In a speech at Columbia University, Iranian President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad defended Iran's right to nuclear power but denied Iran
was seeking to build nuclear weapons. Ahmadinejad's appearance
sparked widespread protests at Columbia. We speak with Trita Parsi,
author of "Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran
and the United States" and Baruch professor Ervand Abrahamian, co-
author of "Targeting Iran." [includes rush transcript]
Ervand Abrahamian, Iran expert and CUNY Distinguished Professor of
History at Baruch College, City University of New York. He is the
author of several books on Iran and the co-author of a new book from
City Lights called "Targeting Iran."
Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council
(NIAC), the largest Iranian-American organization in the US. He is
the author of "Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel,
Iran, and the United States."
This transcript is available free of charge. However, donations help
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AMY GOODMAN: For more on Ahmadinejad's visit, we're joined by two
guests. Ervand Abrahamian is an Iran expert and CUNY Distinguished
Professor of History at Baruch College here at the City University of
New York. He's the author of several books on Iran, co-author of a
new book from City Lights called Targeting Iran. And joining me from
Washington, D.C. is Trita Parsi. He’s the president of the National
Iranian American Council, the largest Iranian American organization
in the United States, author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret
Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States.
First, Ervand Abrahamian, can you talk about the president's visit?
Did anything he said -- this is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- surprise you?
ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: Well, I was surprised because he didn't really use
the opportunity to try to lower the tempo, the serious problem we
have now, which is we're at the abyss of war, basically. And there
are people pushing for war in the next few months. And this would
have been a very good opportunity to try to smooth things over, try
to calm the tempo down.
And it's not just he who missed the opportunity. I think Bollinger
missed the opportunity. In fact, Bollinger's speech was like a
drumbeat for war. And most of the questions from the audience missed
the opportunity. They dealt basically with important identity
questions, but they didn't really deal with the issue that we are
really on the abyss of war. And this is a far more serious issue
than, you know, either ethnic or gender issues.
And he, actually, I think -- although he made some statements about
Iran is not interested in nuclear weapons, he could have been more
forthright and more categorical about the policies of Iran in terms
of the nuclear project.
AMY GOODMAN: Does this remind you of Saddam Hussein before the war?
ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: It does. In fact, Ahmadinejad didn't say it last
night -- yesterday, but his policy is that there is no likelihood of
war, because no one in their right senses would think of invading or
attacking Iran. And that's the premise he works on, which is, I
think, a completely wrong premise, because he doesn't seem to
understand American politics, the same people who gave us the war on
Iraq, the same people who are running foreign policy now. But he
begins from the premise that no one in their right senses would think
of attacking Iran.
AMY GOODMAN: Trita Parsi, you have written a very interesting book,
Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the
United States. Can you take us back in time and talk about the
relationship, the secret dealings, between these three countries?
TRITA PARSI: Israel has for a very long time been a critical factor
in America's formulation of a policy vis-à-vis Iran. But what's
really interesting is that the influence of Israel has gone in
completely different directions, if we just go back fifteen years.
During the 1980s, in spite of the Iranian Revolution, in spite of
Ayatollah Khomeini’s many, many harsh remarks about Israel, far, far
worse than what anything Ahmadinejad has said so far, Israel at the
time was the country that was lobbying the United States to open up
talks with Iran to try to rebuild the US-Iran relations, because of
strategic imperatives that Israel had. Israel needed Iran, because it
was fearing the Arab world and a potential war with the Arabs.
After 1991, ’92, that's when you see the real shift in Israeli-
Iranian relations, because that's when the entire geopolitical map of
the Middle East is redrawn. The Soviet Union collapses. The last
standing army of the Arabs, that of Saddam Hussein, is defeated in
the Persian Gulf War. And you have an entirely new security
environment in the Middle East, in which the two factors, the Soviets
and the Arabs, that had pushed Iran and Israel closer together
suddenly evaporate. But as their security environment improves, they
also start to realize that they may be ending up in a situation in
which they can become potential threats to each other. And that's
when you see how the Israelis shift 180 degrees. Now the Israeli
argument was that the United States should not talk to Iran, because
there is no such thing as Iranian moderates.
And ever since, the Israelis and the pro-Israel interest in the
United States have lobbied to make sure that there is no dialogue or
there’s no rapprochement between the United States and Iran. And the
Iranians have done similar things. They have undermined every US
foreign policy initiative in the Middle East that they feared would
be beneficial to Israel. So the real shift in Israeli-Iranian
relations come after the Cold War, not with the revolution in 1979.
AMY GOODMAN: But I also do want you to go right back to 1948 and talk
about that period up to 1991. What were the secret relationships?
TRITA PARSI: Well, immediately after Israel was founded, Iran was
actually one of the states on the committee at the UN who was
preparing a plan, and they were against the partition. They were
against the idea of creating two states. And Iran, at the time, said
that this would lead to several decades of crisis. But once Israel
was a fact, the Iranian government felt that because it was facing a
hostile Arab world, as well as a very hostile Arab ideology, Pan-
Arabism, Israel was a potential ally for the Iranians, particularly
as Israel started to shift closer and closer to the Western camp and
the United States. So throughout the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, the
Iranians and the Israelis were working very, very closely together,
had a very robust alliance.
They tried to keep it secret. It wasn't necessarily very secret, but
Iran never recognized Israel de jure. They recognized it de facto.
They had an Israeli mission in Tehran, but they never permitted it to
be called an embassy. They had an Israeli envoy to Tehran, but they
never called him an ambassador. When the Israeli planes were landing
at the Tehran airport, they created -- they built a specific tarmac
off the airport for Israeli planes to land, so that no one would
really see that there are so many El Al planes flying to Tehran. And
the reason why the Iranians were doing this is because, on the one
hand, they needed Israel as an ally because they were fearful of the
Arab world, and, on the other hand, they felt that if they got too
close to Israel, they would only fuel Arab anger towards Iran.
AMY GOODMAN: Trita Parsi is author of Treacherous Alliance: The
Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States. Our guest
also, Ervand Abrahamian, Iran expert, Distinguished Professor at
Baruch College. I wanted, Professor Abrahamian, to read from Juan
Cole's piece, who says, talking about Ahmadinejad, “He has been
depicted as a Hitler figure intent on killing Israeli Jews, even
though he is not commander in chief of the Iranian armed forces, has
never invaded any other country, denies he is an anti-Semite, has
never called for any Israeli civilians to be killed, and allows
Iran's 20,000 Jews to have representation in Parliament,” that
Khamenei is the one with the real power.
ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: He is right on target, yes. I think Juan Cole sums
it up. And the question is, then, why is basically in American
politics so much focused on Ahmadinejad? I think he serves the
function that Saddam Hussein played. He's an easy person to demonize.
And yesterday's Bollinger's introduction, when he described him as a
dictator, I think, shows how little people like Bollinger really know
about the Iranian political system. One can call Ahmadinejad many
things, but a dictator he is by no means. He can’t even -- he doesn't
even have the power to appoint his own cabinet ministers. It's a
presidency with very limited power. And to claim that he is in a
position to threaten the United States or Israel is just bizarre,
frankly. I think someone like Bollinger should know more about Iran
before they sling around smears like terms such as “dictator.”
AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about Khamenei, then, if he is the one with
ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: Here, again, he is, you can say, the Supreme
Leader, but the Iranian system is actually very sort of a collective
leadership. The foreign policy is made in a council, where the
Supreme Leader appoints those members, but there are very different
views there. And Ahmadinejad does not run that committee. Someone
like Rafsanjani has a great deal of influence. The former President
Khatami has a great deal of influence. And they are much more willing
In fact, they were, I think, the people who offered this grand
bargain in 2003 to settle all the issues with the United States. And
for reasons that are not clear, the White House just basically
brushed it aside. They were not interested in pursuing this. And this
is why it leads me to think that this administration is adamant in
resolving the nuclear problem by military force, because if it was
interested in resolving it through diplomacy, there were offers made
to them to follow that route, and they have very consciously decided
not follow the diplomatic routes. So if you don't follow the
diplomatic route, the only other route there is is the military
route. And, of course, it’s only a question of time when they decide
on air strikes.
AMY GOODMAN: When is the election?
ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: In less than two years' time. And the base, in
fact, of Ahmadinejad’s -- I would say the core base -- is very
similar to Bush's core base. It's about 25%. For him to get re-
elected, he has to stretch out and find independents and others, and
this is going to be very hard. If the reformers can actually rally
around one candidate, as they did in the 1990s, they could have
landslide victories, in which over 70% of the electorate was voting
for liberals and reformers.
AMY GOODMAN: And what direction would a US attack on Iran push the
ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: Oh, it would play right into the hands of
Ahmadinejad, because you would have a national emergency. He would
declare, basically, the country's in danger. Everyone would have to
rally around the flag. People who disliked him would keep their mouth
shut. At a time of when the existence of the state is in question,
you don't mess around with the leaders. He would basically be able to
act as a much more of a strongman national leader.
AMY GOODMAN: Trita Parsi, you've had unusual access to US decision
makers, Israeli decision makers, Iranian leaders. What is your sense
of a strike, the US or Israel, on Iran? Is it imminent?
TRITA PARSI: Well, I don't think an Israeli strike is imminent,
unless there is some sort of coordination with the United States with
the aim of being able to draw the US into the conflict. I do believe
that some sort of a conflict between the United States and Iran is
quite probable right now, mindful of the lack of diplomacy that is
And I also do believe that this is not necessarily something that
will go away automatically just because there's going to be a change
of government in the United States within the next two years. Many of
the decisions that are made right now have the impact of limiting the
maneuverability of future administrations. We're making it more and
more difficult, not only for this administration, but also for future
administrations, to pursue diplomacy.
And what we're seeing in the Middle East right now is not necessarily
just a conflict over what's going on in Iraq or about Iran's nuclear
program. This is a conflict that, at the end of the day, is about two
powerhouses in the region, and it's a conflict about hegemony, for
lack of a better word.
And these type of shifts, with the United States currently declining
and finding itself in a more and more difficult situation in Iraq and
with Iran finding itself in a stronger position and acting very, very
confidently, these type of shifts historically do not take place
peacefully, unless there is a tremendous amount of diplomacy. And
again, we're not seeing that right now.
And I’m very concerned that even if we manage to avoid war for the
next two years, the next US administration may find itself in a
position in which its maneuverability is so limited that the military
option once again becomes a very viable one for them.