Mike Huckabee’s sin was being too vivid.
Last week, after the Republican presidential hopeful said that by signing the Iran nuclear deal, President Barack Obama “would take the Israelis and basically march them to the door of the oven,” a parade of organizations and politicians accused him of inflammatory language and bad taste. But in both the United States and Israel, Huckabee’s core assumption—that the Iranian government is genocidally anti-Semitic—is mainstream. In January, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that “The ayatollahs in Iran, they deny the Holocaust while planning another genocide against our people.” Last month, Fox News host Sean Hannity called the Iran deal “the equivalent of giving Adolf Hitler weapons of mass destruction.” The fact that a nuclear attack on Israel would also kill Palestinians, argued Texas Senator Ted Cruz recently, would not deter Tehran because “they would view the murder of those Palestinians” as “perfectly acceptable collateral damage to annihilating millions of Jews.”
Far from being marginal or extreme, Huckabee’s claim—that Iranian leaders seek another Holocaust—sits at the emotional core of the debate over the nuclear accord with Tehran. But the closer you look, the weaker that claim is.
In asserting that Iran seeks to murder all Jews, politicians like Huckabee, Cruz, and Netanyahu focus overwhelmingly on the regime’s words. “When people who are in a government position continue to say they’re going to kill you,” said Huckabee, “I think somebody ought to wake up and take that seriously.” “If history teaches one lesson,” added Cruz, “it is that if somebody tells you they want to kill you, believe them.”
But that’s not actually history’s lesson. It’s not true that the best way to predict a regime’s behavior is by its most menacing words. In 1956, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev famously told Western diplomats, “We will bury you” (also translated as, “We will be present at your funeral”). In the 1970s, Soviet officials openly boasted that they could win a nuclear war. In 2005, Chinese Major General Zhu Chenghu warned that in the event of a conflict with the United States over Taiwan, “we will have to respond with nuclear weapons,” and that “the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds ... of cities will be destroyed by the Chinese.” This February, North Korea’s National Defense Commission threatened the United States with the “most disastrous final doom on its mainland.”
In foreign relations, as in life, what people do is a far better guide to their future actions than what they say. And while Iran’s rhetoric can sound genocidal, not only toward Israel but toward the United States, Iran’s behavior has not come close.
Netanyahu, Cruz, and Huckabee all compare Iran’s rhetoric about Jews to Hitler’s. But once Hitler took power, observers did not have to rely on what he said. They could look at what he did. Within months of ascending to power, Hitler banned Jews from serving as civil servants or lawyers and began expelling them from government schools and universities. Within five years, he oversaw the orgy of anti-Jewish violence that was Kristallnacht. Within nine years, the Wannsee Conference began implementing the Final Solution.
Compare that to Iran. The Iranian regime has been in power for 36 years. It governs a Jewish population of between 10,000 and 25,000. Life for Iranian Jews is not easy. They cannot express any sympathy for Israel. Indeed, they must go out of their way to reject Zionism lest they confirm regime suspicions about their loyalty. And those suspicions sometimes descend into outright persecution, as happened in 1999 in the city of Shiraz, when 13 Jews were imprisoned for several years on charges of spying for Israel.
But while Iran’s Jews are not free, neither is their government trying to kill them. Three and a half decades after the Islamic Revolution, Iran boasts perhaps 60 functioning synagogues, along with multiple kosher butchers and Jewish schools. The regime recently erected a monument to Jews who died fighting in the Iran-Iraq War. When former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denied the Holocaust, the leader of Iran’s Jewish community publicly reprimanded him. Perhaps most tellingly, a substantial Jewish community remains in Iran, despite being allowed to leave.
Huckabee, Cruz, and Netanyahu claim Tehran is so desperate to murder Jews that it will use a nuclear weapon against Israel despite the likelihood that Israel would retaliate with its own much larger nuclear arsenal. Yet inside Iran itself sits a largely defenseless Jewish population. If the Iranian regime is genocidally anti-Semitic, why has it made no effort to wipe them out?
One potential answer is that Iran’s regime is not genocidally anti-Semitic, only genocidally anti-Zionist. It will spare its own Jews, provided they eschew Zionism, while killing the Jews of Israel because they will not.
But even toward Israel, Iran’s behavior, while hostile and violent, has been nowhere near genocidal. To be sure, Iran supports both Hezbollah and Hamas, organizations that commit terrorism against the Jewish state (and in the case of Hezbollah’s despicable attack on a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994, terrorism against Jews outside Israel too). Supporting these groups furthers Iran’s regional influence, since it allows Tehran to pose as the champion of a Palestinian cause that most Arabs support. It also strengthens Iranian deterrence, since Hezbollah and Hamas, which are situated on Israel’s borders, could retaliate if Israel attacked Iran.
But while Iran supports Hezbollah and Hamas, it has not done everything in its power to help them kill Israelis. Not even close. To the contrary, the regime’s apparent fear of Israeli retaliation generally has led it to exhibit the very restraint that Huckabee, Cruz, and Netanyahu insist it would not show once it has the bomb.
Consider a few examples. In his book "Unthinkable," the Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack notes that although Iran likely has biological weapons, it has not given them to Hezbollah. In 1982, when Lebanese Shia leaders asked Iran to send troops to repel Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, the then-supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, refused. In 1996, Iran pressured Hezbollah to agree to a ceasefire with Israel. And as Trita Parsi notes in his indispensable book on Iranian-Israeli relations, "Treacherous Alliance," Israel’s then-defense minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, even praised Tehran for its efforts to return Israeli soldiers that Hezbollah had captured. In 2001, according to Parsi, leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad vented frustration that Iran was not offering them greater assistance during the Second Intifada. And in 2003, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Iran offered the United States a grand bargain that included an offer to cut ties to Hamas and Islamic Jihad and pressure Hezbollah to shut down its military wing if the United States ended sanctions and restored diplomatic ties.
Indeed, despite Netanyahu’s rhetoric, Israeli leaders have not generally acted as if they consider the Islamic Republic to be genocidal. In the early 1980s, the Iranian regime spewed even more ferocious anti-Israel propaganda than it does now. At one point it sponsored a pan-Islamic contest in which children were encouraged to draw pictures and write essays on the topic, “Israel Must Be Erased from the Earth.” Nonetheless, Israeli leaders—seeing Saddam Hussein as the greater threat—sold Iran weapons during its war against Iraq. They urged the United States to do so too, and in the process played a key role in the Iran-Contra affair. “Throughout the 1980s, no one in Israel said anything about an Iranian threat,” notes Tel Aviv University Iran expert David Menashri. “The word wasn’t even uttered.”
As Parsi argues convincingly, Israeli claims about Iran’s genocidal intent only began more than a decade after the Islamic Republic was established. They occurred not in response to any change in Tehran’s rhetoric or behavior, but in response to a fundamental shift in the strategic landscape. In the 1980s, Israeli anxieties had centered on Saddam’s Iraq, which was geographically closer to Israel and with Soviet help had built the world’s fourth-largest army. But in the early 1990s, Saddam’s power collapsed. Iraq lost its major patron when the U.S.S.R. fell, was humiliated in the Gulf War, and became the subject of global sanctions. It was only then that Israeli leaders began describing Iran as the primary danger—a perception that grew after the United States toppled Saddam in 2003, creating a political vacuum that pro-Iranian forces filled. In the words of retired Israeli Brigadier General Shlomo Brom, “Nothing special happened with Iran, but because Iraq was removed, Iran started to play a greater role in the threat perception of Israel.”
But while Netanyahu has responded to this shift by describing Iran’s leaders as Nazis (an analogy he previously reserved for Palestinians), many in the Israeli security establishment have not. In their view, Iran has grown in power, which makes it a more potent adversary. But it is today no more genocidal than it was when Israel assisted it during the Iran-Iraq War. Contrary to Netanyahu, top Israeli security officials don’t believe Iran’s leaders are so fanatically determined to kill Jews that they would launch a nuclear attack that could bring about their own destruction. Meir Dagan, who ran Israel’s external spy agency, the Mossad, from 2002 to 2011, has called the Iranian regime “rational.” Benny Gantz, who led the Israel Defense Forces from 2011 to 2015, has said “the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people.” Dan Halutz, who led the IDF from 2005 to 2007, believes that “Iran poses a serious threat but not an existential one.” He is joined in that view by another former Mossad chief, Efraim Halevy, who earlier this year argued that “we are not in a Holocaust situation. … I do not believe there is an existential threat to Israel” from Iran.
The irony is that there’s a force near Israel’s borders that actually is genocidal, not merely in word, but in deed. It’s called ISIS. The United Nations is currently investigating credible reports that during its 2014 rampage through Iraq, ISIS fighters launched a systematic campaign to wipe out that country’s Yazidi minority. In the Iraqi city of Mosul, ISIS marked Christian houses with the letter “N,” which stands for an early Arabic word for Christian, and told the inhabitants to leave, pay a special tax, or die. Were ISIS governing 10,000 to 25,000 Jews, it’s unimaginable that they would still be around, operating kosher butcheries and Jewish schools, after 36 years.
If we must analogize the Middle East today to Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, Iran’s supreme leader is not Adolf Hitler. He is Joseph Stalin. ISIS, although obviously far weaker than Nazi Germany, shares Hitler’s maniacal bloodlust. Unlike Iran, ISIS kills even when killing brings no strategic advantage. It kills because it believes that by cleansing impure elements it can reclaim a perfect past. Iran, by contrast, is a brutal but self-preserving competitor for regional power. There are good reasons to worry about its rising power and legitimate questions about a nuclear deal that may facilitate it. But “ovens” have nothing to do it.
The problem with Huckabee’s comment is not that his characterization of the Iranian regime was offensive. The problem is that his characterization was wrong.
This article was first published in The Atlantic.
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