I’m at a stunning house in Beverly Hills. The hosts are pillars of the Persian Jewish community. The food is incredible. Milky raw almonds and walnuts floating insilver bowls of ice water. Candied kumquats on gilt platters. Fragrant rice pilafs beribboned with dried cherries and pistachios, and uniformed waiters offering hillocks of grilled lamb chops.
But — and this often happens — the sumptuousness of the food is in direct proportion to the grimness of the topics under discussion.
I’m here with 30 or so other guests to meet Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Some hail him as a visionary, and others dismiss him as a thug for his call to demand loyalty oaths of Israeli Arabs and cut loose Arab areas of the country.
But what interests me tonight is not Lieberman’s idea for disenfranchising 20 percent of Israel’s citizens, a Kahane-esque ploy that would spell the end of American support for the Jewish state. As much as Lieberman, in his heavily Russian-accented English, pitches that dystopian idea, his audience — most of them from the Persian Jewish elite — express more concern over what Israel will do about Iran.
For this group, of course, it’s personal.
They share a language and a homeland with the mullah-run regime in Teheran. They understand the threat a nuclear-armed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could pose to Israel, and they are anxious over the fate of some 20,000 Jews still living in Iran.
This group wasn’t even that worked up about the Holocaust denial conference Ahmadinejad was sponsoring beginning that very day. Why focus on the man’s minor lunacies when his main one — his quest for nuclear weapons and his vow to destroy Israel — are so much more urgent? What these very elegant, very serious guests want is the bottom line — what can Israel do now? — to counter the Iranian threat.
Lieberman’s answer was not surprising. He spoke of tough sanctions — which no one in the audience seemed to put much faith in — followed by “harsher measures.” It wasn’t hard to guess what the deputy prime minister meant by that. If Israeli leaders haven’t issued an outright call for a military response to Iranian nuclear threat, they’ve sure been hinting hard.
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni — all have spoken in Los Angeles recently on the need to confront the Iranian threat immediately and forcefully.
But I’m wary.
If the Iraq debacle has taught us anything, it’s to distrust those who promote preemption. The same Israeli and the same Americans who said attacking Iraq was the best option are arguing that now, or soon, is the time to plow our bombs into the bunkers and factories of Iran.
Ahmadinejad has certainly earned the right to be bombed, but is that Israel’s — and America’s — best and only option?
For one, our leaders are perfectly capable of screwing up a military response. If Olmert couldn’t destroy Hezbollah in their Iranian-funded bunkers, how certain is it Israel can destroy Iran’s much more safely guarded nukes? Also, perhaps the Iranian regime is vulnerable in other ways.
“Iran is in a state of upheaval,” the Iranian-born columnist Amil Imani wrote me by e-mail.
“It is prudent that the West does not embark on a trigger-happy policy. The mullahs’ lease on life is just about over. A concerted economic and moral support should be all that is needed for the Iranian people to put an end to the shameful and hate-driven ‘monkey’ and his ilk.”
Imani is a Muslim and an active — and brave, considering the international reach of Iranian agents — opponent of the regime. As much as he hates the mullahs, he doesn’t believe the military option is even necessary at this point. He wants Americans to understand that Ahmadinejad — whom a good portion of the population refers to as “the monkey” — has a less-than-solid grip on power, and the same goes for the mullahs.
But Ahmadinejad can use our saber rattling to rally Iranians around the flag, and extend his otherwise numbered days. Otherwise, their discontent becomes more and more apparent. Local elections throughout Iran on Dec. 16 demonstrated an “overwhelming defeat” for Ahmadinejad and his candidates, Imani said. The winners were a coalition of conservatives and reformers.
Perhaps a better strategy for Americans and Israelis is to do all we can to support Iranian voices of reform and dissent. We’re terrible at that. Seven years ago, on Dec. 9, 1999, thousands of students rallied against the regime. Government troops crushed the spreading protest, killing at least 19 students.
The Disaster of the University Dormitories, as it is known in Iran, received four mentions in major American newspapers, including a small article a week after the fact in the Los Angeles Times. Talk about moral support.
One step we can all take these days is to sign a petition now circulating on the Web calling on incoming U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to hold Iran’s president accountable for inciting genocide under Articles III and IV of the United Nations’ own Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
That’s the least that august body can doAdditionally, both Tel Aviv and Washington can fund television, radio and Internet broadcasts into Iran and offer Iranian dissidents real moral and financial help. Our media can tell stories of these dissidents and track their progress, to enable us not just to gawk at the monkey, but to actually help his opponents.
“Many people have asked me: How long will the present Iranian regime last?” Imani wrote. “No one exactly knows. Who among us expected that when President Reagan said in Berlin, ‘Tear down this wall,’ it would indeed fall within a few years? So, too, it is not possible to tell when change will come to Iran, although it is quite clear that the Iranian people detest the present system and are ready for change.”