A crowd of would-be revolutionaries gathered last month at Revolution Books in Berkeley to hear Stephen Zunes—chair of the program in Middle Eastern studies and professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco—speak on a panel with the improbable title, "U.S.-Israeli Assault on Iran Escalates: The Danger of War Grows." The title originated with an article by co-panelist Larry Everest, author and correspondent for Revolution, the newspaper for the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, an organization whose cult of personality revolves around well-known Stalinist Bob Avakian. Fittingly, event posters on the walls sported slogans such as "Re-visioning Socialism" and "Another World is Possible," and the shelves were filled with books by Avakian and other communists.
Revolution Books inhabits a choice retail location just blocks from the University of California, Berkeley campus, and in contrast with other events featuring left-wing academics whose talks are assigned to students, the audience in this instance was largely middle-aged to elderly. Spanish speakers provided simultaneous translations in the rear seats, producing a continuous background hum, while a very casually dressed woman entered, radio to her ear, listening to President Obama's 2012 State of the Union address.
All who entered were handed a copy of Revolution along with a flier for International A.N.S.W.E.R.'s then-forthcoming "national day of action" in San Francisco, which trumpeted the do-nothing rallying cry, "No War on Iran, No Sanctions, No Interventions, No Assassinations!" Like the rally to come, the atmosphere at Revolution Books was fiercely anti-American, anti-Israel, and apologetic towards, even supportive of, the Iranian regime.
In a nod to the setting, Zunes proclaimed at the outset, "I'm not a communist," but his repetitive references to "imperialists" demonstrated his familiarity with leftist jargon. He elaborated: "A lot of what I'm going to say overlaps, but I am coming from a slightly different angle."
Affirming the contention of the preceding speaker, Larry Everest, that the Iranian regime had allegedly given up pursuing nuclear weapons in 2003 according to a 2007—and later discredited—National Intelligence Estimate, Zunes added, "No one who is intellectually honest could disagree with your analysis." Was International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Yukiya Amano intellectually dishonest when he stated last month that the IAEA, "has credible information that Iran is engaged in activities relevant to the development of nuclear explosives"?
Zunes reiterated a position he took in a 2009 article—on the heels of Iran's stolen election—titled, "Why U.S. Neocons Want Ahmadinejad to Win":
What's important is that Neocons and the imperialists in this country want the green revolution crushed. They need each other to justify the kinds of policies the U.S. imperialists want.
This logic, such as it is, concludes that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad provides a handy excuse for so-called warmongers in the U.S. to block the Obama administration's diplomatic overtures to Iran. Such a conspiracy theory ignores the fact that Neoconservatives and others on the right were strong critics of the Obama administration's refusal to offer moral support to the green revolution at its outset.
Zunes insisted that U.S. intervention only inspires the Iranian people to side with their government:
Everyone emphasizes the Islamic characteristics of Iran, but what's really kept the regime in power is nationalism. The Iranians are the most nationalistic people in the entire world . . . it's something the regime can capitalize on when it hears these threats [of sanctions]. What we don't hear in the media is that the opposition supports the government in its conflict with the U.S. They oppose U.S. intervention.
Yet dissident voices within Iran continue to express disgust with the regime and a lack of animosity towards the U.S. For instance, a young Iranian woman who corresponds regularly with American journalist Michael Yon recently sent him the following:
To make the long story short, people in Iran, not just youth, hate the government and want to move out of the country as soon as they can. . . . The Iranians do not hate you nor do they hate ur [sic] government. This is all the media. . . . No one is against you here except for those on the government's side.
Iranian exiles who were tortured in Iran's Evin Prison provided letters and live testimony at the UN Watch-organized event, "We Have A Dream: Global Summit Against Discrimination and Persecution," held in September, 2011 to coincide with the United Nations 66th Session of the General Assembly. To no avail, the organizers begged the international community to intervene.
Of such voices, Zunes had nothing to say, and he casually discounted Iranian exiles living in the U.S., many of whom fear for their lives:
There have been some U.S.-funded opposition groups. Most of these are tied to exiles who have virtually no support inside the country, no impact on uprisings . . . there have been all sorts of sordid interventions . . . you have a few wannabes in the exile community, particularly in L.A.
As for the Iranian regime's threats to annihilate Israel, Zunes blithely assured the audience that:
Iran is not going to nuke Israel. Get real. It's a repressive regime, but they are not suicidal. Israel has massive deterrents as does the US and other allies.
This would come as news to the Iranian mullahs, who are adherents to Mahdism, the apocalyptic belief in the return of the twelfth Imam who, at the end of times, will wage war against unbelievers and the forces of evil and establish a worldwide Islamic state. Might a nuclear conflict with Israel spark such a fanatical scenario? Zunes never raised the question.
Echoing a well-worn canard originated by University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole, Zunes claimed:
And by the way, Ahmadinijad, he's really hardcore, he's anti-Semitic, but he never said 'Israel should be wiped off the map.' That idiom doesn't even exist in Farsi. What he's doing is quoting Ayatollah Khamenei from twenty years ago. . . . What he said was the regime occupying Jerusalem should 'vanish from the pages of time'. . . . Ahmadinejad clarified that in a later interview. He's talking about a unified Palestine. He's not talking about killing the Jews . . . he's talking about regime change.
Zunes might want to consult Nazila Fathi of the New York Times Tehran bureau, who provided a translation of Ahmadinejad's October 26, 2005 speech at "The World Without Zionism" conference in Tehran—the source of the quote in question. His exact words were: "Our dear Imam said that the occupying regime must be wiped off the map and this was a very wise statement." In addition, and as noted by Iran expert Michael Rubin, "the Islamic Republic provides its own clarification. In its official translations, it headlined Ahmadinejad's call to 'wipe Israel off the map.'" The Iranian regime's genocidal incitement can been seen on propaganda billboards across the country and heard in countless statements from officials, including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who recently called Israel a "'cancerous tumor that should be cut and will be cut." It doesn't get much clearer than that.
Zunes claimed that a potential attack on Israel is not up to Ahmadinejad because, as he put it, "He's not the commander-in-chief. It's up to the Guardian Council—a committee—and as a rule committees don't go for crazy provocative acts."
Apparently, a committee would never try to: assassinate a Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C.; kill its own nuclear scientists for talking to the IAEA; use its proxy, Hezbollah, to blow up U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut; kidnap the entire U.S. embassy staff; bomb a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires; attempt to take over Lebanon; terrorize and assassinate Iranian dissidents in other countries; supply weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah; help train the 9/11 terrorists; nor order all Muslims worldwide to kill a writer for alleged blasphemy. Yet all of this was done in the name of the Khomeinist Islamic revolution.
Zunes referred to the current scenario in which Israel, according to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's recent statement to the media, could attack Iran's nuclear facilities in the spring, by asking if,
Israel [would] do something on its own? Obama has made clear he would not tolerate that. You saw Eisenhower in 1956 . . . when it comes down to real important national security issues, Israel can't change U.S. policies. But even if they don't plan to go to war, we prepare and threaten war . . . it makes it difficult to stop.
In Zunes's mind, the U.S. and Israel are always the instigators of war, rather than the bellicose Iranian regime that has terrorized not only its own population, but much of the civilized world. He would do better to direct his closing call to "prevent another war in the Middle East" to Tehran.
Berkeley resident Rima Greene co-wrote this article with Cinnamon Stillwell, the West Coast Representative for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.