• 16 October 2009
  • Posted By Matt Sugrue
  • Culture, Diplomacy, Events in Iran, Israel, Nuclear file

In the New York Times yesterday, Roger Cohen published a thoughtful op-ed piece that examines Israel’s belief in its own exceptionalism. Far from being anti-Israeli, Cohen presents an assessment of the problems of Israeli exceptionalism and offers a way forward. In his article, Cohen focuses almost entirely on Israel; however, it is not just Israel that would do well to listen to Cohen’s advice, but Iran as well.

According to Cohen, the foundational belief structure of Israeli exceptionalism was laid bare by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech before the United Nations. During his speech, P.M. Netanyahu portrayed Israel as the lone bulwark standing against the evils of the world,

[This is] Netanyahu’s summary of the struggle of our age: “It pits civilization against barbarism, the 21st century against the 9th century, those who sanctify life against those who glorify death.

Cohen correctly points out that such a black-and-white view of the world is attractive but overly simplistic. Such a perspective does, of course, allow Israel to perceive itself as exceptional and unique amongst the college of nations. Unfortunately, it also ignores that there are a wide variety of views regarding Israel and its actions on the world scene.

Instead of looking at the conflicts between Israel, its Arab neighbors and Iran as simply between good and evil, Cohen suggests a “less dramatic and more accurate” understanding,

That is to see it as a fight for a different balance of power — and possibly greater stability — between a nuclear-armed Israel (an estimated 80 to 200 never-acknowledged weapons), a proud but uneasy Iran and an increasingly sophisticated and aware (if repressed) Arab world.

Some of Israel’s enemies contest its very existence, however powerless they are to end it. But the death-cult terrorists-versus-reasonable-Israelis paradigm falls short. There are various civilizations in the Middle East, whose attitudes toward religion and modernism vary, but who all quest for some accommodation between them.

One casualty of this view, of course, is Israeli exceptionalism. The Jewish state becomes more like any other nation fighting for influence and treasure. I think President Obama, himself talking down American exceptionalism, is trying to nudge Israel toward a more prosaic, realistic self-image…

In other words, as I’ve long argued, Iran makes rational decisions. Rather than invoking the Holocaust — a distraction — Israel should view Iran coolly, understand the hesitancy of Tehran’s nuclear brinksmanship, and see how it can gain from U.S.-led diplomacy…

The Middle East has changed. So must Israel. “Never again” is a necessary but altogether inadequate way of dealing with the modern world.

Cohen does not suggest solutions Middle East tensions, but he does offer a way to at least decrease those tensions. His suggestion does not involve either side condemning the actions or existence of the other. Instead, it requires the much more difficult, but hopefully more successful, tasks of self-reflection and critique. It is certainly time for the Iranian government to look at its own actions, on both domestic and international stages, and seriously examine its own motivations.

Britain is the remnant of a failed empire, and the United States is involved in two wars that the majority of its citizens have no interest in prolonging. It has been fifty-six years since those two countries arranged the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister, and thirty years have passed since the U.S.-backed shah was exiled. Iran’s relationship with Iraq is stronger than it has been in decades. As Roger Cohen pointed out, “History illuminates – and blinds.”

Posted By Matt Sugrue

    3 Responses to “Roger Cohen on Exceptionalism; How Iran Could Learn a Thing or Two from Israel”

  1. anwar says:

    Iran current leaders make rational decisions? Mr. Cohen of all people should know about the rational thought from Iran current leaders given what we all witnessed this summer: the brutality and the savagery of the “rational” leaders of Tehran.

    Yes, Israel has nothing to worry about from these “leaders”.

  2. Someone says:


    You cannot draw foreign policy conclusions from the domestic actions of a government. It’s a different arena with different rules.

    Furthermore, violence and brutally is not inherently irrational. Rationality does not imply morality or humanity.

  3. Robert Boeren says:

    It`s a disappointment to find anyone seriously thinking Roger Cohen or his columns are worthy of discusiions.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Sign the Petition


7,349 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.



Share this with your friends: