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Christopher Hitchens on events in Iran, and how the American president has responded so far.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

HH: We start with Christopher Hitchens, columnist for Vanity Fair. Mr. Hitchens, welcome back.

CH: Nice to be back.

HH: What do you think could be the best outcome of what is happening in Iran right now?

CH: The best outcome is that the people of the United States and their elected, our elected leadership realize the true nature of this Islamic republic, and realize it about the same time as a large number of Iranians who have been hesitating, realize it, too. In other words, that it is a totalitarian theocracy that employs sadistic, sexually repressed thuggery to maintain itself in power, and that this is not their internal affair any longer because people like that, Islamic brown shirts, if you like, Kristallnacht brown shirts empowered to use cruelty and violence randomly against civilians, are about to get a nuclear weapon.

HH: Now Christopher Hitchens, I’ve known this, you’ve known this, most of the world has known the nature of this regime. Are there genuinely any Americans who don’t know, or just those who care not to discuss it because it’s inconvenient?

CH: Well, I’d say there was a third group, those who think that some of the disagreements between us are based on a misunderstanding, or on some kind of bad faith. Now there is an element of truth in that. I mean, it is the case as the President said in his speech in Cairo that the United States made a great mistake in removing an Iranian government in the 1950s headed by Mohammed Mosaddeq, but what he didn’t say was that government was removed by the United States stirring up ayatollahs and mullahs and religious mobs against a secular leftist regime. So it actually had nothing to do with the ostensible purposes of his speech. It has absolutely nothing to do with the crisis that we face now, which is the crisis we’ve been fearing since I was a young man, and since you were a young man, if we want to really think how long it’s been. The horrific idea that one day an apocalyptic movement or government will get hold of an apocalyptic weapon. Now that moment is practically upon us. This fascistic thuggery on the streets of Tehran coincides with the launching of missiles that have increasing range, and the nurturing of centrifuges that are capable of enriching serious uranium.

HH: Do you thin it is possible that this regime can be toppled in the next many weeks?

CH: Many weeks? Well, look, in some ways, a decision like that is an act of will. We could topple the regime anytime we wanted to if we were prepared to invade Iran. I think the answer to the question are we prepared to do so under any thinkable American government is no.

HH: Now I’m talking about as a result…

CH: But these people, of course as with the North Koreans, these regimes exist in theory only at our pleasure.

HH: But I’m talking about as a result of the will of the people of Iran. Do they have the ability to topple it? Or does the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, in your assessment, Christopher Hitchens, just mow down as many people as it needs to mow down to maintain power?

CH: The Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the Basij, as some have called these goons who are told they can do what they like without punishment to anyone, male or female, obviously are not the sort of people who would stand up in a real fight. The whole point about people like that is that they’ve never lost a battle against civilians.

HH: So do you think it’s possible that these civilians can bring down that regime without our help?

CH: It’s been known to happen, and it actually did once happen in Iran against a very strong army and a very ruthless regime. But in that case, all that was needed was for the United States to be neutral. In this case, I’m afraid for it to happen, it would mean for the U.S. to abandon neutrality and say we take a side in this. And that’s, I’m afraid, as I say, I’m afraid, I mean, I say it with regret, clearly not going to happen. If the civilian population, outraged civilian population of Iran goes down, it will be with us as a spectator.

HH: How do you assess the reaction of President Obama thus far?

CH: Well, I think he’s just completely failed to make the distinction between the internal affairs of Iran and the way in which by violating every known treaty on international security, nuclear weapons, nuclear power and so forth, flagrantly and openly doing so, that Iran has made it our business. In his open letter to the Iranians before his Cairo speech, he referred to the need to make the Islamic Republic of Iran a member of the community of nations, not Iran itself or Persia. The Islamic Republic of Iran, by definition, can’t be a member of a community of nations, because A) it’s a theocratic dictatorship that tortures and murders and defrauds its own people, and B) it’s broken every single law and agreement governing non-proliferation. So as such, it’s not admissible under any terms. I don’t think the President understands this distinction at all. And when Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state, said over the weekend that the important thing to her was that the election results should express the true and, I forget exactly how she phrased it, but the authentic wishes of the people of Iran…doesn’t she know that that’s already been decided in advance, that the candidates are pre-selected, that anyone who the theocrats don’t like isn’t allowed to run in the first place? She acts as if this comes as news to her.

HH: Yeah, that is shocking. Now your friend, Andrew Sullivan, who’s done a magnificent job of chronicling the turmoil in Iran at his website, quotes approvingly today of the blogger, Accumulating Peripherals, who writes in defense of Obama. I wanted to point out that this has always been Obama’s MO. He’s always a step or two behind where supporters want him to be, getting pulled along by their enthusiasm rather than out ahead of them where it might get cut off. It’s a community organizer’s MO. You never get out ahead of your constituency. Instead, you shape the playing field so that your constituency’s desires flow toward where you think they should go, and allow them to carry you behind them. And he’s quoting this in reference to an Iranian writer, Trita Parsi, quoted by Spencer Ackerman, saying it’s very important for any non-Iranian organization not to get ahead of the opposition, but to stay two steps behind it. So is that just prudence on Obama’s part? Or is it confusion? Or is it simply appeasement?

CH: Given what he said in Cairo, mistaking what had happened in the 50s with the Mosaddeq regime, which is where the United States supported Islamism, and ayatollahism against the left in Iran, and given his earlier speech saying we want the Islamic Republic of Iran, not Iran to rejoin the community of nations, I’m not sure that this is him leading from behind. I would add, though, in the President’s defense, that when he does want to make a firm decision, he has shown he’s capable of doing so. I would instance the rescue of brave sailors in the waters off of Somalia, where the President must have been told at a certain point look, sir, you have three options – you can negotiate, you can spin it out, you can bargain, or you can send the Navy SEALs and tell them to do three head shots. And he must have said let’s do the latter and let’s do it quickly and try not to hurt any civilians. And not only did that happen, as you will remember, but it wasn’t bragged about afterwards, which was the bit that impressed me. There was no throwing a big chest and saying we’re number one. It just got done.

HH: We have two minutes. I want to ask you two questions. What do you want the President to say? And would you welcome an Israeli strike in the middle of this turmoil in order to reduce that nuclear threat?

CH: If you don’t mind me answering the question in reverse order, I’m not ducking it, there would be no distinction made by the Iranians or anyone else between an Israeli strike or a strike made by ourselves, because they’d have to cross at least Iraqi and possibly Turkish airspace to do it at all, and that’s quite different from their attack on Iran…excuse me, on Iraq. I’m terribly sorry, in ’81 where they only had to cross Jordanian airspace to get there. So there would be, it would be a distinction without a difference.

HH: Do you want Israel to do it?

CH: And until we’ve solved the rest of the differences between ourselves and the Israeli government on other matters, I think it’s absurd to expect them, or even want them to be our proxy in a grave matter like this. No, we’d have to take responsibility. We would say we’re enforcing the U.N. and IAEA prohibition on Iran weaponizing its nuclear facilities.

HH: Okay, so what do you want the President to say, Christopher Hitchens?

CH: Well, I think that should be clearly threatened. We say we know now that every single agreement has been broken between you and your people in Iran, and between your government and every other government in treaties in which you are a signatory. Our patience is absolutely not limitless. And I as president, as candidate, the President should say, did say that a nuclearized theocracy in Iran is not permissible. He’s already committed himself to that. What I meant by that was to say it wouldn’t be permitted. Once you said this kind of thing, once you’ve willed the end, you have willed the means. Or, you can take it back.

HH: Christopher Hitchens from Vanity Fair, always a pleasure.

End of interview.

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