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I wrote this a year ago, and it seems worth repeating.

Tonight we Jews read the Book of Esther, and we celebrate the battle our ancestors won against the antisemites in Persia more than two thousand years ago.  It could not come at a more appropriate time, as Benjamin Netanyahu organizes an Israeli Government whose main task is the protection of the Jews against antisemites in Persia.  Again.

Anyone who wants to learn more about the Book of Esther–and its signal importance in the history of political thought–should read Yoram Hazony’s The Dawn.  It is one of those stories that is generally recounted in a slightly abridged version.  That version goes like this:  King Ahashverosh (probably Xerxes I), “who ruled from Ethiopea to India,” ditched his wife, Vashti, for refusing to show off her natural beauty to the court.  In the ensuing competition, Esther became queen.

At the time, the Emperor’s chief consigliere, Haman (hard not to type ‘Hamas’) was lobbying to get the Emperor to approve the destruction of the Jews of the Empire, and he got Ahashverosh to sign a decree to that end.  Esther’s uncle, Mordechai–who was in considerable trouble because of his hardheaded independence, and refusal to bow before Haman–convinced Esther to appeal to her husband.  She did, and convinced Ahashverosh to protect the Jews.  Haman was hanged, ironically on the very gallows he and his sons had constructed for Mordechai, and Mordechai was elevated to the consigliere post.

And that is where most people think the story ends, but there is more. For although Haman was gone, the decree–which had authorized a day of slaughter of the Jews–was still on the books, and could not be revoked.  So Mordechai travels all over the Empire, organizing and rallying the Jews to fight.  When the dreaded day comes, the Jews prevail, killing more than 76,000 antisemites.  That is indeed cause for celebration.

The Book of Esther is remarkably modern.  The Almighty does not make an appearance.  Everything is done by men and women, without Divine assistance.  The Jews themselves must fight for their survival, against the usual overwhelming odds.  Today’s antisemites will no doubt recognize the fingerprints of the Jewish Lobby, convincing the Emperor to act against what they might ‘realistically’ define as his own best interests.  And then the surprising ferocity of Jewish fighters, against steep odds, wiping out those who had planned their doom.

It reminds me of one of Golda Meir’s bons mots.  She was once asked how Israel managed to defeat enemies who vastly outnumbered the Jews.  “There are two ways,” she replied.  “There’s the natural way, and the miraculous way.  The natural way is that God sends a miracle and we win.  The miraculous way is that we win by ourselves.”  Esther’s story  therefore recounts a miracle.

The defeat of Haman and his followers is part of the ongoing war between the Jews and the antisemites, which has been raging since the creation of the Jewish nation during and after the Exodus from Egypt.  For Haman is a descendant of Agag, the king of the Amelekites.  The Amalekites had attacked the Jews from the earliest days after the departure from Pharaoh’s kingdom, mercilessly slaughtering the stragglers from the Exodus march:  women, children, and the aged.  Many years later God ordered King Saul to destroy all the Amalekites, kill even their livestock, and then salt the earth around them.  When Saul showed mercy on King Agag, it cost him his kingdom.  And the war continued, as Agag’s descendant Haman attempted to kill the Jews in Persia.

It has always been understood as an eternal war.  In Deuteronomy we are taught to “Remember what Amalek did to you along the way…How he met you…and attacked your rear and all those who were faltering behind, and you were faint and weary…Forget not.”  No wonder that Hazony says that “Amalek…stands as the anti-Jew.”

In the middle of the war against al Qaeda in Iraq, a Jewish soldier of my acquaintance sent an email home, in which he said, “boy was it ever right to kick out Saul; he should have killed them all.  We’re surrounded by Amalekites here.”

There was no way to negotiate a modus vivendi with the antisemites;  the royal decree had given them the chance to kill the Jews, and they intended to do it.  If the Jews had not fought, they would have been destroyed.  I don’t think this lesson is lost on serious Jews, and certainly not on most Israelis today.

I have many Iranian friends, across that country’s marvelous ethnic kaleidoscope.  They are variously Persians, Kurds, Azeris, Balouchis, Lur, Ahwazi Arabs, and so on.  Many of them take particular delight in pointing out that Persia is the only country to have had a Jewish queen.  Esther.  While antisemites undoubtedly rule Iran, I do not think there is mass Jew hatred in contemporary Persia, and I do not think the descendants of Agag and Haman would hold meaningful power if the Iranians were free to choose their government.  But they do not have that option, and they are  living through the latest battle in the ancient war between the Jews are their enemies.  Their story, and perhaps their destiny, too, is part of the Book of Esther.  Most of them, I think, are rooting for the good queen against the Amalekites.

UPDATE:  Tom Gross does exemplary work tracking modern antisemites here.

UPDATE 2:  Roger Cohen adds to his credentials for the Walter Duranty Award 2009 with this classic call [3] for appeasing all the Amalekites.  His basic thesis is that every time an evil group gains power, we should negotiate with them.  Fight them?  Faggetit.

There has been a lot of “expert analysis” in the past ten days saying that the Green Movement in Iran is all washed up, and that the regime is firmly in control of events there. This follows two earlier periods of “consensus,” the first claiming that there was no chance of a revolution in Iran — this was the conventional wisdom even after the explosion of anti-regime passion following the fraudulent election results announced on June 12, 2009 — and then a shorter, more recent, period when the success of the revolution was taken to be inevitable.

The first was decisively shattered by the eight months of ongoing fighting against the regime;  the second is as much the reflection of a touching faith in vast impersonal historical forces as of empirical data. Iran is in a revolutionary crisis, and has been for many years, but the outcome will be determined by human decisions, many of which are unpredictable.

Meanwhile, as we’ve seen so often, there’s a lot going on that we don’t hear about. The events of February 11th — the massive repression in the streets, the bloody violence directed at Green leaders and their families — have been described as a serious setback for the opposition and a triumph for the regime.  Thomas Erdbrink, the Washington Post’s man in Tehran, provides a textbook example. Yet the supreme leader did not see it that way, and he probably knew more about the events of that day than foreign correspondents — who, by the way, were contained in a small part of Tehran and were invariably in the presence of regime watchers. On the 12th, Khamenei spoke to several hundred of his aides and followers, and he chewed them out for what he saw as the great failure of the previous day. Why? Because Khamenei had called for a massive display of support for the regime, and it did not happen.

To be sure, regime leaders have been running around, proclaiming that tens of millions of Iranians demonstrated their fealty to the Islamic Republic, but the videos and the pictures from Google Earth show they were the usual lies. Khamenei’s rage was then taken out on his praetorian guard.  In the past few days, two top officers have been replaced, with more likely to follow:  General Ali Fazli was fired as head of the RG’s Tehran Brigade (his successor is General Hosseini Motlagh), and General Azizollah Rajabzadeh was purged as police chief of greater Tehran, after only six months on the job.  At his retirement ceremony, Rajabzadeh went out of his way to blame the Guards for both the failures and the massacres of the past months.  He said that the Tehran police “did not even kill a single person, and did not lose a single person and confronted the issue with the least amount of individual and financial losses.”

Which will certainly surprise the families of demonstrators and police, who lost scores of loved ones following the electoral fraud of last June.

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February 20th, 2010 - 12:22 pm

In many ways he was the opposite of his legend.  Yes, he had a temper.  But he was a softy in many ways.  He got Europeanized at NATO, where he was Supreme Allied Commander.  He was a buddy of some German Social Democrats, he somehow learned a great deal about France, and was amazingly well informed about the Italians.  Maybe he got some of that from (General Vernon) Walters, who was Ambassador at Large.

My real title was Ambassador at Small (aka Special Advisor to the Secretary of State), and the best way to describe it is to tell you about my first day on the job in 1981, in a little office down the hall from Haig, just past Bud McFarlane and just before Harvey Sicherman, the chief speechwriter and confidant.  They assigned me to a career secretary who had worked with Phillip Habib.  She was supposed to keep me in line, I think, and mostly she won.  Anyway, that first day I was called into Haig’s enormous office and he emoted for about ten minutes.  Mostly it had to do with the Soviets, of course, and he was furious at various West European socialists for causing trouble with regard to Central America, Africa, and arms control issues.

Let’s say he had a rich vocabulary.  When he finally took a breath he lit a cigarette (most everybody smoked on the 7th floor of State) and growled “you know these people. Do something!”

Back in my cubbyhole I asked my keeper what “do something!” meant, and she said it usually meant writing a memo to him laying out the something I proposed to do.  Then he approved it–or not–and then I did it.

Right.  So I wrote a memo, she put it in the proper format, and sent it back down the hall.  A few hours later his secretary called to say a) I had better get down there pronto, and b) he was really angry.  A little heads-up.

In fact he was purple, pacing around with a cigarette in one hand (remember he’d just had a quadruple or quintuple bypass) and my memo in the other.

“WHAT” he snarled, “THE FOWL FILTH IS THIS?”

I confessed that it was my memo, sir.

“Number one,” he was now tearing it up, “DON’T WRITE MEMOS!!!.”  The little pieces were now in the burn bag.  “I didn’t bring you here to have you WRITE FOWLISH FILTHY MEMOS!”

Roger that.

And then probably the greatest orders anyone ever received:  “When I tell you to do something, just go do it.  If I don’t like it, you’ll hear from me.  And if you don’t hear from me, keep doing it.”

Best boss I ever had.  I only heard from him once, when one of our ambassadors called me in to the embassy to say that Haig wanted me to call him on a secure line, and the poor man added that he’d never ever heard language like that, ever.

All that business about Haig-the-war-monger was disinformation, by the way, carefully cultivated (as it had been with Nixon, from whom Haig probably learned it).  My main problems with him came when he listened too attentively to the likes of Schmidt.  I tried to resign when I thought he was insufficiently tough with the Soviets over Poland, and he asked me to stay.  For two reasons.  First, nobody else was giving him that kind of criticism, and he wanted to hear it.  And second, “don’t be in such a hurry;  I’ll be gone in a few months.”

And he was.

The Streets of Tehran and Washington

February 16th, 2010 - 4:17 pm

Secretary of State Clinton is quite right to say that Iran is now a military dictatorship.  A note on Twitter last week put it succinctly and accurately:

[The Revolutionary Guards, [aka “Sepah”] & its Commander in chief have taken over & have no intention of letting go. [Next year’s regular Army] budget is not even quarter of Sepah’s budget.

- Basij is totally integrated in Sepah now.
- From National police to Central command, all Sepahi & Basijis.
- The Ministry of Intelligence is run by Sepah Intelligence.
- [State broadcasting] & most print media are run by Sepah.
- Most judges are Sepahis.
- 3/4 of Gov is Sepahi.

It is a de facto military dictatorship.

The supremacy of the Revolutionary Guards and their instruments of mass brutality were shown on the Tehran streets last Thursday, the anniversary of the seizure of power by the followers of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979.  According to eyewitness , both online and in newspapers like Le Monde, there were huge numbers of security forces in major squares, and along the streets leading to them.  Some Green demonstrators—“many of us,” according to Le Monde’s source–even found themselves funneled into Azadi Square along with regime supporters.  So, for those who like to keep score, it was hard to get an honest count.  We do know that the Guards, police, and Basij beat up hundreds of Greens with considerable savagery.  Their victims included the wife of Green leader Meir Hossein Mousavi, the other top Green figure, Mehdi Karroubi (who was struck in the face with a tear gas canister and may lose an eye) and his son, Ali (who was beaten and tortured in a mosque after being seized).

We also know that the regime falsified the size of the crowd that came to cheer President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Official pictures purported to show a monster turnout in Azadi Square, but overhead photography from Google Earth shows that only a quarter of the space was full, and YouTube videos on the spot show lots of empty space.  Kids had room to kick a soccer ball around, and plenty of the faithful lay down on the grass and took a nap while the president delivered his usual diatribe.

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Another Showdown at the Mullahs’ Corral

February 10th, 2010 - 1:33 pm

I believe that the Iranian regime has assembled the largest armed force in history to protect it from the Iranian people’s righteous indignation on Thursday the 11th.  There will be hundreds of thousands of police, revolutionary guards, Basij, and people bused in from the countryside to Tehran.

Additionally, the regime is shutting down communications, especially in Tehran.  Iranian Tweeters say internet is largely gone, and cell phones are not working.  None of this is new, and in the past the dissidents have managed to beat the censors; it will be interesting to see if the mullahs’ trusted advisers (mostly Chinese) are more effective this time.  They certainly have failed in China, and the Iranian authorities have demonstrated an almost supernatural ability to screw up their own plans.

A case in point:  the political center of the city is Azadi Square, and workers have been stringing loudspeakers (and probably cameras) all over the  square and the approach routes, in order to drown out the chants of the demonstrators.  So today they tested the system by broadcasting the national anthem.  Except it was the shah’s anthem, not the Islamic Republic’s.

Was it sabotage, or that incredible knack of ruining even a simple dry run?  Who knows?  Whatever it was, it reinforces the regime’s popular image of a bunch of thugs who can only kill, maim and torture, but not build anything of value.

The regime is very nervous, as well it should be.  They don’t trust anyone outside a very small circle of fanatical loyalists.  The broadcasters at radio/tv headquarters scheduled to cover the festivities were all replaced on Tuesday.  Activists, intellectuals, and relatives of opposition leaders have been thrown in jail.  These measures have been in effect for some time now — Reporters Sans Frontières claims 400 journalists have left the country since June 2009 and 2000 journalists are jobless — but have not cowed the dissidents.  We’ll soon see if that has changed.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the current phase of the Iranian revolution is that many of those arrested knew it was coming, had the opportunity to hide, but chose to go to jail.  They viewed their arrest as a badge of honor, and (not to make light of the horrors of Iranian jails) perhaps even a good career move.  They expect the regime to fall, and they are building up credits for the next government.

The two leaders of the Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, expect to be arrested either Wednesday or Friday, and indeed they have been daring Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to do it.  They believe that if they are arrested, the country will rise up against the regime.

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What Is Iran Planning for Thursday?

February 8th, 2010 - 8:50 pm

Khamenei, whose public statements should be taken seriously, is promising some sort of devastating “punch” against the West on Thursday the 11th, the same day as the Green Movement is calling for a monster protest against his regime.

What might he have in mind?  I don’t know; they say a lot of things just for effect, but threats/promises from the supreme leader have a certain standing. If I were an Israeli official, I’d recheck my information on Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad.

Some think he’s preparing some kind of attack against Israel. Surely there has been no shortage in recent weeks of nasty language against the Jewish state. Here’s Foreign Minister Mottaki a day ago:

“Iran is facing a mad nation led by insane people. This is the reason why all of us in the region – in Syria, in Lebanon, and the Palestinians – must be prepared constantly for any crazy operation against us.”

Other Iranian leaders have spoken of the “inevitability” of Israel’s destruction.  Maybe they have something in mind.

The other obvious possibility is that he’s ordered a massive, Chinese-style crackdown on the opposition.  Since he believes that the opposition is foreign-based and foreign-controlled, a devastating massacre might count as a big “punch” to the West.

He’s totally obsessed with bringing an end to the protests, and the nightly chants of “Death to the Dictator” that haunt him so.  In the last few days he’s been telephoning opposition journalists and intellectuals, telling them to give it up, and the preparations for the crackdown have gone so far as to replace the traditional plastic garbage cans in Tehran — in which demonstrators have been setting fires to combat tear gas — with metal ones.  I don’t understand the point of that, but I’m sure it annoys the sanitation workers, who will now have to hoist much heavier containers.

Meanwhile, the purge of journalists and activists continues. Since June 12th, the regime has arrested slightly more than 11,000 people, more than 3,000 of whom are still in those nightmare cells.  Executions continue at a regular tempo, as does torture.

The Greens expect the regime to go all out on Thursday.  The leaders believe they will be arrested on Friday, and are prepared for it.  In his recent interview Mousavi remarked that a large number of his best friends were in prison, and he was sad not to be with them.

He also said that the Green Movement did not depend on his leadership, or anyone else’s.

That theory may be about to be tested by Ali Khamenei, starting Thursday.

It’s from Sueddeutsche Zeitung, citing a “new IAEA summary.”  The article is in German. Here’s a translation:

“Iran has developed a nuclear warhead, according to an article in the German newspaper “Sueddeutsche Zeitung”. A foreigner alleged to have helped Iran towards developing nuclear weapons is from the former Soviet Union…The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has already mentioned the employment of a foreigner in the nuclear programme.

Quoting a new IAEA summary, the Suddeutsche said the scientist had previously worked in a Soviet nuclear weapons laboratory on advanced warheads. It said both western intelligence services and diplomats had confirmed the connection.

The newspaper added that Iran was trying to make a nuclear weapon small enough to fit into one of its Shahab 3 medium-range missiles and was designing a so-called two-point implosion system, which requires only two simultaneously exploding detonators to trigger a nuclear blast.

The former Soviet scientist was an expert on the high-speed cameras needed to test if both detonations were symmetrical, and had worked for Iran from the mid-1990s till 2000.

Somebody better tell Director of National Intelligence Blair, who testified this week that the Iranian regime had not yet decided to produce nuclear weapons.

The Iranian Revolution Devours Its Young

February 5th, 2010 - 4:59 pm

It looks like February 11th will be the most violent confrontation to date.  The regime is taking unusual measures to put down the promised demonstrations.  In many ways it resembles the “Chinese solution.”  First, an unprecedented mobilization: 120 trains and something like a thousand buses have been deployed from as far away as 250 kilometers from the capital.  They will be used by the Revolutionary Guards and Basij to bring tens of thousands of paid “volunteers” to Tehran.  These will consist of entire families (dependent on the regime) to counter the Green Wave.  Each family gets $80 for the day, plus free food.  The regime is aiming at 300,000 thugs in the streets.  The Greens don’t think the numbers will be that high, and in any event they expect ten times that number of protesters, upwards of three million increasingly angry people, demanding freedom and justice.

Their resolve has undoubtedly been hardened by the very tough interview released earlier this week by Green leader Mir Hossein Mousavi.  As before, Mousavi put himself on the line, defying the regime to move against him as the mullahs have moved against his friends, allies, and family members.  It’s quite a challenge:

Today, the prison cells are occupied with the most sincere and devoted sons of this nation: students, professors and others. [Security forces] are trying to prosecute them with espionage or charges related to financial or sexual misconduct – charges based on expired formulas – while the real criminals and thieves who steal public money are free. Instead of looking for the real spies, they accuse decent religious people. I should take this opportunity to express my regret that all of my advisors, who are decent, honest and educated individuals, have been arrested; that I am not with them. These days, there is not a [single] night that I do not think of Imam [Khomeini], martyr Beheshti and others. I whisper to them that what was achieved is far from what they sought…

Khamenei has still not mustered the courage to strike directly at Mousavi or Karroubi, which everyone sees as a sign of weakness.  They see it as I do, as evidence that he is not prepared for a real showdown, fearing the vastly greater numbers of the Greens, and the unreliability of his armies.  He knows that the recent Green video, appealing to the armed forces to join the revolution, is having an effect.

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Berlusconi for President

February 2nd, 2010 - 3:01 pm

Silvio Berlusconi, in Jerusalem to sign an agreement with Israel, promised full support for the Iranian opposition, and noted that Iran has a leader “who reminds us of evil people from the past.” Berlusconi has previously compared Ahmadinejad with Hitler.

Would that other Western leaders understood that support for democratic revolution in Iran is the best available option.  Meanwhile crackpot realists purport to analyze our “options” without even mentioning it.  For them, it’s either “make a deal” or prepare to go to war.  Tom Paine stirs restively in his grave…

Zoroaster for President

February 1st, 2010 - 8:32 pm

Every year, as spring approaches, the small remnant of Iranian Zoroastrians gathers to celebrate the rituals of the world’s oldest monotheistic faith.  For many years now, I have been hearing stories about a substantial Zoroastrian movement, and I’ve met some Iraqi Zoroastrians, whose patience and resolve greatly impressed me.  I have an ongoing fantasy that some day, after we are rid of the Islamic Republic, we will witness a rebirth of the religion that gave us Cyrus the Great, the author of the world’s first proclamation of human rights, and the liberator of the ancient Jews.  The regime greatly fears this, and they have removed “Persian Empire” from the curriculum.

I thought you might welcome a peek at the Zoroastrians, so here’s a good video, and some useful background, here and here.  Notice that MSNBC reports that this year, for the first time in recent years, Muslims participated in the ritual.  To which I would add, the regime did not try to quash it.  Let’s hope it’s an augury.

Meanwhile, I was struck by the remarkable good will and discipline demonstrated by Green protestors against the regime’s man in France.   “Homylafayette” provides a very entertaining account here, complete with videos and great photos.  The Iranian Ambassador to France totally lost it, and got a lesson in good manners from the gendarmes.  How sweet it is!

Think of the confrontation as a Zoroastrian-style crowd against a furious fundamentalist who knows his world is burning…ironically just as Persia’s ancient community is kindling the ritual flame of new life.