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Iran's Crisis of Legitimacy
with Reza Aslan
My guest this week, the author and scholar of religion Reza Aslan, paints a rather dire portrait of the state of Iran. It is virtually surrounded by American military bases. Its greatest rival in the region, Israel, has an arsenal of several hundred “secret” nuclear weapons ready to launch at a moment’s notice. Reza might have added that sanctions have limited Iran’s ability to engage in trade, placing it in an unenviable bartering position with the remaining nations that are willing to do business with it.
Reza also notes Iran’s internal strife. With a bad economy, massive unemployment, and a repressive government, its citizens are less inclined to care about foreign policy. They’re more worried about where their next meal is coming from or harassment (or even death) at the hands of the morality police than they are about Israel. It’s a stark reminder of the disconnect between domestic and foreign policy, not only in struggling nations like Iran but in our own.
While life in the US is, for most, nowhere near as precarious as it is in Iran, Americans have their own problems. Inflation, historically high rent, and rising food prices are putting more strain on more ordinary people. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has committed $100 billion to supporting a flagging Ukrainian defense effort and an Israeli assault on Gaza that is proving far less popular than expected. Perhaps protecting American interests abroad sometimes requires doing things that the American public doesn’t approve of. But that doesn’t negate the domestic consequences of foreign policy.
We’re not going to turn into a violently repressive theocracy anytime soon. But it may, with time, turn out that we’re a little more like Iran than we’d expect.
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GLENN LOURY: I feel obliged to mention the Iranian support for terrorism, the relations of Iran to the Hezbollah and the Hamas insurgencies or resistance or terror, depending on your point of view. That's a deal breaker, no?
REZA ASLAN: For American policy? No, it is absolutely not a deal breaker for American government policy, because we love terrorists, just our terrorists. And we love governments that support terrorism, as long as it's for our purposes. So that's not a deal breaker. But that Iranian terrorism has resulted in the deaths of many Americans, that is something that is very hard to get past. You're absolutely right about that.
I do think that, before we talk any more about this, here's so much disinformation—deliberate disinformation—right now when it comes to the war between Israel and Gaza. And one of the big pieces of disinformation is that this was all, Iran's doing. Iran had absolutely nothing to do with the Hamas attack on Israel. That's not my opinion. That's the opinion of the American national security apparatus. And I think the best sign that we know that Iran didn't have anything to do with it is just how surprised and taken aback the Iranian government has been about everything and how, despite the rhetoric, they have yet to take any kind of active measures against Israel or on behalf of the Palestinians trapped in Gaza.
I think this is a good window into how Iran thinks about its support for a designated terrorist organizations like Hamas, like Hezbollah is that they truly do believe ... this is from Iran's perspective. I just want to bring that to it. How does Iran think about this? Iran believes that it is besieged on all sides by enemies. And frankly, if you look at a map, it's true. We literally have military bases practically encircling Iran. Iran believes that it is under an existential threat from Israel. And frankly, that's true. Iran has made a lot of threats to the existence of Israel. Israel has an unnamed number of nuclear weapons right now pointed at Tehran. Right now. Not “They may one day develop nuclear capabilities that could possibly threaten Israel.” We have nuclear weapons tipped on missiles, and those missiles are pointed at Tehran.
So from Iran's perspective, it is the one that is under siege and it sees Hezbollah and Hamas as a kind of security guarantee. In a confrontation with Israel, Iran will be turned to glass. Iran has no hope in a direct confrontation with Israel, which is partly why it's kind of kept its mouth shut right now. But it can use proxy forces like Hezbollah, like Hamas to do tremendous damage to Israel. If it feels as though Israel were about to attack in some way.
Currently, in this situation, with the world's eyes on Israel right now, it just does not behoove the Iranian government to poke the bear. There's a reason why we've yet to see any real activity or involvement from Hezbollah in this conflict. Because if I were to guess, I'm sure that Iranian military commanders are telling Hezbollah [to] stay out of it for right now. Maybe later. Maybe if things get really, really bad, we will need to unleash our proxy force in the North. But as it is right now, because the line between Hezbollah and Iran is direct as opposed to with Hamas—it supports Hamas, but in many indirect ways. But Hezbollah is funded and armed by Iran, that any attack on Israel from Hezbollah will rightly be seen as an attack from Iran. And that's the last thing Iran needs right now.
Well, if Iran is so vulnerable to the formidable Israeli arsenal, why do they—the government—make these threatening statements about driving the Israelis into the sea? What's behind that?
Because this is a government with absolutely no legitimacy whatsoever. Now, one can say that that it never really had all that legitimacy to begin with. But certainly over the last two decades, when you see the uprisings in the '90s and the early 2000s, and certainly the Green Movement in 2009, and absolutely the women's movement that just occurred in 2023 and the response of the Iranian government to it, and not just that, but the absolute economic collapse of society. This government no longer has any legitimacy. Remember, this government's entire founding ideology is that we are creating the perfect society on behalf of the Messiah. Iran is as far from the perfect society as it gets. And every Iranian knows this.
Society in Iran is, as I've said a couple of times now, really on the verge of total collapse, and the government has no legitimacy left whatsoever. What little legitimacy it managed to hold onto was from its place as the moral arbiter of society. “We are the moral foundation of society.” Well, you start mowing down 18, 17-year-old girls on the streets, and that's it for your moral legitimacy. They have lost all of that. The only card that they can play any longer is the anti-US, anti-Israel card, which is why every time the government is threatened from within, it pulls out those cards. It's the Great Satan card. It's the Jewish state card. They use this as a way of trying to drum up any kind of support or loyalty or validity or legitimacy for their own rule, because they don't have any left.
But I will tell you this, it's not really working anymore. And I just want to be clear. It's not working anymore, not because the Iranian population isn't pro-Palestinian or that the Iranian population isn't against the Israeli occupation and all of that stuff. It's that they've stopped caring. The Iranian population doesn't care anymore about Palestinians, doesn't care about Israel, doesn't care about Hezbollah, doesn't care about Syria, doesn't care anymore. When you're working three jobs in order to just barely feed your children, it's hard to care. about what's happening in other parts of the world. Iran's foreign influence is the least of your concerns. And so this rhetoric is falling on deaf ears.
Nothing you have said so far disabuses me of the idea that it would be a very bad thing indeed for the Iranian regime to acquire the capacity to construct and deliver nuclear weapons. Do you agree?
God, yes. Look, I spent eight years on the board of the Ploughshares Fund, which is the world's premier anti-nuclear proliferation organization. So this is my focus and energy, is anti-nuclear proliferation. I don't think anyone should have nuclear weapons, especially non-signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Do you know who's a non-signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that has upwards of 500 nuclear weapons? Yes, you do, Glenn.
Yes, the State of Israel, which neither confirms nor denies that it possesses the capacity.
Yeah, well, that's just called BS, as we all know. I don't think Israel should have nuclear weapons, but most definitely Iran should not have nuclear weapons. The question is, is how do we make sure that they don't have nuclear weapons?
Well, we did. That's what the nuclear treaty that president Obama managed to get not just the entirety of UN Security Council, including China and Russia, but also Germany to back was about. And it worked. That's not my opinion. That's the opinion of the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Association. Iran, a year into that treaty, no longer had the enriched uranium necessary to construct a bomb. We are now five years removed from President Trump tearing up that treaty. And Iran, again, according to the IAEA, has enough stockpile of enriched uranium that if they chose to, they could convert that into weapons grade material and develop a nuclear weapon.
So the question isn't, “Should Iran have nuclear weapons?” Or I think the world is pretty much united on the fact that no, they should not. The question is, is how do we do that? And that shouldn't be a question that we're still asking. We know the answer. We've seen the answer play out in front of us through negotiations and diplomacy. We managed to get them to the point where they could not develop nuclear weapons. Rejecting diplomacy and negotiations and pursuing a “hardline strategy” has gotten them back to the place where they were before that treaty started, which is on the verge of developing nuclear weapons, should they choose to do
Okay, well, we're about out of time here, but the Axis of Evil: Russia, Iran, China. Not just the support for terrorism, not just the repression of the domestic population by the crazy mullahs, but also alliances with enemies of the West. What do you say?
The one thing that I learned in my years of working for and with the US government was that foreign policy is not predicated on what is best for the world. Foreign policy is predicated solely on self interest. Nothing else matters. America's foreign policy isn't about promoting democracy or promoting human rights. I mean, only an ignorant child would continue to say such a thing. American foreign policy is predicated on one thing and one thing only: our national interests and nothing else. If our national interests means supporting terrorist organizations in Latin America, that is what we will do. If our national interests means promoting democracy in the Middle East, that's what we will do.
We will pursue our national interests without any thought given to morality or anything like that, and yet we're surprised when the rest of the world does the exact same thing. Of course Iran is working against America's national interests. Of course it is. Of course it's using non-state entities and terror organizations to work against American foreign policy interests. Like, why is that surprising to anyone? It's what every nation on earth does.
But we are very quick to demonize other nations for doing it without actually looking at ourselves. This isn't obviously in any way an attempt to justify or excuse the actions of Russia or China or Iran. It's just a reminder to everyone that maybe we ought to look in the mirror before we start making moral judgments of how other nations pursue their national interests, because we do the exact same thing.