Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech to the “World Without Zionism” conference last Wednesday is already old news – and in many ways, it really wasn’t news in the first place. After all, Iran’s Islamist government has held fast to a virulently anti-Israel stance since it was founded in 1979; nothing really has changed, except that (A) Ahmadinejad’s speech came in the middle of a confrontation with the West over Iran’s alleged efforts to build nuclear weapons, and (B) this time the regime’s policy was stated by the President himself (as opposed to a “spiritual leader”), with no nuance or parisology.
Of course, everyone with a keyboard has been scribbling away (or whatever the equivalent of scribbling is when you’re writing with a computer) since Ahmadinejad’s speech. (By the end of this article, I’ll be able to touch-type “Ahmadinejad” without hesitating or looking back to remember the spelling – and who says blogging is a waste of time?) What’s there to say on the subject that hasn’t already been said five times over? Not much, I suspect, but I’ll try anyway:
First, I see Ahmadinejad’s speech as a message of hope to all of us who have secret fantasies about running the world. Whatever else you say about the affair, giving this speech at this time seems like a remarkably inept bit of statecraft; if this guy could become President of Iran, who knows what jobs the rest of us might find for ourselves? Today I feel much better about my own chances of achieving despotic power than I did two weeks ago.
Second, a little reading between the lines of the speech tells us a lot about the Middle East conflict. Ahmadinejad devoted much of the speech to encouraging Palestinian nationalism in its most extreme form: the complete replacement of Israel by the State of Palestine, presumably ruled by Islamists. But at the same time, it’s very difficult to reconcile support for the Palestinian cause – in any form – with a nuclear weapons development program of which Israel is the presumptive first target. You can’t nuke Israel without killing and sickening an awful lot of Palestinians; and while a post-nuclear Palestinian state might gain some territorial contiguity, it would lose any potential viability it might have. I can think of a few possible explanations for this apparent contradiction:
- Iran’s nuclear program is really just a peaceful effort to generate electricity without contributing to global warming. I can also enhance my mating potential by purchasing various fine products I read about on the Internet.
- Iran wants nuclear weapons to enhance its position in the world and deter others from attacking it (even as it continues to sponsor terrorism), but doesn’t intend to use them against Israel unless attacked first. This could actually be true, but I wouldn’t want to bet the family farm on it. (Hmmm… Now that I think about it, I actually have bet the family farm on it – since I live in Israel and work in Tel Aviv, a.k.a. Ground Zero.)
- Ahmadinejad, whose name is now tripping off my fingers quite fluently, doesn’t have a blog of his own and thus hasn’t bothered to figure out the implications of his own remarks. This is also quite possible; I’m not getting the feeling that this guy is real big on achieving full understanding of a policy’s implications before espousing it.
- Ahmadinejad, and presumably other members of Iran’s ruling establishment, would actually be happy enough to wipe Palestine off the map if that was the price to be paid for eliminating the “blot” of Israel. One gets the impression that at least a few Palestinians feel some concern in this regard.
The fourth possibility is an interesting one. For one thing, it would pretty much eliminate one of the reasons we have for not panicking about Iran’s effort to develop The Bomb: the belief that the Palestinians are, to a degree, Israel’s “human shields”. Second, if this is really the way the Iranian rulers feel about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the Received Understanding of the Middle East permacrisis as essentially a territorial dispute needs to be radically revised.
Parts of Ahmadinejad’s speech support such a revision. According to MEMRI, Ahmadinejad said, “This occupying country [i.e. Israel] is in fact a front of the World of Arrogance [i.e. the West] in the heart of the Islamic world. They have in fact built a bastion from which they can expand their rule to the entire Islamic world… This means that the current war in Palestine is the front line of the Islamic world against the World of Arrogance, and will determine the fate of Palestine for centuries to come.”
Our first reaction to this may be to dismiss Ahmadinejad’s fears of Israel as a “bastion” for Western conquest of the Islamic world as mere paranoia; after all, Israel is hardly in a position to conquer countries many times its size, and most of the West is vehemently opposed to anything it can interpret as “Israeli expansionism”. Further, the vast majority of nations and citizens in the West have no intention of waging a war of conquest against the Islamic world; even those who strongly favor the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq see the presence of foreign troops there as a temporary necessity rather than as a permanent feature of the landscape.
So what is Ahmadinejad talking about? Is he (along with the rest of Iran’s leadership) crazy? I think not; fanatical they may be, but they aren’t crazy, not quite. The war the Iranians are fighting – along with al Qaeda, Hamas, and the rest of the Islamist crowd – is primarily a Kulturkampf, a cultural struggle, rather than a military one. Israel’s significance in this struggle is not that it sits on “Islamic land”, or even that it causes the Palestinians to suffer. Israel is important because it functions – potentially for the most part, at least so far – as a conduit for Western culture, ideas, habits of thought, and other insidious intangibles. The Iranians and the Saudis and the rest aren’t really afraid of Ariel Sharon and the Israeli army. What really frightens them is Shimon Peres (with his “New Middle East”) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer – that is, the whole notion of Israel, with Western culture and values (such as pretty young women who kick ass, whom I for one certainly value), as an integral part of the region. Such an integration of Israel into the Middle East would sooner or later – and I’d put my money on sooner – spell the end for most of the current regimes in the region; Iran’s government would likely be one of the first to go.
It’s important for anyone trying to promote peace in the Middle East to understand this Kulturkampf. As long as the real objection to Israel’s presence here is a cultural one, no amount of territorial compromise will help resolve the Mideast conflict; a small Israel is just as scary as a large Israel. And to Iran and the rest of those fighting Western cultural influence here, the Palestinians are almost as frightening as Israel is: after all, they can easily serve as part of the bridgehead for the West’s cultural invasion. Western ideas can all too readily pass from the outside world to Israeli Jews, to Israeli Arabs, to Palestinians, to the rest of the Arab/Islamic world. Certainly this is why Saudi Arabia and Iran back organizations like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which want Israel to be entirely replaced by an Islamist Palestine. Perhaps it would also account for Iranian willingness to nuke the Palestinians along with the Jews: the only thing safer than an Islamist Palestine is an incinerated Palestine.