It’s no longer possible to pretend we don’t know the intentions of Iran’s rulers. They keep telling us, candidly, clearly and repeatedly. Most recently on Sunday: Addressing a gathering in Tehran, Maj. Gen Hassan Firouzabadi, chief of staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, vowed the “full annihilation of the Zionist regime of Israel to the end.”
A few days earlier, during a presentation at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a respected Israeli think tank, the former Prime Minister of Spain, Jose Maria Aznar, recalled a “private discussion” in Tehran in October 2000 with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who told him: “Israel must be burned to the ground and made to disappear from the face of the Earth.”
Dore Gold, former Israeli ambassador to the U.N. who now heads the JCPA, wanted to be certain there was no misunderstanding. He asked Aznar: Was Khamenei suggesting “a gradual historical process involving the collapse of the Zionist state, or rather its physical-military termination?"
"He meant physical termination through military force," Aznar replied. Khamenei called Israel "a historical cancer” — an echo of Nazi rhetoric that he has employed on numerous occasions, the last time in public on Feb. 3.
Khamenei also told Aznar that the goal of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 has remained unchanged — to rid the world of two evils: Israel and the U.S. Eventually, there must be an “open confrontation.” Khamenei said it was his duty is to ensure that Iran prevailed.
With this as context, it is no longer possible to pretend that the acquisition of nuclear weapons is not a priority for Khamenei. The notion that he is merely making — as Reuters has charmingly phrased it — “a peaceful bid to generate electricity,” or has not decided whether he wants nuclear weapons, or wants them only as a deterrent because he fears foreign aggression, or has issued a fatwa declaring possession of nuclear weapons a sin, or favors diplomatic conflict resolution but requires a series of “confidence-building measures” is wishful thinking and self-delusion, if not blatant disinformation.
Anthony Cordesman, the respected security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, used to be skeptical about the nuclear ambitions of Iran’s rulers. Then he sat down and examined hundreds of pages of evidence compiled by the International Atomic Energy Agency. His report, "Rethinking Our Approach to Iran's Search for the Bomb," concludes:
Iran has pursued every major area of nuclear weapons development, has carried out programs that have already given it every component of a weapon except fissile material, and there is strong evidence that it has carried out programs to integrate a nuclear warhead on to its missiles.
Besides being committed to war, genocide and developing nuclear weapons, Iran’s rulers are the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism, and have long been so designated by the U.S. government. They support Hezbollah and Hamas, and collaborate with al-Qaida — evidence of that is abundant. They have been responsible for killing Americans in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. They have violated the most fundamental tenets of international law, including seizing the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, ordering the murder of a British novelist in 1989, and plotting to bomb a restaurant in Washington, D.C., last year.
Khamenei’s representatives have agreed to negotiate with the P5+1 (the U.S. and the four other permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany) for one reason only: They want an end to the sanctions that have been debilitating, if not yet crippling, Iran’s economy. The value of Iran’s currency has plummeted, inflation and unemployment have spiked, and the regime has been denied many billions of dollars in hard currency. A European oil embargo scheduled to take effect in July could drop Iranian exports by as much as 40 percent.
Testifying before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs last week, Mark Dubowitz, my colleague at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, warned Congress that Iran’s negotiators would offer concessions that sound meaningful, but are not, in exchange for Western concessions that sound trivial but amount to capitulation.
Dubowitz cautioned that it will require vigorous Congressional oversight to make sure that Western diplomats do not provide Iran with “sanctions relief in the shadows,” meaning that insurance, energy, financial and shipping-related sanctions that have already passed into law will fail to be strictly enforced to keep “the process” going. That will be seen as preferable to acknowledging diplomatic failure. The major media are likely to miss this, or misreport it.
In his presentation in Jerusalem, Aznar recalled also a meeting he had with Vladimir Putin, in which he advised the Russian president against selling surface-to-air missiles to Iran. “Don’t worry, I, you, we can sell them everything, even if we are worried by an Iranian nuclear bomb,” Aznar quoted Putin as saying. “Because, at the end of the day, Israel will take care of it.”
Aznar told this story in Washington about a year ago but at the time asked those of us in the room to keep it off the record. I remember that he added incredulously: “But that’s the Russian policy? To let Israel take care of it?”
If, in the days ahead, this becomes the de facto policy of the U.S. and Europe as well, we should not pretend we don’t know, or that we don’t understand the profound implications of that.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.