by Jim Lobe & Daniel Luban
For much of the past few years, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has described the ruling regime in Iran as “messianic” and “apocalyptic”, a talking point he repeated over and over again last week during his latest trip to the United States.
“You don’t want to be in a position where this messianic, apocalyptic, radical regime that has these wild ambitions but a nice spokesman gets away with building the weapons of mass death,” he told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell on Oct 2. The following day, he was at it again, insisting to Stephen Inskeep of NPR that “Iran’s doctrinaire, messianic, apocalyptic regime” was also a “terrorist regime bent on world domination.”
Of course, it was much easier to make such claims when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the public face of the Islamic regime — particularly during his annual appearances at the UN General Assembly, where he craved the spotlight and often made deeply provocative statements in order to gain it. As Netanyahu himself has argued, it’s much more difficult to make that case now that Ahmadinejad has been replaced by Hassan Rouhani, who has explicitly rejected much of the style and substance of his predecessor. So far, Rouhani has been an unqualified hit — Newsweek’s Christopher Dickey suggested that he came across as a kind of “Santa Clause in a turban” during his maiden visit to the UN — and his much-publicized phone call with President Obama at the end of his visit has raised hopes of a rapprochement over the Iranian nuclear issue.
Hopes for some, at least. Politically speaking, such a rapprochement would be Netanyahu’s worst nightmare — both in terms of potentially legitimizing some Iranian nuclear enrichment and, perhaps more importantly, in returning attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which Netanyahu has effectively relegated to the back burner with his repeated threats of war against Iran. It’s therefore hardly surprising that Netanyahu, who has called Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” since the beginning of the President’s new term, feels compelled to repeat ad nauseam the “messianic, apocalyptic” nature of the “cult” for which Rouhani serves as a mere “clerk.” (As LobeLog noted several years ago, this is a familiar dance for Iran hawks: when the Iranian president is a radical like Ahmadinejad, they play up his power; when it’s a moderate like Rouhani, they deride him as a mere figurehead.)
We do not doubt that there may be “messianic” and “apocalyptic” currents within the Iranian regime. But even a cursory examination of Netanyahu’s rhetoric indicates that there may be more than a little projection at work here.
A quick look at definitions helps demonstrate what we mean. “Messianic,” according to Merriam-Webster, means “supporting a social, political, or religious cause or set of beliefs with great enthusiasm and energy” — a description that certainly applies to Netanyahu’s Likudist faith. “Messianism,” according to the Free Dictionary, may include a “belief that a particular cause or movement is destined to…save the world.”
Consider in that connection what Netanyahu himself told the UN General Assembly in his speech last week:
I want there to be no confusion on this point. Israel will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone. Yet, in standing alone, Israel will know that we will be defending many, many others.
In the Weekly Standard’s lead editorial this week, Bill Kristol and Michael Makovsky argued that Netanyahu was referencing Winston Churchill’s remarks in July 1940 during the Battle of Britain: “And now it has come to us to stand alone in the breach…We are fighting by ourselves alone; but we are not fighting for ourselves alone” as London “enshrines the title deeds of human progress.” Thus we are made to understand that Netanyahu sees himself as Churchill (indeed, the authors tell us that he has a photo of the great man on his office wall behind his desk) standing alone and defiant against the barbarity of Nazism — whose modern-day equivalent, of course, is the Islamic Republic of Iran (or the Biblical Amalek). Who knows if Netanyahu, in his heart of hearts, really sees his conflict with Iran in the same light as Churchill’s conflict with Nazi Germany. In any case, “messianic” would certainly be one way of describing both his rhetoric and its historical allusions.
As for “apocalyptic,” Netanyahu’s descriptions of Iran, particularly an Iran armed with a nuclear weapon, would seem apt. Merriam-Webster defines the word as “of, relating to, or involving terrible violence and destruction” and “of or relating to the end of the world.”
“A nuclear Iran is an existential threat on the State of Israel and also on the rest of the world,” he said at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, last year, arguing that those who dismiss the Iranian threat “have learned nothing from the Holocaust.” He posed a similar question just last week in his UN speech, leaving little doubt that he was paralleling Iran with Nazi Germany:
Now, I know that some in the international community think I’m exaggerating this threat. Sure, they know that Iran’s regime leads these chants, “death to America, death to Israel,” that it pledges to wipe Israel off the map. But they think that this wild rhetoric is just bluster for domestic consumption. Have these people learned nothing from history? The last century has taught us that when a radical regime with global ambitions gets awesome power, sooner or later its appetite for aggression knows no bounds.
That’s the central lesson of the 20th century. And we cannot forget it. The world may have forgotten this lesson. The Jewish people have not.
Elsewhere, Netanyahu has dropped the insinuations and veiled parallels, however obvious they might be, and stated his position baldly: “It is 1938,” he told the Jewish Federations of North America back in 2006 when he was chairman of Likud. “Iran is Germany, and it is about to arm itself with nuclear weapons.” One really can’t get more apocalyptic than that.
Again, it’s difficult to tell whether Netanyahu actually believes any of this or is just trying to rally support for Israel’s hard-line positions and deflect international attention from the Palestinian question. While we are inclined to view his rhetoric as mostly cynical, his recently-espoused claim that Iranians are not permitted to wear jeans or listen to western music suggests that we can’t completely discount sheer ignorance or a Manichaean worldview that can’t reconcile blue jeans with his image of the Islamic Republic. In either case, we can probably expect his rhetoric to become increasingly messianic and apocalyptic if and when the possibility of peace between the US and Iran increases.