A few months ago, I was listening to an interview with a public television producer who had been on assignment in Iran. He was saying that, despite almost 30 years under a revolutionary Islamist regime, Iran remains a surprisingly normal country. For example, visiting a mosque, he was reminded of "Lutherans worshipping in the Midwest." Except that "Death to Israel!" was scrawled along one of the walls of the house of worship - something you don't often see in Sioux City. But his "guide" told him not to take that seriously. "That's just the way we Iranians talk," he explained. "Like if we're stuck in traffic, we say: "Death to traffic!"
The producer found that reassuring - and consistent with the view of many diplomats, academics and journalists. The genocidal statements articulated by Iran's ruling elites, they believe, are only rhetoric - not statements of goals that Iran is slowly but surely developing the capacity to realize. According to this narrative, all Iran really wants is respect and, eventually, rapprochement with the West.
Ze'ev Maghen, a senior lecturer in Islamic history and Persian language, and chair of the department of Middle East Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, is convinced this view is dead wrong. In a policy paper, now also boiled down into an essay for Commentary magazine, he argues that "Iranian-Islamist threats to Israel's existence are sincere, and they signal the determined pursuit of tenaciously-held ends."
It was thirty years ago next month that Iran's constitutional monarchy collapsed. The Shah fled and the Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile to declare in Iran the establishment of "God's government" on Earth. Henceforth, any opposition or dissent would be regarded as "a revolt against God."
As a young foreign correspondent, I was sent to Iran to cover the transition. And while chants of "Death to America!" were common, it was not until October of 1979 - after I and most other reporters had departed -- that student supporters of Khomeini seized the U.S. embassy and took its occupants hostage.
Over the years since, anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans have become as ubiquitous in Iran as the easy-listening music pumped into shopping malls in the U.S. Maghen notes that these slogans are yelled by fans when goals are scored at soccer matches, and in response to bravura sitar solos in concert halls.
"Even during the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca," he writes, "Iranian participants have replaced their traditionally pious ejaculations of ‘I am at your service, O Lord, there is none like unto You!' with responsive Persian cursing sessions aimed at the Hebrew- and English-speaking enemies of everything that is holy. Like the daily ‘Two-Minutes Hate' in George Orwell's 1984, this venom-spewing is the mantra upon which an entire generation of Iranians has been raised."
Conventional wisdom has held that such relentless repetition drains words of significance, and that most Iranians harbor no "heartfelt hatred" for Jews, Israelis or Americans.
However, Maghen says, anyone familiar with mass psychology knows that "the truly horrific atrocities in human history-the enslavements, the inquisitions, the terrorisms, the genocides-have been perpetrated not in hot blood but in cold: not as a result of urgent and immanent feeling but in the name of a transcendent ideology and as a result of painstaking indoctrination."
He adds that, "by casting an entire people as a parasitic infestation, by demonizing, de-legitimizing, and dehumanizing them at home, in school, in the mosque, and in the media [the Iranian regime] has prepared in the minds of Iranians and their neighboring coreligionists the moral ground for the eradication of the state of Israel."
In the short-run, Maghen believes, Iran's rulers will continue their efforts to "create an atmosphere in which the massacre of large numbers of Jews and the destruction of their independent polity will be considered a tolerable if not indeed a legitimate eventuality." In the long-run, they will work for Islamist dominance well beyond the Middle East. Khomeini intended the Islamic Revolution to spread - regionally at first, globally over time.
A new American administration is likely to engage in a new round of talks with Tehran. Maghen expects that Iran's negotiators will ask the U.S. to "offer up the Western imperialist enclave or outpost known as Israel" in exchange for a promise of reconciliation. The deal needn't be as blatant as was Hitler's demand, at Munich in 1938, for Czechoslovakia. Instead, America may be asked only to pressure Israel to agree to concessions perilous to its security. That may be all Iran's rulers need to make progress toward the genocidal goals they explicitly and outspokenly seek.