Anne Frank, the Dutch teenager who through the power and intimacy of her diary became the best-known of the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, is most often recalled for an entry that reads: “… I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart … that this cruelty, too, shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”
Heartwarming and noble sentiments. But the context of her Holocaust experience, and its tragic outcome, screams a far darker message: that evil is real and must be confronted.
The other night at Park East Synagogue, listening to the three panelists’ sharp and spirited discussion I moderated on the question of the moment, “Can Iran Be Stopped?” I wasreminded of the dichotomy of worldviews about human nature itself.
In some ways, the world divides between those who believe that, in essence, people are good, and that our differences can be settled through dialogue and negotiation, and those who subscribe to a more sober view that there are good and bad people out there, and that sometimes the bad people have to deterred, contained, or thwarted.
The program, sponsored by the American Friends of Tel Aviv University in partnership with The Jewish Week, drew an estimated 500 people, who surely came away enlightened about the complexity of the Iran crisis, but not necessarily more convinced about what tack to take in preventing the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Iran from developing nuclear arms.
The three panelists agreed, to varying degrees, that the prospect of the regime having a nuclear arsenal is a serious danger, that sanctions may not be enough of a stick, and that dialogue between Washington and Tehran is a logical first step. But they had very different ideas about timetables and what to do if the talks continue to go nowhere.
Roger Cohen, the New York Times columnist who has focused on Iran this year and spent five weeks in the country, including reporting from the streets of Tehran in the aftermath of the rigged national election in June, spoke passionately about the dignity of the Iranian people, the vast majority of whom, he said, want a more democratic country.
“We have to get past the psychosis” of the long-term U.S.-Iranian standoff and “broaden the dialogue,” he said, believing there is no alternative to diplomacy. Cohen urged the Obama administration to “keep probing, and let’s see how the tensions — within the regime and outside it — play out.”
But Bret Stephens, a Wall Street Journal columnist who writes on global affairs and who served as editor of The Jerusalem Post for several years during the second intifada, is running out of patience. He asserted that “this regime must be stopped” because of the threat to “Israel, the U.S. and core global interests.”
America must show its power as a means of convincing Iran to back down, Stephens said, noting that a combination of sanctions and military force may be necessary. When confronted with the prospect of an Israeli military strike providing only a temporary solution to the crisis, he replied: “All solutions in life are temporary.”
The third panelist, Prof. David Menashri, is the director of the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University and an internationally recognized expert on the history and politics of Iran. His views were somewhere between those of Cohen and Stephens, agreeing with Cohen about the enlightened nature of Iranian society, but pointing out that “the problem is the people don’t have any say” in the policies of the country. Still, he said hope lies with change from inside Iran.
Menashri does not think U.S.-Iran dialogue will be productive because “they [Iran’s leaders] don’t say yes or no,” they just equivocate. He agreed with Stephens that Iran is the world’s problem, not just Israel’s, and that the prospect of a nuclear Iran under the ruling mullahs’ radical ideology is simply unacceptable.
Menashri summed up the situation with an analogy: “Two trains have left the station,” he said. “The nuclear program, and the move toward political change within Iranian society. The problem is that the nuclear train is moving faster.”
Cohen and Stephens clashed several times during the evening. Cohen, who has drawn fire from many pro-Israel readers for his strong criticism of Israel’s military action in Gaza last winter and his benign portrayal of the condition of Jews living in Iran, bristled at any comparison of the Iranian regime to Nazi Germany.
“They are brutal but they are not Nazis,” Cohen said. “Bret makes the Nazi analogy and then says he isn’t comparing them.”
Stephens asserted that among some liberals there is “a powerful trend to wish [hateful] rhetoric away,” citing European statesmen responding to Hitler prior to World War II, Yasir Arafat’s denouncement of Oslo after signing the peace agreement, and Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denials and threats to destroy Israel.
Menashri said the Tehran government is “weaker and more vulnerable than you think, and subject to pressure,” beginning with “moral pressure.” And he refuses to describe a nuclear Iran as an existential threat to Israel, noting: “If Iran has nuclear weapons, must our children leave Israel?”
He said Israel faces a dilemma in that threatening Iran publicly is unwise, “but if we keep quiet, the world forgets” that Tehran’s nuclear program continues apace.
At evening’s end, there was no clear agreement on a path to prevent that nuclear program, only the hope that a combination of factors — talks, sanctions, the threat of military force from the West and the push for democratic change within Iran — can prevent a looming disaster.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking.