Salon Radio: L.A. Times' Tim Rutten on Ahmadinejad

Is the U.S. failing to take the "Iranian threat" seriously enough, or is that threat being exaggerated and distorted?

By Glenn Greenwald
Published October 3, 2008 3:18PM (EDT)

(updated below)

The Los Angeles Times's Tim Rutten wrote a column on Wednesday attacking "last week's abominable speech by the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at the United Nations." Rutten chided the U.N. and the American public for not taking Ahmadinejad's "threats" seriously enough and ended his column this way: "Shame on them; shame on us." The headline: "Ahmadinejad's evil words aren't just talk -- Threats by Iran's president are not empty rhetoric; he means what he says, and we ignore him at our peril." Rutten recited many of the standard claims made by those who urge a harder-line towards Iran.

I disagreed with numerous points Rutten made as well as the column's overall tenor and mentality, and invited him on Salon Radio to discuss his column. The interview is roughly 20 minutes long and can be heard by clicking PLAY below. A transcript is here.

UPDATE: On an obviously related note, this was the exchange I found most striking in last night's Biden-Palin debate:

BIDEN: Gwen, no one in the United States Senate has been a better friend to Israel than Joe Biden. I would have never, ever joined this ticket were I not absolutely sure Barack Obama shared my passion. . . .

PALIN: But I'm so encouraged to know that we both love Israel, and I think that is a good thing to get to agree on, Sen. Biden. I respect your position on that.

They don't just consider Israel an ally. They don't just both support Israel. No, that's woefully inadequate. Instead: Biden has a "passion" for Israel and is its best friend, while Palin declares how excited she is that they "both love Israel."

They "love Israel"? I'm asking this literally, not rhetorically: is there any other country in the world where presidential candidates are required to -- or even could -- proclaim their "passion" and "love" for another country in a national election? And other than Israel, is there any country for which candidates for the American presidency could get away with proclaiming their "passion" and "love"? It's not exactly healthy or rational for someone who wants to lead one country to swear their fealty, passion and love for another.

This interview can be heard by clicking PLAY on the recorder below:

Glenn Greenwald: My guest today is Tim Rutten, the former media critic and current columnist for The Los Angeles Times, and we're here to discuss a column that Tim wrote today, today being Wednesday, the day that we're taping, regarding the speech last week to the United Nations by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Tim, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today.

Tim Rutten: Great to talk to you.

GG: Now, the argument in essence that you made is that we, collectively, are not taking Ahmadinejad's statements, his more extreme statements, seriously enough, and that we ought to believe what it is that he says, and believe that he means it. At the end of your column, you compare his beliefs to those who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, and you say:

This is what the men who brought that hell of 9/11 to America believe. This is what Ahmadinejad believes, and what he simply awaits the opportunity to act on.

Do you think that Iran is planning to attack the United States, or perpetrate an attack like the 9/11 attacks?

TR: No, because they're not able to, and because as a nation-state they would face a kind of retaliation that the terrorists didn't. If I could just circle back, though, I think the deeper point I was trying to make is that we in this country have for a very long time now, have had a hard time believing that Islamists, particularly those who, on the Sunni side who adhere to various forms of jihadism, and there are different forms, or on the Shia side, as the Iranian President is, various forms of messianic Islamism; and he happens to belong to a school - it would be too far to call it a sect - that actively anticipates the Mahdi in the same sense that, say, the coming of the Mahdi is, for Islamic savior, the hidden imam, in the same sense that some of our evangelical brethren here in the United States await the imminent execution of the Rapture.

So, the deeper point I was trying to make there, and it's one I've made before, is that we don't believe that these people, in particular policy makers, simply find it incredible to believe that these people act on these beliefs, that they believe what they say when you read them, say, the texts of Katab or any of the other foundational writings of jihadism. They do believe it. And given the proper opportunity, they do act on it.

GG: Has Ahmadinejad or Iran in the recent past -- or actually ever -- attacked another country, invaded another country, done things--

TR: Oh, sure, of course they have--

GG: Who have they attacked?

TR: Well, they were involved in the terrorist attack on the Jewish center in Buenos Aires. They were involved in the bombing of our military barracks in Khobar in Saudi Arabia. Yes, they've done, they've encouraged and facilitated actions by Hamas in Lebanon. There's some evidence to show that in fact they may even have been involved in the very long ago bombing of the Marine Corps barracks there--

GG: You mean 25 years ago? What I'm asking you is, for example, the United States attacked Iraq, invaded Iraq, has been occupying that country for the last five or six years.

TR: Twice.

GG: Right, and is currently occupying it. Has Iran done anything like that that would suggest that they are suicidal, that they act irrationally, that they're willing to risk retaliation to attack a more powerful country that can retaliate against them?

TR: Well, no; I think it's all a matter of opportunity. The United States behaved irrationally when it invaded Iraq because it was strong and had the opportunity to do it. And because Cheney and the other people around him believed what they said they believed. Have the Iranians done that, have they invaded another country? No, because they haven't had the opportunity to do it. Because they're, frankly they've had no ability to project organized military power outside of their own borders since the war with Saddam Hussein.

GG: Right.

TR: It's also a measure of their economic chaos. But when you say, do they behave irrationally, I would offer the judgment that any theocracy is an irrational system and therefore Iran lives under an irrational government.

GG: Right. All the examples that you gave to suggest that Iran is involved in violence or terrorism -- and a lot of those are pretty precarious assertions. I don't think it's proven that they were involved in the attack on the Buenos Aires Jewish center. But let's assume that those are all really acts of the Iranian government. Those all pre-date Ahmadinejad's presidency.

Has Iran done anything since he's been president that would suggest that this is more than just rhetoric, that they actually are acting on these apocalyptic visions?

TR: No, that's the point. The point is that they require, to act on these apocalyptic visions, they require opportunity. They just haven't had these since he's been president, frankly because of, for most of the time, like everybody else I think, transfixed by the war on either side of them.

GG: Well, one of the things that you don't say in your column, and in fairness -- it's not a criticism, it's just isn't the topic of your column, but I'm curious anyway, is this: you argue that we ought to be taking these statements more seriously but you don't say what it is, if anything, the United States ought to be doing towards Iran, or about Iran that we're not currently doing.

What do you think we ought to be doing in taking these threats more seriously that we're not already doing?

TR: Thanks for that, the purpose of the column you write, you understand that, you do a column, it's about one thing. This is about believing these people mean what it is that they say - empathy. More important, that they believe it for the reasons they say they do. That is, it's grounded in their religious faith, and certain things flow from that, including certain ideals of martyrdom.

But, going directly to your question, the question what do you do about it, well, I think we've seen the folly of pre-emptive war in Iraq, and we don't need to recapitulate that. I do think that we need to do everything we can, the next president, whoever he is, needs to do everything they can to make the case in the international court of opinion, that it's in nobody's interest for Iran to be a nuclear power. And we ought to do what we can to isolate them as much as possible, and then negotiate them out of their isolation in -- The truth of the matter is that negotiations have worked with the North Koreans, who are if anything, and far more obscure and difficult society to get a fix on. And up until the North Koreans came to believe that, I think rather rightly, that the Bush administration was not making good on the promises they'd made to them in the five party negotiations, that basically negotiations had brought the North Koreans' nuclear program to a halt, which is in everybody's interest. And nobody got hurt in the process.

And I think that's what we need in Iran, this negotiated settlement that relieves of them of their nuclear ambitions. That doesn't mean they can't have, or don't have a right to a civilian nuclear program, and there are lots of ways to make sure that they won't. Although why a country sitting on that much oil and gas wants a nuclear power program is somebody else's--

GG: I guess the theory there is they want to be able to use their oil for exports and then use nuclear energy for domestic sources.

TR: So they'll import nuclear technology.

GG: Let me ask you this question. You point out rightly in your column that Ahmadinejad's speech didn't get much attention. I think in part that's because he said all these things before, and in part it's because, as you point out, there's lots of big political issue in the United States: the election, the bail-out, etc. But one of the people who has paid attention to it, actually, who's paying a lot of attention to it, is Sarah Palin, who in lots of interviews is warning that if we're insufficiently supportive of Israel, we may send a signal, or will send a signal that we're going to allow Iran to perpetrate a second Holocaust.

Do you think that that is a meaningful threat, that Iran wants to exterminate large numbers or all Jews from the face of the Earth, and perpetrate a second Holocaust?

TR: I think that Iranians who hold to the extreme Islamic school that he does, yes, I think they do.

GG: Well, do you know--

TR: in the same way I believe that the ideological godfathers of al Qaeda would. But, do I think the Israelis are incapable of taking care of themselves? No, I don't think the Israelis need us to hold some sort of military umbrella over them to protect themselves.

GG: Well, how about within Iran? Do you know: are there many Jews within Iran? Do you know how they're treated?

TR: It's, the Jewish community in Iran has dwindled dramatically since the Revolution, and I'm not quite sure what it is now, but at least I know it's very pale shadow of itself. I know that the same thing has happened to the Baha'I's and the same thing has happened to the Zoroastrians. It's an intolerant theocracy and they persecute people of other religions just as, frankly, most of the Arab states do.

GG: Right.

TR: Our great friend Saudi Arabia is one of the most intolerant societies on Earth.

GG: Exactly. Well, that's the thing. I think there's roughly 25,000 -- more even still -- Jews in Iran--

TR: But when you consider what the historic Jewish community in Iran was...

GG: Well, they've left. They've absolutely left.

TR: They left.

GG: Right, but I guess the question is, if Iran is a new Nazi regime, in the sense of they want to perpetrate a second Holocaust--

TR: No, no, they're not Nazis. They're not Nazis. No, no, no. They are what they are. They are an Islamist regime.

GG: But I mean by "Nazis" -- I'm not equating them to Nazis, I'm analogizing them to Nazis in this desire that Sarah Palin says that they have, and others say that they have, and you seem to be suggesting you think they might have as well, which is to exterminate Jews. They can't attack Israel because Israel is too powerful, but why aren't they killing or more aggressively persecuting even the Jews within their country?

There's actually a Jew in the Iranian Parliament, something you could almost never have in virtually any other Muslim country in the Middle East, including, as you say, many of our best allies. Why should we take these claims of a second Holocaust and the like seriously, given that there's a Jewish community within Iran that more or less is treated peacefully?

TR: Glenn, there was a Jewish community in Germany until there wasn't.

GG: Right, but there were lots of signs prior to that that there was lots of great hostility. In other words--

TR: There's lots of signs in Iran. For example, can you build a new synagogue in Iran?

GG: Well, there are synagogues in Iran. Can you build--

TR: Can you build a new one?

GG: I don't know. I know there's no synagogues in Saudi Arabia. There's no synagogues in Egypt.

TR: Or a church. Nor in Saudi Arabia a Catholic church. No, but you can't build a new synagogue in Iran. And it's not required that we believe that they're tolerant people, to have a discussion about whether or not some factions, these Islamist factions . . . . Look, not all Iranians are Islamists. And that's one of the things that ought to make people hopeful about Iran and one of the major reason that I think the policy of containment and isolation would really work with them, is because there's every reason to believe that their own younger people are very discontented, and given the opportunity would, at some point, they'll create some other kind of society. Then we'll all be better off.

GG: Right. Let me ask you this question. The main thesis of your column is that, look, these statements from Ahmadinejad shouldn't be dismissed as just frivolous statements; we ought to take them seriously. You can point to a lot of statements inside the United States from prominent Americans, John McCain singing songs about bombing Iran, Bill Kristol and Joe Lieberman advocating an attack. And in fact the Congress has before it pending a bill to urge a naval blockade of Iran. Commentary Magazine has published articles saying we should invade Iran, seize their oil assets and demand that they change the government.

If you were an Iranian, wouldn't you be suggesting that those kind of threats ought to be taken at least as seriously as Ahmadinejad's? Because unlike Iran, we can actually attack them; we actually have the capability to do that.

TR: We could try. I don't think we do have that anymore, given what's happening in Iraq, and what's happening in Afghanistan. Sure, if I were a Iranian worried about their security situation, I'd make the point that there are belligerent hard-liners in the American system, and you have to worry about them coming to power again. And you shouldn't stick your finger in their eye for that reason. Yeah, that makes sense.

But that's not, that's different from John McCain and so for - that's apart from the point I was making about these people. They don't say these things for effect. They don't say them as a tactic. They say them because they believe them, and that is the fundamental failing in our thinking about Islamism. It's not crediting the sincerity of their religious beliefs which is absolute.

GG: Okay. What about, you alluded earlier to the fact that there are sects in the United States that have similar views, right? These apocalyptic visions, these beliefs in a very hard-line in favor of Israel in order to facilitate the Rapture. Do you take those views just as seriously? Do you believe that people who subscribe to those religious visions believe them just as fervently as the Iranian President believes his?

TR: Oh, yeah. I certainly do, yes.

GG: Okay.

TR: Some of them, sure.

GG: Some prominent ones...

TR: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. That's why I don't think they should have power.

GG: Right.

TR: It's slightly different, I always find their support for Israel slightly amusing since their support for Israel is all based on the notion that they want all the Jews to gather there so they can undergo a mass conversion.

GG: Right.

TR: They don't want to murder Jewish bodies; they just want murder Jewish souls.

GG: I mean, I guess conservative Jews have been happy for that support because they don't actually believe that day will happen. They believe only the good stuff will happen, only the pay off...

TR: Right, exactly. I think the Israelis live in a rough neighborhood and I think they take their friends where they can get them, and they, sometimes their judgment isn't everything you'd want it to be.

GG: Last question, Tim, and it's this: Prior to Ahmadinejad's being anywhere near the seat of power, and by the way, you would agree that he's not the most powerful political leader in Iran, right?

TR: No, they have... power is shared by this group of mullahs.

GG: But there's a Supreme Leader who is not Mahmoud...

TR: It's not even clear that his power is unchecked. It's...

GG: That's right, it's more diffuse.

TR: More diffuse among these sort of like-minded mullahs. Yeah.

GG: But if you were, back in 2002, before there was a Mahmoud Ahmadinejad anywhere near the presidency of Iran, we declared Iran to be a member of the Axis of Evil, along with Iraq and North Korea. And the Iranians saw what we did to Iraq, which didn't have nuclear weapons, and saw how we treated North Korea, which had them.

If you were an Iranian leader, wouldn't you consider it pretty rational to think that acquiring nuclear weapons is a rational course of action to protect your country from attack, rather than to launch attacks? And if so, how do we go about changing that calculus?

TR: Look, I think that the perfectly reasonable way of looking at things. You could also, if you were an Iranian leader, look in the other direction, and see how Libya, which drew the opposite conclusion, has fared significantly under its nuclear ambitions. And Libya's doing fairly well. You got Gaddafi welcomed with open arms by Sarkozy, and Libya's rejoining the community of nations after all these years as a pariah state. And it's in many ways an even wackier place than, almost as wacky a place as North Korea. You could look at it that way.

I understand that calculus; I think that it was one of the many... forcing people to consider those choices is one of the many reason that speech was a bad idea. I think it's far better to have approached Iranians mutually, and simply said look, this is the problem, and have gotten the Russians involved, which needs to be done. And anyway, I didn't think much of that speech at the time, and I don't think it should surprise any of us that it provoked all sort of reactions we'd rather not have seen.

GG: Alright, Tim, well I thought your column was interesting, that's why I wanted to talk to you about it and I appreciate your taking the time to chat today.

TR: Oh, a pleasure.

GG: Okay, thanks so much.

[Transcript courtesy of Thames Valley Transcribe]

Glenn Greenwald

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