many people think it likely that some sort of secular multi-cultural state will emerge within Israel’s borders sometime in the future; it’s called “the single-state solution.”) Ahmadinejad in the same speech noted how the Soviet Union, the Shah’s regime, and Saddam Hussein’s regime had all vanished and predicted that Israel would too. He did not remotely suggest that Iran planned to attack Israel to make that happen.

Iran does of course support anti-Israeli Lebanese and Palestinian militias produced by occupation, and so Podhoretz can depict it as both terrorist and a threat to Israel. But he might have mentioned that in April or May 2003 Iran sent a diplomatic message to Washington indicating its willingness to accept the March 2002 “Arab League Beirut declaration,” which it also referred to as the “Saudi initiative, two-states approach” in exchange for improved relations with the United States. (Cheney and the neocons treated that overture with contempt! As Cheney has said, “We don’t negotiate with evil. We defeat it.”)

Podhoretz makes it clear that not just Israel but the entire world should fear nefarious Iran. Not skipping a beat, he declares, “Ahmadinejad’s ambitions are not confined to the destruction of Israel. He also wishes to dominate the greater Middle East Nor are Ahmadinejad’s ambitions merely regional in scope. He has a larger dream of extending the power and influence of Islam throughout Europe, and this too he hopes to accomplish by playing on the fear that resistance to Iran would lead to a nuclear war.” (This is a repetition of the alarmist charge that some Muslims seek to reconstitute a Caliphate, extending from Spain to Indonesia, and in these times enjoy the remotest possibility for doing so.)

Actually Ahmadinejad’s foreign “ambitions” are not well-known. He talks about a global Islamic revolution, rather like Bush talks grandly about bringing “democracy” to the world. In any case, within the Iranian political system, he’s not the key player in determining a foreign policy that strikes me as in fact rather pragmatic and cautious. He’s the elected president of a country that has not attacked another in modern times. Does he wish for greater influence of Islam throughout Europe? That’s safe to say; he’s a devout Muslim after all. Don’t American Christian fundamentalists, whom the secularist neocons carefully cultivate, want to evangelize Europe (and Israel for that matter)? Wouldn’t Bush like to extend the power and influence of his brand of fundamentalism everywhere?

The power of Islam (mostly Sunni Islam) is extending in Europe, to be sure, for reasons that have little to do with Iran but lots to do with the legacy of European colonialism, especially in North Africa and South Asia, and the high birthrate among European Muslims. It has to do with resurgent religiosity among Muslims in the Balkans, and perhaps financial support for mosques from Saudi Arabia, the center of global Sunni Islam (and no great friend of Shiite Iran). Surely it has to do with the intrinsic attraction some people (unfortunately) feel towards a severely monotheistic patriarchal faith based on what believers regard as the Word of God, imposing numerous rules on the faithful and promising Paradise or Hell in the afterlife. In any case, the spread of Islam in general scares some people, and plainly Podhoretz would like to exploit their fears.

Ahmadinejad wants “a world without America,” writes Podhoretz. That was the theme of a conference in Iran in 2004, where the deputy chief of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad Baqer Zol Qadr, explained, “When we talk about the ‘World Without America,’ we mean a world governed by peace and justice…. Unfortunately, today America is the symbol of these deficiencies and distortions.” No Iranian official to my knowledge has suggested that Iran wants to blow America off the map. This is more fear-mongering on Podhoretz’s part, a subtler version of the alarmist “mushroom cloud over New York” imagery that preceded the criminal attack on Iraq.

Podhoretz in accordance with his fascism-communism—Islamofascism framework compares those who do not share his alarm and bellicosity not only with the appeasers of Hitler’s Germany but with the Cold War-era U.S. “foreign policy establishment” which was soft on the Soviet Union. He states that during the Cold War, “some of us feared that the Soviets might seize control of the oil fields of the Middle East, and that the West, faced with a choice between surrendering to their dominance or trying to stop them at the risk of a nuclear exchange, would choose surrender. In that case, we thought, the result would be what in those days went by the name of Finlandization.”

This is perhaps the most bizarre portion of the op-ed, and makes it clear why the neocons parted company with the rational “establishment.” Of course in a warfare situation the Soviets might have made a grab for the Middle Eastern oil fields then controlled by the west, and the west would probably have put up a fight. But who do these fields belong to anyway, and why should one have assumed that the petroleum-rich and generally cautious Soviet Union was just waiting for its opportunity to provoke (real) world war by an effort to seize them?

“Finlandization” refers to the subservience of a small country to a powerful neighboring one. One could talk about the Finlandization of Latin American countries vis-à-vis the U.S., but the Finlandization of the U.S. superpower due to actions by the USSR? It was very possible, thinks Podhoretz. “In Europe, where there were large Communist parties, Finlandization would take the form of bringing these parties to power so that they could establish ‘red Vichy’ regimes like the one already in place in Finland–regimes whose subservience to the Soviet will in all things, domestic and foreign alike, would make military occupation unnecessary and would therefore preserve a minimal degree of national independence.” (Actually I don’t think that fairly describes Finland between 1945 and 1991.)

Podhoretz continues: as for “the United States, where there was no Communist Party to speak of, we [neoconservatives] speculated that Finlandization would take a subtler form,” that politicians frightened by the Soviets “would arise to celebrate the arrival of a new era of peace and friendship in which the Cold War policy of containment would be scrapped, [and]. . . the only candidates running for office with a prayer of being elected would be those who promised to work toward a sociopolitical system more in harmony with the Soviet model than the unjust capitalist plutocracy under which we had been living.” But thank God, writes Podhoretz, this nightmare scenario never materialized: “Of course, by the grace of God, the dissidents behind the Iron Curtain and Ronald Reagan, we won World War III and were therefore spared the depredations that Finlandization would have brought.”

This “speculation” segues interestingly into an attack on contemporary British virility (perhaps an implicit message to Bush to really act like a man). The United Kingdom, Podhoretz claims (citing fellow neocon and former U.S. UN ambassador John Bolton), shows signs of Finlandization in its handling of the arrest last month of 15 British sailors and marines in disputed waters. Blair’s failure to attack Iran was a humiliating “show of impotence,” Podhoretz claims. The Iranians “held [British sailors] hostage” (something London itself did not claim), and now Ahmadinejad can “reap the additional benefit of, as the British commentator Daniel Johnson puts it, ‘posing as a benefactor’ by releasing the hostages, even while ordering more attacks in Iraq and even while continuing to arm terrorist organizations, whether Shiite (Hezbollah) or Sunni (Hamas).” Podhoretz states that Iran is “obviously” doing this although many commentators have noted the lack of hard evidence for such support.

Then out of the blue, Podhoretz refers to the cancellation of some classes on the Holocaust in Britain given the supposed opposition to them by Muslims in the UK “. . . whose beliefs include Holocaust denial.” The only internet support for this assertion I can find is a Daily Mail report that a study of the Department for Education and Skills released in April “found some teachers are dropping courses covering the Holocaust at the earliest opportunity over fears Muslim pupils might express anti-Semitic and anti-Israel reactions in class.” This for Podhoretz constitutes evidence of “Islamization” that will only worsen if Iran is not bombed. The logical connection is absolutely unclear.

The conclusion? In this long World War against the Islamofascists, who are abetted by Finlandizing proponents of “Islamization,” President Bush (whom John Podhoretz calls “the first great leader of the twenty-first century”) must bomb Iran—to protect Israel, America and the world. Given Chinese and Russian complacency, and European wimpiness, Bush alone can save the world from Iran, and soon.

“It now remains to be seen whether this president, battered more mercilessly and with less justification than any other in living memory, and weakened politically by the enemies of his policy in the Middle East in general and Iraq in particular, will find it possible to take the only action that can stop Iran from following through on its evil intentions both toward us and toward Israel. As an American and as a Jew, I pray with all my heart that he will.”

I can only hope with all my heart that this kind of thinking receives the refutation, rejection and marginalization it deserves—from all kinds of Americans.

* * * * *

I personally see no World War here–Three or Four or otherwise—but a Wild Wager. The world’s most reckless gambler sits at the table, playing Texas Hold ‘Em. At his elbow are his recent winnings: Afghanistan and Iraq. But he can’t take them home yet and may very well yet lose them. In his sights lie Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan. Since 9-11 he’s cherished the desire to reshuffle the cards. His greed is boundless. Behind him sit supporters eager to share his winnings, biting their nails nervously, praying he’ll win the whole pot and maybe inclined if he doesn’t to tip over the table. Crazy people.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at:



Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: