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Published on July 28th, 2015 | by Ali Gharib

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Wieseltier on Iran: Laughable

by Ali Gharib

It is everyone’s right to present themselves as The Great Moral Arbiter. And the rest of us are within our rights to laugh at them. That’s what first came to mind after I finished reading Leon Wieseltier‘s 2,000-plus-word jeremiad against the Iran nuclear deal in The Atlantic.

But wait: Is it okay to laugh? Sometimes not: “There was something grotesque about the chumminess, the jolly camaraderie, of the American negotiators and the Iranian negotiators,” Wieseltier writes. “Why is Mohammad Javad Zarif laughing?”

I’m guessing something was funny; that’s why people usually laugh. And would it be so strange for enemies gathered in small rooms for hours on end to establish a rapport where, despite their enmity, they just might share a joke? Of course it isn’t: prisoner accounts from Japanese captivity during World War II and Vietnamese POW camps are long on anecdotes of detainees and guards yucking it up. Must diplomats be constantly posturing in their moral rectitude as if they were… well, as if they were Leon Wieseltier? The answer is Yes, always Yes.

That Wieseltier is apparently against laughing is but a small matter. But it stands in nicely for the larger flaws in his critique of the nuclear deal. Namely, Wieseltier has taken his normal stance of hawkishness without a thought to the context or even the greater questions. It’s the same “moral clarity” that got him into trouble a dozen years ago when he joined hands with American neoconservatives in pursuit of doing The Moral Thing in Iraq. His arguments today, however, are hollow. Rife with inconsistencies, they refute themselves. And, with a careful look, they reveal the bankruptcy of Wieseltier’s liberal interventionism.

Refuting the Rut

Wieseltier begins and ends with admonishments of the Obama administration’s rhetoric about “step(ping) out of the rut of history”—an artful phrasing whose meaning completely escapes this purported man of letters’ imagination. It is not, as Wieseltier reads it, “a deep scorn for the past, a zeal for newness and rupture,” but rather an acknowledgement that the old path—the one we’ve been on for three and a half decades—has led nowhere but closer to a major confrontation. When you drive in ruts, you’re not only going to have difficulty turning, but you’re liable to break wheels. Wieseltier’s evocation of Cuba is instructive: the policy of strictly isolating Cuba wasn’t set aside because Obama has “an appetite for change,” but because, after more than half a century, it wasn’t working.

From there the essay runs for some 800 words about how horrible the Iranian government is, implying throughout that we should not make a deal with These People. “Not a relationship with a new Iran, but a new relationship with this Iran, as it is presently—that is to say, theocratically, oppressively, xenophobically, aggressively, anti-Semitically, misogynistically, homophobically—constituted,” Wieseltier writes, adverbally reciting all of the Iranian regime’s very many and very real flaws.

Then he takes a curious turn: “If I could believe that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action marked the end of Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon,” Wieseltier writes, “I would support it.” Say what? You’ve just given all these reasons why it’s so bad to deal with Iran but you’re okay with dealing with them if you get what you want? I dare say this is the same posture struck by all the liberals supporting the deal that Wieseltier looks down his nose at.

And this is to say nothing of the substance of his critique of the deal. Spoiler: Wieseltier doesn’t think that the accord will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.There’s something to that—the deal, despite what many of its proponents claim, isn’t, as Wieseltier puts it, a “guarantee” that Iran will never get the bomb. Instead, it puts in place a mechanism to make it more difficult for Iran to do so, coupled with incentives for Iran not to do so. In that sense it accomplishes what the sanctions could not, what a military strike can not, and certainly what pushing for regime change will not do. And yet this latter choice is exactly what Wieseltier seems to be intoning throughout his piece.

Wieseltier is no doubt sure about “Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon” as he was about the Iraqi WMD program, which spurred the then-literary editor of The New Republic into supporting the Iraq invasion alongside the neoconservative hawks of the Project for a New American Century and the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. Wieseltier quickly came to regret his support for the war based on the false assertions about Saddam Hussein’s WMDs: “I was deceived,” he wrote. “Strategic thinking must have an empirical foundation.” And yet there were plenty of doubts to be heard about the war rationale for anyone who didn’t close their ears to them. That, however, won’t stop Wieseltier from failing to heed the experts this time around, where the nuclear non-proliferation and foreign policy establishments are lined up in near consensus behind a deal.

Most of those experts recognize what Wieseltier refuses to: that moral preening can be satisfying, but that one must also consider policies in terms of the alternatives. Yet Wieseltier refuses even considering alternatives. He writes: “But what is the alternative? This is the question that is supposed to silence all objections. It is, for a start, a demagogic question.” Considering the figures Wieseltier’s anti-deal stance puts him in league with, the accusation of demagoguery is hilarious. But who can blame him? For all the pompous prose, the moralizing about the evil Iranian regime, and the professed love for the Iranian people, this is the best Wieseltier can come up with for an actual plan of action:

This accord will strengthen a contemptible regime. And so I propose—futilely, I know—that now, in the aftermath of the accord, America proceed to weaken it. The conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action should be accompanied by a resumption of our hostility to the Iranian regime and its various forces.

Freedom Agenda Repackaged

This means, first and foremost, restoring George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda. It means calling for Iran to release political dissidents and the Americans it holds under house arrest or in prison. It means aiding Iran’s political opposition (which has ruled out American aid in the past). And it means proxy war: “We need to arm the enemies of Iran in Syria and Iraq, and for many reasons,” Wieseltier writes. Does he know who Iran’s enemies in Iraq are? Let me give some hints: they don’t care much about the Freedom Agenda or the Iranian people—they like beheading Shiites.

After all his pompous prose, Wieseltier ends his list of recommendations with this one: “We need to explore, with diplomatic daring, an American-sponsored alliance between Israel and the Sunni states, which are now experiencing an unprecedented convergence of interests.”

Nothing screams Freedom Agenda and democracy promotion like helping one country that holds millions in stateless subjugation (with US funding) and another that doesn’t exactly have a reputation for Jeffersonian democracy—or any democracy at all, really—to be better buddies because they both fear Iranian influence. Now that makes me want to laugh.

Wieseltier knows his advice will—thankfully, for the rest of us—fall on deaf ears. He concludes: “We will instead persist in letting the fire spread and letting time tell, which we call realism. Wanting not to fight wars, we refuse to join struggles. Sometimes, I guess, history really is a rut.” Yes, and so, too, does bankrupt, ideological moralizing. Thank goodness our country won’t again join Wieseltier’s struggle.


About the Author

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Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.



7 Responses to Wieseltier on Iran: Laughable

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  1. avatar KA says:

    Sometimes hatred is so visceral ,extreme,and mean that it couldn’t be contained , Neither it could be expressed in logical thoughts . Wiestilier knows his thought premises and concerns are of such nature ( anti peace,anti American,anti world opinion,anti business,and pro Israel) that he couldn’t use them to argue .
    But he can use words to express his emotion.
    He can use emotion to express he thought .

  2. avatar Monty Ahwazi says:

    Thank you Mr Gharib for digging into the mindset of some people in the political background whom about most Americans never heard! As I hear more from those who oppose the deal their issue IS NOT whether Iran is equipped with nuclear arsenal or not! They are only interested in keeping a chaotic and destabilized ME with no challenge to them so they can do about anything they want to do just like what they have, are and will be doing. A chaotic and destabilized ME region is very much favored by the arms manufacturers and their dealers! Also the oil companies can manipulate a destabilized region more effectively to steal the resources and since they are in cahoots with the arms dealers then the states in the ME are buying the arms from their junkyards for their own survival without much cash being transacted!! Of course the last but the least, the president of USA has checkmated his opponents, sort of icing on the cake in 7 years, and his opponents are surprised that a Black Person can indeed accomplish a detailed and complex deal with an adversary like Iran!!

  3. avatar KA says:

    Why he is bringing Sunni? Sunnis have accepted . Saudi cautiously have welcomed. Saudis are categorical that this deal would be good to prevent nuclear proliferation .

    So why is this guy saying so?
    Is he preparing a narrative and then force Saudi to ditch what seems to be the best pro American deal ?
    This whole Shia and Sunni problem have been repeatedly referred to by some psychopathic leaders from late 2003 before even there were any sectarian fights.
    This is a clever ploy and way to hide their own game plan of putting Shia Sunni against one another . Cheney did it . Now the minions couldn’t think of any other options but to try same .

    Another ” fix” is being created . It is reminiscent of intelligence fix . Nnow instead of inteligence ,certain other historical,re
    Iguous ,social,and clan fault lines are being highlighted to generate new kind of ” fix” to play a wreck a much divisive. More dangerous more long lasting enmity .

  4. avatar James Canning says:

    Weiseltier was “deceived” on Iraq’s supposed threat to the US because he very much wanted to be deceived.

  5. avatar Dweb says:

    Leon needs to read more Atrios:

    …memory tells me that when North Korea and Pakistan got nukes, and Pakistan handed out nuke tech like candy all around the world, the WAR IS THE ANSWER TO EVERYTHING crowd just shrugged. I suspect their “fear” of other countries getting nukes is less about fearing they’ll use them, and more about fearing that it will make us harder for us to bomb them into freedom.

    Whatever the reality, the concept of MAD (mutually assured destruction) still exists. No one who uses nukes against us can expect to survive. It’s all pretty silly. I don’t want nuclear proliferation, but we’ve been telling countries for years that having them is the best way to prevent us from attacking them.

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