Friday, August 31, 2012

Efraim Halevy is no Winston Churchill

Efraim Halevy

Ari Shavit interviews  Efraim Halevy, the former head of Mossad.  Excerpts:

More than any other interviewee in this series, he displays empathy for the Iranians and tries to understand them.

“What I have to say is complex” Efraim Halevy tells me. “I do indeed argue that a nuclear Iran does not constitute an existential threat to Israel. If one day we wake up and discover that Iran has no, that does not mean the start of the countdown to the end of Israel’s existence. Israel need not despair. We have deterrent capability and preventive capability. If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, Israel will be able to design a true operational response that will be able to cope with that. We will be able to prevent a Hiroshima in Tel Aviv and we will prevent a Hiroshima in Tel  Aviv; so we must not talk about a Hiroshima in Tel Aviv, because prophecies like that are self-fulfilling. Nor must we draw baseless analogies with the 1930s. 

“The true Churchillian way is not to talk about the possibilities of a second Holocaust, but to ensure that there will be no holocaust here.  I was a boy in Britain during the Blitz. I remember vividly Churchill’s speeches blaring from the radio. He did not talk about the possibility that Britain may not survive. On the contrary: even in the direst straits he said that Britain should have the upper hand. He promised that whatever happened, come what may, in the end Britain would win. Anyone who purports to be Churchill needs to talk like Churchill and project self-confidence.


“But we must not become confused”, Halevy continues. “A nuclear Iran is not an existential threat, but a nuclear Iran is a grave matter. Nuclear weapons in Iran’s hands upset the regional balance and create a very serious strategic. Nor can we completely rule out the possibility that if Iran possesses nuclear weapons it will ultimately use them. When the danger is very great, even if the risk that it will be realized is only 10 percent, we need it to treat it as a risk of 100 percent.  So I am not one of those who are indifferent to the Iranian danger. Under no circumstances am I ready to accept a nuclear Iran. But I maintain that the way to prevent nuclearization is nor necessarily by means of force.

What we need to do is to try and understand the Iranians” the former Mossad head says.  “The basic feeling of the ancient nation is one of humiliation. Both religious Iranians and secular Iranian feel that for 200 years the Western powers used them as their playthings”

I believe that if the west could acquire the sense of greatness Iran would forsake the nuclear road. If Iran were offered trains add oil refineries and place of honor in regional trade, it would consider this seriously.  You say carrots? The carrots offered to Iran until now were not big enough. Maybe the sticks were not enough either.

I am not Chamberlain. I am not  proposing peace with honor or peace in our time, but a realistic view of the situation. It is tru that the present Iranian regime does not want Israel to exist. But theat desire is not their top priority , an they themselves know that it cannot be realized.  The Iranians are afraid of us no less than we are afraid of them.   

Efraim Halevy’s view on the Iranian threat is what happens when you exclude the essential ideological/religious factors from the equation.  When you believe that they are all essentially like us.  When you project our values onto them and believe they are motivated by the same desires, based on the same system of ethics.  The result is a total and lethal misreading of the Iranian threat.

Efraim Halevy remembers Churchill’s speeches from childhood but he obviously forgot what Churchill wrote in his 6 volume masterpiece The Second World War.  Churchill understood whom he was dealing with. In the Vol I , The Gathering Storm, page 50, he wrote:

 Hitler’s sentence was reduced from four years to thirteen months. These months in the Landsberg fortress were, however, sufficient to enable him to complete in outline Mein Kampf, a treatise on his political philosophy inscribed to the dead of the recent Putsch. When eventually he came to power, there was no book which deserved more careful study from the rulers, political and military, of the Allied Powers. All was there – the programme of German resurrection; the technique of party propaganda;the programme of German resurrection;the technique of party propaganda;the plan for combating Marxism;the concept of a National-Socialist State;the rightful position of Germany at the summit of the world

In contrast,  Efrain Halevy completely skips over the Twelver ideology that is the quintessence of the Iranian threat.  How can serious politicians and journalist keep on discussing Iran without mentioning the Mahdi and the Twelvers?

Dr. Timothy Furnish

There are Islamic scholars in the West who do not share Bernard Lewis’s views on the Iranian threat.  But at least they acknowledge that correctly assessing the Twelver Shi'ism  doctrine is essential. Here is my email exchange with Dr. Timothy Furnish,  Assistant Professor, History, Georgia Perimeter College; Ph.D., Islamic History; M.A., Church History (with his permission),  who sent me his article . His site is

My questions in blue, his answers in dark red.  

Thank you for answering. If I understand correctly, you would basically agree with Ze’ev Maghen  who says that institutionalization of Mahdism  is not only not messianic or apocalyptic in character, but is in fact the fiercest enemy of messianism.  Is it correct to say that in your view Ahmadinejad  has no desire to employ weapons in a nuclear jihad in order to hotwire the arrival of the Mahdi?

Yes, I believe Maghen is correct, albeit a bit hyperbolic. And yes, I don't believe that "hotwiring the apocalypse" is really part of Twelver doctrine as understood in Tehran-Qom--although it is a view held by some of the Sunni groups, and possibly by non-establishment Twelver groups like Ansar al-Mahdi in Iraq

I do not quite understand your sentence “Full-blown jihad has been ipso facto illegitimate since the Greater Occultation cut off communications with the Mahdi in 939 AD.”  Are you referring only to the Twelver Shi`i jihad or to jihad in general?
I meant "full-blown Twelver jihad;" I thought that was clear from the context. 

In short, you position is that Islamic Republic’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is not for apocalyptic purposes but for a more mundane, and manageable, geopolitical ones. Did I get the gist correctly?

I hope you are right. However, since this does not seem to be an exact science like deriving Maxwel’s four equations in my Feynman’s Lectures on Physics, which describe in exactly the same way the same laws of physics in Iran and Israel, analyzing what these people think may be prone to error? Is it not? And an error may be very, very costly .
I agree. I have even said at conferences and in a number of radio interviews that if I were Israeli, I might not trust my analysis--or at least be fully confident with it. 

How do you explain Bernard Lewis’s statement “For people with this mindset, M.A.D. is not a constraint; it is an inducement..”?  Is Bernard Lewis simply wrong?  Why did he come to this conclusion?  Have you ever talked to him about this?   Shouldn’t there have been a meeting of leading Islamic scholars to clarify what the probabilities are that these are really geopolitical motives?
While I have great, GREAT respect for Dr. Lewis he is not an expert on Iranian Shi`ism, and he is getting  quite on in years.  I have no idea why he advances this idea, although perhaps my friend Dr. Andrew Bostom may be on to something in his critique of Lewis:
Such a meeting of Islamic scholarly minds would be a good idea.  I have no idea how to bring it about, however. 

After all, there seems to be even think tanks that believe that there is a potential danger:

“Even if Iran’s current regime is rational, the regime could change in ways that make deterrence less viable.

Some fear that leaders embracing an apocalyptic variant of Shiism (sometimes referred to as the “cult of the Mahdi”) might eventually seize control of the regime.”

I simply don't buy this "cult of the Mahdi" thinking--as I point out in my long paper on Iran and WMD's (the INEGMA one), this is a (willful?) misunderstanding of the Anjuman-i Hojjatiyeh organization, in my opinion. 

or Mehdi Khalaji’s altogether confusing article from which I remember this

In some hadiths, the Mahdi will kill two-thirds of the world’s population, and he “will clean the earth from nonbelievers and
deniers [of Islam]. . . he will continue to kill the enemies of God until God is satisfied.”10 The Mahdi “will order
his twelve thousand solders to kill anyone who does not believe in your religion.”11

 My understanding is that Ahmadinejad is just a figurehead and the real powered lies with the clerics who do not want the Mahdi right away. But this may change.  
I don't think Ahmadinejad is just a figurehead; in fact, I think he's far more popular in Iran than Khamenei.  Whether that's true of the IRGC is the question. 

The real question  that remains is what are the probabilities of these Twelvers really pursuing their eschatological beliefs. Should not Reza Kahlili’s  empirical evidence about what these people really think be taken into account? After all he spent 10 years among them.   

Of course Kahlili's views should be taken into account; but so too should the perhaps cynical view that he says what some folks want to hear for various motives, such as money. 

Would you board a plane if you knew that the possibility that it would crash is 5 percent?

Maybe--if I were fleeing, say, an erupting volcano or bird flu epidemic. 
I did not say I'm sure I'm right; I simply do research and then reach conclusions based on that.  I am very pro-Israel and I very much dislike the current regime in Iran.  And I am an incessant critic of the violence proclivities of Islam, partly (but not only) because I am a believing Christian. But, on the other hand, I don't think misrepresenting the doctrines of Twelver Shi`ism in order to advance political positions is good, either. 
Does that help?

-- and my reply

Does that help?
Yes and no.  The key sentence for me is, of course, -  I have even said at conferences and in a number of radio interviews that if I were Israeli, I might not trust my analysis--or at least be fully confident with it. 
So I'm back to square one.  It is past midnight here and I will have to read Bostom's  article with a clear head. But from what I have read by Bostom before, I seems that he considers  Bernard Lewis too "soft" on Islam. Even if that were the case, and I do agree to a point,  does it not give even more weight to his opinion on Iran and MAD?. If Lewis, who is usually so "understanding" with Islam, has such a determined view on MAD and Iran, then there must be a reason. Why hasn't anybody tried to clarify why is he so sure? I am a software developer and not a scholar of Islam, but I have read 8 of his books ( reading The Assassins now ) and from what I've read I came to the conclusion that he would not come up with wild irresponsible statements.

Likewise about Kahlili. Surely you could not give the same weight to opinions which consider he is doing what he is doing for money compared to him risking his life for 10 years under cover? If his story were inaccurate I do not think that the former CIA director James Woolsey would want to be seen in his company, and they were together on a panel discussion.

My gut feeling is that the war may erupt any moment because weather Lewis is totally right or not, they just cannot take the risk.

What is much more clear to me is that the present policies of the Obama administration towards the Muslim Brotherhood are bordering on the absurd, and the fact that only 5 congressmen noticed that something is wrong is very worrying.  


A final comment: When will Ari Shavit start interviewing scholars of Islam?