from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

The Voice of Iran

June 27, 2012

Blog Post

Why is it significant that the vice president of Iran has used a United Nations forum to deliver an appalling anti-Semitic speech?

This happened yesterday in Geneva, as the New York Times reported. Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi blamed "Zionists" for the world’s drug trade, citing the Talmud and leaving his audience at the anti-drug conference in shock.

This event is significant because it reminds us that the assumptions behind the nuclear negotiations with Iran are questionable at best. Those assumptions include mirror-imaging, the belief that Iran’s regime will make the sorts of "rational" calculations the governments of the EU and United States would make in their place. Impose sanctions on Iran, reduce its income from oil sales, harm its economy, and surely the Supreme Leader and his advisers will react as we would, weighing almost mathematically the costs and benefits of the nuclear program.

Then comes Mr. Rahimi, teaching us that math may not be the best way to predict Iranian policy decisions. How do we factor in irrational hatred of Jews? How do we weigh a deep desire to destroy the Jewish state? How do we calculate the effect of beliefs that seem to us in the West to be preposterous, ludicrous, impossible? Or a better question: how do Israelis make those judgments? As many historians--most recently, Andrew Roberts in The Storm of War, his superb history of the Second World War--have reminded us, lucid calculations are often absent, statesmanship often pushed aside by ideological obsessions, hatred more powerful than rational calculations. Just because we think it irrational for Iranian officials to make such speeches, or wreck their economy to pursue nuclear weapons, or threaten Israel, does not mean that such things are not happening and will not happen. Sitting around conference tables they may appear unlikely or impossible, but the Rahimi speech may be a better guide to Iranian foreign policy than the words spoken at those sessions.