WASHINGTON (IPS) — The controversial Christian Zionist pastor John Hagee and thousands of supporters filled a convention center in downtown Washington this week for his Christians United for Israel (CUFI) organization’s Washington-Israel Summit, where the “Iranian threat” was a recurrent theme.
CUFI is a proponent of Christian Zionism — the belief that the modern state of Israel is the fulfillment of Biblical “end times” prophecy and thus deserving of political, financial and religious support. Its founder, Pastor Hagee, recently came under fire from Jewish groups and others for a sermon in which he described Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust as part of God’s plan to drive the Jews from Europe and bring them to Palestine.
The CUFI conference, in support of two bills regarding divestment and sanctions against Iran that participants would lobby for on Capitol Hill, hosted a panel where three neo-conservative Iran hawks discussed the direction of U.S.-Iran relations. Though the panel was closed to the press, this correspondent attended with a standard participant’s pass.
The presentations from the “Iran: Eye of the Storm” panel were filled with contradictions about the nature of that direction, and featured alarmist rhetoric about the threat posed by Iran — reiterating claims that conflate Iran’s hostility toward Israel and genocidal intentions like that of Hitler.
Patrick Clawson, the deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, founded by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, started off the panel by offering a view of the global threat that Iran poses — especially should it acquire nuclear weapons.
Clawson claimed, like fellow panelist Clifford May of the neo-conservative think tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, that Iran’s leadership is strictly ideologically motivated and not restrained by rationality or national interest.
The threat, Clawson said, emanates not from the heated anti-Israeli rhetoric of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — whom Clawson says does not set policies — but rather from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whom Clawson said has referred to Israel as a cancer in the region.
Clawson said that the rhetoric was also less important than the threats posed to Israel by Iranian support for anti-Israeli groups in the Levant.
“Iran is spending at least 200 million dollars a year financing, training, and arming every terror group that is killing Israelis in the pursuit of eliminating the state of Israel,” he said.
Clawson went on to say that because of the clear opposition to Israel demonstrated by support for anti-Israeli groups along with rhetoric, a nuclear-armed Iran would be an even greater risk.
“If Iran makes progress on its nuclear weapons, Iran will be in a much better position to carry through on these kinds of threats,” said Clawson. Adding an oft-repeated claim that the Iranian leadership doesn’t hold to rational thought, Clawson elicited laughter from the crowd with his statement that “Some Iranian leaders are quite happy to be suicidal. Many of them are not rational.”
But in the question and answer session that followed the panelists’ speeches, Clawson softened his position, implying that the Iranian leadership was capable of acting rationally towards Iranian national interests and is not totally beholden to its fiery rhetoric.
When asked about the potential retaliation of the Iranian regime to a U.S. air strike on Iranian nuclear targets, Clawson responded, “The history, so far, is of blood-curdling threats, and [then] nothing happens.”
Clawson pointed to an incident in 1988 when the U.S. navy shot down an Iranian commercial airplane. Clawson said that after the incident, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — the first supreme leader of the Islamic Republic and widely regarded as the most ideological Iranian leader since the 1979 revolution — had exercised restraint against retaliation.
Clawson even pointed out that the following week, Khomeini declared to the Iranian people that the U.S. had joined its then ally — Saddam Hussein’s Iraq — in the bloody, drawn out Iran-Iraq War, and unable to fight both the U.S. and Iraq at the same time, a negotiated settlement to the conflict needed to be reached.
Though Clawson expressed both views at the conference, the dichotomy is typical of arguments made against Iran. For a popular crowd, speakers will usually invoke the images of genocidal threats to Israel and beyond to garner support.
Meanwhile, speaking before more elite crowds, Iran hawks will often cite different arguments that don’t rest on the overblown notion of messianic, suicidal ideologues in control of the Iranian government.
For example, speaking at an “Intelligence Squared” event — this time on a dais that included opposing views — debating the motion “We must tolerate a nuclear Iran,” Clawson, in opposition to the motion, never mentioned any of the more incendiary arguments against an Iranian nuclear bomb.
Rather, he stuck to only one line of thinking that a nuclear-armed Iran would create an arms race and proliferation.
“If Iran gets away with building this, it will not be the only country,” said Clawson at Intelligence Squared, delivering the meat of his rationale.
While Clawson did mention the idea of proliferation at the CUFI summit, it took a back seat to his main argument of an ideological and irrationally-driven direct threat to Israel.
May, for his part, took an even harder line on Iran, spending the bulk of his time discussing a comparison of the Islamic Republic and the Nazi Germany of Hitler.
“Once again, we have enemies who know how to manipulate words, images and ideas, who are organizing mass movements, and who are utterly ruthless, who are openly intent on conquest and genocide,” said May, bringing his comparison to a head and implying that Iran is pursuing another Jewish holocaust.
The head of the neo-conservative think tank Center for Security Policy, Frank Gaffney, used his time to talk about how Iran directly threatens the United States. Gaffney claimed that Iran had been at war with the U.S. since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
Pushing the idea of a missile defense system in the region, Gaffney suggested that the Iranians may be able to develop an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) weapon in the form a crude nuclear missile that “could within practically the blink of an eye transform large parts of this country from a 21st century superpower to a pre-industrial society.”
However, these views do not appear to reflect those of most U.S. Jews. A poll released this month by the firm Gerstein/Agne found that large majorities favor diplomacy with Iran, support a two-state solution in Israel/Palestine, and are highly sceptical of political alliances with right-wing evangelical groups such as CUFI.