The “Iraqization” of America’s Iran debate: Mohammad Javad Larijani and the mainstream media

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By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett
November 20, 2011

Mohammad Javad Larijani’s visit to New York earlier this week for meetings at the United Nations coincides with a striking upturn in anti-Iranian media coverage and commentary in the West.  To address some of the issues raised in the media, Larijani met with several media personalities and a range of Iran “observers” at policy organizations in New York.  His media appearances this past week not only provide a window into how the Islamic Republic sees its present situation and future prospects; they also provide a window into current trends in American elite thinking and discourse about Iran.  And those trends are, to put it gently, disturbing.

Before we unpack that, it is interesting to note some points about Larijani’s background, for those who might not be familiar with him.  From a Western frame of reference, one might describe him as a “Renaissance man”, but that strikes us as too limited a label for him.  He is, of course, one of the Larijani brothers (who also include the current parliament speaker, the head of the judiciary, and the chancellor of Iran’s most prestigious medical school).  Son of one of the most honored grand ayatollahs of the 20th century, Mohammad Javad Larijani studied both in the Qom hawza (seminary) and in the electrical engineering faculty at Sharif University of Technology (Iran’s MIT).  He then pursued doctoral studies in mathematics at Berkeley, before returning to Iran at the time of the revolution.

Since the Islamic Republic’s founding, Larijani has had a distinguished political career, as a member of parliament and deputy Foreign Minister; he currently serves as secretary general of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights, as an adviser to the head of the judiciary, and as an adviser to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.  He also directs the Islamic Republic’s leading research institute for mathematics and theoretical physics.

As one might surmise from this background, Larijani is thoroughly grounded in modern science as well as Islamic theology and law.  He is also well-schooled in Western philosophy and political theory; while talking about the Islamic Republic’s ongoing project to construct a democratic system grounded not in Western liberalism but in “Islamic rationality”, he can make very astute references to David Hume, John Stuart Mill, and other prominent Western liberal thinkers.  And, of course, he can offer uniquely informed observations about Iranian politics and foreign policy.  In short, it is a bracing intellectual experience (and a lot of fun) to talk with him.

These qualities come across in an hour-long interview that Larijani gave to Charlie Rose, see here.  We ourselves have appeared on Charlie Rose, and admire his program.  While we would not agree with all of Charlie’s interpretations of events in the contemporary Middle East, he strikes us as genuinely interested in using the interview to present Larijani’s ideas to his viewers, not to push his own political or policy agenda.  Consequently, the interview offers a rich bounty of insights into high-level Iranian thinking about the nuclear issue, the Arab spring, and Iranian domestic politics.

If, however, one wants to learn more about the cultural and intellectual pathologies currently afflicting America’s Iran debate, it is hard to do better than the interview Larijani gave on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, see here.  The chief interviewer is Morning Joe’s Mika Brzezinski (daughter of Zbigniew); she is aided by regular MSNBC commentator Mike Barnicle, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass, and author-journalist Jon Meacham.

The interview is itself troubling—Larijani holds up fine, and is worth watching, but Brzezinski, Barnicle, Haass, and Meacham are clearly not out to offer viewers the chance to understand a well-informed Iranian perspective on important issues of the day.  Their agenda is embarrassingly evident:  to ratify the recent International Atomic Energy Agency report as “proof” that Tehran is trying to build nuclear weapons, to portray the Islamic Republic as ideologically hell-bent on Israel’s destruction, and to underscore how “isolated” Iran is becoming, regionally and internationally.  The interviewers are out to affirm all of these claims as social “facts”—in a manner strikingly reminiscent of the affirmation of various social “facts” about Saddam Husayn’s WMD programs, ties to Al-Qa’ida, and other issues in the run-up to America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.

As bad as all this is, the segment immediately following the interview, after Larijani had left the set (which starts at 16:28 in the previous link) is even more troubling.  Brzezinski—who said she was “disturbed” by the interview—opens by comparing it with a breakfast meeting she attended with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, where he “sat around making a mockery of the entire situation”; she “just saw that all over again” during the conversation with Larijani.  Then, in a remarkable display of intellectual fatuousness, Brzezinksi, Barnicle, Haass, and Meacham collectively determine that Larijiani’s “confident” demeanor (their description, during the interview itself) is evidence that the Islamic Republic is the antithesis of a “rational actor” (sic; one really has to see it to believe it).

Haass, though, delivers the real punch line; in his view, the interview suggests that, for

“whoever is the next occupant of the White House, be it Barack Obama or one of the Republicans, this could well be National Security Issue #1.  If we can’t, through some combination of sanctions, covert action, what have you, either change the government of Iran or so slow their nuclear program, the next President is going to be faced with a binary choice.  Either we’re going to have to learn to live with an Iranian nuclear program, with all that would potentially mean for Middle Eastern instability (imagine what a crisis would look like between Israel and Iran, over Lebanon, with both countries with nuclear weapons, or what it would mean potentially for an Iranian hand-off of nuclear stuff to a group like HAMAS or Hizballah).  Or, Israel and the United States will have to seriously consider using military force against the Iranian nuclear program, which could buy you a couple of years…You’ve got to hope for regime change in Iran, which unfortunately doesn’t look like it’s happening.  Can you ratchet up sanctions?  Can you go after the Iranian export of oil?  Now, that’s really going to the edge of economic warfare.  But might that not be preferable to going to the edge of warfare warfare.”

Richard’s point about the United States coordinating with Israel over the use of military force against Iran resurfaced on Morning Joe the next day, see here, when Mika Brzezinski and company had on Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman—whom Richard is advising—to discuss his campaign.  Although current polls suggest that Huntsman’s chances of winning the Republic nomination are not high, he would be an attractive candidate for Secretary of States in any incoming Republican administration.  When the discussion turned to Iran, Huntsman had this to say:

“Iran will be the transcendent issue of the decade…They’re moving inexorably towards weaponization, and we’ll, at some point over the next couple of years, have a serious conversation with Israel about what to do.  And then it will be, can you live with a nuclear Iran?  And, if the answer is yes, you’re going to have proliferation problems in the region…and that would be disastrous…Internally, within the mullah leadership in Tehran, they’ve decided to go nuclear.  I think they want the prestige that carries…The United States should sit down with Israel and have a conversation about what we’re willing to do in a region that, with Iran occupying a nuclear weapon could so change the dynamic that it would provide long-term instability.  And, then say, in that case, all options are on the table.” 

Haass’s role in this is especially galling.  Although, after the fact, Richard wants everyone to believe that he was all along opposed to the Iraq invasion, as Director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff he helped oversee the preparation of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s infamous presentation to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003, see here, which was critical to “selling” the idea of a U.S.-led invasion.  Now, from his platform as President of the Council on Foreign Relations, he is doing exactly the same thing with respect to Iran—adducing false “facts” and bad analysis to lay the ground, intellectually and politically speaking, for another U.S.-initiated war in the Middle East.  And the mainstream media are falling in line to help him do it—just as, a decade ago, they helped Ken Pollack and many others disseminate utterly bogus claims and arguments to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Make no mistake:  American elites are gearing up for military confrontation with the Islamic Republic—and, in the process, displaying all of the cultural, intellectual, and political pathologies that produced the 2003 Iraq war.  We do not believe that the United States is likely to initiate such a confrontation before the next presidential election in November 2012.  But Richard’s timetable—that is, during either an Obama second term or the first term of his Republican successor—seems on point.  It will take a lot to head this one off.  For those who, like us, believe that another U.S.-initiated war would be a strategic disaster—first of all, for the United States—the next 18 months will likely be the period in which either there is enough of an intellectual pushback to stop the folly, or the United States puts itself on an inexorable path toward attacking Iran.

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