The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

A brief history of Iran-US relations, part 2: Ahmedinejad, nukes, and weapons

with 18 comments

Cole Juan with captionOn February 27, my wife Lori and I were privileged to hear Juan Cole, the University of Michigan’s distinguished expert on Middle Eastern affairs, at a luncheon of the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council. It occured to me that notes from Prof. Cole’s brief lecture, with a few supporting resources, could provide a valuable structure for understanding the back-stories that make today’s crises add up.

Part 1 of this thread sketched Prof. Cole’s list of the foundational events of Iran-US relations during the 20th century. This post offers my notes from the remainder of the lecture, and Part 3 suggests an exit strategy from neighboring Iraq.

Quotation marks indicate quotes of Prof. Cole. Other comments contain links that serve as citations.

By all means, check out Prof. Cole’s Informed Comment: Thoughts on the Middle East, History, and Religion for scholarly reflection on news events as they happen.

* * *

2005: REFORMERS APPEAR IMPOTENT – HARDLINERS SURGE. As it became apparent that the reform movement was unable to make sweeping change (partly due to persistent resistance from the US), Iranians began to see it as impotent. [In a comment, (see below), a knowledgeable friend points out that the US President’s inclusion of Iran in his axis of evil comments – during a time of reform – unwittingly contributed to the downfall of the reform movement.] Hardliners closed it down, setting the stage for a resurgence of control by religious conservatives.

2005: AHMEDINEJAD ELECTED PRESIDENT. … A populist “dressed as a janitor,”…
Mahmoud AhmedinejadMahmoud Ahmedinejad is a “Bazaari” – yet is “well connected to the clerical elite.” He is “not well educated” for the position (his background is in civil engineering), nor is he well-traveled. He is an outspoken critic of the Bush Administration, vague on his opinion of the historicity of the Holocaust, an advocate of repressive religious restriction, and has been accused of election fraud, fascism, and terrorism.

October, 2005: “WIPED OFF THE MAP”? Western media reported that Ahmedinejad said, in a speech given in an anti-Zionism conference, that “Israel must be wiped off the map.” The statement was widely disseminated, and many assumed Ahmedinejad to advocate annihilation of Israel. For example, Canada‘s then Prime Minister Paul Martin said, “this threat to Israel’s existence, this call for genocide coupled with Iran’s obvious nuclear ambitions is a matter that the world cannot ignore.

But it now appears that Ahmedinejad was mistranslated. Juan Cole said, His statements were morally outrageous and historically ignorant, but he did not actually call for mass murder … or for the expulsion of the Israeli Jews to Europe. … Cole translates the Persian phrase as: “The Imam said that this regime occupying Jerusalem must [vanish from] the page of time …”

According to Cole, “Ahmadinejad did not say he was going to wipe Israel off the map because no such idiom exists in Persian” and “He did say he hoped its regime, i.e., a Jewish-Zionist state occupying Jerusalem, would collapse.” … 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 “wipe out”: “Just as the Soviet Union was wiped out and today does not exist, so will the Zionist regime soon be wiped out.” Obviously, he was not calling for a genocide on the no-longer-extant Soviet Union.

2006: NUCLEAR AMBITIONS. “Iran has not been proven to have a military nuclear program. Washington sees [Iran’s] civilian program as a threat. But you are allowed this under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.” Iran knows its oil could “possibly be gone in as little as twenty-five years.” Thus, Iran intends to use the oil revenue it has now to develop nuclear energy “so the US won’t have us ‘over a barrel’ when the oil runs out.”

2006: WEAPONS IN IRAQ. The militias that have weapons made in Iran are Shi’ite militias that are “allies of the US.” Cole saw this as a “jealous girlfriend story:” “the US doesn’t want to share influence.” These Iran-made weapons are rarely found in Sunni areas (such as Anbar Province), the source of most US casualties. Here Cole reminded us that former President Khatami tried twice to bring about cooperation with the US, offering (in 2003) “to help overthrow Saddam” and “recognize Israel.” The latter proposal “went to Rove and Cheney, who shot it down.”

SO, HOW DANGEROUS IS HE? Despite the fact that “American hardliners have used Ahmedinejad’s antics to ramp up” opposition to Iran, several conditions suggest that he is less of a threat than he appears. He “is not the commander-in-chief” of the armed forces and could not take Iran to war without the approval of the Supreme Leader, which is not likely to happen. “Khamanei [the reigning Supreme Leader] doesn’t like Ahmedinejad.”

AND HOW DANGEROUS IS IRAN? Historically, Iran has not been a bellicose state. “Iran has not invaded other countries since [at least as long ago as] the 19th century.”


Related posts:

A brief history of Iran-US relations, part 1: Constitution to Khatami
A brief history of Iran-US relations, part 3:Understanding US withdrawal from Iraq
Take Care of Our Children
Think Muslims support terror? Check this out.
Roosevelt on criticizing the President
America’s Most Decorated Marine Speaks on War
Iran, the weapons, and how the US gets into wars
Time to pay up

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Written by Monte

March 12, 2007 at 11:58 pm

Posted in Iran, Islam, Politics, Terrorism

18 Responses

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  1. These two pages were incredibly helpful for me. I was writing a Government paper on the US-Iran relationship, and this had everything I needed, and I learned a ton for it. Thanks a bunch, Monte (which is Etnom, backwards, if you care).

    Monte Says: Erik, I’m delighted! So glad you could use it – really gives a different perspective that just the present alone, doesn’t it?
    And yes, when I was a kid, I was Etnom Yrubsa, and a friend was Nhoj Nosredna. I still think like that!


    November 19, 2007 at 3:23 am

  2. Thanks, Justin! Hope you can use it.


    May 1, 2007 at 9:56 pm

  3. wow, great post with tons of information!


    May 1, 2007 at 6:55 pm

  4. Aha! Of course! Because if it’s forced, it’s an oxymoron – a democracy in name only, not an expression of the will of the electorate. So it lasts only as long as the force remains. Thanks for helping me see this. What a mess we have made for ourselves!


    March 20, 2007 at 11:32 am

  5. Yes … forced democracy is not only a tyranny, but also unsustainable.


    March 20, 2007 at 10:45 am

  6. Mike, thanks! Your comment was a genuine encouragement to me. I’ll be dropping you an email.

    Naj, great insight, as always. How do you think up these things?

    It seems like anywhere there is a “lack of discourse” as a result of coercion by shaming, an unintended self-destructive result follows. Perhaps things that seem helpful but are coercive have as many negative effects as positive ones.

    And coercion is a common thread in so many dramas being played out right now. Reminds me of Juan Cole, who, if I remember correctly, said something like “Forced democracy is tyranny.”


    March 19, 2007 at 11:28 pm

  7. Love the site. The only thing I regret is that I hadn’t seen it sooner. I noticed that you posted a comment on my blog and I’m always interested in the varied types of people that frequent our site.
    Coming from a Christian background (baptised Lutheran) and then over the years becoming estranged from the church for various reasons, I find it very fullfilling to know that there are those of faith that share some of the same concerns/interests as I do. It makes me feel that I haven’t strayed as far from the gospel as I might have thought.

    Mike Ganzeveld

    March 18, 2007 at 12:51 am

  8. Ah, once again you have given me a very helpful window into Iranian thought. Thank you!
    I get the feeling that the objection to the Holocaust is not so much about the incident itself as it is an objection to the use of the incident by Zionists as a means of stifling dissent. Thus, “Remember the Holocaust” may be used in a manner similar to the way “Support the Troops” is used by some: all dissent is expected to cease or be regarded as treasonous – which is simply a way of avoiding hard questions.


    March 17, 2007 at 4:54 pm

  9. Hi Monte, I feel I need to add a correction to your previous copmmentator’s comments:

    Ahmadinejad didn’t host a holocaut-deniers conference. he hosted a Holocaust Conference; with the objective of listening to all POVs and looking at all evidences that are often easily branded as holocaust-denying without having a chance to be expressed in public and withstand the test of public opinion.

    “To wipe something off the map” is a rhetorical concept that is used in association with things that are “virtual”, for example, images or ideas. for example, I can struggle to wipe anger off the map of my mind; or I can try to wipe an ex-lover of th emap of my life. But if I want to kill the lover, I will not wipe him off the map, I will use different rhetorics; (but because anger is a much despised habit in persian culture, we really do not have violent vocabulary for expressing physical violence.)

    You know, Persian language is an exaggerated one. Sometimes, Iranians write me work-related email (in English) and they translate the expressions. If you don’t know what they have translated it from, you would think they have written to their lover, master, a holy figure! So, just as mild dislike is expressed in hateful words, mild admiration is expressed in adoring terms.

    You would start a letter with : Dear Mr X. “business”
    The Iranian will write:
    Your excellency, Dear Mr X. “The reason to waste your valuable time with my mundane request is to humbly discuss the business”

    In Iran, this is considered to be modesty; politeness. But even “I” find it confusing and unnecessary rhetorical fluff!

    These traditions are dying. and I won’t be too sad when I am no longer addressed as “Dear Mrs Dr X would you like a cup of tea?”


    March 16, 2007 at 6:34 pm

  10. Thanks, naj, correction added! Very helpful!
    FFTO: How true! The story first came from a NY Times writer, and, as you know, these have been days of much criticism of the Times. For whatever reason, the Times has been reluctant to lighten up much on its version, insisting the two translations mean about the same thing. It does appear, however, that scholars who’ve written on it have strong disagreement with the Times’ position. Comments about Israel carry a lot of freight in terms of political and economic consequences these days! Recall that Mr. Cheney’s most outrageous recent comments were made at an AIPAC meeting.


    March 15, 2007 at 1:14 pm

  11. I think the media is definitely reluctant to self-criticize, although this is somewhat pathological. Individual editors and reporters will strain to appear “balanced”, by which they mean not espousing any nasty left-wing ideas. Perhaps it is because the criticism would interfere with their self-narrative?

    Given the rationalization for the newest new war relating to protecting Israel, the lack of correction for this misquote is extremely worrying.

    Ahmedinejad’s misquoted comments are so easy to believe, especially given the holocaust denier’s conference he hosted. There is no need to add false fuel to the fire Bush and co are trying to start.


    March 15, 2007 at 12:26 pm

  12. Hi Monte, this is nice.
    I think it is imp[ortant to emphasis the role Americans played in making the reformers impotent. They were making all sort of reconciliatory gestures towards America, they wanted to make peace, they cooperated with America in war against Taliban, and then they got branded “axis of evil”. I think those three words made the reformist movement in Iran impotent!
    Maybe you should add a footnote about that.
    Thanks again. Naj


    March 15, 2007 at 7:19 am

  13. Thanks, S.T., for spotting my error. Last time, I started out calling Mossadegh the President – but he was the P.M. This time, the opposite mistake! Thanks for spotting it. Changes made.

    Fitness – could the media be reluctant to self-criticize? There is some discussion of the media response at the Wikipedia article called Amedinejad and Israel

    A.D.: thanks, and that vote is not hard to understand. They said a lot of the right things, things most of us believe to be good.

    Steve: great to meet you! Come back anytime!


    March 13, 2007 at 9:48 am

  14. Thanks for the information!

    Your blog looks interesting… I’ll be back


    March 13, 2007 at 8:42 am

  15. Thanks, Monte. Helpful again. Iran scares me — not the country, but the implications if Bush/Cheney expand their war. So, what I really mean is that Bush and Cheney scare me; and I voted for them twice. Can’t believe I did that.

    Alien Drums

    March 13, 2007 at 7:42 am

  16. As the result of an amendment to the Constitution of Iran in 1989, there is no longer a post titled Prime Minister of Iran. Mohammad Khatami is the former President of Iran and not the Prime Minister. You have a great Weblog, by the way. :)


    March 13, 2007 at 5:32 am

  17. The translation bit is critical. How has the media not followed up on this?


    March 13, 2007 at 1:05 am

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