• 18 July 2008
  • Posted By Trita Parsi
  • Diplomacy

Haaretz: These Enemies Have Faces

By Trita Parsi and Roi Ben-Yehuda

July 18, 2008

The looming Iran-Israel confrontation has a seemingly deterministic quality to it. Listening to the politicians, one gets a sense that powers beyond our control are pulling us toward a 21st-century disaster. Yet a great deal of the force propelling us into confrontation is fueled by ignorance and dehumanization. Israel is demonized as “Little Satan,” while Iranians are portrayed as irrational Muslim extremists.

Indeed, mutual ignorance of our respective societies plays into the hands of the hard-line leaders who are calling for blood and destruction. They manipulate and distort; above all, they do everything to prevent us from recognizing that the enemy has a face.

Not that either of us is naive enough to believe that mere knowledge of one another will offer a miraculous solution. We do believe, however, that mutual understanding will go a long way toward allowing us to feel empathy and compassion for each other, and to sound off at those calling for bloodshed and war.

Here are some essential things Iranians and Israelis should know about each other:

1. Israel is a vibrant yet incomplete democracy

On his visit to the United States last fall, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad famously stated that there are no homosexuals in Iran. Well, in Israel there are plenty of homosexuals, and they are the only ones in the Middle East who have an annual gay pride parade in their capital city.

Democracy in Israel means that every citizen and group (Jewish or otherwise) has the right to express him/herself and assemble in public. Also, that every citizen is equal under the law, has voting rights, religious freedom, access to education, health care and economic opportunity.

Undoubtedly, Israel’s democracy is still a work in progress. The fusion of religion and state has limited people’s rights and freedoms (for example, Israelis of different faiths cannot legally marry one another in the country), and the de-facto secondary status of Arab Israelis is an affront to the country’s democratic ideals. Fortunately, many people in Israel are assiduously working to change the system from within.

2. Iran is a vibrant quasi-democracy

It is far from a full democracy, but neither is it a complete dictatorship. Its severe limitations notwithstanding, Iran has a lively civil society and possesses most of the building blocks for a successful democracy down the road. Iranians’ struggle for democracy dates back to the 1906 Constitutional Revolution. Since then, Iranians have learned two important lessons.

First, war and democratization don’t mix. As tensions between Iran and the outside world increase, the first to pay are Iran’s pro-democracy and human rights activists. For Iran to move toward a democratic system, it needs peace and tranquility; bombs and surgical strikes will achieve the opposite.

Second, when you carry out a revolution, you know against whom you are revolting, but not necessarily for whom you are waging the revolution. Iranians have little appetite for another revolution. As unpopular as their current government is, they prefer gradual and manageable change.

3. Streets are named for poets

Just like Iran, Israel puts great value on the written word. In Israel, streets are named for poets – writers who have revived a people and its ancient language. It is the pen and imagination, more than the sword and muscle, that have been responsible for the creation of this nation. Israel’s historical roots are traced in a book; its people are called the “People of the Book”; and its founding father, Theodor Herzl, a playwright, liked to write books. It is no surprise then that Israel leads the world in new book titles per capita, per year.

As in Iran, everyday conversations in Israel are as likely to be peppered with literary references as with practical concerns.

4. Iranians are lonely and distrustful

Much like Israelis, Iranians feel painfully isolated in the Middle East. They are surrounded by people with whom they share neither language nor religion. Iran is majority Persian and Shi’ite; its neighbors are majority Arab and Sunni.

Nor does Iran have many friends beyond the Middle East. If anything, the international community has never treated them fairly, Iranians believe. In the last century alone, Iranians have contended with colonization and decades of foreign intervention, not to mention an eight-year war against Saddam Hussein, in which the entire world sided with Iraq.

The UN didn’t consider Saddam’s invasion a threat to international peace and security; it took the Security Council more than two years to call for a withdrawal. Another five years passed before it addressed Saddam’s use of chemical weapons. For the Iranians, the lesson was clear: When in danger, Iran can rely on neither the Geneva Conventions nor the UN Charter for protection. Just like Israel, Iran has concluded that it can rely only on itself.

5. Zionism is not a dirty word

In a show of disrespect, many leaders in Iran refer to Israel as the “Zionist regime.” While being called a “regime” may not be flattering, for most Israelis, Zionism is not a dirty word.

From within, Zionism is a national liberation movement, whose aim it is to create a safe haven for Jewish people, culture and national identity. Zionism is the Jewish people’s answer to the centuries-old impulse to erase them from history. When Ahmadinejad and his ilk speak of Zionism’s imminent doom, they are in fact strengthening the very movement they seek to eliminate.

Israelis joke that Israel is the only country in the world where the words “dirty Jew” mean a Jew who has not taken a shower. In a way, this joke encapsulates the essence of Zionism. Everything else is commentary.

6. Sympathy with Palestinians, but no desire for conflict with Israel

Ahmadinejad’s venomous rhetoric notwithstanding, Iranians don’t spend much time thinking about Israel. They are far more concerned about Iran’s crippled economy and rampant corruption. While the sympathies of most Iranians fall squarely with the Palestinians, this is not an issue they feel their country must be actively involved in.

Iranians will fiercely defend their independence and territory, yet they have no desire for conflict with Israel. Iranians remember Alexander’s sacking of Persia, the Arab conquest in the seventh century C.E., the Mongol invasion, and the 1953 CIA coup against Iran’s democratically elected prime minister. But there is no recollection of any conflict with the Jewish people because there hasn’t been one. Most Iranians would like to keep it that way.

Dr. Trita Parsi is author of “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S.” (Yale University Press, 2007). Roi Ben-Yehuda is an Israeli-American writer living in Spain, and a regular contributor to Jewcy and France 24.

Posted By Trita Parsi

    3 Responses to “Haaretz: These Enemies Have Faces”

  1. Thinking Dove says:

    Of Course, Iran working towards Nuclear weapons.

    Can you blame them for it? Two national governments on their borders have been overthrown. Israel has threatened them with air strikes…

    A Nuclear Weapon is a defensive weapon.

    Ever notice that North Korea and Pakistan can resist the United States,,, What do they have in common?
    They are both Nuclear Powers.

    It is simple bigotry that Iran is not being allowed to develop atomic weapons. Why shouldn’t an Islamic hereditary theocracy be allowed to build I.C.B.M.s?

    A nuclear middle-east will be a peaceful middle-east because of Mutually assured destruction. Mutually assured destruction kept the peace between the United States and the Soviet Union for decades.

    Atomic bombs are defensive weapons because they make victory impossible for anyone.

    Nuclear proliferation is going to happen sooner or later any way.
    Technology always spreads. Gunpowder was invented by the Chinese, but now everyone has it. Even the most isolated illiterate tribesman carrys an assualt rifle when he goes to war.

    In the future, every Mullah, Latin American Generalismo, and African Warlord will have the ability to hurl nuclear weapons at one another. But, they will also be threatened with the same thing coming back at them. War shall become obsolete and peace shall prevail.

    Support Iran, Support Nuclear Proliferation, Support World Peace.

  2. Babak Talebi says:

    Thinking Dove…

    I must admit – this is a whole new line of thinking to me…

    nuclear proliferation as a means to world peace. If nothing else this is a provocatively original idea!!!!

  3. anonymousejoon says:

    Thinking Dove left the same comment for me:


    But I don’t think it is right. Everty Mullah and Warlord or terrorist don’t care what would be the aftermath of a nuclear attack. They may even encourage retaliation to get more foot soldiers, like what is happening in Iraq which is now a breeding ground for anti-western sentiments.

    There is a difference between Iran and Israel as a country and some terrorist groups getting a hold of these weapons from international black markets. Nuclear proliferation is the most dangerous thing mankind faces and it could all go down the tube.

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7,350 signatures

Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.



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