Thursday, March 5, 2015
What Scares Me about Iran? Not Iran... so much
There is nary an American who is not concerned about a nuclear Iran. We all recall the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut by Iranian ally Hizbollah, not to mention the continuing Iranian-supported militancy of Hizbollah. There is more than a suspicion that Iran was behind the bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires in 1994. But there is in the world today an odd confluence of neoconservative hawks and Evangelical Christians in the US and their Israeli counterparts, all of whom seem eager for confrontation and war. I worry about Iran, but these folks scare me even more!
There is nary an American who is not concerned about a nuclear Iran. We all recall the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut by Iranian ally Hizbollah, not to mention the continuing Iranian supported militancy of Hizbollah. There is more than a suspicion that Iran was behind the bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires in 1994. Why just today, March 5, 2015, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif assured Ann Curry of NBC News that Iran doesn’t want to annihilate Jews, it just wants to annihilate the Netanyahu regime. What a relief!
It’s no wonder, therefore, that there are no shortage of ominous jeremiads joining Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in warning of the dire consequences of a potential deal with Iran over its nuclear program. A nuclear Iran, these voices claim, would be an unacceptable threat to western security interests. Leaving Iran with even a one-year break out opportunity would simply not be adequate to prevent the inevitable and indefatigable Iranian drive for world dominance attained through the threat of a nuclear arsenal. An Iran entirely stripped of its nuclear program is the only acceptable solution.
But the nature of the voices making these pronouncements makes for some strange and even more frightening bedfellows. There is a somewhat odd confluence between neoconservative hawks and Evangelical Christians in the US, and their counterparts in Israel, particularly the Likud Party and its West Bank settler movement allies. As we witness these forces marching us inexorably into military confrontation with Iran, it may be worthwhile to take a look at what animates and motivates them.
The partnership between neoconservatives and Evangelicals in the US came to fruition in the Reagan administration. What both of these groups share is a kind of mythic view of international affairs which sees the international arena dominated by enemy forces of evil that must be confronted by what they call “American exceptionalism,” which invariably translates to military intervention. Our adversaries are not our adversaries. They are wholly other, "sons of darkness," godless communists, evil incarnate, the evil empire, the axis of evil, and their threats are ubiquitous. It’s actually no joke that the enemy agency in the 1960s sitcom “Get Smart” was named CHAOS. Our enemies represent just that—primordial chaos, the ultimate force of disorder in the world. There can be no compromise, no negotiating with them. They must be eliminated.
In the 1970s and 80s, the political mythology of neoconservatism well served the emerging Evangelical Christian movement represented by the likes of Jerry Falwell. Godless communism was not only a political threat, but a cosmic threat—an affront to God. Together with what the movement considered the moral decline of America, the advance of communism seemed an obvious symbol of a truly cosmic, catastrophic crisis.
While this ideology was getting under way, another remarkable event occurred. The tiny nation of Israel, beset and besieged by nations all around, managed to thwart Arab aggression and achieve a resounding—even miraculous—victory in the 1967 Six Day War. Suddenly, everything seemed to fit for Evangelicals. All of this represented a sign of the apocalyptic “End Times,” when, according to the biblical Book of Revelation, God would purify the world through a cataclysmic, cosmic battle at a biblical site known as Armageddon. This battle would result in the defeat of evil and bring about the Kingdom of Heaven for the faithful. The return of the Jews to Israel and the capture of old Jerusalem and the Western Wall had all been predicted by the prophets of old as precursors of this cosmic finale.
This way of viewing world affairs was not limited to Evangelical leaders. At the height of the 1984 presidential election, The New York Times reported on a walk back by President Ronald Reagan, who, according to a documentary titled “'Ronald Reagan and the Prophecy of Armageddon,” had frequently indicated his adherence to this imminent apocalyptic vision. The Times reported that “White House spokesmen have said the President's beliefs on Armageddon would not alter his firm conviction for peace and intent to seek arms control” (The New York Times, October 21, 1984; online at http://www.nytimes.com/1984/10/21/us/religious-leaders-tell-of-worry-on-armageddon-view-ascribed-to-reagan.html).
In those early days of the confluence of neoconservatism and Evangelical Christianity, the Soviet Union, China and the Arabs served as handy actors in this religio-political drama, and Evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell and Hal Lindsay saw these actors and the events unfolding in the 70s and 80s as the prelude to cosmic battle that would climax in an attack on Israel. In the end, however, God would intervene, Christ would return, defeat the evil forces and create a new heaven and a new earth.
While Hal Lindsay and his followers may be heartened by recent acts of Russian aggression as signs that their predictions are not wholly discredited, there is hardly a Russian-Arab axis, and it would be even more far fetched to imagine a Russo-Sino-Arab alliance arrayed against Israel. So it appears that we need to find a new apocalyptic primordial beast to be defeated in a cosmic battle that will herald the return of Christ and the new age. Who might that be?
Ahhhhh… Iran. Thank goodness Iran has arrived to play the role now that we’ve lost the Soviets. And to put icing on the cake, we have Al-Qa’eda and ISIS to complete a vision of the evil Muslim enemies of Christ and the American way of life. This new aggregated enemy once again cements the alliance between hawks and Evangelicals. The stage is set for the final battle.
In light of all of this, I react with equal doses of shock and dismay when I listen to Jewish Zionists extol the virtues of Evangelical Christians like Pastor John Hagee, founder and executive director of Christians United for Israel (CUFI). He has become the darling of many, to the extent that he delivered the keynote address at the 2011 Annual Policy Conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
But I have to wonder if these admirers have ever read Hagee's books or examined his speeches. The truth is, Hagee holds a dangerous and delusional apocalyptic understanding of contemporary international affairs. Cherry picking biblical verses from Jeremiah to Ezekiel, Isaiah, Daniel and Luke et al., and culminating in the apocalyptic visions of the Book of Revelation, Hagee has staked his reputation on the imminent outbreak of a nuclear war involving, among others, Israel and Iran.
But Hagee and his followers have nothing to fear from this nuclear holocaust. Following a passage in the Apostle Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians, the faithful--those who accept Jesus as the Messiah--will experience "the rapture." That is, they will be transported to heaven while the cataclysmic nuclear battle purges the earth of unbelievers. The faithful will then be restored to the new earth and the New Jerusalem ruled by a triumphant Christ as envisioned in Revelation.
But what about Israel and the Jews, whom Hagee and his followers purport to love? Again, Hagee relies on the Apostle Paul, who proclaims in his letter to the Romans that, in the end, "all Israel will be saved." Now, going back to Revelation, Hagee envisions 144,000 Jews who will accept Jesus as the Messiah, and thus, all Israel will be saved. From a Jewish perspective, that means that in Hagee's vision of the future, there will be no Jewish state and no Jews. Talk about Iranian threats of genocide?
Enter Benjamin Netanyahu. It would appear that Netanyahu has the best of both worlds, straddling the "never saw a threat I didn't like" perpetual war mindset of the neoconservative hawks and the apocalyptic visions of the Evangelicals. In Netanyahu's case, however, the apocalyptic vision may be somewhat tempered by Jewish Messianism, which does not universally envision a cosmic end-days battle as per the New Testament Book of Revelation.
Nonetheless, the Six Day War certainly gave encouragement to a tendency within the Jewish Zionist movement to understand the existence of the State of Israel in Messianic terms. In fact, the "Prayer for the State of Israel," recited in most synagogues regularly, characterizes the State of Israel as "the first fruit of our redemption," a rather clear messianic reference. This, indeed, forms the ideological and theological backbone of the Israeli West Bank settler movement, a crucial contingent within Netanyahu's governing coalition.
In this regard, the neoconservative mindset becomes a perfect backdrop facilitating the maintenance of Netanyahu's coalition, which has made clear that it rejects a two-state resolution of Israel's conflict with the Palestinians. This puts Netanyahu in a predicament. His coalition rejects the two-state solution, while his western allies, including the US, demand it. As the Prime Minister of Israel, he must console his western allies by paying lip service to the two-state solution while managing to maintain his coalition of rejectionists.
With regard to the Palestinians, the Israeli rejectionists manage to contrive language that allows them to continue to settle the West Bank while denying the rights of citizenship to the indigenous residents. The West Bank, in this way of arguing, is not legally “Israel,” so there is no legal obligation to extend citizenship to the Palestinian Arabs who live there. But neither is it “occupied territory,” which would render the settlements illegal. No, this territory is “disputed territory,” allowing for the continuation of the status quo. Of course, in order to have disputed territory, you need to have a dispute. A resolution of the dispute undermines the political strategy.
Iran is a sort of icing on this strategic cake. It ties into another important theme that supports Netanyahu’s neoconservative worldview. How can Israel possibly make any concessions in its relationship with the Arabs when there are threats everywhere, particularly a nuclear threat from Iran? And let’s not forget the surge of anti-Semitism in Europe. The Holocaust allusions are rampant, and the expression, “Never Again” drops effusively from Netanyahu’s lips.
Yes, we all worry about Iran, but what scares me more are these bellicose voices that seem downright eager to push the world into a major conflagration. That, it seems to me, is even more dangerous than Iran.