In the ever-escalating war of words between Israel and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program, some top Israeli officials have repeatedly compared the current regime in Tehran to Nazi Germany and Adolph Hitler’s program of exterminating the Jews.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been disdainful of the efficacy of western economic sanctions on halting Iran’s uranium-enrichment program, again compared Iran to 1930s Germany during recent Holocaust memorial services.
“Today, the regime in Iran openly calls and determinedly works for our destruction,” he told a gathering at the Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Yad Vashem memorial held on Wednesday.
“And it is feverishly working to develop atomic weapons to achieve that goal. I know that there are those who do not like when I speak such uncomfortable truths. They prefer that we not speak of a nuclear Iran as an existential threat. They say that such language, even if true, only sows fear and panic.”
Netanyahu also declared: “Those who dismiss Iran’s threats as exaggerated or as mere idle posturing have learned nothing from the Holocaust. But we should not be surprised… The truth is that a nuclear-armed Iran is an existential threat of the State of Israel. The truth is that a nuclear-armed Iran is a political threat to other countries throughout the region and a grave threat to the world peace. The truth is that Iran must be stopped from obtaining nuclear weapons.”
But such incendiary remarks are nothing new for Netanyahu. As long ago as 2006, he told a Jewish group in Los Angeles: “It is 1938. Iran is Germany, and it is about to arm itself with nuclear weapons.”
Do Netanyahu and Oren and others have a legitimate point? Is the Islamic Republic of Iran really a modern-day version of the Third Reich. While it may seem ludicrous on the surface, once mist recall that Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has spewed vitriol against Israel and the Jews for years, echoing the views of many Iranian officials.
International Business Times spoke with an expert on U.S. foreign policy and global politics to discuss this topic.
Jamie Chandler is a professor of political science at Hunter College in New York City.
IB TIMES: In their sweeping rhetoric against Iran, some of the top government officials in Israel, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and foreign minister Avigdor Liebermann, have repeatedly compared the present-day Tehran regime to 1930s Nazi Germany. Do you think this a grotesque exaggeration, or are there some legitimate comparisons that can be made?
CHANDLER: This is not an exaggeration, but Iran is more like the Nazi regime with respect to its foreign policy rather than its domestic policy. Netanyahu and Liebermann’s comparisons are supported by political realities that are a reflection of the Ahmadinejad administration, but not part of a Nazi-like populist movement sweeping Iranian society. Ahmadinejad has made numerous anti-Semitic comments that make clear that his administration’s nuclear program is not only meant to help Iran achieve regional dominance but also to bring great harm to Israel. His 2008 statement on Israel’s 60th birthday is one example. He said: “Those who think they can revive the stinking corpse of usurping [the] fake Israeli regime by throwing a birthday party are seriously mistaken. Today the reason for the Zionist regime’s existence is questioned, and this regime is on its way to annihilation.”
IB TIMES: Adolf Hitler made extreme anti-Semitism official state policy and sought to exterminate the Jews. While senior Iranian officials, including Ahmadinejad, have repeatedly made inflammatory remarks against Israel, have they enacted any anti-Semitic policies against Iranian Jews?
CHANDLER: Iran’s official anti-Semitic Foreign Policy doesn’t carry through to its treatment of its Jewish citizens. Iran’s estimated 75,000 Persian Jews are recognized by the Islamic Republic’s Constitution as equals with Muslims, and as a religious minority are allocated a seat in the Parliament. However, Iranian history indicates that this is only a recent development. During the Safavid and Qajar dynasties, Jews were deemed unclean, and physical contact required Shi’a Muslims to conduct ritual purification before prayer. The Pahlavi dynasty, on the other hand, instituted reforms that lifted restrictions on Jews and other religious minorities.
IB TIMES: Iran has a parliament, a cabinet, elections and a fairly robust opposition movement. Thus, can the Iranian regime be considered “totalitarian”?
CHANDLER: Iran is not a totalitarian government, but rather a combination of a democracy and an Islamic theocracy. Totalitarian systems recognize no limits on its authority and regulate every aspect of public and private life. They are single- party systems and stay in power through propaganda and state-controlled media, and are also marked by cults of personality, mass surveillance and widespread uses of terror. Iran has tight control over its economy, follows planning principles similar to the Soviet Union, has indoctrination principles in its education system, and has shut down hundreds of reformist newspapers. But it also recognizes private property ownership and the rights of religious minorities. Ahmadinejad-friendly politicians also lost control of the parliament during the March 2012 elections. Iran also has a system of checks and balances in place between the military, the Supreme Leader, the Judiciary, the President, voters, the Parliament, and the Assembly of Experts.
IB TIMES: SAVAK, the notorious secret police that operated under the Shah, might be compared with Nazi Germany's Gestapo and S.S. Does the SAVAK still exist in Iran today in any shape or form?
CHANDLER: The Islamic Republic’s Ministry of Intelligence and National Security, aka MISIRI, replaced the SAVAK in 1984. Intelligence information on this organization is sparse, but it has engaged in a number of violent campaigns, including the 1998 ‘chain murders’ of several dissidents and politicians, but a public outcry lead to the prosecution of Ministry officials behind the killings. They received the death penalty, but later had their sentences reduced to life in prison by the Supreme Leader. It’s not clear as to the degree this agency played in Iran’s recent assassination plot against Saudi Arabia’s U.S. ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir.
IB TIMES: Hitler had the support of some segments of the German population (including the military, big business, etc.). Does Ahmadinejad have comparable support among the Iranian population and institutions?
CHANDLER: Unlike Hitler, Ahmadinejad does not have unanimous support or control over various segments of Iranian society. Over the course of his two terms, he has held onto power with the support of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the revolutionary guards and militias. But he recently ran afoul of Ali Khamenei and has challenged the authority of the nation’s clerics. These strains spilled into public view in 2011, when several mullahs lead public prayer services indirectly criticizing him. In October 2011, Ali Khamenei proposed to eliminate the presidency, and the March 2012 elections gave him a 90 percent majority to put a leash on Ahmadinejad. But his proposal is not likely to be instituted until after the June 2013 end of Ahmadinejad’s lame-duck term. Iran’s business community has also opposed Ahmadinejad. The president has enraged the managerial class with his calls for the expansive funding of infrastructure in rural provinces, and his welfare-state initiatives have placed a great burden on Iran’s sanction-riddled economy. Iran’s business journals often promote Ahmadinejad’s challengers, criticizing his refusal to align Iran with the international community to benefit from globalization.
IB TIMES: How strong and sophisticated is Iran's military? Are they really able to launch a war on their stated enemies like Israel and the U.S.?
CHANDLER: Iran has a medium-sized military, but, unlike the U.S. and Israel, it’s not on the global list of top military powers. Iran’s military has about 525,000 soldiers, with 319 combat aircraft, three Russian Kilo submarines, three frigates, and two corvettes. But the Navy is in poor shape with obsolete equipment, and Iran doesn’t have domestic fighter jet production facilities to replace lost equipment. It would be very difficult for Iran to launch an extensive ground/air attack on Israel, and it would be impossible for it to do the same on the U.S. Iran could launch its Shahab-3 and Ghadr-1 missiles at U.S. bases and Israeli cities, but it doesn’t have the allied or political support from its neighbors to use their airspace or airbases to shuttle supplies, equipment, refuel planes, and mobilize troops to the front lines. Other than firing missiles, or launching a nuclear weapon, Iran would most likely not pursue a first-strike strategy. Instead, it would seek to fight a conventional war on its soil.
IB TIMES: Prior to World War II, did nations like the U.S. and the UK use diplomacy and sanctions to contain Germany's aggressions as they are now doing with Iran?
CHANDLER: Diplomacy has been the default option for dealing with rogue states that have significant influence over their regions. During the inter-war period, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain sought to appease Germany. The UK also played a role in designing the Locarno Treaties and Kellogg-Briand Pact that reintegrated Germany into Europe after World War I. Now, military action with Iran would come with a lot of international costs. Unlike the NATO bombing in Libya, an attack would bring great opposition from China and Russia, and also jeopardize their economic investments there. It would also have a destabilizing effect on crude oil prices, which jeopardize the global economy. The nuclear crisis has been a contributing factor to the recent rise in gas prices. Unless the crisis reaches a boiling point, such as Oran testing or near-to-testing a nuclear device, leading world powers will continue to pursue containment through sanctions and diplomacy.
IB TIMES: The U.S. and Europe (as in the 1930s) are mired in a deep economic slump. Could it be argued that financial factors prevented the U.S., UK and France from stopping Germany’s war machine before it was too late? Similarly, is the west unable to really dissuade Iran from making nuclear bombs because of its own internal problems?
CHANDLER: The Depression played a partial role in keeping the U.S., UK and France from checking Germany during the inter-war period. But a stronger reason was that non-interventionist philosophies dominated those countries’ foreign policies. There was no political will to keep Germany at bay. Economic conditions do fuel support for non-intervention, but they’re not the determining factor. Early in the 2012 Presidential Campaign, several of the candidates talked of non-intervention in response to the popularity of Ron Paul’s support for it. Some of the candidates advocated for an end to the Afghanistan war, closing some military bases, and also pushing Germany and Japan to shoulder the costs of U.S. security over their regions. Domestic politics will play a role in how the West deals with Iran’s nuclear program, either militarily or diplomatically, but these dynamics have more to do with complex relationships between the West, Israel, Russia, and China. A military campaign would have far-reaching effects on the economic conditions of the Persian Gulf region, the flow of oil, and the stability of other Arabian states. Regardless of the U.S.’ debt and economic problems, its defense budget will not get a significant hit, and the U.S. will not ignore the dangers of Iran’s nuclear program.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.