Just when you thought the War Party was down, and nearly out, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did them the favor of paying a visit to New York, the town that trademarked rudeness. This gave the usual suspects an opportunity to rehearse, so to speak, for the coming war with Iran.
Every symphony has a prelude, and this one Götterdämmerung II? has as its central theme the villainous caricature of an Iranian president who denies the Holocaust and threatens to "wipe Israel off the map." The opening act was Ahmadinejad’s Columbia University performance, preceded by a long, hectoring introduction by university president Lee Bollinger, who took the opportunity to assuage his critics by preparing what he doubtless thought would be an ambush. Except it didn’t turn out that way. Instead, Ahmadinejad came out looking rather more sympathetic than he appeared going into that lion’s den.
The Iranian president, Bollinger barked, "exhibits all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator." He declared his guest “ridiculous,” and questioned whether Ahmadinejad would "have the intellectual courage to answer my questions."
As is typical of war propaganda, the axis of AIPAC and its allies in the sensationalist media have cherry-picked choice quotes from Ahmadinejad’s long presentation. The Iranian country bumpkin’s denial that homosexuality exists in Iran was of particular interest after all, this is America and subject to widespread ridicule. It’s funny, if your taste in humor is rather dark who’s in the mood for jokes with all those war clouds gathering on the horizon? because of the apparent misunderstanding underlying his curious statement. As I’ve written elsewhere, "homosexuality" doesn’t mean the same thing in the Middle East and North Africa as it does in the Anglosphere, and so this is a matter of cultures in collision, and has more to do with differences in language than anything else. In any case, the usual allowances we make for foreigners, who might not understand our customs and mores, were not made for the university’s distinctly dishonored guest.
However, if you actually go and read the transcript of Ahmadinejad’s remarks, what quickly becomes apparent is that he rose to meet Bollinger’s challenge and did indeed answer the questions posed to him. Whether this required "intellectual courage," or merely a desperate desire to somehow avert what seems to be an imminent attack on his country by the mightiest military machine on earth, is open to speculation, and I’ll leave that to others. Suffice to say that the Iranian president’s faltering political fortunes at home where the economy is on the downtick, in spite of the rising price of oil were certainly given a much-needed lift by the extraordinary display of vitriolic self-righteousness with which he was greeted in the Big Bad Apple.
The Iranian response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks was among the most demonstratively sympathetic: Tehran saw candlelight vigils and official expressions of mourning and grief. Yet Ahmadinejad’s simple request to pay his respects at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan was denied and roundly denounced: how dare he imagine he’d be allowed to make a simple human gesture!
In answering Bollinger’s accusation that he denies the Holocaust and calls for the destruction of Israel, Ahmadinejad denied his denialism and, instead of regaling his audience with the theories of the Holocaust "revisionists" he invited to Tehran last year, made a point of emphasizing the political and ideological uses of the Holocaust:
"Given this historical event, if it is a reality, we need to still question whether the Palestinian people should be paying for it or not. After all, it happened in Europe. The Palestinian people had no role to play in it. So why is it that the Palestinian people are paying the price of an event they had nothing to do with?
"The Palestinian people didn’t commit any crime. They had no role to play in World War II. They were living with the Jewish communities and the Christian communities in peace at the time. They didn’t have any problems.
"And today, too, Jews, Christians, and Muslims live in brotherhood all over the world in many parts of the world. They don’t have any serious problems.
"But why is it that the Palestinians should pay a price, innocent Palestinians, for 5 million people to remain displaced or refugees abroad for 60 years. Is this not a crime? Is asking about these crimes a crime by itself?"
In America, and much of the English-speaking world, the answer to this last is "apparently so."
Bollinger aspired to be the Gen. Petraeus of academia, averring that Iran is "funding terrorism" and supplying arms and other support for a "proxy war" against U.S. soldiers, including "providing safe transit to insurgent leaders like Moqtada al-Sadr and his forces." Except that Sadr is hardly an "insurgent," or else how does the learned Bollinger explain the news that the 32 elected representatives of the Sadrist movement in the Iraqi parliament have only recently withdrawn their support for the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki? The Shi’ite cleric who rules Sadr City is the leader of a legal organization, one of four major components of the ruling United Iraqi Alliance that swept into power in the wake of the famous purple-finger elections.
Is it too much to expect a leading academic authority figure to do his homework before he gets up in front of the class and makes a fool out of himself?
Answering the Bush-Bollinger canard that he’s funding terrorism, the Iranian president turned the tables on his interlocutors, pointing to the toll taken by terrorists in his own nation, and referring to if not actually naming the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, a group that has committed terrorist acts against both Iranians and Americans, and which is being harbored in Iraq by U.S. forces. This is not to mention the insurgent groups aided by the U.S. in Iranian Kurdistan and among the Sunni tribes to the east. Said Ahmadinejad:
"We don’t need to resort to terrorism. We’ve been victims of terrorism, ourselves. And it’s regrettable that people who argue they’re fighting terrorism, instead of supporting the Iranian people and nation, instead of fighting the terrorists that are attacking them, they’re supporting the terrorists and then turn the fingers to us."
The interrogation of Ahmadinejad by the moderator varied a bit from Bollinger’s indictment. On the question of Israel, for example, the latter merely accused him of calling for Israel’s physical destruction a contention effectively debunked, I think, by the estimable Juan Cole while the moderator opened the proceedings with: "The first question is: Do you or your government seek the destruction of the state of Israel as a Jewish state?"
In other words, what we’re talking about is not a threat to drive the Jews into the Mediterranean, as is typically claimed by the Lobby, but the threat of a popular referendum, with one option being a binational Palestinian state, as Ahmadinejad described the official Iranian position. Tony Judt takes a similar position, as do many other liberal Westerners. Are they to be burned in effigy, too? What’s notable, however, is Ahmadinejad’s point that Jews live in peace in Iran, with representation in the elected parliament which is more than can be said for the plight of Jews in Iraq, where, last we heard, there were eight left in Baghdad, once a thriving center of Jewish culture.
Ahmadinejad is no worse than any number of U.S.-supported despots in the region, including Hosni Mubarak: at least he isn’t grooming his son to succeed him in office. Iran is hardly a Jeffersonian republic, yet its electoral process which involves a real contest is a lot freer than Egypt’s.
What is particularly galling is to witness the sad spectacle of a university president being used by this administration to stage its carefully choreographed pro-war morality play. Bollinger acted as an echo chamber for the neoconservative ideologues who are playing the same deceptive game they did so well at in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Yet there is no concrete evidence that the Iranians are arming Sadr or any of the other militias, which are all funded and operated by the parties of the ruling UIA coalition. These militias were given safe haven and succored by Tehran during Saddam’s reign, and good relations no doubt persist. What else did the Americans expect would happen after they "liberated" the Shi’ite majority from the depredations of a Sunni dictatorship? It’s notable that the various Iranian diplomats arrested by the U.S. occupation forces have all been defended by the Iraqi government as legitimate.
The irony of the debate around whether Columbia should have invited Ahmadinejad is that it’s raging in a country whose chief executive has announced that that he’s exporting "freedom" around the world. The real meaning of this "freedom," however, was aptly expressed by Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who declared:
"I think that Columbia University made a mistake. With Hitler there was a dialogue. [British Prime Minister Neville] Chamberlain went to talk to him. What did it help? It helped cover the fact that Hitler prepared concentration camps and death camps. I don’t accept the university’s explanations, because if a university is a platform where lies are permissible, then it is not academic. So all of yesterday’s show was wretched."
The Republican candidates for president with one exception took the Israeli position, and no wonder: in his Columbia peroration, the supposed madman who wants to nuke Israel and the U.S. denounced politicians who seek nuclear weapons as "retarded." No doubt we’ll see an alliance between AIPAC and the mentally handicapped in denouncing these insensitive remarks.
It’s notable that Hillary Clinton, along with the usual lineup of GOP warmongers, joined the chorus of derision that greeted Ahmadinejad’s desire to pay his respects to those who fell on 9/11. “If I were the president of a university, I would not have invited him, but I did not express an opinion about the decision made by Columbia,” Clinton said. “Obviously I was very much against his desire to go to Ground Zero. I thought that was absolutely out of bounds and unacceptable and thankfully it was not permitted.”
It’s typical that the cold, cold Hillary, ice goddess and potential war goddess would fail to understand the typically human desire to sympathize with and honor the victims of a tragedy. This does not bode well for a future Democratic administration that will come under immediate pressure from the Lobby to confront Tehran.
The extraordinary din of catcalls and pure hatred that greeted Ahmadinejad upon his arrival in our country is like the Two-Minutes Hate in George Orwell’s 1984, a novel that continues to remind us of the author’s preternatural prescience. As a prelude to the bombing of Iran and the commencement of the Third Gulf War, this week’s orgy of vitriol sets the tone for what is to come.