Paul Pillar takes down Richard Cohen on Iran

On Tuesday Paul Pillar urged us to consider the dangerous momentum hawks gain when liberals echo their war drums by scrutinizing the “thinking and non-thinking” exemplified by Richard Cohen in his recent column about Iran. Cohen’s line of reasoning echoes that used by those who pushed for the Iraq war, writes Pillar, and his discussion about the alleged Iranian nuclear specter copies Israel’s alarmist rhetoric:

In referring to those feared possible Iranian nuclear weapons, Cohen raises another common specter—of an Iranian nuke touching off a spurt of proliferation throughout the Middle East. And like others who raise it, he never considers why the sizable Israeli nuclear arsenal, which has existed since the 1970s and involves at least as much antagonism and unresolved issues as anything having to do with Iran, should not have already touched off such a spurt. Speaking of Israel, Cohen goes on to note that while “few in the West take Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s threats to exterminate Israel seriously,” the “Israelis have some experience with the irrational and its consequences” and do not dismiss such threats. Cohen doesn’t say explicitly what the implication of this observation ought to be for U.S. policy. That the United States should fall in line with the posture of a state whose own view of Iran is in large part driven by emotion and—dare one use the word?—irrational fears? It shouldn’t, but unfortunately to a large extent that is what is happening.

Pillar also points out the absurd method Cohen uses to tie the alleged Iranian nuclear “threat” with the curious “Iranian plot”:

Cohen concludes his column by circling back to that weird alleged assassination plot. It would be an “incalculable mistake,” he says, for the United States to see the plot as “the reckless act of some runaway intelligence chief.” He invokes no less an authority than the traitor in a John le Carre novel, who observes that intelligence agencies are “the only real measure of a nation’s political health, the only real expression of its subconscious.” That’s right, says Cohen, and so the assassination plot “offers an insight into the entire Iranian regime. It’s too reckless to be allowed a nuclear arsenal.” How’s that for the conclusion of a compelling piece of analysis? The caper involving the used car salesman and the DEA agent shows that Iran cannot be permitted to have a nuclear weapon; a fictional character in a novel says so.

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Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.



  1. Is Paul Pillar any better than Richard Cohen? For instance, he claims that the Iranians were involved in the Khobar Towers bombing when all the evidence indicates that it was an al-Qaeda operation and the “evidence” that the US government claims to have of Iranian involvement has not been made public as far as I know. The US government has made many claims about Iranian involvement in attacks on US forces in Iraq but always fails to produce the evidence.
    He also ascribes responsibility for the bombings of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish social club to Hezbollah, again many claims have been made but no evidence has been tested.

  2. I’ll repeat, the Saudis have nukes. The difference is they are allied with the West, and, they have absolute leverage. Countries with absolute leverage get to rise above scrutiny. Where Turkey’s absolute leverage comes from it’s location, and the Saudis get theirs from their oil, what absolute leverage does Israel have? A: none inherent to the country, Israel’s absolute leverage comes from the US. This isn’t as enduring nor inherent as Iran’s–though it is stronger for the time being. If Iran gets nukes it will make it more powerful, which would do more for regional security than any other development on the horizon.

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