Before I vote, a defense of Varda Epstein

The election is today, and I would feel remiss in not registering my response at what was nothing less than a slanderous attack on a fellow, like-minded blogger here at TOI a few weeks back. Though Varda Epstein’s own response to Amy Schiller’s Daily Beast screed dissuaded me at the time from thinking that there was anything I could say that she did not in her own response, I feel impelled, for whatever it’s worth, to now put in my own two-cents on the matter before I go out to vote today.

Ms. Schiller begins her piece by excoriating Varda for her “irresponsibly, crudely alarmist” equation of the Holocaust with “Iran’s as yet hypothetical development of nuclear capability.” (Emphasis added)

Hypothetical development. Is she kidding with this?

It seems incredible that Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions are even being debated at this late date, but let us, for Ms. Schiller’s sake, rehearse what is self-evident to almost everyone but her. Briefly: put simply, the overwhelming weight of evidence indicates thatIranis almost certainly working to develop a nuclear weapon.

Said the IAEA report of November 2011:

The Agency has serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme. After assessing carefully and critically the extensive information available to it, the Agency finds the information to be, overall, credible. The information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device. The information also indicates that prior to the end of 2003, these activities took place under a structured programme, and that some activities may still be ongoing.”

The Iranians have wide and diverse apparatus of private and governmental civilian organizations and companies that front for their nuclear program. The notion that their program is solely for civilian purposes strains credulity, and is further undermined by the IAEA report.

The Iranians have also continued to deny, to this day, the inspectors access to the heavy water plant at the Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) to take samples, and continues uranium enrichment related activities at both the UCF and the Fuel Manufacturing Plant, in defiance of their obligations. What is perhaps most alarming is that the IAEA, in contrast to their withering skepticism over evidence of Saddam’s program in 2003, is now leading the charge on their conclusions about Iran’s.

Added to this, the Wikileaks cables released last year indicated that North Korea, backed by China, has been supplying Iran with advanced ballistic missile systems that would carry an Iranian nuclear warhead to hit any Israeli population center with a high degree of accuracy. Considering the North Korean-built nuclear reactor supplied to Syria in 2007, there are increasing signs that North Korea, with possible Chinese connivance, is playing a significant part in proliferating nuclear equipment and ballistic delivery systems throughout the Middle East.

Now, consider all of the above. Consider the nature, and past and present behavior of, this regime. Consider the secrecy and the sacrifices that the Mullahs have engaged in to perpetuate their nuclear ambitions. And lastly, consider the weight of extensively corroborated evidence and testimony from myriad sources around the world coupled with the Iranians’ non-cooperation on key issues of disclosure, and one will search in vain for any fathomable reason to believe that this is a peaceful nuclear program.

It is, of course, possible to have an honest disagreement about certain aspects of Iran’s nuclear ambitions: when they will have such and such capacity, when and how they will or can weaponize, what they will or won’t do when they reach the capacity, and so forth. What is objectionable here is a contemptuous, dismissive tone wedded to a wanton trivialization of the threat as if we were discussing some abstract theory, instead of a demonstrable, well-documented threat. Ms. Schiller’s “criticism” is hardly worthy of the name: it is the smug skepticism of the empty-headed: when in doubt, doubt.

Sayeth Ms. Schiller,

“Yet most dangerous of all might be Epstein’s grasp of foreign policy, which is naïve to the point of recklessness. First she writes, “Obama refuses to draw the red line that will serve to stop the evil intentions of the Iranian despot.” Actually, Obama just has a different red line, namely the actual production of nuclear weapons as opposed to mere nuclear capability.”

Yes, and that’s the problem, and it is Ms. Schiller’s grasp of foreign policy here that is “naïve to the point of recklessness.” A nuclear-capable Iran—one that has sufficient fissile material and weapons technology to construct a bomb in a few weeks—is every bit as dangerous to the region and the world as an Iran possessing an actual weapon. Mere capability gives the terror and terror-related actions of the regime—and it’s Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad proxies—the shield of a credible nuclear deterrent.

Obama’s distinction thus informs the regime that if they reach capability, but keep any production of nuclear weaponry secret enough that they will not be seen as crossing his red line—thus giving the Mullahs a seemingly plausible deniability about possessing a weapon, and thus releasing Obama from any meaningful duty to do anything about it.

Obama argues that if Iran is in range of going nuclear that “we will know that they are making that attempt.” But so far the record of American intelligence on such matters does not inspire confidence.

In 1949, Stalin’s Soviet Union tested its first nuclear device, about four years before the CIA was expecting it. The CIA also missed Mao’s China getting a weapon in 1964, by many months, vastly underestimated Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program before 1991, learned about India’s 1998 nuclear tests from the NY Times, overestimated Saddam’s arsenal before 2003, and wrongly reckoned in 2007 that Iran had ceased work on their nuclear program since 2003. The list of CIA failures of detection over the years is long and dispiriting, and does little to reassure that “we will know that they are making that attempt.”

Added to the uncertainty of actually verifying whether Iran would or would not be in actual possession of a weapon as opposed to capability, there is another factor to consider: Obama’s actual willingness to take military action even if Iranian possession of such a weapon were to be confirmed. Here, the prospects are even more dubious.

In his January 20 inauguration speech at the beginning of his presidency, Obama declared, “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an open hand from us.”

In response to Obama’s “unclenched fist” overture, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded with a rambling tirade against the United States, demanding an apology for its “crimes” against Iran and saying he expected nothing less than “deep and fundamental” change from Obama.

To this calumny and insult, Obama responded with all the élan of an optimistic suitor who thinks that the rejection by his beloved is really a mask of coy affection, only to be softened by a little more persistence to finally win her hand, and on March 20 the President then sent to the Supreme Leader of Iran a fawning video message marking the celebration of Nowruz, the Iranian new year, conveying a bouquet of good wishes for future relations between the two countries. This too met with a brutal rejection, and Iran’s Supreme Leader spat contempt on Obama’s March 20 peace-video message gesture.

The Mullah’s brutal crackdown in response to the protests to Ahmdeinejad’s rigged election in June 2009 found the President taking refuge in a shameful silence and complacency, excused by his alibi that that “the United States had once played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government” in 1953, and would not do so again, and Obama pronounced himself  reassured by “a reaction from the Supreme Leader that indicates he understands the Iranian people have deep concerns about the election.”

As the days wore on, however, and when images of demonstrators being shot, arrested, and having their skulls crushed began flooding the airwaves, the pressure began to mount on Obama, being the leader of the free world and all, to take some kind of stand on the matter, and eleven days later he finally mouthed the token sentiments of support and sympathy for the besieged protesters that the occasion required. And that was it. The protesters would get the President’s best wishes, but there would be no tangible, overt support for them and their struggle, there would be no consequences for the regime’s brutal crackdown, and “engagement” would continue unhindered.

The geopolitical and strategic consequences of Obama’s inaction were both deep and lasting. Not only did Obama miss this long-awaited opportunity to further weaken and isolate this rogue regime, but his silence and his continued willingness to engage the regime put an assenting stamp of legitimacy upon the regime’s actions. It was a death-blow to the cause and exertions of the protesters, and it taught the Mullahs (and every other regional despot) a clear lesson about what they could expect from Obama about any behavior of theirs in the future, especially with regard to their nuclear program, and that they had little to fear.

Indeed, when Obama learned in September that the Iranians had illegally activated an enrichment plant in Qom, he suppressed any mention of it in his annual address to the UN General Assembly on September 23, concentrating instead on his favorite subjects of world peace, Bush’s sins, climate change, and his “comprehensive agenda to seek the goal of a world without nuclear weapons.”

He further suppressed any mention of the Qom revelations at his meeting with the other 14 heads of state at the meeting of the Security Council the day afterward because he “did not want to dilute the nuclear nonproliferation resolution he was pushing through the Security Council by diverting to Iran.”

Obama’s tepid response to the Mullah’s crackdown, along with his downplaying on this occasion of their obvious, brazen pursuit of a nuclear weapon, openly advertised his disinclination to use American power and prestige to meaningfully penalize rogue regimes for their transgressions—even when these actions impinged upon American strategic and national security concerns.

Obama has literally founded his entire presidency around the notion that “the tide of war is receding”—despite Syria burning, and Iraq and Afghanistan backsliding back into sectarian chaos. The only thing that is really receding is Obama’s will to use American power to protect our core interests. This President has long worshipped at the altar of multilateralism, and his obeisance to Russian and Chinese obstructionism at the UN only underscores the utter implausibility that he would ever do anything as un-Obama-like as unilaterally attacking a Muslim country, whatever the cause or the danger.

Finally, Ms. Schiller casts ridicule on Varda’s statement that “Voting for Romney means a show of military might. And that’s all Israel wants really: a show. Not the real thing.” Says Ms. Schiller,

 Right, because that’s foreign policy at its most effective. The U.S.and our allies are definitely best served by a leader who will make threats to look tough but who no one expects to follow through. So, empty-suit song-and-dance it is. As a Jewish American, I like to picture my preferred candidate as my co-star, singing that classic number, “My Boyfriend the President is Back, and You’re Gonna Be in Trouble.”

But yet again it is Ms. Schiller who is looking ridiculous, and it might have been a little less misleading for her to include the paragraph that followed:

“We don’t want anyone to attack anyone. And we know that if America threatens Iran, it will indeed back down and halt its march to the bomb.”

As any person could plainly see, what Varda was talking about here was the notion of deterrence, the notion that, as Ms. Schiller seems to have missed, kept a 45 year Cold War from becoming a nuclear one.

And nobody is more sensitive to notions of strength, fear, and deterrence than Iran’s Supreme Leader. He well understands the centuries-old Persian concept of haybat—the fear and awe of insuperable authority required to rule, and discourage enemies from seeking advantage. It is something that Obama (and Ms. Schiller, apparently) do not understand.


The charges and counter-charges of misusing and abusing the memory of the Holocaust are, have been, and always will be an inseparable part of Israeli culture and politics. Just as it was the collective memory of pharaonic bondage that loomed over early Israelite society, the shadow of the Holocaust will always loom, for the Jewish state was founded in the very ashes of the event. How could it not? Hitler had exterminated a full third of world Jewry, most of whom were the pious and the poor from the old ghettos that throughout the 19th and 20th centuries were one of the great creative forces in European and American societies. How could those living in the state not always feel the loss of knowing that one out of every three who might have helped build and live in the state were not there?

Before the Lebanon War commenced in June 1982, Menachem Begin said to his ministers, “Believe me, the alternative to this [attacking the PLO inLebanon] is Treblinka, and we have decided that there will not be another Treblinka.”

Amos Oz responded to this with undisguised outrage:

“But Mr. Prime Minister, Hitler died 37 years ago… Hitler is not hiding in Nabitiya,Sidon, orBeirut. He died and was burned.”

One could see truth in both positions. Oz was certainly correct that the PLO was not quite on the verge of committing another Holocaust, and there is a fair measure of justice in his rebuke of Begin’s hyperbole on this occasion.

But life had not taught Menachem Begin to view violence and threats of violence with poise and equanimity. His face a scowling mask of furious intensity, his tight-lipped grimace exuding suspicion and distrust, Begin was a Clemenceau-like fighter and revenger who had survived brutal interrogations and imprisonment at the hands of Stalin’s NKVD, and the Holocaust had burned into Begin, he of the Irgun, an ineradicable sense of bitterness and combative vigilance.   Jews had made up 70% of Begin’s home town of Brest-Litovsk in 1939, numbering some 30,000; five years later 10 were left alive. Most of his family were dead, those Jews remaining were not even allowed to bury their dead, and Begin’s own father was killed digging a grave for a friend. This man knew his nation’s enemies, and saw them without illusions should they ever have the advantage.

And he knew that threats of genocide did not receded with the end of  World War II; they have stalked the Jewish state from its founding and have become so numerous in Arab and Muslim societies and culture as to become commonplace; those that preceded the 1948 and 1967 wars were merely in escalated form. In 1962 the English language Jordanian newspaper, Jerusalem Times, congratulated Adolf Eichmann for having “conferred a real blessing on humanity,” and hoped that his trial would “one day culminate in the liquidation of the remaining six million to avenge your blood.”

There has never been a threat more dangerous and insidious to modern civilization than that of radical Islamism in the form of Salafism or Shi’ite Khomeinism. Not since the Nuremberg rallies of the 1930’s has the world seen a more fevered celebration of death, blood, and fire. The suicide bomber who self-immolated in the 1983 Marine barracks bombing was seen in his last seconds to be smiling. Smiling. Bassamat al-farah, they call it, the smile of joy, in which the shaheed commits his self-sacrificial deed, and thereby gains admittance to paradise and eternity.

In all of my arguments on this important issue, I have always tried to be respectful of the deep and sincere convictions of those who perceive the threat differently than I do, and, indeed, I strongly believe that people of good will and conscience can agree to disagree on what the best course of action is concerning Iran’s nuclear program. These are, after all, questions of terrible weight and complexity, and the burdens that fall on those who must weigh the options and decide the course of action to pursue in this jungle of danger and uncertainty are no less terrible.

But Amy Schiller’s attack on Varda Epstein’s article, which, agree or disagree, raised a serious possibility to a real, actual threat, in my view, crossed the line from disagreement to gratuitous, drive-by smear, and the disingenous dismissal of a clear, and present danger. I think Varda has given us much thoughtful commentary on the issue, and I hope she will give us more in the future.

And now to vote!




About the Author
Robert Werdine lives in Michigan City, Indiana, USA. He studied at Indiana University, Purdue University, and Christ Church College at Oxford and is self-employed. He is currently pursuing advanced degrees in education and in Middle Eastern Studies.