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Naive on Iran

Roger Cohen strikes again. Last time we considered this venerated New York Times columnist, Cohen was urging Hillary Clinton to show Israel some tough love.

Now he weighs in with a column describing life for Iran’s Jews as hunky dory. While declaring "The Arab Jew has perished. The Persian Jew has fared better," Cohen writes:

A mystery hovers over Iran’s Jews. It’s important to decide what’s more significant: the annihilationist anti-Israel ranting, the Holocaust denial and other Iranian provocations — or the fact of a Jewish community living, working and worshipping in relative tranquillity.

Perhaps I have a bias toward facts over words, but I say the reality of Iranian civility toward Jews tells us more about Iran — its sophistication and culture — than all the inflammatory rhetoric.

That may be because I’m a Jew and have seldom been treated with such consistent warmth as in Iran. Or perhaps I was impressed that the fury over Gaza, trumpeted on posters and Iranian TV, never spilled over into insults or violence toward Jews. Or perhaps it’s because I’m convinced the “Mad Mullah” caricature of Iran and likening of any compromise with it to Munich 1938 — a position popular in some American Jewish circles — is misleading and dangerous.

Cohen draws a different conclusion about Iran’s anti-Israel threats:

Double standards don’t work anymore; the Middle East has become too sophisticated. One way to look at Iran’s scurrilous anti-Israel tirades is as a provocation to focus people on Israel’s bomb, its 41-year occupation of the West Bank, its Hamas denial, its repetitive use of overwhelming force. Iranian language can be vile, but any Middle East peace — and engagement with Tehran — will have to take account of these points.

I’ll make two limited points here:

1. Cohen says he has a bias for facts over words, but he doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that Jews in Iran may be holding back when they talk to him for fear of the regime’s long arm. This is a place where 13 Jews from Shiraz were charged with spying for Israel in a trumped-up trial that resulted in multiyear prison sentences for Jewish innocents (which Cohen mentions in passing). This is a community living in fear of a president who never misses an opportunity to talk about the destruction of the Jewish state or argue that the Holocaust is an exagerration.

By all accounts, things have gotten worse for Iran’s remaining Jews under the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There is a reason the vast majority of Iran’s Jews have fled since the Islamic revolution of 1979. There is a reason Iran’s Jewish emigres from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv, where Iranian Jews can speek freely, advocate taking a harsh line toward the regime in Tehran. There is a reason recent immigrants to Israel from Iran must obscure their faces when talking to the news media. To say that Iran’s Jews enjoy tranquility is dangerously naive. Iran is a place where Jews are punished for expressing the fundamental Jewish value of yearning for Zion. It is a place where the specter of random arrest and imprisonment by a fundamentalist Islamic regime always hangs over the community.

The "consistent warmth" with which Cohen, a Jew, was treated in Iran is not indicative of the security of Iranian Jews. Cohen was treated warmly because the Persians have a long tradition of honoring guests, and because the people of Iran have little antipathy toward Jews. But the regime is another animal entirely, and it continues to do all it can to rally the Iranian people — and Muslims around the world — against the Jews and the Jewish state.

2. Only Roger Cohen could turn a column from Iran into an opportunity to thump Israel. Absent is discussion of Iran’s nuclear program, its support and training of terrorist groups in Lebanon and Gaza, and its threats to its Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf (In Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, the former head of Israel’s Missile Defense Organization, Uzi Rubin, finds another cause for concern in Iran’s recent launch of its Omid satellite). Instead, "Iran’s scurrilousanti-Israel tirades" are an opportunity to focus people on Israel’s "Hamas denial" — a clever but ultimately disgusting alliteration that alludes to some sort of equivalence with Holocaust denial.

This is not the place to defend Israel’s targeting of a terrorist group, or a military strategy that seeks to defeat the enemy rather than engaging in some twisted notion of fair play. But surely Iran is not the place for Cohen to level yet another attack on the Jewish state. Don’t we have enough anti-Israel rhetoric coming out of Iran already?

Elsewhere on the Times’ Op-Ed page, a former newspaper editor from Iran, Ali Reza Eshraghi, argues that the Obama administration should not wait to engage with Tehran until after presidential elections that could result in the end of Ahmadinejad’s tenure. Ahmadinejad has been making overtures to the new U.S. president, and Washington would be foolish to ignore them, Eshraghi writes:

Mr. Obama has expressed interest in engaging in dialogue with Iran, and there is no time to waste. Over the next few months he should initiate negotiations without preconditions and establish formal diplomatic ties with Iran. Mr. Ahmadinejad, for all his faults, has taken unprecedented steps to reach out to the United States. Iran’s next leader may not be able to do the same. Mr. Obama must seize the opportunity to shake the Iranian president’s outstretched hand.

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