Commentary Magazine


An Ominous Turn in Elite Opinion

When Roger Cohen, the foreign-affairs columnist for the New York Times, traveled to Iran in January and February, the country he found was a revelation. Unlike the images of raging crowds chanting “Death to America” and fanatical Islam familiar to the West, what Cohen claimed to have discovered was a land whose bazaars were rich with the fragrance of incense and whose people were “sensual” as well as “educated” and “tolerant.”

In a series of op-ed columns published in February and March, and at an appearance at a Los Angeles synagogue during which he was confronted by Iranian exiles, Cohen’s determination to debunk what he sees as the distorted reputation of the Islamic Republic was undaunted by outrage from Jews and other observers more mindful of Tehran’s record of tyranny at home and support for terrorism abroad. Though he acknowledged that Iran was an “unfree society,” Cohen believes confrontation with it—even over its drive to acquire nuclear weapons—is not merely misguided but wrong.

Despite the regime’s promulgation of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, he thinks the popular conception of Iran is overblown and lacking in “nuance.” Comparisons of the Iranian government and its leaders to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were, he wrote, absurd if not an insult to the six million victims of the Holocaust. The focus on Iran’s behavior and nuclear ambitions was, he said, a distraction for American foreign-policy planners who would be more usefully employed promoting recognition of the Hamas and Hizballah terrorist groups as legitimate players in the Middle East with whom the State of Israel—which, according to Cohen, is in no position to criticize Iran for human rights violations—ought to be made to negotiate concessions.

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Roger Cohen was born in London in 1955 and is a naturalized American citizen now living in New York. Oxford-educated, he made his reputation as a savvy foreign correspondent for Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, the International Herald Tribune, and the Times. In his work for the Times op-ed page, Cohen still likes to play the old-fashioned foreign correspondent who ingenuously lands in a foreign clime and then relays his fresh-eyed impressions to his readers.

Yet for all of his experience in the field, Cohen’s accounts of his journey made it seem more like a trip to a latter-day version of Omar Khayyam’s Persia than to the Iran of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In his telling, Iran’s fascinating people and “complex” political culture are, despite rough moments (such as murderous oppression of the Baha’is and the attempts of the Islamist mullahs to control every aspect of Iranian life), the closest thing to a democracy in the Muslim Middle East. Notwithstanding the admiration for the people of Iran he developed during his three weeks there, most of what Cohen wrote about his stay concerned the remnant of the country’s once thriving Jewish community, which numbered over 210,000 at the time of Israel’s inception in 1948. Over the following four years, some 70,000 immigrated to Israel. After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, another 60,000 fled. There are just 20,000 in the country today.

One hears little about this community except when it becomes subject to terrible oppression, as in the 1999 arrests of thirteen Jews on false charges of spying on behalf of Israel. At least thirteen others have been executed since 1979 on a variety of pretexts, mostly having to do with the practice of Judaism or assisting emigration to Israel.

Nonetheless, according to Cohen, the Jews remaining in Iran are a generally happy lot. Rather than being intimidated by a repressive theocratic regime that has repeatedly jailed and executed religious minorities and has criminalized all contact with or support for Israel, the Jews to whom Cohen spoke claimed to be content.

In “What Iran’s Jews Say,” published on February 23, he quoted a 61-year-old antiques dealer in Isfahan who leads the service at one of the remaining synagogues in the city as saying he was not worried about the chants of “Death to Israel” that “punctuate” Iranian culture. “‘Let them say ‘Death to Israel,’ he said,” Cohen related. “‘I’ve been in this store 43 years and never had a problem. I’ve visited my relatives in Israel, but when I see something like the attack on Gaza, I demonstrate, too, as an Iranian.’”

Morris Motamed, who previously served as the token Jew allowed to sit in Iran’s toothless parliament, told Cohen that he was not a “Quisling.” While the “Death to Israel” chants “bothered” Motamed, he was just as bothered by the “double standards” that allowed other countries, including Israel, to have a nuclear bomb, but not Iran.

What Cohen did not write, though he admitted it in his Los Angeles talk, is that his interviews of Iranian Jews were conducted through a government-appointed translator and handler (Cohen does not speak Farsi) who he acknowledged would report to his masters in Tehran about both the journalist and those he met. Given the penalty for bucking the Islamist line about Israel for any Iranian, let alone a member of a despised minority, a less credulous journalist would not have taken the fruit of such interviews at face value. But Cohen not only reported the answers of his interlocutors as if they were a genuine reflection of Jewish opinion in Iran, he inflated them into a rationale for the Iran policy he wishes the United States to follow.

Cohen paid lip service to some basic and undeniable facts about his hosts: Iran has a brutal government that represses its people, engages in state-sponsored anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, aids terrorists abroad, and frequently threatens to destroy Israel. However, he views the continued existence of a cowed remainder of Iranian Jewry as of equal importance. The point, he wrote, is that the “sophistication and culture” of Iran counts for more “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’s warm words about Iran led many observers to accuse him of naïveté, of having been manipulated by Tehran and having been seduced by the country’s charms, as in this breezy description:

Try these images: brand-crazy consumers hunting for designer jeans, Internet cafes, an auto industry doing a lot better than Detroit, style, sensuality, and headscarves that take an awful lot of time, for some reason, that need adjusting, enough time to notice the hair beneath them and the face.

But Cohen was anything but naïve. The purpose of his columns was not so much to sing the praises of the mullahs but to undermine American solidarity with Israel, which has good reason to feel threatened both by Iran and its Hizballah and Hamas sub-agencies. Debunking the notion that Iran is a danger to world peace goes hand-in-hand with Cohen’s conviction that Israel is morally equivalent to Hamas and must, at all costs, be compelled into accommodation with its mortal enemies.

The moral outrage about Ahmadinejad and Hamas is misplaced, in his view, primarily because speaking too much about the vile nature of both the Iranian regime and its ally has the effect of bolstering sympathy for an Israel that he sees as morally equivalent to its foes. As he told his Los Angeles audience, “If it is possible that Hamas is sincere in its desire for Israeli extinction,” so is the desire of Israelis to trample and “lord it over” the Palestinians.

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Indeed, Cohen seized on the willingness of Iranian Jews to prove to their overlords that they are loyal to the regime through attacks on Israel’s recent campaign in Gaza precisely because such sentiments mirror his own views. Though he touts himself as a supporter of Israel, he says virtually all acts of Israeli self-defense, including the counter-attack to halt missile attacks on its southern towns and construction of a fence to keep out suicide bombers, are “a bad thing.” Thus, the consensus of Israeli intelligence, as well as most serious observers of Iran elsewhere, that Tehran is moving inexorably toward a nuclear weapon—a weapon that, even if it isn’t used to annihilate the Jews of Israel, would provide a safety net for its equally annihilationist Hamas and Hizballah allies—is a perspective that must be refuted. The ability of Israel’s supporters to harp on these points is a danger to good relations with Iran and therefore must be squelched.

That is why the Jews remaining in Iran are such a useful tool for the Iranians and those who seek to exculpate them, such as Cohen. Cohen’s willingness to ignore the context of oppression and fear to portray these Jews as living in safety and relative freedom could, as he wrote on March 16, “blunt the [anti-Iran] hawks’ case.” Rather than seeing the need to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of the Iranian leaders as the key issue for diplomats, he believes the real worry is the chance that the world will take the issue seriously and actually try to act to stop them, a prospect he sees as an unalloyed disaster to be prevented at all costs. Iran’s threats against Israel are, he says, mere talk, while the regime’s decision to oppress but not kill the 20,000 Jews currently under their control is the happy reality. The Jew-hatred at the core of the Islamic Republic’s ideology—as well as that of Hamas—is, in Cohen’s formulation, meaningless.

If his intention had been to alter the terms of public discussion about relations with Iran, by the end of March Cohen would have had every reason to think the tide might be turning in his direction. President Barack Obama’s conciliatory message to Iran’s leaders broadcast on March 20 effectively signaled a sea change in American policy on Iran away from efforts aimed at containing Iranian-backed terror and stopping its program to develop nuclear weapons and toward a rapprochement that would, in Cohen’s view, inevitably lead to a cooling of U.S. relations with Israel. Candidate Obama’s pledge to talk to Iran last year may have been accompanied by promises of tough action if negotiations failed, but the current lack of interest in Washington for anything other than accommodation is readily apparent. The Obama administration may well be more interested in how to live with an Iranian bomb at this point rather than how to stop it.

Justifying such a policy of indifference to a nuclear Iran will require the administration to discount the fears of Israelis that the countdown towards an Iranian bomb begins the timetable for their destruction. Getting Americans to stop thinking about Iran as a rogue state led by a raving lunatic thirsting for Western as well as Jewish blood is a tall order, but it is precisely in this frame of reference that the significance of Cohen’s work should be viewed. The attention given the testimonials of Iranian Jews about the good intentions of their anti-Semitic rulers must be seen not as merely a slice of life in the Islamic Republic but, as Cohen admitted during his talk, as part of an effort to change the tenor of America’s national conversation about Iran. Indeed, if views such as Cohen’s are now to be given more credence than the anguished cries of alarm coming from Jerusalem about Iranian nukes, then a bipartisan consensus about stopping Iran may be, as the writer hopes, on its way out.

Seen in this light, Cohen’s work inevitably invokes memories of Times journalists who have served in the past as apologists for other tyrants—principally Walter Duranty, the paper’s Moscow bureau chief from 1922 to 1936, who helped tamp down American outrage about the regime of Josef Stalin. Duranty’s work whitewashed the Communists and Stalin (who, with good reason, praised Duranty’s writing) and included a flat-out denial of the existence of the terror famine that took the lives of millions in the Ukraine. This feat of journalistic malpractice earned him a Pulitzer Prize (an award that, despite the Times’s late acknowledgment of Duranty’s scandalous deceit, still has not been revoked by a feckless Pulitzer board).

Cohen, who spent considerable time covering the Balkan wars in the 1990s, is sufficiently aware of the danger of being labeled as a fellow traveler of a tyrant to deny that he is unaware of the nature of the Iranian government. Indeed, as he told his listeners in Los Angeles, he “did not spend years covering genocide in Bosnia to sit back and be told that I am an apologist for a genocidal regime.”

But his tactic is not so much as to cover up the facts about Iran’s crimes, as Duranty did of Stalin’s famine and purges, as it is to discount Iran’s behavior. As far as he is concerned, “obsessing” about Iran’s rhetoric about Israel, its terror ties, and its anti-Semitism constitutes a distraction that dangerously reinforces American backing for Israeli “intransigence” toward Hamas and a willingness to contemplate sanctions or even force in order to prevent the Iranian nuclear drive.

The truth about the Iranian government’s backing for terrorism around the globe and its domestic human rights abuses is not disputed. Rather, it is treated as merely another element that makes an evaluation of the regime one requiring more “gray” than the simplistic “black and white” that pro-Israel advocates are wont to use. Cohen’s concessions on these matters are designed to keep him from seeming like an open apologist for Iran, but whether he is open or covert in his apologia is a distinction without a difference. For if nothing Iran does is enough to merit action on the part of free nations; if even the possibility of its acquiring the ultimate weapon of mass destruction is insufficient to justify even a U.S. policy of “carrots and sticks” (a policy fit “for donkeys,” says Cohen, not the noble rulers of Persia) to entice Iran to back down, let alone the use of force; then what Cohen has done is to create a template that grants the Jew-haters in Tehran impunity to do anything they want.

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In going to Iran and then producing columns that served to justify and rationalize the behavior of its government, Roger Cohen was not a foolish pilgrim manipulated by evil men who exploited his openhearted desire for understanding. Rather, he was a writer with an agenda to smash any hope for restraint of the Iranian regime and to split the U.S.-Israel alliance. Though he cannot be said to have lied on the scale of a Walter Duranty, in his determination to portray Tehran in a sympathetic light and disarm those who see its drive for nuclear weapons as an existential threat to the Jewish State as well as the West, Cohen sacrificed his credibility as a journalist. Even more, by using the helpless Jews of Iran as the linchpin of his campaign, Roger Cohen has behaved in a manner so shameful that his reputation as an apologist for those who threaten genocide may well live as long as Duranty’s infamy.

About the Author

Jonathan Tobin is senior online editor of COMMENTARY.




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